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HEBREWS xiii. 17.
"Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls as they that must give account; that they may do it with joy, and not with grief; for that is unprofitable for you."
THE preaching of the gospel, being a principal method pitched on by divine wisdom, to bring sinful men acquainted with Jesus Christ, and his great salvation; the introduction of persons into the sacred employment, must be a very solemn and important transaction; and will always be regarded as such, by men of sober minds.
If nothing new can be said, upon an occasion which occurs so frequently; the remembrance of several things may be revived, which can hardly pass our minds, but with advantage; which are very interesting to all; especially to him, who takes the care and charge of souls upon him; and to them, who have a man set over them in the Lord.
Some articles of the duty, both of ministers and people, are obvious in the passage now read, as the foundation of the following discourse; together with the manner in which they ought to be performed; and the motives which should animate and excite us respectively to them.
What the words contain of the duty of Christ's ministers, may be first considered. And do they not evidently point out their duty, as to ruling and governing in the church-as to watching over the souls of their people-and the serious and faithful manner in which they are obliged to do it?
The words teach us, first, that something of rule and government belongs to the ministerial office. So much I think necessarily implied in the first clause." Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves."
These words, at first hearing, may sound harsh and severe; and seem to carry in them something not very agreeable to the kind and gentle nature of the gospel, and that mutual love and tenderness, which ought ever to subsist between a gospel minister and the people under his care. Some may be ready to entertain an idea of the state of those, to whom the direction is given, to obey, as being abject and servile: And that of those, who are spoken of as ruling, as being lordly and tyrannical. But no such sentiments, I imagine, are contained in these expressions. However, they evidently teach us, that some kind of rule and authority is vested in the ministerial office, and to be exercised by those that are in it: Who consequently have a right to expect an answerable kind of obedience and submission from the people of their charge. What sort of rule and authority this is, and whence derived, may be matter of our present brief inquiry.
Must it not be allowed, is it not evident, that this is to be wholly confined to matters of a religious and spiritual nature? No civil authority is, by virtue of their office, in the hands of this order of men; none relating to the persons, estates, or liberties of their people. The office is quite distinct from magistracy: Its province is the house of God, and those things which belong to Christ's spiritual kingdom.
The power which gospel-ministers have in the church of Christ, has nothing of legislation in it. The laws, necessary for the government of this spiritual body, are made and published by Him who is the head of it. It pertains not to the officers in Christ's kingdom to make laws of their own, but to interpret those already made, and apply them to particular cases. Nor is their interpretation, or method of applying, to be received with such a blind and implicit faith and obedience, as excludes examination, or supersedes the need of it, so far as the capacities and opportunities of individuals will admit. This would be very unreasonable, unless that was true, which we believe to be false; and the pretence to which we utterly condemn, namely, that infallibility is vested in the ministerial office.-Every one must search the Scriptures, the invariable standard of truth and duty, for himself, and judge of the things spoken by his teachers, according as they agree or disagree herewith. "To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them."
Ministers, in our constitution at least, pretend not "to be lords of their people's faith, but helpers of their joy." They disclaim all that authority which doth not consist with the right of private judgment: They disown all power to rule the consciences of men They find not where Christ, "to whom all power in heaven and earth is committed," has parcelled out ecclesiastical
authority, in different measures to a great variety of ranks, in the ministerial office, to be by them exercised in all the future ages of his church. Those passages in the apostles' writings which seem to favor such a thing, we think, would cease to have such an appearance, were the words, which are translated bishops, elders, evangelists, pastors and teachers, understood according to their genuine meaning, and the sense, in which they are used in the inspired writings; one place in which we find them, being compared with another. Or such passages would be found to refer only to the infant state of Christianity, and the first spread of the gospel; where persons were extraordinarily called to office, were immediately inspired by God, and had the miraculous gifts of the Holy Ghost bestowed on them-the time when the canon of Scripture was not completed, and consequently the various laws and rules for the future administration of Christ's kingdom, not revealed.
The authority residing in the sacred office is always to be considered as derived from Christ, "the great shepherd and bishop of souls." Nor have any men, not even the civil magistrates, any right to enlarge or contract it, beside the limits which he has established for his kingdom is not of this world." He has marked the boundaries of ministerial authority, which may not be transgressed. The instructions of ministers must always be founded on his word, otherwise they are not authoritative: But when they are able to say as the apostle does, though in a lower sense," that which we have received of the Lord deliver we unto you," they may expect the attention and obedience of their people.
Their sentences in church discipline, must have the same dependence on the directions of Christ, in order to become valid: when this is the case their authority is real : "Whatsoever they bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever they loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven."
