Thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law. As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing.--Acts xxi, 24 & 25 v.
BELOVED AND RESPECTED BRETHREN,
THE MEMBERS OF THIS CONVENTION:
THE duty of addressing the great legislature of the Church, on the present solemn and important occasion, devolves on one who would willingly avoid its responsibility. But it has been, perhaps, most wisely ordered that your Bishops shall discharge the office in rotation, according to seniority; and therefore it is that I stand before you, to deliver those counsels, which would doubtless come with greater power and influence from other lips than mine. And yet, since it is a duty which can only be committed once to any Bishop, in the ordinary course of nature, I would that it were possible for me to mark its performance by more than a formal compliance, or a fugitive impression. May that gracious God " who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not," bestow the wisdom needed for the task, that I may place before you thoughts worthy of the occasion, in words of truth and soberness.
The topic which I have selected, as most appropriate at this time, is the FORMAL UNITY OF THE CHURCH, IN CONNEXION WITH ITS PARTY STRIFES; and my object is to show, on the authority of Scripture and of reason, that this unity has always stood in the midst of division, and must be expected so to stand, until the end of the present dispensation. The inference will then be set forth so as to furnish an argument for hope, and a special incentive to charity.
With this view, I ask your attention to the 21st chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, where we find a deeply interesting narrative of St. Paul's last visit to Jerusalem, from which I have taken the language of my text. And in order that the ground-work of my discourse may be the better understood, I shall place the whole passage before you.
"Paul went in with us unto James," saith the sacred historian, "and all the elders were present. And when he had saluted them, he declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands there are of Jews which believe, and they are all zealous of the law; and they are informed of thee that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. What is it, therefore? The multitude must needs come together, for they will hear that thou art come. Do therefore this that we say to thee: we have four men which have a vow on them. Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed of thee, are nothing; but that THOU THYSELF ALSO WALKEST ORDERLY, AND KEEPEST THE LAW. As TOUCHING THE GENTILES WHICH BELIEVE, WE HAVE WRITTEN AND CONCLUDED THAT THEY OBSERVE NO SUCH THING, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication. Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them, entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them."
Now here we have a positive proof that the inspired Apostles, more than twenty-five years after the commencement of St. Paul's labors among the Gentiles, (according to the ordinary system of chronology,) recognized and directly sanctioned two distinct parties in the one visible Church of Christ, namely, the Jewish converts, who were zealous observers of the Mosaic ceremonial law, and the Gentile converts, who were free from that yoke of obligation. You all remember, doubtless, the strife which had arisen upon the subject, in the early part of St. Paul's ministry, in consequence of which, he and Barnabas were induced to call together the Apostles and elders into a regular council at Jerusalem, a long while before. You remember, that in that council, St. Peter, after there had been "much disputing," advised that the Gentile believers should not be troubled by the imposition of the ceremonial law, expressing his opinion in very strong language, "Why tempt ye God to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" You remember, also, that St. James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, who presided on the occasion, approved the advice of his colleague, and recommended the adoption of a decree which fully justified the previous course of the Apostles, Paul and Barnabas. And this decree was unanimously passed, and addressed to the Gentiles in the solemn words: "It seemeth good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication; from which, if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well."--(Acts 15-28.) But it is manifest that this license was not intended for the Jews, because many years after this important decision, we see these same Apostles keeping up this very ceremonial law amongst the Jewish converts at Jerusalem, and encouraging them to be "zealous of the law," and advising St. Paul to show that he also "walked orderly and kept the law," while at the same time, they carefully recognize their decree in favor of the Gentiles, saying, "As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing."
