"Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief; for that is unprofitable for you" (verse 17). It is quite clear from the balance of the verse that its opening words have reference to religious leaders, and not to civil rulers. Adolph Saphir, who was very far from being a "Nicolaitan" was right when he declared: "Verses 7 and 17 show that there was a stated ministry, that there were recognized and regular teachers and pastors in the congregation, whose gifts not only, but whose office was acknowledged." It is impossible that any unprejudiced and impartial mind should attentively consider the terms and implications of these verses and come to any other conclusion. The principle of subordination is absolutely essential to the well-being of any society that is to be rightly ordered and conducted—adumbrated even in the organization of our bodies.
In our text the Holy Spirit sets forth the third great duty which is required in our Christian profession, on account of the sacrifice of Christ and our sanctification by His blood. Most comprehensive and all-inclusive are the exhortations found in verses 15-17. The first respects our spiritual obligation, Godwards, rendering unto Him that which is His due (verse 15). The second respects our social obligation, rendering unto our needy fellows that which the requirements of charity dictates, according to our ability. The third has respect to our ecclesiastical obligation, rendering unto those officers in the church that submission and respect to which they are entitled.by virtue of the position and authority which Christ has accorded them. This is a Gospel institution, which can only be disregarded to the manifest dishonor of the Lord and to our own great loss.
Ever since the great Reformation of the sixteenth century, there have been wide differences of opinion among God’s people concerning the local church: its constitution, its officers, and its discipline. Even where there was oneness of mind respecting the fundamentals of the Faith, godly men have differed considerably in their ecclesiastical views. Numbers of the most gifted of Christ’s servants have, during the last three hundred years, written extensively upon the polity and policy of the local church, and though widely varying positions have been taken, and though each claimed to appeal to Scripture only for his authority, yet none succeeded in carrying the majority of professing Christians with him, or of persuading his opponents that their system was wrong.
While on the one hand we must admire the wisdom of Him who has providentially ordered as great a variety of types in the ecclesiastical sphere as He has in the physical and social—which though not a rule for us to walk by, is a subject for our admiration; yet on the other hand we cannot but deplore that they who are united on the same foundations and agreed in all the cardinal truths of Holy Writ, should lay such emphasis upon their circumstantial differences in sentiments as to prevent the exercise of mutual love and forbearance, and instead of laboring in concert within their respective departments to promote the common cause of Christ, should so often vex each other with needless disputes and uncharitable censures. Far better be silent altogether than contend for any portion of the Truth in a bitter, angry, censorious spirit.
No true Christian will hesitate to acknowledge that Christ Himself is the one infallible, authoritative Legislator and Governor of His Church, that He is the only Lord of conscience, and that nothing inconsistent with His revealed will should be practiced, and that nothing He has definitely enjoined be omitted, by those professing allegiance to Him. But however generally acknowledged these principles are, we cannot get away from the fact that the misconstruction and misapplication of them have contributed more to divide the people of God and to alienate their affections one from the other, than any other cause that can be assigned. Surely those who are built upon the common foundation, who are led by the same Spirit, who are opposed by the same enemies, should love as brethren and bear each other’s burdens. But alas! a mistaken zeal for Christ’s honor has filled them with animosity against their fellow-disciples, split them into innumerable factions, and given rise to fierce and endless contentions.
We quite agree with the godly John Newton, when he said in his "Apologia," nearly two hundred years ago: "Men are born, educated, and called under a great variety of circumstances. Habits of life, local customs, early connections, and even bodily constitution, have more or less influence in forming their characters, and in giving a tincture and turn to their manner of thinking. So that though, in whatever is essential to their peace and holiness, they are all led by the same Spirit and mind the same things; in others of a secondary nature, their sentiments may, and often do differ, as much as the features of their faces. A uniformity of judgment among them is not to be expected while the wisest are defective in knowledge, the best are defiled with sin, and while the weaknesses of human nature which are common to them all, are so differently affected by a thousand impressions which are from their various situations. They might, however, maintain a unity of spirit, and live in the exercise of mutual love; were it not that every party, and almost every individual, unhappily conceives that they are bound in conscience to prescribe their own line of conduct as a standard to which all their brethren ought to confirm They are comparatively but few who consider this requisition to be as unnecessary, unreasonable, and impracticable, as it would be to insist or expect that every man’s shoes should be exactly of one size.
