It is a distinctive feature of the apostolic government that Church rulers did not render spiritual obedience to any temporal potentate, or to any ecclesiastical chief. Paul seldom commences any of his epistles without reminding his readers that he held his apostleship by the will of God, not by the favour of man. Take, as an example. Gal. 1:1 – “Paul an apostle (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father who raised Him from the dead),” etc.
In the picture of apostolic times presented in the New Testament, we can detect no instance of the Church acknowledging the spiritual dominion of any earthly monarch, or consenting to surrender a portion of its religious liberty for any temporal advantage whatever. We find no provision made in the Gospel for the supremacy of a Christian, much less of a heathen, king in the things of God.
The law of Scripture is express: “Render to Cesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). In all temporal matters the members of the Apostolic Church regarded it their duty to yield obedience to the civil rulers of the country in which they lived; in all spiritual matters they did homage to a higher power. In temporal matters an apostle bowed to the laws of the land as administered by the magistrate of a village; in spiritual matters he would not bow to Caesar on his throne.
It does not alter the case to say that we look in vain for such an example to the Scriptures, owing to the fact that, in the primitive age, no temporal prince was made a convert to Christianity, and therefore none was in circumstances to dispense ecclesiastical patronage and serve as the depository of spiritual power. But God is not limited by want of instruments. The same grace that subdued Saul of Tarsus, at a time when he was breathing out slaughter against the saints of the Lord, could have converted Pilate, or Agrippa, or Caesar at Rome. Had the example been useful, the necessary means of supplying the example would not have been lacking to God. The very fact that, in apostolic days, God did not take some heathen prince and make a Christian of him, in order that he might fill the office of temporal head of the Church on earth, is in itself an instructive fact – fraught with a moral.
And let it be remarked that the Scriptures make no provision for such an occurrence in after times. They contain no principle authorising the prince either to claim or exercise authority in ecclesiastical matters, when in the course of ages a Christian potentate would appear. If there be such a principle it is unknown to us; and it is certainly incumbent on those who approve of such an arrangement, to produce from the Scriptures, if they can, their warrant for maintaining that a Christian king has a right to exercise supremacy over the Church in spiritual matters. Till this is done we must be excused for believing that no temporal prince has a right to act as a lord over the heritage of God.
Nor was supreme spiritual power lodged in the hands of any office-bearer of the Church, however distinguished by his gifts, his sufferings, or his abundant labours. The private members, indeed, had it in command to obey the rulers or elders of the Church; but the elders, on their part, were enjoined not to act as lords over God’s heritage, but to be examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). Even the apostles did not claim to have dominion over the people’s faith, but only to be helpers of their joy (2 Cor. 1:24). And among these apostles it does not appear that pre-eminence was vested in any. Peter is the only one for whom, in later times, official supremacy is ever claimed: but he never claimed it for himself; he always acted with his fellow-apostles as a simple preacher of the cross of Christ; he is never presented in the Scriptures as nominating to ecclesiastical office, or as exercising any peculiar control over the inferior officers in the Church. On one noted occasion, when he exhibited some tergiversation, we are told of another apostle who withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed (Gal. 2:2).
The Scripture, therefore, furnishes no ground whatever for believing that supreme spiritual power is deposited in any ecclesiastical officer any more than in any temporal prince. The Scriptures are to be our guide on this as well as on all other religious matters. We turn to the following passages, and find where the source of all spiritual power exists: –
Eph. 1:20-23 – “Which He [God] wrought in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and set Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come, and hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.”
Eph. 5:23 – “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church; and He is the Saviour of the body.”
Col. 1:18 – “And He [Christ] is the head of the body, the Church; who is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; that in all things He might have the pre-eminence.”
The passages now quoted are taken from the Holy Scriptures – the only rule of Christian faith and practice. We have given them our attentive consideration: and they have led us to the conclusion that the sole headship of Christ over the Church was the doctrine of apostolic days. What the head is to the human body Christ is to the Church; and as the body cannot have two heads, so the Church cannot have two heads – neither Christ and the Pope, nor Christ and the monarch.
To us there seems no middle way in this matter. We must either reject the authority of the Bible, or believe what it teaches – namely, that Christ is head over all things to the Church. We choose the latter. The Headship of Christ is the sixth principle of government that we find in operation in apostolic days.
Let us observe the consequence of this principle; for as Christ is the Head of the Church, the members of the Church are to be subject to Him; and, as we have no way of ascertaining the mind of Christ except through the Scriptures, it follows that the affairs of the Church are to be managed by those officers whom the Lord Jesus has entrusted with that power, and are, without the interference of any external authority, to be regulated according to the mind of God as expressed in His Word.