Sermon 14. Submission to Church Authority

"Put away from thee a froward mouth, and perverse lips put far from thee. Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee. Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established. Turn not to the right hand nor to the left: remove thy foot from evil." Prov. iv. 24-27.

{190} PRECEPTS such as these come home with the force of truth, even to minds which fain would resist them, from their seriousness and practical wisdom, putting aside the authority of inspiration. At no time and under no circumstances are they without their application; at the present time, when religious unity and peace are so lamentably disregarded, and novel doctrines and new measures alone are popular, they naturally remind us of the duty of obedience to the Church, and of the sin of departing from it, or what our Litany prays against under the name of "heresy and schism." It may seem out of place to speak of this sin here, because those who commit it are not likely to be in Church to profit by what might be said about it; yet the commission of it affects even those who do not commit it, by making them indifferent to it. For this reason, and {191} because it is right that even such persons as are firmest in their adherence to the Church should know why they adhere to it, I will consider some of the popular objections which are made to such adherence, by those who account it, not sinful indeed (though many go even this length), but unnecessary.

You know time was when there was but one vast body of Christians, called the Church, throughout the world. It was found in every country where the name of Christ was named; it was everywhere governed in the same way by Bishops; it was everywhere descended from the Apostles through the line of those Bishops; and it was everywhere in perfect peace and unity together, branch with branch, all over the world. Thus it fulfilled the prophecy: "Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together: for there are set Thrones of judgment, the Thrones of the House of David." [Ps. cxxii. 3, 5.] There were, indeed, separatists and dissenters, then as now, but they were many and various, not one body like the Church; they were short-lived, had a beginning after the Apostles, and came to an end, first one and then another. But now all this beauty of Jerusalem is miserably defaced. That vast Catholic body, "the Holy Church throughout all the world," is broken into many fragments by the power of the Devil; just as some huge barrier cliff which once boldly fronted the sea is at length cleft, parted, overthrown by the waves. Some portions of it are altogether gone, and those that remain are separated from each other. We are the English Catholics; abroad are the Roman Catholics, some of {192} whom are also among ourselves; elsewhere are the Greek Catholics, and so on. And thus we stand in this day of rebuke and blasphemy—clinging to our own portion of the Ancient Rock which the waters are roaring round and would fain overflow—trusting in God—looking for the dawn of day, which "will at length come and will not tarry," when God will save us from the rising floods, if we have courageously kept our footing where He has placed us, neither yielding to the violence of the waves which sweep over us, nor listening to the crafty invitations of those who offer us an escape in vessels not of God's building.

Now I am going to notice and refute some of the bad arguments by which the children of this world convey their invitation.

1. First they say, "Why keep so strictly to one body of Christians when there are so many other bodies also—so many denominations, so many persuasions—all soldiers of Christ, like so many different armies, all advancing in one cause against one enemy? Surely this exclusive attachment to one party," so they speak, "to the neglect of other Christians who profess a like doctrine, and only differ in forms, is the sign of a narrow and illiberal mind. Christianity is an universal gift; why then limit its possession to one set of men and one kind of Church government, instead of allowing all who choose to take it to themselves in any way they please?"

Now surely those who thus speak should begin with answering Scripture, not questioning us; for Scripture certainly recognizes but "one body" of Christians as {193} explicitly as "one Spirit, one faith, one Lord, and one God and Father of all." [Eph. iv. 4-6.] As far as the text of Scripture goes, it is as direct a contradiction of it to speak of more than one body as to speak of more than one Spirit. On the other hand, Scripture altogether contemplates the existence of persuasions, as they are fitly called, round about this one body, for it speaks of them; but it does not hint ever so faintly that, because they exist, therefore they must be acknowledged. So much the contrary, that it says, "There must be heresies," that is private persuasions, self-formed bodies, "among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you." Again, "A man that is a heretic," that is, one who adopts some opinion of his own in religious matters, and gets about him followers, "after the first and second admonition, reject." And again, "Mark them which cause divisions, and avoid them." [1 Cor. xi. 19. Tit. iii. 10. Rom. xvi. 17.] Now, we are of those who, in accordance with these directions, have done our best to keep clear of such human doctrines and private opinions, adhering to that one Body Catholic which alone was founded by the Apostles, and will last till the end of all things. And it is surely better thus implicitly to believe and obey God's voice in Scripture than to reason; it is more tolerable to be called narrow-minded by man, than to be pronounced self-wise and self-sufficient by God; it is happier to be thought over-scrupulous, with the Bible, than to have the world's praise for liberality without it.