Here, then, we have two parties in the one visible Church, distinctly sanctioned by Apostolic authority, yea, by the authority of the Holy Ghost, for in that sacred name they issued the decree of their Council at Jerusalem. And the point of difference was one of great practical importance, connected on both sides with the express word of God, and extending itself into many ramifications. The Jewish Christian circumcised his child, observed the rule of prohibited meats, assumed the vows, and brought the offerings laid down in the Levitical law, over and above the sacraments and ordinances of the Gospel. All this was originally of divine institution, and he had received no assurance that it had been repealed or done away. On the other hand, the Gentile Christian had the express declaration from the Apostles, on the authority of the Holy Ghost, that his freedom from the ceremonial law was not to be invaded. And to this St. Paul had added his inspired exhortation, "Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." (Gal. 5, 1.) But notwithstanding this manifest division of two great parties in the Church, both were alike instructed, that neither the obligation on the one side, nor the freedom on the other, should interfere with the brotherly love which ought to characterize the whole family of the divine Redeemer. Both were taught, that in the sight of God, there was no difference between Jew and Gentile. Salvation was of faith and not of works, lest any man should boast. "For in Jesus Christ," saith St. Paul, addressing the Gentiles, " neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love." (Gal. 5, 6.) And St. Peter, addressing the Apostolic Council, who were all Jews, sets forth the same great principle: "God who knoweth the hearts," saith he, "bare witness to the Gentiles, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us, and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, we shall be saved even as they." And hence we find such multiplied declarations that the character of the true disciple was to be estimated, not so much by outward ordinances, as by the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, gentleness, meekness, temperance. Hence St. Paul was ready to adopt either system, according to circumstances, living as a Jew amongst the Jews, as a Gentile among the Gentiles. Hence he was willing to accommodate his personal habits to the preferences even of his weaker brethren, saying, "If meat make my weak brother to offend, I will eat no meat while the world standeth." Hence he lays down the rule of charitable allowance in all non-essential things. "Let not him that eateth," saith he, "despise him that eateth not: and let not him which eateth not, judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. Let us not, therefore, judge one another any more, but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother's way.--For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. For he that in these things serveth Christ, is acceptable to God, and approved of men. Let us, therefore, follow after the things which make for peace, and things whereby one may edify another." (Rom. 14, passim.)
This remarkable fact, viz., that the Apostles authorized two systems of formal administration within the one visible Church, has given not a little trouble to the ancient commentators upon Scripture. But the general opinion has been that those inspired men acted merely on the policy of accommodation to the prejudices of the Jews, and designed only, in the language of Jerome, "to bury the Synagogue with honour." How far the records of Scripture can be fairly made to support this hypothesis, I shall not now inquire. It was but a few years after the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul, when the question ceased to have any practical importance, because Jerusalem was destroyed, her Church was scattered, and therefore no congregation or bishop of the race of Abraham can be found, subsequent to that period, in the ancient annals of Church history. True, the See of Jerusalem appears long afterwards amongst the primitive dioceses, but every one conversant with the subject knows that it then consisted of Gentile Christians, and of course it retained no traces of the peculiar character so strongly marked in the apostolic day, when the many thousands of believers were all Israelites, and all zealous of the law. For my own part, I confess that I consider it by no means a settled question, on Scriptural ground, whether the narrative which I have quoted from the Book of the Acts should be received as a precedent for converted Israelites in our age, or be treated as a mere example of indulgent expediency. But for the purposes of my present argument, it makes not the slightest difference in which way it is explained. On either hypothesis, the practical inference will be precisely the same.
The fact, therefore, being thus fully proved, I shall assume to be unquestionable, that these inspired men did expressly sanction, in the one apostolic Church, the two parties of the Jew and the Gentile, allowing to the one the practice of the ceremonial law, and allowing to the other a perfect freedom from almost all its obligations; while both were equally taught that the saving power of true religion depended neither on circumcision nor on uncircumcision, but on the grace of God through a living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, "who died for their sins, and was raised again for their justification." And hence I consider myself entitled to claim the benefit of this apostolic example for that very characteristic of our own beloved Church, which many men have most unjustly condemned; namely, the designed comprehension of two parties, differing in their tastes and feelings almost as widely as the ancient Jew and Gentile; both existing at the time of the English Reformation; both requiring a certain amount of wise indulgence, and both deserving a reasonable measure of respect from those noble martyrs, who inherited the spirit as well as the system of the blessed Apostles, and were ready, like them, to be "all things to all men," so far as they could be so without injury to the pure faith of the Gospel.
