William Dell, 1649
The right Church is not the whole multitude of the people whether good or bad, that join together in an outward form or way of worship. And therefore I shall not speak of this church. But the church I shall speak of is the true Church of the New Testament, which, I say, is not any outward or visible society, gathered together into the consent or use of outward things, forms, ceremonies, worship, as the churches of men are; neither is it known by seeing or feeling, or the help of any outward sense, as the society of mercers or drapers, or the like; but it is a spiritual and invisible fellowship, gathered together in the unity of faith, hope, and love, and so into the unity of the Son, and of the Father by the Spirit; wherefore it is wholly hid from carnal eyes, neither hath the world any knowledge or judgment of it.
This true Church is the communion of Saints, which is the communion believers have with one another; not in the things of the world, nor in the things of man, but in the things of God. For as believers have their union in the Son, and in the Father, so in them also they have their communion; and the communion they have with one another in God cannot be in their own things, but in God's things, even in his light, life, righteousness, wisdom, truth, love, power, peace, joy, &c. This is the true communion of Saints, and this communion of Saints is the true Church of God.
Now this true Church of God differs from the churches of men in very many particulars, as follows.
In the churches of men members are admitted through an outward confession of doctrine; but none are admitted into this true Church but through a new birth from God and his Spirit. John 3.: Except a man be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God, which is the right Church of the New Testament.
The churches of men knit themselves together into such societies by some outward covenant or agreement among themselves. But the true Church is knit into their society among themselves by being first knit unto Christ, their head; and as soon as ever they are one with him, they are also one with one another in him; and are not first one among themselves, and then after one with Christ. So that the true Church is a spiritual society knit unto Christ by faith, and knit to one another in Christ by the Spirit and love; and this makes them infinitely more than one than any outward covenant they can engage themselves in, the union wherein God makes us one, passing all the unions wherein we can make ourselves one. And so when some believers perceive the grace that is given unto others, they presently fall into one communion, without any more ado. Wherefore they that are of the Church, the body, cannot deny communion to them that are in true union with Christ, the head, when they do perceive this grace. For this is considerable in this matter, that we are not first one with the Church, and then after one with Christ; but we are first one with Christ, and then one with the Church, and our union with the Church flows from our union with Christ, and not our union with Christ, from our union with the Church. Christ (John 17.) prays, That they all (that is, believers) may be one in us; so that our Union is not first among ourselves, and then with the Son, and with the Father, but it is first with the Son, and with the Father, and then with one another in them. And Christ is the door through which we enter into the Church, and not the Church the door through which we enter into Christ. For men may join themselves to believers in the use of all outward ordinances, and yet never be joined to Christ, nor to that communion which believers have in Christ; but a man cannot be joined to Christ but he is joined to all believers in the world, in the communion they have with Christ and with one another in him; which upon all occasions he enjoys with them wherever he meets with them. So that the true Church is knit up together into one body and society by one faith and Spirit; the churches of men by an outward covenant or agreement only.
The churches of men have human officers, who act in the strength of natural or acquisite parts, who do all by the help of study, learning, and the like. But in the true Church, Christ and the Spirit are the only officers, and men only so far as Christ and the Spirit dwell and manifest themselves in them. And so when they do any thing in the Church, it is not they that do it, but Christ and his Spirit in them.
The churches of men have the government of them laid on men's shoulders. But the true Church hath its government laid only on Christ's shoulders. For if the Church be gathered together in Christ, as the true Church is, Christ is always in the midst of them, and if Christ is ever present with them, his own self, how cometh it to pass that Christ may not reign immediately over them? Wherefore the true Church reckons it sufficient authority that they have Christ and his word for the ground of their practice; and whatever they find in the Word, they presently set upon the practice of it, and never ask leave either of civil or ecclesiastical powers. But the churches of men will do nothing without the authority of the magistrate or assembly, though it never be so clear in the word of God. For in their religion they regard the authority of men more than the authority of God.
The churches of men are still setting themselves one above another, but the assemblies of the true Church are all equal, having Christ and the Spirit equally present with them and in them. And therefore the believers of one congregation cannot say they have power over the believers of another congregation, seeing all congregations have Christ and his Spirit alike among them, and Christ hath not anywhere promised that he will be more with one than another. And so Christ and the Spirit in one congregation do not subject, neither are subjected to Christ and the Spirit in another congregation, as if Christ and the Spirit in several places should be above and under themselves. But Christ in each assembly of the faithful is their head, and this head they dare not leave, and set up a fleshly head to themselves whether it consist of one or many men, seeing Antichrist doth strongly invade Christ's headship in many as in one man, in council, as in a pope.
