Unconscious Assumptions of Communion Polemics



It is often the serious misfortune of able and honest men, that they unwittingly argue upon principles which, when formally stated, they would unhesitatingly repudiate. Many attempts to construct new roads through the tangled wilds of the Communion controversy only result in the discovery of the old open-communion thoroughfare; and the rejoicing of those who make the discovery is partly attributable to the novelty of their situation, and to the fact that they have not yet followed the road through, to its disagreeable and unseriptural terminus. The best service that can be rendered to such as have thus lost their way, and have perchance led others into the same error, is to show by map and compass that they are journeying in a wrong direction, and that the path they travel conducts them to a very different point from that which they seek.

The first of the unconscious assumptions that underlie the arguments to which we allude is this, that the practice of the churches is a sort of common law which, when codified, may supplement or qualify the law of the New Testament. It is true that, in some professedly Baptist churches, the ancient principles of the denomination are not carried out with absolute logical consistency. In certain churches, there is a growing tendency to pass lightly over the question of communion-faith in their admission of members, and to refrain from discipline in cases where members practice occasional communion with churches not of our faith and order. We have sometimes known instances where orthodox Baptist deacons have not refused the bread and wine to Pedo-baptist brethren who took upon themselves the responsibility of remaining at an ordinary celebration of the Lord's Supper. These and sundry other irregular and exceptional cases convince our critics that the old bottles of ancient law are not strong enough or large enough to hold the new wine of Christian enlightenment and charity. They therefore proceed to elevate practice itself into law — to make irregularity its own voucher — to legalize license — to turn permission under sufferance into acknowledgment of fundamental right.

It scarcely needs to be pointed out that this is a method the reverse of scientific, evangelical, or Baptist. Here is unconsciously assumed the fundamental principle of all unprotestant ecclesiasticism — the principle that not only God, but man also, makes law; that the church, equally with the Scriptures, is the standard of appeal in questions of duty; and that the analogy of faith is to bo looked to as a primary source of truth, instead of

* Printed in The Examiner, Jan. 21, 1875.

being a secondary source, of value only when it corroborates conclusions drawn directly and at first hand from the word of God. How far such a principle as this might lead, history furnishes sufficient witness. When stated in words, it would be rejected with marked energy by some who are dissatisfied with our common practice. This proves without doubt that they will not speedily go over to Presbyterianism or to Rome, but it does not make it any the less certain that their method is fatally incorrect, and that this seeking for the law in human custom and observance, instead of conforming human custom and observance to the law, would slowly, perhaps, but surely, work the nun of the church of Christ.

Bat is there an original, all-comprehending, all-compelling law? Ah, that is the question! When our new guides speak of an authoritative order of the ordinances, we can hardly avoid believing that they have some just notion of a divine prescription which makes the yea and nay of men of little account in the comparison. But there is no explaining the conclusions at which they arrive, without allowing that there is a second underlying assumption equally erroneous with the first,— this, namely, that there is no fixed, complete and binding system of church organization revealed in the New Testament. It is possible to hold to an authority which is merely the authority of rational order. It is possible to believe in a merely germinal New Testament church. It is possible to urge the obligatoriness of church ordinances upon grounds of expediency. Our friends do not do this. But when they urge that impulse may break over this order, and that faith is above law, we seem to see the unconscious influence of some developmenttheory of the church, that gives to the free spirit power to mould and shape Christ's ordinances, or to dispense with them at its will.

