It is a sad thing, when any kingdoms are divided about the payment of their allegiance and civil duties, which must needs bereave vast numbers of the innocence, and more of the comforts and quietness of human life. But it is still worse, when this grows into a division of churches, and breach of religious communions. For, besides that religion is the chief of all things which can concern us, and whereon we must build all our hopes of good in another life: religious exercises and assemblies, should be the properest, cordial to revive our spirits, and the best and surest refuge for us to flee unto in the greatest civil distractions. But such division of churches and communions, unsettles and distracts the hearts of good and pious people about this; and makes them at a loss, where to serve God, and say their prayers. And this must put all, who pretend to seriousness, or a religious spirit, on showing compassion; and some, on endeavouring relief, and on reaching out such things, as may direct and be of use to them, in a safe and conscionable guidance of their steps, at such times.
And this is the design of this treatise. Wherein my business is not at all to dispute the particular titles to any crowns, or to examine the claims of the several pretenders to them. In that, I leave every honest mind to other ways of informing and satisfying themselves, and of forming such judgments thereof, as truth and justice shall happen to require in their particular case. But when by those ways, they are come to be resolved therein, I endeavour to show them what things lie most upon conscience, either their pastors, or their own, as to church ministrations; and what way they are to take about religious offices and communion, on such unhappy divisions.
These matters I treat of, not as they are state points, like one who seeks only to be a stickler in civil differences; or to help those, who, on such breaches, study only to make a bustle in state parties. But as they are matters of religion, and concern all, who would keep in the favour of God, and in the right way to heaven. For my design and study all along, is to show how they, who desire nothing more than to save their immortal souls, may keep free from guilt and eternal danger in these particulars: my great care for them, and for myself in these matters, being how we may truly and acceptably serve God, more than any temporal interest, or the cause of any persons, or parties in this world and this I offer to the conscientious, who prefer religion before worldly ends, and eternity before this life; and who in these differences, are willing and desirous to take the sure way to future peace, and everlasting bliss, however the same may expose them here, to worldly difficulties, uncomfortableness, and persecutions.
As for the ways and practices here spoken off, I have given warning of their guilt and danger with plainness. And this is necessary in all good Christians, especially in ministers, who are not to call evil good, or to give soft names to ill things, and to palliate unrighteousness instead of exposing and exploding it: which were to take part with wickedness, and to sew pillows for the bolstering up of sinners.
I am sensible what need there is of charity and candor at all times, especially on the bursting out of differences. And how indispensable Christian duties these are, not only in men at ease, but in confessors and sufferers for righteousness towards their persecutors. If I keep not charity, though I give my body to be burned, and suffer martyrdom, it profiteth me nothing (1 Cor. 13. 13). And when we see men inapparently wicked and ungodly ways, or unrighteous things done; it is the part of this charity and candor, to show favour and easiness in judging of the dispositions of mind wherewith they do them. Ascribing them, so far as it can find any reasonable colour or pretence thereof, to the most excusable principles. As to their being mislead by the plausible arguings of deceivers, or to an error of their judgments; rather than to their acting all the while against their own belief and convictions: and to their being over-awed by fear of princes, or of popular violence; or being forced by worldly wants; and necessities; rather than to their doing the same willingly and of themselves, or out of malice. As our blessed Lord, whilst he hung upon the cross, most candidly imputes the wickedness of his crucifiers, to their ignorance: Father forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23. 34). It is also the part thereof, freely to encourage, and friendly to desire, and endeavour their return; rejoicing to have them see their folly, rather than to see them suffer for it: and, without upbraiding them with the remembrance of former errors, amicably to welcome, and carry on the change, when, through the blessing and grace of God, they are wrought upon by whatever methods of providence, and begin to come to themselves.
But whist it is so favourable, in judging of the inward dispositions of the persons; it is no part of this charity and candor, either to think or to speak favourably, of the ungodly or unrighteous things themselves, which are set up, or driven on at such times. The unlawful practices themselves, it censures with justice, being a charity, that is pure and pious, and that is careful for God, and for the duties of an holy religion, in the first place. Out of love to God and religion, it cannot favour vices, or softer and take part with any sin. Yea, and out of love to men, it cannot speak softly of destructive courses, or represent any ungodly ways or things, as less dishonourable and offensive to God, or as less dangerous to souls, than in the end they will find them. So that, they are mightily mistaken, who think it any part of true Christian charity and candor, to befriend ungodly practices, or to mince and soften unlawful and unrighteous things; which were to conspire with sin and wickedness against God and religion, and to betray the souls of men, instead of befriending them.
