Preliminary Principles of the Form of Government, Book of Discipline, and the Directory of Worship
The American Presbyterian Church, in setting forth the Form of Government, Book of Discipline, and the Directory of Worship, which it maintains are founded upon and agreeable unto the word of God, reiterates, by way of introduction, several great principles which are basic to this plan.
SECTION I: That “God alone is Lord of the conscience; and has left it free from the doctrine and commandments of men, which are in anything contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship”; therefore they consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and inalienable; they do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and, at the same time, be equal and common to all others.
SECTION II: That, in perfect consistency with the above principle of common right, every Christian church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitles to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ has appointed; that, in the exercise of this right, they may, notwithstanding, err in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet, even in this case, they do not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only make an improper use of their own.
SECTION III: That our blessed Savior, for the edification of the visi9ble church, which is his body, has appointed officers, not only to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments; but also to exercise discipline, for the preservation of both truth and duty; and, that it is incumbent upon these officers, and upon the whole church, in whose name they act, to censure or cast out the erroneous and scandalous; observing, in all cases, the rules contained in the word of God.
SECTION IV: That truth is in order to goodness, and the great touchstone of truth is its tendency to promote holiness; according to our Savior’s rule, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd, than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, they are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth, or to embrace it.
SECTION V: That while under the conviction of the above principle, they think it necessary to make effectual provision, that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith; they also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these they think it the duty, both of private Christians and societies, to exercise mutual forbearance towards each other.
SECTION VI: That though the character, qualifications, and authority of church officers, are laid down in the Holy Scriptures, as well as the proper method of their investiture and institution; yet the election of the persons to the exercise of this authority, in any particular society, is in that society.
SECTION VII: That all church power, whether exercised by the body in general, or in the way of representation by delegated authority, is only ministerial and declarative; that is to say, that the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners; that no church judicatory ought to pretend to make laws, to bind the conscience in virtue of their own authority; and that all their decisions should be founded upon the revealed will of God. Now though it will easily be admitted that all synods and councils may err, through the frailty inseparable from humanity; yet there is much greater danger from the usurped claim of making laws, than from the right of judging upon laws already made and common to all who profess the gospel; although this right, as necessity requires in the present state, be lodged with fallible men.
SECTION VIII: Lastly, that, if the preceding scriptural and rational principles be steadfastly adhered to, the vigor and strictness of its discipline will contribute to the glory and happiness of any church. Since ecclesiastical discipline must be purely moral or spiritual in its object, and not attended with any civil effects, it can derive no force whatever, but from its own justice, the approbation of an impartial public, and the countenance and blessing of the Great Head of the church universal.
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