If controversies occasion any divisions where you live, be sure to look first to the interest of common truth and good, and to the exercise of charity. And become not passionate contenders for any party in the division, or censurers of the peaceable, or of your teachers that will not overrun their own understandings to obtain with you the esteem of being orthodox or zealous men; but suspect your own unripe understandings, and silence your opinions till you are clear and certain; and join rather with the moderate and the peacemakers, than with the contenders and dividers.
You may easily be sure that division tendeth to the ruin of the church, and the hinderance of the gospel, and the injury of the common interest of religion. You know it is greatly condemned in the Scriptures. You may know that it is usually the exercise and the increase of pride, uncharitableness, and passion; and that the devil is best pleased with it, as being the greatest gainer by it. But, on the other side, you are not easily certain which party is in the right; and if you were, you are not sure that the matter will be worth the cost of the contention; or if it be, it is to be considered whether the truth is not like to get more advantage by managing it in a more peaceable way, that hath no contention, nor stirreth up other men so much against it, as the way of controversy doth. And whatever it prove, you may and should know, that young Christians that [lack] both parts, and helps, and time, and experience to be thoroughly seen in controversies, are very unfit to make themselves parties; and that they are yet more unfit to be the hottest leaders of these parties, and to spur on their teachers that know more than they. If the work be fit for another to do that knoweth on what ground he goeth, and can foresee the end, yet certainly it is not fit for you. And therefore forbear it till you are more fit.
I know those that would draw you into such a contentious zeal will tell you that their cause is the cause of God, and that you desert Him and betray it if you be not zealous in it; and that it is but the counsel of flesh and blood which maketh you pretend moderation and peace; and that it is a sign that you are hypocrites that are so lukewarm and carnally comply with error; and that the cause of God is to be followed with the greatest zeal and self-denial. And all this is true, if you but be sure that it is indeed the cause of God; and that the greater works of God be not neglected on such pretences; and that your zeal be much greater for faith, and charity, and unity, than for your opinions. But upon great experience, I must tell you, that of the zealous contenders in the world that cry up, "The cause of God, and truth," there is not one of very many that understandeth what he talks of; but some of them cry up the cause of God, when it is a brat of a proud and ignorant brain, and such as a judicious person would be ashamed of. And some of them are rashly zealous, before they have parts or time to come to any judicious trial. And some of them are misguided by some person or party that captivateth their minds. And some of them are hurried away by passion and discontent. And many of the ambitious and worldly are blinded by their carnal interests. And many of them, in mere pride, think highly of an opinion in which they are somewhat singular, and which they can, with some glorying, call their own, as either invented by them or that in which they think they know more than ordinary men do. And abundance, after long experience, confess that to have been their own erroneous cause, which they before entitled the cause of God. Now when this is the case, and one crieth, "Here is Christ," and another, "There is Christ;" one saith, "This is the cause of God," and another saith, "That is it;" no man that hath any care of his conscience, or of the honor of God and his profession, will leap before he looketh where he shall alight; or run after every one that will whistle him with the name or pretence of truth or a good cause. It is a sad thing to go on many years together in censuring, opposing, and abusing those that are against you, and in seducing others, and misemploying your zeal, and parts, and time, and poisoning all your prayers and discourses, and in the end to see what mischief you have done for want of knowledge, and with Paul to confess that you were mad in opposing the truth and servants of God, though you did it in a zeal of God through ignorance. Were it not much better to stay till you have tried the ground and prevent so many years' grievous sin, than to escape by a sad repentance, and leave behind you stinking and venomous fruit of your mistake? Your own and your brethren's souls are not to lightly be ventured upon dangerous, untried ways. It will not make the truth and church amends, to say at last, I had thought I had done well. Let those go to the wars of disputing and contending and censuring, and siding with a sect, that are riper, and better understand the cause: wars are not for children. Do you suspend your judgment till you can solidly and with certainty inform it, and serve God in charity, quietness, and peace; and it is two to one, but you will live to see the day that the contenders that would have led you into their wars, will come off with so much loss themselves as will teach them to approve your peaceable course, or teach you to bless God that kept you in your place and duty.
In all this I deny not, but every truth of God is to be valued at a very high rate; and that he that shall carry himself in a neutrality, when faith or godliness is the matter in controversy, or shall do it merely for his worldly ends to save his stake by temporizing, is a false-hearted hypocrite, and at the heart of no religion. But withal I tell you that all is not matter of faith or godliness that passionate parties shall call so; and that as we must avoid contempt of the smallest truth, so we must much more avoid the most heinous sins which we may commit for the defending of an error; and that some truths must be silenced for a time, though not denied, when the contending for them is unseasonable, and tendeth to the injury of the church. If you were masters in the church, you must not teach your scholars to their hurt, though it be truth you teach them. And if you were physicians, you must not cram them, or medicate them to their hurt. Your power and duty is not to destruction, but to edification. The good of the patient is the end of your physic. All truth is not to be spoken, nor all good to be done, by all men, nor at all times. He that will do contrary, and take this for a carnal principle, doth but call folly and sin by the name of zeal and duty, and set the house on fire to roast his egg, and with the Pharisees, prefer the outward rest of their sabbath before his brother's life or health. Take heed what you do when God's honor, and men's souls, and the church's peace are concerned in it.
And let me tell you my own observation. As far as my judgment hath been able to reach, the men that have stood for a pacification and moderation, have been the most judicious, and those that have best understood themselves in most controversies that ever I heard under debate among good Christians; but those that furiously censured them as lukewarm or corrupted, have been men that had least judgment and most passion, pride, and foul mistakes in the points in question.
Nay, I will tell you more of my observation, of which these times have given us too much proof. Profane and formal enemies on the one hand, and ignorant, self-conceited wranglers on the other hand, who think they are champions for the truth when they are venting their passions and fond opinions, are the two thieves between whom the church hath suffered from the beginning to this day. The first are the persecutors, and the other the dividers and disturbers of the church. Mark what the Holy Ghost saith in this case:
"But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do engender strifes. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men!" (II Tim. ii. 23, 24). "Do all things without murmuring and disputing: that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom ye shine, as lights in the world." (Phil. ii. 14, 15). "If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; he is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds," &c. (I Tim. vi. 3-6). So I Tim. i. 4,5: "Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying, which is in faith: now the end of the commandment is charity, out of a pure heart, and a good conscience, and faith unfeigned!"
Yet I must here profess, that if any false-hearted, worldly hypocrite, that resolveth to be on the saving side, and to hold all to be lawful that seemeth necessary to his safety or preferments, shall take any encouragement from what I have here said, to debauch his conscience, and sell his soul, and then call all those furious zealots that will not be as false to God as he, let that man know that I have given him no cloak for so odious a sin, nor will he find a cover for it at the bar of God, though he may delude his conscience, and bear it out by his carnal advantages before the world.