Make no mistake, Christians are always on the front lines of battle. Scripture puts 3 main enemies before us – the World and its enticements, the Devil and his lies, and the Flesh with its self-idolatry. Personally, those keep me pretty busy. At the same time, I want to be wary that in my zeal to proclaim the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and defend sound doctrine, I don’t at the same time wound my brothers and sisters in Christ carelessly. Debate. Dialog. Convince. Persuade. Challenge. Clarify. Yep. But to do so in a spirit, in The Spirit in such a way that unnecessary divides are not created; that issues are met with proportionate responses; in love granting the benefit of the doubt and placing the best construction wherever possible – and above all seeking to build up my brother or sister with whom I may disagree – “in the most holy faith.” And it ain’t easy.
Sadly, all too often in our day – where social media makes global commentators of everyone with a computer, keyboard and camera – dealing with one-another, even among professing Christians can take on a tone of continual sniping, criticizing, defaming, carelessly ripping people to shreds whom Jesus died for. It is a shame on us. And to quote from the sermon below by Richard Steele – “we must contend earnestly, but yet charitably, with the softest words and hardest arguments we can.” A perspective I find woefully lacking, even in myself at times. But one I pray the grace of God will work in me more and more.
I’ll let the good Rev. Steele speak for himself with some prefacing comments below. And as you read this sermon – which I’ve edited down from 20,000 words to a little more than 8K – see if his use of the Word doesn’t speak to our age and circumstance, as he tried to speak to his own.
by the rev. richard steele, a. m.
of st. john’s college, cambridge
how the uncharitable and dangerous contentions that are among professors of the true religion, may be allayed.
But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.—Galatians 5:15.
Richard Steele (1629-1692) was no stranger to strong controversy. As a non-Conformist in the 17th century, he lost his pulpit, was arrested and jailed for refusing to swear to the Common Book of Prayer before he had read it, and falsely charged with treason on misconstrued evidence. He had buried 5 of his 10 sons, been prosecuted for baptizing his own children, had ordained Matthew Henry’s father into the ministry and then 30 years later, Matthew Henry himself. A pious and godly preacher in the Puritan mold. And he saw as one of the greatest dangers and sins of his day – presciently of ours – is the practice of uncharitable and dangerous contentions among professing Christians.
In the following, I have endeavored to preserve as much of his own words in this sermon of over 20,000 words as possible – while editing it down to more readable size. The bulk of what I eliminated are his voluminous Scripture citations. With as few editorial headings and interjections as possible – the balance is his much needed exhortation to the Church in the United States in the 21st Century.
Steele begins by stating his goal in this sermon: “to inquire into the cause, the danger, and the cure of uncharitable contentions in the church of God.”
Dealing with “uncharitable contentions” among Christians. Not the elimination of differences, debates, controversies or even spirited disagreement. His issue is HOW we conduct ourselves within the Body of Christ in these circumstances.
Giving some background to the Galatian situation he notes: [Paul] “goes on to tell them, that the whole law—is fulfilled in loving their neighbor as themselves; (verse 14;) and so, though they were free from the law of ceremonies, yet not from the law of love; and though the moral law had now no power to justify the sinner, nor to condemn the believer, yet still it hath the force of a rule, to guide them in that grand duty, as much as ever before.”
And this Steele says Paul presses “as a motive, to press the Galatians to exercise that charity which he said was the sum and scope of the whole law; and it is drawn from the danger of the contrary temper. Plain commands of God should be sufficient to sway us to our duty; but generally we have need of the most powerful motives; especially when the violent streams of rage, lust, or revenge oppose it; as in the case before us: “But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.”
Steele then states that Paul in his opening words specifies the sin he is concerned about: “But if ye bite,” that is, reproach and defame one another; “and devour one another;” that is, tear and oppress each other, by all the mischievous hostilities ye can; for religious feuds are always sharpest.” Then the ensuing danger is: “Take heed that ye be not consumed one of another;” that is, “You will certainly destroy one another:”
Thinking only about the Galatians alone this teaches us that there were contentions in Galatia, that those disagreements probably outrageous the way Paul uses “biting and devouring” and that this situation was dangerous for all spiritually. His conclusion is “Uncharitable contentions…prepare for utter destruction.”
So moving on to applications we can use his outline:
- Clarify all Paul said;
- Expand on and confirm the truth; and,
- Apply and bring home the influence of this point unto ourselves.
