THE three great subjects, with which a Christian Minister is concerned, are the Word of God, the Church of God, and the Christian Life. Circumstances and occasions will sometimes direct his thoughts to one of these, and sometimes to another: but so long as any of the three are before him, he is within the circle of his duty.
I was led to the subject of the following Essay, by an accident. I am a Curate in a country parish; who make it my business, and found it my pleasure, to teach the children of my people, privately in my own house, and publicly in the Church; and I am, for the present, the only Sunday Schoolmaster of the place. In the course of my instructions, I had occasion to observe, that the Catechism of the Church of England, though a most excellent summary of the Christian Doctrine, is deficient in one point, viz. the Constitution of the Church of Christ; the knowledge of which, in a certain degree, is necessary to the preservation of that charity which is the end of the commandment; and, for the want of which, so many are drawn away from the Church, who would certainly have remained with it, if they had known what it is. Yet is our Catechism not so deficient, but that it includes the grand distinction betwixt the World and the Church; which distinction being explained, I found we were possessed of a leading idea, which gave so much light to my young pupils, that I determined to go through the subject.
As I have been persuaded, ever since I began to think on these things, of the great importance of uniformity in worship amongst Christians: so have I been led to observe, on the other hand, the many evil consequences of non-conformity, with the dangerous delusions of the mind, arising from the harangues of preachers pretending to extraordinary gifts, while they are but half learned in the gospel, which they undertake to publish, and are greatly mistaken in the spirit of it. I see how-some men are cheated with the appearance of being converted to godliness; when they are only converted from one sin to another; from loving the world, to hating their neighbours; from the coldness of church devotion, to an uncharitable heat against the Church itself; from the moral philosophy of some of our pulpits, to the Antinomian faith, which gives men a license to sin; from the drunkenness of the body, to the intoxication of the mind, with spiritual pride and false doctrine.
I am well assured, that if this subject of the Church, now so much neglected, and almost forgotten by those who are most concerned to understand it, should come to be better considered; there would be more true piety, more peace, more of those virtues which be required in Heaven, and which must therefore be first learned upon earth.
Some amongst us err, because they know not the scriptures; and others, because they never considered the nature of the Church. Some think they can make their own religion, and so they despise the word of God, and fall into infidelity. Others think they can make their own Church, or even be a Church unto themselves; and so they fall into the delusions of enthusiasm, or the uncharitableness of schism. But, as there is nothing to enlighten the minds of men in the doctrines of salvation, but the word of God; so is there nothing that can unite their hearts and affections, but the Church of God. Ye are one bread, and one body, saith the Apostle; one body by partaking of one bread; and that can only be in the same communion.
In the weighing of these things, the prevailing spirit of the times, and the sanction which it may have given either to the profligate sinner, or to the presumptuous saint, are of no account upon the scale. In the settling of principles, we are never to consider how the world hath practised, but how God hath taught. The practice of the multitude, how great soever that multitude may be, hath no influence upon truth: yet it will stagger the minds of many, grid, carry them sway, as with an overbearing torrent. Happy are they who have a better rule to direct them. They know that man applauds, highly applauds, what God abominates: and the higher the applause, the more room there is for suspicion. They know that the voice of the multitude was against Jesus Christ, when but few were for him; and they had hid themselves, and dared not to speak; their minds. When Noah followed the direction of God in building the ark, for the saving pf his house, the world was against him. To them no ark was necessary, because they had determined amongst themselves, that there would be no flood; and consequently, that Noah was a bigot, whose undertaking, while it exposed himself, was an invidious reflection upon the age. When the father of the faithful followed the calling of God, there were none to stand by him and encourage him; he was separated from his nearest relations; and wheresoever he went, he was under fears and dangers from people of a false persuasion. When Jesus Christ brought with him from heaven, that light which was to be the glory of his people, one ruler of the Jews came to him by stealth in the night, to consult him as a teacher, come from God. So great was the authority of a blinded multitude, that a ruler of the people was afraid of being brought into disgrace, by conversing personally with the Saviour of the world!
The times, therefore, and the people who live in them, are never to be considered by us, when we are seeking or following the truth, on the ground of its own proper evidence. When it was asked, with a design to perplex the people, who, of the Rulers, or of the Pharisees, had believed? our Saviour gave them a different rule: why do ye not of yourselves, said he, judge what is right; without going first, to consult those, who are blinded by false learning, and, with an appearance of great sanctity, have imposed upon the people? "See," saith one, "how fast our doctrine is increasing! all the learned are going after it; and you must all submit to it in a very short time." And who are they that thus reason with us? The very same persons, who declaim so loudly on the fallibility of all men; and yet hold themselves to be little less than infallible in the choice of their own opinions. Let error rise as high as it can; and let truth sink as low as a wicked world can reduce it; the difference between them is the same as ever; and we shall still find it wiser and better to follow the setting sun, as Columbus did when he discovered the Indies. The meteor of heresy, which blazes, and dazzles us for a while with its appearance, will burn out, and leave not a spark behind; while the sun only sets to rise again. Such be the fate of the Church, and of the doctrine of truth by which it is supported.
There never was a time from the beginning of the world, when there was not a patty against the Church of God: and our Israel must have its enemies, as that Church had which came out of Egypt. In the first age of the Gospel, the Apostle St. Jude spoke experimentally of those whom he then saw, or prophetically of those whom we should see, that they go in the way of Cain, and run after the error of Balaam, and perish in the gainsaying of Corah. If but governors were as cruel as Pharaoh, some would rejoice at it, and upbraid us with every disadvantage we might be under from hard usage; as a sign that the Church is a thing of no consequence, arid that all those who belong to it are the vassals of the state. If the Church were as pure as Abel, the envy and jealousy of Cain would hate its offerings and sacrifices. If its order and conomy were as perfect as in that Church which covered the face of the earth in its passage to Canaan, the self-interested spirit of the mercenary Balaam would endeavour to bring a curse upon it, and blast its greatness. If its governors were as manifestly supported in their commission, as Moses and Aaron, the spiritual pride of Corah would set up the holiness of the congregation against its priesthood, and the power of the people against the civil magistrate, who gives it protection. But none of these things ought to stagger or surprize a reader of the scripture: they are all to be expected: these things were our examples: and the Church would not be the Church of God, if there were none to rise up against it.
With these considerations in his mind, and not without them, a reader will be prepared to examine what I have written upon the Church. If any of our dissenting brethren should look into this little piece, and find the matter so represented as to engage their attention; my prayer shall be with them, that God may give them the grace to cast out the bitter leaven of a party-spirit j to lay aside all temporal motives and Interests, and consider the Church (as I have done) only so far as it is related to the other world. To any particular or national Church, all temporal alliances are but momentary considerations, which pass away with the fashion of this world and the Church may be either with them, or without them, as it was in the first ages: but the Church itself, under the relation it bears to Jesus Christ, abideth for ever.