Anthony Burgess on the Unity of God’s People (Part 5: Remedies for preventing and repairing schism)

This concludes Anthony Burgess’ five sermons on Christian unity. The following is a continuation of the previous sermon, offering remedies for preventing or healing disunity in the church.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 578

First (or fourth if you keep counting from the previous sermon), make sure that you deal fairly and honestly with a disagreeing party. Great damage has been done in the church by brothers misrepresenting each other and positing greater errors of the other than they actually profess to believe. If we are not to bear false witness in society, how much more in the church? “Therefore that is necessary in all disputations to state the controversie aright, for that is like the first concoction, which if it miscarry is not mended afterwards, men may write voluminous books, and bring multitude of arguments to no purpose, if the true state of the controversie be not laid down.”

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 578-1

Second, we should also avoid slippery slope arguments. If our opponent denounces the conclusions to which we take their arguments, we should be very careful about what we say. The point is not that we can’t draw logical connections in others’ arguments. The point is that we have to deal fairly in the connections we make. “Indeed what is the evident and plain Consequences of a Doctrine, that is to be accounted of as the doctrine it self; As whatsoever is a clear genuine consequence from Scripture is Scripture, but not every consequence, We are apt to deduce, Thus it is here, what is evidently a consequence from any Doctrine, we may charge it upon the doctrine, but then we must be sure it’s the proper and natural childe, not a bastard, that is the true issue not suppositions.”

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 578-579

Third, if we find ourselves holding a doctrine that differs from the church of Christ, we should exercise the utmost of caution in what we do, and especially what we say about it. Publishing our opinions to the world without careful consideration should be far from our minds.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Sermons, 579-2

To differ from the church ought to cause us great concern, and it ought to cause us to seriously examine ourselves. If we know how easily we err, then how much more humble ought we to be? Self-examination is a necessity. “Wheresoever the Spirit of God leadeth into all truth, there he doth likewise into all humility.”

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 579

Before we publish an opinion which we know differs from the church, we should consult the teachers of the church. No matter who we are or what function or office we hold in the church of Christ, no one is infallible and no one sees the entire picture clearly. Consulting others adds accountability to our thoughts before we publish something which we cannot take back.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 579-1

We should not pride ourselves in novelty. We should be content to tread the tried and true paths of the church. “But to be weary of the known truth is in effect to be weary of the same God, the same Christ, Why do we not desire a new Sun, a new Earth, a new world as well?”

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 580

Not all schisms are doctrinal. Sometimes those who hold the same doctrines leave churches and begin new ones in a breach of order. This is sinful and unacceptable as well.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 580-1

Be sure that if you leave a church it is for doctrinal aberrations at the most fundamental levels, and not merely personal preferences. “Do not thou leave it till God leaveth it; Do not thou unchurch it till God doth.” And before we leave, do all we can to heal the evils we see in the church. That may result in you being asked to leave, in which case your conscience is clear that you did not simply walk away without effort. There are good schisms and bad schisms. Dividing from a unity based on evil is a good schism. Dividing things united in truth is a bad schism.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 580-2

When there are problems in administration and government, do all that you can within the capacity of your calling. And leave the rest in God’s hands, patiently waiting and humbly enduring for the sake of the church.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 580-581

To prevent schism, we must root out pride in our hearts. Many have split the church because they did not get what they wanted.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 581

“Let the Sum of all be, as much as in us lieth, to put this prayer of Christ into practice; Peace is of so great a matter, that it’s called the peace of God, and God is called the God of peace, and Christ is called our peace, seeing Christ praieth for it; We see it’s not all the Sermons, all the irenicall books can do any good till God give one heart, be Importunate therefore with God, and strive with him for this unspeakable mercy.”

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 581-1

To conclude with a few applications to confessional associations:
1. Where there are differences, we must deal fairly with the disagreeing party. This requires both parties to state their positions clearly, so as to be understood positively and negatively (i.e., where there is agreement and disagreement).
2. We should prize the doctrinal accountability of an association, and we should prize the wealth of teaching gifts within an association. Beyond prizing these things, we should take advantage of them and submit ourselves to them.
3. We should defend the fundamentals (that which we confess), and avoid disputing the rest.
4. We should root out pride, promote humility, and pray to God that he would give us one heart established on one faith immersed by one baptism serving one Lord in one Spirit. Let our unity begin and end with Christ, his truth, his commands, and his ways.

