|Elect from every nation,
Yet One o'er all the earth;
Her charter of salvation,
One Lord, One Faith, One Birth.|
If it is true that our Lord came to found a real Kingdom, and if the Church described in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles is this Kingdom, it is clear that the quality of Unity or Oneness is essential to it. It must belong to the nature of the Church that it should be One; because we cannot conceive in our minds, in any practical sense, the idea of two Kingdoms of Heaven.
This truth was illustrated by our Lord under the form of a figure. |I am the Vine; ye are the branches| (S. John xv.5). The idea of a tree implies oneness, and the branches have no separate existence apart from the stem. Even so the subjects of |The Kingdom of Heaven| can exist only through union with Christ Himself; and wherever Christians are enrolled, in whatsoever country they may be, all must belong to the same Kingdom, because all are branches of the One Vine.
Consequently, if the Church be |The Kingdom of Heaven,| then, as it spread through the world and different countries received the Gospel, we shall expect to find that the various branches of the Church founded by S. Paul and the other Apostles were not independent one of another, in the sense of being so many separate and distinct bodies, but were all united together, as forming the One Church or Kingdom of Christ.
The question now arises, Was this the case?
God in His Providence has not left us in any doubt upon this point. We can trace this oneness very clearly in the history of the Church during its extension under the Apostles, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. The following incident serves as an example. After S. Paul's return to Antioch at the close of his first missionary journey, a dispute arose about the necessity of teaching the Gentile converts to observe the law of Moses. And it was determined by the Church at Antioch that |Paul and Barnabas and certain other of them should go up to Jerusalem, unto the Apostles and Elders, about this question.| The first recorded Church Council was then held to consider the matter; and after full discussion, it was determined to send the decision in a letter after this manner: |The Apostles and Elders and Brethren send greeting unto the Brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia.| Then after stating the case, the decision was thus given: |It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication; from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well| (Acts xv.1-29). From which it is clear that all the believers in the several Churches of Jerusalem and Antioch and Cilicia were brethren together, and fellow-subjects of one Kingdom, bound to the observance of common laws framed by common consent for the general good government of the whole body. And it is equally clear that the ties which held together these various communities of Christians were the Apostles themselves, who had founded them. The various Churches were one, because their founders were fellow-workers, who acted in concert, taking counsel together. But what bond of union held the founders themselves together?
The answer to this question shows the ground on which the essential Oneness of the Church is based. And it is clearly this. The Apostles and Bishops who founded the various Churches were all commissioned officers of one King -- the King of |The Kingdom of Heaven| -- and they were commissioned, not to found Churches bearing their own, names, independent one of another, but to extend the King's dominion. And their authority and power to act were wholly dependent upon their acting in the King's Name, and with His concurrence. For when the commission was given to the Apostles to |go into all the world and make disciples of all nations,| these words were added by the King, |And lo! I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world| (S. Matt. xxviii.20). From which we see also that the continuance of the Unity was secured, in the same way, through the Apostles' successors, after they themselves should be called to rest. And whilst the Apostles and Bishops were thus appointed as the agents to extend |The Kingdom of Heaven,| the King Himself was the actual bond of union, securing the essential unity of the Church, wherever subjects were brought in. One King over all held all together.
As time passed and various branches of the One Church were formed, there were also other ties which were felt to bind Christians one with another as one body. The Church was a spiritual Kingdom; and by one and the same Holy Spirit all had been moved to accept the King, and all had been new-born as the children of God. And as all had received the same Holy Spirit, so all looked forward to the same hope of eternal life; all having been called to enter the same state of salvation, in which the prize was within their reach. All had been taught the same articles of Faith. All had been baptized, with the same form, into the Name of the Blessed Trinity. And so S. Paul summed up their bonds of union in these words, |One Body and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one Hope of your calling; one Lord; one Faith; one Baptism; one God| (Ephes. iv.4-6).
But the unity of a Kingdom depends, not merely upon having one Head and certain general laws and ordinances; but also upon the ready obedience of the subjects. |Every Kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation| (S. Matt. xii.25). An earthly kingdom is strong only when the people are united together in loyally obeying the king, and the laws, and officers of the kingdom. It is weak when suspicion and factious opposition prevail; or when the subordinate princes exercise their authority without respect to the general good. And, if it does not fall altogether, it is an unhappy kingdom indeed, when these opposing interests break out into open rupture and civil war.
