The liberties of the Brethren, or of the Church consisting of them, are many and great.
1. The Church of Brethren hath the power, priviledges and liberty to choose their officers. In the choyce of an Apostle into the place of Judas, the people went as far as humane vote and suffrage could go. Out of 120 persons (Acts 1.15.) they chose out, and presented two; out of which two (because an Apostle was to be designed immediately by God) God by lot chose one; And yet this one so chosen of God sunkatepsephi'sthe communibus omnium suffragiis inter duodecim Apostolos allectus est v.26. was counted amongst the Apostles by the common suffrages of them all. And this place Cyprian presseth amongst others, to confirm the power, (that is exousi'an or priviledge, or liberty) of the people in choosing or refusing their Ministers. Plebs Christiana (saith he) vel maximé, potestatem habet, vel dignos sacerdotes eligendi, eel indignos recusandi, Epistol.4. lib.1.
The like, or greater liberty is generally approved by the best of our Divines (studious of Reformation) from Acts 14.23. They ordained them Elders, chosen by lifting up of hands.
The same power is cleerly expressed in the choyce of Deacons, Acts 126.96.36.199. The Apostles did not choose the Deacons, but called the multitude together and said unto them, Brethren, looke you out seven men amongst you whom we may appoint over this businesse: And the saying pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, &c.
2. It is a priviledge or a liberty the Church hath received, to send forth one or more of their Elders, as the publike service of Christ, and of the Church may require. Thus Epæphroditus was a Messenger or Apostle of the Church of Philippi unto Paul. Phil.2.25.
3. The Brethren or the Church have power and liberty of propounding any just exception against such as offer themselves to be admitted unto their communion, or unto the seales of it: Hence Saul, when hee offered himself to the communion of the Church at Jerusalem, was not at first admitted thereto, upon an exception taken against him by the Disciples till that exception was removed, Acts 9.26.27. And Peter did not admit the family of Cornelius to Baptisme, till he had inquired of the Brethren, if any of them had any exception against it. Acts 10.47.
4. As the Brethren have a power of order, and the priviledge to expostulate with their Brethren, to case of private scandalls, according to the rule, Mat.18.15.16. so in case of publike scandall, the whole Church of Brethren have power and priviledge to joyn with the Elders, in inquiring, hearing, judging of publike scandals; so as to binde notoribus offenders and impenitents under censure, and to forgive the repentant: For when Christ commandeth a brother, in case that offence cannot be healed privately, then to tell the Church, Mat.18.17; it necessarily implyeth that the Church must heare him, and inquire into the offence complained of, and judge of the offence as they find it upon inquiry. When the Brethren that were of the circumcision expostulated with Peter about his communion with Cornelius, and his uncircumcised family, Peter did not reject them; and their complaint against him, as transgressing the bounds of their just power and priviledge, but readily addressed himself to give satisfaction to them all, Acts 11.2. to 18. The Brethren of the Church of Corinth being gathered together with their Elders, in the name of the Lord Jesus, and with his power, did deliver the incestuous person to Satan, 1 Cor.5.4.5. And Paul reproveth them all, Brethren as well as Elders, that they had no sooner put him away from amongst them, v.2. and expressly he alloweth to them all power to judge them that are within, v.22. Yea, and from thence argueth, in all the Saints, even in the meanest of the Saints, an ability to judge between brethren, in the things of this life, as those that have received such a spirit of discerning from Christ, by which they shall one day judge the world, even Angels, so in the next Chapter, the 6. of that 1 Cor.188.8.131.52.5. And the same Brethren of the same Church, as well as the Elders, he intreated to forgive the same incestuous Corinthian, upon his repentance.2 Cor.2.7.8.
If it be said, to judge is an act of rule; and to be Rulers of the Church, is not given to all the Brethren, but to the Elders only; Answ. All judgement is not an act of authority or rule; for there is a judgement of discretion, by way of priviledge, as well as of authority by way of sentence. That of discretion is common to all the Brethren, as well as that of authority belongeth to the Presbytery of that Church. In England the Jury by their verdict, as well as the Judge by his sentence, do both of them judge the same malefactor; yet in the Jury their verdict is but an act of their popular liberty. In the Judge it is an act of his Judiciall authority.
If it be demanded, What difference is there between these two?
The answer is ready, Great is the difference: for though the Jury have given up their judgement and verdict, yet the malefactor is not thereupon legally condemned, much lesse executed, but upon the sentence of the Judge. In like sort here, though the Brethren of the Church do with one accord give up their vote and judgement for the censure of an offender, yet he is not thereby censured, till upon the sentence of the Presbytery.
If it be said again; Yea, but it is an act of authority to binde and loose, and the power to bind and loose, Christ gave to the whole Church, Mat.18.18.
