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righteous Being whom it is our highest happiness and per fection to love and to imitate, as well as to reverence and fear; a Being to whom we can look up with filial affection and confidence for the supply of every real good; on whom alone we can depend for support and assistance in seasons of difficulty and distress; and who will most assuredly in the end make all things work together for good, to those who are obedient and resigned to his will. For the privilege of addressing this Almighty Parent by prayer and thanksgiving, we can never be sufficiently grateful. How careful, then, ought we to be not to neglect so important a means of improving and perfecting our nature, and of rendering us more and more resembling the Being whom we adore!
The very general neglect and disuse of family devotion, even among persons who in some respects seem disposed to seriousness, is a circumstance which cannot be too deeply lamented. A serious and regular performance of this duty, must certainly be a powerful means of training up children and servants in a sense of their duty to their Creator, of their dependence upon him, and of the obligations they owe him, and must in some degree operate as a check upon the thoughtlessness and profligacy so prevalent among servants, who have had the misfortune to receive little or no religious instruction, and which has long been a subject of severe and universal lamentation. A great degree of responsibility attaches to the heads of families with respect to those persons, whether children or servants, who are under their care. And severe and awful will be the account they must have to render, if having been placed in such situations, they feel not the obligation to embrace every fit opportunity of sowing the seeds of instruction in the ductile minds of youth, of promoting, by every means in their power, their improvement in knowledge and in goodness; of opening their minds to religious impressions; and especially of calling them together at stated seasons, to offer up their united devotions to the Creator of the universe, their Father and their God.
It is in vain for any person to pretend that he has not leisure for the exercise of family devotion. A few minutes with serious and devout attention, would be productive of highly beneficial effects. And I believe we may safely venture to affirm, that there is scarcely a person living, who does not every day spend more time in doing nothing,
than would be requisite to be employed in the exercise of this duty. At the same time he would probably find himself amply recompensed for his time and labour in the improved dispositions and conduct of those about him. By endeavouring to form their young minds to habits of seriousness and piety, he would be laying the foundation for their future good conduct through life. They would become in all respects more valuable members of society, and would be prepared for discharging the duties of all the various relations of life with greater fidelity and zeal. The pure and holy and devotional sentiments which have been infused into their bosoms, they would endeavour to disseminate among their companions and friends. The good principles which they have imbibed, they would transmit to their posterity, and thus become the honoured instruments, in the hand of Providence, of diffusing great and permanent blessings among mankind; of abolishing the gloomy reign of ignorance, profligacy and vice; and of promoting the knowledge and the practice of the pure religion of Jesus, as far as their influence should extend.
Letters from the Rev. R. Wright, to the Unitarians in the
Trowbridge, December 1, 1826.
MY CHRISTIAN Brethren,
I SHALL Conclude this series of letters with a few remarks on church discipline. About this subject there has been much controversy, and Christians have gone to great extremes; some adopting such rigid plans as have been subversive of the liberty of the gospel, and others regarding all church discipline as incompatible with liberal principles and proceedings. Of late, controversies on this subject have been less frequent and more moderate; and it may be hoped that we are arrived at a period when the subject may be discussed with Christian temper, and without any interruption of peace and union, and when such discipline as will be useful may be adopted without any infraction of Christian liberty. Still it cannot be denied, that too much of the lordly spirit of former ages, remains among many professors of the gospel; and that church discipline is in many instances made a yoke of bondage, too grievous for those who understand the liberal princi
ples of pure and primitive Christianity to bear: this, however, is not the case among Unitarians; it is to be feared that they have, in some instances, gone to the opposite extreme, and neglected the discipline which is necessary: they should, however, remember that the abuse of a thing is no disproof of its use when properly applied. It is not, perhaps, to be expected that an entire uniformity upon this subject should exist among us, nor is this necessary; if more union is to be effected, it must be in consistency with a diversity of opinion and proceedings, not by the sacrifice of liberty, but by the increase and extension of charity if every thing practicable to preserve order and promote improvement be done, this is all we ought to desire.
