John MacPherson – Unity of the Church: The Sin of Schism

Anworth ChurchJohn MacPherson

Unity of the Church: The Sin of Schism

Copyright © 1998 Naphtali Press

[From John MacPherson, The Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology]

Our Scottish divines of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had a singularly high and clear conception of the unity of the church. The visible church was with them the church catholic. Melville, Rutherfurd, Brown, Gillespie, Durham, and all the rest, though their whole lives were spent in protests against ceremonial impositions and doctrinal defections, re-iterate and emphasize the statement that the whole visible church is one. They were scrupulous enough and watchful against any sort of connivance in acts of worship which they thought idolatrous, or in expressions of doctrine which they regarded as false; but in no case could they tolerate the idea of breaking away from the communion of the Catholic Church. They had a way of distinguishing between separation in and separation from the church to which we shall afterwards advert. Meantime we shall look a little more particularly at the manner in which they express their doctrine of the catholicity of the visible church.

It is interesting to observe the earnest way in which the Scottish Covenanters, so often maligned for their intolerance, and held up to public ignominy as the very incarnation of obscurantist narrowness, insist upon the universality of the church, and the oneness of all, in every place and under all names, who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Historians and literary men have talked and still talk in their ignorance of our great Scotsmen; Knox, Melville, Henderson, Rutherfurd, Boston; as if their conduct, their thinking and their writing were so hopelessly provincial that the very mention of their names in those enlightened days required an apology. With certain popular writers of the day, some of whom at least wish to pass for serious historians, animus against the whole class of reformers and covenanters is boasted of as though these were the indispensable conditions for the writing of a fair and reliable history. Those who do this, or those who applaud their so-called histories, are always eager to find out in works which record facts unpalatable to them, instances of what may seem prejudice against their heroes and in favor of those who they calumniate. I could easily enumerate sober, impartial historians who tell the actual truth about these men and their times. But I feel that I would serve the cause of truth better if I could persuade students to read for themselves and at first hand the works of these great men. It is a serious, but by no means impossible task. I have said in my first lecture that there is much in the form of these writings that is repulsive, and I have showed you that not only are the printing and paper and exterior of the volumes fitted to cause irritation, but that there is much in their composition, plan, and arrangement of most of their productions that no modern reissue of them could make them popular or even generally readable. Still, anyone who will brace himself to the task will find it profitable and informing. He will rise from it with a new conception of the character of his ecclesiastical forefathers, with a fairer and more intelligent appreciation of their qualities of head and heart, he will know them as liberal and wise, combative and uncompromising only in the interests of truth and righteousness.

In the doctrine of the church they were not, as we are often told they were, insularly Scotch. National or particular churches; those of Scotland, of England, of France, and so on, were simply provinces of a great empire, the universal visible church of God on earth. They were not regarded as so many species belonging to one genus, but they were parts of an integral whole, totum integrale, so that the qualities that were essential in the whole were essential in each part. Hence any ecclesiastical action of a particular or national church was regarded as the action of the universal visible church.1 Brown of Wamphray sets forth this view with admirable completeness, and with wonderful conciseness, in two small pages of a work already referred to.2

To this universal visible church, with the oracles and institutions committed to it, Christ has given the ministry for the purpose of the gathering together and perfecting of the saints from among men, to the end of the world. And as this ministry is one, so also the church is one. It is simply by accident, because all cannot be gathered together in one place, that several particular churches came to be formed. Whosoever, therefore, is a member in any one of these particular churches, in communion with it in the worship of God, is in the communion of the catholic visible church. Rutherfurd and others of his school linger fondly over this point, and Brown gives more space to the reiteration of this statement than to anything else in the section of his controversial treatise devoted to the subject, evidently impressed with a sense of its practical importance. Members of the visible church catholic or universal, might be members of the Church of Scotland because they were born, and had lived in Scotland. Had they been born in France and lived there, they would have been members of the Church of France. But if a member of that church came to Scotland, he would be recognized as a church member; and a member of the Church of Scotland in France would expect to be received of right as a member there. This shows how far from the principles of our covenanting fathers those have strayed who regard their communion table not as that of the universal or catholic church, not even as that of the national church, but simply as that of their denomination, to which none are to be received who do not join their particular communion. Brown and Rutherfurd would have denounced such as sectaries and separatists.

The same principle applies to membership through baptism. If anyone has been solemnly received into the membership of a particular church by baptism, he is thereby admitted, not merely into that particular church, but into the membership of the universal visible church.3 Indeed it is into the membership of the universal church that the child is admitted by baptism primarily and according to the order of nature. Hence, not only those who are joined together in one particular church, but all the members of all churches are brethren. They are all partakers of one and the same calling, and all have been received into the same outward covenant. That same gospel, with its promises, is offered to all.

From this it follows that there is to be no rebaptizing. It ought to be remembered that in the history of the church this question of rebaptizing proved one of the highest importance. It has been intimately connected with the question of church unity with which we are now dealing. In Cyprian’s time it was universally admitted that baptism should not be repeated. The only question that arose at this point was as to whether there had been any really valid baptism, a baptism worthy of the name. There were but two essential conditions to valid baptism: It must be in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and it must be administered in a communion recognized as a branch of the church of Christ. And it was on this question of what bodies are to be recognized as churches that Cyprian was led to construct his theory of unity of the church as a community bound together by an outward and visible bond, which has had such a mighty influence on the development of the papal claims.4

