DOES IT MATTER WHAT PREACHING WE HEAR?
I warn everyone who loves his soul, TO BE VERY JEALOUS ABOUT the preaching he regularly hears, and the place of worship he regularly attends. He who deliberately settles down under any ministry which is positively unsound is a very unwise man. I will never hesitate to speak my mind on this point. I know that many think it a shocking thing for a man to forsake his parish church. I cannot see with the eyes of such people. I do believe, if false doctrine is unmistakeably preached in a parish church, a parishioner who loves his soul is quite right in NOT going to that parish church. To hear unscriptural teaching fifty-two Sundays in every year is serious thing. It is a continual dropping of slow poison into the mind. I think it almost impossible for a man wilfully to submit himself to it, and not be harmed by it. I see in the New Testament we are plainly told to ‘prove all things’, and ‘hold fast that which is good’ (I Thess. 5.21). I see in the Book of Proverbs that we are commanded to ‘cease to hear the instruction which causeth to err from the words of knowledge’ (Prov. 10.27). If these do not justify a man in ceasing to worship at a church, if positively false doctrine is preached in it, I know not what words can.
There are not a few parishes in England where the religious teaching is little better than popery. Ought the laity of such parishes to sit still, be content, and take it quietly? They ought not. And why? Because, like Paul, they ought to prefer truth to peace.
There are not a few parishes in England where the religious teaching is little better than morality. The distinctive doctrines of
Christianity are never clearly proclaimed. Plato, or Seneca, or Confucius, or Socinus, could have taught almost as much. Ought the laity in such parishes to sit still, be content, and take it quietly? They ought not. And why? Because, like Paul, they ought to prefer truth to peace.
Divisions and separations are most objectionable in religion. They weaken the cause of true Christianity. They give occasion to the enemies of all godliness to blaspheme. But before we blame people for them, we must be careful that we lay the blame where it is deserved. False doctrine and heresy are even worse than schism. If people separate themselves from teaching which is positively false and unscriptural, they ought to be praised rather than reproved. In such cases separation is a virtue and not a sin. The old saying must never be forgotten, ‘He is the schismatic who causes the schism.’
Controversy in religion is a hateful thing. It is hard enough to fight the devil, the world and the flesh, without private differences in our own camp. But there is one thing which is even worse than controversy, and that is false doctrine tolerated, allowed, and permitted without protest or molestation. It was controversy that won the battle of Protestant Reformation. If the views that some men hold were correct, it is plain we ought never to have had any Reformation at all! For the sake of peace, we ought to have gone on worshipping the Virgin, and bowing down to images and relics to this very day! Away with such trifling! There are times when controversy is not only a duty, but a benefit. Give me the mighty thunderstorm rather than the pestilential malaria. The one walks in darkness and poisons us in silence, and we are never safe. The other frightens and alarms for a little season. But it is soon over, and it clears the air. It is a plain Scriptural duty to ‘contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3).
I am quite aware that the things I have said are exceedingly distasteful to many minds. I believe many are content with teaching which is not the whole truth, and fancy it will be ‘all the same’ in the end. I am sorry for them. I am convinced that nothing but THE WHOLE TRUTH is likely, as a general rule, to do good to souls. I am satisfied that those who wilfully put up with anything short of THE WHOLE TRUTH, will find at last that their souls have been greatly damaged. Three things there are which men ought never to trifle with: a little poison, a little false doctrine, and a little sin.
I am quite aware that when a man expresses such opinions as those that I have just brought forward, there are many ready to say, ‘He is no Churchman’. I hear such accusations unmoved. The day of judgment will show who were the true friends of the Church of England and who were not. I have learned in the last thirty-two years, that if a clergyman leads a quiet life, lets alone the unconverted part of the world, and preaches so as to offend none and edify none, he will be called by many ‘a good Churchman’. And I have also learned that if a man studies the Articles and
Homilies, labours continually for the conversion of souls, adheres closely to the great principles of the Reformation, bears a faithful testimony against popery, he will probably be thought a firebrand and a ‘troubler of Israel’, and called no Churchman at all! But I can see plainly that they are not the best Churchmen who talk most loudly about Churchmanship. Let men say what they will. They are the truest friends of the Church of England who labour most for the preservation of truth.
Extracted from Warnings to the Churches by J. C. Ryle