Now, I happen to agree with the idea that a distinction can be made between doctrines and practices that can be known to be inseparable from regeneration on the one hand and doctrines and practices that, so far as we know, a person could in a reasonable degree of innocent ignorance reject and still be regenerate. I would agree that a person cannot truly reject Christ as God and be regenerate, but that, so far as I know from God's Word, a person might very well truly reject infant baptism and be regenerate. In fact, I have high hopes that many baptists are truly regenerate. So this is not the part of latitudinarianism I have a problem with. (I'll come back to this issue later on.) My problem is with the practical implication that is drawn from the distinction between "essential" and "non-essential" doctrines and practices--that churches cannot discipline members with regard to non-essentials.
THE CHURCH IS COMMANDED TO TEACH AND ENFORCE ALL THAT CHRIST HAS COMMANDED
My reason for opposing this latitudinarian idea is that the Bible seems pretty clearly to teach that the church not only may discipline church members for non-essential matters but that it has a duty to do so. Let's take a look at some passages:
After his resurrection, Christ gave his "great commission" to the church:
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)
What is the church to teach all nations to observe? Only those things deemed essential? No, it is to teach people to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.
What is to happen if someone refuses to obey anything Christ, and the church rightfully in his name, commands him to believe or observe?
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. . . . And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15)
If anyone refuses to obey the teachings of the apostles, whereby they are communicating the commands of Christ, that person is to be subject to church discipline, even to being put out of the fellowship of the church for a time. Paul says the same thing elsewhere:
Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you. (1 Corinthians 11:2)
Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple. (Romans 16:17)
This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men. But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain. A man that is an heretick [that is, one who causes divisions through false teaching] after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself. (Titus 3:8-11)
This is in accordance with what Christ himself taught as to how to deal with sins and offenses in the church:
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:15-20)
It is also in accordance with the regular practice of the apostolic church . . .
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2:41-42)
And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. (Acts 16:4)
. . . and the teaching of God in the Old Testament with regard to his law:
What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it. (Deuteronomy 12:32)
Notice that nothing is said in any of these passages regarding a distinction between "essential" and "non-essential" matters. Do these passages seem consistent with the church saying to its members, "Hey, you need to believe and practice these doctrines and practices over here, because they're essential, but these non-essential ones over here you are free to ignore without any sanctions or discipline, without any threat to your good standing in the church"? No, what Scripture commands church officers to do is to teach and enforce with the authority of Christ everything that Christ has commanded. What God has made mandatory, man cannot make optional. Disobedience to any one thing that God has commanded is disobedience to God. I'm reminded of the comment of the Apostle James:
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:10-11)
If the church is commanded to teach and enforce what God has handed on to it to teach and enforce, it does not have the authority to decline to either teach or enforce any part of it, even on the grounds that it does not consider some parts of what God has commanded to be "essential."
ERROR, REGENERATION, AND CHURCH DISCIPLINE
Now, I mentioned earlier that latitudinarians claim that there is some kind of distinction between "essential" and "non-essential" doctrines and practices, the difference between them being that essential doctrines and practices are essential to a person's being regenerate, while non-essential doctrines and practices are, well, not essential to a person's being regenerate. I think there is some biblical basis for this distinction. It is evident from Scripture that there are some things that are simply incompatible with having a heart right with God (at least if they are persisted in indefinitely and unrepentantly). A true, heartfelt rejection of the gospel, rightly understood, is one of those things. So is disbelief in the existence of God. So is (sincere and truly understood) idolatry. See, for example, Romans 1:18-25, Luke 10:16, and Matthew 10:11-15:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.
He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you despiseth me; and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me.
And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, enquire who in it is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence. And when ye come into an house, salute it. And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you. And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.
There are other examples as well. If a person exhibits (and persists unrepentantly in) these kinds of attitudes or actions, it is a pretty clear sign that he is unregenerate. We saw in some of the quotations I gave earlier illustrating the command to discipline church members that certain kinds of behavior not only deserve to receive formal discipline but are also a pretty clear sign of heart problems (in a spiritual sense). For example, Romans 16:17 speaks of a certain kind of divisive attitude that Paul does not seem to think bodes well for a person's spiritual state:
Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.
