There is something in the nature of evil, which, if it appear in its own proper colours, will not admit of being defended or recommended to others; he, therefore, who is friendly to it is under the necessity of disguising it, by giving it some specious name, in order to render it current in society. On the other hand, there is something in the nature of good, which, if it appear in its own proper colours, cannot well be opposed: he therefore who wishes to run it down is obliged first to give it an ill name, or he could not accomplish his purpose. This species of imposition, it is true, is calculated only for superficial minds, who regard words rather than things; but the number of them is so great in the world, and even in the church, that it has in all ages been found to answer the end. In the times of the prophet Isaiah, there were those who “called evil good, and good evil, who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter;” but as the woe of heaven was then denounced against the practice, it becomes us to beware of going into it, or being imposed on by it.
It is not the design of the writer to trace this abuse of language through any part of his history or politics, or any other worldly department; but merely to notice a few terms which are very current in our religious circles:—such as moderation, liberality, charity, &c., on the one hand; and bigotry, narrowness of mind, and ill-nature, on the other.
There is a spirit gone forth in the present age which is calculated to do more harm in the church of God than the most erroneous doctrine that has been advanced since the days of the apostles. It bears a favourable aspect towards those systems of divinity which depreciate the evil of sin, the freeness of grace, the dignity of Christ, and the glory of his righteousness as the only ground of acceptance with God; so much so that it is seldom known to oppose them. Or if, for the sake of preserving its reputation, it strikes an occasional blow at them, yet it is with so light a hand as never to hurt them. It takes no decided stand on this side or that, and thereby obtains admission among all parties. If the friends of Christ meet together, it wishes to meet with them, though it be only to oppose every measure which may bear hard upon its favourite designs, and would take it very unkind to be treated as an intruder. If his enemies be assembled, it will also be there; and, if no un-trusty brother be in company, will commonly manifest itself to be then most in its element.
Now, let a spirit of this kind make its appearance in any other department than religion, and observe how it will be treated. In the year 1745, for instance, when the great question in the country was, Shall we support the reigning family, and the constitution; or shall we admit the pretender, with popery and arbitrary power in his train? what would have been thought of a man who should have pretended to be on neither this side nor that, but talking against war, and in favour of moderation, liberality, and charity towards the unhappy youth, (who by landing on our shores had greatly endangered his life,) made use of all his influence to oppose every decided measure tending to drive him from the country? “Sir,” they would have said, “you are on the side of the pretender, and deserve to be taken up as a traitor.” And had he complained of their bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and ill-nature, his remonstrance would have deserved no regard. But is the cause of God and truth of less importance than the temporal prosperity of a nation? Surely not!
If, indeed, our differences consist merely in words; or, though they should be things, yet if they do not affect the first principles of the doctrine of Christ, considering the imperfections which attach to the best of men, a spirit of moderation or forbearance is here in character. When we have frankly spoken our minds, we may with a good conscience leave it, and join with our brethren, notwithstanding, in the work of the Lord. But in differences which respect the principles above mentioned, compromise would be treason against the Majesty of heaven. There were cases in which an apostle allowed that “every one should be fully persuaded in his own mind;” but there were cases also in which “the doctrine of Christ” was given up; and if any man came as a minister without this, Christians were directed “not to receive him into their houses, nor to bid him God speed.” Such conduct in the present times would raise a great outcry of bigotry, and illiberality; a plain proof this that what passes among us under the names of moderation and liberality is in a great degree antichristian.
What is moderation? The Scriptures recommend a yielding and gentle disposition in things wherein our own name or interest only are concerned.—Such is the moderation enforced by Paul; but when the continuance of the truth of the gospel was at issue, he refused “to give place even for an hour.” The Scriptures also recommend forbearance in Christians one towards another; but this is far from that spirit of indifference which would confound truth and error, religion and irreligion, the friends of Christ and the men of the world.