Our Scottish theologians were so generous in their conception of what constitutes a true church of Christ that, keen as their antagonism to Rome of necessity was, they did not seek to unchurch her, or to treat her baptism as invalid. We might not have been surprised had they scrupled as to whether the priests of the Romish church should be recognized as minsters of the word. But here again the recognition of the church in which they served as a branch of the church of Christ, notwithstanding her manifold and grievous corruptions, weighed so heavily with them that they did not raise the question as to the validity of the orders of the priests of Rome. So little disposed were the divines of Scotland, and with them those of the Reformed churches generally, to question the validity of baptism administered within any Christian church that they even declined to pronounce baptism administered by a deposed minister invalid, and rather introduced a distinction, useful though somewhat fine, between a valid and a lawful baptism. The action of the deposed minister and the conduct of those receiving baptism at his hands was distinctly unlawful, but the baptism itself was valid, and as such could not be ignored. In the application of this distinction, however, they carefully restricted themselves to the recognition of baptism administered by those who had some claim to be recognized as men ordained by the church. Women and laymen, who presumed, in accordance with Romish practice in cases of emergency,5 to dispense the ordinance, were not only themselves dealt with as profaners of the holy sacrament, but their action was regarded as invalid as well as unlawful. Any child who had received a so-called baptism from a woman or a layman must be presented in a regular way and receive baptism as a child not yet baptized.

It should not indeed be overlooked that the Scottish Confession of Faith of 1560 lays down two things as requisite to true baptism: (1.) That it be ministered by lawful ministers, preachers of the word, chosen thereto by some kirk, and (2.) that it be ministered in such elements and in such sort as God has appointed. Then it proceeds to declare the Papistical ministers are no ministers of Christ Jesus, Yea (which is more horrible) they suffer women, whom the Holy Ghost will not suffer to teach in the congregation, to baptize, and also they adulterate the Sacrament by using oil, salt, spittle, and such-like inventions of men.6 And so in theory they make Romish baptisms not only unlawful but also invalid. In an exactly contemporary document, however, the First Book of Discipline, drawn up by the same six Reformers, it is only enjoined that the introducers of these inventions be punished.7 So far as appears, even from the beginning of the Reformation in Scotland, the idea of the unity of the church so prevailed that even in regard to Romish baptism, against which so much could be said, only its lawfulness, but not its validity, was called in question.

The unity of the church was further illustrated by this, that pastors when they are ordained are clothed with an office, not only in relation to those particular churches over which they are appointed, but primarily and in order of nature they are ordained in the church catholic, and in actu primo are pastors of the universal visible church. It was indeed emphatically declared in the Westminster Form of Presbyterial church Government and of Ordination of Ministers, approved by the General Assembly of 1645, that, It is agreeable to the word of God, and very expedient, that such as are to be ordained ministers be designed to some particular church or other ministerial charge. Yet the ordination in itself is declared to be the solemn setting apart of a person to some public church office; it is to the work of the ministry which, as we have seen, is given by Christ to the catholic visible church.

It was regarded by Rutherfurd as one of the great offences of the sectaries, and at the same time a necessary consequence of their erroneous idea, that the church consists simply of the body of believers meeting in one place, that they held that a minster cannot labor pastorally except over those who have called him, and that, should he be removed to another flock, he must there be not only chosen but also ordained anew. This matter is argued against the Independents by Rutherfurd in the seventeenth chapter of his Peaceable and Temperate Plea for Paul’s Presbytery. The discussion there is very much about the seat of church power, and the writer insists upon the distinction between the mystical and the ministerial church. It is from the ministry that any man receives ordination, and the power bestowed is the same as that of those who confer it, and is not limited by the limitations of those who constitute the sphere to which he is immediately designed. Hence a con-gregation’s forsaking of their minister by no means deprives him of his ordination. It must be observed, however, that in thus contending for the ecclesiastical as distinguished from the congregational theory of the ministry, Scottish theologians were not forgetful of the fact that it is for the church that the ministry exists. it was just in consequence of their clear conception of the doctrine of the unity of the church that our divines, holding that ordination is ordination to office in the church universal, consistently upheld the view of the Reformers in opposition to that of the Papists that a ministry may be valid although irregular, that the observance of the ordinary rules must give way if necessary to the edification and well-being of the church.

Again, this doctrine of church unity involved the recognition by all churches of any disciplinary action of any particular church. This was regarded by our Presbyterian fathers, not as a mere matter of inter ecclesiastical courtesy, but as a matter of right. It was held that any offence which excluded one from the communion of any particular church, excluded him from the communion of the whole church. This, on theory at least, is admitted by all, so that when we find any disregarding it the ground on which they proceed, if they are pressed to give a reason for their conduct, is that they do not regard those who have exercised such discipline as constituting a branch of the church of Christ. In short, no church can disregard the excommunication or other acts of discipline administered by any particular body until it has first unchurched that body.

Our own church fathers had so firm a grasp of the doctrine of the unity of the church that they would recognize the disciplinary acts even of a corrupt church, if they were not exercised by the perpetuation of those corruptions against which they protested.

In all these several cases then, our divines in Scotland recognized in a thoroughly generous spirit the unity of the church. The membership of baptized persons, the communion of those received to that table of the Lord, the orders of ministers regularly ordained to the pastoral office, and acts of discipline administered in particular churches were all conceived of by them as of obligation throughout the church universal. The idea of the church was to them no mere vague generality, but the visible kingdom of God on earth, in which men of all nations and ranks had the gospel preached to them and the means of salvation put into operation on their behalf, in which all the members had the same recognized rights, to which also in a very real sense all the members of the particular churches belonged.