There are two logical theories, and two only. Either the law of Christ is adequate, or it is not. Either men may change it, or they may not. Either the New Testament furnishes us with the model of the church, or it does not. If it does, then there are no exceptions to its rule,— a divine law is far-seeing, and needs no change. Upon this ground the Baptist brotherhood have stood, and do stand. But there is other ground, not so Scriptural, but yet logically consistent with itself. It is the ground that there is no definite or adequate model of church-organization in the New Testament — at least, none that binds the conscience and practice of the church through all time. Upon this theory, a man may unite himself to the Christian church and submit to her ordinances, according as he finds it expedient or convenient. Truth in this matter is entirely subjective. The church, like an ox-yoke, is useful,— when its apparent usefulness ceases, let it go. The Christian's individual relation to Christ, this is the only real and binding thing. Churches are chance assemblages of believers. Church organization expresses no living truth,— let it follow the customs of the times or the inclination of the moment. Church government,— let it be autocratic in Italv, democratic in America, and double-headed in Japan. God has planned a gospel for all men, but he has not planned a church. And then, if the New Testament is not a sufficient authority for practice, what reason is there to believe that it is a sufficient authority for doctrine-?

Shall we be Plymouth Brethren, or shall we be Baptists? Either one of the two we can be, and preserve some show of logical consistency. But to be both at once,— that is a riding of two horses which is not only difficult, but for any length of time impossible to a thinking man. And why should we attempt impossible tasks? We have such a thing as church organization in the New Testament. There are specified qualifications for membership; there are stated meetings; there are regularly elected officers; there is a custom sanctioned and an order enjoined by the apostles; there are ordinances delivered to the care of the church ; there are letters and contributions and registers ; there is common work to be done ; there is common discipline to be exercised, —what more do we need to constitute a thorough organization? And if Christ's promise was fulfilled, and the divine Spirit led the Apostles into all truth, in their church-teaching and church-building, then what right have we to admit exceptions to the acknowledged order of God's house? Our rights in such an organization are not rights — they are only privileges, whose enjoyment is conditioned upon obedience; and faith carries with it the privilege of Communion, only as it implies obedience to all things which Christ has commanded.

But let us come to a third assumption,— still remembering that none of these are acknowledged or could be in words — for they are too baldly false for any Baptist openly to acknowledge. It is an assumption, nevertheless, without which the fabric of the new doctrine would topple over for sheer one-sidedness. It is this: The ordinances are purely formal and external, instead of being living expressions of the inmost realities of the Christian faith. Some such postulate as this must be supposed, before we can comprehend such statements as that the ritual is so subordinate to the spiritual, that no ritual deficiencies can justly prevent the exercise of so called spiritual rights. By what strange confusion is it possible to demand ceremonial privileges without ceremonial qualifications? Only by forgetting that all ritual of God's appointment is profoundly spiritual, and that disorder in ritual falsifies the truth which the ritual was ordained to symbolize and represent. Why do we hold so strenuously to the duty and privilege of Christian baptism? Because of the meaning of a Greek word, or an (esthetic fancy for a form? God forbid! We hold to baptism, because it is the divinely appointed vehicle and symbol of the great central truth of the Christian scheme — the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and our death to sin and resurrection to new life in him. Why do we hold to the invariable precedence of Baptism to the Supper? Because the ordinance which symbolizes regeneration must go before the ordinance which symlxriizes sanctification, as birth must go before nourishment, and life before its sustenance. Instead of being void of doctrinal significance, these ordinances and their order are doctrines incarnate. Give up immersion, and you destroy one great memorial of the Savior's death and of the radical change which, by communion with that death, is wrought in every believing soul. Alter the order of the ordinances — grant that men are qualified to partake of the Lord's Supper without Baptism, and you teach the world that men may be sanctified without regeneration; that there can be a holy life without tho new-creating power of God.

And so the depreciation of the ritual leads to a denial of the spiritual. For the sake of the spiritual we must hold to the ritual. We are as far from believing in a special sacramental grace, communicated after some outward fashion through the ordinances, as any Swiss Reformer ever was. But all the more sacred do the ordinances and their appointed order seem to us, when we remember that their only power is the power they exert as monumental symbols of the saving truth of God. To change them, or to permit their change without protest, is more than to give up a form; it is to strike a blow at the very heart of the Christian faith. For this reason it seems to us that the indirect apology for violations of the Scriptural order to which we have alluded, and the suggestion that impulse and sentiment may justify a Christian in overriding that order, can have no other foundation than an unconscious assumption that Christ's ordinances are, like some human ordinances, mere matters of form, instead of being what they are, full of spirit and life.

