Concerning human precepts and the authority of ecclesiastical traditions.

There are four classes of things concerning which men give commandment. These are first, divine precepts which God desires that men should propose unto themselves for their observance, not however in their own name, but by the authority of God himself, as being the ministers and messengers and not the authors of these precepts. It is in this way that the ministers of the gospel declare the doctrine revealed from heaven to the church, parents to their children, teachers to their pupils, and that magistrates make known to their subjects the precepts of the Decalogue. Obedience to these commandments is, and is called the worship of God because they are not human but divine precepts, to which it is necessary to yield obedience, even though the authority or command of no creature accede thereto; yea, even if all creatures should enjoin the contrary. The Scriptures speak of these commandments in the following places: “My son keep thy father‘s commandment, and forsake not the law of thy mother.” “The man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the Lord thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall.” “If he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man, and a publican.” (Prov. 6:20. Deut. 17:12. Matt. 18:17. See, also, Luke 10:17. Thes. 4:2, 8. Ex. 16:8. Matt. 23:2, 8. Heb. 13:17. 1 Cor. 4:21:2 Co. 13:10. 2 Thes. 3:14.) All these declarations teach that we ought to yield obedience to men, as the ministers of God, in those things which properly belong to the ministry; but they do not grant the power to a anyone to institute new forms of divine worship at their own pleasure, according as it is written: “Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.” “As I besought thee that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine.” (Prov. 30:6. 1 Tim. 1:3. See, also, 1 Tim. 6:25; 4:11. 2 Tim. 3:16, 17.)

Secondly, there are civil ordinances prescribed by men, which include the arrangement, or fixing of those circumstances which are necessary and useful for securing the observance of the moral precepts of the second table. Such are the positive laws of magistrates, parents, teachers, masters, and all those who are placed in positions of authority. Obedience is the worship of God in as far as it has respect to the general, which is moral and commanded by God, and includes obedience to the magistrate and others in authority; but not in as far as it pertains to that which is special in regard to the action, or to the circumstances connected with it in this respect it is not the worship of God, because only those works constitute divine worship, which it is necessary to do on account of the commandment of God, even though no creature had given any precept respecting them; but these were it not that the magistrate commands them, might be done or omitted without any offence to God. But yet these civil ordinances prescribed by magistrates and others bind the conscience; that is, they must necessarily be complied with, and cannot be disregarded without offence to God, even though it might be done without being connected with any public scandal, if we would keep our obedience pure and unsullied. So to bear or not to bear arms, is not the worship of God; but when the magistrate commands, or prohibits it, the obedience which is then rendered constitutes divine worship: and he who acts contrary to this command or prohibition, sins against God even though he might so conceal it, as to offend no man; because the general, viz. obedience to the magistrate, which is the worship of God, is then violated. Yet these actions do not in themselves, constitute the worship of God; it is only by accident, on account of the command of the magistrate. If this were not to intervene, obedience would not be violated.

The following passages of Scripture are here in point; “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.” “Whosoever resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.” “Wherefore ye must needs be subject not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.” “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities, and powers, to obey magistrates, &c.” (Rom. 13:1, 3, 5. Tit. 8:1. Also Eph. 6:1. Col. 3:22, 23.)

Thirdly, there are ecclesiastical or ceremonial ordinances described by men, which include the determinations of circumstances necessary or useful for the maintenance of the moral precepts of the first table; of which kind are the time, the place, the form and order of sermons, prayers, reading in the church, fasts, the manner of proceeding in the election of ministers, in collecting and distributing alms, and things of a similar nature, concerning which God has given no particular command. That which is general in regard to these laws is moral, as in the case of civil enactments, if they are only correctly and profitably made, and is, therefore, the worship of God. But, as to the ceremonies themselves which are here prescribed, they neither constitute the worship of God, nor bind men‘s consciences, nor is the observance of them necessary, except when a neglect of them would be the occasion of offence. So it is not the worship of God, but a thing indifferent, and not binding upon men‘s consciences, to use this, or that form of prayer, to pray at this, or at that time, at this, or at that hour, in this, or in that place, standing or kneeling, to read and explain this or that text of Scripture in the church, to eat or not to eat flesh, &c. Nor does this power and authority to establish, abolish, or change these ordinances, belong merely to the church, as she may think it best for her edification; but the consciences of particular individuals also retain this liberty, so that they may either omit or do these things differently, without offending God, if no one take offence at it; that is if they do it, neither from contempt or neglect of the ministry, nor from wantonness, or ambition, nor with a desire of contention or novelty, nor with an intention of offending the weak. And the reason is, that laws are observed properly, when they are observed according to the intention and design of the lawgiver. The church however, ought to see to it that such ordinances as are established concerning things which are indifferent, be observed not out of regard to her authority, or command, but only for the sake of observing order, and a voiding offence. As long, therefore, as the order of the church is not violated, and offence is not given, the conscience of every one ought to be left free: for it is sometimes necessary, not on account of the command of the church, or of the ministry, but for just causes to do, or to omit things which are indifferent. We may here quote the language of Paul as in point; “If any of them that believe not, bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go, whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question, for conscience sake. But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake; for the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; conscience, I say, not thine own, but the other; for why is my liberty judged of another man‘s conscience. For if I by grace, be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?” Cor. 10:2831. See also Acts 15: and 1 Cor. 11.)

Obj. But if the edicts of magistrates bind the consciences of men, why do not the traditions of the church also? Ans. The cases are not the same. God has given to the magistracy the authority to frame civil laws, and has threatened to pour out his wrath upon all those who violate these laws; but he has given no such authority to the church or to her ministers, but requires merely that their laws and ordinances be observed according to the rule of charity: that is, with a desire of avoiding offence and not as if there were any necessity in the case, as though the conscience were bound thereby. The Scriptures expressly teach this difference: “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them; but it shall not be so among you. ”Neither as being lords over God‘s heritage.” “Let no man judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of an holyday.” “Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” (Matt. 20:25. 1 Pet. 5:3. Col. 2:16. Gal. 5:1.) The reasons of this difference are evident: 1. Because there is a great difference between the civil magistrate, whose province it is to exercise authority over his subjects, and to compel such as are obstinate to yield obedience by corporal punishment, and the ministry of the church, to whom no such power is granted; but who are entrusted with the office of teaching men in reference to the will of God. 2. Because when ecclesiastical ordinances are violated without an offence being given thereby, there is no violation of the first table of the Decalogue, to which they ought to contribute; but when civil enactments are violated, even though there may be no offence, there is a violation of the second table, inasmuch as this cannot occur without detracting some thing from the commonwealth, or giving some occasion of injury to it. To this it is replied: Obedience ought rather to be rendered to that office which is the greater and more honorable. Therefore those things which have been instituted by the ministers of the church, bind more strongly the consciences of men, than civil laws. We reply to the antecedent: That greater obedience is due to that office which is the more honorable, in those things which belong properly to the office itself. But it is the proper office of the civil magistrate to make laws, which are to be observed out of regard to the command itself; whilst it belongs properly to the ecclesiastical ministry to institute ceremonial precepts, which shall be observed, not on account of the command of men, but for the sake of avoiding offences.

Fourthly, there are human enactments which are in opposition to the commands of God. These God forbids us to comply with, whether they be enjoined by the civil magistrate, or by the church and her ministry,, according as it is said: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” “Why do ye transgress the commandment of God by your tradition.” (Acts 5:29. Matt. 15:3.)