Master Sermon List
Gospel-Truth More Important Than Unity & Peace
by J. C. Ryle
J. C. Ryle, in writing about what we may learn from Paul at Antioch, pointed out this lesson: "To keep Gospel truth in the Church is of even greater importance than to keep peace". Scripture reveals how Paul hated false doctrine enough to even confront Peter over it. And yet, no man may have known better the value of peace and unity than the Apostle Paul. J. C. Ryle continues...
Paul was the Apostle who wrote to the Corinthians about love. He was the Apostle who said, "Live in harmony with one another; live in peace with each other; the Lord's servant must not quarrel; There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to one hope when you were called--one Lord, one faith, one baptism." He was the Apostle who said, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (Romans 12:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:13; Philemon 3:16; Ephesians 4:5; 1 Corinthians 9:22).
Yet see how he acts [ in Galations 2 ]! He withstands Peter to the face. He publicly rebukes him. He runs the risk of all the consequences that might follow. He takes the chance of everything that might be said by the enemies of the Church at Antioch. Above all, he writes it down for a perpetual memorial, that it never might be forgotten, that, wherever the Gospel is preached throughout the world, this public rebuke of an erring Apostle might be known and read of all men.
Now, why did he do this? Because he dreaded false doctrine; because he knew that a little leaven leavens the whole lump, because he would teach us that we ought to contend for the truth jealously, and to fear the loss of truth more than the loss of peace. Paul's example is one we shall do well to remember in the present day. Many people will put up with anything in religion, if they may only have a quiet life.
They have a morbid dread of what they call "controversy".
They are filled with a morbid fear of what they style, in a vague way, "party spirit," though they never define clearly what party spirit is. They are possessed with a morbid desire to keep the peace, and make all things smooth and pleasant, even though it be at the expense of truth. So long as they have outward calm, smoothness, stillness, and order, they seem content to give up everything else. I believe they would have thought with Ahab that Elijah was a troubler of Israel, and would have helped the princes of Judah when they put Jeremiah in prison, to stop his mouth. I have no doubt that many of these men of whom I speak, would have thought that Paul at Antioch was a very imprudent man, and that he went too far!
I believe this is all wrong. We have no right to expect anything but the pure Gospel of Christ, unmixed and unadulterated; the same Gospel that was taught by the Apostles; to do good to the souls of men.
I believe that to maintain this pure truth in the Church men should be ready to make any sacrifice, to hazard peace, to risk dissension, and run the chance of division. They should no more tolerate false doctrine than they would tolerate sin. They should withstand any adding to or taking away from the simple message of the Gospel of Christ.
For the truth's sake, our Lord Jesus Christ denounced the Pharisees, though they sat in Moses' seat, and were the appointed and authorized teachers of men. "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites," He says, eight times over, in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew. And who shall dare to breathe a suspicion that our Lord was wrong?
For the truth's sake, Paul withstood and blamed Peter, though a brother. Where was the use of unity when pure doctrine was gone? And who shall dare to say he was wrong?
For the truth's sake, Athanasius stood out against the world to maintain the pure doctrine about the divinity of Christ, and waged a controversy with the great majority of the professing Church. And who shall dare to say he was wrong?
For the truth's sake, Luther broke the unity of the Church in which he was born, denounced the Pope and all his ways, and laid the foundation of a new teaching. And who shall dare to say that Luther was wrong?
For the truth's sake, Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer, the English Reformers, counseled Henry VIII and Edward VI to separate from Rome, and to risk the consequences of division. And who shall dare to say that they were wrong?
For the truth's sake, Whitefield and Wesley,  years ago, denounced the mere barren moral preaching of the clergy of their day, and went out into the highways and byways to save souls, knowing well that they would be cast out from the Church's communion. And who shall dare to say that they were wrong?
Yes! peace without truth is a false peace; it is the very peace of the devil. Unity without the Gospel is a worthless unity; it is the very unity of hell.
Let us never be ensnared by those who speak kindly of it. Let us remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34) Let us remember the praise He gives to one of the Churches in Revelation, "I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false" (Revelation 2:2).
Let us remember the blame He casts on another, "You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess" (Revelation 2:20). Never let us be guilty of sacrificing any portion of truth on the altar of peace. Let us rather be like the Jews, who, if they found any manuscript copy of the Old Testament Scriptures incorrect in a single letter, burned the whole copy, rather than run the risk of losing one jot or tittle of the Word of God. Let us be content with nothing short of the whole Gospel of Christ.
In what way are we to make practical use of the general principles which I have just laid down? I will give my readers one simple piece of advice. I believe it is advice which deserves serious consideration.
I warn then every one who loves his soul, to be very selective as to 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 well that many think it a shocking thing for a man to forsake his local church. I cannot see with the eyes of such people. I draw a wide distinction between teaching which is defective and teaching which is thoroughly false; between teaching which errs on the negative side and teaching which is positively unscriptural.
