Back to swrb home page

Discourse 1

On the Unity of the Church
and Its Divisions

"They shall be one in mine hand"
Ezekiel 37:19

The reduction of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity was one of the most signal deliverances wrought in behalf of the ancient people of God. It was not, indeed, immediately effected by miraculous power and the exhibition of visible signs and wonders, like the eduction of their fathers from the house of bondage; but it was attended with the most convincing proofs of extra-ordinary providential interposition. And such was the magnitude of the mercy itself, the change on the national character which accompanied it, and the connection in which it stood with the ulterior plans of Heaven, that it so far threw into shade, and took the place of, that deliverance which had hitherto been commemorated in the sacred invocations of every pious and patriotic Israelite. " 'Behold, the days come,' saith the Lord, that it shall no more be said, 'The Lord liveth that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;' but, 'The Lord liveth that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them' " (Jer. 16:14-15; cf. Isa. 43:18-19).

This joyful event had been announced by the prophet Isaiah, who named Cyrus as the prince who should "say to Jerusalem, 'Thou shalt be built,' and to the temple, 'Thy foundation shall be laid' " (Isa. 44:26-28). The period at which it would happen was defined in the prophecies of Jeremiah, which contain a magnificent description of the overthrow of Babylon. The predictions of Ezekiel, while they confirm those which had been previously given out, add to them facts which are deeply interesting and permanently instructive. In the preceding chapter we are told that God would not only restore Israel to their own land, but also produce a change on their hearts and conduct. The whole house of Israel was polluted with guilt, and especially with the sin of idolatry. Neither mercies nor judgments had hitherto been sufficient to divorce and separate them from their idols. But their captivity and release should be sanctified and blessed for producing a real and lasting reformation. They should be made the objects of pardoning mercy, and the subjects of renewing grace. "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them" (Ezek. 36:25-27).

Two objections of great force would present themselves to the minds of the Jews when told that their captivity should be turned back; and these are removed in the chapter before us. Crushed under the irresist ible power of their conquerors, trodden under foot, scattered, exanimated [ killed], they could only sigh out, "Our hope is lost; we are cut off for our part!" To enable him to meet this objection, Ezekiel was "carried in the spirit" into the midst of a valley full of bones (Ezek. 37:1 ff.), bleached and dry; and while he prophesied to them by divine direction, "behold, the bones came together, bone to his bone," and on a sudden the appearance of the valley was changed from that of a field of slaughter, into the site of a grand military review (Ezek. 37:7, 10). Those whose "bones were scattered at the grave's mouth" stood up not only in the attitude of living men, but "every man in his own order" (cf. 1 Cor. 15:23), and all together united and marshalled ­ "an exceeding great army" (Ezek. 37:10). The prophet then addressed the captives in God's name, "Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves ... and shall put my Spirit in you, and ye shall live" (Ezek. 37:12, 14).

This emblematical vision went far to solve the second objection, which is completely removed in the words of our text. He who believes in the resurrection of a dead people will not despair of the cure of a divided people. He who has seen "the bones come together, bone to his bone" (Ezek. 37:7), is prepared to witness the congregating of living men, every one to his fellow. The second objection was founded on the dissension which had subsisted among the people of Israel since the death of Solomon, when ten tribes were violently rent from the royal house of David, and formed themselves into a separate and independent kingdom. What was at first a political division soon produced an ecclesiastical schism, and led to the establishment and practice of a worship at Dan and Bethel, different from and opposite to the worship of God at Jerusalem. This dissension between the families of Judah and Israel still remained; and was there not reason to fear, if they were restored to their own land, that, like"a root bearing wormwood and gall," it would again "spring up and trouble them?" (Deut. 29:18; Heb. 12:5).

Against the fears of this, the prophet was instructed to comfort the "prisoners of hope" (Zech. 9:12), first by exhibiting a sign, and then by explaining its meaning. In the instructions which God has been pleased to convey to men, sublimity is blended with condescension: the emblem formerly presented to the prophet was grand; the sign which he now showed to the people was familiar. He was directed to take two sticks, or, as the word also signifies, thin plates of wood, so fashioned that, when brought into contact, they should unite into one piece (Ezek. 37:15 ff.). And having inscribed on them severally the distinctive names of the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel, he was to join them in his hand before the people. To their inquiry, "Shew us what thou meanest by these," he was to answer: "Thus saith the Lord, 'Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, and put it with the stick of Judah, and they shall be one in mine hand; they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all.' " They were to become one nation in respect not only of civil polity, but also of religious communion and privileges. For it is added, "I will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. My tabernacle also shall be with them; yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Ezek. 37:26).

This promise was fulfilled on the restoration from the captivity, when the inveterate schism between Judah and Israel was perfectly healed. Some interpreters regard it as a prediction of what was to happen in New Testament times; and we can scarcely doubt that the blessings promised, in all their extent, could only be enjoyed during this period. For it follows, "David (a name often given to Messiah by the prophets) my servant shall be King over them, and they shall all have one Shepherd;" and again, "My servant David shall be their prince for ever" (Ezek. 37:24-25). But without resting on this, we mean to take the primary application of the passage as a foundation for the subsequent discourse. There is a wonderful analogy in the divine dispensation towards the Church at different periods. The duties, the temptations, the sins, the punishments, and the deliverances of the people of God in former times, are all instructive and admonitory. The Spirit of wisdom has selected for insertion in the inspired records, with more or less detail, those facts which were calculated to be most generally and permanently useful. In the New Testament the name of Babylon, and the language and imagery employed by the prophets in describing the power and the overthrow of that idolatrous and persecuting empire, are tranferred to the reign and ruin of the Antichristian kingdom. And upon the same principle, are not we warranted to apply ­ for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and instruction in righteousness ­ the description of a contemporary mercy bestowed upon the Church of God, which was intimately connected with her internal and most vital interests?

