Concerning the order and government of the church of Christ

Editor’s note: For Isaac Penington “church” refers to the true spiritual body, gathered out of the world, abiding in the life and power which it professes. In these selections, which appear in two tracts, he addresses the following questions:

* What is the church — or, in the traditional language of Friends, the meeting?
* Who are members of the true church? What is the church built upon? What unites the church?
* Who governs the church?
* Why should we join the meeting when we can worship God and be led by ourselves? Isn’t the light within each person sufficient?
* What is the church’s response to God?
* Why is order and government necessary in the meeting?
* Does order and government mean denying one’s own experience of the light to turn to another’s experience?
* In a situation where there is doubt, which shall have the final word — the light within a particular person or the light within the church members?
* How important is unity in the meeting?
* How does it come about?

Part One

But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. Jeremiah 31:33

They are the gospel-church who are the people of God, according to this covenant, who have the law put by God into their inward parts, and writ in their hearts; and so, according to this law and covenant, have God to be their God, and are his people, and are taught by him to know him (inwardly and experimentally) . . .

The church of God under the new covenant is a company of living stones, quickened by God, and knit together in the unity and fellowship of his Spirit, to worship God together in his Spirit, and offer up unto him spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. These stones are joined together by the Spirit of life, which begets them all in one nature, and knits them together in that nature. By Christ’s baptism, which is the baptism of fire and of his Spirit, which burns up the old earthly nature, and so baptizes them into one new living body, suitable and fitting to their head, which is the fountain of life, and distributes life through all the body according to its capacity, need, and service.

This church is built upon the rock or foundation of God… which rock is Christ. For other foundation can no man lay, than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Christ is head over all things to him that fiIleth all in all …. They are the temple of the living God, in which God will dwell and walk, and be their God, and they his people. There is God’s presence revealed; there Christ is in the midst, whenever they are gathered together in his name.

It is the holy will and pleasure of the great God that his church should be governed by his Holy Spirit and power revealed in it. God is the God of order, and not of confusion, and he would have everything in the right and holy order everywhere, especially in his church. He hath given a measure of his good Spirit to every man, and he would have every man governed thereby: and he hath given more of his good Spirit and holy power to his church than to any particular (person), and he would have his church governed thereby.

There is great benefit and safety to every particular (person) in the holy order and government which God hath ordained in his church. God knoweth it is not fit for believers or his gathered-ones to be alone, and therefore he hath appointed, that by the same power and spirit which gathered them, they should be added to the church which he hath already gathered. And then they are in the place where God takes care of them; where the Lord God appears; where the Lord God dwells. There life is in its unity and strength; there light shines as in its proper place; there the Shepherd is, who keeps the sheep from erring; there the leading power, the preserving power, the ordering power, is daily waited for, and experienced in its brightness and clearness.

The church is a body; every particular soul that is renewed, quickened, and kept alive is a member. Now every member needs the presence and power of that Spirit which quickened it, to nourish, keep alive, and order it. And the church hath much more need of the Spirit to be present with it, to guide it and order it, and keep it in the holy order, power, and government of life. And indeed, we do not desire any greatness or authority of man; but that all men may be but his servants and ministers in the church. . . . This is the day of the Lord, of the setting up and exalting of his power in the church, which the church waiteth for and knoweth the appearance of, and cannot bear the exaltation of man (of man’s spirit, wisdom, power, and authority) instead of the Lord’s.

God gives power to his church to perform all that he requires of her as a church. Now the church is a spiritual body, and is to take care of her members, to look after them when they mind the truth, and walk according to the truth, and to admonish and reprove them when they do otherwise. And every member of the church ought to hear the church, in whatever she speaks unto it from God.

A true church is a truly spiritual body, gathered out of the world, or worldly nature and spirit, into God’s nature and Spirit, there to live and walk with him, and worship him in spirit and truth, and for him to tabernacle in and walk among, and fill with his glorious presence and powerful life. It is not the profession of the truth makes a true believer; nor is it a company of professors makes a true church; but their proceeding from, and union with the truth itself; and their abiding in the life and power of that which they profess.

Part Two

CHRIST, who is the Head, Lord, and King, has appointed a spiritual order and government to be his church and congregation. A spiritual order and government is useful, profitable, and necessary for the well-being and right-managing of this spiritual body and holy society in the faith and life of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Christ gave power of government to his apostles and ministers at the first publication of his everlasting gospel. He gave power to his apostles and ministers to preach his everlasting gospel to the world, to gather his sheep out of the world, and to watch over them, oversee them, reprove, exhort, admonish, and build up in the holy faith. He also gave power to cut off and cast out that which was unholy that which would dispute against, and not submit to, the spirit, life and power of truth.

Christ gave them gifts also, spirits of discerning, that they might be eyes to the body; and quick (living) ears that they might hear for the body. For though the Lord has given everyone an eye and an ear; yet everyone is not made by the Lord an eye or ear to the body.

Titles were given them suitable to their offices and services, as pastors or shepherds after God’s heart. . . overseers or bishops, to lay the foundation, and also carryon the building, even to perfection. . . . They were to watch against, testify against, and in the power and authority of the Lord, to strike at all that was contrary and all that would endeavour to interrupt, overturn, and destroy their work.

The body and common members of the churches were to hearken to these. . . to obey them in the Lord, to submit to this ministry, and their work in it, in the Lord; to receive the word of truth and holy exhortations and admonitions

0, read this, and praise the name of the Lord, for his mercy in former generations …. Does not God renew his commission… to preach his everlasting gospel? He gives power to preach to the world, and to gather those, that hear the everlasting voice, into holy assemblies, separated in spirit, nature, and appearance from the world. They have authority and gifts to build up, as well as to plant. Those that are gathered ought to be subject to the light, spirit, power, and authority of the Lord in them. . . .