The case is exactly the same with |The Kingdom of Heaven.| It is strong only as a united Kingdom. And the last prayer of our Lord before His Passion shows how well the King knew beforehand wherein the weakness of His Kingdom would consist, which would hinder it from comprehending the whole world according to His loving design. The essential unity of the Kingdom was secured, as we have seen above. But still the strength of His Kingdom, as a united Kingdom, would depend upon the loyal obedience of His subjects. And He knew that His subjects would be as much exposed to the evil influence of false teachers, as the subjects of an earthly king are to the seductions of the misguided and seditious. And He prayed |That they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be One in Us: that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me| (S. John xvii.21).
An unhappy tendency to division was soon manifested in the Church. And S. Paul wrote to |the Church of God which is at Corinth,| to rebuke them for imagining that the founders of the Church were founding communities in their own names, forgetting that they were the mere ministers of the King. |While one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man| (1 Cor. i.12; iii.1-5).
The tendency to form divisions in the Church which so early appeared, increased rather than diminished as years went on; though it was checked, under the Providence of God, by the frequent persecutions which broke out against the Christians. The inevitable result followed. |The Kingdom of Heaven| was weak, and unable to maintain the conflict against the heathenism of the world around it, as it ought to have done. Christendom was divided against itself. The National Churches, which had been founded as Branches of one and the same Church, were engaged in contests between themselves. Then one Church usurped an authority over other Churches, provoking in course of time further disunion. And in our own days, after eighteen centuries have passed since the Church was founded, it is calculated that not one-third of the inhabitants of the earth profess the faith of Christ. So greatly have the unhappy divisions which prevail amongst Christians weakened the Kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
But as Englishmen we are chiefly interested in the Church of our own country. Consequently, we must now come to the consideration of a question which, probably, has already troubled the minds of many readers of these pages -- If the Church is one, what is the position of those who have separated from their own National Branch of this one Church, or Kingdom of Christ?
It is a question of much difficulty, because those who have been outwardly separated from their brethren have been brought into a position altogether different from any which is described in the New Testament. For the subjects of the Lord Jesus Christ are described therein as subjects of one Kingdom, bound together by the closest ties of loyalty to the King, and of brotherhood with one another. At the same time, the names by which Christians in this country are divided into Church-people and Dissenters, only add to the confusion. For to suppose, as these names suggest, that Dissenters do not belong in any sense to the Church of Christ, is an idea which is repugnant to the minds of all who know anything of their work. But though the difficulty of the question is so great, it is hoped that the previous chapters will have prepared the reader to see his way to the answer, which Holy Scripture enables us to form.
But first let us clear the way by calling to mind the origin of the present lamentable state of things. The difficulty has been created by the inevitable imperfection of all things with which man's freewill is concerned. For God clearly intended that His Church should be one; and that it should work upon the world with the irresistible force of an united Kingdom. And inasmuch as we find, in our own days, that this intention has been frustrated, there can be no doubt but that it is our duty to do what we can to bring back the conditions of our life here into conformity with it. For Christian people cannot be content with a state of things which they find to be plainly contrary to God's intention. Consequently, in considering this question, it seems that the right course to take is to give prominence to the bonds of union which still exist between the different bodies of Christians in this country; and instead of magnifying the causes and extent of disunion, to endeavour to draw men closer together.
Now it is clear from Holy Scripture, that the Church of Christ consists of those who have been made subjects of |The Kingdom of Heaven;| and we have already seen that our Lord explained that the form of admission into His Kingdom would be by Holy Baptism. Therefore, with respect to so-called Dissenters, we conclude, that all have been brought into the Church or Kingdom of Christ in this land, who have used the means which He ordained for that purpose, namely, Holy Baptism. And the names assumed by those who separate themselves from their brethren cannot destroy the effects of this great Sacrament. It appears also that they have become in some degree partakers with their brethren of those bonds of union mentioned by S. Paul, |One Body; one Spirit; one Hope; one Lord; one Faith; one Baptism; one God| (Ephes. iv.4-6). Though, unhappily, their appreciation of some of these bonds of union is slight; and they are deprived (either by their deliberate will, or, more commonly, by the accidents of their birth) of the many privileges which they might enjoy, through communion with their brethren in the Ordinances of religion and in the common service of our Lord Jesus Christ.
At the same time, it ought to be clearly understood, that we have no certain warrant of Holy Scripture for more than this. For, as there is no example in the Bible of any one professing faith in Christ, and yet holding back from being baptized into the Name of the Trinity, it is not possible to describe the position of the unbaptized with any certainty of assurance. The offer of salvation through Jesus Christ is thus briefly stated, |He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved| (S. Mark xvi.16); that is, he will be placed in a state of present salvation by being admitted into |The Kingdom of Heaven.| But the case of any one believing and not being baptized is not contemplated.