In regard to those particular churches which together constitute the one catholic visible church of Christ very definite and discriminating opinions were entertained. Brown of Wamphray refers to the fourth and fifth sections of the twenty-fifth chapter of the Westminster Confession, and adopts almost literally its admirable words; This Catholic church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and em-braced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them. The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error: and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth to worship God according to his will. This clearly raises the question as to what degree of impurity would warrant Christian men in ceasing to recognize a community of professing Christians as entitled to be reckoned as branch of the church of Christ. It is evident that corruptions may so increase in a body that was once acknowledged as a church that it may no longer be worthy of such a designation. In that case separation from it not only becomes allowable, it becomes a duty.

It is interesting to note how Rutherfurd, Brown, Gillespie, Durham, and generally all the best men of that school seek to multiply reasons against separation, and show themselves willing to bear the heaviest burdens and submit to the severest strain rather than take what to them is the most painful step in separation from communion with any body with which they had previously held church fellowship. Their dread of separation was not based on any merely speculative or abstract theorizing. They had before them, in history ancient and modern, abundant evidence of its unhappy consequences. All these scholars were intimately acquainted with the history of the Novatian and Donatist schisms, and with all the deplorable details of the mad fanaticism of the German Anabaptists. In the proceedings even of contemporaries of their own, especially in England and New England, they saw to what revolutionary issues this separatist movement tended. Rutherfurd in particular had made a careful sturdy of the history and teaching of the sectaries. He had met with some of them when he was attending the Westminster Assembly, and his Due right of Presbyteries (1644) shows his familiarity with the writings of John Cotton and John Robinson. Indeed the subject seems to have had a wonderful fascination for him. He evidently re-garded the discussion as one of supreme importance for his own church during that unsettled period when so many questions of an ecclesiastical description were agitating the public mind. It appears that for at least ten years the subject of separation in its causes and effects was more or less prominently before him. In 1648 he published a large and somewhat loosely compiled exposure of the wilder theories of the extremer sects; A Survey of the Spiritual Antichrist. The leaders of the Reformed movement in Scotland must have felt the danger of reaction among those who had been oppressed by ecclesiastical tyranny, and probably they had witnessed threatening movements and had heard dangerous muttering against all constituted authority which made them tremble lest the last state of their church might be, if that were possible, worse than the first. The fourth part of Durham’s work on scandal8 is entitled Concerning Scandalous Divisions, and here he distinguishes between heresy, schism, and division. All these are in different ways and degrees wounds of the unity of the church. Heresy is some error in doctrine, and that especially in fundamental doctrine, followed with pertinency and endeavor to propagate the same, whereby, as Hooker puts it, there is a loss of the bond of faith. Schism may be where no heresy in doctrine is, but is a breaking of the union of the church, and that communion which ought to be amongst the members thereof, and is either in government or worship. Division does not at the first view differ from schism, but applies to such dissensions in the church as are consistent with communion both in government and worship, and have not a divided government or worship following them, as in the former case. It may be either doctrinal or practical. Of the doctrinal sort are the divisions that may be amongst godly and orthodox men in some points of truth, when they too vehemently press their own opinion to be received with a kind of necessity, or load the other with too many absurdities beyond what will follow from the nature thereof. Practical divisions so indeed imply some difference of opinion, but do also infer somewhat in practice. Of this latter sort was the division about Easter in primitive times before it came to a schism, some keeping one day, some another. These divisions have often been between good men on both sides. Durham instances the cases of Paul and Barnabas, and of Chrysostom and Epiphanius. Such divisions sometimes arise from various and different appre-hensions of truths that are less fundamental; but most frequently they are occasioned by a carnal and factious-like pleading for, and vindication even of truth. The Glasgow theologian shows what manner of spirit he was of by censuring Pope Stephen for carrying his opposition to Cyprian so far as to endanger the unity of the church by refusing communion to such as held with Cyprian that those who were baptized by heretics or schismatics ought again to be baptized. According to the writer on Scandal no one should carry opposition even to an error like that of Cyprian so far as to hazard the dividing and rending of the church. And so he warmly commends Cyprian, who, because of the regard which he had for the unity of the church, carried himself meekly and condescendingly. When setting forth the height of evil that division brings, Durham is led to observe that although sometimes the fault may be more on one side than another yet seldom is any side free, at least in the manner of prosecution; and therefore often it turns in the close to the hurt of both. The one side becomes more schismatical and erroneous, at least in many of their members; the other side more cold and secure in the practice of holiness, carnal and formal in pursuing ceremonies and external things, with less affection and life in the main, because the edge of their zeal is bent towards these differences.

In view of the terrible havoc wrought within and without the church by all such breaches of unity every endeavor should be put forth to prevent a division being made and to heal it when it has taken place. Never. writes Durham in a noble passage that well deserves to be quoted and pondered, never did men run to quench fire in a city, lest all should be destroyed, with more diligence than men ought to bestir themselves to quench this in the church; never did mariners use more speed to stop a leak in a ship, lest all should be drowned, than ministers especially, and all Christian men should haste to stop this beginning of the breaking in of these waters of strife, lest thereby the whole church be overwhelmed. And if the many evils which follow thereupon, the many commands whereby union is pressed, yea, the many entreaties and obtestations whereby the Holy Ghost does so frequently urge this upon all, as a thing most acceptable to him and profitable to us; if, I say, these and many other such considerations have not weight to convince of the necessity of this duty to prevent or heal a breach, we cannot tell what can prevail with men that profess reverence to the great and dreadful name of God, conscience of duty, and respect to the edification of the church and to their own peace at the appearance of the Lord in the great day, wherein the peace-makers shall be blessed, for they shall be called the children of God?9