"Thus, though all agree in asserting the authority and rights of the Lord Jesus, as King and Head of His Church, the various apprehensions they frame of the rule to which He requires them to conform, and their pertinacious attachment to their own expositions of it, separate them almost as much from each other, as if they were not united to Him by a principle of living faith. Their little differences form them into so many separate interests; and the heat with which they defend their own plans, and oppose all who cannot agree with them in a tittle, makes them forget that they are children in the same family, and servants of the same Master. And while they vex and worry each other with disputations and censures, the world wonders and laughs at them."
The position which has been taken by, perhaps, most of the leading writers, was something like this: Get away from the conflicting views of men, and read the N.T. prayerfully and impartially, and it will quickly be apparent that the Lord Jesus has not left such an important matter as the constitution of the churches undefined, but rather directed His apostles to leave in their writings a pattern according to which it was His will all His churches in future ages were to be formed, and (according to the particular leanings of each respective writer) that it will be seen the primitive churches were "Congregational," "Baptist," "Presbyterian," or ‘Brethren Assemblies," and therefore any other system or scheme is unscriptural, and a presumptuous deviation from the declared will of the Lord.
If, however, the reader cares to take the time and trouble to consult a number of the writers in any one of these different schools, he will find that though they are all agreed that a plain and satisfactory model of this "Congregational" church (or "Baptist," or "Presbyterian," or "Brethren Assembly," as the case may be) can easily be collected and stated from a perusal of the N.T.; yet when these same writers attempt to delineate and describe that church, they differ considerably among themselves as to the nature and number of its officers, powers and acts which are requisite to the constitution and administration of a Gospel church. There is very far from being that agreement among themselves which is certainly to be expected if the plan from which they profess to copy be so clearly and expressly revealed in the N.T. as to be binding upon believers in all ages.
It seems, then, that if every detail of the church’s government and worship be exhibited in the Scriptures, either in the form of a precept or precedent, yet thus far God has not given sufficient skill to any one so as to enable him to collect and collate the various rules and regulations scattered throughout the Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and the Revelation, and arrange them into a systematic and orderly structure. But that none really takes this principle seriously appears from his own practices. There are a number of things reported of the primitive Christians which few if any companies of Christians today make any attempt to emulate. For example, the holding of all earthly possessions in common (Acts 2:44, 45), greeting one another with a holy kiss (1 Cor. 16:20), making provision for their widows when they reach the age of sixty (1 Tim. 5:9), or sending for the elders of the church to pray over and anoint us when we are sick (James 5:14)!
In reply to what has just been said, it will be pointed out that in the days of the apostles the saints were endowed with extraordinary gifts, and consequently there were some things practiced by them (in 1 Corinthians 14, for example) which are not proper for our imitation today who have not those gifts. But that very admission surrenders the basic principle contended for. To be told that we should study the apostolic churches for our model, and then to be informed that some parts of their practice were not designed for our emulation, is too bewildering for the ordinary mind to grasp. Moreover, God has not told us anywhere which of the primitive practices were but transient and which were not. Where, then, is the man or men qualified to draw the line and declare authoritatively in what respects the state of the first Christians was hindered from being a pattern for us by the extraordinary dispensations of that generation, and in what cases their actions are binding on us now those extraordinary dispensations have ceased?
To the above it will at once be objected: But consider the only other alternative: surely it is most unreasonable to suppose that the Lord has left His people without a complete church model for their guidance! Is it not unthinkable that Christ would fail His people in such a vitally important matter as to how He would have them order all the concerns of the churches which bear His name, that He would leave them in ignorance of His will, as to their constitution, officers, order of worship, discipline, etc? If God ordered Moses to make all things in the tabernacle according to the pattern shown him in the mount, and if that pattern was so complete that every board and pin in the house of worship was definitely defined, is it believable that He has made less provision for His people today, now that the fullness of time has come? This argument has indeed a most plausible sound to it, and thousands have been misled thereby; but a dispassionate examination of it shows it to be unwarrantable.
In the first place, there is no promise recorded in the N.T. that He would do so, and no statement through any apostle that such a church model has been provided! In the second place, the history of Christendom clearly indicates the contrary. Had such a model been given, it would be as clearly recognizable as the tabernacle pattern, and all who really desired to please the Lord would have responded thereto; and, in consequence, there had been uniformity among the true followers of Christ, instead of endless diversity and variety. But in the third place, this proves too much. If a Divine model has been given supplying all the details for the ordering of N.T. churches and their worship, as definite and as complete as was given for the tabernacle, then we would have minute regulations concerning the size, shape, and furnishings of the buildings in which we must worship, full directions for the ministers apparel, and so on! The absence of those details is clear proof that no model for the churches comparable to the Divine pattern for the tabernacle has been vouchsafed us.
