[By Alexander Campbell (1828); with emphasis added in bold by Scott J Shifferd (2012)]

Church Discipline, No. I.Third Letter to R. B. Semple.

Brother Semple,

DEAR SIRYOU say that “church government is obviously left by the bible for the exercise of much discretion.” How this can be I cannot conjecture. Whatever is left for the exercise of much discretion is obviously a discretionary thing. If, therefore, church government be a matter obviously of human discretion, I see not how any form of church government, though principally of human contrivance, such as the Papistical or Episcopalian, can be condemned. Each of these forms takes something from the bible and much from human discretion. We may think that what their discretion adopts is very far from being discreet; but in condemning their taste, we cannot censure them as transgressors of law; for obviously where no law is there is no transgression. If there be no divine law enjoining any form of church government; if there be no divinely authorized platform exhibited in the bible, then why have the Baptists contended for the independent form, except they suppose that they have more discretion than their neighbors!

But what you may call “church government” may, perhaps, be entirely a matter of human discretion, such as fixing the time of day on which the church shall meet; also, the hour of adjournment; the place of meeting, whether in a stone, brick or wooden building; the shape and size of their house, and the seats and conveniences thereof. On these items the bible, indeed, says but little. Or, perhaps, brother Semple, under the terms “church government,” you may place synods, councils, associations; the duties of moderators and clerks; rules of decorum and parliamentary proceedings in deliberative bodies; all of which some think as necessary to the well being of the church as “the scaffolding is to the house.” If you embrace all these items, and other kindred ones, in your idea of church government, I perfectly agree with you in one part of your assertion, that the bible says little or nothing on such matters; but I do not say that they are all left to human discretion, and therefore I cannot flatter myself into the opinion that the synods and advisory councils of Presbyterians and Independents are innocent matters of human discretion!

You have, no doubt, brother Semple, often observed, and remarked to others, that a majority of the disputes in religion have originated from not defining the terms or using the same words as representatives of the same ideas. I have often said that the chief advantage which mathematical demonstration has above moral or philological proof, is owing to a greater precision in the terms used in the former, than in the latter species of reasoning. Many an angry and verbose controversy has been dissipated by the definition of a single term; and the angry disputants, after they had exhausted themselves, finally agreed that they misunderstood one another. When you say that “church government is obviously left by the bible for the exercise of much discretion,” I am led to suspect that you attach a meaning to these terms quite different from that which I and many others attach to them. The reason I think so, is because I am puzzled to find a definition of them, that will accord with your assertion.

By “church government” I understand the government of the church; which the bible teaches is upon the shoulders of Immanuel. He placed the twelve apostles upon twelve thrones, and commanded the nations to obey them. I find, therefore, that the Lord Jesus is the governor, and the twelve apostles under him, sitting upon twelve thrones, constitute the government of the church of Jesus Christ. I know that synods and advisory councils have a right to govern voluntary associations, which owe their origin to the will of men; but in the church of Jesus the twelve apostles reign. Jesus, the king, the glorious and mighty Lord, gave them their authority. The church is a congregation of disciples meeting in one place, an assembly of regenerated persons who have agreed to walk together under the guidance of Jesus Christ. Hence they are to be governed by his laws. All the exhortations concerning temper, behavior, and discourse found in the apostolic writings, in all their addresses to the congregations after the day of Pentecost, constitute the government of the church, properly so called. When all the apostolic injunctions, such as those concerning the government of the thoughts, the tongue, and the hands of Christians are regarded, then the church is under the government of the Lord. Laws moral and religious, i. e. laws governing men’s moral and religious actions, are the only laws which Jesus deigns to enact. He legislates not upon matters of mere policy, or upon bricks, stones, and logs of timber. He says nothing about moderators, clerks, and parliamentary decorum: but upon moral and religious behavior he is incomparably sublime. He enacts nothing upon the confederation of churches, of delegate meetings, or any matter of temporal and worldly policy. Hence they strain out a gnat and swallow an elephant who complain there is no law authorizing the building of meeting houses, and yet find a warrant for a “state convention” or a religious convent, college or seminary of learning. The matter of church government which was discussed at Westminster was never mentioned by the Lord nor his apostles. When I hear Independents, Presbyterians and Episcopalians contending about their different forms of church government, I think of the three travelers contending about the color of the chameleon. One declare it was blue; another affirmed it was green; a third swore it was black; and yet when the creature was produced all saw “it was white.”

As some of the wisest philosophers of the present century have discarded what has been improperly called “moral philosophy” from the circle of sciences, because it has no foundation in nature; so methinks the subject of “church government” and the whole controversy about it, in the popular sense of these terms, might safely be sent back to the cloisters of the church of Rome, whence it came. Let the moral and religious government of the institutes and exhortations addressed to disciples in their individual and social capacities be regarded, and there is no need for one of your by-laws or borough regulations.

The decorum of a public assembly is well defined, both in the sacred oracles and in the good sense of all persons of reflection. And if disciples meet not “for doing business,” but for edification, prayer and praise, or discipline, they will never need any other platform or rules of decorum, than the writings of Paul, Peter, James and John. But if you, brother Semple, will have the daughter attired like her mother; or if you wish any sect to become respectable in the eyes of those acquainted with the fashions in London and Rome, you must have sectarian colleges under the patronage of churches, and churches under the patronage of associations, and associations under the patronage of state conventions, and state conventions under the patronage of a constitution, creed, and book of discipline, called “church government.” And the nigher these two latter approximate to the see of Canterbury, or that of Rome, the more useful and honorable will they appear in the estimation of such Christians as are deemed orthodox in the District of Columbia. I feel very conscious that the less you and other good Christians say about “church government,” in the popular sense, the better for its safety with the people, who have contended for something, they know not what, under this name. And just as certain am I, that if the laws governing moral and religions demeanor in the epistles are regarded, as they must be by all who are really taught by God, there will be found no need for our by-laws or regulations in the congregation of the faithful, not even in cases of discipline when transgressors present themselves.

Brother Semple, when I hear you call the church a “a corporation,” the Bible “its charter,” and the creed its “by-laws;” or, perhaps, you make the essay on discipline its by-laws: I say, when I hear a Baptist bishop of such eminence, in the state of Virginia, in the reign of grace 1828, thus express himself, I feel almost constrained to take up my parable and sing

“By Babel’s streams we sat and wept,
“When Zion we thought on;
“In midst thereof we hang’d our harps
“The willow trees upon.”

I hope to be still more explicit in my next.

Yours with all respect, EDITOR.