We shall, perhaps, best show how breaches of union may be prevented by considering the teaching of Scottish theo-logians as to what differences may exist and continue without giving just ground for division, or at least for refusing to maintain communion. And here we ought to notice at once that our covenanting forefathers, strict and even scrupulous as they were in regard to ceremonies in worship which had not the sanction of Holy Scripture, made the preaching of the word the principal, and sometimes, it would seem, almost the only absolutely indispensable note of the true church. Hence they refused to unchurch any communion in which the word was preached, or to deny the name of a true church to any body in which Christ was proclaimed as the Saviour, even though the proclamation might be very defective, and though it might be accompanied with many additions of doctrine that have no scriptural warrant, and with ceremonies which they could only regard as idolatrous. And so, as we shall see later on, and in fuller detail, they recognize the church standing even of the Church of Rome. Now if we only keep in mind the keenness of the opposition offered by these Reformers to the corruptions of the Papacy we shall understand, on the one hand, how strong their feeling was against causing any breach in the unity of the church, and, on the other hand, how unhesitatingly they recognized the unique place which the preaching of the word occupied in the church, so that where it was conserved, the church, in spite of all disadvantages and disfigurements, continued to exist.10

Our sixteenth and seventeenth century theologians clearly perceived that it the preaching of the word, the announcement of salvation which is the distinctive message of that preaching, that forms the essential principle of the church. By the hearing of the word men are made members of the visible church, and by the receiving in faith of the word heard they are made members of the church invisible. One great practical advantage of their doctrine of the visible church is seen in the comprehensive view which it enabled them to take of the function of the preacher. I have seen it stated in some homiletical book that pastors of congregations ought to address themselves mainly to the edification of converted persons, that they ought to assume that the members and adherents of the church are professedly, and in the judgment of charity regenerate, so that evangelistic appeals to the sinner can come only in by the way, be addressed, as it were, to casuals or those whom in our country are called occasional hearers. But according to Scottish theology the minister is the sower whose field is the world, the visible church, the members of which are simply hearers of the word, not necessarily distinguished as regenerate persons. The protestant principle of the unity of the church, if intelligently held and applied, demands that prominence be given to the preaching of the word, inasmuch as that principle signifies, not an organic unity, but simply that which comes from the common presentation of the one message of grace. It is not only unpresbyterian, but it is antiprotestant to minimize, as in certain quarters is presently the fashion, the importance of the sermon in public worship. It rests upon a conception of the church entirely different from that of our reforming forefathers, to wit that the unity of the church is to be found, not in the preaching of the gospel, but in the observance of a certain liturgical order. By common preaching rather than by common prayer the church is one.

The leading theologians of Scotland found the principle of distinguishing between the presence of serious errors in a church, and the loss of all claims in the part of that body to be regarded as a true church, one of high practical value. On the strength of that distinction they laid down the fundamental position that while we must separate from all communion wherein we cannot but sin, this may be done without separation from the church. There may be a partial or negative separation, one, that is to say, in regard to certain acts of public worship, in which we could not without sin take part. Rutherfurd gives as an example separation from an idolatrous communion where the sacramental bread is adored. The adoration of the material element makes the table of the Lord an idol’s table; but while we must separate from the service we are not called upon totally or wholly to separate from hearing of the word, or from the prayers and praises of the erring church.

It is well that at this point we should note the essential difference between the way in which our Reformers and Covenanters speak of the Church of Rome and that in which Romanists and Anglicans refer to them. The universal cath-olic church of Scottish Protestants embraces, as we have seen, all communions in which the gospel is preached, but that of Romish and Anglican churchmen consists only of those communions whose constitution is hierarchical and episcopal. Notwithstanding the attempts of amiable individuals in these churches to express themselves in courteous and charitable terms towards those outside their pale, high churchmen speaking officially unchurch all other communions and treat them as sects not churches. This is the immediate and inevitable consequence of hierarchical principles. If the prelatic theory of the church constitution is of the essence of the church, then, of course, Presbyterians, established or non-established, and Congregationalists are members, not of the church, but simply of societies for certain religious purposes. The non-hierarchical principles of the Presbyterian Covenanters enabled them, nay rather obliged them to maintain that this belonged not to the essence of the church, and that, therefore, communities which were hierarchical in principle and communities which were anti-hierarchical in constitution might both alike be recognized as true churches of Christ.

It is by no means unusual to hear our Scottish Presbyterian church spoken of as narrow and sectarian, as advancing absolutist and exclusive claims with all the arrogance and narrowness of hierarchical Rome against which she protested. It seems to me that this is an utterly false view of the matter, and that it has arisen from failing to appreciate and attend to the distinction to which reference has been made, that namely between the church as a communion in which the word of God is preached, and that same communion proclaiming and practising errors, it may be of a very serious character. With these errors orthodox Presbyterians can have no communion, but must protest against them and separate themselves from them. Nevertheless, this protest may not imply or necessitate a separation from the church. This distinction was a very real and practical one. It enabled those who entertained it to think and speak graciously and tenderly of individual members of these churches which were most corrupt. It allowed them to perceive and acknowledge the presence of God’s grace in the lives of many who along with fundamental doctrines joined much hay and stubble in their building. They unchurched no community which preaches Christ, not even Rome which unchurched them, nor the Separatists who unchurched them both. They repudiated the Romanist assertion that all sep-arated from Rome are like withered branches severed from the tree; but they do not make a similar claim on their own behalf by asserting that those who separate from their communion are thereby separated from the one fount of life.

The charge of separation they threw back upon the Romish church. Rome, says Samuel Rutherfurd, made the separation from the Reformed churches and not we from them, as the rotten wall makes the schism in the house, when the house stands still and the rotten wall falls.11 It was not Christianity that they left in Rome, but the leprosy of popery growing upon Christianity. They recognize too that in all the ages there were in the Romish church representatives of evangelical truth, whose successors they claimed to be; they did not separate from Rome’s baptism, not even from its ordination of pastors according to the substance of the act, nor yet from the articles of the Apostles’ creed, not from the contents of the Old and New Testaments, but only from the false interpretation of those who made themselves lord over the faith and the consciences of men.