And thus having declared what the true Church of Christ is, and rectified some ancient and general mistakes touching it, I shall now proceed to make known from the clear and evident word, the true and only bonds of the Church's union, peace, and agreement, as the Apostle hath delivered them to us by the Spirit. Ephes. 4. 4: There is one body and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one Faith, on Baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. Where note, in general, that among all these bonds of the Church's unity, the Apostle makes not so much as any mention of uniformity. But it will appear by the Apostle's doctrine, that no conformity or uniformity are any bonds of the true Church's peace and union, seeing the Church is such a kingdom as is not preserved in its peace by any outward forms and orders, as the kingdoms of the world are, but by inward principles.
In this true Church or one body of Christ, notwithstanding diversity of members and offices, there is still an equality among them all, seeing all alike make up one body. In which regard one member is as necessary to the body as another; and no member can say to another, I contribute more to the making up of the body than thou. The most honourable members cannot say thus to the most mean–not the Apostles themselves to believers among the Gentiles; for we are the body of Christ as they, and they are the body of Christ no more than we. Wherefore no member, for diversity of office, is to lift up himself above another member who is as necessary as itself to the making up the body, and also is every whit as useful in its place.
They that do content themselves in joining to some outward and visible society and corporation of men, though called a church, and think that by being knit to them in ways of outward worship and ordinances, they live in the unity of the Church, when as yet all this while they live out of that one body that is born of the Spirit, which is the only true Church and body of Christ. He that lives out of this spiritual body, though he live in the most excellent society in the world, yet he breaks the unity of the Church, not living in one body with it. And thus many break the Church's unity, that never think on it. Again they break this bond of the Church's unity that live in this one body, but not as members. And such are they who, having got the advantage of the magistrate's power, will needs lift themselves up above their fellow-members, and exercise authoritative, coercive, domineering power over them; whereas the very Apostles themselves were not lords of the Church, but fellow members with the faithful, living in one body and under one head with them, and so did all by love and persuasion, and nothing by force and violence.
They that labour to join men into one body with the Church that are not one spirit with it, do mar the peace of it. For as unity of spirit in the Church is the bond of peace, so diversity of spirit is the breach of peace, and therefore to preserve the peace of the Church, none are to join themselves to this one body that are not of this one spirit. As all believers are called by one calling (which is the inward and effectual voice of God to the soul, by his Spirit through the Gospel), so they are called into one blessed hope of obtaining the kingdom and glory of God. And no one is called to this hope more than another, or hath more interest or share in it than another. Fishes that live in the sea, though some be greater and some less, yet none hath more interest or share in it than another, but all, being alike produced in it, enjoy it alike. The creatures that live on the earth, though some be greater and some less, yet all enjoy the sun and air alike.
Now the government of the Church is twofold. (1) There is that government which God exercises immediately by himself; and (2) that government which he exercises mediately and by the faithful. The first of these again, that is God's immediate government, is twofold: (1) the government of his special providence; (2) the government of his spiritual presence.
Now besides this immediate government of God, there is another sort of government of the Church, which Christ exercises mediately by the Church. And this also is Christ's government, and not man's; and men who have not known nor understood the former government of Christ, have mistaken this also through the same unbelief. Wherefore, they, not so much as minding the former of Christ, which is immediate and by himself, have made this mediate government of the Church by man, to be all. And this also I say, they have understood most grossly and carnally, and not according to the Word, but according to their own ignorant and seduced hearts. This mediate government then of Christ in the true Church (which, it may be, may better be called order and decency than government) I conceive to be nothing but this, Christ's ordering all things by the faithful, among the faithful, in reference to the communion of Saints.
The first thing then is: to whom Christ hath committed the power of ordering and managing all things in the true Church, in reference to the communion of Saints. I answer, he hath given it to the true Church itself, as formerly described, even to each and all members of it. For as natural power belongs to all natural men alike, so spiritual power (which is the true church-power) to all spiritual men alike. Christ in a believer is the root of true church-power; and because Christ dwells in all believers alike, through unity of faith, therefore all believers partake alike of spiritual and supernatural power; and no one partakes of this power more than another, any more than he partakes of Christ more than another; but Christ in them is the self-same power of God to do all things that are to be done in the kingdom of God.
But what are these keys about which there hath been so great ado in the Church? I answer, they are not any outward ecclesiastical power whatever, that men have devised to serve their turns withal. But to pass by the many false conceits, wherewith many former and present writers have and do still trouble the Church, John doth tell us plainly (John 20.22) what Matthew means by the keys of the Church. Christ (saith he) appearing to his Disciples after his resurrection, breathing on them, said, Receive the Holy Spirit (here are the keys of the kingdom of Heaven), and then adds, Whose sins ye remit, they are remitted, and whose sins ye retain, they are retained. That is, when ye have received the Spirit, then you have received the keys, to bind and to lose, to remit and retain sin, and not according to your wills, but wholly according to the mind and will and direction of the Spirit.