On a text of this kind there is a danger of tracing analogies that are more fanciful and ingenious than real and solid, and of rearing general principles on the basis of accidental circumstances. We shall endeavor to guard against this, by keeping in eye the analogy of faith, and the lights thrown on the subject of our text from other parts of Scripture. The subject of discourse is the divisions of the Church, and the remedy of this mournful malady. I propose not to treat it at large, but only to lay before you a few observations, which, through the blessing of the Divine Spirit, may be useful for establishing your faith, and directing your exercise. The subject is not only of great extent; it is also of very delicate discussion. When we are beside the waters of strife, O how needful the Perfect Illumination ­ the mystic Urim and Thummim which was upon Levi, whom God "proved at Massah, and strove with at the waters of Meribah!" (Deut. 33:8). May we have our ears attend to "the word behind us," the Daughter of a voice (Isa. 30:21),[1] saying, "This is the way, when we turn to the right hand, and when we turn to the left;" and may you have wisdom to "consider what we say" (2 Tim. 2:7), and to "judge of your own selves what is right" (cf. Luke 12:57).

For the sake of order I shall arrange what I have to say under the following heads:

I. Of the Unity of the Church.

II. Of Its Divisions

III. Of the Removal of These, and the Restoration of Its Violated Unity.

I. The Unity of the Church

I. I begin with the consideration of the unity of the Church. For ages previous to the announcing of the oracle in our text, Judah and Israel had been divided into two nations in respect of civil concerns and of religious faith and practice; but God at first made them one. The Church of Christ has been divided for a still longer period, and to a still greater degree; but "from the beginning it was not so" (Matt. 19:8). Originally it was one, and it ought still to be one, according to Divine will and institution.

The unity of the Church is implied in the most general view we can take of its nature, as a society instituted for religious purposes. True religion is essentially one, even as God, its object, is one. It, as its name imports, binds its professors to one another, as well as to the sole and common object of their supreme homage and service. It is indeed the great bond of human society in all its various and graduated relations; preserving the unity and peace of families, neighborhoods, and nations, strengthening the subordinate ties by which they are connected, and preventing men from becoming prey to each other, "as the fishes of the sea and as the creeping things that have no ruler" (Heb. 1:14). Hence, from the violation of the bonds of humanity, consanguinity, and mutual faith, so general among his countrymen, a prophet infers that they must have previously renounced the relation in which they stood to their Common Parent: "Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?" (Mal. 2:10). If such is the remote, and (if I may so call it) extrinsic influence of religion, what must its direct operation be within the pale of its own sacred enclosure?

Consider the Church, again, in its more specific form, as a society consisting of men called out of the world lying in wickedness; and it will be still more evident that oneness is its attribute. It is founded on supernatural revelation ­ on the promise of a Savior, and a divinely instituted worship. By their profession of faith in the former, and their observance of the latter, "the sons of God" were united in the patriarchal age. When an extensive system of ceremonial and sacrificial service ­ intended to prefigure the redemption to be procured by "the seed of the woman" and "of Abraham" (cf. Gen. 3:15; 22:18), as well as to preserve the knowledge of the one true God in the world ­ was superinduced on the original revelation, the nation of Israel was embodied into a Church or sacred confederation, to be a peculiar people unto God, a holy nation, a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6). God delights to speak of that people, as well as of himself, in the singular number: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one Lord ... Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God; him shalt thou serve, and to him shalt thou cleave, and swear by his name" (cf. Deut. 6:4; 10:20). "I will say, 'It is my people:' and they shall say,' The Lord is my God' " (Zech. 13:9). The stranger who embraced the true religion, in "joining himself to the Lord," did at the same time "cleave to the house of Jacob," and "surname himself by the name of Israel" (Isa. 56:3; 14:1; 44:5). "One law, and one manner, and one ordinance, shall be for you of the congregation, and also for the stranger that sojourneth with you; as ye are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord" (cf. Num. 15:15-16).

By the death of Christ, "the middle wall of partition ... the law of commandments contained in ordinances" (Eph. 2:14-15) ­ which was at the same time a token of the enmity between God and sinners, and an occasion of distance and alienation between Jews and Gentiles ­ was abolished; and believing Jews and Gentiles were reconciled to God and united into one body. But by being diffused the Church was not divided; she did not lose her unity by becoming ecumenical, and being no longer confined to a single nation. When she received a command to "enlarge the place of her tent, and spread forth the curtains of her habitation," to receive the converts who came under her shelter, she was at the same time instructed to "lengthen her cords and strengthen her stakes" (Isa. 54:2). Divine wisdom made such changes on the external form of her worship and communion as were adapted to the extended and continually enlarging ground which was now allotted to her. There was no longer to be a sacred house to serve as a visible center of unity; nor a material altar on which alone it was lawful to sacrifice; nor a single family whose right it was exclusively to minister in the temple and at the altar. But still there remained visible bonds and badges of unity among the members of the Christian Church. "There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling: One Lord, one faith, one baptism; One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all" (Eph. 4:4-6). "For we being many are one bread and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread" (1 Cor. 10:17).

The unity of the Church, in profession, worship, and holy walking, was strikingly exemplified in the primitive age of Christianity. Those who "gladly received the word were baptized and added to the church," consisting of the Apostles and other disciples; and they "continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:41-42, 47). And, after their number was still farther augmented by the addition of many thousands, "The multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul" (Acts 4:32). This union was not confined to those who lived together, but all of them in every place formed one sacred "brotherhood" (cf. 1 Pet. 2:17).

How solemn, earnest, and reiterated are the apostolical injunctions to preserve this unity, and to avoid everything that has a tendency to violate or mar it! "Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" ( 1 Cor. 1:10). "I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:1-3). "If there be any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfill ye my joy, that ye be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind" (Phil 2:1-2), ". . . that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the Gospel" (Phil. 1:27). "Now, the God of patience and consolation grant you to be like-minded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 15:6).

It will assist us in forming correct notions on this subject, if we attend to certain distinctions which are commonly made in treating it. We usually speak of the Church of the Old and of the New Testament, or the Jewish and Christian Churches. But the difference between these is only in degree, not specifical or essential. The change made on her external form and institutions, at the coming of Christ, though great, did not destroy the oneness of the Church; just as our personal identity is not affected by the changes which we undergo, in body and mind, while we pass from childhood to maturity. She remained the same; as the heir does after reaching majority, although no longer under tutors and governors; and as the olive tree does after a great part of its natural branches have been broken off, and others, taken from a wild tree, have been grafted in their room (Gal. 4:1-3, 8-9; Rom. 11:17-24).