Seeking to clarify Paul he says there are basically 3 kinds of contentions: a. Private ones – “troublesome to those who are in the right, and damnable to those that are in the wrong, and oftentimes ruinous unto both; and therefore are by all good means to be prevented.” b. Public ones – “usually about the succession, power, or prerogative of princes, and the liberties or properties of subjects.” And c. Spiritual ones – “concerning religion and matter of conscience. And these are either about things that are essential and fundamental therein; that is, about such truths as are plainly revealed, and necessary to salvation: for these, indeed, we must contend earnestly, but yet charitably, with the softest words and hardest arguments we can; even for these things we must not “bite and devour one another:” such were some of the points in debate among the Galatians. Or else they are about things that are controversial in religion; that is, that are not essential or fundamental, or that are not plainly appointed of God; as matters of order, ceremony, and such other circumstances; about which, in these latter ages of the church, there have been in divers places the greatest contentions.”
Our engagement with any or all of these can either be charitable or uncharitable. And he characterizes uncharitable interaction as “when rancour is in the heart, reviling in the tongue or pen, rage, at least all manner of rudeness and disobligation, in the carriage; when men speak and write so, as if they would “bite and devour one another.”
After commenting on the types of destruction un-charitability produces, he proceeds to his first proposition:
“There ever were, are, and will be, differences among God’s own people in the matters of religion.”
It was true for the Jews who had the detailed law of Moses and “no sooner was the gospel planted, but the professors of it fell at variance about matters of religion.” Circumcision, meats, special days, treating the consciences of the weak lightly and condemning the liberty of the strong, meats offered to idols, etc. “Scarce any single church in the New Testament was clear of difference in matters of religion: and this, whilst the blood of our Saviour was warm, and divers of the apostles were yet alive.” He then cites some historical and notorious disputes rising with Novatus, then Donatus and others. Worse yet, among the orthodox…Chrysostom and Epiphanius, two bishops, that contended so bitterly with one another, that Epiphanius in his fury wished that Chrysostom might never die a bishop, and Chrysostom in his passion wished that Epiphanius might never go home alive; and the history tells us, that it fell out to them both accordingly.” So it is no surprise we still have this problem. In fact: “By all which it is evident, that as there have been different opinions and practices among all sorts of religions in the world, so the church of God hath been subject to the same malady. And as it was from the beginning, so it is now, and so will it be, till the world have an end, until the church of God be presented to Jesus Christ, without “spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing.”
At this point, Steele’s “First Proposition” lays out some of the reasons why this is so.
“1. Our general imperfection in this life.—As the best men are imperfect in their holiness, so are they in their knowledge; there will be defects in our understanding, as well as in our will. Some are babes in knowledge; others are strong men: some “have need of milk, being unskilful in the word of righteousness;” others are “of fuller age, and have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil…So that it is scarce possible to prevent all diversity of opinions in religion, unless every pious man had a promise of infallibility annexed to his piety.”
“2. Men’s education.— “The principles which then they imbibe, be they right or wrong, they generally live and die with: few will be at the pains to examine them, and few have a mind to alter them.”
“3. Men’s capacities are different.—Some have a greater sagacity to penetrate into things than others; some have a clearer judgment to weigh and determine of things than others; some have more solid learning by far than others;…Others have neither such natural abilities, nor time to read and think of matters, so as to improve and advance their minds to the pitch of others. And there are not a few, who as they are duller in apprehension, so they are commonly hotter in affection and resolution.”
“4. Men’s natural tempers are different.—Some more airy and mercurial, some more stiff and melancholy. And those complexions do strongly and insensibly incline people to those sentiments that are most suitable and proper to such temperaments; which, being diverse, yea, almost contrary, must of necessity, when they are applied to matters of religion, breed variety of apprehensions.”
“5. Men’s interests are different.—The best of men have something of the old Adam in them; and though the sincere Christian must and will strive against any such temptation, yet, according to the strength of unmortified corruption, men will be prone to be for this opinion, practice, or party, and against that opinion, practice, or party, that falls in or out with their worldly interest.”
“Now from these and many other causes it sadly follows…[that] there will be differences among the people of God in points of religion; especially in minuter matters, which are but darkly described, and more darkly apprehended by the sons of men: in short, that there is no more hope of perfect unity on earth, than there is of perfect holiness. It is to be endeavoured, but not fully attained till we arrive in heaven: then we shall “come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”
“These differences may and should be managed with charity.— unity should by all good men be first endeavoured; and, to that end, they should all impartially seek for truth, on which side soever it lies; and this every humble, diligent man shall find.”
He argues we should never sacrifice truth for unity, but must strive for both in balance.
“But whenas, after all such endeavours have been used as are within the reach of a man’s parts and calling, still differences do remain in smaller matters, these ought to be managed with all charity; that is, with true love; a love of honour and respect to those that are above us, a love of condescension and forbearance to those that are below us, and a love of hearty good-will and kindness to those that are equal to us…There may be the same love in the heart, where there are not the same notions in the head…They may be of the same heart, who are not every way of the same mind; or else there could scarce be real affection between any two persons in the world.”