What is the extent of this church-power? I answer that this power extends itself full as far as the Church, but no further. For what hath the Church to do with those that are not of the Church? What have we to do (saith Paul) with them that are without? For church-power, which is spiritual, is no more suitable to the world than worldly power, which is fleshly, is suitable to the Church. The power of the Church, which is Christ's power, only reaches so far as Christ's kingdom; that is, the people that are born of God and his Spirit. True church-government reaches as far as Christ's and the Spirit's effectual influence and operation, but no further; that is to all that are willing, but to none that are unwilling. As nothing hath more troubled the Church that to govern it and give it laws, after the manner of the world, by secular force and power; so nothing hath more troubled the world than to govern it and give it laws after the manner of the Church, by the aforesaid compulsion. Wherefore as the government of the world is not to spread over the Church, so neither is the government of the Church to be spread over the world. But as the world and the Church are distinct things in themselves, so they are to be contented with their distinct governments.
What is the outward instrument of this power? I answer, the Word only, which is the only sceptre and sword of Christ's kingdom, to govern his people and subdue his enemies. And so the true Church doth all in itself only by the Gospel; by the Gospel it bindeth and looseth; by the Gospel it remits and retains sin, by the Gospel it quickens to life and wounds to death; by the Gospel it receives in, and casts out; by the Gospel it works faith, renews the life, acts, orders, guides, and governs all things.
What the true Church can do by virtue of this power
Now the true Church by the power it hath received from Christ can gather itself together when, and as often as, it pleaseth. The company of believers have power to gather themselves together for their mutual good, instruction, preservation, edification, and for the avoiding or preventing of evil, and that without the consent or authority of any extrinsical and foreign power whatever; else Christ were not a sufficient founder of his Church. And if every free society, not subjected to tyranny, hath power in itself to congregate and come together as conveniency and necessity shall require, as is evident in all civil corporations, and in all fraternities and meetings of love; much more hath the Church of Christ, which is the freest society in the world, power to meet together into a communion of Saints, though it be without and against the consent and authority of the powers of the world.
As the Church of the faithful hath power from Christ to meet together, so to appoint its own outward orders. And these things each church or communion of Saints may order by itself, according to the wisdom of the Spirit, so it observe these rules. That they do all things in love, seeing all laws without love are tyranny; and so whatsoever is not from, and for, love, is not to appointed; and if it be, it is again to be abolished; seeing no text of the scripture itself, if it build not up love, is rightly interpreted. They are to do all things for peace. They must appoint nothing as of necessity; for there is no more pestilent doctrine in the Church than to make those things necessary which are not necessary. For thus the liberty of faith is extinguished, and the consciences of men ensnared. They may persuade their orders (if they see cause) by the spirit of love and meekness, but must not enforce them upon pain of secular punishment or church-censure, as those use to do that make themselves lords and tyrants in the Church. For these outward things the Church can order only for the willing, but not for the unwilling.
Now one thing more I shall add touching the church's power to appoint its own orders: that the true church hath power to appoint these outward orders, not for itself only, but also for its officers (which also are part of itself), and it is not to suffer its officers to frame or impose such on it. For the church is not the officers', but the officers are the church's.
The true church hath power to choose its own officers, and, if there be cause, to reform them or depose them.
More particularly in this matter we shall inquire after these three things: (1) What officers are to be chosen? (2) Out of whom they are to be chosen? (3) By whom they are to be chosen?
For the first, Paul teaches us, they must be faithful men, apt, and able to teach others. For us among natural men in the world, they that have most natural power and abilities, are fittest to be the officers: so among spiritual men in the church, they are fittest to be the officers that have the most spiritual power, that is, such in whom Christ and the Spirit are most manifest; and of this the faithful of all sorts are judges. Wherefor no natural parts and abilities, nor no human learning and degrees in the schools and universities, nor no ecclesiastical ordination or orders, are to be reckoned sufficient to make any man a minister, but only the teachings of God, and gifts received of Christ, by the Spirit, for the work of the ministry, which the faithful are able to discern and judge of.
Out of whom these officers are to be chosen. And this is out of the flock of Christ, and nowhere else.
By whom they are to be chosen. And this by the congregation or community of believers. For if every free society hath power to choose its own officers, much more hath the true church this power, being (as is said) the freest society under heaven. And so the true church is not to have officers thrust over them by others, but is to choose them itself.