On the other hand, the Bible also gives indications that it is possible sometimes for people to be ignorant or confused about some things in such a way as to do things that are wrong without it necessarily meaning their hearts are not (at least to some degree) in the right place. See, for example, Acts 18:24-28, 2 Chronicles 30:13-20, and Philippians 3:15:
And a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John. And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly. And when he was disposed to pass into Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him: who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed through grace: For he mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly, shewing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ.
And there assembled at Jerusalem much people to keep the feast of unleavened bread in the second month, a very great congregation. And they arose and took away the altars that were in Jerusalem, and all the altars for incense took they away, and cast them into the brook Kidron. Then they killed the passover on the fourteenth day of the second month: and the priests and the Levites were ashamed, and sanctified themselves, and brought in the burnt offerings into the house of the Lord. And they stood in their place after their manner, according to the law of Moses the man of God: the priests sprinkled the blood, which they received of the hand of the Levites. For there were many in the congregation that were not sanctified: therefore the Levites had the charge of the killing of the passovers for every one that was not clean, to sanctify them unto the Lord. For a multitude of the people, even many of Ephraim, and Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet did they eat the passover otherwise than it was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, The good Lord pardon every one that prepareth his heart to seek God, the Lord God of his fathers, though he be not cleansed according to the purification of the sanctuary. And the Lord hearkened to Hezekiah, and healed the people.
Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you.
Not all error is always necessarily indicative of an unregenerate heart. I think we saw this reflected also in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15 earlier as well:
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. . . . And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15)
Notice that even though this person, who has rejected something that God has commanded, is put out of the fellowship of the church (thus being treated, in Jesus's words, as a "heathen and a tax collector"), yet it is not asserted that in his heart he actually is a heathen; instead, he is still considered a brother even while he is being put out of fellowship.
So we can say that there are different degrees of error in doctrine and practice. Some forms of erring indicate pretty clearly an unregenerate state, while other forms of erring may be consistent with a regenerate state. If the Bible (or reason) indicates that something in particular is necessarily incompatible with regeneration, then we must see it that way. If the Bible (or reason) does not indicate that something in particular is necessarily incompatible with a regenerate state, we are allowed, and indeed I would say it is our duty as those who ought to give a quick ear to a good report but be slow to hear a bad one, to have hope, so long as and to the degree which the particular case warrants it, that a person's heart is overall in the right place. Of course, we cannot know for sure in a given case that a person's heart is in the right place, since we cannot see into people's hearts, but we can have hope in a judgment of charity.
I think that this passage just quoted above from 2 Thessalonians is indicative of how the church should deal with those who commit sins and refuse to abandon them. In contrast to the latitudinarian practice, the fact that a person may very well be a true brother at heart is not invoked as a good reason not to exercise church discipline against him. Church courts cannot see into the hearts of individual people any more than anyone else can. If a person refuses to present his child for baptism, and there are no other signs that he is intentionally rebelling against God, who can say for sure if he is sinning more willfully or more in confusion or ignorance? But what can be said is that he is sinning, because he is doing something against the commands of God. The church must judge his outward actions; it cannot examine his heart and declare it (relatively) innocent (or guilty, in this case). God will take care of such a person and deal with him according to his true inward nature (and his friends on an informal level can treat him as a judgment of charity would warrant), but the church in its formal capacity must carry out its God-given task to use teaching and church discipline to train the members of the church in everything that Christ has commanded. The church should use gentleness in trying to better instruct the ignorant, but if it cannot bring a person to conform to the commands of Christ, it must not allow him into its formal fellowship (if he is outside) and it must put him out of its formal fellowship (if he is inside).
