Often, we Protestants and Evangelicals are mocked for the divisions found among us. The number of denominations that exist within Protestantism are an albatross around our collective neck. Yet moderate Nonconformists of the late-seventeenth century like Philip and Matthew Henry, Edmund Calamy, and James Owen found significant unity even with important denominational differences. This is important for us to wrestle with today—where is real unity supposed to be found in Christ’s church? Can we have unity while having so many different denominations?
Like Richard Baxter, the well-known Puritan pastor, the Henrys, et al., saw themselves as catholic (little-c) Christians. That is, they emphasized the fundamental and essential Christian truths so that they might have unity within the universal body of Christ wherever it might be found. Matthew Henry wrote, “Those I call Christians, not who are of this or that party, but who call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord: those, whatever dividing name they are known by, who live soberly, righteously, and godly in this world.”
Not to endorse an overly simplistic meme but most of us have seen the one that has various denominations listed and in the middle, in bold print: just plain Christian (or something similar, reminding us of Paul’s criticism in 1 Corinthians 3). Although such a meme is too simplistic, in some sense, moderation requires just such an emphasis on the essential doctrinal issues upon which the church is built. [On this point, I am eagerly anticipating reading Gavin Ortlund’s recent book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (Crossway, 2020).]
Unity was not found within a visible location (a cathedral or diocesan office) or in a unifying name (a particular denominational affiliation) but rather it was grounded in both doctrine and love. Francis Tallents, for example, noted that the unity of the church is “built on the large and sure foundations of faith and love; that all who agree in these are true members of it . . . .”[i] As I have written elsewhere, faith certainly requires content to which all must agree (these men all were speaking of the Protestant church which already had set, doctrinal boundaries); but love insists that this agreement be in the essentials and not necessarily in secondary (or tertiary) matters.
For these men, the unity of the Protestant (or Reformed) church was part of the very nature of Christ’s church, not some accidental feature. To be a believer meant that one had a sense of and affinity toward the universal church, across time and across the nations. The Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:15, “because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints . . . .” Paul Lim argues that Richard Baxter sought a balance between unity and purity and would not pursue one at the expense of the other.[ii] Theological moderation self-consciously pursues just this balance.
For moderates, unity does not mean nor depend on uniformity, and this distinction is essential to grasp. Edmund Calamy (whose grandfather by the same name was part of the Westminster Assembly) argued that the aim of the church universal “is not to bring men to an exact agreement and uniformity in all particulars; but to diffuse among us a noble spirit of love, and inspire us with such moderation and condescension, as that notwithstanding a diversity of sentiments and practice, we may yet carry it as brethren, and keep the unity in the bond of peace.”[iii] Referring to Ephesians 4:3, Calamy and these other moderates believed that “[eagerness] to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” was to be a foundational ecclesiological principle. It was an essential aspect of moderation and should be today too.
Something important to keep in mind is that even the Puritans themselves intentionally remained within the Church of England as long as they were able to although they had significant concerns about a variety of Anglican practices. As a matter of fact, they wanted to purify and not separate. Schism was not desirable; they were cognizant of the unity Christ’s people were supposed to have.
When the Act of Uniformity of 1662 forced these Puritan pastors from their churches, their ecclesiology still led many to occasionally conform (in other words, they would still go and take communion under the Church of England once in a while). They still sought unity and did so because they were convinced that there was unity by virtue of common faith in a common Lord. That was the foundation and the rest, though important enough to suffer ejectment over, was yet secondary.
Theological moderation, then, requires charity in our approach to one another (previous article) and a proclivity toward unity grounded in the essentials.
We will consider moderation’s understanding of separation without schism in our next piece.
[i] Francis Tallents, A Short History of Schism, p. 23.
[ii] Paul Chan-Ha Lim, In Pursuit of Purity, Unity, and Liberty: Richard Baxter’s Puritan Ecclesiology in Its Seventeenth-Century Context, pp. 112, 127, etc.
[iii] Edmund Calamy, A Defence of Moderate Non-conformity Part II (London: 1704), p. 12.