“The especial design of the rule of the church in its government is to represent the holiness of Christ, love of Christ, compassion of Christ, care of Christ, and authority of Christ towards His church.
This is the great end of rule in the church, and of all the discipline which is to be exercised by virtue thereof.
Whilst this is not attended unto, when the officers and rulers of the church do not endeavour, in all the actings of their power and office, to set forth these virtues of Christ, to exemplify that impression of them which He hath left in His laws and rule, with the divine testimonies which He gave of them in His own person, they utterly deviate from the principal end of all rule in the church.
For men to act herein in a way of domination, with a visible elation of mind and spirit above their brethren; with anger, wrath, and passion; by rules, order, and laws of their own devising, without the least consideration of what the Lord Christ requires, and what is the frame of His heart towards all His disciples,—is to reflect the highest dishonour imaginable upon Christ Himself.
He who comes into the courts of the king in Westminster Hall, when filled with judges, grave, learned, and righteous, must ordinarily be allowed to judge of the king himself, his wisdom, justice, moderation, and clemency, by the law which they proceed upon and their manner of the administration of it.
But God forbid that Christians should make a judgment concerning the holiness, wisdom, love, and compassion of Christ by the representation which, as is pretended, is made of Him and them in some courts wherein church rule and discipline is administered!
When any had offended of old, their censure by the church was called the bewailing of them, (2 Cor. 12:21); and that because of the sorrow, pity, and compassion whereby, in that censure, they evidenced the compassion of the Lord Christ towards the souls of sinners.
This is scarce answered by those pecuniary mulcts and other penalties, which, with indignation and contempt, are inflicted on such as are made offenders, whether they will or no.
Certainly, those who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, and have a due honour for the gospel, will, at one time or another, begin to think meet that this stain of our religion should be washed away.
The rule and law of the exercise of power in the elders of the church is the holy Scripture only.
The Lord Christ is the only lawgiver of the church; all His laws unto this end are recorded in the Scripture; no other law is effectual, can oblige or operate upon the objects or unto the ends of church-rule.
If the church make a thousand rules, or canons, or laws for government, neither any of them, nor all of them in general, have any the least power to oblige men unto obedience or compliance with them, but only so far as virtually or materially they contain what is of the law of Christ, and derive force from thence: as the judges in our courts of justice are bound to judge and determine in all cases out of and according to the law of the land; and when they do not, their sentence is of no validity, but may and ought to be reversed.
But if, wilfully or of choice, they should introduce laws or rules not legally established in this nation, judging according unto them, it would render them highly criminal and punishable.
It is no otherwise in the kingdom of Christ and the rule thereof. It is by His law alone that rule is to be exercised in it. There is nothing left unto the elders of the church but the application of his laws and the general rules of them unto particular cases and occasions.
To make, to bring, to execute, any other rules, laws, or canons, in the government of his church, is to usurp on His kingly dominion.”
–John Owen, “The True Nature of a Gospel Church,” The Works of John Owen, Volume 16 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1689/1968), 16: 135-136.