I need hardly remind you, brethren, that those two parties were, on the one side, those who were partial to the tastes and habits derived from Romanism, and, on the other side, the continental reformers of the Zuinglian and Calvinistic schools, who had preceded the English Bishops in the great effort to restore the Church of Christ to its primitive purity. The first, like the Pharisees amongst the Jews, had long been accustomed to make void the law of God by their traditions. But while the English Reformers swept all such traditions away, and allowed no place to any error in doctrine, and firmly insisted on the Scriptural standard of faith, according to the Apostolic pattern, it was surely wise and right to indulge the reverence for antiquity and the respect for the primitive Church, which sought to interpret Scripture through the aid of ancient practice, and desired to differ from the early Christians in nothing which could be lawfully retained. The form of episcopal government; the powers of the priesthood; the use of ministerial garments; the liturgical modes of praise and prayer; the consecration of places as well as persons for the worship of God; the ordinance of confirmation; the high and solemn efficacy of the sacraments; the temper of subordination to the just powers of the hierarchy as the constituted governors of Christ's visible kingdom upon earth; the love of external order and beauty in the sanctuary and all its services; the days set apart in honor of the eminent saints and the great events of the Saviour's history,--all this, indeed, might be found in the Church of Rome, notwithstanding her fearful corruptions. But Rome had derived it from the primitive Church, as the primitive Church had derived it, either in principle or in detail, from the Apostles and the ancient chosen people. And why should it now be abolished? What new revelation had superseded those parts of the Scriptural system? What power had the abominations of Popery to induce the abandonment of that which was once sacred and pure? To this extent, then--no farther--the Romanising party were accommodated; and surely neither wisdom, nor piety, nor truth, had any reason to complain.
On the other hand, there was every desire to tolerate, and as far as possible to content that class, which had derived from Calvin and Zuinglius a prejudice against Romanism so blind and undistinguishing, that every thing retained by Rome, beyond the Bible and the Creed, was apt to be regarded with a kind of pious horror as a part of Antichrist. For the kindliest affection was felt for those Reformers, and they were willingly acknowledged to be men of admirable zeal, learning and ability, engaged in the same great work of purifying the Church; agreeing, in the main, with their English fellow-laborers upon all the essential elements of saving faith, and contending, at the same hazard of liberty and life, against the same stupendous power of spiritual fraud and despotism. Hence the care employed to set forth the principles of the Church in the most acceptable terms, on all those points which might bring the parties into collision. Thus, while Episcopacy was secured by the Ordinal, which placed it on the true ground of Apostolic authority, the Articles were framed so as to avoid any censure upon the ministry of the foreign Churches which had no Bishops. So the right of declaring absolution was preserved to the priesthood, but its form was accommodated to the evangelical doctrine which confines the act of forgiveness to the power of God. The use of ministerial garments was continued in the linen surplice which succeeded the ancient Jewish ephod, but all the pomp of the Romish vestments was abolished, and the preacher was left free to wear the black dress which was common to all the reformed. The liturgical mode of service was prescribed; but besides its thorough purification from every trace of superstitious error, it was set forth in English, and put into the evangelic form of Common Prayer, instead of the Romish scheme of priestly intercession. The consecration of places as well as persons was retained; but this also was cleansed from superstitious abuses, and the laity were brought in to guard its administration. The rite of confirmation was continued, but it was reduced to its Scriptural form of the laying on of hands, the preface to it was drawn up in accordance with the theory of Calvin, and it was displaced from its Romish position as one of the sacraments. Baptism and the Holy Eucharist were invested with their primitive and solemn signification, but the Articles confined the efficacy of the latter to those alone who rightly received it, while all the figments of Roman error were utterly taken away. The authority of the Church was asserted, but it was limited to its true spiritual functions; and the temporal sword, so long usurped by the Roman Pontiff, was committed to the earthly government where it rightly belonged. The altars were suffered to remain in the