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The religious liberty of Christian Churches is external and internal; that which they claim of the civil power, and that which they allow to their own members. The first consists in the absence of all interference by the magistrate; in being subject to neither penalties nor privations, on account of faith or worship: the latter, in the freedom of the individuals composing such churches, to form and avow their own opinions of what Christ taught, without being subject to censure, excommunication, or loss of any of the advantages of Christian society and fellowship. Both are of great importance. The latter, even by sincere and eloquent advocates of the former, has been too often misunderstood, overlooked, or violated. They are alike emanations from the same principle, the right of private judgment; a right which, as it ought not to be controlled by the civil magistrate, so neither should it be yielded by the Christian to the dictate of a priest, or council, or to the decision of the majority of a church: it is personal and inalienable. If the majority of this congregation were to say to any one of its members, "Unless you believe such a doctrine, you shall not approach with us to th Lord's table, you shall not worship with us, we proclaim you to be no Christian," they would be violaters of Christian liberty, and though not in the same degree, yet would be partakers of the spirit that dictated the damnatory clauses of the
Athanasian Creed, that brandished over Europe the thunders of the Vatican, or that kindled the fires of Smithfield. It may be said, that when Dissenting Churches exclude a heretic from their communion, they deprive him of no civil rights. True: his civil rights are not at their disposal: they deprive him of all that is in their power, the comforts of Christian society. But has not every society a right to make its own laws? No, not Christian churches: their laws are made for them by their Master; and they cannot legislate without renouncing, virtually, the Christian character. Personal liberty of thought and opinion is essential to a Christian Church.
As many sincere friends of religious liberty do not take this view of the subject, it is expedient to advance some considerations in its proof.
It is very clearly contrasted with the more prevalent notion, by the Rev. H. Taylor, (Ben Mordecai,) in his reply to Gibbon, in a work entitled "Thoughts on the Grand Apostacy." "Mr. G., speaking of excommunication, says,
It is the undoubted right of every society to exclude from its communion and benefits, such among its members as reject or violate those regulations which have been established by general consent.' Reply. This may be true of civil societies, but gives no right to excommunicate or banish from Christian communion; because the laws which give a right to such
communion, are not regulations established by general consent, but laws established by Christ, the author and finisher of our faith. When the pure and humble religion first gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, the apostles claimed no dominion over the faith of Christians. The Christians of different churches were no otherwise connected with one another, than as they were all connected with Christ their head; all of them were to look up to him, and not only every church was thus independent of any other in matters of faith, but so was every individual, and consequently no one had any power over another in such matters; and they have no more power now than they had at first: I speak of matters of faith, and the right of communion, and the affairs of another world."
A church means neither more nor less than an assembly, which may be either orderly or tumultuous, stated or accidental. In the New Testament it commonly means an assembly of the disciples of Christ, for the purposes of worship and mutual edification, from which none were excluded but those whose immoral conduct disgraced their profession.
Numerous conversions are recorded. The convert, on professing his belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, became immediately entitled to all the enjoyment and advantage arising from attendance on Christian worship, the Lord's
Supper, and the society, instruction and friendship of Christians. This profession was, therefore, the only term of communion. No precept, no fact, can be alleged, to prove that more than this was required.
It is abundantly demonstrated in Locke's "Reasonableness of Christianity," that this profession alone constituted a Christian. Every Christian was a member, as his abode might change, of every Christian Church. There was no such thing as admission into a particular church, distinct from admission into the general body of believers. The modern practice of refusing such admission, or of defining Christianity, or of making more than being a Christian necessary for Christian fellowship, is altogether without scriptural warrant.
Converts were generally baptized, but not in consequence of the requirement of churches. It was an individual concern, with which they had nothing to do. "We affirm," says Robinson, "that baptism is not a church ordinance, that it is not naturally, necessarily, and actually connected with church fellowship, and consequently that the doctrine of initiating into the Christian Church by baptism, is a confused association of ideas, derived from masters whose disciples it is no honour to be.- Into what church did the disciples of John enter by baptism? Was Jesus Christ admitted a member of a Christian Church
by baptism? Or into what church did the eunuch enter, when Philip alone baptized him in the desert? It is remarkable, that this positive law of baptism is not enforced by any penalties, and herein it differs from all other positive institutes. By what right, then, do we affix to the breach of it such a severe penalty as exclusion from church fellowship?" (Works, III. 170-172.) I allude more particularly to this subject, because the Baptists, who hold strict communion, are the only denomination of Christians who can plead for their restriction any thing like scriptural authority.
These converts might be in gross ignorance, or error, on many subjects: the apostles were, when first associated with their Master. But when once a belief in Jesus, as the Messiah, was produced, the rest was left for further instruction; and though a considerable diversity of opinions might remain, yet that diversity was not deemed inconsistent with their claim to the Christian character, and all its privileges.
To this argument from facts, no objection can be raised from directions for pursuing a different course in the more matured state of Christian society. No such directions can be produced. The permanent law of religious association is, "Receive ye one another, as Christ also received us, to the glory of God." (Romans xv. 7.) "Him