The Ruling Elder
by Samuel Miller
It is not forgotten, in entering on this chapter, that most denominations of Christians are so far prejudiced, and sometimes so blindly prejudiced, in favor of their own particular government and formularies, that their judgment in reference to this manner can seldom be regarded as impartial. The writer of this Essay, though he does not allow himself to indulge in such prejudices, yet, does not claim to be wholly free from them. Instead, therefore, of troubling the reader with his bare impressions and preferences in regard to the Presbyterian mode of conducting discipline, which would, of course, go for nothing; it is proposed to present such a series of principles and reasonings as will enable the intelligent inquirer to judge for himself, how far the conclusions of the writer are sustained by solid argument.
I. And, in the first place, the plan of discipline for which we plead, is founded, essentially, on the principle of REPRESENTATION, which, in a greater or less degree, pervades all human society. When a community of any extent wishes to frame laws for its own government, by whom is this service usually performed? By the whole body of citizens, wise and unwise, orderly and disorderly, coming together, and debating on the propriety and the form of every proposed enactment? No, never. An attempt of this kind would soon show the plan to be equally foolish and impracticable. Again; when a Court is to be formed, for applying the laws already in force, to human actions, of what materials is this tribunal commonly composed? Does any one ever think of summoning the whole mass of the male population, excepting the culprit, or the complainant, whose cause is to be tried, to come together, and decide on the case? Who would ever expect either a tranquil or a wise decision from such a judicial assembly? In both these cases, the good sense of men, in all civilized society, dictates the choice of a select number of individuals, representatives of the whole body, and supposed to possess a competent share of knowledge, wisdom and integrity, to form the laws of the community; and another body, smaller, indeed, but constituted upon similar principles, judicially to apply them when enacted. And so in every department of society. The representative system was one of the earliest that appeared in the progress of mankind. It is recommended by its reasonableness, its convenience, its wisdom, and its efficiency. In fact, the more deeply we look into the history and state of the world, the more clearly we shall see that large bodies of men cannot take a step without it.
And, as this system pervades all civil society; so we may say, without fear of contradiction, that it equally pervades the whole economy of Redemption and Grace. Is it not reasonable, then, that we should find it in the visible Church? If we did not, it would, indeed, be a strange departure from a general principle of Jehovah's kingdom.
The Presbyterian plan, then, of conducting the government of each congregation, is recommended by its conformity with this, almost universal, principle. It deposits the power of applying the laws which Christ has enacted, and given to his people;-not with the whole professing population of the Church; but with a select body of the communicants, most distinguished for their piety, knowledge, judgment, and experience. It does not make judges indiscriminately of the young and old, the enlightened and the ignorant, the wise and the unwise. It selects the exemplary, the pious, the prudent, the grave, and the experienced, for this important work. "It sets those to judge who are most esteemed in the house of God." This is the theory; and, in most cases, we may suppose, the actual practice. And where it is really so, who does not see that there is every security which the nature of the case admits, that the judgment will be most calm, judicious and edifying that the amount of wisdom and of piety in that Church could pronounce?
The inconvenience, nay, the positive mischiefs, of committing the judgment, in the most delicate and difficult cases of implicated Christian character, to the whole mass of Christian professors, have been alluded to in a preceding chapter. And the more closely they are examined, the more serious will they appear. No confidential precaution; no calm, retired inquiry; no deliberate consultation of sensitive feelings, with fidelity, and yet with fraternal delicacy, can possibly take place, in ordidary cases, but by the adoption of an expedient, which amounts to the temporary appointment of Elders. On the contrary, upon any other plan, the door is wide open for tale-bearing; for party heat; for the violation of all those nicer sensibilities, which in Christian society are of so much value; and after all, for a decision with which, perhaps, no one is satisfied. It would, truly, be passing strange, if a sober, wise, and consistent decision should be pronounced by such a tribunal. We are surely, then, warranted in setting it down as one of the manifest advantages of conducting discipline on the Presbyterian plan, that, by the adoption of the representative systems it provides, in all ordinary caves, for the purest, the wisest, and the most edifying decisions of which the nature of the case admits.