Again, it is usual to distinguish between the invisible and the visible Church. The former consists of such only as are true believers and real saints; the latter of all who make a public profession of the true religion. But this does not imply that there are two Churches, but only that the same society is considered in a different point of view. Nor is it a division of the whole into its parts. It does not mean, that one part of the Church is visible and another invisible; but it means, that all who make a profession of the faith compose the Church considered as visible, while those among them who are endued with true faith constitute the Church considered as invisible. The former includes the latter; and it is sometimes spoken in Scripture under the one and sometimes under the other view.

But whether the Church of Christ be viewed in its internal or external state, unity is still its attribute. All genuine saints are invisibly and vitally united to Christ, and to one another, by the indissoluble bond of the Spirit and of the faith; and in virtue of this it is that they increase in love and holiness, and are at last made "perfect in one" (John 17:23). Some of the particulars specified in the passages of Scripture quoted above refer more immediately to this invisible union; but others of them are as evidently descriptive of the character and privileges of a visible society, actuated by the spirit of pure religion, and subsisting in a state of subjection to the word and laws of Christ.

Again, the Church may be considered either as catholic or particular. This distinction is not inconsistent with its unity any more than the former. The visible Church considered as catholic or universal, consists of all those throughout the world who profess the true religion, together with their children. The variety of particular churches, when regularly constituted, does not imply any separation from or opposition to one another. The catholic Church subsists in and is composed of the several particular churches, of larger or less extent, in the different parts of the Christian world; and none of these are to be excluded from it as long as they retain the true and distinctive characters of such a society as the Word of God describes it to be. That these particular churches should be sometimes found disunited, and in many respects opposed to one another, is an accidental circumstance arising from their imperfect state and corruption. So far as this is the case catholic unity is marred; yet this does not prevent them from having still some common points of union, and a common relation to the universal body ­ the one great diffusive flock, family, kingdom, of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Christianity being intended for general diffusion through the world, must in its nature be adapted to all countries and people. It would be extreme weakness to suppose, that its being embraced by people of different garbs, color, and language, of different manners and customs, barbarous or civilized, or formed into distinct civil communities and living under different forms of government, produces different religions, or a diversity of churches, providing their faith and practice are intrinsically the same. Their formularies of faith and religious service may be differently expressed or arranged, and they may vary from one another in different circumstances in external administrations ­ which are not, and could not be, prescribed by positive rule in Scripture, and which (to use a much abused word) may be circumstantial ­ without marring that unity of faith and that fellowship which belongs to different Christian societies, as parts of the same general body.

Nor is simple ignorance in some and knowledge in others, with respect to some things which belong to the Christian system, or greater and less degrees of advancement in different churches (or in the members of the same church), necessarily inconsistent with religious unity and peace. But there must be no denial or restriction of the supreme authority by which everything in religion is ruled; no open and allowed hostility to truth and godliness; and no such opposition of sentiments, or contrariety of practices, as may endanger the faith, or destroy the constitution and edification of churches, or as may imply, in different churches, or in different parts of the same church, a condemnation of one another.

As there were synagogues among the Jews, so there must be assemblies among Christians for divine worship and instruction, and for the exercise of discipline. The unity of the Church requires that we join in communion with our fellow Christians, in the place providence has cast our lot, provided they are found walking by the common rule of Christianity, and as long as no sinful bar is laid in the way of such a conjunction. And our statedly holding communion with a particular church is the ordinary way of manifest ing our communion with the catholic Church.

But as individual Christians are not at liberty to walk and act singly, so neither are particular congregations at liberty to act as independent and disjointed societies. For the ordinary performance of religious duties, and the ordinary management of their own internal affairs, they may be said to be complete churches, and furnished with complete powers. But extraordinary cases will arise among themselves from time to time; and there are, besides, duties, dangers, and interests, which do not properly or exclusively concern one congregation, or a few congregations, and which require the joint cognizance and cooperation of many. This is taught by the light of nature itself, it flows from the oneness of the Church of Christ, and is clearly exemplified in the New Testament.

Being similar parts of the same general body, it is the duty of particular churches to draw together, to combine, and to cooperate, according as this may be practicable, and as providence may open a door for it, with a view to mutual help and the promotion of the common cause in which they are all engaged. They may agree in explicitly approving of the same articles of faith and rules of discipline, and in yielding a scriptural subjection to a common authority in the Lord. Such confederations, on the Presbyterian plan, are fully warranted by the Word of God, and are most congenial to the spirit of Christianity, which is catholic and diffusive; they may include all the churches in the same neighborhood, in the same nation, or even in many nations; and by means of them that unity which belongs essentially to the whole Church of Christ is formally recognized, and its bonds are strengthened and drawn more close.

Is it then asked, "What is the bond of unity in the Church?" The reply may be given in one word: "the true religion." Religion, as communicated by God to men in the Bible, is its grand comprehensive bond. This specificates and distinguishes it from the unity which belongs to other societies. The sacred Scriptures not only exhibit the model after which the Church is to be constructed; they also furnish that which gives it substance, and stability, and order, and proportion and unity. It is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom all the building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord" (Eph. 2:20-21). But, before leaving this part of the subject, it may be proper to specify more particularly some of the scriptural bonds of unity in the Church.

1. This unity consists in her having one Head and Lord. This is Jesus Christ, whom the "one God and Father of all" has appointed over his house (Eph. 4:6). "Holding the head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God" (Col. 2:19). All real believers are internally joined to the Lord, and derive their spiritual life and growth from him; and in like manner must Christians, in their associated capacity, be in professed subjection to him, in his divine mediatorial authority, as the one Universal Pastor, and sole Head of government. To admit a temporal head of the Church, whether pope or king, to call any man master in religion, or to enlist ourselves under the banners of any human leader, is to sin against the first precept of Christian unity.

2. The unity of the faith. "There is one body," because there is "one faith" (Eph. 4:4-5). A system of faith or of revealed truth, as well as of duties, has in every age formed an essential and important part of true religion. By embracing this the Church is distinguished from other societies, and it belongs to her faithfully to confess and hold it forth to the world. An owning of the whole faith is implied in her reception of the Scriptures; she is bound to obey the calls of providence in explicitly confessing and contending for particular articles of it; and there is no article of divine truth that may not at one time or another become the object of this duty, and consequently a test of her fidelity. Hence, she is called "the city of truth," as well as "the habitation of righteousness;" her gates are open to receive "the righteous nation that keepeth the truth" (Zech. 8:3; cf. Isa. 32:17-18; 26:2); and truth is inscribed on her columns, and on the banners which float on her walls and bulwarks. When this is not the case, Christian societies are destitute of the unity of the Church of Christ, by whatever ties they may be kept together.