He then acknowledges this is not an easy thing to accomplish: “this method is hard and very rare, and that chiefly by reason of our pride; most men thinking too well of themselves, and consequently of their opinion and practice; and thereupon vilifying all others that differ from them. Every man would be a lawgiver, a God to another, would prescribe to them, and quarrel with them for their dissent; insomuch as the wise man affirms, that “only by pride cometh contention…we are as apt to be fond of our own notions, as of our own children; and as rarely to value others, as if we were the only “people, and wisdom must die with us,” and all others must strike sail unto us. And from this root spring passion and distemper of spirit; and then when men’s passions are once kindled, then wrath and revenge manage the controversy,” and one Christian is ready to “bite and devour another.”
However, this need not be. “religious differences should be managed religiously; that is, piously and charitably…it is a golden sayings of Bernard: “I will cleave to you against your will; I will cleave to you even against my own will: when ye are moved, I will be quiet; I will give place to anger, that I may not give place to the devil…And there is great reason for such a temper: for every difference in religion creates not a different religion.”’”
“These dissensions are uncharitable, when persons bite and devour one another.—The spring of all this poison is in the heart; for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh,” and the hand acts. There is a defect of real and fervent love, and an excess of selfishness, within; self-opinion, self-will, and self-interest: and this arrogance breeds insolence, and all the “biting and devouring” mentioned in this place.”
What does this “biting and devouring” look like?
“1. Men do “bite” one another by keen and venomous words.—When men do “whet their tongue like a sword, and bend their bows to shoot their arrows, even bitter words.”’”
“2. Sometimes by censuring their brethren.—“They are time-servers, proud, covetous, superstitious;” or, “They are conceited, peevish, factious.” Especially, if any one be really scandalous, by imputing it presently to all his party, as if they were all such; which is the most unjust and uncharitable inference imaginable; for what party of men is there on earth, wherein there are none that are foolish, false, and wicked? In short, there is no vice more common and mischievous, not only among different parties, but with all sorts of people, than in their ordinary conversation to let fly their censorious arrows against others.”
“3. Men “bite” one another by plain slandering one another, charging them with crimes which they abhor.—Thus one party reckons all their opposites to be presently enemies to the king and to the church; who, on the other side, are as ready to count them enemies to God and to his people; monopolizing godliness to one party, and loyalty to another. Nay, each is ready to appropriate all religion and good conscience to themselves, and to unsanctify and vilify all of the contrary mind: a common course of hypocrites,—first to degrade a godly man into ungodliness, that so they may have room to hate him; though the same law, and the same Lawgiver, forbid us to “bear false witness against our neighbour,” that forbids the “worshipping of a graven image.”
“4. Men “bite” by downright railing [at], if not cursing, those that differ from them.—Devising and affixing the most disgraceful names and titles; concluding them all to be knaves or fools that are of a contrary mind; both praying and drinking to their confusion…As God’s truth needs not man’s lie, so neither doth it need his rancour, to uphold or promote it.”
“5. Men “devour” one another by actual endeavours to injure and hurt one another.—When their inward rage breaks out into overt actions and practices tending to ruin their brethren. And this is done sometimes, (1.) By fraud.—Which signifies all the cunning devices which malice can suggest, whereby to undermine their credit, estate, and comfort. (2.) Sometimes this is done by force.—When either party can get any human law on their side, down without mercy go all their opposites; yea, sometimes without it and beyond it: yea, oftentimes you shall see them most zealous for compliance with one or two laws, which fit their humour, who live in the continual breach of twenty others.”
“These uncharitable contentions do prepare for utter destruction.—So saith, 1. The scripture. So, 2. All history and experience. 3. Undeniable reason confirms it.”
“And for religious differences: it is known how Julian the Apostate cherished those between the Catholics and the Donatists; saying, that no savage beasts were so cruel against one another, as the Christians; so that he expected thereby to ruin them all.”
“Jealousy is the great bane of families, churches, and nations; but a mutual confidence establishes them. How can those that “bite and devour one another,” confide in one another? And if the parts be thus ill-affected, how crazy must the whole body be! When we can see little or nothing amiss in a person or in an action, and yet do suspect that there is something concealed, even this creates a distrust, and weakens the welfare of the whole: much more, when suspicions are boiled up into actual dissension, it must needs expose such a church and nation to the utmost peril. For then men presently put the worst construction upon each other, and upon all their words and actions. You know, every thing hath two handles: we should take every thing by the charitable handle; and if it be capable of a fair and friendly sense, so we should receive it: for so we desire in all cases to be understood. We would not be alway interpreted in the worst sense, and why then should we deal so with others?”