Cathedrals, but the rubrics avoided the use of the word, and spake only of the Lord's table. The order of morning and evening prayer, with a calendar of lessons, was arranged for every day throughout the year, but only one Church in each diocese* was obliged to use the whole, and the rest were required to observe but little more than the Sunday services. The ancient festivals and fasts were retained, but the saints were reduced to the list of Scripture, all invocation of them was utterly condemned, and it was discretionary with each parish whether any of those holy-days should be actually observed, or passed by with indifference. Add to all this the large introduction of the Bible into the liturgy, the article which carefully limits the doctrines of saving faith to the Holy Scriptures alone, and the establishment of the Canon excluding the Apocrypha, while, nevertheless, certain chapters from the Apocrypha were allowed to remain in the Calendar, to be read as a Homily might be, "for example of life and instruction of manners," and the result will be sufficiently obvious, that our wise reformers took the Apostles for their guide, and prepared the truly primitive system of the Church with the express design of comprehending two parties, whose general habits of mind and religious sympathies were widely different. The same indulgent spirit was displayed in the language of the 17th Article, where the mysterious subject of Predestination was so handled, that neither the Calvinist of that age, nor the Arminian of a later period, could find any serious difficulty in his way.
But when we turn from these various matters of controversy to the doctrines of the FAITH, we see that those admirable men allowed of no accommodation. These fundamental truths were set forth in the strongest light, incapable of evasion, and guarded from all misinterpretation with the utmost skill which human language could supply. The ever blessed Trinity, three Persons, but One God; the incarnation, atoning sacrifice, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ; the offices of the Holy Spirit; the cardinal principle of Justification by faith; the fallen and corrupt state of man, his entire dependence on the preventing and co-operating grace of God, through Christ, for his recovery,--in a word, all that is truly essential to the soul is so clearly expressed and so strongly secured, that it is impossible to imagine the least desire to indulge the advocates of error. Like the inspired Apostles who sought to comprehend, in one Church, the jarring parties of Jew and Gentile, and yet would suffer neither Jew nor Gentile to tamper with the saving Gospel of Christ, even so their faithful successors, the reformers and martyrs of the Church, desired to comprehend all the discordant minds around them, in reference to inferior things, while they allowed but one harmonious voice in the precious creed of their salvation.
But now let us look at the inevitable result of this apostolic policy. Parties were expressly allowed, as I have shown, by the very act of the first great Council at Jerusalem. Parties were allowed in like manner by the wisdom of our mother Church. And of course it follows, that parties must continue, nay, they ought to continue, while men are what they are; and therefore the tolerance of party maybe justly asserted as a principle of our ecclesiastical organization. I am perfectly aware that this inference is quite opposed to the ordinary opinion, that the formal unity of faith ought to carry along with it as true an unity in every question connected with religion; and therefore I must trespass a little longer on your attention, while I endeavor to show that reason accords with Scripture in justifying the proposition.
In the first place, then, the Church ought to allow a large variety of opinion on all subjects where it can be safely tolerated, because it is a necessity of human nature. The formal unity of faith, worship and discipline, must indeed be secured to a certain extent, since otherwise no ecclesiastical organization could long hold together. But within this formal unity some liberty of opinion must be permitted, nor is it possible to prevent it without resigning all exercise of thought. Hence there never was a system of religion, or a sect of philosophers, in which unity of sentiment in all things could be maintained. The ancient Church of Israel was perfectly provided with a divine rule of unity, yet we all know how sorely it was divided between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Church of the Apostles had the direct inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and yet we know the constant trouble produced by the variant notions of the Jew and the Gentile. The Church of Rome herself has never been free from parties, notwithstanding the pains she takes to inculcate the virtue of an implicit faith, and the extent to which she carries the maxim, amongst the laity at least, that "ignorance is the mother of devotion."