3. "One baptism" (Eph. 4:5), and fellowship in the same acts of worship. Baptism is a solemn badge of Christian profession, as well as a sign of the grace and privileges of the New Covenant. According to the proper and original design of this ordinance, and the profession accompanying it, all the baptized are made one, and a foundation is laid for their mutual fellowship in all acts of worship. The institutions of the Gospel were intended as a bond of union among Christians, and by the joint celebration of them their communion is maintained and expressed. "By one Spirit are we all baptized into one body" (1 Cor. 12:13). And "being many (we) are one bread and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread," in the sacramental communion (1 Cor. 10:17).

It is not necessary to this unity that Christians should all meet for worship in the same place. This is physically impossible; nor are we to conceive of church communion as local. It consists in their celebrating the same holy ordinances ­ in their performing acts of worship the same in kind, wherever they assemble, and in their being disposed and ready to embrace every properly occurring opportunity to join with all "those who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ, the Lord, both theirs and ours" (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2). Thus it was, as we have seen, in the primitive Church; and thus it would still be, if catholic unity were preserved, and if the institutions of Christ, along with the faith to which they relate, were every where preserved pure and entire.

4. Unity in respect of external government and discipline. Christ, the head of the Church, "gave pastors and teachers ­ helps, governments, for the work of the ministry, for the gathering together of the saints, for the edifying of the body, till they all come in the unity of the faith, and knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man" (cf. Eph. 4:11-13; 1 Cor. 12:28).

The exercise of authority and government is necessary as a bond of union and a basis of stability, in all societies. By means of it the largest communities, and even many nations, may be made to coalesce and become one, under the same political government. And can any good reason be assigned for supposing that the Church of Christ should be destitute of this bond, or that it should not be necessary to her union as a visible society? If every family has its economy and discipline, if every kingdom has its form of government and laws, shall we suppose that the most perfect of all societies, "the house of the living God" (1 Tim. 3:15), and "the kingdom of heaven," should be left by her divine Head without that which so evidently tends to the maintenance of her faith, the purity and regularity of her administrations, and the order, subordination, unity, and peace which ought to reign among all her members? Whatever is necessary to her government, and the preserving of her order and purity, either is expressly enjoined in Scripture, or may be deduced, by native inference, from the general rules and the particular examples which are recorded in it.

5. The bond of mutual charity and peace. This is the silken cord which ought to be thrown over all others, and which makes Christian union complete. Hence, charity, or love, is called by an Apostle a perfect bond: "Above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness" (Col. 3:14).

A vague and erratic charity, which soars above fixed principles of belief, looks down with neglect on external ordinances, and spurns the restraint of ordinary rules, whether it seeks to include all Christians within its catholic embrace, or confines itself to those of a favorite class, is a very feeble and precarious bond of union. True Christian charity is the daughter of truth, and fixes her objects "for the truth's sake which dwells in them" (cf. 2 John 2).

On the other hand, a bare and cold agreement in the articles of a common faith, and external uniformity in the acts of worship and discipline, will not preserve the unity of the Church. To "be perfectly joined together" (1 Cor. 1:10), Christians must be of "the same mind," or affection, as well as of "the same judgment." It is by "speaking the truth in love," that they "grow up in all things to their head, even Christ" (cf. Eph. 4:15).

Love must cement the union which faith has formed; and it is by the joint influence of both that Christians "cleave to the Lord," and to one another in him, "with purpose of heart" (Acts 11:23). Without mutual affection, and its kindred graces, mutual consideration and condescension and compassion, forgiveness will not be extended towards injuries, forbearance will not be exercised towards unavoidable infirmities, offences will arise, alienations will be produced, and "the brotherly covenant will not be remembered" (cf. Amos 1:9). Hence, the frequency and fervor with which the cultivation of a loving and peaceful temper is enjoined upon Christians.

"Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye" (Col. 3:12-13). "Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tender -hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Eph. 4:31-32).

"Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others" (Phil. 2:3-4). "Finally, brethren ... be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you" (2 Cor. 13:11).

II. Divisions in the Church

II. I now go on to speak of the divisions by which the unity of the Church is marred. Judah and Israel, originally one, and bound together by the most sacred ties, were rent asunder, and formed into two indepen dent nations, divided in worship, as well as in secular and political interests. And this was followed by the usual effects of such breaches ­ rivalry, hatred, and mutual hostilities. "Ephraim envied Judah, and Judah vexed Ephraim" (cf. Isa. 11:13). The same thing has happened to the Christian Church.

1. God has permitted the unity of the Church to be broken in different ways. It has been marred and interrupted when her members continued to meet together, and to keep up the external forms of fellowship as one society. This is the case, when, instead of glorifying God with one mouth, and striving together for the faith of the gospel, they entertain jarring and discordant sentiments about the articles of religion, and one is eager to destroy what another is building; when they do not walk by the same rule nor mind the same things; when they fall into factions and parties, and when contention and every evil work ­ hatred, variance, jealousies, heart-burnings, and evil surmisings ­ rage among them.

The spirit of division had begun to produce these bitter and pernicious fruits in the church at Corinth, even in apostolical times. "It hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren . . . that there are contentions among you. . . . Every one of you saith, 'I am of Paul;' and 'I of Apollos;' and 'I of Cephas;' and 'I of Christ.' Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye first baptized in the name of Paul?" (1 Cor. 1:11-12). "First of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it" (1 Cor. 11:18). "I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would ... lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults" (2 Cor. 12:20).

Disorders and animosities of this kind may abate and gradually settle into a calm, without the restoration of true peace. When a church no longer holds to the Head, but suffers the supreme authority of Christ in his spiritual kingdom to be invaded or shared by any creature; when the liberties and immunities which he has conferred on her, as an independent society, are usurped or surrendered; when her faith is subverted, her worship corrupted by human inventions, or her order and discipline overthrown; in such a case the bonds of scriptural unity are dissolved. Resistance may be overcome by the despotical exercise of usurped authority; opposition may die away under the paralyzing influence of an irreligious indifference and neutrality; but the union which is brought about by such means is an ungodly confederacy, and the tranquility which is enjoyed by such a society is like the calm which binds the stagnant and deleterious waters of the Dead Sea.

