Error in the Church

Richard Vines was a member of the Westminster Assembly and was considered one of the Assembly’s finest preachers. He preached a sermon on Ephesians 4:14-15 before the Mayor and court of Aldermen of London in 1644 entitled “The Impostures of Seducing Teachers Discovered.” Apparently not everyone was pleased with his sermon, but that did not bother him too much; he would rejoice “to offend any man for his good, and be afraid to please him for his hurt.” In this article, I will highlight a few points that Vines made in his sermon.

First, error leads to other, even contrary, errors. Error is a “bridge to another” and a “precipice, a vortex or whirlepoole, which first turns men round and then sucks them in.” Vines noted that the Arminian “went forward to Popery, and many of ours from Antinomianisme to Anabaptisme and Brownisme.”

Second, errors are clothed with Bible verses. “What heresie ever came abroad without verbum Domini [Word of the Lord] in the mouth of it.” The Arian appeals to John 14:28, the Anabaptist quotes Matthew 28:19, and the Antinomian cites 1 Timothy 1:9.

Third, he exhorted those who “are in the office of teachers” to take heed to themselves and to their doctrine (1 Tim. 4:6). Teachers need to be careful to teach “milke or meate, and not wind [i.e. false teaching].” They should also, according to Vines, make sure they instruct their people in the foundations of the faith before they address errors or critique other teachers so that their people are attached to Christ and “not to an opinion.” Regarding those who teach, but do not hold the office of teacher, Vines had this to say:

“As for others that teach indeed but yet are no teachers (for whatsoever they doe by gifts, yet themselves are not the gifts of Christ unto men in the sense of [Eph. 4:11]) I should desire to know whether every one that hath a gift to be a servant must therefore be a steward, or that hath gifts enabling him to deliver a message, must therefore be an Embassadour.”

Fourth, Vines lamented the preaching in his day because it focused on party politics and not Scripture. He wrote:

“I cannot but bewaile our Pulpits of late times, filled with hay and stubble instead of gold and silver, as namely, invectives against Bishops, and Cavaliers, news, and novellopinions, and in the mean time the staple commodities of Heaven, as Christ, Faith, Love, etc., are laid aside like breath’d ware which no body cals for; I would not be thought to be a patron of any such obnoxious persons against whom the Word of God shoots an arrow; but tis I plead for, that people who come to looke for soul-nourishing food may not be served with scumme and forth.”

Finally, ministers need to address error in the church but they must do so with great wisdom. Vines’ counsel on this point is worth citing in full:

“I would not blow the trumpet or proclaime open warre against lesser differences, severity and acrimony in such cases breeds schism and heales it not; but pernicious errours and destructive to soules (which it is cruelty to spare and not pity) must be faced and fought against, not with invectives and railing, that doth but anger the Gangrene, and is not the way to quench wildfire, but by solid convictions and evidence of truth: for so you shall either gain a brother, or not lose a friend. But you may aske, when should we goe out against a doctrine as pernicious; for even that point about law which denominates as Antinomian, and that about Baptisme which denominates an Anabaptist, seeme not to be fatall to the soule? To this I answer, that we must look how a doctrine is attended, or consequenced; the first circle in the water is the least, those that are caused by it are bigger and bigger, an opinion may be very ill as it is a bastard mis-begotten by mis- inferences from the Word; but it is worse as it is a whore and begets a new off-spring of errours more pernicious, but I must remember to whom I speake. Brethren, if the sheep be infected or worried, both God and men will ask, Where were the shepherds? Or what did they in the meane time?”

D. Patrick Ramsey (@DPatrickRamsey) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius's The Economy of the Covenants and author of A Portrait of Christ.

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