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THE MODERN REVIEW.
THE CHURCHES ESTABLISHED AND
IT ought to be known more widely than it probably is
that representative of an original term which, in its earliest use, had no religious signification, but denoted an assembly of citizens called together for a political or municipal purpose. The religious complexion which the term assumed was of comparatively late appearance. In this sense, it must be admitted, the Church, even from its earliest birth, was the child of the State. Indeed, as a recent Bampton lecturer (1880) has well shown, the offices of bishop and deacon, with other supposed essentials of Church life, had their commencement, not in any divine appointment, but from the force of circumstances, and in the natural turn of growth taken by certain ordinary institutions and usages in the early Christian ages; just as, according to a great authority, the copes and chasubles of high Ritual are only survivals from the common garments of the every-day use of ancient times.
But however this may be, the word under notice, in the earliest instances of its employment by Christian writers, was applied to the little groups or congregations of believers
in the Christ, which were gathered together in various places by the first preachers of the “Gospel,” the “good tidings" that the Messiah was come. Such is the usual import of this word in the New Testament. There are instances, nevertheless, in which it had attained the collective and comprehensive meaning in which it is frequently used in our own day. Such instances are found in the later Christian writings, as in the First Epistle to Timothy we have “the Church of the living God.” Here, as in a few other such expressions, the word appears to denote, not any single or local body of believers, but rather that great ideal communion which may be conceived of as constituted by all in every place who “profess and call themselves Christians," whatever may be the particular individual sense in which they do so.
It thus appears that, by primitive usage and the nature of the case, this term Church may be variously applied. It is not, and cannot be, the exclusive property of any single communion, however numerous, which may choose to style itself the true Church, while all beyond its pale are untrue, and mere usurpers of what does not belong to them. It may be legitimately used to denote any single body of worshipping men, however insignificant they may be numerically. It may also, by consequence, denote a number or associated group of such bodies larger or smaller, such as are often designated as a sect or denomination. It may denote, further, the collective church of a whole nation; and more widely still, the entire body of professing Christians throughout the world, that imaginary assemblage and "communion of saints,” which has never yet existed indeed as a visible reality, but only as the cherished conception of devout and faithful souls.
It is familiar to the reader of the New Testament that within the pages of that book no provision is anywhere made, or alluded to, for the future administration of
churches, under any of the different forms or conceptions just referred to. No directions are given as to who shall be their constituent members or officers; no laws are laid down for their government any more than for the doctrines of faith to be received, or the rites and modes of worship to be observed within them. Allusions occur, it is true, to persons who appear to have been appointed to perform certain duties and services; as, for example, in the words deacon, elder, overseer (sometimes rendered bishop); and from the occurrence of such terms inferences have been made as to the nature of the constitution and government of the early Christian congregations. But such inferences are inferences only. Nothing express is laid down on the subject, and hence there are no authoritative means, worthy to be so considered, for settling the old dispute as to whether a Christian Church should be Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Congregational. This question, in short, does not appear to have engaged the attention of the New Testament writers, as indeed it is one of very secondary importance, and we need not here further concern ourselves with it. The fact, however, that the greatest differences of opinion have existed on the subject, may be noted as sufficiently proving that nothing very definite or imperative has been handed down to us in the Christian writings, and that the Christian brotherhood is therefore left to constitute itself into churches and congregations according to its own varying judgments, and in obedience to the tastes and circumstances that may exist from time to time.
In this connection it should be remembered that the first Christians were Jews, and it nowhere appears that they ever thought of displacing or superseding the ancient faith and worship of their fathers by any new system of their own.
Moreover, there was another very cogent reason why they could not have done so—did not think of doing so. They were expecting the end of the world and the speedy return of Christ to reign in person among his followers on the earth. Hence the established forms of the old religion and the services of the synagogues might well enough continue as they were, until the expected “restitution of all things” should take effect and should sweep the old away ; until the new heavens and the new earth should be ready for the saints, and the kingdom of God, with all that this involved, should be established.*
Such expectations have never been fulfilled. They were but the dream of an enthusiasm that was in time to pass away; but nevertheless such ideas had their consequences. The early Christians refrained from the attempt to legislate for the churches of the future; and so their successors of later ages have been left practically free, as just said, to pursue their own course in this respect. Hence have arisen the manifold " differences of administration ” which now so largely exist ;—from the elaborate Church system, the pomp and circumstance and the complicated theology of the Roman Catholic communion, down through many gradations, to the simplest forms of belief, and the humblest “meeting," where only two or three are gathered together in Christ's name. These are all, we must conclude, if honestly followed, legitimate results and expressions of religious faith, of reverence and loyalty to Christ. The spirit and letter of the Gospel would seem to have been purposely left wide and comprehensive enough to admit of all such different forms and modes of Church life. Nor ought any one of them, therefore, to arrogate to itself the character of being the only true Church, or say of another, merely because it is another, that it is less Christian than itself, or less acceptable to the Object of worship, or less likely to have His divine approval and blessing. The varied and different forms under which the Christian brotherhood has thus come to exist in the world constitute a fact to the importance of which no observant man will pretend to close his eyes. It is a fact, also, which, in a certain sense, has been more and more forcing itself upon the consideration even of the statesmen and Parliaments of modern times. Well would it have been for our common country, for the social and religious peace of our people in past times, if the Reformers of the sixteenth century had seen it and kept it in view, and provided for it more and better than they did, in the great work which they undertook of reorganising the national churches of that day. If they had done so, they would, like the early Christians, have refrained from the attempt to set up rigid and unchangeable orthodoxies of faith and worship: in other words, they would have recognised, as they ought to have done, the possibility of progress in knowledge, of better insight into religious truths, of the growth of higher tastes and feelings in this and other nations; and they would have left a larger amount of freedom of thought and speech to their successors within the churches for future generations. Had this been done, not only would such things as prosecutions for heresy, and persecution of every kind, have been well-nigh impossible, but the indefinite multiplication of separately organised sects would certainly have been checked, if not entirely prevented; and, as a consequence, greater numbers of our people would at this moment have had their religious home within the shelter of one great national fold.
* Compare Acts i. 6-11, iii. 19-21 ; 2 Pet. iii.
But all this was not seen, probably was never thought of, by the sovereigns and statesmen to whom in this country we owe our existing national Church. In accordance with the ideas of their time they thought it necessary not only to construct, or reconstruct, what may be termed the organism of the body ecclesiastical, but also to appoint the Creeds that must be believed, and even, in some cases, to dictate