1. It is important to understand and keep steadily in view what is meant by discipline. Discipline does not imply, dominion for no church has a right to exercise dominion over its members. The object of dicipline is edification. Edification cannot be promoted by coercion, and all coercion in religion is incompatible with Christian liberty. Christian discipline has nothing in it of authoritative proceedings, for Christ hath not delegated his authority to his followers. As it relates to individuals, it consists in giving them suitable instruction, admonition and reproof; and, that this may not be neglected, it is desirable that every church should choose and appoint suitable persons to do it. As it relates to the church or assembly, it consists in the preservation of order and regularity, and in the conducting of their affairs with that decorum and propriety which may best promote the ends of Christian society. Opinions, however erroneous they may be deemed, are proper subjects of discipline only so far as the word is used merely to express instruction. Improper conduct alone calls for admonition, and sin for reproof and censure. To attempt to dictate to others how they shall understand and practise the positive commands of Christ, and make our judgment a rule of action to them, is no legitimate part of church discipline; for it is an assumption of dominion over conscience, which Christ hath prohibited. What consists in imposing on others that which is contrary to their judgment and consciences, is not Christian discipline, but antichristian tyranny.
2. The supposition that Jesus Christ and his apostles established a regular plan of church discipline, extending to all
the proceedings of Christian assemblies, and to be strictly adhered to at all times and in all places, has been very into the jurious. Different churches, taking for granted that their own plans of discipline are identical with what Christ and the apostles instituted, have become unduly tenacious of them, and converted their own regulations into laws of Christ, to bind the consciences of his disciples. The fact is, no precise, regular and formal system of church discipline can be found in the New Testament; but had such a system been instituted, either by the great Head of the church, or by his divinely-commissioned messengers, it would undoubtedly be found there. Those who think this statement erroneous, have only to point to the part of the New Testament where such a system may be found, and it will be refuted.
3. Our Lord taught the great doctrines and duties of Christianity, revealed the hope of immortality, left the most perfect example, commissioned his apostles to go on with the important work, and left his followers to adopt such plans, form such regulations, and institute such proceedings as should best accord with what he had taught and the perfect example he had left them, and should seem best calculated to promote the great ends of his ministry, death, resurrection and exaltation, according to the times and circumstances in which they live. In no instance can it be lawful for them to do what he hath forbidden, or to omit doing any thing which he hath commanded; in all things, at all times, and in all places, they are bound to keep in view and act upon the principles which he prescribed, to act in his spirit, to aim at the great objects he hath set before them, to imitate as far as possible his example and follow in his steps, and to acquit themselves as his devoted and faithful servants: to pursue a different course would be to forfeit their allegiance to him. What plans or regulations soever they may think it wise and good to adopt, they should be careful to avoid sanctioning with his authority, or insisting on, as laws binding the consciences of others, what are merely plans and regulations of their own: they may be proper and useful; but they must not on that account be enforced by an undue assumption of authority.
4. The apostles gave no regular and circumstantial plan of discipline; they only gave general rules, to preserve the
churches from the pollutions of idolatry and immorality; to promote the recovery and restoration of those who had been disowned for impurity of conduct, or who had fallen into sin, for the comfort and edification of the brethren, and for the general promotion of the gospel. Any particular advice or directions which they gave, related to particular cases as they occurred. In vain may any formal system of discipline, adapted to all the circumstances of the church, at all times and in all places, be sought in the writings of the apostles.
5. Is it then to be concluded that no plans of discipline are necessary in Christian churches? By no means; only that Jesus Christ hath left his followers a sphere for the exercise of their judgment and prudence, in reference to matters respecting which, probably, no circumstantial direc tions could be given which would be generally applied at all times and in all circumstances; and that consequently every church has a right to adopt that plan of discipline which its members think most agreeable to the spirit of Christianity, and most calculated for edification: only every church should be careful not to lay too much stress upon its own plans, nor prescribe in a tone of authority regulations on which the New Testament is silent, nor ever to make such regulations terms of communion; and no church ought to be offended because other churches do not see the propriety of adopting the same plans as are adopted by its own members; for every church is free and independent, and has an indisputable right to adopt such regulations as those who compose it think wisest and best, and differences in these matters ought to produce no disunion among the churches. Different plans and regulations may be most useful in different places where circumstances are very dissimilar.
6. The best system of discipline is that which best accords with the simplicity and purity of the gospel, which is most consistent with Christian liberty, and is best suited to the circumstances of the church which adopts it. It is highly probable that many regulations in the first Christian churches were adopted from the synagogue; be this as it may, it is evident that they began without any regular plan of discipline. At first the apostles managed every thing; at length prudence suggested the appointment of deacons or stewards, to manage the temporal affairs of the church;