John Cotton on the Subject of Church Liberty

The following is an excerpt from John Cotton’s important work The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, Chapter VII

III. Proposition: When the church of a particular congregation walketh together in the truth and peace, the Brethren of the church are the first subject of church liberty, and the Elders thereof of church-authority; and both of them together are the first subject of all church-power needful to be exercised within themselves, whether in the election and ordination of officers, or in the censure of offenders in their own body.

Of this Proposition there be three Branches: 1. That the Brethren of a particular church of a Congregation, are the first subjects of church-liberty; 2. That the Elders of a particular church, are the first subjects of church-authority; 3. That both the Elders and Brethren, walking and joining together in truth and peace, are the first subjects of all church-power, needful to be exercised in their own body.

Now that the key of church-privilege or liberty is given to the Brethren of the church, and the key of rule and authority to the Elders of the church, hath been declared above, in Chapter 3. But that these are the first subjects of these keys; and first the church, the first subject of liberty, may appear thus.

From the removal of any former subject of this power or liberty, from whence they might derive it. If the Brethren of the Congregation were not the first subject of their church-liberty, then they derived it either from their own Elders, or from other Churches. But they derived it not from their own Elders; for they had power and liberty to choose their own elders, as hath been showed above, and therefore they had this liberty before they had Elders, and so could not derive it from them.

Nor did they derive it from other particular churches. For all particular churches are of equal liberty and power within themselves, not one of them subordinate to another. We read not in Scripture, that Church of Corinth, was subject to that of Ephesus, nor that of Ephesus to Corinth; no, nor that of Cenchrea to Corinth, though it was a church situate in their vicinity.

Nor did they derive their liberty from a Synod of churches. For we found no foot-step in the pattern of Synods, Acts 15, that the Church of Antioch borrowed any of their liberties from the Synod at Jerusalem. They borrowed indeed light from them, and decrees, tending to the establishment of truth and peace. For upon the publishing of the decrees of that Synod, the Churches were established in the faith (or truth), Acts 16:4,5, and also in consolation and peace, Acts 15:31, 32, but they did not borrow from them any church-liberty at all.