The English Separatists brought a charge against Scottish Presbyterians that their ministers derived their ordination from Rome. The leading Reformers, they said, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Knox, all had their orders from what they called antichrist, and so ministers, receiving ordination from them, had their calling from the same quarter. In answer to this Rutherfurd, after the example of some of the best continental divines, set forth in detail the essential grounds of the calling and ordination of the first protestant Reformers. In their calling, he points out, there was something immediately from God; they were called to the ministry which is from him. Then by the papal church they were designed and ordained as pastors; and so, in the substance of it the act was of God, and in so far as she had to do with it the Church of Rome acted as a Christian church. There were, no doubt, antichristian ceremonies in the way and manner in which the ordination was carried out, and those thus appointed to the ministry had taken an oath to maintain the doctrine and practice of the Church of Rome. But this oath was essentially a promise to defend the truth; the truth doubtless of the church as it then was; still always under the notion of truth. And so, when by spiritual illumination, they saw and renounced the error of the church in their day, they still held the substance of their oath as obligatory and binding on their conscience. If the Roman church were altogether antichristian, this ordination could not be regarded as in any sense conferring office in the Christian church; a dead man cannot beget a living child. But the Roman church was not like a dead man; it was like a sick or deformed man. It was not wholly antichristian, but kept some of Christ’s truth, and that which is only in part antichristian may ordain ministers who have the true essence of a ministerial calling.

A very important step was thus taken in the direction of laying down a broad principle of church unity, when the validity of ordinances such as baptism and ordination, which respectfully admit to membership and office, was expressly recognized when administered in communities which had anything of Christ in them. It is very much to the credit of our Scottish Presbyterians that they did not unchurch any community in which Christ was not altogether denied or ignored. And in regard to this they are all heartily agreed; not only Rutherfurd, Brown, and Durham, but even those Society men, Cameron, Cargill, Renwick, the authors of the Informatory Vindication, and the Rutherglen, Sanquhar and Lanark Declarations, men often represented as irreconcilables, exclusive, sectarian, and impracticable.

Some might be disposed to treat the declarations of Scottish Separatist as mere theorizings which were very glaringly contradicted by their practice. The Cameronians, Macmillanites, and the Society man generally, who claimed to represent the true Church of Scotland, were vehemently denounced as sectaries and charged with schismatical division, with recklessly, or at least needlessly rending the unity of the church. There was no charge in regard to which they were more sensitive. There was no statement more persistently reiterated by them than this that the unity of the church was most dear to them, that nothing was more abhorrent to them than the giving of any occasion to separation and forming of sects. And that this was no mere sentiment, but the honest conviction of their hearts is shown by their generous recognition of the church standing of all communities in which Christ was preached, to which we have just called attention, and also by the way in which they set themselves to explain how it came about that, notwithstanding their appreciation of church unity, they nevertheless refused to hold communion with many whose church membership they acknowledged. In the first place they show in detail what errors and shortcomings they regard as insufficient to warrant separation; and then what faults and corruptions are of such a nature as to justify and necessitate separation. We have already seen that they laid down the broad principle that they might and ought to separate only when their failing to do so could involve them in sin. We must now consider what they say in regard to the patient forbearance which must be exercised by members of the church in order that they may be free from the charge of causing scandalous and sinful divisions.

Durham, in dealing with this subject, premises that there is no division among orthodox divines and Christians which may not be composed or healed, so as to make union possible. So, in endeavoring to bring about healing we must not insist upon agreement in every detail. Room must be made for many differences both in judgment and in practice. There may be differences of opinion with reference to persons, whether officers or members; but to break away on that account would be to expect that the barn-floor should be without chaff. There may be defects in government, such as the sparing of corrupt officials and members, and even the unjust censuring of the guiltless, or the admission of the unfit to the ministry, yet these will not excuse schism and division. As Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea continued in the Jewish council, discountenancing the corrupt acts of their colleagues, so it is the duty of Christian men to remain in the church even when seriously defective, dissenting and protesting against her defections. It may also be necessary to maintain communion notwithstanding defects in worship, measures of government and rules necessary for the management of the church. So we find the Apostle urging the duty of union most strongly upon the members of the Church at Corinth, where many irregularities of worship and conduct prevail. All such defects are to be remedied not by division but by union.

In seeking to determine more exactly what the defects are which should be put up with rather than to withdraw from church communion, Durham lays down these six rules or considerations. (1) What cannot warrant a breach where there is union, that cannot warrantably be the ground to keep up a division. Making up of a breach is no less a duty than preventing thereof; the continuing thereof is but the continuing in the same sin. (2) Such defects as so not make communion in a church and in its ordinances sinful, will not warrant a separation or division from the same. There is no separation from a true church in such ordinances as men may without sin communicate in, although others may be guilty therein. (3) Men may keep communion with a church when their calling leads them thereto upon the one side and they have access to the discharge of the same upon the other. A minister, for example, must follow the duties of his calling whilst there is no physical or moral impediment barring him in the same and others being defective in their duty will not absolve him from his, which he owes by virtue of his station. (4) While the general rules tending to edification, in the main, are acknowledged, union is to be kept, even though there be much failing in the application. (5) There may and ought to be uniting when the evils that follow division or schism are greater and more hurtful to the church than the evils that may be supposed to follow in union. He speaks not of the ills of sin, for the least of these are never to be chosen, but of evils and inconveniences that may indeed be hurtful to the church in themselves, and sinful in respect of some persons, yet are not so to all. In such evils the lesser is to be chosen. Under this rule Durham utters many wise sayings. One sentence well deserves to be quoted and remembered. The ills of division are most inevitable, for the ills that follow union, through God’s blessing may be prevented, it is not impossible; but in the way of division it is, because itself is out of God’s way. (6) When men may unite without personal guilt or accession to the defects or guilt of others, there may and ought to be union, even though there be failings and defects of several kinds in a church. Under this rule the author recognizes three impediments such as a tender conscience may be justly scared by from uniting. (1) If a person be put to condemn anything he thinks lawful in his own former practice, or the practice of others, or in some point of doctrine though never so extrinsic, if it be to him a point of truth. (2) If he be put to approve the deed and practice of some others which he accounts sinful, or to affirm somewhat as truth which he does account an error. (3) When some engagement is required for the future which does restrain from any duty called for, or that may afterwards be called for.12

