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consanguinity, which the law of God forbids, or that either party should have been formerly under any tie or obligation to others, or any other vast disproportion, which might bring a just reflection upon us from our opposers; can any blame us for taking care to prevent these evils, by appointing that such, as so design, make known their intentions to these churches or assemblies, where they are most known, that if any know just cause of hindrance, it may be mentioned, and a timous let put to the hurt, either by stopping it, if they can be brought to condescend; or by refusing to be witnesses and concurrers with them in it, if they will not? For we take not upon us to hinder any to marry, otherwise than by advice, or disconcerning ourselves; neither do we judge, that such as do marry contrary to our mind, that therefore their marriage is null and void in itself, or may be dissolved afterwards; nay, all our med. dling is in a holy care for the truth. For if the thing be right, all that we do is to be witnesses; and if otherwise, that we may say for our vindication to such as may upbraid us therewith, that we advised otherwise, and did no ways concur in the matter; that so they may bear their own burden, and the truth and people of God be cleared.
Now I am confident that our way herein is so answerable to reason and christianity, that none will blame us therefor; except either such, whose irregular and impatient lusts cannot suffer a serious and christian examination, and an advised and moderate procedure; or such, who watching for evil against us, are sorry we should proceed
so orderly, and would rather we should suffer all manner of irregularities and abominations, that they might have the more to say against us. But the solid and real reasons we have for our way herein, will sufficiently plead for us in the hearts of all sober men; and moreover, the testimony of God's Spirit in our hearts doth abundantly confirm us both against the folly of the one, and the envy of the other.
Fourthly, There being nothing more needful, than to preserve men and women in righteousness, after they are brought into it; and also nothing more certain, than that the great enemy of man's soul seeks daily how he may draw back again, and catch those who have in some measure escaped his snares, and known deliverance from them; therefore do we also meet together, that we may receive an opportunity to understand, if any have fallen under his temptations, that we may restore them again, if possible; or otherwise separate them from us. Surely, if we did not so, we might be justly blamed as such, among whom it were lawful to commit any evil unreproved; indeed this were to be guilty of that libertinism which some have falsely accused us of, and which hath been our care all along, as became the people of God, to avoid; therefore, we have sought always to keep the house clean, by faithfully reproving and removing, according to the nature of the offence, and the scandal following thereupon; private things privately, and public things publicly. We desire not to propagate hurt, and defile peoples minds, with telling them such things as tend not to edify; yet do we
not so cover over, or smooth over any wickedness, as not to deal roundly with the persons guilty, and causing them to take away the scandal in their acknowledgment before all, to whose knowledge it hath come: yet judge we not ourselves obliged to tell that in Gath, or publish that in the streets of Askelon, which make the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice; strengthen Atheists and Ranters in their obdurateness, who feed more upon the failings of the saints, than to imitate their true repentance. And therefore where we find an unfeigning returning to the Lord, we desire not to remember that which the Lord hath forgotten, nor yet to throw offences in the way of the weak, that they may stumble upon them.
And therefore I conclude, that our care as to these things also is most needful, and a part of that order and government, which the church of Christ never was, nor can be without; as doth abundantly appear by divers scriptures heretofore mentioned.
How far this government doth extend in matters spiritual and purely conscientious.
THUS far I have considered the order and government of the church, as it respects outward things; and its authority in condemning or removing such things, which in themselves are evil, as being those, which none will readily jus
tify the necessity of which things is such, that few but will acknowledge the care and order in these cases to be commendable and expedient.
Now I come to consider the things of another kind, which either verily are, or are supposed to be matters of CONSCIENCE, or at least, wherein people may lay claim to conscience, in the acting or forbearing of them. In which the great question is, How far in such cases the church may give positive orders or rules? How far her authority reacheth, or may be supposed to be binding, and ought to be submitted to? For the bet ter clearing and examination of which, it will be fit to consider,
First, Whether the Church of Christ hath power in any cases that are matters of conscience, to give a positive sentence, and decision, which may be obligatory upon believers?
Secondly, If so, in what cases and respects she may so do?
Thirdly, Wherein consists the freedom and liberty of conscience, which may be exercised by the members of the true church diversely, without judging one another?
And lastly, In whom the power decisive is, in case of controversy, or contention in such matters? Which will also lead us to observe the vast difference betwixt us and the papists, and others in this particular.
As to the first, whether the Church of Christ hath power in any cases, that are matters of conscience, to give a positive sentence and decision, which may be obligatory upon believers.
I answer affirmatively, she hath; and shall
prove it from divers instances, both from scripture and reason. For first, all principles and articles of faith, which are held doctrinally, are, in respect to those that believe them, matters of conscience. We know the Papists do, out of conscience (such as are zealous among them) adore, worship and pray to Angels, Saints and Images, yea, and to the Eucharist, as judging it to be really Christ Jesus; and so do others place conscience in things that are absolutely wrong: now I say, we being gathered together into the belief of certain principles and doctrines, without any constraint or worldly respect, but by the mere force of truth upon our understanding, and its power and influence upon our hearts; these principles and doctrines, and the practices necessarily depending upon them are, as it were, the terms that have drawn us together, and the* bond, by which we became centred into one body and fellowship, and distinguished from others. Now if any one, or more, so engaged with us, should arise to teach any other doctrine or doctrines, contrary to these which were the ground of our being one; who can deny, but the body hath power in such a case to declare, This is not according to the truth we profess; and therefore we pronounce such and such doctrines to be wrong, with which we cannot have unity, nor
* Yet this is not so the bond, but that we have also a more in. ward and invisible, to wit, the life of righteousness, whereby we also have unity with the upright seed in all, even in those, whose understandings are not yet so enlightened. But to those who are once enlightened, this is as an outward bond; and if they suffer themselves to be darkened through disobedience, which as it does in the outward bond, so it doth in the inward.