Tenth Chapter. THE CHURCH OF CHRIST.
XXXIX. The Government of the Church.
"No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost."—1 Corinthians 12:3.
The last work of the Holy Spirit in the Church has reference to government.
The Church is a divine institution. It is the body of Christ, even tho manifesting itself in a most defective way; for as the man whose speech is affected by a stroke of paralysis is the same friendly person as before, in spite of the defect, so is the Church, whose speech is impaired, still the same holy body of Christ. The visible and invisible Church are one.
We have written elsewhere: "The Church of Christ on earth is at once visible and invisible. Even as a man is at once a perceptible and imperceptible being without being therefore two beings, so does the distinction between the Church visible and invisible in no wise impair its unity. It is one and the same Church, which according to its spiritual being is hidden in the spiritual world, manifest only to the spiritual eye, and which according to its visible form manifests itself externally to believers and the world.
"According to its spiritual and invisible being the Church is one in all the earth, one also with the Church in heaven. In like manner it is also a holy Church, not only because it is skilfully wrought of God, dependent entirely upon His divine influences and workings, but also because the spiritual defilement and indwelling sin of believers belong not to it, but war against it. According to its visible form, however, it manifests itself only in fragments. Hence it is local, i.e., widely distributed; and the national churches originate because these local churches form such connection as their own character and their national relations demand. More extensive combinations of churches can only be temporal or exceedingly loose and flexible. And these churches, as manifestations of the invisible church, are not one, neither are they holy; for they partake of the imperfections of all earthly life, and are constantly defiled by the power of sin which internally and externally undermines their well-being."
Hence the subject may not be presented as tho the spiritual, invisible, and mystical Church were the object of Christ's care and government, while the affairs and oversight of the visible Church are left to the pleasure of men. This is in direct opposition to the Word of God. There is not one visible Church and another invisible; but one Church, invisible in the spiritual, and visible in the material world. And as God cares both for body and soul, so does Christ govern the external affairs of the Church just as certainly as with His grace He nourishes it internally.
Christ is the Lord; Lord not only of the soul, but before He can be that He must be Lord of the Church as a whole.
It should be noticed that the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments belong not to the internal economy of the Church, but to the external; and that church government serves almost exclusively to keep the preaching pure and the sacraments from being profaned. Hence it is not expedient to say: "If the Word of God be only preached in its purity and the sacraments rightly administered, the church order is of minor importance"; eliminate these two from the church order and very little remains of it.
The question is, therefore, whether these means of grace are to be arranged according to our pleasure, or according to the will of Jesus. Does He allow us to trifle with them according to our own notions, or does He rebuke and abhor all self-willed religion? If the last, then also He must from heaven direct, govern, and care for His Church.
However, He does not compel us in this matter; He has left us the awful liberty of acting against His Word and of substituting our form of government for His own. And that is the very thing which misguided Christendom has done again and again. Through unbelief, not seeing the King, it has frequently ignored, forgotten, deposed Him; it has established its own self-willed régime in His Church, until at last the very remembrance of the lawful Sovereign has been lost.
The individual church, still mindful of the kingship of Jesus, professes to bow unconditionally to His kingly Word as contained in the Scripture. Therefore, we say that in the state church of the Netherlands, whose church order not only lacks such profession, but lays the supreme legislative power exclusively upon men, Christ's Kingship is mocked; that a pretender has usurped His place, who must be removed as surely as it is written: "Yet have I set My King upon My holy hill of Zion." (Psalm 2:6)
Hence it must be maintained firmly and fearlessly that Jesus is not only the King of souls, but also King in His Church; whose absolute prerogative it is to be the Lawgiver in His Church; and that the power which contests that right most be opposed for conscience' sake.
To the question, why the Church is so apt to forget the Kingship of Christ, so that many a godly minister has not the slightest feeling for it, often saying: "Surely Jesus is King in the realm of truth, but what does He care for the external church? I, at least, a spiritual man, never attend the meetings of the official board"; we answer: "If Jesus had an earthly throne and thence reigned personally over His Church, all men would bow before Him; but being enthroned in heaven at the right hand of the Father, the King is forgotten; out of sight, out of mind. Hence ignorance concerning the work of the Holy Spirit is the cause. Since Jesus governs His Church not directly, but by His Word and Spirit, there is no respect for the majesty of His sovereign government.
The spiritual eye of the believer must therefore be reopened for the work of the Holy Spirit in the churches. The unspiritual man has no eye for it. A consistory, classis, or synod is to him merely a body of men convened to transact business according to their own light, the same as a meeting of the directors of a board of trade, or some other secular organization. One is a shareholder and a committeeman, and as such assists in the administration of affairs to the best of his ability. But to the child of God, with an eye for the work of the Holy Spirit, these church assemblies assume an entirely different aspect. He acknowledges that this consistory is no consistory, this classis no classis, this synod only apparently so, except the Holy Spirit preside and decide matters together with the members.
The opening prayer of consistory, classis, or synod is therefore not the same as that of the Y. M. C. A., or of a missionary convention, simply a prayer for light and help, but an entirely different thing. It is the petition that the Holy Spirit stand in the midst of the assembly. For without Him no ecclesiastical meeting is complete. It can not be held except He be present. Hence in the liturgical prayer at the opening of consistory, there is first a petition for the Holy Spirit's presence and leadership; secondly, the confession that the members can do nothing without His presence; and thirdly, a pleading of the promises to office-bearers.
The prayer reads: "Since we are at present assembled in Thy Holy Name, after the example of the apostolic churches, to consult, as our office requires, about those things which may come before us, for the welfare and edification of Thy churches, for which we acknowledge ourselves unfit and incapable, as we are by nature unable of ourselves to think any good, much less to put it into practise, therefore we beseech Thee, O Faithful God and Father, that Thou wilt be pleased to be present with Thy Spirit according to Thy promise, in the midst of our present assembly, to guide us in all truth."
In the prayer at the close of the consistory there follows the express giving of thanks that the Holy Spirit was present in the meeting: "Moreover, we thank Thee that Thou now hast been present with Thy Holy Spirit in the midst of our assembly, directing our determinations according to Thy will, uniting our hearts in mutual peace and concord. We beseech Thee, O faithful God and Father, that Thou wilt graciously be pleased to bless our intended labor and effectually to execute Thy begun work; always gathering unto Thyself a true church and preserving the same in the pure doctrine and in the right use of Thy holy sacraments, and in a diligent exercise of discipline."
Hence church government signifies:
First, that King Jesus institutes the offices and appoints the incumbents.
Secondly, that the churches submit themselves unconditionally to the fundamental law of His Word.
Thirdly, that the Holy Spirit come in the assembly to direct the deliberations; as Walæus expressed it: "That the Holy Spirit personally may stand behind the president to preside in every meeting." And this saying is so rich in meaning that we would seriously ask, whether it is not yet plain that a mere change of officers avails not, so long as the organization itself is not agreeable to the Word of God. The question is not whether better men come in power, but whether the Holy Spirit preside in the assembly; which He can not do except the Word of God be the only rule and authority.