II. Further; as was hinted in a preceding chapter, this method of conducting discipline PRESENTS ONE OF THE FIRMEST CONCEIVABLE BARRIERS AGAINST THE AMBITION AND ENCROACHMENTS OF THE CLERGY. It is not intended again to enlarge on the liableness of ministers of the gospel to feel that love of power which is natural to man. Very few of them, it is believed. in this land of religious liberty, have ever really aimed at ecclesiastical encroachment. But as laws are made for the disobedient; and as ministers are but men; so that system of ecclesiastical polity may be considered as the best, which, while it is attended with the greatest amount of positive advantage, is adapted most effectually to obviate those evils to which human nature is exposed.
Now, it is evident, that the method of conducting discipline at present under consideration, assigns to every Pastor a Council, or Senate of pious, wise, prudent men, chosen from among the body of the communicants; and though not strictly lay-men, yet commonly so viewed, and, at any rate, carrying with them the feelings of the mass of their brethren. He is simply the Chairman of this body of six, eight or ten men, who are charged with the whole spiritual rule, and "without whose counsel nothing is done in the Church." He can carry no measure but with their consent. He can neither admit nor exclude a single member, without their concurrence. If he engage in any sinister or foul plan, as many are fond of supposing the clergy inclined to attempt, he certainly cannot accomplish it, either in his own Church or in neighboring Churches, unless he can prevail on these men to join with him in conspiring to elevate himself, at their own expense. Will he be likely to work such a wonder as this? At any rate, there seems to be the best barrier against it, that the nature of human society admits.
The same general safeguard pervades all the Judicatories of the Presbyterian Church. In all of them, Ruling Elders have a place, and in all of them, excepting the General Assembly, the Elders, if the theory of our system were carried into perfect execution, would be a majority. In the General Assembly alone, if completely full, they would stand on an equality in votes with the Pastors. And these Ruling Elders are not merely present in all these bodies. They mingle in all the business; are appointed on all committees; and have every possible opportunity of becoming acquainted, in the most intimate manner, with all that is proposed or done. There can be no concealment. The proceedings of all our Judicatories, excepting the Church Session, where the Elders form an overwhelming majority, are open and public as the light of day. And every Ruling Elder has at his disposal a vote as potent as that of his most eloquent and learned, neighboring Pastor.
It may be asked, then, whether there is not here a barrier against clerical ambition and encroachment as fixed and firm as can well be conceived or desired? It is, undoubtedly, a far more firm barrier than is presented by the popular plan in use among our, Independent brethren. For as, in every Church, a majority of the members have but little discernment, and are, of course, easily influenced and led; so an artful, designing Pastor, if such an one should appear in a Church thus constituted, might generally succeed in conciliating to his own person and schemes a majority of the votes, to the utter discomfiture of the more wise, pious, and prudent portion of the members. But, upon the Presbyterian plan, it is precisely this best class of his Church members who are associated with him in authority and counsel; who are with him, ecclesiastically speaking, abroad and at home, in the house and by the way, in going out and in coming in; from whose notice he cannot escape, and without whose co-operation he can do nothing. Truly, this is the very last method that designing, ambitious ministers would adopt to, forward their projects! Nothing could be conceived more unfriendly to corrupt schemes, than such a band of official colleagues. And accordingly, as we have more than once seen in the foregoing chapters, the honest and pious old Ambrose, of the fourth century, expressly tells us, that it was a wish to get rid of such colleagues on the part of the reaching Elders, that first led to the gradual disuse of Ruling Elders in the Church, after the first three centuries.
III. Again; as the Presbyterian plan of administering discipline is adapted to present one of the strongest conceivable barriers against clerical ambition, so it also furnishes one of the best securities for PRESERVING THE RIGHTS OF THE PEOPLE. And here nothing win be said on the supposed congeniality between the Presbyterian form of Church Government, and the republican, representative systems under which we live; and the alleged tendency of the former, to prepare men for understanding, prizing and maintaining the latter;-I say, on these allegations I shall not dwell;-not because I do not consider both as perfectly well founded, but because the discussion might be deemed, by some readers, invidious; and because it forms no necessary part of my argument. Independently of these considerations, it may be confidently maintained, that the Presbyterian plan of administering discipline furnishes far better security for preserving unimpaired the rights of private Christians, than any plan with which we are acquainted. It is not forgotten that this assertion will appear a paradox to many; but it rests, nevertheless, on the most solid grounds.