But again, who is bold enough to say that "it would be a narrow and niggardly appointment, were the blessings {194} of the Gospel stored up in one body or set of persons to the exclusion of others?" Let him see to it, how he opposes God's universal scheme of providence which we see before our eyes. Christianity is a blessing for the whole earth—granted; but it does not therefore follow (to judge from what we otherwise know of God's dealings with us) that none have been specially commissioned to dispense the blessing. Mercies given to multitudes are not less mercies because they are made to flow from particular sources. Indeed, most of the great appointments of Divine goodness are marked by this very character of what men call exclusiveness. God distributes numberless benefits to all men, but He does so through a few select instruments. The few are favoured for the good of the many. Wealth, power, gifts of mind, learning, all tend towards the welfare of the community; yet, for all that, they are not given at once to all, but channelled out to the many through the few. And so the blessings of the Gospel are open to the whole world, as freely given as light or fire; yet even light has had its own receptacle since the fourth day of creation, and fire has been hidden in the flinty rock, as if to show us that the light and fire of our souls are not gained without the use of means, nor except from special sources.

Again, as to the Ministerial Succession being a form, and adherence to it a form, it can only be called a form because we do not see its effects; did any thing visible attend it, we should no longer call it a form. Did a miracle always follow a baptism or a return into the Church, who would any longer call it a form? that is, {195} we call it a form, only so long as we refuse to walk by faith, which dispenses with things visible. Faith sees things not to be forms, if commanded, which seem like forms; it realizes consequences. Men ignorant in the sciences would predict no result from chemical and the like experiments; they would count them a form and a pretence. What is prayer but a form? that is, who (to speak generally) sees any thing come of it? But we believe it, and so are blessed. In what sense is adherence to the Church a form in which prayer is not also? The benefit of the one is not seen, nor of the other; the one will not profit the ungodly and careless, nor will the other; the one is commanded in Scripture, so is the other. Therefore, to say that Church-union is a form, is no disparagement of it; forms are the very food of faith.

2. However, it may be argued, that, "whatever was the cause, and whatever was intended by Divine Providence, many sects there are;" and that, "if unity be a duty, as members of the Church maintain, the best, the only way to effect it now, is for them to relax their strictness and join in one with all sects upon whatever terms." I answer by asking, whether we have any leave so to do, any commission to alter any part of what God has appointed; whether we might not as well pretend to substitute another ordinance for Baptism as to annul the rights of the Church Catholic, and put human societies and teachers of man's creating on a level with it? Even Balaam felt what was the power of a Divine appointment. "He hath blessed," he says, "and I cannot reverse it." Even holy Isaac, much as {196} he wished it, could not change the course of the blessing once conferred, or the decree of God. He cried out concerning Jacob, "yea, and he shall be blessed;" for "it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth," "not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man," "but of God that showeth mercy." "The gifts and calling of God are without repentance." [Numb. xxiii. 20. Gen. xxvii. 33. Rom. ix. 16. John i. 13. Rom. xi. 29.]