“Hereupon it is worth our notice, that the apostle, when he musters up “the works of the flesh” in this chapter, nine kinds of them are contrary to this love; to wit, “Hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders;” (verses 20, 21;) and when “the fruits of the Spirit” are reckoned, behold how many of them are akin to this love which I am speaking of!—“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, meekness;” (verse 22;) as if the carnal man were composed only of flame, and the spiritual man made up of benignity.”
“For when there is a dislike settled within, and that men’s spirits are exasperated by provoking words and actions, there wants nothing but opportunity to produce the most violent effects… We undertake hereby to be our own executioners, and spare our enemies the pains of destroying us.”
“And it hath been observed, that religious feuds (the more is the pity) are generally the most fierce and violent; whether because the best things, being corrupted, prove the worst; or that mistaken conscience and misguided zeal do hurry men to the greatest excesses, and that people think that they can never be too earnest and vigorous in their actings for God: “The time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” (John 16:2.) How dangerous must those bigots and those zealots be to one another, that believe they serve God best, when they hate and mischief one another worst! No persecution from without can be so fatal to the church of God, as the strugglings in her womb; as no storms or tempests do rend and tear the earth so much, as the convulsions that are within it.”
All of this Steele contends, serves to “provoke the wrath of God.—“God is Love;” (1 John 4:8;) he is the God of peace; and then these must evidently offend and cross his blessed nature. The more patient, quiet, and mild men are, the liker are they to God; and the more uncharitable and implacable, the liker to the devil…When our dear Saviour, who came on purpose to reconcile God and man, and men to men, [was born,] the anthem which was sung by angels was, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men.” (Luke 2:14.) These contentions do ring these bells backward, and chase away that peace and good-will back to heaven again. When Joseph was so kind to his guilty brethren as to be reconciled to them, he sent them back again with this charge: “See that ye fall not out by the way;” (Gen. 45:24;) as if he had said, “See, I am reconciled to you all; quarrel not among yourselves;” a most kind and equal advice. In like manner our blessed Saviour, when he had obtained remission for us, commanded all his disciples to “have salt in themselves, and to have peace one with another;” (Mark 9:50;) he renews no commandment, but that of loving one another. And the Holy Ghost in the apostles doth still inculcate this lesson above all others,—to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” (Eph. 4:3,) to “be like-minded,” to “have the same love,” to “do nothing through strife or vain-glory,” (Phil. 2:2, 3,) to avoid the provoking one another.”
“Another result is to “consume the power and life of godliness.—God’s grace never thrives in an unquiet spirit. The Jews say that Jehovah lives in Salem, which signifies “peace;” but he cannot live in Babel, which signifies “confusion.” That zeal, that time, those studies, which should be employed in the increasing of saving knowledge, faith, hope, and holiness,—they are all consumed in these uncharitable contentions. Instead of “making our own calling and election sure,” we are busy to reprobate our brethren, and to render their calling ineffectual. Instead of “considering one another to provoke to love and good works,” (Heb. 10:24,) these engage us to consider all the defects and faults of others, and to provoke them to anger and to every evil work. This is “fasting for strife and debate.” (Isai. 58:4.) These embitter our prayers, and hinder our access to God, when we cannot “lift up” unto him “holy hands without wrath and doubting… For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then 2peaceable, 3gentle, 4open to reason, 5full of mercy and good fruits, 6impartial and 7sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” Jas 3:16–18.”
But! Someone will object: “it is our duty, where we have right and truth on our side, to contend earnestly.”
“To this I answer, 1. We must consider the nature and consequence of truth.—That is, that it be a great or necessary truth: for though no truth must be denied, yet many truths may be forborne. If every man should be obliged to vent and propagate at all times every thing which he holds to be true, no place or conversation would be quiet…2. In asserting any truth a man may be earnest, and yet charitable.—He may think well of his opposites, and yet think ill of their opinions; he may oppose an error with a spirit of meekness, with soft words and hard arguments…An excellent direction there is for this: (2 Tim. 2:23–25.) This is far from aggravating men’s mistakes, spinning out odious consequences from them, concluding that all of another persuasion do militate against their own consciences, that worldly interest or vain humour sways them, that they are ignorant sots or superstitious time-servers, and the like: this kind of strivings is not for any “servant of the Lord.”’”
Another might object: “our opposites are violent; and if we be gentle, we shall but encourage them. Shall they be hot in the wrong, and we lukewarm in the right? How can we handle charitably such uncharitable persons?”