What is liberality? The term denotes freedom, or enlargedness of mind. It is applied in the Scriptures merely to that simple, sincere, and bountiful spirit, which communicates freely to the needy, and stands opposed to a sinister, close, contracted, and covetous disposition. The application of it to sentiments may be proper, when used to describe that enlargedness of mind which arises from an intimate acquaintance with the Scriptures, and an extensive knowledge of men and things. A rigid attachment to modes and opinions merely of human authority is often seen in persons who have read but little, and thought less. Had they seen more of the religious world, and heard more of what is to be said against the notions in which they happen to have been educated, their tenacity, we may commonly say, might be abated; in other words, they might be more liberally minded, and moderate in their censures against those who differ from them. But to attribute all attachment to principles, and even modes of worship, to illiberality of mind, is itself illiberal. If an attachment, whether it be to one or the other, be the effect of impartial research, and a firm persuasion that they are the mind of God as revealed in his word, it is so far from indicating a bigoted, contracted, or illiberal mind, that it may arise from the contrary. The more we understand of Divine truth, the more our minds will be enlarged, and the more decided will be our opposition to error. To call that liberality which holds all doctrines with a loose hand, and considers it as of no importance to salvation whether we believe this or that, is a gross perversion of language. Such a spirit arises not from enlargedness of mind, or from having read much, or thought much; but from the vanity of wishing to have it thought that they have. This vanity, when flattered by weak or interested men, induces the most ignorant characters to assume imperious airs, and to exercise a kind of contemptuous pity towards those who cannot treat the gospel with the same indifference as themselves. A minister who has wished for the liberty of playing fast and loose with Christian doctrines, without being disrespected by his congregation, has been known to compliment them as an enlightened people, and to praise them for thinking for themselves; while in fact they have neither thought, nor read, nor understood, unless it were a few political pamphlets, and the doctrine of getting money.
It seems to be a criterion of this species of liberality that we think well of characters, whatever be their principles, and entertain the most favourable opinion of their final state. The writer was some time since in a company where mention was made of one who believed in the final salvation of all men, and perhaps of all devils likewise. “He is a gentleman,” said one, “of liberal principles.” Such principles may, doubtless, be denominated liberal, that is, free and enlarged in one sense;—they are free from the restraints of Scripture, and enlarged as a net which contains a great multitude of fishes, good and bad; but whether this ought to recommend them is another question. What would be thought of one who should visit the felons of Newgate, and persuade them that such was the goodness of the government that not one of them, even though condemned, would be finally executed? If they could be induced to believe him, they would doubtless think him a very liberal-minded man; but it is likely the government, and every friend to the public good, would think him an enemy to his country, and to the very parties whom by his glozing doctrine he had deceived.
It is usual to call that man liberal who thinks or professes to think for himself, and is willing that every other person should do the same. This, if applied to civil society, is just. Christianity will persecute no man for his religious principles, but meekly instruct him, in hope that God peradventure may give him repentance to the acknowledging of the truth. But apply the principle to religious society, and it is inadmissible. If one member of a Christian church be not accountable to another for what he believes, an infidel, in demanding the Lord’s supper from a Christian minister as a qualification for office, demands no more than the other may conscientiously and scripturally comply with. In refusing to unite with an unbeliever, or a profligate, or one who in my judgment rejects what is essential to the gospel, I do not impose my faith upon him; but merely decline having fellowship with what I consider as a work of darkness.
The writer is acquainted with several dissenting churches at this time which for some years past have acted upon what they call a liberal ground: that is, they have admitted men of all sorts of principles into their communion: and if some who once professed to be friendly to the doctrine of salvation by grace, the Deity and atonement of Christ, acceptance with God through his righteousness, the necessity of the new birth, &c., become their avowed enemies, they take no notice of them; but leave them, as they say, to judge for themselves. The consequence, however, is, that many of these churches have, in a few years, become extinct; and those which remain have become mere worldly communities, going into many of the dissipations and follies which are practised by none but people who make no pretence to serious religion. I have generally observed that those who are thus liberal in regard to principles are seldom far behind as to their practices. Cards, balls, plays, &c., are with them innocent amusements. Such assuredly was not the liberality of Paul. He was, however, of an enlarged mind, and wished much for Christians to be also enlarged. But how? By opening their doors to worldly men, and holding fellowship with all sorts of characters? Not so; but by the direct contrary.—Read 2 Cor. 7:11, to the end: “O ye Corinthians, our mouth is open unto you; our heart is enlarged.—Ye are not straitened in us, but in your own bowels.—Be ye also enlarged.—Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” From hence it would seem that true enlargedness of mind is inconsistent with an indiscriminate communion with unbelievers or worldly characters. And this accords with universal experience. Those Christian societies who are careful to preclude or exclude the enemies of the gospel are in a good degree of one heart, and will feel themselves at liberty to engage in every good work in their social capacity. But those communities which are open to all will never be agreed in any thing which requires self-denial, diligence, or devotedness to Christ. One will make this objection to the measure, and another that; so that nothing will be effected. This is being yoked together with unbelievers; it is like yoking the sprightly horse with the tardy ass, which, instead of helping, only hinders him, and may in time so break his spirit as to render him nearly as tardy as the other. In vain do we separate from national establishments of religion to corrupt ourselves. Nonconformity to the ceremonies of the church is of no account, if it be attended with conformity to the world. If the seven Asiatic churches had been originally formed on these liberal principles, how came it to pass that they were censured for having those “among them” who held doctrines inconsistent with Christianity? On such principles, they might have excused themselves from blame, inasmuch as those individuals were only permitted to think and act for themselves.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions—Miscellaneous. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 3, pp. 797–800). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.