Fight Small Battles

I count myself a longtime listener, sometime caller, of The Sword and The Trowel podcast. Albeit, as any attentive listener of taste and sense will surely confirm, the quality of guest on the show has declined markedly since April of last year, it remains remarkably listenable—at least when Jared prevents Tom from droning on for too long about annoying and subversive subjects like that inerrancy and authority of scripture. TS&TT’s coverage of the recent goings on in Canada have been particularly good. A couple of Canadian guests might just return the show to what all noteworthy critics previously considered to have been its apex in the spring of 2020.

More seriously, I have never been more moved by a podcast episode—indeed, I’ve never before been moved at all—than the interview with James Coates’ wife, Erin. To say that her courage, fortitude, and faithfulness is inspiring would be inadequate. It puts many of us, most of us, to shame. That episode was followed up by a thought-provoking conversation with Joe Boot of the Ezra Institute.

About a quarter of the way through the conversation Tom mentioned that some pastors from Canada (they are not named) had contacted himself and Jared about their treatment of Coates’ case in Alberta. Their contention, in part, was that the issues surrounding Coates are not really religious liberty issues but matters of public safety. What’s more, the infamous Bill C-6, which would amend the criminal code to prohibit “conversion therapy,” will soon enough create serious issues for Canadian Christians. They must save their energy for that battle, the real battle, they said.

This got me thinking. We’ve heard this kind of objection, this plea for caution and restraint, before. We hear it all the time now. This was the plea of many evangelicals throughout John MacArthur’s legal battles with the state of California over COVID-19 restrictions. However sympathetic they were to MacArthur’s cause, they urged that socio-political capital should be conserved for [insert big issue to come].

This basic position, putting aside for a moment boilerplate Romans 13 objections, seems to take on one of three forms:

  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Also, unity!
  2. Surely, it’s not as bad as you say. Save your energy. Amass and conserve your social capital for the bigger fight that is, they assure us, near but definitely not here yet.
  3. If we can peacefully and shrewdly navigate—or rather, sidestep—present issues, perhaps we will not have to face what is likely coming down the pike.

Hybrids of all three forms are frequently spotted in the wild, but you get the idea.

My retort is, 1) do sweat the small stuff, and 2) the intervening skirmishes between now and the promised grand battle dictate the field position for that grand battle. Sometimes you find out that a skirmish was more instrumental in turning the tide than the “big one” everyone was waiting for. More importantly, a series of strategic skirmishes can sometimes mitigate against the need for bigger clashes. More on that in a bit.

And in any case, 3) appeasement is never a good strategy. Just ask Neville Chamberlin post-1939 about the effectiveness of appeasement in producing “peace for our time.” Or better yet, ask the Czechs and the Poles. And it was arguably a prior posture of appeasement by the League of Nations toward Japan’s conquest of Manchuria, and Italy’s conquest of Abyssinia, earlier in the decade that emboldened Hitler in his notorious violation of the Treaty of Versailles and later trampling of the Munich Pact. Indeed, a long line of appeasements facilitated the bloodiest war in history.

Perhaps closer to home, Carl Trueman wisely discerned in a recent episode of Mortification of Spin,

“Don’t think that being correct on the race issue will ultimately protect you. The race issue is just the flavor of the day. There will be another flavor next week, or next month, or next year, or next decade. And unless you’re prepared to go all the way with that, the revolution is going to come for you.”

Trueman’s comments fly in the face of some evangelical leaders who have more or less advised a strategy of appeasement for current controversies surrounding how to address race and racism so that “we do not drive our grandchildren into the arms of the LGBTQI issue.”

Imbedded in all these types of arguments is the desire for peace. This is admirable and good, but it seems we have forgotten that peace is always costly, typically fragile, usually not immediate, and cannot be self-referential. That is, it must be predicated on something other than peace itself. Furthermore, peace cannot be bought at the expense of duty.

We have forgotten that peace is always costly, typically fragile, usually not immediate, and cannot be self-referential. Peace cannot be bought at the expense of duty.

That being said, the question of whether peace and unity are best served by gearing up for the grand finale or by a series of small, intervening skirmishes requires an answer beyond mere strategy. Is it truly the Christian’s duty, in service of the church, to sweat the small stuff? To approach an answer to this question I turn to Thomas Walley (1616-1678).

Few people will have heard of Walley. For the most part, he has been relegated to the proverbial dustbin. Walley was a common but well-regarded pastor in Barnstable, Massachusetts for 15 years (1663-1678) after having been ejected from his pulpit in England for non-conformity in 1662 and immigrating to New England. Per Nathaniel Morton (1616-1685), Walley’s new church in America was, upon his arrival, in a state of “sad desention” and in the midst of a great “scisme.” Yet, by God’s grace, “after his Coming amongst them the Controversyes were settled and theire Comunion Reunited.” Clearly, Walley had a gift for achieving peace and unity amongst God’s people, for healing fissures and reconciling divisions, a skillset in short supply today. It is for this reason, if for no other, that the humble minister of Barnstable deserves our attention. Apart from a few of his letters, only his 1669 election sermon, entitled Balm in Gilead to Heal Sions Wounds, survives. It is to this sermon that we turn for guidance.

The Magistrate’s Duty

The sermon was king in 17th century New England. As Harry Stout has shown, as a medium of communication its dominance has yet to be rivaled, even by television. From the pulpit, every aspect of life was addressed, either in one of the two weekly sermons on Sunday, the midweek theological lecture, or a series of occasional sermons throughout the year—fast, thanksgiving, and election days.