Answ. The whole Church may be said to bind and loose, in that the Brethren consent, and concurre with the Elders, both before the Censure in discerning it to be just and equall, and in declaring their discernment, by lifting up of their hands, or by silence, and after the censure, in rejecting the offender censured from their wonted Communion. And yet their discerning or approving of the justice of the censure before-hand, is not a preventing of the Elders in their work. For the Elders before that have not onely privately examined the offender and his offence, and the proofes thereof, to prepare the matter and ripen it for the Churches cognizance: but doe also publickly revise the heads of all the materiall passages thereof before the Church; and doe withall declare to the Church the counsell and will of God therein, that they may rightly discerne and approve what censure the Lord requireth to be administered in such a case. So that the peoples discerning and approving the justice of the censure before it be administered, ariseth from the Elders former instruction and direction of them therein: Whereunto the people give consent, in obedience to the will and rule of Christ. Hence is that speech of the Apostle: Wee have in readinesse to revenge all disobedience, when your OBEDIENCE IS FULFILLED.2 Cor.10, 6. The Apostles revenge of disobedience by way of reproofe in preaching, doth not follow the peoples obedience, but proceedeth whether the people obey it or no. It was therefore their revenge of disobedience by way of censure in discipline, which they had in readinesse, when the obedience of the Church is fulfilled in discerning and approving the Equitie of the Censure, which the Apostles or Elders have declared to them from the Word.
This power or priviledge of the Church in dealing in this sort with a scandalous offender, may not be limited only to a private brother offending, but may reach also to an offensive Elder. For (as hath been touched already) it is plaine that the Brethren of the Circumcision, supposing Peter to have given an offence in eating with men uncircumcised, they openly expostulated with him about his offence, and he stood not with them upon termes of his Apostleship, much lesse of his Eldership, but willingly submitted himselfe to give satisfaction to them all. Acts, 11, 2 to 18. And Paul writeth to the Church of Colosse, to deale with Archippus, warning him to see to the fulfilling or his Ministry. Col.4, 17. And very pregnant is his direction to the Galatians, for their proceeding to the utmost with their corrupt and scandalous false Teachers. I would (saith he) they were even cut off that trouble you; And that upon this very ground of their libertie, Gal.5.12, 13, as hath been opened above in Chap.2.
But whether the Church hath power or libertie for proceeding to the utmost censure of their whole Presbytery, is a Question of more difficultie.
For, 1. It cannot well be conceived that the whole Presbytery should be proceeded against, but that by reason of their strong influence into the hearts of many of the Brethren, a strong partie of the Brethren will be ready to side with them: and in case of finding dissension and opposition, the Church ought not to proceed without consulting with the Synod. As when there arose dissension in the Church at Antioch and SIDING, (or as the word is sta'sis) they sent up to the Apostles and Elders at Jerusalem, who in way of Synod determined the businesse, Acts 15.2 to 23. A precedent and patterne of due Church proceedings in case of dissension, when some take with one side, some with another. But of that more hereafter.
1. Excommunication is one of the highest acts of Rule in the Church, and therefore cannot be performed but by some Rulers. Now where all the Elders are culpable, there be no Rulers left in that Church to censure them. As therefore the Presbytery cannot excommunicate the whole Church (though Apostate) for they must tell the Church, and joyne with the Church in that Censure: So neither can the Church excommunicate the whole Presbytery, because they have not received from Christ an office of rule, without their Officers.
If it be said the twentie-foure Elders (who represent the private members of the Church, as the foure living creatures doe the foure Officers) had all of them Crowns upon their heads, and sate upon thrones (Rev.4.4,) which are signes of regall authoritie; The answer is, The crowns and thrones argue them to be Kings, no more then their white rayments argue them to be Priests ver.4, but neither Priests nor Kings by office, but by libertie to performe like spirituall duties by grace, which the other doe by grace and office: As Priests they offer up spirituall sacrifices; and as Kings they rule their lusts, passions, themselves, and their families, yea, the world and Church also after a sort; the world, by improving it to spirituall advantage: and the Church, by appointing their own Officers, and likewise in censuring their offendcers, not onely by their officers (which is as much as Kings are wont to doe) but also by their own royall assent, which Kings are not wont to doe, but onely in the execution of Nobles.
But neverthelesse, though the Church want authoritie to excommunicate their Presbytery, yet they want not libertie to withdraw from them: For so Paul instructeth and beseecheth the Church of Rome (whom the holy Ghost foresaw would most stand in need of this counsell) to make use of this libertie: 1 beseech you (saith he) mark such as cause divisions and offences, contrary to the DOCTRINE you have received kai' ekkli'nate ap' auton WITHDRAW from them.
So then by the agitation of this objection, there appeare two liberties of the Church more to be added to the former.
One is this (which is the fifth libertie in members) the Church hath libertie in case of dissension amongst themselves to resort to a Synod. Acts 15.1, 2. Where also it appeareth the Brethren enjoyed this libertie, to dispute their doubts till they were satisfied, ver.7, 12, to joyne with the Apostles and Elders in the definitive sentence and in the promulgation of the same, ver.22, 23.
The sixth Libertie of the Church is, To withdraw from the communion of those, whom they want authoritie to excommunicate. For as they set up the Presbytery, by professing their subjection to them in the Lord: so they avoyd them by professed withdrawing their subjection from them according to God.