Then what conclusion are we forced to come to? This: a happy medium between the two alternatives suggested by most of those who have written on the subject. If on the one hand we cannot find in the N.T. that which in any wise corresponds to the "pattern" for the tabernacle (and the minute instructions God gave for the temple), on the other hand the Lord has not left us so completely in ignorance of His will that every man or company of Christians is left entirely to do that which is right in his own eyes. In keeping with the vastly different character of the two dispensations, the "liberty" of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17) has supplanted the rigid legality of Judaism, and therefore has Christ supplied us with general principles (e.g., 1 Corinthians 14:26, 40), which are sufficiently broad to allow of varied modification when applied to the differing circumstances of His people, situated in various climes and generations—in contrast from what was prescribed for the single nation of Israel of old.
In the N.T. we are furnished with a full revelation of all things necessary unto salvation, the knowledge whereof man by his own powers could never attain thereunto; yet there is much lacking there on other matters which was furnished under the old covenant. God not only supplied Israel with the ceremonial law, which was to regulate all their church or religious life, but He also gave them a complete code of precepts for their civil government, and no one pretends He has done this for Christians! In the absence of that civil code, why should it be thought strange that God has left many minor ecclesiastical arrangements to the discretion of His servants? Unto those who are indignant at such a statement, and who are still ready to insist that the Lord has made known His will on all things respecting church and religious affairs, we would ask, Where does the New Testament prescribe what marriage rites should be used? or the form of service for a funeral? But enough.
As Richard Hooker pertinently pointed out, "he who affirms speech to be necessary among all men throughout the world, doth not thereby import that all men must necessarily speak one kind of language. Even so the necessity of polity and regimen in all churches may be held, without holding any one certain form to be necessary in them all." This is far from granting that all the various modes of church government are equally agreeable to the spirit and genius of the Gospel, or equally suited to the promotion of edification. Once again we fully agree with John Newton when he said, "In essentials I agree with them all, and in circumstancials I differ no more from any of them than they differ among themselves. They all confess they are fallible, yet they all decide with an air of infallibility; for they all in their turn expect me to unite with them, if I have any regard to the authority and honor of the Lord Jesus as Head of the church. But the very consideration they propose restrains me from uniting with any of them. For I cannot think that I should honor the headship and kingly office of Christ by acknowledging Him as the Head of a party and subdivision of His people to the exclusion of the rest.
"Every party uses fair sounding words of liberty; but when an explanation is made, it amounts to little more than this: that they will give me liberty to think as they think, and to act as they act; which to me, who claim the same right of thinking for myself and of acting according to the dictates of my own conscience, is no liberty at all. I therefore came to such conclusions as these: that I would love them all, that I would hold a friendly intercourse with them all, so far as they should providentially come in my way (and, he might have added, so far as they will allow me!); but that I would stand fast in the liberty with which Christ has made me free, and call none of them master; in fine, that if others sought to honor Him by laying a great stress on matters of doubtful disputation, my way of honoring Him should be by endeavoring to show that His kingdom is not of this world, nor consists in meats and drinks, in pleading for form and parties, but in righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit; and that neither circumcision is anything, nor un-circumcision, but a new creature, and the faith which worketh by love.
This is the course which the writer has sedulously sought to follow for the past ten years, both in connection with this magazine and in oral ministry. But alas! notwithstanding the boasted "broadmindedness" and "liberality" of this generation, we have found, everywhere we have been the ecclesiastical barriers are as impregnable today as they were a century ago, and that no church, circle, or company of professing Christians is prepared to really welcome into their midst (no matter what his reputation or credentials) one who is unprepared to join and limit to their party, and pronounce all their shibboleths; and that the vast majority are unwilling to read any religious publication unless it bears upon it the label of their particular denomination. No wonder that the Spirit of God is quenched and His power and blessing absent, where such an un-Christ-like, sectarian, bigoted and pharisaical spirit prevails.
We are not going to prescribe for others; let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. But as far as the writer is concerned, he values his Christian liberty far too highly to voluntarily shut himself up in any ecclesiastical prison, where he is excluded from fellowship with his brethren and sisters scattered abroad. Of course since sinless perfection is not to be found in any individual on earth, it is not to be expected from any group of individuals. No one denomination or party has all the light. On the one hand, if the reader be a member of a church where unsound doctrine is preached or where no Scriptural discipline is maintained, his course is clear: Ephesians 5:11, 2 Timothy 3:5. But if on the other hand, he belongs to any evangelical church which is honestly seeking to honor Christ and where his soul is being fed, then, in our humble judgment, he will be wise to remain there and "obey them that have the rule over him" yet let him not look down upon others who differ from him.