There is no oppression more heavy, no tyranny more unrelenting, than that of an excited, infuriated popular assembly. No body with which the rights and privileges of an inculpated individual are less safe; especially when headed and controlled by an eloquent, artful and highly popular Pastor, who has taken part against that individual. Suppose, then, as the annals of Independency have too often exemplified,-that a member is on trial, for some alleged delinquency, before a Church of that denomination. Suppose the alleged offence to be one which has deeply alienated from him his Pastor, and all the particular friends of the Pastor. Suppose these, as one man, rise up against him, and resolve to crush him. And suppose this Pastor to be so generally admired and beloved by his people, that he is able to command an overwhelming majority of their votes, in support of all his favorite measures. What chance would such an accused person stand of an impartial trial before such a tribunal? Not the smallest. He might be guilty, indeed, and deserve the heaviest sentence; but even if innocent, his acquittal, in such circumstances could be anticipated by none. He must become the victim of popular resentment; and if he thus fall, he has no remedy. There is no tribunal to which he can appeal. He must lie down under the oppressive sentence. And there he must lie as long as he lives. He cannot regularly, (that is, according to that ecclesiastical rule which pervades all religious denominations) go to another Church; for the supposition is that he is excommunicated, and cannot be recommended as in "good standing" to any other ecclesiastical body. He must submit to the operation of the sentence, however unjust, until the excited and impassioned body which laid it upon him, shall be disposed to relent, and consent to remove the deadly weight.
It is not denied that there may be moments of prejudice and passion in the Presbyterian Church, in which even the grave and experienced Elders may be so wrought upon by different sorts of influence, as to dispense justice very imperfectly, or even, in a particular case, to refuse it entirely. But then, in every such case, upon the Presbyterian plan, there is an immediate and perfect remedy. An individual who supposes himself wronged, may appeal to a higher tribunal, where his cause will be heard by judicious, enlightened, impartial men, who had no concern in its origin, and who, if wrong have been done, may be expected to afford prompt and complete redress. The oppressive sentence may be reversed. He may be reinstated, in spite of popular excitement, in all his Christian privileges; and even, where his own reluctance, or that of his former connexions, may forbid his return to the bosom of the same congregation in which he recently received such treatment; yet he may easily and regularly be attached to a neighboring one of the same denomination, and thus find the whole difficulty satisfactorily removed.
It is not asserted, then, that other Churches, in their exercise of discipline, do, in fact, more frequently injure and oppress the subjects of their discipline than the Presbyterian Church. Such an assertion, indeed, might, perhaps, be made without invidiousness; inasmuch as decisions formed and pronounced by the popular voice, may be deemed, without disparagement to the individuals who form them, less likely to be wise, and impartial, than when formed by a select body of enlightened and pious judges. But on this point no comparative estimate will be attempted. It is however, confidently asserted, that when such wrong, as that of which we speak, unhappily occurs, the Presbyterian system affords more complete relief from oppression, and, therefore, furnishes more fixed security for the rights of the people, than is found in any other denomination. No single man, in our Church, whatever title he may bear, can, by his single, perhaps capricious, veto, deprive a professing Christian of his privileges as a Church member; nor can it be done by a feverish, popular assembly, impelled by its own prejudice or passion, or held under the sovereign control of one man. The best array of piety, wisdom, and knowledge which the society affords, must sit in judgment in the case, and even if this judicatory should give an unjust sentence, the religious rights of the individual are not prostrated or foreclosed; but may be reviewed by an impartial tribunal, and every privilege which he ought to enjoy, secured.
