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senting to my own immediate brethren in the faith a few remarks, which I trust will not be deemed unworthy of their attention.
Our venerable Mother Church of England, in the Preface to her Commination Service, has recorded a desire for the restoration of the ancient discipline; and, in the Reformatio Legum, prepared by Cranmer and others as a code of ecclesiastical law, under Edward VI., there was an interesting system laid down for the excommunication and restoration of offenders, which would probably have been formally established by Parliament, if the death of the youthful monarch, followed by the accession of Queen Mary, had not prevented all further movements in that direction.
But it may be doubted whether any measure of the kind could be attempted in our day with a prospect of success; and it is by no means clear that the Church would gain any thing by the change, even if it were practicable. In order, however, that we may have a distinct view of the nature of the subject, let us briefly consider the true character of the apostolic system.
Our divine Redeemer expressly saith, “My kingdom is not of this world.”. Being a spiritual society, therefore, the Church can only claim obedience through the conscience of her members, and can have no proper power to impose any system of physical punishment or bodily mortification upon those whom she separates from her communion. We read of no such penal inflictions among the acts or precepts of the apostles ; nor did the power of the keys which was delivered to them, and through them to their successors, involve the imposition of any penitential discipline. This will be manifest when we consider that the exercise of this power was limited to the following particulars :
First, they opened the Gospel system to sinners by the key of knowledge, proclaiming repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Next, when their hearers were converted and believed, they admitted them to the covenant of adoption and the privileges of the Church by the key of baptism ; to which sacrament, when rightly received and administered, was attached the remission of sins.
Thirdly, they prepared them for the communion by the key of confirmation—the “laying on of hands," which some have called the priesthood of the laity.
Fourthly, they opened to them, as it were, the inner chamber of sacramental sanctity by the key of the Eucharistio Feast.
Fifthly, if any member of the Church proved himself unworthy, by gross and manifest transgression against the laws of the spiritual kingdom, the apostles excluded him from the communion and society of his brethren by the key of discipline. And of this we have two sorts of examples : the one mentioned in the first Epistle to the Corinthians (ch. v.), for the sin of incest; the other, as in the first Epistle to Timothy (ch. i.), where St. Paul saith that he had delivered the heretics Hymeneus and Alexander "unto Satan, that they might learn not to blaspheme.” For as all men are by nature the subjects of Satan, who is the god of this world; and as, of course, when they became the subjects of Christ in baptism, they were obliged to renounce the devil and all his works, therefore it followed of necessity, that when they were altogether driven from the Church, and its doors were closed against them, they were considered as being replaced under the yoke of their former master, whom their pertinacious rebellion against the truth had sufficiently proved that they were still resolved to follow.
Lastly, whenever the offender could show, by a long course of repentance and reformation, that he was sincerely contrite and spiritually changed, and the Church was satisfied that he ought to be restored, the keys were used again for his readmission.
Now it was in these several modes, and in no other, that the apostles applied the keys of the Church, the kingdom of heaven; and their power was ministerial rather than judicial, because it was only exercised in obedience to the commands of Christ. True, it may be said that their decision on all these subjects required an exercise of judgment, and so eed it did; just as the servant who invites men to his master's house on the occasion of an earthly feast, and tells them the rules of the entertainment, and admits those who accept the call, and regulates their movements according to the prescribed directions, and puts out of doors any that prove to be unruly, must exercise some judgment in order that he may perform his duties in such a manner as his employer may approve. Nevertheless, we style this sort of judgment ministerial, and not judicial, because it is directed simply to the doing that which is specifically required by a superior. And therefore the officers of the Church are called ministers or servants, their power being strictly limited to what their Lord commands, and its exercise being immediately dependent on the Word and the Spirit of Him from whom their commission comes, and to whom they are directly accountable. Thus we have seen how the old fathers call even their imposing of penitential discipline a ministry; and thus, also, the dignity and solemnity of the office are best secured, when it is considered that it is not so
much the ministers of Christ who act, as Christ Himself who acts through their agency.
Now all this applies directly to the ministry of our own day, to whom it has descended from the apostles in an unbroken succession. We also preach, baptize, confirm, administer the eucharist, suspend, excommunicate, and restore the penitent, just as the apostolic Church exercised its powers in the fresh purity of its spiritual organization. I say not that we discharge these sacred functions with the same zeal, faith, energy, or devotion. God forbid that I should claim an equality in these respects for our degenerate age! But I say that the system, in all its main and important features, is precisely the same; and it is the system only which is in question.
What, therefore, should we gain, supposing it were in our power, by establishing the customary rule of public penitence, even as it existed in the time of Tertullian? For then a whole century had elapsed since the death of the last of the apostles, and many new arrangements may have sprung up during three generations, while the substance of the faith remained unchanged. Or what should we accomplish by re-enacting the penitential canons of the primitive Church? Assuredly these were not apostolic, since there is not the slightest hint in Scripture of a fixed code prescribing measured periods of time for certain offenses, and refusing to receive some transgressors, even at the hour of death, like that enacted by the Council of Elvira. Before the holding of that Council in A.D.313, it seems to have been discretionary with each bishop to determine when a penitent should be allowed, if at all, to return to the Communion. From the very nature of the case, it is obvious that the true inquiry on such occasions should always have been, not how
long the sinner had been separated from his brethren, but whether he was truly penitent and thoroughly reformed, so that the Church could place confidence in his sincerity and perseverance for the time to come. And it is evident that this was not a matter to be determined by the mere lapse of months or years, but rather by the knowledge of the man, and by a strict observation of his conduct and his character.
As to the particular mode by which the contrition of the penitent was outwardly manifested in the primitive Church, it can hardly be doubted that it was derived originally from the customs of the Jews, and modified by the habits and sympathies of the age and nation. In our day and country, however, it would be manifestly preposterous to ask that men should fall down at the feet of their brethren, weep and groan, embrace the knees of the clergy, wear sackcloth, live on bread and water, and put ashes on their heads, in order to prove the reality and strength of their sorrow for transgression. It is not by such discipline as this that we could be persuaded to show our sorrow for any thing. Even our women are expected to control the outward expression of their keenest anguish within the limits of formal propriety, and a display like that which the ancient fathers describe would be far more likely to excite disgust than to move compassion. Neither do we find that any such external exhibitions were commanded by our Lord or his apostles. So far from it, indeed, that the Saviour more than once rebukes the Pharisees for their osten. tation, and tells His disciples, when they fasted, not to do it so as to be seen of men. What He requires is the change of the heart, the inward sorrow of the contrite spirit springing from a loving faith in Him, the