Christian Fellowship

By John Angell James, 1822


"I will build My church." Matthew 16:18

In our conversation upon the subject of church government, it is very common to talk of the power or authority of our churches. But in what does this power really consist, and how far does it extend? Every church has certainly an unquestionable right to regulate all its own temporal and spiritual affairs, to the entire exclusion of all human interference and control whatever. But we must be careful not to carry the idea of independence so far as to trench upon the dominion of Jesus Christ. The power of a church is simply a right to put their own interpretation upon the laws of Christ, and to obey his laws, in the way which they think will be most agreeable to him.

This is neither understood nor remembered with as much distinctness as it should be. Hence it is a very usual thing for churches at their stated, or occasional meetings, to consider themselves as met to make laws, and set in order the affairs of the spiritual kingdom; and a great deal is said about "our church," and "the rules that we have established in our church." OUR church?! When did it become OURS? The church is Christ's! The rules WE have established?! The sole right of making laws, is with Him to whom the church belongs! The church is a kingdom, of which Christ is sole monarch! The New Testament is his spiritual code, and all the power we have, is to execute the laws which he has already established. In the whole business of church government, we are to acknowledge the authority, and consider ourselves as doing the will of Christ. Nothing is left to our will, to our wisdom, to our capriceóbut in all things we are to be guided by the law of Jesus, laid down in his word!

In the choice of officers, in the admission of members, in the exercise of discipline, we are not to act upon views and principles of our ownóbut are to be guided by those we find in the New Testament. We have no power to legislateóbut merely to interpret the law, and obey. When we meet, Christ is in the midst of us, not only by his essential presenceóbut by his revealed will; and every authoritative voice is hushedóbut that which speaks to us from the sacred canon. When a member is proposed, we are not to ask, "Is he such an one as we think will add respectability to our communion? is he of long standing in the ways of God? is he peculiar in his habits?" but, "Is he such an one as Christ has received?" When a measure is submitted for our adoption, we are not first to inquire into its policyóbut whether it is in exact accordance with the general principles and spirit of the New Testament. Every act of church government must be an explicit acknowledgment of the authority of Jesus, as King in Zion, and an act of obedience to his laws.

It is impossible for this sentiment to be stated too frequently or too forcibly. It lays the axe to the root of all the errors on church government, which have crept into the world. The papacy, and the episcopacy, with other ecclesiastical corruptions, may be traced to a lack of proper views of the nature of church power. Let it once be admitted that a church of Christ has a right of legislating beyond what is written in the New Testament, and there is no such thing as limiting the exercise of this right, until the authority of Christ is superseded, and his church is converted into a mere secular institution.