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It is a high and mysterious one, which has no parallel on earth. Nothing in the order of means is equally adapted to awaken compunction in the guilty, with spiritual censures impartially administered. The sentence of excommunication, in particular, harmonizing with the dictates of conscience, and re-echoed by her voice, is truly terrible; it is the voice of God, speaking through its legitimate organ, which he who despises or neglects, ranks with “ heathen men and publicans,” joins the synagogue of Satan, and takes his lot with an unbelieving world, doomed to perdition., Excommunication is a sword which, strong in its apparent weakness, and the sharper and more efficacious for being divested of all sensible and exterior envelopements, lights immediately on the spirit, and inflicts a wound which no balm can cure, no ointment can mollify, but which must continue to ulcerate and burn, till it is healed by the blood of atonement, applied by penitence and prayer. In no instance is that axiom more fully verified, “ The weakness of God is stronger than men, and the foolishness of God is wiser than men,” than in the discipline of his church. By incumbering it with foreign aid, they have robbed it of its real strength; by calling in the aid of temporal pains and penalties, they have removed it from the spirit to the flesh, from its contact with eternity to unite it to secular interests; and, as the corruption of the best things is the worst, have rendered it the scandal and reproach of our holy religion.
While it retains its character, as a spiritual ordinance, it is the chief bulwark against the disorders which threaten to overturn religion, the very nerve of virtue, and, next to the preaching of the cross, the principal antidote to the “ corruptions that are in the world through lust.” Discipline in a church occupies the place of laws in a state ; and as a kingdom, however excellent its constitution, will inevitably sink into a state of extreme wretchedness, in which laws are either not enacted, or not duly administered; so a church, which pays no attention to discipline, will either fall into confusion, or into a state so much worse, that little or nothing will remain worth regulating. The right of inflicting censures, and of proceeding in extreme cases to excommunication, is an essential branch of that power with which the church is endowed, and bears the same relation to discipline that the administration of criminal justice bears to the general principles of government. When this right is exerted in upholding the “faith once delivered to the saints,” or enforcing a conscientious regard to the laws of Christ, it maintains its proper place, and is highly beneficial. Its cognizance of doctrine is justified by apostolic authority; "a heretic, after two or three admonitions, reject:" nor is it to any purpose to urge the difference betwixt ancient heretics and modern, or that to pretend to distinguish truth from error is a practical assumption of infallibility. While the truth of the gospel remains, a fundamental contradiction to it is possible; and the difficulty of determining what is so, must be exactly proportioned to the difficulty of ascertaining the import of revelation, which he who affirms to be insurmountable, ascribes to it such an obscurity as must defeat its primary purpose.
He who contends that no agreement in doctrine is essential to communion, must, if he understands himself, either mean to assert that christianity contains no fundamental truths, or that it is not necessary that a member of a church should be a christian. The first of these positions sets aside the necessity of faith altogether; the last is a contradiction in terms. For these reasons, it is required that the operation of discipline should extend to speculative errors, no less than to practical enormities. But since it is not pretended that pædobaptists are heretics, it is evident that they are not subject to the cognizance of the church, under that character. As they differ from us merely in the interpretation of a particular précept, while they avow the same deference to the legislator, the proper antidote to their error is calm, dispassionate argument, not the exercise of power. Let us present the evidence on which our practice is grounded, to the greatest advantage, to which the display of a conciliating spirit will contribute more than a little: but to proceed with a high hand, and attempt to terminate the dispute by authority, involves an utter misconception of the true nature and object of discipline, which is
never to decide what is doubtful, to elucidate what is obscure, but to promulgate the sentence which the immutable laws of Christ have provided, with the design, in the first place, of exciting compunction in the breast of the offender, and next of profiting others by his example. The solemn decision of a christian assembly, that an individual has forfeited his right to spiritual privileges, and is henceforth consigned to the kingdom of Satan, is an awful proceeding, only inferior in terror to the sentence of the last day.
But what is it which renders it so formidable ? It is its accordance with the moral nature of man, its harmony with the dictates of conscience, which gives it all its force. When, on the contrary, the pious inquirer 'is satisfied with his own conduct, viewing it with approbation and complacency; when he is fortified, as in the present instance, by the example of a great majority of the christian world, who are ready to receive him with open arms, and to applaud him for the very practice which has provoked it, how vain is it to expect that his exclusion from a particular church will operate a change! When he learns, too, that his supposed error is not pretended to be fatal, but such as may be held with a good conscience, and with faith unfeigned, and is actually held by some of the best of men, it is easy to foresee what sentiments he will feel towards the authors of such a measure, and how little he will be prepared to examine impartially the evidence of that particular
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opinion which has occasioned it. ceeding, not having the remotest tendency to inform, or to alarm the conscience, is ineffectual to every purpose of discipline; and as it professedly comprises nothing of the nature of argument, no light can be derived from it, towards the elucidation of a controverted question. It interposes by authority, instead of reason, where authority can avail nothing, and reason is all in all: and while it is contemptible as an instrument employed to compel unanimity, its power of exciting prejudice and disgust is unrivalled. Such are the mischiefs resulting from confounding together the provinces of discipline and of argument; and since the practice which we have ventured to oppose, if it have any meaning, is intended to operate as a punishment, without answering one of the ends for which it is inflicted, it is high time it were consigned to oblivion.
There is another consideration, sufficiently related to the part of the subject before us to justify my introducing it here, as I would wish to avoid the unnecessary multiplication of divisions. Whatever criminality attaches to the practice of free communion, must entirely consist in sanctioning the improper conduct of the parties with whom we unite ; and if it be wrong to join with pædobaptists at the Lord's table, it must be still more so in them to celebrate it. When an action allowed in itself to be innocent or commendable, becomes improper, as performed in conjunction with another,