It is difficult to ascertain the particulars of ecclesiastical order approved by Independents, inasmuch as we are not aware that they have embodied their views of what the Scriptures teach on the subject in any common formula, and as every congregation, standing apart from every other, may differ sometimes widely on important points. We are, therefore, left to discover their views of Church polity from the general practices known to exist among them, and from the principles advocated by their most eminent writers. These, however, are sufficiently known to enable us to compare the Independent system of Church Government with the apostolic standard.
The principle of popular election existed, as we have seen, in the Primitive Church, and had the sanction of the apostles of the Lord. Among the Independents this principle is preserved in its integrity: with them every ecclesiastical office-bearer is chosen by the people.
In the Apostolic Church the office of bishop and elder was identical; the bishop did not exercise any authority over the elder; on the contrary, every bishop was an elder, and every elder a bishop. So it is with Independents. Every one of their pastors fills the office of bishop and elder, and none of them claims authority over others. With them a bishop and elder are only different names for the same office-bearers, as it was in apostolic days.
We have seen how, in Apostolic times, there was a plurality of elders in each Church. Here the Independent system fails. On the principles of that theory of Church Government, it is scarcely possible to have a plurality of elders, and in practice it rarely, if ever, occurs. Among them there is only one minister, or bishop, or elder, in each congregation. Practically, their system admits only of one elder to each Church. If an apostle were writing an epistle to an Independent Church, he would never think of addressing it to the bishops, as well as to the deacons, for the simple reason that, with them, there is usually but one bishop to one Church: nor could an apostle ever send for the elders of an Independent Church, as Paul sent for the elders of Ephesus, for the plain reason that, in an Independent Church, there is usually but one elder. A single pastor, with deacons under him, governing a Church, is the prominent feature that the Independent system everywhere presents – an arrangement than which none can be more opposed to the plurality of elders that existed in each congregation in primitive times.
Some Independents attempt to palliate their departure from apostolic precedent, by saying that a plurality of elders is desirable, but their Churches are not able to support them. Does it never strike our esteemed brethren that there must be some remarkable disparity between the apostolic system and theirs, when the richest of their Churches now cannot afford to possess what was possessed by the very poorest Churches in the days of the apostles? It is the Word of God that says of Paul and Barnabas – “they ordained elders in every Church.”
The office-bearers of the Apostolic Church were set apart to the discharge of their peculiar duties with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. Among Independents, however, ordination of any sort is not essential; frequently it is counted unnecessary. Instances are known of persons acting as pastors of Churches for a lifetime, who were never inducted to office with the imposition of hands and prayer. Ordination is not required by the system. With them it is a mere matter of taste, left in each case to the individual choice.
If the newly-elected pastor choose to have himself ordained, it can only be done in a way inconsistent with Independent principles. The congregation, being destitute of a plurality of elders, his ordination can only come from the people, who have no Scriptural right to confer it, or from the neighbouring pastor. But who does not see that the latter practice is entirely at variance with the foundation principle of Independency, namely, that each congregation has within itself complete materials for government? So much is this felt to be the case, that, while some ask the assistance of the pastors of the district on such occasions, those who choose to carry out their Congregationalist principle with a little more consistency make light of ordination, think it unnecessary, and prefer to go without it.
In the Apostolic Church there was the privilege of appeal to the assembly of elders. Among the Independents nothing of this kind can exist. The distinctive principle of their system precludes all appeal. The decision of the pastor, and deacons, and people, assembled in a church-meeting, is final in every case. No matter how partial or unjust their decision is felt to be, there is no power of bringing the sentence under review of a less prejudiced and more enlightened tribunal. The judgment of the Church may be in strict accordance with justice, or it may be the offspring of prejudice or malevolence in a few of the leaders of the meeting, masked, of course, under zeal for purity of communion, and for the cause of religion; but, no matter how superficial the investigation, or how deep the wrong, the system deprives the injured man of the privilege of appeal, and clothes the perpetrators with irresponsible power. By denying and repudiating all association, it enables the rulers to be, if they please, the tyrants of the Church, and strips the injured of the possibility of redress.
“Independency,” says Dr. Wardlaw, “is the competency of every distinct Church to manage, without appeal, its own affairs” (Dr. Wardlaw’s Congregational Independency, p. 232, Glasgow, 1848). This is an ingenious mode of disguising the most repulsive feature of the system. Very few would deny that a Church is competent to manage its own affairs in such a way as to obviate the necessity of appeal; but what we assert is, that, when the Church lacks the necessary wisdom and discretion to do so, appeal among Independents is not permitted, the injured is deprived of redress, and power, for which the possessor is irresponsible to man, degenerates into tyranny when it is unwisely exercised, and there is nothing to keep it in check.
The case of Antioch shows that, when a difference arose in the primitive Church, there was a right of referring the matter to the assembly of elders, who, under the guidance of the apostles, settled the business. Elders might still meet, and the written word of the apostles is accessible to all, and a decision pronounced by parties removed from the scene of controversy, untainted by local prejudices, and standing far away from the partisanship of the leaders, might go far now, as in ancient days, to calm dissensions, should they unfortunately arise. But Independents, in this respect, repudiate the apostolic example. Their principle is to refuse all recognition of external authority, to make the decision of the Church meeting final in every case, and to deny to them who are aggrieved the privilege of appeal.
The Headship of Christ was a principle of apostolic times. Independents, we are happy to say, acknowledge this principle in all its integrity.
The result of our comparison is, that there are three principles of the Apostolic Church that we find fully acknowledged and acted upon among our Independent brethren, namely, popular election, the identity of presbyter and bishop, and the Headship of Christ over the Church. But there are three apostolic principles that we fail to find in their system, namely, the plurality of elders in each Church, ordination with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery, and the privilege of appeal. We conclude, therefore, that, while the Independent system of government advances to the pattern of primitive times much more closely than that which exists in the Churches of England and Rome, still it is not the system entitled to plead the precedent of the Apostolic Church.