The External Institutions of Christianity

Divinely Constituted


Hezekiah Harvey



In the following discussion it is assumed that the outward institutions of the Christian religion are of God, and that, therefore, their form and order as delineated in the New Testament, are of divine obligation. The Bible presents a definite and final constitution of the church, the ordinances, and the ministry, and is on these subjects the sufficient guide and the only authority; no man may set aside, alter, or supplement the divine model there given.

Two classes of objectors however, assail this position, one affirming the authority of the Fathers, the other the doctrine of expediency.

I. Patristic Authority

The first class regard the Christian institutions as existing only in the germ during the Apostolic age, and as receiving complete development in the Patristic period; they accept, therefore, the teachings of the Fathers as on this subject supplementing the teachings of Scripture. The church of the first six centuries, and not the church of the New Testament, is to them the true Church of Christ.

To these we reply: 1. The Scriptures give no intimation of imperfection in the apostolic organization of Christianity ; on the contrary, they expressly require conformity to the apostolic model. Thus, Paul, addressing Titus, says (Tit. i. 5) : " For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldst set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee." Explicit directions are given respecting the membership, officers, and discipline of the churches, and the ordinances to be administered, with no hint that these are to be supplemented by clearer instructions in after-ages. A gradual development of the Christian institutions is, indeed, apparent during the earlier ministry of the apostles, but there is all evidence that they attained their final constitution before these inspired men passed from earth. 2. The Christian institutions, as represented in the Fathers, were radically different at different periods. The simple parochial churches of the second century, for example, each complete in itself; and organized with its chosen bishop, presbyters, and deacon, were utterly unlike the great world-organization called the Church in the fifth century, with its hierarchy of metropolitan, diocesan bishops, and multitudinous priestly officials modeled in constitution after the Roman Empire; and the difference was so fundamental, in principle and form, that the former cannot be conceived as the divine germ from which the latter was normally developed. An appeal to the Fathers, therefore, would leave-us in utter uncertainty as to what is the true church. 3. Besides, if the authority of men later than the apostles is to decide the form of the Christian institutions, we cannot logically stop with the Patristic period, but must, in that case, accept the Romish doctrine of a continued inspiration in the church, which through all ages supplements the Bible by defining and perfecting its statements of doctrine and duty. For the restriction of the alleged process of development to that earlier period rests upon no adequate reason; on the contrary, if such a development were designed, it would be far more natural to think that it would continue to the end of the world.

Plainly, this theory of development, by its denial of the sufficiency of Scripture, subverts the fundamental principle of Protestantism, and, while logically less coherent than Romanism, involves, by necessary sequence, all the pernicious results of the papal departure from the infallible authority of God's word to the fallible authority of man. Indeed, Patristic Ecclesiasticism, has no logical place among Protestants. It gravitates by natural and necessary laws to Roman Catholicism, and not a few of the ablest minds in the Episcopal body, especially in the Anglican communion, are therefore passing into the older and more consistent church.


II. The Doctrine of Expediency

The other class insists that there is no divinely-required form of the Christian institutions, this being a matter of expediency, to be determined by men according to the ever-changing conditions and needs of human society. Neander, speaking of the New Testament church, says: The apostles "gave the church this particular organization, which, while it was best adapted to the circumstances and relations of the church at that time, was also best suited to the extension of the churches in their peculiar condition, and for the development of the inward principles of their communion. But forms may change with every change of circumstances. Whenever, at a later period, any form of church government has arisen out of a series of events according to the direction of divine providence, and is organized and governed with regard to the Lord's will, he may be said himself to have established it and to operate through it by his Spirit" Thus, in substance, Stillingfleet and Whately, and, in the present day, many popular leaders of religious thought. According to these, all the different forms of the church and of the ordinances are equally valid, provided they are adapted to the age and circumstances in which they exist. Expediency is the only criterion of validity.

The following considerations, however, seem to me conclusive against this doctrine:

1. The Mosaic institutions were established after a divine model, and might not be changed by the fallible judgment of man. The reason of this is found in their character as symbols of divine truth. The whole ancient ritual was a visible revelation of God's thoughts, and he only could direct the form of their expression. Men, ignorant of the truths to be expressed, could not originate these symbols nor could they change them without also changing the ideas symbolized. Hence, God himself instituted the forms, and made them unchangeable by man. Now, the Christian institutions, like the Mosaic, are a visible expression of divine truth; and a change in their form by man must needs impair or pervert their power as symbols of God's thought. All the reasons which forbade man to change the form of the ancient institutions also exist to forbid a change in the Christian. Indeed, the higher significance of Christianity would imply that the forms in which it finds expression are of higher importance and "obligation," and should be held even more sacred from human mutilation or change.

