Richard Baxter was a prolific Puritan writer, poet, theologian and pastor who lived in England from 1615-1691. The author of at least 168 different works, Baxter was enormously influential in England and the colonies, and had significant impact on other Puritans like John “Pilgrim’s Progress” Bunyan. Baxter was mentored early on by John Owen (who would prove to be an able theological sparring partner later), and wrote the influential book “The Reformed Pastor; A Discourse on the Pastoral Office,” And, “Call to the Unconverted to Turn and Live,” which was a popular evangelical text for hundreds of years. As well, Baxter wrote an ode to his wife, “Breviate of the Life of Mrs. Margaret Baxter,” which expressed his deep appreciation and admiration for her character and tenderness. Baxter was an excellent writer, and his prose still holds up well today, though it is thicker and denser than the literature read by most Christians in the present. In the selections below, which should be read in their fuller context to fully appreciate them, Baxter challenges Christians to not divide over doubtful/middling issues (e.g. Romans 14), and to not think themselves Godlier or more mature because of the way they take communion, or engage in other specific forms of worship and church life. It is a good warning to avoid pridefulness and unnecessary division in today’s church situation that features thousands of denominations and opinions and divisions on how to pursue the Lord.
Moreover, this laying so much upon lower and unnecessary things, doth impoverish the soul, and make it low, and empty, and formal, according to the matter that it hath to work upon. As the great unquestionable truths of God, are they that sanctify and elevate the soul, and leave their image on it; so will contending about private opinions, or laying out our zeal in ceremonies and shadows, depress the soul and famish it, and turn our religion into a shadow. We find, by sad experience, that people are so prone to turn all religion into mere words, and shows, and customary formalities, that when we have done our best, we cannot cure them of this mortal sin: “God is a Spirit, and will have such worshippers as worship him in spirit and in truth….
And this making a religion of unnecessary things, or laying the church’s unity thereon, is a dangerous snare to delude the ignorant and ungodly, and make them believe that they are godly people, and in the way to heaven, as well as others… If profitable forms, and God’s own ordinances, are somewhat liable to this abuse, we cannot devise how to increase the danger, and quite enthrall these miserable souls more certainly, than by multiplying unnecessary formalities, and placing religion and unity in them. For they that are most ignorant, and empty of the love and fear of God, and the bitterest enemies to a heavenly life, will presently set in with these formalities, and make themselves a religion of these; and then they will take themselves to be as godly as the best. You shall never make them believe that they are ungodly. They think the difference lieth but in the way and manner of serving God: you serve him one way and they another; but yet they serve him as well as you: yea, they will overdo in these indifferent things, that they may make up that which is wanting in true godliness…
it is the laying too much stress on these matters, and making indifferent things seem necessary, as if God’s worship, or the unity of the church lay on them, which I speak against: And therefore I must needs say, that both sides may be guilty of this sin: principally the imposers of them, that would have all men forced to do as they do; and next them there may be too much guilt in those that make indifferent things seem evil, or lesser evils to be much greater than they are, and so would make a religion of avoiding what others make it their religion to observe. And whether your religion lie in being for or against these points (in such as the apostle speaks of in my text) is no great difference: for the religion of both will prove but a mere shadow; yea, an over hot opposing of such middle things, doth teach those that are for them to believe that they are matters of very great moment, or else they think you would not make so great a matter of them. And then when you have taught them by your fierce opposition to make a great matter of them; and custom and their party hath taught them to think their way is best; both these set together delude their souls, and make them think that because of their formalities, they are godly men, in the depths of their ignorance, ungodliness and misery.
Lastly, observe how we sin against the sad experience of the church in all ages, by laying our religion or unity upon these smaller or unnecessary things. What hath distracted the church so much as contendings about their ceremonies and orders, and precedency and superiority!…
Hence we see the tender mercy of God to them that are sincere in the faith, though weak. If their understandings be dark, and their judgments in lesser things mistaken, and their consciences therein erroneous; yet if they be but true believers, and right in the main, and willing to know the mind of God, and to obey it, God would not have them excluded from the communion of the saints, but rather received with charity and compassion; and would have the stronger bear with their infirmities. (Rom. 15:1.) He will not himself reject them; and therefore he would not have them rejected or despised by his servants. Hence also we may see, that God will bear more, and so must his church, with smaller errors, than with the uncharitable or dividing management of those errors. Though men should err about meats, or days, or such like matters, we must yet receive them and love them as believers: but yet if they will hereupon despise, or censure one another to the breach of charity, and trouble of the church, this must be sharply rebuked, as Paul here doth.
(Source: CATHOLIC UNITY OR THE ONLY WAY TO BRING US ALL TO BE OF ONE RELIGION, found in: Richard Baxter and William Orme, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, vol. 16 (London: James Duncan, 1830), 496-500.)