In the next place, still confining our thoughts to our own country, we shall do well to consider that the greater number of those who have separated themselves from us have done so with the hope of thereby doing God service; or else under the idea that the separation is of small importance, being more a matter of personal choice than of principle. They have forgotten or have been ignorant of the prayer of the Lord Jesus -- |That they all may be one; that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me| (S. John xvii.21) -- forewarning us that the result of divisions would be the spoiling of His work for the saving of the world. And, at the same time, it is right that we should also call to mind that in many instances in the past history of the Church in this land, those who have professed to hold the position of loyal subjects of |The Kingdom of Heaven| have seemed to be equally careless of this inevitable loss through the separation of their brethren.
With these considerations in our minds, if we now go on to test our opinions by the sure warrant of Holy Scripture, fearlessly taking our stand upon its distinct teaching, we shall see how important it is that both so-called Church-people and so-called Dissenters should be induced to study carefully what is recorded therein about |The Kingdom of Heaven,| or Church of Christ. For, on the one hand, we shall find that Holy Scripture clearly teaches that the Church is a spiritual Kingdom, and that the only way to receive the benefits of membership is by being led and sanctified by the Holy Ghost. And, on the other hand, we shall see that Holy Scripture makes it equally clear that our Lord described His Church as being a real Kingdom, though a spiritual one; and that this Kingdom was established with distinct laws and ordinances, by His directions, and under the guidance of the Holy Ghost. And consequently, if, on the one hand, any are content with the name of Church-people without seeking to advance in the spiritual life, they are clearly acting as the Jews, who trusted to being able to say, |We have Abraham to our father| (S. Matt. iii.9). Similarly, on the other hand, if men carelessly weaken |The Kingdom of Heaven| by forming factions, or so-called denominations, under different leaders, and known by the names of their founders, they are clearly bringing themselves under the rebuke of S. Paul, |While one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos, are ye not carnal?| (1 Cor. iii.4); or if they propose to themselves to form a holier society, by expelling the tares from the wheat in the Lord's field, they are disregarding the teaching of His parable (S. Matt. xiii.24-30), the meaning of which cannot be doubtful. And, at the same time, all who will take pains to study Holy Scripture will find that to be a member of |The Kingdom of Heaven,| or Church of Christ, is no mere matter of choice, but of vital importance; because no other way has been revealed whereby we may be saved, but by accepting the Gospel of the Kingdom, and by being admitted into it, as those first converts were, to whom S. Peter said, |Save yourselves from this untoward generation| (Acts ii.40, 41).
We are now in a position to sum up what has been gathered from Holy Scripture about the essential unity of |The Kingdom of Heaven.|
The idea of a Kingdom implies the necessity of unity. And it was provided that the essential unity of |The Kingdom of Heaven| should be maintained through the Headship of the one King over all. The King commissioned His Apostles to make all the nations of the world His subjects, and assured them of the authority to do this by promising to be with them and their successors to the end of the world. And wherever the Church spread, however defective and imperfect it might be, it was still part of one and the same Kingdom, owning the Lord Jesus Christ as King. Besides this bond of union, one Holy Spirit was working with more or less success upon all the subjects, wherever they might be; one Hope was held out before all, of salvation; one Faith in the ever-blessed Trinity was taught to all, and professed by all; one Baptism enrolled all; one God was the object of the worship of all.
But the unity of a Kingdom depends not only upon the King and the laws and ordinances of the Kingdom, but also upon the loyal obedience of the subjects. And the subjects of |The Kingdom of Heaven| have, in past times, so far forgotten this duty, that it has come to pass that for centuries the great branches of the Church of Christ have had little, if any, outward communion or fellowship with one another. And in our own country the professed members of Christ are divided into many bodies, not only independent of one another, but oftentimes opposing, rather than helping forward, the extension and well-being of the Kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. And the result has been that we have learned by sad experience the reason of the foreboding tone of our Lord's last prayer, |That they all may be one; ... that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me| (S. John xvii.21). The multitudes of men, practically heathen, in the midst of this professedly Christian land, and the still greater multitudes of men in other lands whom the good news of the Kingdom has not reached, are proofs of the weakness of the Church of Christ. Christians are not |one;| and consequently |the world| does not |believe| in Him whom the Father of His great love sent to be its Saviour.
During the first few centuries the Church spread rapidly, not only throughout the more civilised parts of the Roman Empire, but also amongst the rough Celts of Britain and the fierce Teutons of Germany. We may well ask, why did it cease to spread, and why are so many lands still lying in darkness? Since Christ came to be the Saviour of the world, how is it that there are so many millions of Buddhists and Hindoos in Asia, that to this day it is said that not one-third of the inhabitants of the world are; Christians? The answer is, alas! clear. The unity of the One Universal Church of Christ has not been maintained in the full and perfect manner described in our Lord's Prayer, |That they all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us| (S. John xvii.21). Christians have lost the sense of brotherhood, which should bind them all together in Christ, of whatsoever nation or language they may be. The Church has ceased to move with the irresistible power of one mighty army, acting with one mind for the glory of God.
