Evangelicals and Church Unity


GAFCON organisers Chris Sugden, Michael Nazir-Ali and Vinay Samuel merely inherited the infrastructures that John Stott left behind. At the same time, does not John Stott offer a more generous ecclesial vision, and a more charitable way to speak the truth in love, than what GAFCON offers? The deeply-divided evangelical Anglican fraternity worldwide –across the GAFCON and Global South networks – needs to come together to sort out their internal wars. They owe this to their fellow Anglicans – and to John Stott.

Full story and discussion here.

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Another in our series of extracts from Richard Baxter’s Cure of Church Divisions, published in 1670, in the hope of persuading presbyterians and congregationalists not to leave the Church of England after the 1662 Act of Uniformity. As long as Christians are still dividing and being divided, Baxter’s examination of the attitudes that lead to division remains relevant.

Direction IX:

Distinguish between weakness of Gifts and of Grace, and remember that many that are weak in the understanding of other matters, may yet be stronger in grace than you.

HE is the strongest Christian and the most Godly man, who hath the greatest Love to God, and heavenliness of mind and life: And this may be the case of many a one, who by some error about discipline or worship, is a trouble to the Church. He that offendeth you by his mistake and unjustifiable adherence to his own opinion rather than the judgement of the Church, though he be weak in that point, and perhaps in many other controversies, may yet be a far stronger Christian, than I who see his error: He may have more Love to God and man, more humility and self-denial, more fear of sinning, more fitness to die, more heavenly desires, and more patience in tribulation. Let us therefore value men according to the Image of God upon them, and not despise them as weak in grace, because they are weak in some point of knowledge: Though still their errors are not to be overlooked.

Another in our series of extracts from Richard Baxter’s Cure of Church Divisions, published in 1670, in the hope of preventing presbyterians and congregationalists leaving the Church of England after the 1662 Act of Uniformity. As long as Christians are still dividing and being divided, Baxter’s examination of the attitudes that lead to division remains relevant.

Direction V:

Distinguish between those who separate from the Universal Church, or from all the Orthodox or purest and Reformed parts of it, and those who only forsake the Ministry of some one person, or sort of persons, without refusing Communion with the rest.

As many occasions may warrant a removal from a particular Church, but nothing can excuse a separation from the Universal Church, so he that separateth only from some particular Churches, and yet is a member of the Universal Church, may also be a member of Christ and be saved. He may be a Christian who is no member of your flock, or of any particular Church, but he is no Christian who is no member of the Universal Church. Paul and Barnabas may in the heat of a difference part from one another, and yet neither of them part from Christ or the Church-Universal.

I do not excuse the fault of those who sin against any one Church or Pastor: but I would not have the clergy sin too by making the fault of those separating greater than it is; nor to let their own interest lead them to call men schismatics or separatists, in a sense for which they have no ground. If they can learn more by another minister than by me, what reason have I to be offended at their edification, though perhaps some infirmity of judgement may appear in it. A true mother that knoweth her child is like to thrive better by a nurses milk than by her own, will be so far from hatred or envy either at the nurse or child, that she will consent, and be thankful, and pay the nurse. Solomon made it the sign of the false mother, that could bear the dividatur, the hurt of the child for her own commodity; and of the true mother, that she had rather lose her commodity than the child should suffer. And Paul giveth God thanks that Christ was preached, even though it was by them that did it in strife and envy. He is not worthy of the name of a physician, who had rather the patients health were deplorate, than that he should be healed by another who is preferred before him. If I knew that man by whom the salvation of my flock were like to be more happily promoted than by me (whatever infirmity of theirs might be the cause) I should think my self a servant of Satan the envious enemy of souls, if I were against it.

Bruce Robison (yes, that one) reminds us that it isn’t only the Methodists with whom Anglicans in some places have been moving towards agreement (see previous post below). The possibility of rapprochement with the United Reformed Church (consisting of most of England’s Presbyterians and Congregationalists) is also on the agenda of Church of England’s upcoming synod.

The United Reformed Church are the descendants of the Evangelicals who would not go along with the stricter standards of conformity imposed upon them by the Church of England in 1662, and who left the church rather than conform. There seemed to be a lot of them at the time; about a thousand clergy found themselves without ministry unless they gathered a church of their own, although I don’t think they gathered a thousand such churches, and their numbers relative to the population have steadily declined since. Today there are about 1500 local URC churches, including those in Scotland and Wales, and about 700 clergy.

If the Synod approves—or rather ‘takes note’ of—this report, there will be a joint service for the United Reformed Church and the Church of England at Westminster Abbey next February. “The service should contain an expression of penitence for our part in perpetuating the divisions of the past, a desire for the healing of memories and an act of commitment to work more closely together in the future. In the new climate created by the joint act of reconciliation and commitment, further joint work should be undertaken on certain topics, mainly concerning ministry and authority.”