IV. Further; the plan of conducting Church government with the aid of Ruling Elders, secures to Ministers of the Word and Sacraments, COUNSEL AND SUPPORT, IN ALL THEIR OFFICIAL PROCEEDINGS, OF THE BEST POSSIBLE KIND. Supposing ministers of the gospel to be honest, pious, disinterested and zealous in their appropriate work; to have no dispositions at any time, to encroach on the rights of others; and to be above the reach of that passion and prejudice, which are so apt to assail even the honest, and which need a check in all;-even suppose ministers of the gospel to be above the reach of these evils;-still they need counsel, information, and support in a multitude of cases and cannot, with either safety or advantage, proceed without them. In all the affairs of the Church, it is of the utmost importance that the interests of the whole body be constantly consulted, and that the whole body act an appropriate part in conducting its affairs. As there are no privileged orders to be aggrandized and elevated; so there are no ecclesiastical secrets to be kept; no private or selfish schemes to be tolerated. The more completely every plan is laid open to public view, understood and appreciated by every member, sustained by unanimous and willing effort, and made to promote the knowledge, purity and order of the whole-the better. Of course, that plan of ecclesiastical regimen which is best adapted to attain these ends, and to attain there in the most certain, direct, quiet, and comfortable manner, is most worthy of our choice.
Such a plan, it is firmly believed, is the Presbyterian. In every department of official duty, the Pastor of this denomination has associated with him, a body of pious, wise, and disinterested counsellors, taken from among the people; acquainted with their views; participating in their feelings; able to give sound advice as to the wisdom and practicability of plans which require general co-operation for carrying them into effect; and able also after having aided in the formation of such plans, to return to their constituents, and so to advocate and recommend them, as to secure general concurrence in their favor.
This is an advantage, strictly speaking, peculiar to Presbyterianism. For although other forms of Church government provide for associating lay-men with the clergy in ecclesiastical business; yet, according to them, there is no divine warrant for it. It is a mere human expedient, to meet an acknowledged exigency, for which those who make this acknowledgment, suppose that the law of Christ makes no provision. And the human provision which they thus make, is, manifestly, liable to many objections. It consists either in constituting the whole body of the communicants the Pastor's counsellors-which is liable to all the objections stated at large in a former chapter; or, in providing for him a committee, or small delegation of lay-men, who may be changed every year, or oftener, and, of course, may have very little experience; and in some Churches these lay delegates are not required to be communicants, or even baptized persons; and, consequently, may have no real ecclesiastical responsibility for their conduct.
V. The method of conducting discipline under consideration, has also the advantage on the score of DESPATCH AND ENERGY, as well as of wisdom and the security of equal rights.
Where all the discipline that is exercised is in the hands of a single individual, without appeal, it must be confessed that, in this case, provision for despatch and energy cannot be, at least in theory, more perfect. But where it is in the hands of the whole body of the Church members, there is no saying how long litigation may be protracted, or in what perplexities and delays the plainest case may be involved. There are so many minds to be consulted, and every case, upon this plan, is so open to capricious or malignant interposition, that it is impossible, in ordinary circumstances, to calculate results, or to foresee an end.
Even on the Presbyterian plan, there is no doubt that delay and perplexities may, in some cases, arise. But where the whole management of discipline, from its inceptive steps to the consummation of each case, is entirely committed to a select body of pious, intelligent, prudent, and experienced men, accustomed to the work, and aware of the dangers to which their course is exposed, we may reasonably calculate on their decisions being as speedy, as unembarrassed, and as much lifted above the temporizing feebleness, or the tempestuous irregularity and confusion, incident to popular management, as human infirmity will allow.
