The Bible contains the whole rule of duty for men in their present state of existence. Nothing can legitimately bind the conscience that is not commanded or forbidden by the Word of God. This principle is the safeguard of that liberty wherewith Christ has made his people free. If it be renounced, we are at the mercy of the external Church, of the State, or of public opinion. This is simply the principle that it is right to obey God rather than man.
Our obligation to render obedience to human enactments in any form rests upon our obligation to obey God; and, therefore, whenever human laws are in conflict with the law of God we are bound to disobey them.
When heathen emperors commanded Christians to worship idols, the martyrs refused.
When popes and councils commanded Protestants to worship the Virgin Mary, and to acknowledge the supremacy of the bishop of Rome, the Protestant martyrs refused.
When the Presbyterians of Scotland were required by their rulers in Church and State to submit themselves to the authority of prelatical bishops, they refused.
When the Puritans of England were called upon to recognize the doctrine of "passive obedience," they again refused. And it is to the stand thus taken by those martyrs and confessors that the world is indebted for all of the religious and. civil liberty it now enjoys.
Whether any enactment of the Church or State conflicts with the truth or law of God, is a question which every man must decide for himself. On him individually rests the responsibility, and therefore to him, as an individual, belongs the right of judgment.
Although these principles, when stated in thesi, are universally recognized among Protestants, they are nevertheless very frequently disregarded. This is true not only of the past when the Church and State both openly claimed the right to make laws to bind the conscience. It is true at the present time. Men still insist on the right of making that sin which God does not forbid; and that obligatory which God has not commanded. They prescribe rules of conduct and terms of church fellowship, which have no sanction in the Word of God.
It is just as much a duty for the people of God to resist such usurpation's, as it was for the early Christians to resist the authority of the Roman Emperors in matters of religion, or for the early Protestants to refuse to recognize the right of the Pope to determine for them what they were to believe, and what they were to do.
The essence of infidelity consists in a man's putting his own convictions on matters of truth and duty above the Bible. This may be done by fanatics in the cause of benevolence, as well as by fanatics in any other cause. It is infidelity in either case. And as such it should be denounced and resisted unless we are willing to renounce our allegiance to God, and make ourselves the servants of men.
It is perfectly consistent with the principles stated above that a thing may be right or wrong according to circumstances, and, therefore, it may often be wrong for a man to do what the Bible does not condemn. Paul himself circumcised Timothy; yet he told the Galatians that if they allowed. themselves to be circumcised, Christ would profit them nothing. Eating meat offered in sacrifice to idols was a matter of indifference. Yet the Apostle said, "Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble" (1 Cor. 8:13).
There are two important principles involved in these Scriptural facts. The first is, that a thing indifferent in itself may become even fatally wrong if done with a wrong intention. Circumcision was nothing, and uncircumcision was nothing. It mattered little whether a man was circumcised or not. But if any one submitted to circumcision as an act of legal obedience, and as the necessary condition of his justification before God, he thereby rejected the Gospel, or, as the Apostle expressed it, he fell from grace. He renounced the gratuitous method of justification, and Christ became of no effect to him.
In like manner, eating meat which had been offered in sacrifice to an idol was a matter of indifference. "food," says Paul, "will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat." (1 Cor. 8:8) Yet if a man ate such meat as an act of reverence to the idol, or under circumstances which implied that it was an act of worship, he was guilty of idolatry. And, therefore, the Apostle taught that participation in feasts held within the precincts of an idol's temple, was idolatry.
The other principle is that, no matter what our intention may be, we sin against Christ when we make such use of our liberty, in matters of indifference, as causes others to offend. In the first of these cases the sin was not in being circumcised, but in making circumcision a condition of our justification. In the second case, the idolatry consisted not in eating meat offered in sacrifice to idols, but in eating it as an act of worship to the idol. And in the third case, the sin was not in asserting our liberty in matters of indifference, but in causing others to offend.
The rules which the Scriptures clearly lay down on this subject are:
(1.) That no man or body of men has the right to pronounce that to be sinful which God does not forbid. There was no sin in being circumcised, or in eating meat, or in keeping the sacred days of the Hebrews.
(2.) That it is a violation of the law of love, and therefore a sin against Christ, to make such use of our liberty as to cause others to sin. "Take care," says the Apostle, "But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak." "And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ." (1 Cor. 8:9, 12.) "It is good (i. e., morally obligatory) not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles." "Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense." (Rom. 14:21, 20.)
(3). Nothing in itself indifferent can be made the ground of permanent and universal obligation. Because it was wrong in Galatia to submit to circumcision, it does not follow that it was wrong for Paul to circumcise Timothy. Because it was wrong in Corinth to eat meat, it does not follow that it is wrong always and everywhere. An obligation arising out of circumstances must vary with circumstances.
(4.) When it is obligatory to abstain from the use of things indifferent, is a matter of private judgment. No man has the right to decide that question for other men. No bishop, priest, or church court has the right to decide it. Otherwise it would not be a matter of liberty.
Paul constantly recognized the right of Christians to judge in such cases for themselves. He does this not by implication only, but he also expressly asserts it, and condemns those who would call it in question. "The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind." (Rom. xiv. 3, 4, 5.)
It is a common saying that every man has a pope in his own bosom. That is, the disposition to lord it over God's heritage is almost universal. Men wish to have their opinions on moral questions made into laws to bind the consciences of their brethren. This is just as much a usurpation of a divine prerogative when done by a private Christian or by a church court, as when done by the Bishop of Rome. We are as much bound to resist it in the one case as in the other.
by Charles Hodge [Taken from Hodge's Systematic Theology, vol. III, pp. 262-265. Edited by Michael Bremmer. Bible quotes are from the NAS version]
To gain a better understanding of the "church", one would profit from a study on how the church functioned and was defined during the Patristic period; in the Middle Ages; and during and after the Reformation. I would highly recommend L. Berkhof's "Systematic Theology" with the companion volume on "The History of Church Doctrines", published by Banner of Truth.