And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them, even as Thou didst love Me.
John 17:22 & 23
He that is not a son of Peace is not a son of God. All other sins destroy the Church consequentially; but Division and Separation demolish it directly…
Jesus prayed for our unity, so the world would know God’s love and recognize Christ’s coming to save sinners. It is remarkable how far our loving actions and cooperation within the Body of Christ can go in revealing the love of God to mankind. It is equally depressing to see how our infighting and divisions within God’s household have marred His image and distorted His message of love and reconciliation to our dying world.
Confronted with the existence of hundreds of sects and denominations, with ministers competing for larger and larger congregations, it is tempting to think of times past as a Golden Age. But, the sad truth is that pride and division have attended the bride of Christ since the Day of Pentecost. The England, which Baxter knew represents an idyllic time to some, and indeed it was in some respects. But, seventeenth-century England also gave birth to fratricidal quarrels and divisions, which remain unhealed to this day.
In the midst of the wrangling and infighting stood Baxter, working tirelessly to bring reconciliation and cooperation to the factious whole. He wrote entire books on the subject of Christian unity, met with men, small and great, and proposed plan after plan to heal the major divisions within England’s national church. He sacrificed so very much for Christ’s body; time, money, friendship, and even his health. It is ironic then, that in these endeavors we often find Baxter at his very worst.
J.I. Packer reaches the sum in a few words: “Baxter was a big man, big enough to have big faults and make big errors.”2 It seems that Baxter, as one of a generation which produced many “big” men, was ineffective among his peers.
Among his faults was speaking his mind, when silence would have accomplished more. His habit of “plain dealing” offended many more than Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, as if they were not enough. Baxter often alienated the very men who were sympathetic to his ideals and could have exercised great influence for peace and harmony. Baxter’s sharp and undeserved criticism of John Owen, occupying thirty pages in his first published work, was perhaps his biggest blunder and one which would haunt him over and over in his quest for unity.
Dr. Owen was a fellow Puritan, committed to the reformation of the church and a supporter of the Parliamentarian cause. His character and reputation as man of God are born out in the fact that, after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, he was not hindered in preaching and pastoring a congregation in London. Owen was a man of considerable influence and was sometimes in a position to work alongside Baxter in achieving concord. With his backing, Baxter’s ideas may have gotten a hearing. But, it seems that Owen and others were never able to get beyond their initial negative impression of Baxter’s arrogance and rashness. Baxter excused himself years later:
I medled too forwardly with Dr. Owen… For I was young, and a stranger to men’s tempers, and thought others could have born a Confutation as easily as I could do my self; and I thought that I was bound to do my best publickly, to save the World from the hurt of published Errours, and not to meddle with the Person that maintained them. But indeed I was then too raw to be a Writer… It cost me more than any other that I have written…3
This is an accurate self appraisal of Baxter’s shortcomings and a sound warning for any young pastor, but it was a character flaw which was rarely overcome by Baxter his entire life.
One of Baxter’s many sayings, “Overdoing is the ordinary way of Undoing,”4 was another bit of wisdom which he never really mastered. In controversies, he “made war to end war” and always sought to bring opposing parties to common ground. But, his pedantic and triumphalist style made failure a certainty. Baxter’s overtures of peace more often than not, had the effect of “an olive branch discharged from a catapault.”5
Perhaps the best example of Baxter’s “overdoing” was his role in the “Happy Union” between the Congregationalists and Presbyterians. This was an event which he had worked for nearly all his life, yet when a reconciliation of the two sects finally came about, Baxter played a major role in its demise. Hoping to counter what he perceived as antinomian tendencies, as he had with Dr. Owen years earlier, Baxter insisted on publishing his Scripture Gospel Defended in 1690. His friends advised him against it, but Baxter just couldn’t let the slightest error pass without comment. The book offended men on both sides, opened up old divisions, and ignited a controversy which was still raging when Baxter died in 1691. The “Happy Union” completely dissolved in the bitter quarrel which followed.
But, what of Baxter’s victories? As a young pastor, Baxter did not act immediately upon his desire for love and cooperation among those outside of Kidderminster: “I stood still some years, as a looker on, and contented myself to wish and pray for Peace…”6 Being in his early thirties, with the charge of a large parish, he was quite busy and unsure of himself. He hoped that some who were more prominent and mature would lead the way. But, most of all, he really underestimated God’s power to work through seemingly insignificant people:
I was so conscious of my meaness and in considerableness in the Church, that I verily thought, but very few will regard what I said. But when I once attempted it, God convinced me of this Errour, and shewed me how little Instruments signifie, when he will work: and that his Ministers and People were more humble to hear the meanest of their Brethren, than I before believed.7
He first took his practical ideas for unity to the ministers of London, but found that, all but a few, were not sympathetic in the least. It was a different story in his home county of Worcestershire.
Baxter shared his thoughts with those present at a weekly meeting of pastors in the Spring of 1652 and received overwhelming approval. The most pressing problem which they addressed was the separation of believers from the local congregations, because of the lack of discipline and admission of notorious sinners to worship and communion. They asked him to draw up articles of discipline, which the differing parties (Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, etc.) could agree upon:
after several Meetings we subscribed them, and so associated for our mutual help and concord in our Work. The ministers that thus associated were for Number, Parts and Piety, the most considerable part of all that County, and some out of some neighboring Counties that were near us…Those that did not come near us, nor concur with us, were all the weaker sort of Ministers, whose Sufficiency or conversation was questioned by others, and knew they were of little esteem among them, and were neither able or willing to exercise any Discipline on their Flocks.8
The Worcestershire Association met once monthly, more often if necessary, at one of five of the larger market towns. The pastors dined together and held a “disputation” of a topic or question, which had been previously determined. If there were matters of discipline which proved too difficult for younger ministers or concerns involving more than one parish, they would be discussed and settled. The meetings were so productive and informative that pastors from other counties often attended just to observe.