Now against this holy order and government appointed by God; there may arise in some hearts some objections:

Objection 1. Is this a turning away from the measure of life in one person to another man’s measure?

Answer. Waiting on God in his ordinances and appointments, and upon the ministry which he has set up teaches the measure of life. . . it is not a turning from the measure, but a subjecting to the Lord in the measure of his life. . . .

Objection 2. Is not the least measure of life in any person (if subjected to, waited on, and believed in) sufficient to instruct and build up a perfect man in God?

Answer. There is a sufficiency in every measure of life to the work God has appointed for that measure. There is a greater sufficiency in the growth and fuller proportion of life…. The lesser, the weaker, the poor, the afflicted, the babes, are to be helped by the stronger, especially in their darkness, afflictions, and temptations. And so the greater, in the life, Spirit, and power of the Lord, is a strength and blessing to the weaker. . . .

When anyone comes to [the stronger] for advice, they are to wait on the Lord to feel the state [of the person coming to them]. The stronger is then to give forth what the Lord gives them, either words from the Lord to the party concerning their state or directions to retire in, and wait for his more immediate appearance in their own measures. For when we feel the presence and mighty power of God [in the stronger], we are too apt to look at them, and then a word may come (proper to our states) to recall us to retire to our measure. And when we feel immediate relief from the Lord, and his appearing to us in our retiredness in our own spirits, then we may be apt to despise the gifts and services of others. Then another word may come from [the stronger] , proper to our states then, to warn us not to despise prophesying or the gifts, power, and authority of life in others. Now, both these are proper, useful, and weighty in their seasons, when given forth by the Spirit one to another, but subservient in their seasons and places. . . .

The end of the ministry is not only to gather, but also to preserve and build up what is gathered, even to perfection. The soul is (especially at first, if not for a long time) weak and babyish, and not so fully acquainted with the measure of life (having had but some touches and demonstrations of it, but not being gathered fully into it, nor rooted and settled in it) . . . . The soul in this state has as much need of the ministry to preserve, direct, and watch over it in the truth, as to gather it out of the world. Therefore, the Father, in his tender mercy and love, has appointed those who are grown in his life (and in the power and authority of his Spirit) to oversee, watch over, instruct, and take care of the flock. . . .

Objection 3. In a case of doubt or difference, which shall be the judge; the measure of life within, or the testimony of others?

Answer. It is not an easy matter, in all cases, clearly and understandingly to discern the voice of the shepherd, the motions of God’s Spirit, and clearly distinguish the measure of life from all other voices, motions, and appearances . . . . Through much growth in the truth, much fear and trembling, through much sobriety and meekness, through much exercise of the senses, this is at length given and obtained. And yet there is a preservation at the same time to that which is lowly and submissive, looking up to the Lord continually, and not trusting to one’s own understanding, sense and judgment. But that which is hasty and confident, and so ready to plead for its own sense and judgment, according to the measure of life-that is commonly out of the measure and into the erring spirit; pleading and contending for it knows not what…

Let the measure of life judge freely in thee at any time concerning anything, and that judgment will stand for ever. But be thou wary, wait on the Lord, that thou may be sure that thou do not mistake in thy own particular, calling that life which the Lord and his people know to be otherwise.

Now for a close — there are some considerations springing up in my heart concerning unity:

1. Unity in the spiritual body, which is gathered into and knit together in the pure life, is a most natural and comely thing. . . it is exceedingly lovely to find all that are of the Lord of one heart, of one mind, of one judgment, in one way of practice and order in all things.

2. The Lord is to be waited upon for the bringing forth: of this in the body; that as there is a foundation of it laid in all (the life and spring being over all), so all may be brought by him into the true and full oneness.

3. The Lord is to be acknowledged and praised in the bringing of it forth… and to be waited upon for the further perfecting of it.

4. A watch is to be kept (throughout the whole body, and in every heart) for the preserving of it . . . .

Now, it is also in my heart to mention a few things which I have found helpful to me towards the preserving of me in unity with the body:

1. First is the pure fear of the Lord. This poises and guards the mind, keeping down fleshly confidence and conceitedness, making it wary and considerate either of what it receives or rejects; of what it practices, or for- bears practicing. This causes it to wait much, try much, and consult much with the Lord, and with his ministers and people, and preserves out of suddenness and inconsiderateness of spirit. For truth is weighty, and will bear trial; and the more it is tried in the balance, the more manifest its nature and ways appear.

2. Second is humility of heart… in this state the Lord helps and teaches, and the soul also is fit to receive the help and teaching of the Lord. That which is lifted up and conceited (ready to justify its own way, and condemn even the whole body) is neither fit to be taught by the Lord, nor does the Lord delight to teach it. And so, not being taught by him, it must needs be liable to err. . . to hearken to that spirit, whose voice is more pleasing and suitable to the erring mind than the Lord’s voice is.

3. A third great help… is sobriety of judgment. Not to value or setup my own judgment, or that which I account the judgment of life in me, above the judgment of others, or that which is indeed life in others. For the Lord has appeared to others, as well as to me… there are others who are in the growth of his truth, and in the purity and dominion of his life, far beyond me.

4. The last is tenderness, meekness, coolness, and stillness of spirit. These are of a uniting, preserving nature.

The Lord God, of his tender mercy, who is the great shepherd of the sheep, watch over, preserve, and mightily defend all his from all devouring spirits… carrying on and perfecting the work of his goodness, love, and mercy in them, to his own glorious, eternal, everlasting praise. Amen.