In the second place, parties ought to be tolerated in the Church of God, because they afford the best security for truth in our present state of imperfection. Their controversies stimulate inquiry, and force the indolence of men to give a reason for their decisions. They watch each other's tendencies, and correct them before they have gone too far. Their contests are sometimes, indeed, somewhat loud and angry, and a peaceable mind may be pardoned for longing to flee away, and be at rest. But even then, they may be likened to the storms which disturb the natural atmosphere. For they scatter the rising miasma of spiritual pestilence, give new tone and vigor to the heart of zeal, and usher in the morning of a purer and a brighter day.
In the third place, parties in the Church are indispensable to its completeness. For each is usually constituted upon some element of truth, which takes that special shape only because it lacks some other element more fully possessed by its antagonist. Thus the Jewish party in the apostolic day supplied the element of reverence for antiquity, and form and order, which the Gentile party disregarded. And these again supplied a higher element of spiritual life and energy. If the Church had consisted of none but converted Jews, she would have been in danger of sinking after awhile into a religion of ceremonial ordinances. If she had contained nothing but converted Gentiles, she would have lacked the principles of conservatism, and become a prey to discord and confusion. But having both, the result was a happy combination of spirit and of form, which fitted her not only for the conquest over idolatry, but for her regular perpetuity to the end of time.
And in the last place, parties in the Church are wonderfully adapted to suit our various characters, and employ even our infirmities more beneficially for the general good. For mankind differ widely in their temperament, habits of mind, and intellectual capacity, even where their advantages of education are nearly the same. Some are born to be leaders, and the impulse of governing, with such as these, is an instinct of nature. To an individual of this class, the existence of parties is a positive blessing, because it calls forth his energies, and gives him a sphere of appropriate and perhaps highly useful operation; whereas, if there were no parties, he would either seek to govern the whole Church, which would be impossible, or he would lose the vigor of his powers for lack of a proper field of exercise. Others again, and a far larger number, are born to be governed, because they have no real capacity of thinking, and are obliged, perforce, to follow the dictates of some mind stronger than their own. And to these, the existence of parties is of serious importance, for now they can fall in with the notions of a respectable body, and be saved the reproach of submitting to a single leader; and thus, while they are entirely excused from the effort of deciding for themselves, they can fancy that they do so, which is certainly, to say the least, a great consolation. There is yet a third species of character, which I can hardly call a class, because it occurs so rarely. Now and then we find an individual, whose intellectual constitution compels him to examine every question before he undertakes to judge, merely for his own satisfaction. Too independent to follow, and yet without either inclination or talent to lead, he looks on parties with kind impartiality, and takes it as a matter of course that they should look on him as an anomaly,--uncertain, erratic and unaccountable. Nevertheless, even to such an one, parties in the Church are not useless, because they make it easier for him to see the good and the true on either side, and afford him, from time to time, some salutary, though humiliating lessons, on the weakness of human nature.
That parties in the Church, however, are attended by evil and by danger, is a melancholy truth, which no man of sense and experience can deny. But these are not so much the result of party, considered strictly in itself, as of that PARTY-SPIRIT, which leads the majority of mere partizans to attach an exaggerated importance to their own peculiar views, and to indulge a bitter and rancorous hostility towards all who oppose them. It is easy to conceive, for example, that the Apostle Paul could look with equal love on every sincere Christian, whether Jew or Gentile, remembering the true ground of the distinction. While the mass of ordinary believers, looking only at the practical differences between them, and forgetting the original ground of reason, which led the Church to tolerate them both, would often be inclined to reproach each other; the Gentile ridiculing the Jew, because he made so much of his burdensome and needless ordinances; and the Jew accusing the Gentile, because he had so little reverence for the ancient Church of God. And thus we may readily perceive that Party is one thing, and Party-spirit is another. Unhappily, the infirmities of our nature do not often permit us to separate them as we ought; and hence arises the intemperate struggle which, from time to time, has seemed to threaten the very walls of the sanctuary, and filled thousands of anxious hearts with fears and apprehensions for the unity of Zion.