At other times, the dissensions which arise in the Church prevail, and grow to such a height as to produce an open rupture, and the formation of separate and opposing communions. Even those who live in the same place, and who had formerly "taken sweet counsel together, and walked to the house of God in company" (cf. Ps. 55:14), no longer join in the same acts of public and social worship. Altar is reared against altar, as if they did not serve the same God. One house can no longer contain them. One name can no longer serve them; but they must be distinguished from one another, as well as from the world.

This has hitherto been the state of the Christian Church almost in every age. In reviewing her history she appears not as one great army marshalled under the banner of "the Captain of Salvation" (cf. Heb. 2:10), but as "the company of two armies" (Song 6:13), yea, often of many armies, with banners bearing different and opposite inscriptions, and engaged in hostilities with another as well as with the common enemy of the Church of the living God. Thus, in ancient times, not to mention various lesser sects, the Church was divided into Greeks and Latins; in more modern times, Protestants have been divided into Lutherans and Calvinists, and in our own land into Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Independents, with a great variety of other denominations, which it would be painful and impossible to enumerate.

While we survey these mournful facts, my brethren, we must not overlook the hand of God; and it is proper to advert to this before proceeding to inquire into the immediate and proper sources of the evil. The Malignant Spirit could not sow the seeds of dissension and division, nor could they grow up and spread, without the permission of the Lord of the vineyard. He has wise and holy ends for permitting them; and among others we ought to be deeply affected with this, that he sends them as a punishment to a people called by his name. Do any ask, "How comes it about that those who are joined by so many sacred bonds, should be so broken and divided in judgment and affection?" The answer is: "The anger of the Lord hath divided them" (Lam. 4:16). Yes, when they fall from their first love to the gospel, receive the grace of God in vain, do not bring forth unto holiness under his ordinances, become conformed to the world, and have little more than a name to live ­ when they become vain of their numbers and their strength, and convert a holy union into a criminal combination ­ he permits the Demon of discord to enter among them, "confounds their language, that so they cannot understand one another's speech," "divides them in Jacob and scatters them in Israel" (cf. Gen. 11:7; 49:7). "It is my desire," says he, "that I should chastise them ... when they shall bind themselves in their two furrows" (Hos. 10:10); alluding to the practice of the husbandman who corrects a refractory steer when caught in the situation described in the metaphor employed.

The conduct of God toward this ancient people is described under a beautiful allegory in the prophecies of Zechariah. When he saw his flock a prey to their possessors, and sold by their own pitiless shepherds, he exclaimed, "I will feed the flock of slaughter, even you, O you poor of the flock. And I took unto me two staves; the one I called BEAUTY, and the other I called BANDS and I fed the flock" (Zech. 11:7). But they requited him ungratefully; their soul abhorred him, and his soul loathed them. "Then said I, 'I will not feed you: that that dieth, let it die; and that that is to be cut off, let it be cut off; and let the rest eat every one the flesh of another.' And I took my staff, even Beauty, and cut it asunder, that I might break my covenant which I had made with all the people" (Zech. 11:9-10). And a little after: "Then I cut asunder mine other staff, even Bands, that I might break the brotherhood between Judah and Israel" (Zech. 11:14).

The grand schism by which ten tribes were rent from the house of David was expressly denounced as a punishment for the sin of Solomon and his people in forsaking God (1 Kings 11:11; 12:15). And when the flame, instead of being extinguished, has fresh fuel added to it, and continues to spread and burn from age to age with increasing fury, it is a proof that God's anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still," as it was when "Manasseh devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh, and they together Judah" (cf. Isa. 9:21).

2. Divisions in the Church are owing to various causes. In permitting them God overrules the instrumen tality of men who are actuated by different motives and principles, for which they are entirely responsible. It is incumbent on all Christians to "endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). The violation of it must be traced to a sinful cause.

When dissensions arise in the Church of God, and it is divided into parties, whatever the occasion or matter of variance may be, there must be guilt somewhere. The rules of truth, peace, and holy fellowship have been transgressed; and those who are justly chargeable with this cannot be blameless. Amid the keen contests and opposing pretensions of parties, it may often be difficult to determine where the blame lies; but it must attach to one side or another, and perhaps to both. It will not always attach to the minority, or those who may be forced to withdraw from the assemblies and external communion of particular churches: the major and prevailing party may be the real schismatics, though not the formal separatists. This, however, we know, that Scripture has affixed a mark of disapprobation on those who "cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which we have received" (cf. Rom. 16:17).

The dissensions which prevail in the Church, like those which distract and break the peace of other societies, may be traced in general to the workings of human corruption. "Whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?" (Jam. 4:1). They spring from the ignorance, error, unbelief, prejudice, pride, passion, selfishness, carnality, which are predominant in the minds of some of the members of the Church, and are but partially subdued and mortified in the minds of the best. To specify all the ways in which these principles operate to the disturbance of the peace of the Church is impracticable.

They lead to the adoption and patronage of errors, by which the purity of the faith and institutions of Christ are depraved. This in itself, as we have seen, loosens the scriptural bonds of union. But as the faithful consider themselves bound to resist everything of this kind, the propagation of errors cannot fail to excite contention and strife in the bosom of the Church. Some of these errors strike against the principal and leading articles of the faith, and are in their very nature damnable and destructive to the souls of those who embrace them. Others consist of uncertain, vain, and unprofitable opinions, the offspring of an unsanctified fancy, or the love of novelty, calculated to unsettle the minds of the hearers, and inducing perverse disputings and endless questions. Others strike more immediately against the unity and peace of the Church ­ loose and extravagant notions respecting private judgment, conscience, and Christian liberty, by which these rights, invaluable when duly understood and regulated, are explained and stated in such a way as to convert all religion into a matter of individual belief and concern, to render union and cooperation among its professors impracticable or precarious, and to contradict the important truth, that "the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another."[2]

This is the case, when the duty of Christians at large is explained in such a way as to encroach on the office of a regular gospel ministry; when the lawfulness of confessions of human composure, as public declarations of the faith of a church, and their usefulness as tests of orthodoxy, though conformable to Scripture, and necessary in times of abounding error among persons professing Christianity, are impugned; when ecclesiastical office-bearers are stripped of that authority which is competent to them, and necessary for preserving order and subordination, and the supreme power of finally determining every cause is lodged with the whole people in every worshipping congregation; when the combination of particular congregations, as parts of an extended and organized body, with a duly limited submission to a common judicatory for taking cognizance of differences which may arise in any part of that body, and judging of what concerns the good of the whole, is opposed; and, in fine, to pass over other tenets of a similar description which are rampant in the present age, when the lawfulness of the settlement of a system of religion in a nation, by the joint concurrence of ecclesiastical and civil authority, and with the general consent of the people, is contradicted and opposed.

