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