Men, who have themselves separated from the Church, sometimes urge a union among all Christians in the following way: they say, "We dissent from you; yet we will cast aside our forms if you will cast aside yours. Thus there will be mutual concession. What are forms, so that our hearts are one?" Nay, but there is not, there cannot be, a like heart and spirit, from the very nature of the case, between us and them, for obedience to the Church is one part of our spirit. Those who think much of submission to her authority, as we do, plainly do differ in spirit from those who think little of it. Such persons, then, however well they mean it, yet, in fact, ask us to give up something, while they give up nothing themselves; for that is not much to give up which a man sets no value upon. All they give up is what they themselves disparage by calling it a form. They call our holy discipline also a form, but we do not; and it is not a mere form in our judgments, though it may be in theirs. They call it a human invention, just as they call their own; but, till we call it so also, till they have first convinced us that it is, it must be a sacrifice in us to give it up, such as {197} they cannot possibly make. They cannot make such sacrifice, because they have made it already, or their fathers before them, when they left the Church. They cannot make it, for they have no affections to sacrifice in the matter; whereas our piety, our reverence, our faith, our love adhere to the Church of the Apostles, and could not (were desertion possible, which God forbid!) could not be torn away from it without many wounds and much anguish. Surely, then, it is craft, or over simplicity in those who differ from us thus to speak. They strip themselves of what we consider an essential of holiness, the decencies and proprieties of the Ancient Rule. Then, being unclothed, they are forced to array themselves in new forms and ordinances, as they best may; and these novelties, which their own hands have sewed together to cover them, which they never revered, and which are soon to wither, they purpose (as though) to sacrifice to us, provided we, on our part, will cast from us the Lord's own clothing, that sanctity and sobriety of order, which is the gift of Christ, the earnest of His imputed merits, the type and the effectual instrument of His work in our hearts. This, truly, would be exchanging the fine gold for brass; or, like unthankful Esau, bartering our enduring birthright for an empty and transitory benefit.

3. But the argument is continued. "Well," it may be said, "even granting that obedience to the Church be a Scripture duty, still, when there are erroneous teachers in it, surely it is a higher duty to desert them for their error's sake than to keep to them for form's sake." Now, before this question can be answered, the {198} error must be specified which this or that teacher holds. The plain and practical question we have to decide is, whether his error be such as to suspend his power of administering the Sacraments. It must be deadly indeed and monstrous to effect this; and, surely, this ministry of the Sacraments, not of the outward word—of the spirit, not of the letter—is his principal power and our principal need. It is our interest, it is our soul's interest, that we keep to those who minister divine benefits, even though they "offend in many things." And it is plainly our duty also. If they be in error, let us pray for them, not abandon them. If they sin against us, let not us sin against them. Let us return good for evil. Thus David acted even towards Saul his persecutor. He "behaved himself wisely in all his ways; and the Lord was with him." [1 Sam. xviii. 14.] The cruelty of Saul was an extreme case; yet David's "eyes looked right on," and "he turned not to the right hand nor the left." He still honoured Saul, as put over him by Almighty God. So ought we, in St. Paul's words, to "obey them that have the rule over us, and submit ourselves." In truth, the notion that errors in a particular teacher justify separation from the Church itself, is founded in a mistake as to the very object (as it may be considered) for which teaching was committed to it. If individual teachers were infallible, there would be no need of order and rule at all. If we had a living head upon earth, such as once our Saviour was with His disciples, teaching and directing us in all things, the visible Church might so far be dispensed {199} with. But, since we have not, a form of doctrine, a system of laws, a bond of subordination connecting all in one, is the next best mode of securing the stability of sacred Truth. The whole body of Christians thus become the trustees of it, to use the language of the world, and, in fact, have thus age after age transmitted it down to ourselves. Thus, teachers have been bound to teach in one way not in another, as well as hearers to hear. As, then, we have a share in the advantage, let us not complain of sharing in the engagement; as we enjoy the Truth at this day by the strictness of those who were before us, let us not shrink from undergoing that through which we have inherited it. If hearers break the rule of discipline, why should not teachers break the rule of faith? and if we find fault with our teacher, even while he is restrained by the Church's rule, how much greater would be our complaint when he was not so restrained? Let us not, then, be impatient of an appointment which effects so much, on the ground that it does not effect all. Let us not forget that rules presuppose the risk of error, but rather reflect whether they do not do more than they fail to do. Let us be less selfish than to think of ourselves only. Let us look out upon the whole community, the poor, the ignorant, the wayward, and the mistaken. Let us consider whether it will be prudent to become responsible for the Church's ultimately withdrawing from our hand, which we shall be (as far as in us lies) by our withdrawing from it.