What is the Anglican part in perpetuating these divisions of the past? The insistence that there is no valid ordination without a bishop, and that in the worship of the Church that which is not forbidden is compulsory. ‘Ministry and authority’ with a vengeance, it seemed in 1662. Anglican Evangelicals have generally sympathised with the non-conformists on these matters, although they didn’t agree they were issues worth breaking fellowship over. Given the strength of Evangelicals in today’s C of E, it’s hard to imagine the process not beginning next February; bishops, even Evangelical bishops, being what they are, it’s less clear that there will be speedy progress. But Richard Baxter would be pleased.

As we continue this occasional series of principles suggested by Richard Baxter for those who would like to avoid fomenting division in the church, he has some questions for the clergy of his day, and perhaps of ours, concerning their attitudes towards those from whom they differ

Principle IV
If others shew their weakness by any unreasonable opinions or divisions, show not your greater weakness by passionate, impatient or uncharitable criticism of them: especially when self-interest provokes you.

None usually are so spleenishly impatient at the weakness of Dissenters or Separatists as their Pastors are. And what is the cause? Is it because the Pastors abound in Love for the souls of those who offend, or those who are endangered by them? If so, I have no more to say to them. But when we see that the honor and self-interest of the Pastors is most deeply concerned in the business, and that they are carried by their impatience into more uncharitable behavior than the others are by their separation from them; and when we see that they put up with such sins as this in themselves; and that they can bear with such sins in people with plenty of patience when their own self-interest does not raise their passions; in such cases we have reason enough to fear that pride and selfishness have too great a part in much of the schism in the world.

Parents must not be so patient with sin, as to leave their children uncorrected: But correction must not be the effect of impatience, but of Love and Wisdom and dislike of sin, and must be chosen and measured so as to cure it. It’s one thing to be angry on God’s behalf against sin, and it’s another thing to be angry on our own behalf because our wills and interests have been challenged: And it’s one thing to correct so as to achieve a cure, and another thing to exact revenge.

Is it seemly for those who are the fathers of the flock and should excel their people in Love and lowliness, in patience and gentleness and meekness, to be so proud and passionate, as to storm against conscientious persons, because they reject our Ministry, and submit to others who are as able and as faithful and more profitable to them than we? When we can more easily bear with a swearer or drunkard or the families that are prayerless and ungodly, than with the most religious, because they do not choose our Ministry, but prefer some others as more edifying? When we can bear with them that have no understanding or seriousness in Religion at all, but make the world or their lusts their idols, but cannot bear with the weak irregularities of the most upright and devout? And to shew the height of our pride, we still are confident that we are the persons only that are in the right, and therefore that all are in the right that follow us, and all are in the wrong that turn away from us; That it is Unity and duty to follow us and adhere to us, and all are Schismaticks who forsake us and choose others. And thus the selfishness and Pride of the Pastors, making an imprudent and impatient stir against all who dislike them, and applauding all however bad who adhere to them and follow them, is as great a cause of the disorders of the Church, as the weakness and errors of the people.

Language modernised a bit; originally published in 1670.

Written for all who teach the faith, clergy, Bible study leaders, parents etc

In all your public teaching and private conversation, stress the necessary conjunction of holiness and peace; and of the love of God and man; and make your hearers understand that love is their holiness, and the sum of their religion; the goal of faith, the heart of sanctification, and the fulfilling of the law: And that as love of God units us to Him, so love of man unites us to one another. All teaching or practice which is against love and unity is against God and against Christ and against the great work of the Spirit, and is enmity to the Church and to mankind. Press these things on them all the year, that your hearers may be bred up and nourished with these principles from their youth.

IF ever the church is to recover from its wounds, it must be by the peaceable dispositions of clergy and people. And if ever they are to come to a peaceable disposition, it must be by peaceable doctrine and principles: by the full and frequent explication of the nature, pre-eminence, necessity and power of love: that they may hear of it so much, and so long, till Love be made their religion, and become the natural constitution of their souls. And if ever anyone is to be brought to this, it must be by daily drawing it from those breasts which nourish them in the infancy and youth of their religion, and by learning it as the sum of Godliness and Christianity. The older experienced ripe and mellow clergy and people must instil it into those still learning, and into the younger clergy, that there may be nothing so commonly in their ears and in their studies, as Uniting-Love: that they may be taught to know that God is Love, and that he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him (I John 4. 16). And that the love of God always works towards His image in man (I John 4. 7, 11, 12, 20). And that all people have some of God’s image in their nature, in that they have reason and the power to choose (Genesis 9.6). And therefore we must love men as men, and saints as saints; it is love of God and man, which is true holiness, and the new creation, to which Christ came to bring back fallen man, and for which the Holy Spirit is sent, and for which all the means of grace are intended and fitted, and for which they must be used, or they are misused. In a word, that FAITH WORKING BY LOVE, or LOVE and THE WORKS OF LOVE KINDLED BY THE SPIRIT BY FAITH IN CHRIST, is the sum of all the Christian Religion (Galatian 5. 6, 13, 22, I Timothy 1. 5).