Anthony Burgess on the Unity of God’s People (Part 4: Cautions concerning unity – good and bad principles)

We have come to part four of five in Anthony Burgess’ sermons on Christian unity. Having dealt with the necessity and nature of unity, as well as the mischief of division, Burgess now offers us some cautions concerning how unity should be pursued, and how it ought not to be pursued. He also provides helpful thoughts on dealing with disunity.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 574

Unity is a serious matter. Unity built on falsehood is a sin because it covers up falsehood with an appearance of truth. “Cursed be that peace which forsakes the truth.”

That being said, our unity is to begin and end with Jesus Christ. But it is not just a common profession of faith in Jesus that unites his people. It is also a common obedience to all of his teaching, his commands, and his ways. Christ as King is to be the fountain of our unity. This simple fact makes the unity of hell, the world, and the Roman church to be sinful wicked and abominable unities.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 574-1

Our unity must be manifested in orderliness, according to the Scriptures. If our unity is built on Christ and his commands, and if Christ has left us complete instructions for the government of his church, then our united obedience to his commands should yield a united and ordered church.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 574-575

This ordered unity under the authority of Christ is consistent with things which might appear to foster disunity. For example, someone who is willing to oppose falsehood and stand for truth in the church may appear to be promoting disunity, but they are actually being faithful to Christ and his commands, as well as faithful to the unity and order of the church. It’s true that doctrine divides. It divides light from darkness, truth from falsehood. “For he that is pitiful to the wolf is cruel to the sheep.” And “So there is a counterfeit disguised unity and love, and that is, when because of this peace and agreement, no damnable heresie, no corrupt or evil way is to be severely dealt with, and a Scripture-way taken to stop the progress of it.” Unity must be built on Christ’s truth and his commands. “Be then fully persuaded, that the unity and love Christ prays for, does not oppose Scripture-zeal, and courage against any profane and erroneous ways: It does not bring in a compliance and symbolizing with all heresies and profaneness.” To fail to stand firm against error is to promote disunity, or at the least a sinful and unbiblical unity.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 575

How do we deal with disunity or breaches in unity? There are two ways, extremes, proposed: The Papal way and the Socinian way.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 575-576

The papal way imposes all belief and allows no dissent.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 576

The Socinian way allows anything and everything (except the truth).

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 576-577

The right way forward, according to Burgess, is to build unity on three things: True doctrine to remedy heresy, True order to remedy schism, and true love to remedy wrath and contention.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 577

Wherever you agree, agree heartily and stand firm and fast on that doctrinal agreement.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 577-1

Submit to biblical authority in the church. Church members are to give due reverence to their ministers, recognizing that their authority comes from Christ. We should give great weight and consideration to the teaching that comes to us from Christ’s ministers. And we should value it much higher than our own private opinions (while acknowledging all to be under the authority of Scripture).

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 577-2

While we should have a “holy impatience” with falsehood, we are to be compassionate and careful in how we deal with those who go astray. When we consider how prone we are to wander, “these things will greatly move thee to tender bowels.”

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 577-3

Thinking in an associational context, there is much wisdom to be gleaned from Burgess’ comments. For example, between the tyrannical imposition of Rome and the licentious liberty of Socinians stands a voluntary confession of faith by the people of Christ as churches of Christ. In this model, no belief is imposed. Yet each person/church is held accountable for what they have confessed to be true. Thus, while the conscience is not imposed upon by any external compulsion, it is still guarded and bounded by external and mutual vigilance and accountability. Furthermore, a confessional association can mutually agree to establish sanctions or means of redress when a breach of confessional integrity arises. This strikes a perfect balance of unity built on Christ’s truth and commands without the tyranny of Rome, the license of Socinians, or the toothless doctrinal accountability of non-confessional “associations” of whatever kind.

Anthony Burgess on the Unity of God’s People (Part 3: Why are there so many divisions in the Church?)

This is a continuation of Anthony Burgess’ five sermons on Christian unity. It is also a direct continuation of the previous sermon, describing the benefits of unity and the mischief of division.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 570

Burgess here teaches us that divisions come from sin. It is our own sinfulness that produces rents in the church. He also gives a helpful caution to those who stride forth in the name of truth. However much we may have the truth on our side in any given situation, we ought to avoid pride and force. “Though a man pretend never such singular gifts, such extraordinary Teachings of Gods Spirit, yet if contentious, he is not to glory, yea, he lieth against the Truth; Thou sais, it’s for the truth thou are thus contentious, It’s for the truth thou hast made these divisions, No, the truths of Christ are to be maintained by the Spirit of Christ.”