Christ hath never given his ministers a right to lord it over his heritage, or to rule his people with a rod of iron. He has never put a sword into their hands to defend or spread his gospel: "the weapons of their warfare are not carnal." Like their divine Master, they must rule in meekness. There is no inconsistency, however, between the directions "to rebuke sharply, and with all authority, and to instruct with meekness those that oppose themselves:" Each method of address is to take place in turn; and "wisdom is profitable to direct," when one of them is proper, and when another.
Upon the whole: A due attention to the important design of their office, will lead ministers to the proper seasons of exerting their authority, as well as the manner of doing it. If they regard
the good of their people's souls, under a lively apprehension of their accountableness to Him, who has committed them to their charge; they will be in no great danger of abusing the power with which they are vested; but will make it subservient to the true intention of it.
This leads me to take notice of the second article of ministers' duty, contained in the text, viz. their watching for the souls, which are committed to their charge.
"Watching for souls," is a very significant phrase; and greatly expressive of the duty of the ministers of God's word. It seems to allude to the business of shepherds, in watching over their flocks who guard them from beasts of prey, and other dangers to which they are exposed: who endeavor to prevent their wandering from the fold, and to reduce them when they have gone astray who carefully and diligently feed both the sheep and the lambs, that they may grow and flourish. Agreeably, it is the duty of ministers, in watching for souls, in general, to maintain a sense of the matter of their charge; the souls of men-seriously to consider their worth and importance; and the dangerous state into which they are all brought by sin-to exert themselves, in every proper way, to bring them to a sense of the evil and danger of their sinful state; and to lead them into the knowledge of the gospel-salvation, that they may secure a share in it.
This general design, steadily and faithfully pursued, will lead to a great variety of duties, in all which, ministers properly watch for souls. Some of these may be briefly mentioned. The limits of a single discourse will not allow me to take in the whole compass of them; or to enlarge much upon any. The principal ones, however, may perhaps, by the attentive hearer, be found comprised under the following heads.
This watch for souls will, in the first place, lead the faithful minister of Christ, to a very diligent and impartial study of the holy Scriptures. The necessity hereof is obvious. The word of God is the fountain from whence he must derive all that light and knowledge, which are necessary for him, both in his private capacity, to lead him in the way to God and happiness; and in his public character, to instruct him in the whole compass of his duty; and "to furnish him to every good word and work."
Nowhere, but in this fountain, can that knowledge be found, which "the priest's lips are to preserve," and communicate. All the counsels and instructions; the warnings and cautions; the reproofs and exhortations; the comforts and encouragements, with which the ministers of Christ are to address their people, from time to time, according to their various circumstances, are to be found in the Scriptures of truth.
But these are not to be found, in their due connection, and in
their native force and beauty, without diligent study, and close application of mind. A cursory reader of God's word, will get a superficial knowledge of the truths and duties of our holy religion; which may puff him up with a fond conceit of his attainments; and make him confident that he is qualified to be a leader of the blind, and a teacher of the ignorant: But this will never furnish him with such a fund of divine knowledge; such a store of well digested sentiments in religion, as shall enable him, "like the good householder, to bring out of his treasure things new and old."
Great impartiality is necessary in studying the Scriptures. They take an ill method to know the truth as it is in Jesus, who, in searching the Bible, give a sense to it, which they force it to speak; but are not content to take one from it, which it speaks of itself. This is not to take the Scriptures for our guide, but to set up ourselves to be a guide to them. In opposition to such a temper and conduct, our minds should ever be kept open to conviction, and ready to admit the light of truth at all times. We should be willing to give up an opinion, long entertained, if it appears not to be founded on the Scriptures; and to embrace a doctrine, against which we might have strong prejudices, if we find, by strict and impartial examination, that it is indeed supported by the word of God.
A minister of Christ will never be duly qualified to be a spiritual watchman, without such a strict and impartial study of the sacred oracles. And this, in a man of piety, will always be accompanied with humble and earnest prayer, to the Father of lights, that by his Spirit he would "open his understanding, to understand the Scriptures;" and lead him into all necessary truth.
Again: This watch for souls, will lead a faithful minister of Christ, to exercise great care and circumspection, in the government of his own temper, and conduct, that they be always becoming the gospel of Christ. It is a very important part of apostolical instruction to ministers; " to take heed to themselves," as well as their doctrine, without duly attending to which, they will be able to take but poor care of the flock of God, over which they are made overseers. They must look to the religion of their own hearts to the temper of their own minds-to the conduct of their own lives. These, when duly guarded and governed, will have very great influence on their usefulness. What force and energy will their godly lives and conversations, flowing from sincere inward piety, give to their counsels and instructions? How happy must it be, to be able, if occasion calls for it, to appeal to their people, as the apostle does to the Thessalonians : "Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly, and unblamably we behaved ourselves among you!
There is indeed scarce any thing, in which ministers can watch