In dissenting from the popular view that the N.T. record of primitive Christianity furnishes a complete model of church government, and that the same is an authoritative rule binding upon the Lord’s people throughout the entire course of this dispensation, we are far from supposing that we shall carry with us the majority of our readers—by this time the writer ought to be sufficiently acquainted with human nature to prevent any such foolish day dreaming. And in affirming that the N.T. rather supplies us with general rules and principles, which are sufficiently elastic as to allow for human discretion to be exercised in the application of them to particular instances of the church’s outward conduct, we are quite prepared to face the charge that this statement is a "dangerous" one. Our reply is, that we are affirming no more than what is universally acknowledged concerning the regulation of the details of the life of the individual believer.
Is not the Christian daily made to cry unto God for wisdom how to act in his temporal affairs, and that because there are no specific precepts in the Word which prescribe for those particular exigencies? Is he not obliged, after prayerful deliberation, to use his common sense in applying the general rules of Scripture to a hundred minor details of his life? So common an occurrence is this and so universally does it obtain among the saints, that there is no need for us to enlarge upon it by illustrating the point—there is no need to prove what is self-evident. In view of this simple and obvious fact, why should we be the least surprised that God has ordained that His churches should follow a similar course, for what is a Gospel church but a company of individual believers in organized relationship. If, then, God has not told the individual believer at what hour he should rise on the Sabbath and how many meals he should eat that day, would we expect Him to state how long the minister’s sermon is to be, or how many hymns or psalms are to be sung?
"The Lord Christ in the institution of Gospel churches—their state, order, rule, and worship—doth not require of His disciples that in their observance of His appointments they should cease to be men, or forego the use and exercise of their rational abilities, according to the rule of that exercise, which is the light of nature, yea, because the rules and directions are in this case to be applied unto things spiritual and of mere revelation, He giveth wisdom and prudence to make that application in a due manner, unto those to whom the guidance and rule of the church is committed: wherefore, as unto all things which the light of nature directs us unto, with respect unto the observation of the duties prescribed by Christ in and unto the Church, we need no other institution but that of the use of the especial Spiritual understanding which the Lord Christ gives us for that end.
"There are in the Scripture general rules directing us in the application of natural light, unto such a determination of all circumstances in the acts of church-rule and worship, as are sufficient for their performance decently and in order. Wherefore, as was said before, it is utterly in vain and useless, to demand express institution of all the circumstances belonging unto the government, order, and worship of the church; or for the due improvement of things in themselves indifferent unto its edification, as occasion shall require. Nor are they capable to be any otherwise stated, but as they lie in the light of nature and spiritual prudence directed by general rules of Scripture." (John Owen).
Nor is this to discredit or disparage the Holy Scriptures. The Testimony of God is true, perfect, and all-sufficient for the ends for which it was given; but that Testimony is not honored but dishonored by us, if we extravagantly attribute to it that which God never designed for the same. Rome has erred grievously by declaring that the Scriptures are not sufficient, that "traditions" must be added if we are to have a full revelation of what is absolutely necessary, for us to know in this life in order that we may be saved in the next. But some Protestants have gone to another extreme, taking the position that the Scriptures contain such a complete revelation of God’s will for the regulation of our lives, both as individuals and as churches, that to act according to any other rule (be it the promptings of conscience or the dictates of reason) is presumptuous and sinful.
But to insist that the conduct of the church must have an express warrant from the N.T. for every detail of its procedure, and that to act otherwise is displeasing to the Lord, is to go much farther than that which obtained even under the O.T. What commandment from the Lord did the Gileadites have to erect that altar spoken of in Joshua 22:10? Did not congruity of reason—the fitness of things—induce them thereto and suffice for defense of their act? What Divine commandment had the women of Israel to yearly lament for Jephthah’s daughter (Judg. 11:40)? What "thus saith the Lord" or scriptural precedent did Ezra have for making "a pulpit of wood" (Nehemiah 8:4), from which he preached to the people? What Divine Commandment had the Jews to celebrate the feast of "Dedication" (John 10:22), nowhere spoken of in the Law, yet solemnized by Christ Himself! To condemn all that is "of human invention" is not only to fly in the face of the judgment of many of the wisest and most godly men, but is to go beyond what the Scriptures themselves permit.
—Exposition of Hebrews, An