John Owen on Secterians

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John Owen in his Epistle to the Reader
Biblical Theology pp. XXX – XXXIII
On Sectarians

…In the second place, many students of theology who are not brought down by idleness or pleasure seeking are sadly driven off course and greatly impeded in their search for divine truth by the influence of sects, factions, and heresies. In religious studies, differences of opinion are very prone to harden into differences of sect. Secondary matters then come into play to widen the breach. How frequently we find a man, who adheres to a sect which is numerous in his own corner of the world, consider it to be his life’s work to do nothing but condemn and vilify all other parties as guilty of folly and sin. This may give the impression that the differences are more ones of locality than reality, and places give their names to sects but, whatever their origin, it is certain that a sect becomes more destructive the greater the number of its adherents as it engenders a servile party – in a word, a sectarian spirit.

But it is not my intention to discuss the nature of sectarianism or condemn its vices. I wish merely to demonstrate how zeal for a sect will obscure zeal for true wisdom. This is quite certain, for the leaders of a sect will always fight against any knowledge beyond the tenets that make their distinctives, and a sectary must surrender to the group all piety, knowledge, doctrine, and wisdom. Imagine the evils which arise when this servile spirit takes hold on minds which are already open to receive unjust suspicions and, like all natural minds, always prone to evil thoughts, and how fatally any ability to search for the truth will be injured. What is worse, a sectarian spirit induces into the thinking an evil, arrogant, and disputaceous tendency; the very thing with which the Holy Spirit cannot be expected to associate His gifts. “What man is he that feareth the Lord? Him will He teach in the way that He shall choose…. The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him, and He will show them His Covenant.” (Psalm 25:12 and 14) Other men are indeed not slaves to a sect, but are willing to agree with the blind zeal of sectarians as a means to an end –the advancement of their own interests. Still, for such a purpose, they will defend the sect as violently as others and show as much hatred for those who dissent from them.

There can be few worse impediments to the study of divine truth than for a student, either from birth and upbringing, by the false teaching of others or for worldly advantage, to be ensnared into a vigorous sect before he has had the chance to develop independent, candid, and mature judgment of his own.  How many turn aside in this way for the lure of wealth, honors, or esteem!  The touchstone and measure of all truth for such enslaved men becomes the teachings of the sect, and all of their studies are guided by no other pole-star than a horror of falling unawares into the opinions of any other sect but their own! They are terrified of receiving, truth and light from other men at the expense of their lucrative errors! And all the while they consider themselves to be most learned, intelligent, prudent, and pious of men; judging all of these things by the yardstick of their sect, that is, within the blinkered vision of a worthless faith. The natural result is seen in those eternal squabbles, law-suits, hatreds, and quarrels which are so far removed from Christian meekness and charity.

Great emperors are quicker to make peace after bloodshed and disasters given and received than are theologians fired by sectarian zeal. The followers of a sect will seize as gleefully upon anything which comes from their leaders or comrades as did the heathen of old a fabled “shield fallen from heaven,” even though it is the most foolish, outrageous, futile, nay, wicked teaching possible. Their enthusiasm runs all one way – to defend and propagate the base teachings of their sect and vilify the wise teachings of others. If it finally dawns upon them that man who is not of their faction is not a fool or a villain (which sometimes happens), then he is at once a danger to them and they must stir up all kinds of hostile encounters with him. Each one of them would gladly gain a triumph over him, be it never so small a matter, or rejoice to see him worsted by anyone at all.

Imagine these wretched creatures who, accepting the very basest servitude themselves, still have the arrogance to hurl out accusations of errors and ignorance, of heresy and schism, against the orthodox, from what they consider to be an impregnable position-built mostly with bricks of pure stupidity! I could not go on in my work to advance God’s truth if I felt that I had anything of this spirit about me. Why, they know already all of the bounds of wisdom, and can map out all of the territory of Divine truth; it is confined within the bounds of their sect! No man will run the risk of sailing uncharted seas if he has gold enough, or what is worth more than gold, at home. What we pursue is so far removed from the ideals of such men that I have never considered that studies such as ours would be of interest to them or be tasty to their palates. If love of themselves and of party has so extinguished the light of reason that man cannot see that he is enchained by a sect and bound for perpetual bitter enmity to all other sects for the supremacy of their own, then I, as a teacher, see it as my duty to strictly neglect and ignore them. But note well, I do not say these things as if every man of faith was obliged to associate himself with some particular congregation professing faith in Christ and worshipping God as He has ordained, unless he would be judged eccentric or blameworthy. What makes an almost infinite difference is the spirit in which a man associated himself with any of them.

Let me state what, in my judgment, is required for a man to act rightly and in obedience to Christ and the gospel. It is this: Let him, after first surrendering himself in faith to our Lord Jesus Christ, seek out and attach himself to a body of believers who have zeal for and profession of divine truth, who observe the commands of the Lord Jesus, who cultivate true and conscientious piety, sobriety, modesty, justice, and separation from the world. Then he may share in the spiritual privileges of the Church and the gifts of the Spirit to the Church and strive manfully towards the building up of the body Christ in faith and love. I simply bring accusation of withstanding the progress of truth against those who defend so narrow a sect as to look upon all others as if they had never been born. I think particularly of those so engaged for reasons secular or sinful, or by an onrush of worldly business which drives them upon the shores of a sect and leaves them stranded there. Such sickness of mind is incurable without a special intervening of the grace of God. They take pleasure in their folly and triumph in their delusions, and cannot be persuaded that the spiritual physicians who would save them from their follies mean to cure and not to kill them. But we must put aside further considerations of such wretchedness.

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