Election sermons may seem awkward to American Christians today. Most people want their pastor to stay out of politics, and most preachers (and theologians) are, frankly, bad at parsing such topics. But in New England, the ministry was well equipped for all occasions. The clergy class was, overall, the most educated and capable group in the colonies. More importantly, they felt duty bound to bring the word to bear on life, in season and out of season. On election day 1669, Walley mounted the podium before the General Court of Plymouth to do just that.

According to custom, Walley addressed the newly elected magistrates and governor before him, impressing upon them their God ordained duty in a Christian commonwealth. His text was Jeremiah 8:22, but the main theme derived therefrom is not our chief interest here. One point only will be drawn out. In the sermon, Walley instructs rulers to maintain a “wisely ordered” zeal in defending true religion (in accordance with Titus 3:8-9). “Labour to keep the great truths of God in credit. It would not consist with love to God and Jesus Christ, to tolerate that which would blaspheme the Name of God, or damn the Souls of men.”

By way of background and contextualization, the general consensus in the 17th century was that the magistrate was duty bound—indeed, it was his chief duty—to defend true religion, usually as defined by the national, established church. (We will, at present, sidestep the concomitant consensus of the time on matters of religious toleration.) In Walley’s context this was congregationalism. It was commonplace for theologians, preachers, and commentators of Walley’s persuasion to argue that a people, a society, a commonwealth could not be happy and blessed in a state of spiritual chaos and unchecked licentiousness, blasphemy, and idolatry. (Notorious heretics and blasphemers were, it was thought, tantamount to soul murderers.)

The medieval assumption that extended into the early modern period was that the chief end of government was the glorification of God and the welfare of souls. Religion was, therefore, the business of the state, though in a way distinct from the purview over doctrine and spiritual health enjoyed by the church. The shared final end notwithstanding, there were limits to the reach and duty (i.e., mediate ends) of each coordinate power within the city of God. “Let it be your great care, That the great Truths of God, the Faith once committed to the Saints, may be preserved,” preached Walley. “Magistracy,” he said, “is gods Ordinance, for the help and preservation of the Churches.” How this view squares with the later development of views on religious liberty is beyond the scope of this article.

Errors Great and Small

As alluded to already, even in the 17th century mind, there were limits to the magistrate’s duty to protect and serve religion. Per Walley, the magistrate is to defend the “great truths,” we might say the fundamentals or non-negotiables of orthodoxy—think Apostle’s Creed level doctrines, what Walley calls “Fundamentalia in Fide.” “Those Truths that more especially concern Gods glory and mans salvation, should be especially prized & preserved,” said Walley. Greater errors would be those that lead to damnation and rank idolatry. (Walley highlighted the observance of the sabbath.) Left unchecked, such sins would surely disrupt public order and threaten social cohesion, at least in a Christian country.

But that’s not the end of the line for Walley. He issued more particular instructions for the Christian citizen as well. It was the charge of the average person within the church (and as the church), having only persuasive rather than coercive power, to fight the small battles, and necessarily so.

“[I]t is the duty of the people of God to contend for the least of Truths, and it should be their endeavor in the Spirit of love and meekness, to convince persons of their lesser Errours [sic], and those that do differ ought to be of a teachable spirit, and to keep a holy fear of departing from the common faith, though in the least things; for, when persons easily let go lesser truths, they quickly fall into great Errours [sic].”

The magistrate could only police “great Errours.” But great errors would be multiplied, perhaps beyond the capacity of the magistrate to suppress them, if small errors were left unchecked by the church. For small errors inevitably flow into great errors (in doctrine and life). One need not fully embrace Walley’s view of the magistrate’s duty in this regard to affirm that if the church be derelict in its duty in this regard, the commonwealth would not long last. Indeed, Walley thought that any high level, society wide problem, any moral failing or corruption, could be traced to a lesser one in the church.

“If there be Sickness in the Church, there will be little health in the Common-wealth… a decay in Religion, it never went well with the Common wealth. Let us believe it, that things amiss in the houses of God, are the chief cause that it goes ill with the Country.”

Walley’s advice is simple. Fight the small battles. Do so with meekness and love, yes, but fight them. If you don’t, the big battles will envelope you; and you (the church), along with everyone else (society), will surely drown.

Perhaps, we can corroborate Walley’s claim. In 1969, then-governor of California, Ronald Reagan legalized no-fault divorce. In 2016, Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriages. In 2020, Somerset, Massachusetts granted polyamorous groups the rights reserved for marital status. The connection between these ever-accelerating developments is, in hindsight, obvious. Similarly, in his new book, Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman brilliantly draws out the relationship between the claims “my body, my choice,” and “I am a woman stuck in a man’s body.” Both have now been embraced by our culture and are now nearly non-negotiable.

I could go on. The question for us is, what small battles were sidestepped, dismissed as hyperbolic, etc. in between each of those landmark developments? Christians now loudly lament the dilapidated state of marriages, the redefinition of gender and sex, and all the rest as if they sprung up overnight. Maybe that is how it feels to most people, but it’s not true. If Walley were here, he would tell us that the true cause of these things can be found in the small battles within the church that no one fought. When the big battle came, they weren’t ready, they had no footing, and the task was insurmountable.

What small battles are we avoiding now? Doubtless, calls for unity and peace will, at times, deter you from taking the field. Such concerns should always induce introspection as to our cause and method. If we listen to Walley, however, we will realize that the way to unity and peace is often through sweating the small stuff.