Sectarianism, as the class of opinions referred to is usually called, is inimical to the unity of the Church, as it has a direct tendency to foster diversity of sentiment and practice in religion, and to multiply schisms. If the common sense and experience of mankind did not check its operation, and prevent its keenest abettors from acting rigidly and consistently on their own principles, it would lead to the dissolution of all religious society, or at best to the rearing of a Babel, the foundations of which would be laid on its first-born, and the gates of it set up on its youngest and most favorite son. To these may be added rigid notions respecting ecclesiastical communion, incompatible with the imperfect state of the Church in this world, whether these manifest themselves in requiring that all Christians should reach the same degree of the scale in their acquaintance with divine things, or in withdrawing from the communion of a church on account of particular acts of maladministration, or because discipline may not, in some instances, be exercised on offenders with faithfulness, or with all that severity which they may think proportioned to the nature of the offense ­ which was the error charged on the ancient Novatians and Donatists.

Divisions in the Church may often be traced to a spirit of vanity, pride, and ambition. Than this nothing can be more repugnant to the spirit of Christianity, or prejudicial to ecclesiastical peace. It is often found combined with a spirit of error, and has formed a very prominent feature in the character of heresiarchs and the founders of sects. It displays itself sometimes in an overweening fondness of their own private opinions, and at other times in the love of preeminence, or an impatience of contradiction, by which they are instigated to the adoption of factious and divisive courses.

Others are impelled to divide the Church by the base desire of gratifying their avarice, and procuring a livelihood from the disciples whom they draw after them. Such are the "unruly and vain talkers and deceivers," described by Paul, "who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre's sake" (Titus 1:10-11), and those whom another Apostle charges with "beguiling unstable souls ... following the way of Balaam the Son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness" (2 Pet. 2:14-15).

Tyranny and unreasonable imposition has been one fruitful source of division in the Church. To gratify the lust of dominion, those calling themselves clergy have assumed a power of decreeing articles of faith and imposing forms of worship, contrary or additional to those enjoined in Scripture; have, like the Pharisees, "bound heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and laid them on men's shoulders, while they themselves would not move them with one of their fingers" (cf. Matt. 23:4); and have enforced the rigid observance of these commandments of men, by all the force and terrors which they possessed or could command. Like the shepherds of ancient Israel, they have scattered the flock by ruling over it "with force and with cruelty" (Ezek. 34:4). Forgetting the nature and limits of the power with which they have been entrusted, and their own complaints against Papal and Prelatical usurpations, Protestant and Presbyterian courts have acted "as Lords over God's heritage" (1 Pet. 5:3), trampled on the sacred rights of conscience, stripped the Christian people of liberties which their divine Master had conferred on them, and which they were in the undisputed possession of for several centuries after his ascension, intruded hirelings on them for overseers, and driven those who resisted their arbitrary measures to seek the food of their souls in separate communions.

The policy of statesmen has often combined with the ambition of churchmen in measures which have tended to divide the Church. Jereboam erected his schismatical worship at Dan and Bethel to keep himself and his family on the throne of Israel; for, said he, "if this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again unto their lord, even Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam king of Judah" (1 Kings 12:27). The support which civil rulers have given to corrupt systems of religion, and to oppressive administrations in the Church, may very frequently be traced to this origin.

While the Church has been frequently divided by a spirit of unwarrantable and arbitrary impositions, so, on the other hand, the same effect has been sometimes produced by aversion to the strictness of ecclesiastical communion, and impatience of that submission which is fully warranted by the Word of God. When a church has been constituted conformably to the Scripture pattern, makes a faithful confession of the truth, and maintains good order and discipline agreeably to the laws of Christ, a divisive spirit is evinced by those who factiously exclaim against its severity, enter into schemes, open or covert, for relaxing its bonds, or form themselves into another society connected with looser and more general ties; whether this be done to obtain greater latitude to themselves, or with the view of uniting persons of opposite religious sentiments and practices into one general and catholic communion. This follows from the doctrine already laid down respecting the true bonds of ecclesiastical unity.

In like manner the peace of the Church may be broken by the insubordination and turbulence of the Christian people, refusing subjection to those pastors who are regularly set over them, and who act within the due limits of their authority, and setting up the ancient cry, "All the congregation are holy, every one of them" (Num. 16:3). In this case the event often remarkably verifies the prediction of the Apostle: "The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth ... to fables" (2 Tim. 4:3-4).

3. Divisions in the Church sometimes become inveterate, and it is the work of extreme difficulty to heal them. It is easy to divide, but not so easy to unite. A child may break or take to pieces an instrument which it will baffle the most skillful to put together and repair. If Rehoboam had listened to the advice of "the old men that stood before Solomon his father," he might have preserved his kingdom entire, but all their wisdom and authority could not cure the schism which had been caused by his following the rash and foolish counsel of "the young men that were grown up with him" (1 Kings 12:8).

Attempts to reunite must encounter the resistance of those corrupt principles and passions which led to division. The force of these is sometimes greatly increased by indulgence, and parties become more and more alienated from one another by mutual injuries and recrimination; for "the beginning of strife is as when one letteth out water" (Prov. 17:4). If time has served to allay the heat and fierceness of controversy, and to smooth down the harshness and asperities of personal animosity, it has perhaps contributed to widen the breach in another way. It has added to the original grounds of difference and separation. Parties at variance are inclined to move to a distance from each other. They are apt not only to magnify the real point in dispute, but also to create or discover new ones, with the view of vindicating their separation, and enlarging the charges which they bring against their opponents.