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE UNITY OF THE VISIBLE CHURCH
So we see that the latitudinarian practice does not have warrant in the Word of God but is rather opposed by it. This has implications not only for how churches should carry out church discipline and how they should go about admitting people into formal membership, but it also has implications for the seeking of the unity of the visible church. Latitudinarians will sometimes suggest that church unity between divided denominations ought to be sought for at least partly by churches agreeing to disagree about various doctrinal or practical matters or allowing such tolerated disagreement to exist within themselves. For example, my wife and I used to attend a Free Methodist church back in Wheaton, IL, when we were in college. We had our first child while living there, and the pastor of that church baptized our child, telling us that his policy was to do a baby baptism if that is what the parents wanted or a baby dedication if that is what they wanted. He was OK to go either way, and to tolerate both practices in the church. In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, all pastors are required to believe in infant baptism themselves, and they would never do a baby dedication, but it is common to allow baptists to be members and not discipline them for not having their children baptized. Another example of common latitudinarian practice in Reformed circles is to allow diversity within the church over exclusive psalmody. Individual churches and pastors/elders and members might be allowed to believe in and practice exclusive psalmody, while others would be allowed to reject that view. One of the most interesting examples of a latitudinarian proposal I have seen to date is one by W. Robert Godfrey, a Reformed theologian, in an article in Modern Reformation magazine. In the article, Godfrey suggests that we should try to achieve denominational unity in the Reformed world by merging the existing denominations into one while allowing all the different parts of the new denomination to keep their distinctive doctrines and practices. So we might have a single Reformed denomination with one presbytery which practices (and enforces within itself) exclusive pslamody, another presbytery which rejects it, some which tolerate both views, etc., and the General Assembly of the overall denomination would not be allowed to overrule the individual presbyteries in these matters.
But, however popular latitudinarian thinking is in the evangelical and Reformed churches today, we have seen that it is contrary to biblical teaching as to the duty of the church in teaching and enforcing everything that Christ has commanded. Church discipline cannot connive at any clear errors in doctrine or practice at any level (whether within a single congregation or at a provincial or synodical level). Godfrey's proposal is helpful in that it attempts to preserve the idea of denominational unity, something many Reformed people have not taken seriously enough in recent times, but it wants to preserve such unity at the expense of the preservation of "all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27--emphasis added). The Bible presents a different picture of how to go about achieving denominational unity:
Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10)
Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be like-minded one toward another according to Christ Jesus; that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5)
Only let your conversation be as becometh the gospel of Christ, that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel. (Philippians 1:27)
If the church is commanded by Christ to preach and enforce everything that he has commanded, then the full, formal unity of the church can only be brought about when all Christians and all visible churches come to full unity in doctrine and practice in accordance with all that God has taught and commanded us to believe and do. In contrast to the popular phrase I quoted toward the beginning of this article, the proper, biblical phrase should be this: "In essentials unity, in non-essentials unity, and in all things charity." Where God's revelation is not clear or definitive, we should allow diversity and liberty, but not where it speaks clearly and definitively.
WHAT ABOUT THE "WEAK" AND THE "STRONG" BRETHREN FROM ROMANS 14?
In Romans 14:1-15:2, Paul discusses what the attitude of the members of the church should be with regard to what he calls "weak" and "strong" members:
Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks. For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living. But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God. Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother's way. I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean. But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died. Let not then your good be evil spoken of: For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men. Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another. For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence. It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak. Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin. We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification.
Some have attempted to argue in behalf of latitudinarian principles from what Paul says here. According to them, what Paul is saying is this: "Don't worry about minor doctrines. You don't have to be agreed on all doctrinal points in the church. If some people, for example, think that no days are holy, and others think that there are some holy days, each person should hold his own beliefs on the matter and continue to keep unity with those who think differently. There is no need to divide the church over these kinds of things; both views should be accepted within the church." The implication would be, of course, that over such "minor" doctrinal differences there should be no church discipline.