I am also sincerely and conscientiously studious of peace: and to keep men unreproveable in that, is one intent, though not the only one, of these papers. And before open breaches are made, the love of peace will spend itself in endeavours to prevent them. But if they are made already, as they are to a great height, when the espousers of ill things have proceeded to set up anti-bishops, which divide church societies; till by pouring in oil they can be cured and closed again, one chief business left then for the love of peace and union, is to see that peace and unity be kept with the right side. And this I have here endeavoured to assist the children of peace in, the best I can. For it would be a fatal mistake indeed, to have the very love and desire of peace abused to the maintenance of dividers, and to see well-meaning men, whilst at such times they are designedly labouring to avoid schisms, to run headlong into them. As they must do, if they mistake their side, wherewith this peace and unity is to be kept; and, instead of the true body, take part with the seditious, and join themselves to those members who are broken off, on such divisions.
Besides, the peace and union, which we are to seek in this world, must be such as may give us peace at the last. It is not being at peace in such ways, as will fill our souls in the end with eternal horrors. And therefore it is not to be sought by our violation of any parts of righteousness, nor by our consenting or giving way to the suppression thereof, or letting fall our zeal for the same. So that we must not seek to compass it, by neutrality and lukewarmness for God's holy commandments. And much less by treachery, in giving up them, and the souls of men, whose eternal weal depends upon the observance thereof, as the purchase of external unity with any society. When worldly peace can no longer be kept together with righteousness, it is no peace for Christians; or for men, who would prefer the peace of God, and of their own conscience, before any false and forced shows of peace and unity with any other persons.
And these endeavours, to direct men, whose care is to keep peace and unity with any societies, how they may keep them with the right side, when they are broken into parties; and in such things, and by such compliances, as will not intercept their future comforts: methinks, should be acceptable to all sincere lovers thereof, who would be directed how they may wisely pursue what they love, and not miss of their own desires, and would fix at last on such a peace and union, as will not deceive them, or end in ruin.
In treating of these matters, I endeavour to clear and confirm what I offer thereupon by the authority of the sacred scriptures, and from the reason and nature of the things discoursed of. And moreover, from the doctrine, and practice of the primitive church: showing what the holy apostles; and their successors of the first and best ages, would have said to men, in the cases and breaches here proposed; and how, as I conceive, they would have determined their own practice, had they been tried therewith, and placed in such circumstances. This I show from their own rules, which they gave out to others, and acted by themselves, in their own circumstances. And it would be a strange, and very criminal innovation, for any now in our days to sleight their ways. For we all know, that our holy religion doth not begin with us, and that we are not the first Christians, but only their successors, and that too at a great distance. We all profess to be their followers, and should think we have best provided for our own safety when we have taken the way to be found in their company.
In confirming any points from their doctrine, or practice, I have given their own words in the margin, that the learned reader, having the very words and passages I build upon before him, may be the better enabled, and with more ease to himself, to judge of the use which I make of them, and of the inferences which I draw from them. But in the body of the book, I have only given the translation, or put the sense or purport of the same, that the unlearned reader may not be discouraged or hindered by the intermixtures of an unknown tongue, but peruse the whole without interruption.
Through the whole, I am sincerely careful, so far as I am able, to satisfy conscientious and truly religious minds, what way they are to take for sacred offices and church communion, on such unhappy divisions. And seeking their satisfaction in these matters, I have offered the best I can to resolve those points, which I thought they were most like to be unsatisfied in; and to clear up those things, which seemed to me most liable to mislead them; and either to answer or obviate those objections, which are already made, or, so far as I can at present foresee, may probably hereafter start up in their way to unsettle them about the same. All which, as I have laboured in, with an humble dependence on God's grace and assistance; so I now humbly recommend to his blessing. Desiring nothing more, than that he may graciously accept the same, and pardon all the oversights and well-meant failures and mistakes which shall happen to be found therein, and direct and turn this work, poor and defective as it is to the uses and interest of truth and godliness, and to the edification and service of his holy church.