VI. The plan of conducting discipline by means of a succession of judicatories, admitting of appeal, provides for redressing many grievances which do not appear, otherwise, to admit of a remedy. According to the Independent, or strictly Congregational system, as suggested in a preceding page, when a member of a Church has been unjustly censured or cast out, he has no appeal. There is no tribunal to which he can apply for relief. Yet his case may be an exceedingly hard one, loudly calling for redress. The cause of religion in his neighborhood may be suffering severely by the situation in which he is placed. Ought there not to be some regular and adequate method of meeting and removing such a difficulty? In such of the Churches of Connecticut as have entered into the plan of Consociational union, such a method has been, to a certain extent, provided. But it has been by adopting, to precisely the same extent, a leading principle of Presbyterianism. When difficulties arise in a particular Church, a tribunal is formed, by a number of neighboring ministers, together with one or more lay-delegates, from each of the Churches represented, who may review, and, if need be, redress the alleged grievance. This is a Presbyterian feature in their system, and, so far as it goes, excellent and effectual. In the judgement, however, of the venerable President Dwight, this plan is still defective, and defective precisely in the point at which it stops short of Presbyterianism. The opinion which this distinguished Congregational Minister has expressed, in reference to the subject before us, will best appear by presenting it in its connexion. It is as follows:-
"There are many cases in which individuals are dissatisfied, on reasonable grounds, with the judgment a Church. It is perfectly obvious, that, in a debate between two members of the same Church, the parties may, in many respects, stand on unequal ground. One of them may be ignorant; without family connexions; in humble circumstances; and possessed of little or no personal influence. The other may be a person of distinction; opulent; powerfully connected; of superior understanding; and of great personal influence, not only in the Church, but also in the country at large. As things are in this world, it is impossible that these persons should possess, in any controversy between them, equal advantages. Beyond all this, the Church itself may be one party, and a poor and powerless member the other. In this case, also, it is unnecessary to observe, the individual must labor under every supposable disadvantage, to which a righteous cause can be subjected. To bring the parties in these, or any similar circumstances, as near to a state of equality as human affairs will permit, it seems absolutely necessary that every ecclesiastical body should have its tribunal of appeals; a superior Judicature, established by common consent, and vested with authority to issue finally all those causes, which, before a single Church, are obviously liable to a partial decision."
"Such a tribunal, in all the New-England States; except this, (Connecticut,) is formed by what is called a Select Council; that is a council mutually chosen by the contending parties. This has long appeared to me a Judicatory most unhappily constituted. The parties choose, of course, such persons, as they suppose most likely to favor themselves. If, therefore, they commit no mistake in the choice, the Council may be considered as divided in opinion, before it assembles; and as furnishing every reason to believe, that it will not be less divided afterwards. Its proceeding will frequently be marked with strong partialities; and its decision, if made at all, will, not unfrequently, be those of a bare majority. Coming from different parts of the country, it will have no common rules of proceedings After its decisions, its existence ceases. Its responsibility vanishes with its existence; as does also the sense of its authority. As the members frequently come from a distance, it can have no knowledge concerning those numerous particulars, which respect the transactions to be judged of; and the characters, interests, views and contrivances of those who are immediately concerned. As individuals, these members may, in some instances, have much weight; and in certain circumstances, may, by their wisdom and piety, do much good. But all this must arise solely from their personal character. As a Council, as a judicatory, they can scarcely have any weight at all; for as they disappear when the trial is ended, they are forgotten in their united character; and having no permanent existence, are regarded with no habitual respect, and even with no prejudice in their favor. Very often, also, as they are chosen on partial principles, they are led, of course, to partial decisions; and leave behind them very unhappy opinions concerning ecclesiastical government at large."
"In this state, (Connecticut,) a much happier mode has been resorted to, for the accomplishment of this object. The tribunal of appeal is here a Consociation; a standing body, composed of the settled Ministers within an associational district, and Delegates from the Churches in the same district; a body always existing; of acknowledged authority; of great weight; possessed of all the impartiality incident to human affairs; feeling its responsibility as a thing of course; a Court of Record, having a regular system of precedents; and, from being frequently called to business of this nature, skilled, to a good degree, in the proper modes of proceeding."
"The greatest defect in this system, as it seems to me, is the want of A STILL SUPERIOR TRIBUNAL, TO RECEIVE APPEASL, IN CASES WHERE THEY ARE OBVIOUSLY NECESSARY. These, it is unnecessary for me to partictilarize. Every person extensively acquainted with ecclesiastical affairs, knows that such cases exist. The only remedy provided by the system of discipline established in this State, for those who feel aggrieved by a Consociational judgment, is to introduce a neighboring Consociation, as assessors with that which has given the judgment, at a new hearing of the cause. The provision of this partial, imperfect tribunal of appeals, is clear proof, that those who formed the system, perceived the absolute necessity of some appellate jurisdiction. The judicatory which they have furnished of this nature, is perhaps the best, which the Churches of the State, would at that, or any succeeding period, have consented to establish. Yet it is easy to see that, were they disposed, they MIGHT EASILY INSTITUTE ON WHICH WOULD BE INCOMPARABLY BETTER."
