This morning at theology breakfast we read John Owen’s A Country Essay for The Practice of Church Government There (Volume 8 of his works by...Banner). As Linds and I were headed home we were thinking about how the culture impacts people. We are truly children of our era. We have all thought this before… “How could our ancestors have tolerated slavery?” Well, the answer we often hear is, “Well, they were children of their time.” This did not make it just, but it did not make one hundred percent of their thinking about all things wrong. Many of our ancestors – not all, but many – had a wrong view of slavery. It was wrong, and it was a huge blind spot. This blind spot, however, should not keep us from going back to them for what they had correct. There is still much good that we can learn from their perspective on things.
Well, the truth that we are “children of our time” was hitting home as we considered this essay by a 17th century theologian and pastor. His was a time in which evangelism was a foreign thought (if you were born in England you were baptized into the Anglican “church” and therefore thought to be a Christian). In effect their perspective was one of, “What’s the need for evangelizing when everyone is a Christian?” This was also a time that ecclesiological decisions regarding church discipline were made by the civil magistrate (the government). There was an established religion (Christianity). This is the situation that Owen was writing to in this essay. His thoughts were revolutionary for his time, and they are for us as well as we try to figure out where our country is headed. Here’s an excerpt:
“Ignorance of men’s invincible prejudices, of their convictions, strong persuasions, desires, aims, hopes, fears, inducements, - sensibleness of our own infirmities, failings, misapprehensions, darkness, knowing but in part, - should work in us a charitable opinion of poor erring creatures, that do it perhaps with as upright, sincere hearts and affections as some enjoy truth.” 61
It is interesting that he says their ignorance played out in convictions (etc.) and that it should elicit charity from us in regard to their errors because they do it with upright sincere hearts and affections as some enjoy truth. They are ignorant of the full truth but we should be charitable because they perceive their error as truth. This doesn't mean that what people believe erringly is truth, however. Owen is clearly calling for charity in the midst of strong diverse opinions and convictions. Generally this is the definition of “tolerance”.
In our era many say that tolerance means, despite differences of persuasion, one cannot say another’s conviction or persuasion is wrong or false (and if you do you better have scientific data provable by repeatable experimentation!). At least this is the general theoretical understanding of tolerance folks would articulate in our day. In real life this principle does not work itself out as neatly as they may articulate. Hence, we have two supposedly opposing political parties in our country (which I think is a false dichotomy of sorts), or the fact that we buy one product over another based on how they have pitched a convincing or unconvincing argument for “quality” or usefulness. Regarding the latter you don’t see companies that have decreasing sales figures yelling at other companies, “By you saying your product is superior to ours you are not being tolerant.” We all understand to a certain extent this is a dog eat dog world. Despite a push for strict egalitarianism across all diversity we all understand that that philosophy is a half-truth at best. Regarding the former you do see politicians crying fowl sometimes in regard to “tolerance” but generally we would all agree that they should try to be well educated in their decisions and if their solutions to problems are the best then by all means, persuade us! This isn’t a lack of tolerance. Why then do we point accusingly at people in religious and moral matters accusing them of a lack of tolerance? We need to practice charity as Owen is exhorting. His words of “charity” and of “tolerance” though old are fresh to our time. He doesn’t pose the perfect solution, but he does offer a different perspective that we should listen to which we may not have considered. (I disagree with him, however, that the civil magistrate should handle matters of discipline. I believe this is something given to the responsibility of a local church.)
Owen further speaks to the inclination our age has toward relativity in most if not all things:
“These things turn in a circle: what we are to ourselves, that he is to himself: what he is to us, that we are unto others that may be our judges. But however, you will say, we are in the truth, and therefore ought to go free. Now, truly, this is the same paralogism: who says we are in the truth? others? no, ourselves. Who says erroneous persons (as so supposed) are heretics, or the like? they themselves? no, but we: and those that are to us as we are to them, say no less of us. Let us not suppose that all the world will stoop to us, because we have the truth, as we affirm, but they do not believe. If we make the rule of our proceedings against others to be our conviction that they are erroneous; others will, or may, make theirs of us to be their rule of proceeding against us.” 62-3
He is addressing the fact that the magistrate in carrying out disciplinary actions on behalf of the Anglican “church” to those they believe are heretics, namely burning them alive, chopping heads off, etc. They weren’t barring them from the sacraments or taking their names off of member roles; they were killing people. He is encouraging more charity in church discipline based on the logic of Matthew 7:12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Further, he later uses the logic that Gamaliel used in Acts 5:33-42 that if what dissenters in the churches believe and live out the validity of this (whether or not it is actually true) will be established by God: “But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:39) May the Lord forbid our exercise of discipline in the form of killing if it only proves that we were in opposition to God. He is calling the church then to exercise charity in discipline. This is revolutionary! John Locke (one of Owen’s students at Oxford) had not come along yet to propose a separation between church and state. Even though Owen was a product of his era, here, in the middle of England's civil war, Owen is proving himself to be ahead of his time.
Toward the end of his essay he leaves us with two cautions:
“(1.) So to carry ourselves in all our censures, every one in his sphere (ecclesiastical discipline being preserved as pure and unmixed from secular power as possible), that it may appear to all that it is the error which men maintain which is so odious unto us, and not the consequent or their dissent from us, whether by subducting themselves from our power or withdrawing from communion. For if this latter be made the cause of our proceeding against any, there must be one law for them all, – all that will not bow, to the fiery furnace! Recusancy is the fault; and that being the same in all, must have the same punishment, – which would be such an unrighteous inequality as is fit for none but Antichrist to own.
(2.) That nothing be done to any, but the bound and farthest end of it be seen at the beginning, and not leave way and room for new persecution upon new pretences. ‘Cedo alteram et alteram,’ – one stripe sometimes makes way for another, and how know I that men will stay at thirty-nine? ‘Principiis obsta.’" 68
The first caution seems to be a warning against a mixture of church and state and that having the same punishment (death) for dissenters as all others who must be disciplined by churches was of the type of inequality the Antichrist would support.
The second caution seems to be a warning of centralization of power in one body, individual or otherwise without some kind of accountability. There should be some kind of limitation of power and of meting out punishments. Otherwise, new reasons will come to the surface that require new punishments (or persecution) and there is no accountability for how much punishment is given out.
"Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Marston Moor, by an unknown artist. The Parliamentarians under Sir Thomas Fairfax defeated the Royalists at this battle in Long Marston, Yorkshire, on July 2, 1644. Cromwell commanded the Parliamentarian cavalry that defeated the previously invincible Royalist cavalry of Prince Rupert. Marston Moor was a turning point in the English Civil War, as it effectively lost the Royalists the north of England."
I am thankful for the Lord's work in the separation of church and state. May we take advantage of this and seek to share the gospel. Further, we may not always have this freedom...so lets take advantage of it as an opportunity given from the hand of God Himself!