“Unto this I answer, 1. We may be resolute, and yet charitable.—For one grace never crosses another. As the greatest courage is still accompanied with the greatest generousness to an adversary, so the warmest zeal, if true, is attended with the purest charity; otherwise it is but rage and brutishness, which is very foreign to the Christian temper. Where true grace is impressed on the soul, there graciousness and kindness will be expressed to all men…2. Bitterness can never cure violence.—As “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God,” (James 1:20,) so neither doth it work the reformation of men: one sin can never work a right cure upon another. We see this in ourselves; severity and violence cure nobody: and this should be men’s design in all arguments, disputes, and reproofs; namely, to recover and cure those that are out of the way.”
“O, but God’s glory,” you will say, “is at the stake! Therefore it is not only lawful to be zealous, but necessary...” 1. Be sure it be so, that the honour of God be really concerned in these your contentions.—It is a dangerous thing to engage God’s glory in our sinful affections or expressions. You know how dear it cost Moses, that servant of the Lord, when, in great heat against his erring brethren, he brake out “unadvisedly with his lips…” “Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?” Though otherwise he was the meekest man upon earth, and was at that time sufficiently provoked; yet Almighty God would not bear to hear this language from him, and shut him out of the promised land for it. God knows, we are more apt to press God’s glory into the service of our passions and interests, than to engage ourselves and all our abilities, or to deny our humours, for the promoting thereof…2. Be it known to you, that though your ends be very sincere, yet God’s glory hath no need of your intemperance.—As his truth hath no need of our lie, so his honour needs not the rotten pillars of men’s passions: “Will ye speak wickedly for God? and talk deceitfully for him? Will ye accept his person? will ye contend for God?” (Job 13:7, 8.) He requires it not, he needs it not. The excellency of the end will not legitimate the viciousness of the means; nay, by “breaking his law” in these uncharitable contentions you “dishonour him.” (Rom. 2:23.) God’s truth and honour have almost suffered as much by weak and passionate advocates, as by open adversaries…3. If you be indeed so concerned for God’s glory and for his truth, then you will use all other means to reduce men into the way of truth.—His glory must be promoted by his own means. You will not only rebuke them, but you will pray for them; you will speak as zealously for them to God in heaven, as you speak against them upon earth. If they hunger, you will feed them; if they be disparaged or distressed, you will assist them; and thus by “heaping coals of fire upon their heads,” you will melt them into repentance.”
Now on to his applications.
“1. Then it follows, that union is the true means of our preservation.—Unity of judgment,—this, I say again, should be endeavoured, not only in weighty points, but in all matters of doctrine and practice: and if men would labour to divest themselves of prejudice and interest, this might in a great measure be obtained. Truth is but one; and if all did truly seek truth, they would surely find it…But a violent prejudice for or against any opinion or practice, is a notorious hinderance in finding out the truth; it shuts the windows, that light cannot enter. Whoso, therefore, would find out the plain truth, must strip himself of all such pre-occupation as will not suffer him to make an impartial search into the mind of God about it; and having found it, must render himself prisoner unto it.”
“Let us consider, 1. How many things we agree in.—And if men would begin at this end, and not still at the wrong end,—to wit, the few and small things wherein we differ,—we could not, for very shame, be so implacable to one another…2. Consider the imperfections of our human nature.—Our understandings were sorely wounded by the fall of Adam; and they are but imperfectly and unequally recovered by all the means which the gospel affords. Why should we condemn every one that is not endowed with our abilities, or advanced to our capacity? Do we fall out with one that is blind, because he cannot see so far nor so quick as we? We should rather pity him, and praise God who hath been kinder to us. They that are most intelligent, know but in part: “And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.” (1 Cor. 8:2.) That was, therefore, a good answer which Melancthon made to those who objected to the Protestants their divisions: saith he, “The judicious agree in fundamentals: but as, in a great army, the skill or strength of all the captains and of all the soldiers is not equal, but they all agree in their wills and honest designs to serve their prince; so all good men have not the like knowledge, but all agree in their sincere love to goodness…3. Consider, that you, who are so violent, do differ from others just as far as they differ from you.—Do you think that one kind of government in the church is best? they do as verily think so of another. Do you hold such and such ceremonies in religion to be unlawful? they are as confident of the lawfulness of them. Do you conclude, that all private men’s opinions in such matters ought to be swallowed up, and to acquiesce in the public determination? they verily believe that the church should leave them, as the apostles did, in their first indifference. Now when such as do not otherwise forfeit their veracity, come and profess that they cannot for their hearts think otherwise than they do; you cannot yield to them, they cannot comply with you; what remedy then is so proper, so Christian, as charity to each other?…4. Consider, that there have been greater differences than ours among those that were the true members of Christ’s church.—Witness Acts 15:1: “And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved:” a material point, and urged, you see, with great confidence; and yet God forbid we should blot these out of the roll of true Christians! How resolute were some great divines in the church pro and con in the case of re-baptizing those that were lapsed in the primitive times! And what heart can be so hard, as to deny the Lutherans and Calvinists a place in the church of Christ, who yet differ in greater matters than ours? Wherefore, seeing their differences were greater than ours, we should not aggravate them against one another, nor by our violence render them intolerable…5. Consider your own personal moral failings.—Hath not each of us some “right eye?” Are we perfectly good? Are not we all “men of like passions?…Alas! if we were truly conscious of our own neglects of many duties, whereof we have been convinced, toward our God, our neighbour, and ourselves; and of the many transgressions and faults which we frequently commit; we should much abate our rigour toward others, and turn our indignation against ourselves. How sad a business would it be, if any of those who have censured and damned their opposites for some dubious matters, should prove slaves to their own lusts, and be found at last to be wretched hypocrites in the main things of religion!”