"The only instance found in the Scriptures of an appeal, actually made for the decision of an ecclesiastical debate, is that recorded in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts, and mentioned for another purpose in a former discourse. A number of the Jews in the Church at Antioch, insisted that the Gentile converts should be circumcised and be obliged to keep the law of Moses. Paul and Barnabas strenuously controverted this point with them. As no harmonious termination of the debate he could be had at Antioch, an appeal was made "to the Apostles and Elders at Jerusalem." But, as I observed, in the discourage mentioned, it was heard and determined by the Apostles, Elders and Brethren. As this judicatory was formed under the direction of the Apostles themselves, it must be admitted as a precedent for succeeding Churches; and teaches us, on the one hand, than an appellate jurisdiction is both lawful and necessary in the Church; and, on the other, that it is to be composed of both Ministers and Brethren, necessarily acting, at the present time, by delegation."
In this quotation, and in the remarks which preceded it, a reference, it will be perceived, is principally had to cases in which individual private members have considered themselves as aggrieved by the decisions of particular Churches. But the same remarks, in substance, are applicable to those cases in which difficulties arise between Ministers and their Congregations, or between two neighboring Congregations of the same name. No form of Church government provides for the settlement of such difficulties so promptly or so well as the Presbyterian. Independency, strictly so called; that is Independency, in strict adherence to its essential principles, furnishes, for such evils, no remedy whatever. Other sects furnish a nominal or partial remedy, by investing some official individual with power to constitute a tribunal for settling such controversies. But the choice of the members of this tribunal is usually committed entirely to that individual, and it is, of course, in his power to make it, like a "packed jury," in the hands of a corrupt returning officer, a mere instrument of oppression. But, in the Presbyterian Church, every difficulty of this kind is committed, for adjustment, to a permanent, responsible body; a body whose proceedings may be reviewed and examined; whose organization or members cannot be changed at the will of a corrupt individual, who may choose to tamper with them; and whose decisions are not merely advisory, but authoritative.
VII. Finally; the Presbyterian method of conducting the government of the Church, is most friendly to the spread of the gospel, and furnishes PECULIAR FACILITIES FOR UNION AND EFFICIENCY OF ACTION, IN PROMOTING THE GREAT OBJECTS OF CHRISTIAN BENEVOLENCE.
It has been sometimes, indeed, alleged, in opposition to this, that Presbyterianism is, naturally, and almost necessarily, cold and formal; and that Congregationalism has been found, in fact, more favorable to zeal and activity in spreading the gospel. It is by no means intended to depreciate either the zeal or the activity of our Congregational Brethren. Justice demands that much be said in commendation of both. And it will be no small praise to any other denomination to be found successfully emulating the intelligence, enterprize and perseverance which they have often manifested in pursuing the best interests of the Redeemer's kingdom. But when the organization of the Presbyterian Church is examined, one would think that prejudice itself could scarcely deny its peculiar adaptedness for united, harmonious, and efficient action, in every thing which it might become convinced was worthy of pursuit.
