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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Independence of Churches

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"It is an admitted fact, as clearly settled as anything can be by human authority, that the primitive Christians, in the organization of their assemblies, formed them after the model of the Jewish synagogue .. They disowned the hereditary aristocracy of the Levitical priesthood, and adopted the popular government of the synagogue Their government was voluntary, elective, free, and administered by rulers or elders elected by the people. The ruler of the synagogue was the moderator of the college of elders, but only primus inter paries, holding no official rank above them. The people, as Vitringa (De Synagoga, lib. 3:pt. 1, c. 15, p. 828-863) has shown, appointed their own officers to rule over them. They exercised the natural right of freemen to enact and execute their own laws, to admit proselytes, and to exclude at pleasure unworthy members from their communion. Theirs was a democratic form of government,' and is so described by one of the most able expounders of the constitution of the primitive churches (se Rothe, Anfange d. Christl. Kirche, p. 14). Like their prototype, therefore, the primitive churches also embodied the principle of a popular government and of enlightened religious liberty" (Coleman, Apostol. and Prisnit. Ch. p. 43 sq.).

The reason, however, why the primitive Christians had this peculiar organization, reintroduced in the modern Church by the Congregationalists, and in part also by the Presbyterians, is, that the members of the early Christian Church mostly came from the Jewish Church, and naturally adopted methods of worship, government, etc., to which they were accustomed. But this by no means goes to prove that it was the intention of the early Christians to perpetuate their mode of government, but rather that, engaged as Christ and his disciples had been in founding a Church, needing no other bond than his own person, the mode of government to which they had been accustomed was chosen for the time being, "the disciples not having yet attained to a clear understanding of that call which Christ had already given them by so many intimations to form a Church entirely separated from the existing Jewish economy. We are disposed to believe that the Church was at first composed entirely of members standing on an equality with one another, and that the apostles alone held a higher rank, and exercised a directing influence over the whole, which arose from the original position in which Christ had placed them in relation to other believers; so that the whole arrangement and administration of the affairs of the Church proceeded from them, and they were first induced by particular circumstances to appoint other church officers, as in the instance of deacons" (Neander, Apostol. Kirche, 3rd edit. p. 31, 33; comp. p. 179,195; also Rothe, Anfange, p. 146 sq.; Acts 6:1; Acts 11:30).

Christ also evidently did make some provision for a government of his Church on earth independent of Jewish and pagan customs by constituting apostles, who should authoritatively command and teach. (See vol. 2, p. 328 sq.) The churches of the early Christians also, unlike the Jewish, were independent one of the other. History, sacred or profane, relating to this period, records not a single instance in which one church presumed to impose laws of its own upon another. The first traces of associations between several churches, from which councils can be said to have taken their origin, we find in the 2nd century (Coleman, De Rebus Christ. sec. 1, § 48). Indications of this original independence are distinctly manifested even after the rise of the episcopacy. Every bishop had the right to form his own liturgy and creed, and to settle at pleasure his own time and mode of celebrating the religious festivals (compare Greiling, Apostolische Christengemeine, p. 16). Cyprian strongly asserts the right of every bishop to make laws for his own church. Indeed, it is to this original independence of the churches from each other, to the want of proper authorities to govern them, that Socrates (Eccles. Hist. lib. 5, c. 22) ascribes the endless controversies which agitated the Church in the early ages with regard to the observance of certain festivals, especially Easter. See, besides the authorities already cited, Sack, Comment. ad Theol. linsfit. p. 141; Bunsen, Hipolytus and his Age, 3:246; Dr. Hitchcock, in the Amer. Presb. Rev. Jan. 1867. (See EPISCOPACY), vol. 3:p. 263, 264, 266 (4). (J. H. W.)

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Independence of Churches'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/i/independence-of-churches.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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