Of The Largeness Of Churches

The following is from The Works of John Robinson, Pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers, with a Memoir and Annotations by Robert Ashton, 3 vols (London: John Snow, 1851). Vol. 3. And can be found here as well.

And first, it is evident, that the most, especially city churches, are so great and populous, as that two or three divers temples are not sufficient for one and the same church to meet in at once. We on the contrary, so judge, that no particular church under the New Testament, ought to consist of more members than can meet together in one place; because:

• The Holy Scriptures speaking definitely of the political, or ministerial, commonly called, visible church, instituted by Christ, and his apostles, by his power, understand none other than one congregation convening, and coming together, ordinary at least, in one place. Matt.18:17, 20, “gathered together in my name:” with 1 Corinthians 4, “when you are come together.” Acts 2:44, “All that believed were together:” and chap. v. 12, “They were all with one accord in Solomon's porch.” Also chap. 6:2, 5; 13:1, 2; 14:23, 27; 15:4, 22, 25; Titus 1: 5. So 1 Corinthians 11:20, “When ye therefore come together in one,” to wit, place, not mind, as some conceit, for from that the Corinthians were too far: and lastly, chap. 14:23, “If the whole church come together into some place.”

• There is then had the most full, and perfect communion of the body in the holy things of God, which is the next and immediate end of the visible church, when all the members thereof do convene, and assemble together in some one place, Acts ii. 42; Heb. x. 25. And if nature, as philosophers teach, ever intend that which is most perfect, much more, grace. Now that the church, commonly called visible, is then most truly visible indeed, when it is assembled in one place; and the communion thereof then most full, and entire, when all its members inspired, as it were, with the same presence of the Holy Ghost, do from the same pastor, receive the same provocations of grace, at the same time, and in the same place: when they all by the same voice, “banding as it were together,” do with, one accord pour out their prayers unto God: when they all participate of one, and the same holy bread, 1 Cor. x. 17; and lastly, when they all together consent unanimously, either in the choice of the same officer, or censuring of the same offender, no man admitting a due thought of things, can make doubt of.

• We have the apostle Paul giving it in charge to the elders of every particular church, as was that of Ephesus, “that they take heed unto all the flock, whereof the Holy Ghost made them bishops,” or overseers, “to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with Ms own blood.” Acts xx. 17, 28. But surely, as that flock is very inordinate, if not monstrous, which for the largeness thereof, neither ever doth, nor possibly can feed together; so that shepherd of the Lord's flock seemeth not aright, and as he ought, to fulfil his charge, which doth not at the least, every Lord's day, minister unto the same, the wholesome food of God's Word. Add hereunto, that in these huge and vast floeks, the governors cannot take knowledge of the manners of the people, private or public; no, nor so much as of their presence at, or absence from the church assemblies; whereby what damage cometh unto true piety, any man may easily conjecture, and miserable experience makes too manifest in the reformed churches. I conclude therefore, since, as Junius saith, “it concerneth the pastor thoroughly to know the church committed unto him, the persons, their works and courses, without the knowledge of which things, he shall profit them no more than a tinkling cymbal,” that it were a point of good provision both for the conscience of the officers, and edification of the people, that a division were made of the city churches, which by continual accession of members, are thus grown out of kind, into different, and distinct congregations, under their certain, and distinct pastors, and elders.

If any object, that there is one visible, and catholic church, comprehending as the parts thereof, all the particular churches, and several congregations of divers places; as there is one ocean, or sea, diversely called, according to the divers regions by whose shores it passeth; and that therefore this matter is not worth labour spending about it, I answer, first, that the catholic church neither is, nor can be called visible: since only things singular are visible, and discerned by sense: whereas universals, or things catholic, are either only in the understanding, as some are of mind; or as others think better, are made such, to wit, universals, by the understanding abstracting from them all circumstantial accidents, considering that the kinds intelligible have their existence in nature, that is in the individuals,*

Second, the catholic church, with due reverence unto learned men be it spoken, is very unskilfully said to be one, as the sea is one. For:

• It is expressly said, Gen. i. 9, 10, that the waters which were under the heavens, were gathered into one place, or conceptacle, which God called sea, or seas. But the catholic church, which is said to comprehend all particular congregations in her bosom, is not gathered together into one place, nor ever shall be, before the glorious coming of Christ.

