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.
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.
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.
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.
How do we deal with disunity or breaches in unity? There are two ways, extremes, proposed: The Papal way and the Socinian way.
The papal way imposes all belief and allows no dissent.
The Socinian way allows anything and everything (except the truth).
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.
Wherever you agree, agree heartily and stand firm and fast on that doctrinal agreement.
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).
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.”
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.