A seventh and last libertie of the Church, is, Libertie of communion with other Churches. Communion we say: for it is a great Libertie, that no particular Church, standeth in subjection to another particular Church, no, not to a Cathedrall Church; but that all the Churches enjoy mutuall brotherly communion amongst themselves: which communion is mutually exercised amongst them seven waies, which for brevitie and memory sake, we summe up in seven words.1. By way of Participation.2. Of Recommendation.3. Of Consultation.4. Of Congregation into a Synod.5. Of Contribution.6. Of Admonition.7. Of Propagation or Multiplication of Churches.
1. By way of Participation, the members of one Church, occasionally comming to another Church, where the Lords Supper commeth to be administered, are willingly admitted to partake with them at the Lord's Supper, in case that neither themselves, nor the Churches from whence they came, doe lie under any publique offence. For wee receive the Lord's Supper, not onely as a Seale of our communion with the Lord Jesus, and with his members in our owne Church, but also in all the Churches of the Saints.
2. By way of Recommendation; Letters are sent from one Church to another, recommending to their watchfulnesse and communion, any of their members, who by occasion of businesse, are for a time to reside amongst them. As Paul sent Letters of Recommendation to the Church of Rome in the behalfe of Phoebe, a Deaconesse of the Church at Cenchrea. Rom.16.1, 2. And of these kind of Letters be speaketh to the Church of Corinth also, though not as needfull to himselfe (who was well known to them) yet for others, 2 Cor.3.1.
But if a member of one Church have just occasion to remove himselfe, and his family, to take up his settled habitation in another Church, then the Letters written by the Church in his behalfe doe recommend him to their perpetual watchfulnesse and communion. And if the other church have no just cause to refuse him, they of his own Church do by those letters wholly dismisse him from themselves; whereupon the letters (for distinction sake) are called letters of dismission; which indeed do not differ from the other, but in the durance of the recommendation, the one recommending him for a time, the other for ever.
3. By way of consultation, one Church hath liberty of communicating with another to require their judgement and counsell, touching any persons or cause, wherewith they may be better acquainted then themselves. Thus the Church of Antioch by their messengers consulted with the Church at Jerusalem, touching the necessity of circumcision. Acts 15.3. Although the consultation brought forth a further effect of communion with Churches; to wit, their Congregation into a Synod. Which is the fourth way of communion of Churches. All the Churches have the like liberty of sending their Messengers, to debate and determine in a Synod, such matters as do concern them all. As the Church or Antioch sent messengers to Jerusalem for resolution and satisfaction in a doubt that troubled them; the like liberty by proportion might any other Church have taken; yea, many Churches together; yea, all the Churches in the world, in any case, that might concern them What authority these Synods have received, and may put forth, will come to be considered in the sequele.
A fifth way of communication of Churches is, the liberty of giving and receiving mutuall supplies and succours one from another. The Church of Jerusalem communicated to the Churches of the Gentiles, their spirituall treasures of gifts of Grace; and the Churches of the Gentiles ministred back again to them, liberall oblations of outward beneficence. Rom.15.26.27, Act 11.29.30. When the Church of Antioch aboundeth with more variety of spirituall gifted men, then the state of their own Church stood in need of; they fasted and prayed; as for other ends, so for the inlargement of Christs Kingdome in the improvement of them. And the Holy Ghost opened them a dore for the succour of many countries about them, by the sending forth of some of them, Act 184.108.40.206.
A sixth way of communion of Churches is, by way of mutuall admonition, when a publike offence is found amongst any of them: For as Paul had liberty to admonish Peter before the whole Church at Antioch, when hee saw him walke not with a right foot (and yet Paul had no authority over Peter, but onely both of them had equall mutuall interest one in another) Gal.2.11. to 14. So by the same proportion, one Church hath liberty to admonish another, though they be both of them of equall authority; seeing one Church hath as much interest in another, as one Apostle in another. And if by the royall law of love, one Brother hath liberty to admonish his brother in the same Church, (Mat.18.15.16) then by the same rule of brotherly love and mutual watchfulness, one Church hath power to admonish another, in faithfulnesse to the Lord, and unto them. The Church in the Canticles took care not only for her own members, but for her little sister, which she thought had no breast; yea, and consulteth with other churches what to do for her. Cant.8.8. And would she not then have taken like care, in case their little sister having breasts, her breasts had been distempered and given corrupt matter instead of milke?
A seventh way of communion of churches may be by way or propagation, and multiplication of churches: As when a particular Church of Christ shall grow so full of members, as all of them cannot heare the voyce of their Ministers; then as an Hive full of Bees swarmeth forth, so is the church occasioned to send forth a sufficient number of her members, fit to enter into a church-state, and to carry along Church-work amongst themselves. And for that end they either send forth some one or other of their Elders with them, or direct them where to procure such to come unto them. The like course is wont to be taken, when sundry Christians coming over from one countrey to another; such as are come over, first, and are themselves full of company; direct those that come after them, and assist them in like sort, in the combination of themselves into Church order, according to the rule of the Gospel. Though the Apostles be dead, whose office it was to plant and gather and multiply Churches; yet the work is not dead, but the same power of the keyes is left with the Churches in common, and with each particular church for her part, according to their measure, to propagate and inlarge the kingdome of Christ (as God shall give opportunity) throughout all generations.