All thoughtful subjects of |The Kingdom of Heaven| must lament this state of disunion and weakness. And men are striving in different, and in some cases opposite ways, to bring about re-union. But when we begin to ask, What is the remedy? we find that we are facing a mighty problem. God's loving purpose for the salvation of the world has been marred by man's wilfulness. His Kingdom, which might have been irresistible and have won the whole world for Christ, has been split up into many portions, which have been opposing and weakening one another, instead of fighting His enemies. How can these portions, after centuries of disunion, be reunited into one? How can the mischief be undone?
It is beyond the power of man.
Yet at the same time we can see that there are certain things which all can do to advance the object in view, and to promote re-union at least in our own National Church at home, if not also between the different branches of Christ's Holy Church throughout the world. But to do so, two things are clearly necessary. One thing is to have a clear grasp of the principle which runs through the whole teaching of the Bible, -- that Christ came to found a Kingdom. And the other is to desire unity. If all desired unity, the desired result would certainly be accomplished.
But one thing is certain. No plan of re-union can succeed which is not based upon the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. |The Kingdom of Heaven| is there clearly described. First by the King Himself in His parables and discourses, before the Kingdom was yet founded; and then in the history of the Acts of the Apostles, which tells how the Kingdom or Church of Christ, which had been purchased with His own Blood, was set up under the guidance of the Holy Ghost. And inasmuch as no man, nor any body of men, can form a new |Kingdom of Heaven,| the only position which a Christian can hold, in agreement with Holy Scripture, is the position of a subject of that Kingdom which was so founded.
And when we call to mind that |The Kingdom of Heaven| extended to our own land, by the Providence of God, in early days, we see at once that our aim, as loyal subjects of the Lord Jesus Christ, must be to win back those who have separated from us, to act as fellow-soldiers with us in the one great army of our King, serving under the same flag and the same officers, and fighting with united energy for the glory of God.
But as in an earthly kingdom various opinions may be held by different persons and parties, and yet all may be loyal subjects of the same King, and earnestly advancing the well-being of the kingdom, so in the spiritual Kingdom of Messiah unity does not mean that all must think alike. But there is one necessary condition, namely this, -- the essential unity of the Kingdom must be kept in view. There can be but one |Kingdom of Heaven.| Consequently, to form separate and independent bodies cannot fail to cause confusion and weakness. To act in the Name of the King men must be united. If we, who call ourselves by the Name of Christ, desire to spread His Kingdom with the irresistible force which belongs to it, we must show to the world that we are all one in interests -- in the common hope of Heaven; all one in faith -- in the common belief in the love of God, as it is expressed in the work of redemption, through the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; all one in Baptism into the great Name of the ever-Blessed Trinity; and, above all other bonds of union, all one in loyal devotion to the one Lord and King, our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Let me beg every reader of these lines to pause here, and shoot up an arrow of prayer that God may lead men to think of the blessedness of being united, as sons of one Father, brethren of one family, subjects of one Kingdom. And I would ask those readers who may be, at present, living in outward separation from the Ancient Branch of Christ's Church in this land, to consider with themselves what cause there is in their own case to justify, before God, such a separation from their Brethren in Christ.
Consider also S. Paul's earnest words, |Unto the Church of God which is at Corinth, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.| |Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, that there are contentions among you| (1 Cor. i.2, 10, 11).
A caution is perhaps needed here to prevent the reader from supposing that any re-union is advocated which would involve union with error. On the one hand, we must |stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free| (Gal. v.1). We must firmly refuse to accept any other foundation than that of the Creeds, settled by an undivided Christendom. And on the other hand, we must set ourselves with equal firmness against allowing any |Shibboleth| (Judges xii.6), made out of exaggerated views of particular doctrines, to cut off those who should be brethren, not only in name but in life.
Truths are many-sided. Men may agree in their belief in truths, and yet hold different opinions concerning those truths. Just as men, who live on different sides of a mountain, all look upon the same mountain, and yet see different views of it; so men see different sides of a truth. To know a truth perfectly men must see it from every point of view. And the power of taking such comprehensive views of truths is granted to few, if any, here on earth. Probably this perfect knowledge is reserved for us in Heaven; when all, who have loved their Lord in sincerity, will find that their controversies with one another here on earth have been due to their imperfect knowledge and limited views of the truths of God.