When the association met at Kidderminster, members stayed to hear Baxter’s weekly lecture at St. Mary’s chapel in the afternoon and then met at his small home until his neighbors arrived for their evening prayer meeting. Baxter looked back upon those times with fondness:
I must confess this was the comfortablest time of all my Life, through the great delight I had in the Company of that Society of honest, sincere, laborious, humble Ministers of Christ…its pleasant to me to remember the Converse I had with them; so aimable are sincere and upright Men, whose singleness of heart doth imitate the State of the primitive Believers…9
The Spirit of God was moving and one or two associations sprung up in other counties, independent and unaware of events at Worcestershire. Others heard of Baxter’s success and similar groups were formed throughout England, Wales and even in Ireland.
This reformation among ministers increased and the prospects for unity spread until Cromwell’s death in 1658. Then, a series of events followed which dissolved these associations and the country was shattered into more divisions than ever.
Baxter’s hopes were shattered as well. In 1664 he lamented the state of Christ’s body in England, after the dividers came to power:
The poor Church of Christ, the sober, sound religious Part, are like Christ that was crucified between two Malefactors; the prophane and formal Persecutors on one hand, and the Fanatick dividing Sectary on the other hand, have in all Ages been grinding the spiritual Seed, as the Corn is ground between the Milstones: And though their sins have ruined themselves and us, and silenced so many hundred Ministers, and scattered the Flocks and made us the Hatred and the Scorn of the ungodly World, and a by Word and Desolation in the Earth; yet there are few of them that lament their Sin , but Justify themselves and their Misdoings, and the penitent Malefactor is yet unknown to us.10
As we see from the foregoing example of Baxter’s “plain dealing,” he had no patience for those who, out of pride, continued to upset the body of Christ. But, had he not played a part in all of this, as well? Was Baxter not himself a self-righteous hypocrite, seeking to remove the speck from his brother’s eye while blinded by the log in his own?11 He answers himself:
I must mention it by way of penitent Confession, that I am too much inclined to such words in Controversial Writings which are too keen, and apt to provoke the Person whom I wrote against…And I have a strong natural inclination to speak of every Subject just as it is, and to call a Spade a Spade…I repent of it, and wish all over-sharp passages were expunged from my Writings, and desire forgiveness of God and Man…I mention all these Distempers, that my Faults may be a warning to others to take heed, as they call on my self for Repentance and Watchfulness. O Lord, for the Merits and Sacrifice and Intercession of Christ, be merciful to me a sinner, and forgive my known and unknown Sins.12
Paul warned the believers in Corinth that the sin of Israel and God’s judgment were recorded in Scripture for their instruction, so they would not “try the Lord” in the same way, but turn from their sin.13 Richard Baxter, in his autobiography, has done the same for you and I. He was truly a big man with big faults and we must guard ourselves against those same shortcomings. On the other hand, his example of humility and sorrow for sin is one worthy of our imitation. Like Baxter, we must weigh our words and actions and ask ourselves if we are a unifying force in Christ’s body or a wedge of division? The Lord’s will for us on this point is not hard to determine. Jesus said plainly that we are to be one, in unity, so the world will know the love of the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ.
Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity. Psalms 133:1
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. Colossians 1:24
I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may know that Thou didst send Me. John 17: 20 & 21
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood. Acts 20:28
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and judgment. 1 Corinthians 1:10
We are all like pictures that must not be looked at too near. They that come near us find more faults and badness in us than others at a distance know. Richard Baxter14
he that will blow the Coals must not wonder if some Sparks do fly in his face… Richard Baxter15
Till, however, the healing age come, we cannot expect that healing truths will be entertained, because there are not healing spirits in the leaders of the Church. Richard Baxter16
How rare is it to meet with a man that smarteth or bleedeth with the Church’s wounds, or sensibly taketh them to heart as his own, or that ever had solicitous thoughts of a cure! No; but almost every party thinks that the happiness of the rest consisteth in turning to them… Richard Baxter17
Is it not enough that all the world is against us, but we must also be against one another? O happy days of persecution, which drove us together in love, whom the sunshine of liberty and prosperity crumbles into dust by our contentions! Richard Baxter18
And I have perceived, that nothing so much hindreth the Reception of the truth, as urging it on Men with too harsh importunity, and falling too heavily on their errors: For hereby you engage their honour in the business and they defend their errors as themselves… Richard Baxter19
this Church-gathering hath been the Church scattering Project. Richard Baxter20
- Directions to the people of Kidderminster prefixed to the original edition of The Saints Everlasting Rest cited in Nuttall Richard Baxter 64 [↩]
- Baxter Reformed Pastor 9 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 107 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 27 [↩]
- Newman cited in Martin Puritanism 158-9 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 146 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 146 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 148 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 150 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 103 [↩]
- Matthew 7:1-5 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae Part 1, 137 & 138 [↩]
- 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 [↩]
- Ibid., 152 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae Part 1, 14 [↩]
- Baxter Reformed Pastor 16 [↩]
- Baxter Reformed Pastor 158 [↩]
- Richard Baxter The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (Evangelical Press: Ann Arbor, 1978) 75 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae Part 1, 125 & 126 [↩]
- N.H. Keeble, Richard Baxter: Puritan Man of Letters, Oxford, 1982, 61 [↩]