2. Reason and history alike show that the outward institutions of the gospel exert a vital influence on doctrine and life; it is not credible, therefore, that their constitution and form are left to the fallible wisdom of man. The influence which the form of civil government exerts on the sentiments and life of a nation is one of the plainest teachings of history; it is a silent, everywhere-present power, molding the opinions and character of a people. It is a significant fact that in the primitive churches the earliest departure from the gospel was not in the false statement of doctrine, but in the perversion of church government and ordinances. Sacerdotalism and sacramentalism led the way to the later corruption of Christianity in its doctrinal form.

3. These institutions must needs have in the New Testament some distinguishing characteristics clearly defining them; otherwise, the duties enjoined in connection with them can never be certainly performed. If the Scriptures do not define what a church is, how can a believer know whether he is a member of a church? If they do not make plain what baptism is, how can he be certain that he has been baptized? The duties required necessarily imply a divinely-revealed form of the church and the ordinances; otherwise, God would have imposed solemn obligations on men, but left them no means of knowing how to perform them. Indeed, the common sense of Christendom recognizes here the necessity of divine direction and the authority of apostolic example; for all parties, in the last resort, seek to maintain the validity of their organizations and ordinances by an appeal to the New Testament.

4. It is plain that Christ himself instituted the church and the ordinances and gave them a definite form; for, in giving directions respecting the discipline of an offending brother, he requires as the final Step: " Tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican" (Matt. xviii. 17). Here the church is spoken of as an institution well understood by the apostles, which necessarily presupposes that it had been either already established by Christ or clear]y defined by him. The ordinances of Baptism and the Lord's Supper were both expressly appointed by him, the form of the one being distinctly defined alike by the term employed and by his own example, and of the other by his personal administration of it. There is every reason for believing that the institutions of the gospel, thus appointed by its Founder, were established by the apostles according to the constitution and order which he prescribed and the example of the apostles, therefore, carries with it the authority of Christ.

5. The apostles were expressly inspired for the full establishment of the Christian institutions. Christ said to them, "Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. xviii. 18), where, as is evident from the context, he refers to the order and government of the church. This promise, with others scarcely less explicit, assured to them divine guidance and sanction in their official acts in the outward organization of Christianity; and their example, therefore, in these acts has for us all the binding authority of divine law. The apostles did in fact establish these institutions with a definite form. They everywhere required, as a condition of church membership, the same spiritual character and the same general duties. They ordained the same officers in every church (Acts xiv. 23 ; Phil. i. 1 ; 1 Tim. iii. 1-15). They instituted in all places the same ordinances (Rom. vi. 3 ; 1 Cor. xili 2, 20-34). Their assistants also were directed to constitute churches and establish ordinances in accordance with the apostolic form. The Epistles to Timothy and Titus are filled with directions in regard to the constitution and order of "the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. iii. 1-15; Tit. i. 5). Indeed, the large space which is given in the New Testament to instruction in regard to these outward institutions, while it emphasizes their importance, also demonstrates the permanence of their form; for, while in a few instances these directions refer to usages purely local and transient, the main body of them are manifestly permanent as Christianity, and are given for all time and all the world. The whole tenor of Scripture makes it plain that the church and the ordinances had in the Apostolic age a well-defined form and order, for everywhere they are referred to as definite and well understood and as established by apostolic authority.

True, there is in the Bible no formulated statement of the ecclesiastical constitution, but so also there is no formal scientific statement of a system of Christian doctrines; yet, as the latter fact does not prove that the Bible contains no system of divine truth; so neither does the former, that it has no definite ecclesiastical constitution. Plainly, in revelation as in nature God has set forth manifold facts and principles, and as a means of mental and spiritual development has made it obligatory on men, by careful investigation and comparison of these, to evolve from them the system of truth and the ecclesiastical constitution he has ordained. And if, as has been shown, the apostles, in establishing these institutions, acted under the guidance of the infallible Spirit, it necessarily follows that their example, when clearly ascertained, has all the force of a divine precept and is obligatory as a divine law. It follows also that the ecclesiastical constitution of the New Testament, being divinely established, remains through all ages as alone valid, there being no inspired authority, subsequent to the apostles, competent to alter or abolish it.

The Bible, therefore, is the all-sufficient guide and the only authority in respect to the outward institutions of Christianity. Whatever principles it inculcates, whatever forms it establishes, as pertaining to these institutions, are of solemn obligation. No man has the right to disregard or alter or abolish them; every such assumption is an invasion of the prerogatives of God.


The Church; its polity and ordinances. Hezekiah Harvey. Backus Book Publishers. P.O. Box 17274. Rochester, N.Y. 14617. 1982, pages 13-20. (This is a reprint: Originally published in 1879 by the American Baptist Publication Society. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.)