But here, beloved brethren, lies the argument of hope,--yea, of firm faith and confidence,--that even the violence of party-spirit shall never be allowed to destroy the substantial unity of the Church of God, for it is "built on the foundation of the Prophets and the Apostles, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone." The treasure of the everlasting Gospel is indeed committed to an earthen vessel, but it is no light thing that the vessel itself be formed by the wisdom of heaven, since otherwise it will surely be broken, sooner or later, by the assaults of Satan and the strifes of men. It would be a foolish error to confound the ark of Noah with the precious freight of the patriarch and his family, which were destined to regenerate the world. But yet, if that ark had not been constructed in the form laid down by the Almighty Architect, who can believe that it would have withstood the tempests of the deluge, and deposited its burden on the mountain of Ararat, in safety and in peace? Even so, the Church, framed upon the model which the Spirit of God dictated to the blessed Apostles, has nothing to fear for her substantial unity. The age we live in is an age of strife and discord, and within our own brief experience, we have seen every Protestant denomination in our land, rent assunder by party spirit. We, too, have had our share, and many a false prophet has predicted that the Church must be divided, and her unity be destroyed. And yet we know that all our dangers have only been a new and blessed testimony to the strength of that Ark of God, against which the winds and waves of passion and of controversy have beat in vain. A few deluded and misguided men have, indeed, abandoned it. In the words of the Apostle John: "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, no doubt they would have continued with us." But they were only as the falling of some grains of sand from the ocean-rock, leaving the mighty mass unshaken and unmoved. At no time has the Church displayed more conscious vigor. At no time has her progress been more steadfast and sure. For the promise is of Christ, her Almighty Head, that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against her. And though the storm may rage and the billows roar around her, yet He will arise in his majesty, and say to the furious tempest, "Peace, be still."
I have only to add, in conclusion, that in order to appreciate aright the advantages of parties, and avoid the dangers incident to party-spirit, we must pray for an enlarged and liberal heart, and specially for the genuine grace of Christian Charity. Errors of judgment, errors of temper, errors of insincerity, we must expect to find, for who is perfect? But Charity can make allowance for them, remembering the Saviour's rule, "With what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." Not that we are justified in tolerating error, since it is our express duty to be valiant for the truth. Nor yet that we should act in any case as if we countenanced transgression, since we are charged to rebuke and reprove with all authority, to withdraw from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not to be partakers of other men's sins. But with all this, Charity can make it possible to love the offender, even when we rebuke the offence. Charity will even be ingenious in separating the act from the motive, and will never impute an evil intention without absolute necessity. Charity can always bear in mind that, notwithstanding all their attendant evils, parties in the Church are like parties in the State --the conservators of her liberties, and the guardians of her constitution. And therefore, Charity can bear contradiction with kindness, and folly with patience; and even when party-spirit grows wild and rampant, and scatters around it the firebrands of calumny and malice, Charity can look to the Cross of Christ, and adopt the words of His dying supplication: "Father forgive them, they know not what they do."
Thus regarded, beloved and respected brethren, our Convention will have nothing to fear from party. There can be no doubt that the Church has had parties from the beginning, and there should be no doubt that she will have parties until the end. But this, in our present imperfect state, is a benefit rather than an evil, if we only accept it as a part of the divine dispensation, and discuss our differences in charity and love. And then, although, like the Council of the Apostles in Jerusalem, we may have "much disputing," yet will it all be overruled by the wisdom from above, in answer to the prayer of faith. Our decisions will go forth, like theirs, in the name of the bishops, presbyters and brethren, to edify the Church; and God, even our own God, will give us His blessing.
And now, to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, One God, be ascribed all might, majesty, dominion, glory and praise, world without end. Amen.