In order to find examples from the life and practice of the early church to enforce and commend forbearance towards the weaker and faultier on the part of the stronger and sounder, Durham and his associates drew upon their stores of patristic learning. For a Council or Assembly to rescind a decision against a party without having received any satisfaction or acknowledgment of fault from that party cannot be an easy thing. And yet Augustine tells us how the bishops of Spain who had condemned Hosius,13did, on his acquittal by the French, fall from their first sentence lest they might cause a schism. Then Durham refers with warm and hearty approval to the conduct of the church in bringing the Meletian schism to a close. In A.D. 361 two bishops were appointed to Antioch, Meletius and Paulinus. Although the prime movers in the appointments had been impelled by the supposed attitude of the rival bishops it was found that both were orthodox, and so their rival government and separate congregations were a serious scandal to the church. Meletius made overtures in the interests of peace, proposing that Paulinus and he should be joint bishops, and that after the death of either the survivor should be sole possessor of the see. Paulinus, on the plea that his ordination was more in accordance with the ecclesiastical canons than that of Meletius, refused to acquiesce in the proposal. Accordingly he was accounted unworthy to govern such a church and was set aside, while Meletius, because of his consideration for church unity, was invested with the sole episcopal rank and government.

In a little book published anonymously, but now known to have been written by Bishop Gilbert Burnet, entitled A modest and Free Conference between a Conformist and Nonconformist,14 the Conformist, in answer to a statement of the Nonconformist that he will not quit one truth for the love of all men, acknowledges that if required to renounce what we judge the truth we must obey God rather that man, but declares that it is another thing to quit the communion of the church because its teaching, according to our thinking, is not according to the truth, unless that truth denied in the church is of greater importance than the articles of our creed, The holy Catholick church, the communion of saints.

To this M’Ward,15 in his True Nonconformist: Answere to the Conference (1671), replies that no true Nonconformists think they may quit the communion of the church unless the difference be both real and in profession and practice, and also that it is not every real difference in these things they hold to be a sufficient cause of separation, nor do they hold that even where the cause is sufficient should separation always be carried to an extremity. On the contrary, says M’Ward, the sound and clear rule in the matter of church practice is that where the controverted difference is such as would render a conjunction therein either sinful or contagious, there a just and proportionate separation, precisely and with all tenderness commensurate to the exigence, is the safer course.

In the Informatory Vindication,16 written, as is supposed by Renwick somewhere about 1686, all those belonging to the Societies disown a separation from communion with the Church of Scotland in her doctrine, worship, discipline, and government as she was in her purest and best days, and only oppose the errors and defections of that church and endeavor to separate from these. It is also clearly shown what things are regarded as insufficient to warrant the withdrawing from ministers even in this covenanted land, and then what the grounds are which justify and necessitate such withdrawal. Infirmities, whether natural, spiritual, or moral, sins of ignorance, differences of judgment in things indifferent in themselves, controversial points not condemned or witnessed against by our Reformers, and even scandals not attended with obstinacy, but confessed and forsaken; all these are set forth as matters in regard to which forbearance must be exercised, and as differences which do not warrant separation. On the other hand, they refuse to hold communion with those who have no rightful call to preach; priests whose mission is from Antichrist, curates who have their calling from the episcopal hierarchy, and gifted brethren whose call is only from the people. They also feel that they are justified in refusing to hold communion with all who had laid aside their ministry or had taken it again at the bidding of a usurping authority, including all those who had taken the indulgence, refusing fellowship also with all who had allowed themselves to be silenced, and who had been lurking or in hiding in time of persecution, as well as all who had not preached against the sins of the times, or shown any degree of sympathy with the public enemies of the covenanted remnant. This list, which in the manifesto is set forth in abundant amplitude of detail, certainly seems to embrace all ranks and classes in the land outside of the small handful that issued it. And so its authors have been most severely criticized as an impracticable, over-scrupulous set of irreconcilables, who recklessly and wantonly attacked and unchurched all who did not belong to their own little cove-nanted circle. Such sweeping charges betoken, in my judgment, a singular want of knowledge of the character of the men, a lamentable failure to appreciate the difficulty of the situation in which they were placed, and the delicate nature of the questions which they had to discuss. Their position was very similar to that of the faithful in the third and fourth centuries, after the early Christian persecutions, when they had to consider their attitude towards those who had been in varying degrees unfaithful; the Sacrificers, the Incensers, and the Certificated,17 as the lapsed were designated.