• The ocean is a body so continued, as that all and every part thereof is continually fluent, so as the selfsame waters, which in their flux do make one sea, do in their reflux by contrary winds, make another, and so contrariwise. But thus to affirm of particular churches, and their material constitutive cause, were most absurd.

• If some one particular sea were drawn dry, or should fail his course, a disturbance of all the rest would necessarily follow; but and if the sea should in divers places at once happen to be exhausted, or drawn dry, there would then be a failing of the ocean: neither were the waters now gathered into one place, neither made they one sea, and body of water, either continued or conjoined. But now, on the other side, upon the defection, or dissipation of this or that particular church, no such impediment should come in the way, but that the rest might hold their full course, as before. Yea, I add moreover, if all and every particular assembly in the world should languish, and fall away, one only excepted, that only one did still remain the true and entire church of Christ, without any either subordination, or co-ordination, or dependency spiritual, save unto Christ alone. The reason is plain, because this singular and sole assembly may, under Christ the head, use and enjoy every one of his institutions: the communion of saints combined together in solemn, and sacred covenant, the Word of God, sacraments, censures, and ministrations whatsoever by Christ appointed, and therewith, the same Christ's most gracious presence.

And upon this ground it is, that the apostle Paul doth entitle the particular congregation, which was at Corinth, and which properly, and immediately he did instruct, and admonish, “the body of Christ,” “the temple of God,” and one “virgin espoused to one husband Christ.” 1 Cor. xii. 27; 2 Cor. vi. 10; xi. 2. We may not therefore under pretence of antiquity, unity, human prudence, or any colour whatsoever, remove the ancient bounds of the visible and ministerial church, which our right fathers, to wit, the apostles, have set; in comparison of whom, the most ancient of those, which are so called, are but infants, and beardless, as one truly, and wittily saith.

There is indeed one church, and as the apostle speaketh, “one body, as one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one faith, one baptism;” Eph. iv. 4, 5; that is, of one kind, and nature; not one in number, as one ocean. Neither was the church at Rome in the apostles’ days, more one with the church of Corinth, than was the baptism of Peter one with Paul's baptism, or than Peter and Paul were one. Neither was Peter or Paul more one, whole, entire, and perfect man, consisting of their parts essential and integral, without relation unto other men, than is a particular congregation, rightly instituted and ordered, a whole, entire, and perfect church immediately and independently, in respect of other churches, under Christ.

To conclude, since the pastor is not a minister of some part of a church, but of the whole particular church, Acts xx. 28. Attend to the whole flock, or church, “whereof the Holy Ghost hath made you bishops,” if the minister's office be to be confined within the circle of a particular congregation, then also the ministerial church itself. Now the pastor's office is either circumscribed within these bounds, or else “the angel of the church of Ephesus “was also “the angel of the church of Smyrna;” and so the pastor of this church is also the pastor of that; and by consequence, of all; that is, every pastor is an universal bishop, or pope by office; if not for execution, yet for power; according to which power, we are to judge of the office.

What then? will some man say. Is it not lawful for a pastor to execute his pastoral office but in the congregation over which he is set? I answer, with the apostle, “No man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as Aaron,” Heb. v. 4. It is not lawful for thee, reverend brother, to do the work of a pastor where thou art no pastor, lest thou arrogate to thyself that honour, which appertains not unto thee. Thou art called, that is elected, and ordained a pastor of some particular church, and not of all churches. It is not only lawful, but requisite, that the pastor of one church, or rather he that is the pastor, and so any other member, impart the gift either spiritual, or bodily, which he hath received, to other churches, out of the common bond of charity in which he is obliged: not so, to execute a public office over them by the prerogative of authority, which he hath not but only over his own. We will illustrate this by a similitude. Any citizen of Leyden may enjoy certain privileges in the city of Delft, by virtue of the politic combination of the United provinces, and cities, under the supreme heada thereof, the States-general; which he is bound also to help and assist with all his power if necessity require; but that the ordinary magistrate of Leyden should presume to execute his public office in the city of Delft, were an insolent, and unheard of usurpation. The very same, and not otherwise, is to be said of pastors, and particular churches, in respect of that spiritual combination mutual under their chief and sole Lord, Jesus Christ.