4. But it may be said, "Faith is not a matter of words, but of the heart. It is more than the formal doctrine, {200} it is the temper and spirit of this or that teacher which is wrong. His creed may be orthodox, but his religion is not vital; and surely external order must not lie upon us as a burden, stifling and destroying the true inward fellowship between Christian and Christian." Now let it be carefully noted, that if order is to be preserved at all, it must be at the expense of what seems to be of more consequence, viz., the so-called communion of the heart between Christians. This peculiarity is involved in its very nature; and surely our Saviour knew this when He enjoined it. For consider a moment. True spiritual feeling, heartfelt devotion, lively faith, and the like, do not admit of being described, defined, ascertained in any one fixed way; as is implied indeed in the very objection under consideration. We form our judgment of them, whatever it be, by a number of little circumstances, of language, manner, and conduct, which cannot be put into words, which to no two beholders appear exactly the same, insomuch that if every one is to be satisfied, every one must have the power of drawing his line for himself. But if every one follow his own rule of fellowship, how can there possibly be but "one body," and in what sense are those words of the Apostle to be taken?

Again, this or that person may be more or less religious in speech and conduct; how are we to draw the line, even according to our own individual standard, and say who are to be in our Church and who out of it? Scandalous offenders indeed and open heretics might be excluded at once; but it would be far easier to say whom to put out than whom to let in, unless we let in {201} all. From the truest believer to the very infidel there may be interposed a series of men, more or less religious, in human eyes, gradually filling up the whole interval. Even if we could infallibly decide between good and bad, life would be spent in the work; what our success really will be, may be foretold from the instances of those who attempt to do so, and who not unfrequently mistake for highly-gifted Christians men who are almost unbelievers. But, granting we have some extraordinary gift of discernment, still any how we could not see more than He sees, who implies that the faith of all of us is but immature and in its rudiments, by His very postponement of the final judgment;—so that to draw a line at all, and yet to include just all who seem religious, are things of necessity incompatible with each other.

On the other hand, forms are precise and definite. Once broken, they are altogether broken. There are no degrees of breaking them; either they are observed or they are not. It seems, then, on the whole, that if we leave the Church, in order to join what appears a less formal, a more spiritual, religion elsewhere, we break a commandment for certain, and we do not for certain secure to ourselves a benefit.

5. Lastly, it may be asked, "Are we then to keep aloof from those whom we think good men, granting that it would be better that they should be in the Church?" We need not, we must not, keep aloof. We are not bound, indeed, to court their society, but we are bound not to shrink from them when we fall in with them, except, indeed, they be the actual authors and fomenters of division. We are bound to love them {202} and pray for them; not to be harsh with them, or revile or despise them, but to be gentle, patient, apt to teach, merciful, to make allowance, to interpret their conduct for the best. We would, if we could, be one with them in heart and in form, thinking a loving unity the glory and crown of Christian faith; and we will try all means to effect this; but we feel, and we cannot conceal it, we feel that, if we and they are to be one, they must come over to us. We desire to meet together, but it must be in the Church, not on neutral ground, or rather an enemy's, the open inhospitable waste of this world, but within that sheltered heritage whose landmarks have long since been set up. If Christ has constituted one Holy Society (which He has done); if His Apostles have set it in order (which they did), and have expressly bidden us (as they have in Scripture) not to undo what they have begun; and if (in matter of fact) their Work so set in order and so blessed is among us this very day (as it is), and we partakers of it, it were a traitor's act in us to abandon it, an unthankful slight on those who have preserved it for so many ages, a cruel disregard of those who are to come after us, nay of those now alive who are external to it and might otherwise be brought into it. We must transmit as we have received. We did not make the Church, we may not unmake it. As we believe it to be a Divine Ordinance, so we must ever protest against separation from it as a sin. There is not a dissenter living, but, inasmuch and so far as he dissents, is in a sin. It may, in this or that instance, be a sin of infirmity, or carelessness, nay of ignorance; it may be a sin of {203} the society to which a man belongs, not his own, a ceremonial offence, not a personal; still it is in its nature sinful. It may be mixed up with much that is good; it may be a perversion of conscience, or again, an inconsistency in him; it may be connected more or less with piety towards his forefathers; still, considered as such, it cannot but be a blemish and a disadvantage, and, if he is saved, he will be saved, not through it, but in spite of it. So far forth as he dissents, he is under a cloud; and though we too may, for what we know, have as great sins to answer for, taking his sin at the greatest, and though we pray that Christ will vouchsafe, in some excellent way, known to Himself, to "perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle," all "who love him uncorruptly," even if separate from the glories of His Church on earth, still protest we should and must against separation itself, and wilful continuance in it, as evil—as nothing short of "the gainsaying of Core," and the true child of that sin which lost us Eden.

