In former times liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment in matters of religion were denied both by ecclesiastics and politicians. Of late they have been very generally admitted, and much has been said and written in their defence. But the nature and extent of these rights, in reference to religious society, have not been so clearly ascertained; and claims have been instituted which appear to be subversive of those very principles so often pleaded in their support.
The right of private judgment in matters of religion appears to be the right which every individual has to think and to avow his thoughts on those subjects, without being liable to any civil inconvenience on that account. The subject in this view has been successfully supported by writers of ability, and the principle has been acted upon by the great body of nonconformists and Dissenters of later times. There can scarcely be any doubt remaining with respect to the power of the civil magistrate to interfere with the religious sentiments and private judgment of the subject; this is now very generally and very justly exploded. But of late the subject has taken another turn, and men have pleaded not only an exemption from civil penalties on account of their religious principles, in which the very essence of persecution consists, but also that they are not subject to the control of a religious society with which they stand connected for any tenets which they may think proper to avow. The right of private judgment now frequently assumed, is a right in every individual who may become a member of a Christian church to think and avow his thoughts, be they what they may, without being subject to exclusion or admonition, or the ill opinion of his brethren, on that account. Any thing that is consistent with this is thought to be a species of spiritual tyranny, and repugnant to that “liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” But this appears to be highly extravagant, and is what no man can claim as a right. The following considerations are submitted to the reader.
First, The supposed right of the individual is contrary to the principles on which Christian churches were originally founded. Not only were those who disbelieved the gospel refused admission to a Christian church, but those who perverted the gospel, or maintained pernicious errors concerning it, were subject to admonition and exclusion. The apostle Paul directed that a heretic after the first and second admonition should be rejected. And, in his Epistle to the churches of Galatia, he expressed a wish that those who troubled them by subverting the gospel of Christ and introducing another gospel were “cut off.” The church at Pergamos is reproved for having those among them who held the doctrine of Balaam and of the Nicolaitans. If the churches of Galatia complied with the apostle’s desire, their false teachers might have exclaimed against them as invading the right of private judgment, and with as much justice as some in later times have done against the censures of their brethren. And had the church of Pergamos been formed on the principles above mentioned, they might have replied to the solemn message of our Lord in some such manner as the following: Why are we blamed for having those among us who hold the doctrine of Nicolas? It is sufficient for us as individuals to think for ourselves, and leave others to do the same. We cannot refuse these men without invading the right of private judgment?
If it be objected that inspiration rendered the judgment of the apostles infallible, and that therefore their conduct in this case is not a rule for us, it may be replied, that if the apostles were infallible, the churches were not so, and the blame is laid on them for having neglected to exclude the characters in question. Besides, this objection would tend to prove that primitive Christians, on account of the infallibility of the apostle, did not possess the right of private judgment; and that the right sprung up in the church in consequence of our being all equally fallible! But this is contrary to the declaration of the apostle: “Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy.” Hence it appears that admonishing or excluding from the primitive church those who held pernicious errors was not reckoned to be subversive of the right of private judgment; and the churches being exhorted to such discipline by the apostles was exercising no dominion over their faith.
Secondly, Not only is this supposed right of private judgment inconsistent with apostolic practice, but it is also contrary to reason and the fitness of things. All society is founded in mutual agreement. It is no less a dictate of common sense than of the word of God, that “two cannot walk together, except they be agreed.” No society can subsist unless there be some specific principles in which they are united. In political societies, these principles will be of a political nature; in civil ones, of a civil kind; and in those of religion, of a religious nature. According to the degree of importance in which those principles are held by the parties associating, such will be their concern to maintain and act upon them; and the terms of admittance or continuance in such society must be regulated accordingly. If there be no definite principles in which it is necessary that a society should be agreed, but every member of it be at liberty to imbibe and propagate whatever notions he pleases, then all societies, civil, political, and religious, have hitherto been mistaken; for all of them have had in view the attainment of some specific object; and this is more especially the case with societies that are purely religious. A community must entirely renounce the name of a Christian church before it can act upon the principle here contended for; and those who entirely reject Christianity ought, nevertheless, to be admitted or retained in fellowship, if they choose it; seeing they have only exercised the right of private judgment!
Further, If a Christian society has no right to withdraw from an individual whose principles they consider as false and injurious, neither has an individual any right to withdraw from a society in a similar case; and then there is an end to all religious liberty at once.
Whether it be right for us to think the worse of any person on account of his erroneous principles must depend on a previous question; namely, whether he be either better or worse for the principles which he imbibes? If he be not, then it must be allowed that we ought not to think so of him; but if he be, undoubtedly we ought to think of one another according to truth. To say that no person is better or worse in a moral view, whatever be his principles, is to say that principles themselves have no influence on the heart and life; and that amounts to the same thing as their being of no importance. But if so, all those scriptures which represent truth as a means of sanctification ought to be discarded; and all the labours of good men to discover truth, and of the apostles to disseminate it—yea, and those of the Son of God himself, who came into the world to bear witness to the truth—were totally in vain.
Excerpt from: “An Inquiry into the Right of Private Judgment in Matters of Religion,” in Letters and Essays on Ecclesiastical Policy
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions—Miscellaneous. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 3, pp. 447–449). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.