The subsequent course of church history in Scotland showed how much cause they had to dread reunion with Conformists even of the least aggressive type. It really was not in theory but in practice that those high-principled, self-denying men came short of the full maintenance of the doctrine of the unity of the church. It is, doubtless, much easier to see two hundred years later than it was in the day of blood and terror, how the right rules of the persecuted remnant might have been logically carried out. It was easier even for Boston than for Renwick to show how the anti-schismatic principles of the Covenanters might be adhered to in the strictest and most literal fashion. For the Church of Scotland in Boston’s time, with all its defects, and these were such as made Boston himself suffer severely, was distinctly more hospitable to men with views like his than that of the earlier period. And hence, although Boston’s sermon on Schism,18 in which he vigorously taxes the Society men of his time with that offence, may seem to be more in the spirit of Rutherfurd than in that of Renwick, I am not sure but it is one which Renwick, had he survived so long, would have been quite prepared to preach. There was certainly an excuse, perhaps also a justification for Renwick’s position which the later Cameronians could not plead for theirs.19

In the later history of the church in Scotland it may be noted that this same horror of schism and division was mani-fested. The Seceders of 1733, when compelled to separate themselves from the church of their fathers, persistently re-fused to admit that they had broken away from the Church of Scotland, but boldly and consistently made their appeal to the first reformed assembly. The Covenanters and the early Se-ceders successfully vindicated themselves against any charge of schism, and showed themselves earnest in their desire and endeavor to preserve and restore the unity of the church.20

The same, I fear, cannot be said of those who are mainly responsible for the internal feuds and manifold subdivisions within the church of the Secession. In this respect it seems to me that Adam Gib was an arch-offender. The admiration he has won from men like Dr. James Walker and Principal Fairbairn should be enough to assure even those who are not acquainted at first hand with his writings that Gib was a man of no ordinary power. His success showed that in any theo-logical or ecclesiastical conflict he was a man to be reckoned with. Yet I cannot help feeling that in regard to the important matter of the unity of the church Gib contrasts badly not only with the Erskines, but also with all the great ecclesiastics of Scotland such as Rutherfurd, Brown, Durham, and even with the Covenanters Cameron, Cargill and Renwick in the times of their sorest straits. As contrasted with these he seems to have had little appreciation of the doctrine of church unity. He rent the church which he had recognized as the true Reformed Church of Scotland, and separated from the parent church only in respect of its corruptions, I would not say lightly or wantonly, for of his personal sincerity and intensity of conviction there can be no doubt, but certainly in a spirit far removed from that of Durham and others of his day.

At this distance of time, and amid the changed conditions of the present age we are apt to regard elaborate disquisitions like those of Rutherfurd, Gillespie, and such like, as purely antiquarian specimens of a misdirected ingenuity. We too often lose patience with the men who carry a discussion through hundreds of pages on what we now regard as no better than the Pharisees’ tithing of mint and cummin, with a scrup-ulousness and a persistency which we think might well have been reserved for the weightier matters of truth and righteousness. That heat of temper and violence of speech, as unnecessary as they were undesirable, were only too frequently exhibited is undeniable. But surely what has been gathered together in this lecture should be sufficient to show that all these men, even the most extreme among them, had such a conception of the importance of the unity of the church, and such a horror of the evil of schism, and were so firmly convinced that anyone who withdrew from church communion without absolute cause, that is without feeling assured that he could not remain in such fellowship without committing sin, was guilty of a most heinous offence, that they were ready to give their most favorable consideration to any sort of suggestion of reasons why they should refuse to go out of a church, notwithstanding the existence in it of many corruptions against which they must protest. The very elaborateness of their investigations bears witness to their anxiety to discover whether it might not be possible without sin to maintain church connection. If they differed among themselves they did so only because they were convinced that these differences involved some vital truth. When a compliance made or advocated by some was sternly and uncompromisingly resisted by others, it was because they regarded it as a surrender of their spiritual liberty or a betrayal of the cause of God.

John Welch of Irongray was the most conspicuous of all the field preachers, who defied the tyrannical laws of the land, a fanatic of fanatics his enemies called him; but, though he took his life in his hand every day rather than make the least compliance, he wrote this in the very midst of his fifty-two Directions to his parishioners (1662): If you shall see at this time a difference in opinions and practice among us who were ministers of the gospel, some standing and sticking at things that others can digest, be not offended at this. It has been so always since the beginning, it is no new thing. If there be some that leave off preaching when others do continue to preach though against law, I say, offend not at either when both keep right in the main thing. It was only when they thought that the main thing was in danger that they said even union that we prize so highly we dare not have at such a price.

 