The problem with this is that latitudinarians have misconstrued Paul's thoughts here. For simplicity, let's continue to focus on the issue of holy days. Paul is not saying that it makes no difference if some people believe, say, April 15 to be a holy day, set apart by God, while other people don't. It is a sin to add to the worship of God. Only God can make a holy day, and the Bible elsewhere (including in Paul) portrays it as sinful to make up a holy day out of one's imagination. In Galatians 4:1-8, for example, Paul makes it clear that observing holy days not commanded by God (whether the holy days of the Old Covenant dispensation or simply man-invented holy days) is not at all OK:
Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.
We remember that this was one of the great sins of Jeroboam, whereby he made Israel to sin (1 Kings 12:32-33):
And Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like unto the feast that is in Judah, and he offered upon the altar. So did he in Bethel, sacrificing unto the calves that he had made: and he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made. So he offered upon the altar which he had made in Bethel the fifteenth day of the eighth month, even in the month which he had devised of his own heart; and ordained a feast unto the children of Israel: and he offered upon the altar, and burnt incense.
I've discussed this issue more fully here. So Paul is not saying in Romans 14 that it is fine to make up holy days out of one's imagination. Then what is he saying? The answer appears upon a closer inspection of Romans 14. Note that the "weak" man (in this case, the one who "observes the day") and the"strong" man are told by Paul not to judge each other but to accept each other. The person who observes the day is not to accuse the person who does not observe it with sin, and vice versa. If we were talking here about two people, one of whom holds the doctrinal position that it is a sin to observe, say, April 15 as a holy day and the other of whom holds that it is a sin not to observe April 15, it would be impossible that these two individuals should not accuse each other of sin. They would have to regard each other as committing sin, because they would believe each other to be violating the commands of God. But here they are told not to do this but to accept each other as offering acceptable service to God. They are not to "despise" or judge each other but to receive each other. So we are not talking here about two contradictory doctrinal positions. Then what are we talking about? What is in view here are two individuals, both of whom know as a matter of objective doctrine that the holy days of the previous Old Covenant dispensation have been abolished, but one of whom still feels a psychological conscientiousness, built into him no doubt by his past upbringing and experience, that causes him to feel uncomfortable not observing the holy days of that dispensation. He does not say that God has commanded them when God has not, which would be a sin, and would require him to accuse the "strong" person of sin or think of him as committing sin. He knows that they are not objectively commanded by God, but he chooses to observe them anyway out of something like a psychological need to do so. So, in this case, the two individuals are in doctrinal agreement, but one of them is more free of psychological pressure to observe certain objectively unnecessary things than the other. That is why Paul can write his letter addressing both persons, the "strong" and the "weak," and tell them to bear with each other. The only way the "weak" could recognize and obey Paul's instructions addressed to themselves would be if they know that they are weak, which would not be the case if they were in doctrinal error. The "weak" know they are weak because they are aware of the true doctrine and why they feel a need to observe the special days. In this case, the "weak" and the "strong" are not to look down upon each other or to judge each other but are to accept each other, recognizing the differences between them and that God has accepted them both and that both are serving him.
We saw earlier that Paul requires church discipline for those who refuse to obey the words of his epistles, even if they might be true brothers at heart. Right here in Romans 14, Paul makes it clear that the doctrinal position that holds that the holy days must be observed (and that meat is not to be eaten) is in error. If a person were to receive the epistle to the Romans, then, and continue to hold as a doctrine that it is necessary to observe the Old Covenant holy days, he would be rejecting Paul's teaching in the epistle, which would require church discipline. And yet Paul says that the "weak" person is not to be looked down upon or judged but is to be accepted and maintained in the unity of the church. As I noted above, the fact that Paul addresses instructions to the "weak" as to how they should treat the "strong" indicates that they are to recognize themselves as the "weak," but if the "weak" are those who hold false doctrinal positions on holy days and other matters, to recognize themselves would be to be aware that they are wrong and then continue to persist in their error, thus willfully rejecting the teaching of the apostle. But, from what we've seen, it is clear that Paul calls for church discipline on this sort of person, and yet no discipline is called for in the case of the "weak." Again, this indicates that we are not dealing here with people who hold false doctrine but with people who know objectively what is true and acknowledge it but still feel an attachment themselves to the observance of holy days (and not eating meat, etc.).