“2. If uncharitable contentions do prepare for utter destruction, then woe be to the instruments and bellows of our contentions!… If those that set a house or town on fire, be justly reckoned and treated as enemies to human society, certainly they who inflame the souls of Christians against one another, to the ruin of a church and nation, deserve the worst character and the worst punishment.”
“Our common adversary and enemy in this matter is Satan.—Our contentions do plainly smell of fire and brimstone…Divisions are the devil’s music; but that which makes the devil laugh, should make us weep. How often have there been essays and endeavours to reconcile our unhappy differences; and this cunning and malicious enemy hath defeated them all!”
3 Enemies Steele sees:
“Jesuits and other emissaries from Rome.”
“Atheistical and debauched persons.”
“ Ignorant and proud people.—Whereof the number is too great in every party: such as have neither read the scriptures with judgment, nor other ecclesiastical histories, nor considered the constitution of the churches of God in other parts of the world; but only pore upon what is next to their senses. And these commonly are most conceited and unmovable, abounding only in their own sense, and condemning all others with the greatest contempt. Of such good old Mr. Greenham is to be understood, when, being asked by the lord-treasurer Cecil, where the blame of that great rent lay between the bishops of those times and others, “The fault,” said he, “is on both sides, and on neither side: for the godly-wise on both sides bear with each other, and concur in the main; but there be some selfish, peevish spirits on both sides, and these make the quarrel…How rare a thing is a public spirit, or a man that, looking upon the distracted condition of a church and nation without the false spectacles of prejudice and private interest, can drop a Christian tear, or impartially offer any balm to cure their wounds!”
“3. If these prepare for destruction, then we in this sinful nation are in the ready way to misery.—For, 1. Our differences and contentions are notorious…2. We are uncharitable in these contentions…3. Too many of those that should quench these flames, exasperate them…4. Our common enemy is ready to devour us…We have the Canaanites both within the land and without, that are ready to make one morsel of us, and who, after we have condemned one another for superstition and schism, will truss us all up for heresy, without the infinite mercy of God.”
“4. Let us all then be entreated, conjured, and persuaded to forbear biting and devouring one another…(Phil. 2:1–3.) Leave off this brutish behaviour toward one another. To which end consider, 1. The greatness and baseness of the sin; 2. The certainty and sadness of the danger that attends it; 3. The best method to cure the sin, and prevent the danger.”
Let me cite just a few things under the first heading: “These contentions do bring great dishonour to Jesus Christ.—He is “the Prince of Peace,” (Isai. 9:6,) the true King of Salem; the great Promoter of peace, and the great Pattern of it. When he came into the world, “peace” was sung; when he departed out of the world, “peace” was bequeathed. Now this quarrelsome temper in his servants doth grievously reflect upon him. For he saith, “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” (John 17:20, 21.) As if he had said, “Their dissensions and quarrels will tempt men to think that I came not from thee, who art the Mirror of wisdom and love.”
“These uncharitable contentions do grieve the Holy Spirit of God.—He descended like a dove, and cannot brook “the gall of bitterness.” When, therefore, the apostle had dehorted the Ephesians from “grieving the Holy Spirit of God,” (chap. 4:30,) he adds in the next verse, “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, 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.” This sweet Dove will never lodge in a vulture’s nest.”
“These contentions do stir up much corruption, both in the aggressor and the defendant.—There is a great deal of folly in the wisest and best of men; and this either lurks in the habit, or is produced into act, more or less, as there is greater or lesser temptation. Sin dwells in our natures, as the mud in the bottom of a glass of water; when it is shaken, it appears, and stains the whole glass. There is a world of pride, anger, envy, and revenge, in men’s hearts; and these contentions draw them forth, strengthen them, and make them rampant: “As coals are to burning coals, and wood to fire; so is a contentious man to kindle strife.” (Prov. 26:21.)