  1. The visible church, in the idea of the Scottish theologians, is catholic. You have not an indefinite number of Parochial, or Congregational, or National churches, constituting, as it were, so many ecclesiastical individualities, but one great spiritual republic, of which these various organizations form a part. The visible church is not a genus, so to speak, with so many species under it. It is thus you may think of the State, but the visible church is a totum integrale, it is an empire. The churches of the various nationalities constitute the provinces of this empire; and though they are so far independent of each other, yet they are so one, that membership in one is membership in all, and separation from one is separation from all . . . This conception of the church, of which, in at least some aspects, we have practically so much lost sight, had a firm hold of the Scottish theologians of the seventeenth century. Dr. James Walker in The Theology of Theologians of Scotland. (Edinburgh: Rpt. Knox Press, 1982) Lecture iv. pp.95-6. []
  2. Contra Wolzogium et Velthusium. Praefatio, § 23. []
  3. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children. Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. xxv. § 11. []
  4. The Bishop is the fountain of authority and center of union in the Christian church. The Bishop, the representative of the apostolic office, or the representative of Christ, within his own doicese, is the bond of life and order and unity in the Christian society. Such is the idea first formally, perhaps, exhibited in the so-called Epistles of Ignatius, and more fully brought out in the writings of Cyprian . . . . The Pseudo-Ignatian and Cyprianic theory of the church could only find its complete and consistent development in the Romish doctrine of one visible catholic society and one supreme head, under which all the inferior societies and authorities of a visible Episcopacy might unite. And hence the doctrine of the hierarchy embodied in the theory of Cyprian, grew, and was developed until it found its only consistent and perfect expression in the system of the Church of Rome. The Church of Christ, by Professor James Bannerman, D.D., (Edinburgh: Rpt. Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), vol. ii. part iv., chap. iii. pp. 252-3. []
  5. And quhensaever the tyme of neid chancis that the barne can nocht be brocht conveniently to a preist and the barne be feivit to be in peril of dede, than all men and women may be ministeris of Baptyme, swa that quhen thai lay wattir apon the barne, with that, thai pronunce the wordis of Baptyme intendand to minister that sacrament, as the kirk intendis. The Catechism of John Hamilton, 1552; The Sacrament of Baptyme, the fourt cheptour. []
  6. Laing’s Knox, vol. ii. chap. xxii. pp. 115, 116. Dunlop’s Collection, vol. ii. pp. 84-86. []
  7. Laing’s Knox, Ut sup. p. 187. Dunlop, Ut sup.p. 521. Such as would presume to alter Christ’s perfect Ordinance you ought severely to punish. []
  8. Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology, by John Macpherson, (Edinburgh: Macniven & Wallace, 1903), Lecture I. p. 48. []
  9. Durham on Scandal, Edin. 1659. pp. 313 ff. [Part IV. chap. vi. p. 288, edition 1680.] []
  10. It is interesting to notice that in thus emphasizing the importance of the preaching of the word our Scottish divines have the support of some of the most learned and most advanced of modern German theologians. God’s word, says Lipsius, cannot be without God’s people; where, therefore, the Gospel is rightly preached and the Sacraments rightly administered, there in the presence of the outward signs does faith mark also the invisible acting of God’s Spirit. The regular presentation of the word in the widest sense is the one ordinance of the church which is of divine right. All other ordinances are of human right and have nothing to do with the Christian Faith. Die Hauptpunkte der Christlichen Glaubenslehre im Umrisse dargestellt, Brunswick, 1891, p. 36. Comp. also Lehrbuch der Evangelisch Protestanteschen Dogmatik, Brunswick, 1876, pp. 820 ff. []
  11. Peaceable and Temperate Plea, p. 122. []
  12. Concerning Scandal, Part iv. chap. vii. []
  13. Bishop of Cordova in Spain, member of the Council of Nice in 325. []
  14. A Modest and Free Conference between a Conformist and Nonconformist, in seven Dialogues. Glasgow, 1669. []
  15. There are almost endless variations in the spelling of the name of this worthy Scot. Baillie, for example, has M’quard, Makquard, Macquare, M’Quare. In Wodrow’s History he figures as M’Vaird; in the Analecta as Macwaird, and in the Correspondence as M’Ward. Robert M’Ward, a Regent in the College, and afterwards a minister in the City of Glasgow, was ejected at the Restoration, retired to Holland, and died an exile in December 1681. []
  16. An Informatory Vindication of a poor, wasted, misrepresented remnant of the Suffering, Anti-popish, Anti-prelatic, Anti-erastian, Anti-sectarian, true Presbyterian Church of Christ in Scotland, united together in a General Correspondence. By way of reply to various Accusations, in Letters, Informations, and Conferences, given forth against them. This tractate was the most important of all the documents issued by the United Societies formed at the close of 1681, and the germ of the Reformed Presbyterian church in Scotland. It was in the main the composition of James Renwick. []
  17. Sacrificatores, Thurificatores, Libellatici. The last named class consisted of those who purchased certificates from corrupt magistrates, in which it was declared that they were pagans, and had complied with the demands of the law. []
  18. The text was 1 Cor. i 10: Now I beseech you, brethren, that there be no divisions among you. It was directed against John Macmillan and John Macneill, the two preachers of the separation, as Boston styles them. Several times reprinted, it is in the seventh volume of his collected works. []
  19. In the course of his analysis of the Informatory Vindication, the Rev. Mr. Hutchison refers to the charge brought against its compilers of being schismatics, a charge, he says, they were well able to repel. They, he goes on to remark, still regarded themselves as a part of the historic Church of Scotland, and were wont to speak of it as the poor, torn, and bleeding mother . . . . They claim that they have not left the church . . . . The declining and corrupt part has left them; they are separating only as refusing to follow in this evil course . . . . They did not claim to be a church, but only fellowship societies of private Christians meeting together for mutual edification and strengthening, and having no idea of forming a separate church. The Reformed Presbyterian church in Scotland, chap. iii. sect. iii. pp. 75, 76. []
  20. And likewise we do protest that, notwithstanding of our being cast out from ministerial communion with the Established Church of Scotland, we still hold communion with all and every one who desire with us to adhere to the principles of the true Presbyterian, covenanted Church of Scotland. . . . And we hereby appeal unto the first free, faithful, and reforming General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Protest of the Four Seceders when declared by the Commission to be no longer ministers of This church, November 16,1733. It is one thing “to depart” from communion with a party in that church . . . . The question is not concerning Secession from the Church of Scotland, but concerning Secession from the present Judicatories of this National church . . . . It is one thing to depart from Communion with a particular church on account of her Corruptions, and another thing to unchurch that same particular church . . . . The seceding Ministers are neither afraid nor ashamed to own that they have made a Secession from the present Judicatories of this National church; but they refuse that they have ever seceded from the Communion of the Church of Scotland, or that they have made any Kind of Separation from her. A Defence of the Reformation Principles of the Church of Scotland, by William Wilson, M.A., Minister of the Gospel at Perth, 1739. W. W. was one of the Four Fathers of the Secession. []