So there is no basis here for the latitudinarian position. We are to bear with each others' varying subjective states and comfort levels in various areas and try not to unnecessarily scandalize or offend each other when sin is not involved, but this does not mean that the church is not to discipline church members when sin is involved.
SOME THOUGHTS FROM REV. THOMAS M'CRIE
In conclusion, I would like to present some thoughts from Rev. Thomas M'Crie, the great Scottish Presbyterian theologian, as he comments on some of the things that have been discussed throughout this article, from his excellent book, The Unity of the Church. (In addition, I would like to recommend a very helpful article from Rev. John T. Pressly.) Here is M'Crie:
Mournful as the divisions of the Church are, and anxious as all its genuine friends must be to see them cured, it is their duty to examine carefully the plans which may be proposed for attaining this desirable end. We must not do evil that good may come; and there are sacrifices too costly to be made for the procuring of peace with fellow Christians.
Is it necessary to remind you, that unity and peace are not always good, nor a sure and infallible mark of a true and pure church? We know that there is a church which has long boasted of her catholic unity notwithstanding all the corruptions which pollute her communion; and that within her pale the whole world called Christian once enjoyed a profound repose, and it could be said, "Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language" (Gen. 11:6). It was a union and peace founded in ignorance, delusion, implicit faith, and a base subjection to human authority; and supported by the arts of compulsion and terror.
But there are other methods by which Christians may be deceived, and the interests of religion deeply injured, under the pretext or with the view of uniting its friends. Among these I know none more imposing, nor from which greater danger is to be apprehended in the present time, than that which proceeds on the scheme of principles usually styled latitudinarian.
It has obtained this name because it proclaims an undue latitude in matters of religion, which persons may take to themselves or give to others. Its abettors make light of the differences which subsist among religious parties, and propose to unite them on the common principles on which they are already agreed, in the way of burying the rest in silence, or of stipulating mutual forbearance and charity with respect to everything about which they may differ in opinion or in practice.
Some plead for this on the ground that the several professions of religion differ very little from one another, and are all conducive to the happiness of mankind and the honor of God, who is pleased with the various diversified modes in which men profess their regard to him, provided only they are sincere in their professions a principle of difformity which, however congenial to the system of polytheism, is utterly eversive of a religion founded on the unity of the divine nature and will, and on a revelation which teaches us what we are to believe concerning God and what duty he requires of us.
But the ground on which this plan is ordinarily made to rest is a distinction made among the articles of religion. Some of these are called essential, or fundamental, or necessary, or principal; others circumstantial, or non-fundamental, or unnecessary, or less important. The former, it is pleaded, are embraced by all true Christians; the latter form the subjects of difference among them, and ought not to enter into the terms of ecclesiastical fellowship. On this principle some of them would conciliate and unite all the Christian denominations, not excepting Papists, Arians, and Socinians; while others restrict their plan to those called evangelical, who differ mainly in their views and practice as to the worship, order, and discipline of the Church.
The distinction on which this scheme rests is itself liable to objections which appear insuperable. It is not warranted by the Word of God; and the most acute of its defenders have never been able to state it in a manner that is satisfactory, or which renders it subservient to any practical use. The Scripture, indeed, speaks of certain truths which may be called the foundation, because they are first laid, and others depend on them first principles, or elementary truths, which are to be taught before others. But their priority or posteriority in point of order, in conception or instruction, does not determine the relative importance of doctrines, or their necessity in order to salvation. Far less does it determine the propriety of their being made to enter into the religious profession of Christians and Christian churches.