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 570-571

In the ensuing passage, Burgess argues that unity is of utmost importance. The Scriptures demand and declare it plainly. And we must strive for unity. If the devils can unite against the church, cannot the church unite against the devil? There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 571-572

If all this is true, how do we account for our disunity?

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 572

First, our unity immediately implies a decisive and complete rupture from the world. Division is necessarily entailed in our unity. This comes about not because of some defect or intentional disruptiveness on the part of the gospel, but rather natural man’s enmity towards God and hatred of his truth.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 572-1

It is the remnant of sin, either within believers or found in false believers, that causes divisions and disunity in the church. Divisions are evidence of the false church within the church.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 572-573

If the elect cannot be deceived in fundamentals, ultimately, then a fundamental agreement is to be sought after and considered more than non-fundamental agreement.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 573

As a side note, it’s reasoning like this that informs our perspective of why the Particular Baptists followed the form and content of the Presbyterians and Independents’ confessions of faith. They were attempting to join that fundamental unity which Burgess has been describing. They explain:

LCF Preface

We should also remember that Christ’s prayer will be fulfilled at last in heaven when we are truly all one in every respect.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 573-1

As long as we dwell here in this sinful world, and as long as sin dwells in us, we should expect a certain amount of division and disunity.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 573-2

And we ought not forget that the Devil is hard at work, though he will never triumph, to subvert and disrupt the church at every turn.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 573-3

Associations of churches should not be surprised when disunity arises. But they should take action, carefully and collectively, to deal with divisions so that the truth and love of God rule the day and form the foundation of our unity.

Anthony Burgess on the Unity of God’s People (Part 2: The Benefits of Unity and the Mischief of Division)

Continuing on in Anthony Burgess’ five sermons on christian unity we come to his exposition of the benefits and necessity of unity, as well as the mischief of division. His previous sermon dealt with the nature of unity: invisible through the Spirit, visible through confession of faith, church ordinances, government, membership, and ministry.

One of the excellent features of this sermon is Burgess’ balance of unity in love and doctrine. Those two things should never be placed in antithesis to one another.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 565

Here Burgess reminds us that Christ does not merely pray for our unity. He commands it. Christian unity is not a convenience; it is a mandatory necessity. “There is no greater scandal to Religion and holines, then when those that do believe, are as the Levites Concubine, that was cut into many peeces.”

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 565-1

Our unity is to be a testimony to the world. And for that reason, when doctrinal divergences arise, we are to take them seriously and deal with them carefully. Love and doctrinal unity are to be one. “We are to use Scripture-zeal and Scripture-means to convince even those that are godly, when erring in Doctrine: Therefore the Scripture doth not commend an unity and love, so as to let all errours and prohanenesse alone.”

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 566

We have been promised unity in the covenant of grace. Therefore we should pray for it, expect it, and pursue it. Why then so much division? Burgess will deal with that in another sermon.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 566-1

There is safety in numbers. Unity is advantageous because it promotes accountability, mutual help, mutual concern, and mutual encouragement and edification. Consequently, any subversion of unity hurts everyone, including an instigator of disunity. “And therefore observe, whether the power of godlinesse doth not much abate, when differences do arise: There is not that heavenly communion, nor hearty concurrence in the waies of holiness. There is not that mutual helping of one another, as at other times.”

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 567

We must always be in pursuit of unity so that we will be able to withstand persecution and difficulty. In times of peace and calm, we are all the more prone to divide. God may send persecution that we might put aside petty differences and stand firm on true unity in faith, hope, and love. “And therefore if love and godlinesse do not unite you, take heed God doth not make some outward trouble and affliction to put you together; If you do not imbrace one another willingly, he may binde you in his chains together.”

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 567-1

Unity strengthens. A body with unbroken bones is stronger than a body of broken bones. How sad it is then, and evil, to break the unity of the brethren. “Now if not only the Wolf and the Fox, but also one Sheep shall devour another, Must not this bring utter ruine?…That which the devils of hell, and all the wicked adversaries thereof could not do, that you will do to one another.”