He that proclaims holiness and zeal, without a due commemoration of love and peace, deceives his hearers about that very holiness and zeal which he commends.

Language modernised a bit; it was published in 1670, after all. ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose‘…

Novices must not be made Pastors of the Church. He is blind that perceiveth not in Christ’s example, a most notorious Condemnation of the pride of those that run into the Ministry, or that hasten to be Teachers of others, before they have had time or means to learn

Richard Baxter’s Cure of Church Divisions was published in 1670, in the hope of persuading presbyterians and congregationalists not to leave the Church of England after the 1662 Act of Uniformity.

Here is a second extract, reminding us how to cope with a church not faithful to God’s word:

Forget not the great difference between Novices and experienced Christians; between the babes and those at full age; between the weak and the strong in grace: Level them not in your estimation. It is not for nothing that the Spirit of God in Scripture maketh so great a difference between them, as you may read in Heb. 5. 11–14,  6. 1f, I Tim. 3. 6, I John 2. 12–14. There are babes, strong men, and fathers among Christians. There are some that are dull of hearing, and have need of milk, and are unskilful in the word of righteousness, and must be taught the principles; and there are others who can digest strong meat, who by reason of Use, have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.

Novices must not be made Pastors of the Church. It is not for nothing that the Younger are so often commanded reverence and submission to the Elder; and that the Pastors and Governors of the Church, are usually called by the name of Elders; because it was supposed that the elder sort were the most experienced and wise, and therefore Pastors and Rulers were to be chosen out of them…  Christ would not enter upon his publick Ministry or Office, till he was about thirty years of age. Luke 3. 23. He is blind that perceiveth not in this example, a most notorious Condemnation of the pride of those that run into the Ministry, or that hasten to be Teachers of others, before they have had time or means to learn; and that deride or vilifie the judgments of the aged, who differ from their conceits, before they understand the things in which they are so confident.

I know that the old are too oft ignorant, and that wisdom doth not always increase with age: But I know withall, that Children are never fit to be the Teachers of the Church; And that old men may be foolish, but too young men are never wise enough for so high a work. We are not now considering, what may fall out rarely as a wonder, but what is ordinarily to be expected.

Most of the Churches confusions and divisions, have been caused by the younger sort of Christians: Who are in the heat of their zeal, and the infancy of understanding: Who have affection enough to make them drive on, but have not judgement enough to know the way. None are so fierce and rash in condemning the things and persons which they understand not, and in raising clamours against all that are wiser and soberer than they. If they once take a thing to be a sin which is no sin, or a duty which is no duty, there is no person, no Minister, no Magistrate, who hath age, or wisdom or piety enough, to save them from the injuries of juvenile temerity, if they do not think and speak and do according to their green and raw conceits.

Remember therefore to be always sensible of the great disadvantages of youth, and to preserve that reverence for experienced age, which God in nature as well as in Scripture hath made their due. If time & labour were not necessary to maturity of knowledge, why do you not trust another with your health, as well as a studyed experienced Physician, and with your Estates, as well as a studyed Lawyer? And why do no Sea-men trust any other, to govern the ship, as well as an experienced Pilot? Do you not see that all men ordinarily are best, at that which by long study they have made their profession.

I know those that I have now to do with will say, that Divinity is not learnt by labour and mens teaching, as other Sciences and Arts are; but by the teaching of the spirit of God: and therefore the youngest may have as much of it as the eldest. There is some truth and some falshood, and much confusion, in this objection. It is true that the saving knowledge of Divinity, must be taught by the Spirit of God: But it is false that labour and human teaching are not the means which must be used by them, who will have the teaching of the spirit.

Consider I pray you, why else it is, that God hath so multiplied commands, to dig for it as for Silver, and search for it as a hidden treasure: to cry for Knowledge and lift up our voice for understanding: to wait at the posts of wisdom’s doors: to search the Scriptures and meditate in them day and night: Is not this such study and labour as men use, to get understanding in other kind of professions? Are not these the plain commands of God? and are they not deceivers who contradict them?

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