“Peace, peace! they say, when there is no peace.”
In light of the ongoing and seemingly increasing controversy at Midway Presbyterian Church, studying the words of J.C. Ryle compiled in the important work “Warnings to the Churches” may prove to be a useful thought exercise for readers. While there is much wisdom in the entirety of the work, and The Midway Guardian Editorial Board commends it to readers, this article will examine several relevant aspects of the work in more detail: Controversy in the Church, False Unity and Teaching, and Truth.
Standing Up: Controversy in the Church
Consider J.C. Ryle’s words on controversy and truth below quoted from his “Warnings to the Churches”. There is controversy at Midway. Men are battling over what is true, and truth is worth fighting for even if the messaging from Midway’s pulpit extols the virtue of “sacrificing of one’s viewpoint” in the name of unity. Unity at all costs is a dangerous path to false teaching. Consider that where there is secrecy the truth is often not found, and there is plenty of secrecy from the church leadership at this time. Amidst divisive false charges against 4 duly elected Ruling Elders, and multiple rulings from higher courts citing Midway’s Session for errors, reflect on Ryle’s warning for your church. Will you accept “a little poison” and “a little sin” mixed in with your truth or will you refuse to tolerate the molestation of the truth?
“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 never ought 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 willfully put up with anything short of the whole truth, will find at last that their souls have received much damage. Three things there are which men never ought to trifle with, – a little poison, a little false doctrine, and a little sin.”Warnings to the Churches – J.C. Ryle
False Unity: The Product of False Charges, which are False Teaching
The pastoral staff at Midway has expressed their wish to prune their congregation, purge the leadership they don’t like, and have called it God’s will. The aforementioned ‘unity at all costs’ is a common message. There can be unity because it is blessed and from God (Psalm 133), or you can have unity because you have persecuted, scared away, or forced out all contrary viewpoints from your own camp. The product of this process is false unity. It is achieved via false charges at Midway, and it is a form of false teaching as the indictments drawn against the innocent are done so in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and His bride the church. Woe unto the man who abuses the name of Christ so! And yet, this is only possible because too many have been deceived by the call to idolize their pastor and the “Yes-Man” who enable their agenda as incapable of fault. Consider J.C. Ryle again:
“Your minister may be a man of God indeed, and worthy of all honor for his preaching and practice; but do not make a pope of him. Do not place his word side by side with the Word of God. Do not spoil him by flattery. Do not let him suppose he can make no mistakes. Do not lean your whole weight on his opinion, or you may find to your cost that he can err. It is written of Joash, King of Judah, that he ‘did that which was right in the sight of the Lord all the days of Jehoiada the priest.’ (2 Chronicles 24:2) Jehoiada died, and then died the religion of Joash. Just so your minister may die, and then your religion may die too; – may change, and your religion may change; – may go away, and your religion may go.
Oh, be not satisfied with a religion built upon man! Be not content with saying, ‘I have hope, because my own minister has told me such and such things.’ Seek to be able to say, ‘I have hope, because I find it thus and thus written in the Word of God.’ If your peace is to be solid, you must go yourself to the fountain of all truth. If your comforts are to be lasting, you must visit the well of life yourself, and draw fresh water for your own soul. Ministers may depart from the faith. The visible Church may be broken up. But he who has the Word of God written in his heart, has a foundation beneath his feet which will never fail him. Honor your minister as a faithful ambassador of Christ. Esteem him very highly in love for his work’s sake. But never forget that infallibility is not to be found in godly ministers, but in the Bible.”Warnings to the Churches – J.C. Ryle
J.C. Ryle writes extensively on the need for the Word of God to be at the fore of every believer’s thoughts. “The Bible regularly read, regularly prayed over, and regularly studied” is the remedy to this form of pastoral idolization and the man-centered religion it leads to. Members at Midway should prayerfully search the Scriptures and determine if their church is on the eve of false unity. Will the unity be real after the false charges brought by David Hall and his Session result in convictions and removal of their opponents? Will the unity be real after the congregational pruning is complete? J.C. Ryle also addresses this saying:
“Unity, quiet, and order among professing Christians are mighty blessings. They give strength, beauty, and efficiency to the cause of Christ. But even gold may be bought too dear. Unity which is obtained by the sacrifice of truth, is worth nothing. It is not the unity which pleases God. The Church of Rome boasts loudly of a unity which does not deserve the name. It is unity which is obtained by taking away the Bible from the people, by gagging private judgment, by encouraging ignorance, by forbidding men to think for themselves. There is quiet and stillness enough in the grave, but it is not the quiet of health, but of death. It was the false prophets who cried “Peace!” when there was no peace.”Warnings to the Churches – J.C. Ryle
This same “gagging” of “private judgment” was most prominently demonstrated in the dangerous Midway Session motion that threatened discipline on those who hold contrary opinions. This motion is a gross violation of the Westminster Confession of Faith’s positions on the conscience. This motion has been aggressively used as the basis for charges against those who dissent, and certainly “encourages the ignorance” of the rest. Midway’s Session has in effect “forbidden men to think for themselves” as Ryle expressed it.
Sincerely Burning Men at the Stake
In summary, it should be a fearful thing to merely trust that the Ruling Elders at Midway that have been condemned (even before their trials which are highly likely to be held in secret) are guilty because the prevailing power structure at the church says so. J.C. Ryle warns believers:
“Let me entreat every true hearted servant of Christ “not to be deceived by the superficial disguise” under which false doctrines often approach our souls in the present day. Beware of supposing that a teacher of religion is to be trusted, because although he holds some unsound views—that he yet “teaches a great deal of truth.” Such a teacher is precisely the man to do you harm! Poison is always most dangerous when it is given in small doses and mixed with wholesome food. Beware of being taken in by the apparent earnestness of many of the teachers and upholders of false doctrine. Remember that zeal and sincerity and fervor—are no proof whatever, that a man is working for Christ, and ought to be believed.
Peter no doubt was in earnest—when he told our Lord to spare Himself, and not go to the cross; yet our Lord said to him, “Get behind Me, Satan.” Saul no doubt was in earnest—when he went to and fro persecuting Christians; yet he did it ignorantly, and his zeal was not according to knowledge. The founders of the Spanish Inquisition no doubt were in earnest—in the burning alive of God’s people. They thought they were doing God’s service—yet they were actually persecuting Christ’s members and walking in the steps of Cain!
It is an dreadful fact, that “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). Of all the delusions prevalent in these latter days, there is none greater than the common notion that “if a man is in serious about his religion—he must be a good man!” Beware of being carried away by this delusion; beware of being led astray by “serious- minded men!” Seriousness is in itself an excellent thing; but it must be seriousness in behalf of Christ and His whole truth—or else it is worth nothing at all. The things that are highly esteemed among men—are often abominable in the sight of God.”Warnings to the Churches – J.C. Ryle
Be very sure readers. David Hall and his Session at Midway are very serious. The only question is: it “seriousness on behalf of Christ and His whole truth” or for pruning and purging those who opposed them? Before the end of the controversy at Midway, be assured that the sovereign Lord of the universe has a peculiar way of bringing the truth to the fore.