A last assumption which we must notice is, that the laiisez /aire, or letalone principle, will ensure the downfall of error, and the peace and progress of the church. There are a multitude of quiet brethren who, like Erasmus1, deplore so great strife about matters so small. Alas, that we should find some of our own brethren among those who count the difference between truth and error, even in the matter of the ordinances, unworthy of the baring of their swords! Let them deplore it as they will, yet they cannot ignore the fact that the battle would never have raged for centuries around these ordinances, if they had not'been the symbols of God's truth and the banners of the church. It is because the family, the State and the church are divine in their origin, that they are so constantly attacked by errorists of every sort. It is because they are endangered, that the ordinances are delivered to the church as a trust to be guarded for her Lord. Nothing will take care of itself in this degenerate world — least of all, moral and religious truth. The church is its pillar and ground,— if she fail to support it aud hold it forth before the world, the truth will go down. As to this specific matter of the order of the ordinances, history negatives the notion that Baptism can maintain itself when the church admits the unbaptized to her communion. If spiritual union with Christ justifies us in coming to the table without Baptism, it equally justifies in coming into the church without Baptism — it equally justifies any and every neglect, any and every sin. The religion of sentiment has many a sad illustration in individual transgression. Let the church as a body accept the religion of sentiment, instead of the warrior spirit that gives battle rather than yield one inch of truth, and the serpent she was to have trodden beneath her feet will strangle her within his folds.

We have a better hope for the church than this — a better hope for our Baptist churches. They have grown to be many and strong, by faithfulness to their convictions. They will grow in future, not by disobeying the organic law of their constitution, nor by welcoming those who disobey it, but by keeping the ordinances as they were first delivered. Upon the assumptions we have mentioned, no proper keeping of the ordinances upon the part of the church is possible. She is to set the table for all who choose to come. She is to baptize without question all who present themselves. If any theory could be devised which would more quickly merge the church in the world, aud turn the Holy Place of the Temple into a Court of the Gentiles, we know not what it is. Nor is the simple maintenance of the Scriptural order, as we understand it, Ritualism or Ecclesiasticism or Pharisaism. We pass no judgment upon the honesty of Christians of other names. We do not deny to their organizations the title of churches. But we do hold that they are churches irregularly constituted, and that their celebration of the Lord's Supper is a defective one, because they have not obeyed Christ's ordinance of Baptism. We give them fellowship in all else, but we cannot give them fellowship in their church-order and communion without stultifying ourselves, and proclaiming our own denominational existence to be impertinence and schism. Nay, we cannot withhold our protest against these irregularities without being false to Christ and his truth, and imperiling the whole future of his church.

Necessity knows no law, and David ate the shew-bread without disrespect to the Jewish ritual. But impulse and the yearning spirit are under law to Christ. Our love is to abound in knowledge and in all judgment. Because the Sabbath was made for man, we have no warrant for unnecessary labor on that day. That would be to deny that anything was made for man. In short, no such necessity is upon us as will justify a breaking over of Christ's appointed order. Love will not do it, for love will lead to obedience to the Scriptural standards, and even in the pain of sacrificing a ritual enjoyment, will find the evidence of its discipleship, and the assurance of greater nearness to the heart of Christ than irregular participation of the Supper can ever give. With sorrow we say it — but said it must be—-it is the unfaithfulness of our Pedobaptist brethren to Christ's order that deprives us of the privilege of communing with them. We must hold them, and not ourselves, responsible for our loss. And we hold any and every attempt to palliate or ignore this unfaithfulness, to be not a help to peace but a hindrance; not a contribution to the settlement of differences, but a mere patchwork treaty that leaves unnoticed every main question at issue; not a synthesis of truths which, in spite of superficial antagonism, have an inner unity, but a formulation of essential and irreconcilable contradictions. For this reason we have confidence that Baptists will still stand for purity, and leave God to take care of the peace. Peace will come, not by the love that breaks down and overrides organic law, but by the love that holds and holds forth the truth.