Lessons in Unity from Jeremiah Burroughs
Division within the body of Christ is ultimately a heart issue. But it’s also, in part, a culture issue. What I mean is that there are certain practices which will stoke the flames of controversy and division rather than assisting us in mortifying our hearts which are so prone to division.
Of course there are things which believers ought to be divided from. There is a false unity which is just as deadly as a bitter division. But there are also many needless divisions which arise in the body of Christ. I bemoan all the division within the church. Awhile back I wrote about the pain of feeling without a tribe—as my former tribe seems to have ugly exploded. Because of this trial I’ve been thinking a good deal about unity and division within the body of Christ—especially within the church universal.
I stumbled upon a helpful little book recently. It was originally written by Jeremiah Burroughs in the early 1600s. But it likely would have been lost to history had it not been reprinted by Francis Asbury in the 1700s and then Asbury’s copy also resurrected about a hundred years later. I find it interesting that each of the times when this book was printed or reprinted the church found itself in a period of serious but mostly needless division. Perhaps Burroughs work would be helpful for us again today.
1. Associating with whisperers. “Many men of moderate spirits, if let alone, yet meeting with men who tell them stories, and speak ill of those men that heretofore they had a good opinion of, before they have examined what the truth is, there is a venom got in their spirits.”
2. Needless disputes. Unnecessary disputes are the necessary practice of those who only have gotten a little knowledge and want to make a name for themselves.
3. Not keeping within the bounds God hath set. Meddling with things that do not concern you. Trying to gain a higher standing for ourselves than God has designed will always come with worms.
4. Propagating evil reports. Let reports be raised, fomented, and spread: whether they be true or no, it makes no matter, something will stick. (Did Burroughs have Facebook and Fake News?)
5. An inordinate cleaving to some, so as denying due respect to others. “And ministers, and others in public places, should not entertain, much less seek for or rejoice in, any honour or respect given to them, which they see detracts from that esteem and countenance that are due to others.” When we divide ourselves into party and weigh the words of our chiefs as more prominent than others.
6. Because men cannot join in all things with others, they will join in nothing. Because you disagree with somebody on one thing you dismiss everything he says. (This would be similar to our cancel culture).
7. To commend and countenance what we care not for, in opposition to what we dislike. When we join with those who are wicked men because they help us defeat our enemies.
8. Revenge. Practicing revenge is the way to continue divisions to the end of the world.
Did Burroughs not just perfectly describe our current climate?
How did we think we’d survive when we created a climate centered around personality and fueled by an unquenchable thirst to move beyond our station? Did we not think that all of our articles pressing into disputable matters wouldn’t blow up in our face? Did we really think that if we could put it under the umbrella of gospel-implications that we’d be fine?
When the world around us exploded into fake news and increasing polarization did we think the solution was to dig further into our own tribes? And when we were tempted with ungodly leaders—that we’d call our Cyrus—to defeat our godless enemies, did we not think we’d be planting in the soils of division? What crop did we think we’d harvest?
When we started drawing up more and more sides on even more disputable matters and we did this in a climate where you were either absolutely for me or against me, did we not think that revenge would further perpetuate our divisions?
Lord, heal us.