The adoption, too, of one error, and the defense of one sinful practice, leads to the adoption and defense of another, and that of a third; so that when an individual or a society has turned from the right way, every step they take carries them farther astray, and removes them to a greater distance from those who have been enabled to keep the path of truth and duty. The consequence is, on either of these suppositions, that, when proposals of accommodation come to be made, and a treaty of reunion is set on foot, the original cause of the breach forms perhaps the smallest matter of difference between the parties, and instead of one point twenty may require to be disposed of and adjusted in the progress of the negotiations. This was strikingly verified in the attempts made in the seventeenth century to reconcile the Lutheran and Calvinistic churches. If the law of patronage had been abrogated soon after its imposition, the peace of the Church of Scotland might have been preserved, and many of those dissensions and separations which have since occurred would have been prevented; but who that knows anything of the state of matters will say, that the adoption of such a measure at this late period, however desirable on many accounts, and whatever good results it would lead to in the issue, would put an end to our present divisions, or even unite all those who are the friends of evangelical doctrine and Presbyterian principles?

Sometimes, indeed, matters take a different direction. Two parties, after separating and pursuing for sometime opposite courses, receive a new direction from the common impulse of the spirit of the age, and the prevailing current of religious sentiment and feeling, by means of which they are made gradually to approximate, and at last to meet at a point very remote from which both of them set out. In this case, if they were right before they parted, they must now be wrong. When defection from the purity of religion has become general, and indifference about the truth abounds, such coalescences are easily brought about. If political considerations had not intervened, it would have been no difficult matter to have joined Judah and Israel in religious fellowship during the reign of Ahaz. It is upon a principle of the same kind, I am afraid, that we must account for the union which has lately been effected in some parts of the Continent between the two great bodies of Protestants.

It is particularly difficult to heal the divisions which subsist among those who are intermingled and live together in the same country and vicinity. If distance of place, by preventing intercourse, keeps Christians in ignorance of one another's sentiments and characters, and fosters misapprehensions and groundless prejudices, neighborhood gives rise to other and greater evils. It is a species of intestine warfare which is carried on between religious parties who reside together. The irritation produced by the frequent opportunities which individuals find for agitating their disputes is an evil which ordinarily cures itself in process of time. But their interests as separate societies, founded on opposite principles, necessarily interfere and clash. A spirit of proselytism is engendered. They draw disciples away from one another; mutual reprisals are made; advantages are oftentimes taken which would be held not the most honorable in political warfare; and each may be said to flourish and grow by the decay and decrease of the rest.

The subject of litigation among Christians, and even the relation which they stand in to one another as such, render the adjustment of their differences more delicate and embarrassing. It is always a work of difficulty to reconcile hostile parties, whatever the matter of strife may happen to be. Once involved in litigation about civil rights and property, men, not of the most contentious or obstinate tempers, have been known to persevere until they had ruined themselves and their families. When unhappily discord and contention arise between those who are allied by blood, or who were united by the bonds of close friendship, their variance is of all others the most inveterate and deadly. "A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city; and their contentions are like the bars of a castle" (Prov. 18:19). If "love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave" (Song 8:6). Of all the ties which bind man to man, religion is the most powerful, and when once loosened or burst asunder, it is the hardest to restore. Religious differences engage and call into action the strongest powers of the human mind. Conscience comes to the aid of convictions of right, and zeal for the glory of God combines with that jealousy with which we watch over everything that is connected with our own reputation.

It has often been remarked, that religious disputes are managed with uncommon warmth and acrimony; and this has been urged as an argument against all controversies of the kind, and even as an argument against religion itself. It cannot be denied that, amid the din of disputation, that important truth, "The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God" (James 1:20), has often been forgotten by the contending parties; and the personal altercations, the railing accusations, the uncharitable judgments, the rash censures, the willful misrepresentations, the injurious calumnies, which have too often infused their malignant and poisonous virus into these debates, have, it must be confessed, contributed to bring great scandal on religion; though this sacred cause can never justly be made responsible in any degree for excesses so inconsistent with its spirit and its precepts.

But let us not be unjust in seeking to be liberal. Genuine moderation and candor are not to be confounded with indifference and lukewarmness. Religion is of paramount importance, and we ought not to wonder that those who are in earnest about it should display a warm and fervent zeal in the cause. They do not feel themselves at liberty to make the same sacrifices to peace in the "matters of the Lord" (2 Chron. 19:11) which they may be warranted and willing to make in their own. They must "buy the truth, but not sell it" (cf. Prov. 23:23). True religion is an entailed inheritance, which they are bound to preserve and transmit, unalienated and unimpaired, to their posterity, "that the generation to come may know it, even the children that shall be born, who shall arise and declare it to their children" (cf. Ps. 78:6). They are only "stewards of the mysteries of God, and it is required in stewards, that they should be found faithful" (cf. 1 Cor. 4:1-2). In proportion, therefore, as they are persuaded, that the honor of God, and the interests of the truth, and the welfare of souls are concerned in the subjects which are litigated, and enter into the grounds of difference between them and other Christians, it may be expected that they will show themselves firm and tenacious. And, as this must be supposed to be the persuasion of persons of different parties, and indeed of all who maintain a separate communion on conscientious principles, it is easy to perceive what an obstacle it presents in the way of conciliation and union.

Feelings of personal offense and injury form no inconsiderable obstacle in the way of removing divisions in the Church. In one degree or another these are unavoidable, when religious differences arise and grow to a height. They are no proper ground of separation, and the recollection of them ought not to be allowed to stand in the way of a desirable reunion. If in any instance personal injury has been combined with injuries done to truth, those who have been the sufferers need to exert the utmost jealousy over their own spirits. Self-love will lead us insensibly to confound and identify the two; and what we flatter ourselves to be pure zeal for religion and hatred of sin, may, in the process of a rigid and impartial examination, be found to contain a large mixture of resentment for offenses which terminated on ourselves.

Perhaps we have, while endeavoring to act faithfully, been evil-entreated by those with whom we were connected in church fellowship. If we permit a sense of this to rankle in our breasts, or even to live in our recollections; if by recurring to it in our conversations, although without any angry or revengeful feelings, we transfuse it into the minds of others; this will infallibly operate in preventing or embarrassing any negotiation for peace, however fair and promising in itself.