There are doctrines, too, which intrinsically, and on different accounts, may be said to have a peculiar and superior degree of importance; and this, so far as known, may properly be urged as a motive for our giving the more earnest heed to them. It is not, however, their comparative importance or utility, but their truth and the authority of him who has revealed them, which is the formal and proper reason of our receiving, professing, and maintaining them. And this applies equally to all the contents of a divine revelation. The relations of truths, especially those of a supernatural kind, are manifold and incomprehensible to us; it is not our part to pronounce a judgment on them; and if we could see them as God does, in all their extent and at once, we would behold the lesser joined to the greater, the most remote connected with the primary, by necessary and indissoluble links, and all together conspiring to form one beautiful and harmonious and indivisible whole.
Whatever God has revealed we are bound to receive and hold fast; whatever he has enjoined we are bound to obey; and the liberty which we dare not arrogate to ourselves we cannot give to others. It is not, indeed, necessary that the confession or testimony of the Church (meaning by this that which is explicitly made by her, as distinguished from her declared adherence to the whole Word of God) should contain all truths. But then any of them may come to be included in it, when opposed and endangered; and it is no sufficient reason for excluding any of them that they are less important than others, or that they have been doubted and denied by good and learned men. Whatever forbearance may be exercised to persons, "the Word of the Lord," in all its extent, "must have free course and be glorified" (cf. 2 Thess. 3:1). And any act of men call it forbearance or what you will which serves as a screen and protection to error or sin, and prevents it from being opposed and removed by any proper means, is contrary to the divine law, and consequently is destitute of all intrinsic force and validity.
There are truths also which are more immediately connected with salvation. But who will pretend to fix those propositions which are absolutely necessary to be known in order to salvation, by all persons, of all capacities, and in all situations; or say how low a God of grace and salvation may descend in dealing with particular individuals? Or, if we could determine this extreme point, who would say that it ought to fix the rule of our dealing with others, or the extent of a church's profession of faith? Is nothing else to be kept in view in settling articles of faith and fellowship, but what may be necessary to the salvation of sinners? Do we not owe a paramount regard to the glory of God in the highest, to the edifying of the body of Christ, to the advancing of the general interests of religion, and to the preserving, in purity, of those external means, by which, in the economy of providence and grace, the salvation of men, both initial and progressive, may be promoted to an incalculable extent from age to age?
In fine, there is reason for complaining that the criteria or marks given for determining these fundamental or necessary articles are uncertain or contradictory. It is alleged that "they are clearly taught in Scripture?" This is true of the others also. "That they are few and simple?" This is contradicted by their own attempts to state them. "That they are such as the Scripture has declared to be necessary?" Why then have we not yet been furnished with a catalogue of them? "That they are such as embraced by all true Christians?" Have they a secret tact by which they are able to discover such characters? If not, can they avoid running into a vicious circle in reasoning, by first determining who are true Christians by their embracing certain doctrines, and then determining that these doctrines are fundamental because they are embraced by persons of that description?
Many who have contributed to give currency to this scheme have been actuated, I have no doubt, by motives which are in themselves highly commendable. They wished to fix the attention of men on matters confessedly of great importance, and were anxious to put an end to the dissensions of Christians by discovering a mean point in which the views of all might harmoniously meet. But surely those who cherish a supreme regard for divine authority will be afraid of contemning or of teaching others to think lightly of anything which bears its sacred impress. They will be disposed carefully to reconsider an opinion, or an interpretation of any part of Scripture, which seems to imply in it that God has given men a power to dispense with some of his own laws. And they will be cautious of originating or countenancing plans of communion that may involve a principle of such a complexion.
These plans are more or less dangerous according to the extent to which they are carried, and the errors or abuses which may prevail among the parties which they embrace. But however limited they may be, they set an example which may be carried to any extent. So far as it is agreed and stipulated that any truth or duty shall be sacrificed or neglected, and that any error or sin shall be treated as indifferent or trivial, the essence of latitudinarianism is adopted, room is made for further advancements, and the way is prepared for ascending, through successive generations, to the very highest degree in the scale.
UPDATE 1/30/15: Rev. David Campbell of the FPCS quotes in this article from the Original Secession Church Testimony here, which speaks plainly and strongly against latitudinarianism.