The true Church hath power to call its councils. Now I said, the church, if it need a council, may call one; because the church of believers now seldom needs a council, seeing all things are so clear in the Word of God, with which the faithful are so well acquainted. For it is not dead laws and orders, written by men, will do the true church any good; but the Living Law of God, written in their hearts by the Spirit, as God hath promised to do, saying, I will write my Law in their hearts, and put it in their inward parts. For as the law of sin hath been written in our natures, to corrupt us, so the Law of the Spirit of Life must be written also in our natures, to reform us.
The church hath power to judge of all doctrines, and that both of its officers and councils.
The clergy and ecclesiastical men have been wont to challenge to themselves the knowledge and judgment of doctrines, and have excluded ordinary Christians from it; whereas, in truth, the judgment of doctrine belongeth to the people, and not to the ministers. And the Apostle commands them, to try the spirits, whether they be of God, and hath said, Let one or two speak, and the rest judge (1 Cor 14, &c.). By which, with many other scriptures, it is evident that the ministers are not to judge of doctrine for the people, but the people are to judge of the doctrine of the ministers, and according as they find it to be of God, or not of God, to receive it, or reject it. For every one is to be saved by his own faith, and not by another man's. And Paul gives this liberty to Christians–yea, we have it from Christ himself whether Paul had allowed it or no–to try the very Apostles themselves and the very angels of heaven, whether they bring the right word or no.
Among the things which are to be done to procure and preserve the peace of the church these things that follow have not the least place. The true church is to preserve itself distinct from the world, and is neither to mingle itself with the world, nor to suffer the world to mingle itself with it. For if the church and the world be mingled together in one society, the same common laws will no more agree to them who are of such different natures, principles, and ends, than the same common laws will agree to light and darkness, life and death, sin and righteousness, flesh and Spirit. Wherefore, it is not the way of peace to mingle the church and the world, but to separate them, and to keep them distinct; that those that are of one nature and spirit may be of one communion among themselves. And this way of peace God Himself teacheth us by Paul (2 Cor 6:17), saying, Come out from among them, my people, and be ye separate. For to separate the church from the world, in its communion of Saints, is the only way to preserve peace, in both; seeing the church will best agree with itself, and the world with itself.
The church being thus distinct from the world is to be contented with its own power for its own affairs, and is not to introduce or entertain any power in it that is not of it. Wherefore the true church, being such a kingdom as is not of this world, stands in need of no worldly power, and being a spiritual and heavenly kingdom, is only to have and exercise a spiritual and heavenly power, seeing this power alone, and by itself, is able to accomplish the whole good pleasure of God in the church, and to work all the works in it that God hath to do.
The third rule is, not to bring or force men into the church against their wills.
The fourth rule is, to make void the distinction of clergy and laity among Christians. For the clergy or ecclesiastical men have all along, under the reign of Anti-Christ, distinguished themselves from other Christians, whom they call the laity, and separated themselves from the lay in all things, and called themselves by the name of the Church, and reckoned other Christians but as common and unclean in respect of themselves; whereas in the true church of Christ there are no distinctions, nor difference of persons; no clergy or laity ; but they are all, as Peter describes them (1 Pet 2:9), a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, to show forth the virtues of Him that called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. And so all Christians, through the baptism of the Spirit, are made priests alike unto God; and every one hath right and power alike to speak the Word; and so there is among them no clergy or laity, but the ministers are such who are chosen by Christians from among themselves to speak the Word to all in the name and right of all; and they have no right nor authority at all to this office but by the consent of the church. And so presbyters and bishops, or (which is all one) elders and overseers in the church, differ nothing from other Christians, but only in the office of the Word which is committed to them by the church; as an alderman or common-council man in the city differs nothing from the rest of the citizens, but only in their office, which they have not of themselves neither, but by the city's choice; or as the Speaker in the House of Commons differs nothing from the rest of the Commons, but only in his office, which he hath also by the choice of the House. And thus, and no otherwise, doth a minister differ from other Christians.
The fifth rule, is to keep equality between Christians. For though according to our first nativity, whereby we are born of men, there is great inequality, some being born high, some low, some honourable, some mean, some kings, some subjects, &c.; yet according to our new or second birth, whereby we are born of God, there is exact equality, for here are none better or worse, higher or lower, but all have the same faith, hope, love, the same God, Christ, Spirit, the same divine nature, the same precious promises, the same incorruptible crown and inheritance of Saints in light.
The sixth rule is, to keep the officers of the Church in subordination to the whole church or community; and not to suffer them to get head over it; seeing the very nature of ruling the church is not dominion, but service.
Now if any say, by what means the church be able to keep out error? I answer, it may certainly keep out error by these means.
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