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 567-568

True unity is a beautiful thing to behold and to experience.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 568

Unity is so beautiful that we must all strive to be peacemakers.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 568-569

We should love and long for unity to such an extent that it is our natural inclination and desire in this life. We need Scripture and ministers to remind us, but let us take it to heart and pursue it from our own hearts’ compulsion not purely a mandatory obligation.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 569

In the previous post, I mentioned that Burgess’ sermons are excellent material for associationalism. All of that remains true in this sermon. Christians have an obligation to join with other Christians, first in local churches, then as local churches. This unity is to be built on truth and love, and it its strength and beauty will grow as we stand firm on that foundation. Thus built up and solidified, we can help each other and accomplish much good, with God’s blessing. And we will be a strong testimony to the world of the life-changing power of God’s grace, and the fulfillment of the promises of the New Covenant.

Anthony Burgess on the Unity of God’s People (Part 1: Invisible and Visible)

Anthony Burgess, a member of the Westminster Assembly, preached CXLV sermons on John 17, five of which were concerned with the topic of unity among Christians. This is the first of those five. It is well presented and well worth reading. I also find this material, including the subsequent sermons, to be excellent arguments and information for the practice of associationalism (although Burgess of course would not have taken it in that direction).

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 561

The fundamental doctrinal assertion of this sermon is in italics below: “That union amongst the godly is of so great necessity and consequences that Christ doth in their behalf principally and chiefly pray for this.” Unity is important, and necessary. We must pursue unity. And, as Burgess argues, this unity is fundamentally built upon agreement.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 561-1

Burgess proceeds to distinguish between invisible and visible unity. Our invisible unity comes from our union to Christ through the Holy Spirit. This invisible union is the foundation for our visible union. Christ’s people establish visible union by “outwardly and visibly express[ing] their compacted nearnesse to one another.” Such a visible unity is one of the chief testimonies to the world of Christ’s church, and conversely all divisions and ruptures are a blight on this otherwise beautiful picture.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 561-562

But what does this visible union look like? It is first of all, and above all, a unity of faith and profession. It is a doctrinal unity, “for unity in errour and idolatry, or false waies, is not peace, but a faction or Conspiracy.” Apart from unity in faith and sound doctrine, unity is worthless, meaningless, and useless.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 562

But Christian unity is much more than simply collective intellectual concordance. We are to be sincerely and deeply concerned for the being and well-being of our brothers in Christ. If we are brothers, God’s children, how can we ignore our spiritual siblings?

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 562-1

This union is visible in churches. Rogue Christians who will not join the church either are not Christians (because they intentionally reject Christ’s commands) or they are unwittingly destroying the church’s unity under some false delusion of doctrinal deviation which they think keeps them from joining the church. When we gather to worship, hear the word, and partake of the Supper, we collectively hold fast the confession of our hope and proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 562-563

Within the church, visible unity plays out in a biblical order of church government. Each member ought to play his or her role faithfully, complementary to the rest.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 563

Visible unity also produces a people who help one another and share a common pilgrimage and exile while waiting for our eternal inheritance.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 563-1

There is also a visible unity within churches and between churches wherein they cooperate for the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 563-2

These things being premised, we should understand that the invisible unity of Christ’s people goes far beyond any boundaries of visible unity we may have established for doctrinal or practical reasons. And we ought to pray for the church throughout the world.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 563-564

Visible unity means that there will be some false professors who are not truly of the church. And because our unity begins and ends with Christ, such individuals not only do not share in Christ, but receive greater judgment for their false profession and apostasy.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 564

However far away we may be from other believers and churches, let us pray for the church around the world.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 564-1

Application: If Christ prays for the unity of the church, let us strive for the unity of the church. And because unity is fundamentally built upon the truth, let us eschew division, departures, breaches, and differences among the body of Christ. Let each one examine himself and be sure that we are contributing to the unity, not the disunity of the church.

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons, 564-2

Associationalism is essentially the idea that because there is one church, the family of God, therefore each individual visible manifestation of that one church ought to be deeply concerned for and cooperating with other individual visible churches. This is confirmed by the example of the apostles and the early church. Thus, while no church can impose beliefs or exercise authority over others, the churches ought to join together under a voluntary, mutual, sincere, collective, and common profession and confession of the faith. And in this way, confessing the faith together, we present a united front of doctrine and practice to the world.