But I do believe, if false doctrine is unmistakably preached in a local church, a Christian who loves his soul is quite right in not going to that local church. To hear unscriptural teaching fifty-two Sundays in every year is a serious thing. It is a continual dropping of slow poison into the mind. I think it almost impossible for a man willfully to submit himself to it, and not be harmed.
I see in the New Testament we are plainly told to "Test everything" and "Hold on to the good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). I see in the Book of Proverbs that we are commanded to "Stop listening to instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge" (Proverbs 19:27). If these words do not justify a man in ceasing to worship at a church, if positively false doctrine is preached in it, I do not know what words can.
--Does any one mean to tell us that to attend your local denominational church is absolutely needful to a person's salvation? If there is such a one, let him speak out, and give us his name.
--Does any one mean to tell us that going to the denominational church will save any man's soul, if he dies unconverted and ignorant of Christ? If there is such a one, let him speak out, and give us his name.
--Does any one mean to tell us that going to the denominational church will teach a man anything about Christ, or conversion, or faith, or repentance, if these subjects are hardly ever named in the denomination church, and never properly explained? If there is such a one, let him speak out, and give us his name.
--Does any one mean to say that a man who repents, believes in Christ, is converted and holy, will lose his soul, because he has forsaken his denomination and learned his religion elsewhere? If there is such a one, let him speak out, and give us his name.
For my part I abhor such monstrous and extravagant ideas. I do not see a speck of foundation for them in the Word of God. I trust that the number of those who deliberately hold them is exceedingly small.
There are many churches where the religious teaching is little better than Roman Catholicism. Ought the congregation of such churches 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 many churches where the religious teaching is little better than morality. The distinctive doctrines of Christianity are never clearly proclaimed. Plato, or Seneca, or Confucius, could have taught almost as much. Ought the congregation in such churches to sit still, be content, and take it quietly? They ought not. And why? Because, like Paul, they ought to prefer truth to peace.
--I am using strong language in dealing with this part of my subject, I know.
--I am trenching on delicate ground: I know it.
--I am handling matters which are generally let alone, and passed over in silence: I know it.
I say what I say from a sense of duty to the Church of which I am a minister. I believe the state of the times, and the position of the congregation require plain speaking. Souls are perishing, in many churches, in ignorance. Honest members of the church are disgusted and perplexed. This is no time for smooth words. I am not ignorant of those magic expressions, "order, division, schism, unity, controversy," and the like. I know the cramping, silencing influence which they seem to exercise on some minds. I too have considered those expressions calmly and deliberately, and on each of them I am prepared to speak my mind.
(a) The denominational church is an admirable thing in theory. Let it only be well administered, and worked by truly spiritual ministers, and it is calculated to confer the greatest blessings on the nation. But it is useless to expect attachment to the denomination, when the minister of the denominational church is ignorant of the Gospel or a lover of the world. In such a case we must never be surprised if men forsake their denomination, and seek truth wherever truth is to be found. If the denominational minister does not preach the Gospel and live the Gospel, the conditions on which he claims the attention of his congregation are virtually violated, and his claim to be heard is at an end. It is absurd to expect the head of a family to endanger the souls of his children, as well as his own, for the sake of "the denomination." There is no mention of denominations in the Bible, and we have no right to require men to live and die in ignorance, in order that they may be able to say at last, "I always attended my local denominational church."
(b) 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. It is easy to make sneering remarks about "itching ears," and "love of excitement;" but it is not so easy to convince a plain reader of the Bible that it is his duty to hear false doctrine every Sunday, when by a little exertion he can hear truth.
(c) 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. Like the exterminating warriors of old, the Catholic Church of Rome makes a solitude and calls it peace. 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.
(d) 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 deadly malaria. The one walks in darkness and poisons us in silence, and we are never safe. The other frightens and alarms for a little while. But it is soon over, and it clears the air. It is a plain Scriptural duty to: "contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 1:3).
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 feel 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. There are three things which men never ought 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 I have just brought forward, there are many ready to say, "He is not faithful to the Church." I hear such accusations unmoved. The day of judgment will show who were the true friends of the Church and who were not. I have learned in the last thirty-two years that if a minister leads a quiet life, leaves 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 pastor".
And I have also learned that if a man studies Scriptures, labors continually for the conversion of souls, adheres closely to the great principals of the Reformation, bears a faithful testimony against Romanism, and preaches powerful, convicting sermons, he will probably be thought a firebrand and "troubler of Israel." Let men say what they will. They are the truest friends of the Church who labor most for the preservation of truth.
I lay these things before the readers of this paper, and invite their serious attention to them. I charge them never to forget that truth is of more importance to a Church than peace. I ask them to be ready to carry out the principles I have laid down, and to contend zealously, if needs be, for the truth. If we do this, we shall have learned something from Antioch.
J. C. Ryle, Warnings To The Churches