“They do greatly hinder the conversion of the ungodly, and the progress in holiness of the godly.—Whereas the great work of God’s ministers should be to instruct the ignorant, to convince and reform the profane, to build up God’s children in their faith and holiness;—this should be their study in private, this their business in public;—now the ignorant and ungodly are left quiet in their sins, the sober and pious are little improved in their Christian course, and men’s talents of time, parts, and pains, are laid out in dry and unprofitable controversies. And then private persons, who should employ their converse together to their mutual edification,—they are perpetually irritating one another by these fruitless contentions… For if husband and wife should maintain a constant amity, that their “prayers be not hindered,” (1 Peter 3:7,) a continual contesting with our brethren must greatly clog and damp them.”
“These contentions in religion tempt men to be atheists.”
“These biting and devouring contentions are uncivil, inhuman, and barbarous.—It hath been always reckoned for good breeding, not to be confident and peremptory in asserting any thing whereof any in the company modestly doubts; and, on the other side, if any cannot comply with the sentiments of another, to enter his dissent with all possible respect, and without any reflection or provocation. We account it barbarous rudeness in discoursing, yea, or in discussing any point, to signify in civil company the least provoking gesture; much more, to fall into a rage, or to express revenge. And yet, if you hear the harangues, and read the printed discourses, of some gentlemen, you would conclude that they have but a small pittance either of good humour or of ingenious education.”
“3. I come now, in the third and last place, to direct the best method to cure this great evil, and to prevent this great danger.”
“(1.) Lament your own and others’ sin in this particular.—All sound amendment begins in godly sorrow. We are glowing hot in wrath and strife; tears are necessary to quench this flame: mourn for others’ fierceness and for your own…Consider how often you have added fuel to this fire, how you have exasperated this burning fever, and how little you have done to assuage and mitigate it; how easily you have been prejudiced, how easily provoked, how hardly pacified. If you should have met with such treatment from your Heavenly Father as your brethren have had from you, you had been devoured and consumed long ago.”
“(2.) Learn Christian wisdom.—Thereby you will be able to weigh and consider things, and to look at them on every side. What mischief hath zeal without wisdom done in the church of God! A wise man will observe the weight and consequence of the things [which] he undertakes to oppose and defend; and then he will consider what are the most proper means to convince and to reduce his mistaken adversary: “He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent,” that is, “a sedate, calm, and cool,” “spirit.” (Prov. 17:27.) A wise man distinguishth between tolerable mistakes and intolerable, and proportions his zeal and the expressions thereof accordingly: whereas “a fool’s lips enter into contention;” (Prov. 18:6;) he is hurried by his folly into all the terms, moods, and figures of provocation…As the deepest rivers run most calmly, so the wisest minds are ever most peaceable…Again: a wise man can govern his passions; and not “cast fire-brands, arrows, and death,” and then say, “Am not I in sport?” (Prov. 26:18, 19.) No; he will make controversies as few, and then as short, as he can; and manage sacred matters with a solid gravity.”
“(3.) Endeavour for a catholic spirit.—That is, a due and tender respect to all the parts and members of the Christian church. For of that whole mystical body, every true Christian is a member…Hereby we shall not suddenly unchurch others, at home or abroad, for some imperfections or corruptions: for he is but meanly read in the records of the church, that hath not observed manifold defects, deformities, and corruptions in all the Christian societies which have been in the world; and on the other side, that some holy persons in all ages have in some thing or other dissented from the common opinions; and that many weak and peevish people have [exercised] and ever will exercise the patience and charity of the rest. On the contrary, a poor, narrow spirit in many hath not been the least cause of our contentions; whereby they have confined the grace, presence, and goodness of God to some few persons or societies, that have been more strict and devout than others.”
“(4.) “Be clothed with humility.” (1 Peter 5:5.)—For whatsoever pleas and pretences are hung out, it is pride within which hath a hand in the beginning and maintaining of our quarrels…This makes the superior look upon the inferior that differs from him with great contempt; and this prompts him that is on the lower ground to all the envious reflections and constructions imaginable of him that is got above him…Whereas humility makes a man think meanly of himself, moderately of his own notions and apprehensions, highly of those that deserve it, and respectfully of all… The humble man will not endure that his reputation shall outweigh the peace of the church; and therefore is more willing that truth should be victorious than himself. He will go two miles for one, to meet his adversary in an honest way of accommodation; and when he cannot make his judgment to bend, yet his heart shall stoop to you with all sincerity.”
“(5.) Apply yourselves to the practice of real piety.—By this I mean, that we should employ our chief care to procure and increase a lively faith, to exercise daily repentance, to strengthen our hope, to inflame our love to God and to our neighbour, to grow in humility, zeal, patience, and self-denial; to be diligent in watchfulness over our thoughts, words, and ways, in mortification of our sinful passions and affections, in the examination of our spiritual estate, in meditation, in secret and fervent prayer, and in universal and steady obedience. In these things do run the vital spirits of religion: and whoso is seriously employed in these, will have but little time, and less mind, for unnecessary contentions…He that walks with God, and whose “conversation is in heaven,” will be quickly weary of windy disputes with men.”