In order to enable this Church to act with the utmost energy and uniformity, throughout its entire extent, there is no need of any new organization. It is organized already, and in a manner, as would seem, as perfect as possible for united and harmonious action. A delegation from every Church, meet and confer, several times in each year, as a matter of course, in Presbytery. What opportunity could be imagined more favorable for forming and executing plans of co-operation, among all the Churches thus united, and, statedly convening? They have the same opportunity, and every advantage, of meeting at pleasure, that can be enjoyed by a voluntary association; with the additional advantage, that they act under a system of ecclesiastical rules and authority, which enable them to go forward with more energy and uniformity in their adopted course. If a more extended union of Presbyterian Churches than of those which belong to a single Presbytery, be desired, for any particular purpose, the regular meetings of the Synods, each comprising a number of Presbyteries, afford the happiest opportunity, without any new or extra combination, of effecting the object. The representatives of, perhaps, one hundred and fifty Churches, assembled in their ecclesiastical capacity, and in the name of Christ, could hardly be conceived to convene in circumstances more perfectly favorable to their co-operating, in any worthy and hallowed cause, with one heart, and with the most perfect concentration of effort. And when we extend our thoughts to the General Assembly, the bond of union, counsel and co-operation for more than two thousand Churches, all represented, and combined in the same cause; we see a plan which, in theory at least, it would seem difficult to adapt more completely to union of heart and hand in any good work. The most admirable combination, with every possible advantage, exists beforehand. Nothing is in any case, wanting, but the animating Spirit necessary for applying it to the proper objects. The machinery, in all its perfection, is already constructed, and ready to be set in motion, Only let the impelling principle, which is necessary to set all moral combinations into vigorous movement, be present, and operate with due power, and it may be asserted, that a more advantageous system for ecclesiastical enterprise was never devised.
It is not a sufficient reply to this statement to say, that the Congregational Churches of New-England, have, in fact done more in the last thirty years, in the way of contribution and effort, for extending the Redeemer's kingdom, than any equal number of Churches of the Presbyterian denomination in the United States. It is impossible to contemplate the intelligence, harmony of feeling, and pious enterprise of the mass of our Congregational Brethren, without sentiments, at once, of respect and gratitude. But is not the general fact alluded to, chiefly referable to other causes than the form of their Church government? No one, it is believed, can doubt, for a moment, that this is the case. Their Church government is, manifestly, less adapted to promote union and effective co-operation, than most others. But their intelligence, their piety, their common origin, their homogenous character, their compact situation, and the sameness of the instruction, the excitements, and the agencies which they enjoy, have all tended to prepare them for united and harmonious co-operation. Only give to the members of Churches organized on the Presbyterian plan, the same advantages; the same natural principles of cohesion; the same intellectual and moral stimulants; and the same pervading spirit:-and can any one believe that there would be found less union and less energy in pursuing the best interests of man? We must deny the connexion between cause and effect, before we can doubt that there would be more of both. It has been sometimes, indeed, said, as a supposed exemplification of the unfavorable influence of Presbyterianism, that the Churches called Presbyterian, in South Britain have generally declined, both in orthodoxy and piety, within the last hundred years; while the Independents have generally and happily maintained their character for both. But the fact is, that when the English Presbyterians gradually fell into those errors, for which the greater part of them are now distinguished, they, at the same time, gradually renounced the Presbyterian form of government, although they retained the name. There are not now, and have not been, for many years, any real Presbyterians in England, excepting those who are, directly or indirectly, connected with Churches in Scotland. After all, it is not pretended that the Presbyterian form of Church government can, of itself, infuse spiritual life and activity into an ecclesiastical body; but that where vitality, and zeal, and resources exist, there is no form of ecclesiastical organization in the world so well adapted to unite counsels, and invigorate efforts, as that under which we are so happy as to live.
It makes no part, however, of the design of the author of this volume to assail, or to depreciate the ecclesiastial order of other denominations. On the contrary, wherever he finds those who evidently bear the image of Christ, and who appear to be engaged in advancing his kingdom, whatever form of Church order they may prefer, he can hail them with unqualified affection as Christian Brethren. The truth is, he would not have alluded to any other portion of the Christian Church than that with which he is more immediately connected, had it appeared possible, without doing so, fully to illustrate the character and advantages of our own form of government. His ardent wish is, not to alienate, by high claims, or unkind language; but rather to conciliate and bind together by every thing that can minister to brotherly love. And his daily prayer is, that all the Evangelical Churches in our land may be more and more united in principle and effort, for extending that "kingdom which is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost."
1.Theology Explained and Defended, Vol. iv. 399-401. [back]
The End of Samuel Miller's The Ruling Elder