Nor does the sin of separation end in itself. Never suppose, my brethren, whatever the world may say, that a man is neither better nor worse, in his own faith and conduct, for separating from the Church. Of course we cannot "try the heart and the reins," or decide about individuals; still, this much seems clear, that, on the whole, deliberate insubordination is the symptom, nay, often the cause and first beginning of an unhumbled, wilful, self-dependent, contentious, jealous spirit; and, as far as any man allows himself in acts of it, so far has he upon him the tokens of pride or of coldness of heart, going before or following after. Coldness {204} and pride—these sins are not peculiar, alas, to those who leave us; that we know full well. We all have the seeds of them within us, and it is our shame and condemnation if we do not repress them. But between us, if we be cold or proud, and those who are active in dissent, there is this clear difference—that proud reliance on self, or that cold formality, which may also be found in the Church, these, though found in it, are not fruits of it, do not rise from connexion with it, but are inconsistent with it. For to obey is to be meek, not proud; and to obey, for Christ's sake, is to be zealous, not cold; whereas, wilful separation or turbulent conduct, forming religious meetings of our own, opposing our private judgment to those who have the rule over us, disaffection towards them, and the like feelings and courses, are the very effects and the sure forerunners of pride, or impatience, or restlessness, or self-will, or lukewarmness; so that these sins in members of the Church are in spite of the Church, but in separatists are involved in their separating.

"Put away from thee a froward mouth, and perverse lips put far from thee. Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee. Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established. Turn not to the right hand, nor to the left; remove thy foot from evil." What have we, private Christians, to do with hopes and fears of earth, with schemes of change, the pursuit of novelties, or dreams of reforms? The world is passing like a shadow; the day of Christ is hastening on. It is our wisdom, surely, to use what has been provided for us, instead of lusting after what {205} we have not, asking flesh to eat, and gazing wistfully upon Egypt, or on the heathen around us. Faith has no leisure to act the busy politician, to bring the world's language into the sacred fold, or to use the world's jealousies in a divine polity, to demand rights, to flatter the many, or to court the powerful. What is faith's highest wish and best enjoyment? A dying saint shall answer. It is related of a meek and holy confessor of our own, shortly before his departure, that when after much pain he was asked by a friend, "What more special thing he would recommend for one's whole life?" he briefly replied, "uniform obedience," by which he meant, as his biographer tells us, that the happiest state of life was one in which we had not to command or direct, but to obey solely; not having to choose for ourselves, but having our path of duty, our mode of life, our fortunes marked out for us [Note]. This lot, indeed, as is plain, cannot be the lot of all; but it is the lot of the many. Thus God pours out His blessings largely, and puts trial on the few; but men do not understand their own gain, and run into trials as being unfit for enjoyment. May He give us grace to cherish a wiser mind, to make much of our privilege, if we have it, to serve and be at rest; and, if we have it not, to covet it, and to bear dutifully as but a misfortune to a sinner, that freedom from restraint which the world boasts in as a chief good!

Top | Contents | Works | Home


Fell's "Life of Hammond."
Return to text

Top | Contents | Works | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.