“(6.) “Follow after charity.” (1 Cor. 14:1.)—“Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth,” (Chap. 8:1.) This is the healing grace; and if this be not applied to our bleeding wounds, they will never be cured. This “suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.” Pray read on, and mark all these passages: “Charity doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things” tolerable, “believeth all things” credible, “hopeth all things” possible, “endureth all things,” and, as it follows, endureth after all things. (1 Cor. 13:4–8.) That whole chapter [is] most fit to be read, and often studied by all that love peace…[Charity] reckons the good parts, qualities, or actions that are certainly in others, to be rather better than they are indeed; and the ills, to be less than they are indeed; the doubtful good things in them, to be certain; and the doubtful evil, to be none…The more true piety any man hath, doubtless the more charity still that man hath…If we must err one way, (as who is infallible?) it is safer for you to err by too much mildness, than by over-much rigour; for Almighty God, though he be wise and just, yet he is most emphatically called “Love…And for you to reply, that you do heartily love those that are every way orthodox,—that is, that agree with you in opinion,—is nothing thankworthy: “Do not even the publicans the same?” (Matt. 5:46.) That may be nothing but self-love; but your religion enjoins you to “love your enemies;” (verse 44;) and it is but a sorry expression of this love to “bite and devour one another” for unnecessary matters.”
“(7.) Avoid extremes.—Do not labour to screw-up one another to the utmost…When a late French king had earnestly solicited a great statesman, retiring from the court, to leave with him some of his most politic observations, and to that end had locked him up in his closet, only with pen, ink, and paper; it is said, that he only took several sheets of paper, and wrote in the top of the sheet Modus, in the middle Modus, and in the bottom again Modus; advertising his master thereby, that the sum of all prudence in government was to observe “a mean” in his administrations…Indeed, if one party have all the truth on their side, it is most fit [that] the others should yield themselves to be their prisoners: but if that be not evident, as it is scarce probable, it is most equal that each do move toward the other as far as they can; or else they will never come together. If the things in question be any way necessary, God forbid that ye should refuse them; if they be not, God forbid that ye should urge them.”
“(8.) Mind every one his own business.—The apostle gives this rule: “That ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you.” (1 Thess. 4:11.) It is not a thing arbitrary, but “commanded:” and that upon good reason; for when men want employment, or have employments too mean for their spirits, or, having good callings, do neglect them, they are fit instruments to stir up contention. These permit “their tongues to walk through the earth,” (Psalm 73:9,) and will exercise themselves in things too high for them. These collect and disperse all the invidious narrations they can meet with, and make no conscience of wounding every man’s reputation that is on the other side: by all which they greatly contribute to the heightening and exasperating the differences that are among us. And, in short, they are the seventh sort of people that are “an abomination unto the Lord;” namely, such as “sow discord among brethren.” (Prov. 6:19.) If, therefore, men would mind first and chiefly the business of their own souls, and “exercise” themselves in this,—“to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men;” (Acts 24:16;) if they would keep their own vineyards, weed up those tares which spring up in their own hearts, and stir up the graces of God’s Holy Spirit in them; and then travail in birth with earnest endeavours for the conversion and salvation of their own poor children and servants; and then be diligent in their temporal callings; they would have neither list nor leisure to “wander about from house to house,” from ale-house to tavern, from tavern to coffee-house, as they do; and are “not only idle, but tattlers also and busy-bodies, speaking things which they ought not;” like those women which are reproved in 1 Tim. 5:13.”
“(9.) Observe that good old rule, of doing to others as you would be done to.—You would have others to bear with you; and why will not you bear with others? You would have the best sense put upon your words, actions, and carriages; and why will not you put the best sense on their words, actions, and carriages? You would not be imposed on, censured, reproached, backbitten, slandered; no more should you impose upon others, or censure them, or reproach or backbite or slander them. I may say to you, as Chrysostom, on that, Matt. 7:12: “Let thy own will here be thy law.” Let not this rule, which was reverenced by Heathens, be trampled on by Christians.”
“(10.) My last advice is, to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem… There are few greater reasons for our solemn fasting and prayer than this. If some plague, or war, or drought come upon us, we reckon it is high time to fast and pray: but, alas! those are in themselves but miseries; but our contentions are so our miseries, that they are our sins also: those will but destroy some of our people; but uncharitable contentions will consume us all. But whatever others do herein, let it be every sincere Christian’s care to lay holy violence to heaven upon this account.”
Adapted from: Nichols, James. Puritan Sermons. Vol. 4. Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981.