Or, let us reverse the case. Perhaps we have behaved ourselves unkindly and harshly to our brethren. We may have been instrumental in spoiling them of their goods for conscience' sake. We may, from mistake or misapprehensions of them, have cast out their names as evil, reproached, misrepresented, calumniated them. Let not the consciousness of this keep us at a distance from them; let us not do them father injury by harboring the thought that they cannot forgive or forget the offenses which they have received. They are men "of another spirit;" they know how much need they themselves have of forgiveness; and will be forward to prevent our acknowledgements, and dissipate our apprehensions, by saying to us, not in the spirit of assumed superiority, but in the bowels of brotherly kindness, "Be not grieved, neither be angry with yourselves" (cf. Gen. 45:5).

In surveying the causes which obstruct a desirable reunion of Christians, we cannot overlook the influence of party-spirit, and unreasonable respect to the credit of particular sects and denominations. The only thing that can warrant the establishment of separate communions is their being necessary for asserting and main taining the purity of the truths and institutions of Christ. As soon as this object is gained, they become unnecessary and useless, and ought to cease and disappear. It is not the name of any party, or of its founder or leader, but the name of Jesus Christ, that must "endure forever" (Ps. 135:13), and every true lover of him will be disposed to say with his harbinger, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30), and will rejoice in seeing the saying verified. Provided the scriptural doctrines which they have now been honored to maintain be acknowledged and embraced, the enlightened friends of religion will cheerfully consent that the names of Protestants and Calvinists, and Presbyterians and Seceders, together with the parties designated by them, should be forgotten and sunk in the more honorable and catholic name by which "the disciples were first called at Antioch" (cf. Acts 11:26).

But is this spirit common, even in an age advancing high claims to liberality? How ready are we to associate our own honor with that of the religious society to which we belong, and under the influence of this compound feeling to forget the paramount homage we owe to that "Name which is above every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come!" (cf. Phil. 2:9; Eph. 1:21). How much does this enter into our public contendings! What regard is often shown to it in negotiations for union! Victory, not truth, is too often the object of litigant parties, and provided they can gain this, though it should be achieved by over-reaching one another, and by practicing the low tricks of worldly policy, they will boast of a religious triumph.

Every candid and observing person will admit, too, that, in those religious denominations which have truth and right on their side, there are persons whose choice has not been determined by enlightened views of the importance of the cause which they have espoused, and who stoutly resist every conciliatory measure from attachment to certain venerated names, from early associations, and preference of some external forms, which have varied in different periods and places without any infringement of the laws of Christ or any real injury to Christian edification. Even those who are not averse to sacrifice truth to peace often show themselves keen sticklers for the credit of a party, and rather than compromise it in the slightest degree, or admit the most distant reflection on themselves or their associates, would break off or endanger the success of the most promising and reasonable overtures. With them the question is not, "Can we make such concessions and accede to such terms, without relinquishing truth, and acting unfaithfully to God?" but, "Can we do this without constructively confessing that we have been so far in an error, and acknowledging that others have been more righteous, or honest, or intelligent than we?" "My brethren, these things ought not so to be" (Jam. 3:10). So long as a spirit of this kind prevails, every attempt at healing divisions in the Church will prove abortive, or will lead to such general, ambiguous, or contradictory arrangements, as merely cover the disease, while they plant the seeds of future disquiet and disunion.

In fine, self-interest will be found a hindrance to this desirable event. How general the influence of this principle is among professed Christians in the best of times appears from the Apostle's exclamation, "All seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ's!" (Phil 2:21). When undefined and sinful schemes of union and comprehension happen to be popular, self-interest will prove a powerful temptation to unfaithfulness. But it has, in every age, clogged the wheels of those noble undertakings which had for their object the public good of human society. When religious parties are established in great numbers, and have subsisted for a long period of time, the interests of individuals may come in various ways to be involved in their support and maintenance. Liberal notions often float in the head, while the heart is contracted with selfishness; and many who exclaim loudly against bigotry would not disarrange their connections, nor sacrifice their worldly interest, to promote a measure, the most decidedly advantageous to the general welfare and peace of the Church of Christ.

If these considerations be duly weighed, we will not be greatly surpised that so little progress has been made in the work of composing differences among Christians. Since the period of the Reformation, at tempts of this kind have been frequently made in reference to various parties; some proposing to unite the denominations commonly called evangelical, or which differ only as to forms of government and worship; others extending their views to Arminians and Calvinists; while others have engaged in the preposterous undertaking of effecting a reconciliation between Papists and Protestants. But though these designs have been prosecuted with great zeal, and sometimes by men of acknowledged talents and piety, whose exertions have been backed by those who had great influence with the contending parties, they have generally failed altogether, or led to no permanently good results. And sometimes they have tended to inflame the quarrel, to place the parties at a greater distance from one another, and to create new confusions and divisions.

Sensible of these difficulties, and despairing of being able to remove them by the ordinary mode of conference, explanations, and discussion, many have come to adopt the opinion that there is but one way of putting an end to the divisions of the Church; that is, by abstracting totally the points of difference, consign ing all the controversies which have arisen to oblivion, and bringing together the separate parties on the undebatable ground which is common to all: a remedy which would prove worse than the disease ­ an expedient which would lay the basis of union on the grave of all those valuable truths and institutions which have been involved in the disputes of different parties, and which constitute the firm and sacred bonds of ecclesiastical confederation and communion.

Is this desirable event, then, altogether hopeless? Is it vain to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, or to make any attempts for its restoration? Is there no balm by whose virtue, no physician by whose skill, the bleeding wounds of the Church may be closed? Every person who "loves the truth and peace" (Zech. 8:19) will reply, "God forbid that this should be the case!"

Footnotes for Discourse 1

1. The Jewish writers say that God revealed his mind during the standing of the tabernacle by Urim and Thummin; during the first temple by the Prophets; and during the second by Bath-kol, or the Daughter of a voice. This last, they suppose, is referred to in Isa. 30:21.

2. Westminster Confession of Faith, 20:4.

Return to Table of Contents.

Go to next chapter.

Back to swrb home page