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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
J. A. James
From The Baptist Manual, 1849 – (Part 2 of 3)
II. Church members should cultivate PEACE and HARMONY one with another.
"Keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephes. 4:3)
“Be of one mind, live in peace.” (2 Cor. 11)
“Follow after the things which make for peace.” (Rom. 14:19)
It is quite needless to expatiate on the value and importance of peace. What society can exist without it? I shall therefore proceed to state what things are necessary for the attainment of this end.
1. Members should be subject one to another in humility.
"Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you, be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility." (1 Pet. 5:5)
Now from hence we learn that some kind of mutual subjection ought to be established in every Christian church. This of course does not mean that some members are to make an entire surrender of their opinions and feelings to others, so far as never to oppose them, and always to be guided by them. It is not the subjection of an inferior to a superior, but of equals to one another; not that which is extorted by authority, but voluntarily conceded by affection; not yielded as matter of right, but given for the sake of peace. In short, it is the mutual subjection of love and humility. Young and inexperienced persons ought to be subject to the aged, for what can be more indecorous than to see a stripling standing up at a church meeting, and with confidence and flippancy, opposing his views to those of a disciple old enough to be his grandfather?
Youth loses its loveliness when it loses its modesty. They should hearken with deference and most reverential attention to the opinion of the aged. Nor does the obligation rest here; it extends to those who are equal in age and rank. Church members should be subject to each other. They should not be determined at all events to have their own way, but should go as far as principle will let them, in giving up their own views and predilections to the rest.
Everyone should hearken with respectful attention to the opinions of others, and be willing to sacrifice his own. The contention ought not to be for rule, but for subjection. Instead of haughtily exclaiming, "I have as much right to have my way as anyone else," we should say, "I have an opinion, and will mildly and respectfully state it, yet I will not force it upon the church, but give way to the superior wisdom of others if I am opposed." There should be in every member a supposition that others may see as clearly, probably more so, than himself.
The democratic principle in our system of church government must not be stretched too far. The idea of equal rights is soon abused and converted into the means of turbulence and faction. Liberty, fraternity, and equality, are words which both in church and state have often become the signals in the mouths of some, for the lawless invasion of the rights of others.
It has been strangely forgotten, that no man in social life has a right to please only himself; his will is, or ought to be, the good of the whole. And that individual violates at once the social compact, whether in ecclesiastical or civil society, who pertinaciously and selfishly exclaims, "I will have my way." Such a declaration constitutes him a rebel against the community.
Yet alas! How much of this rebellion is to be found not only in the world, but in the church, and what havoc and desolation has it occasioned. Unfortunately for the peace of our societies, it is sometimes disguised, by the deceitfulness of the human heart, under the cloak of zeal for the general good. Church members should enter into these sentiments, and thus comply with the apostolic admonitions, "Let nothing be done through strife or vain glory, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves." (Phil. 2:3); "In honour preferring one another." (Rom. 12:10)
2. To the preservation of peace, a right treatment of offences is essentially necessary.
We should ever be cautious not to GIVE offence.
Some persons are rude, dogmatic, or indiscreet; they never consult the feelings of those around them, and are equally careless whom they please and whom they offend. They say and do just what their feelings prompt, without the least regard to the consequences of their words and actions. They act like an individual, who because it pleases him, discharges a loaded musket in a crowded street, where some are almost sure to be wounded. This is not the charity which is kind, courteous, and civil.
A Christian should be ever afraid of giving offence; he should he anxious not to injure the wing of an insect, much more the mind of a brother. The peace of his brethren should even be more sacred than his own. It should be his fixed determination never, if possible, to occasion a moment's pain. For this purpose he should be discreet, and mild, and courteous in all his language, weighing the import of words before he utters them, and calculating the consequence of actions before he performs them. He should remember that he is moving in a crowd, and be careful not to trample on or jostle his neighbours.
We should all be backward to RECEIVE offence.
Quarrels often begin for want of the caution as I have just stated, and are then continued for want of the backwardness I am now enforcing. An observance of these two principles would keep the world in peace. There are some people whose passions are like tow, kindled into a blaze in a moment by the least spark which has been designedly or accidentally thrown upon it.
A word, a look, is in some cases quite enough to be considered a very serious injury. It is no uncommon thing for such persons to excuse themselves on the ground that their feelings are so delicately sensible that they are offended by the least touch. This is an humiliating confession, for it is acknowledging that instead of being like the cedar of Lebanon, or the oak of the forest which laughs at the tempest, and is unmoved by the boar of the wood, they resemble the sensitive plant, a little squeamish shrub, which trembles before the breeze, and shrivels and contracts beneath the pressure of an insect. Delicate feelings! In plain English, this means that they are petulant and irascible. I would have a text of Scripture written upon a label, and tied upon the forehead of such persons; and it should be this—“Beware of dogs." (Phil. 3:2)
We should never suffer ourselves to be offended, until at least, we are sure that offence was intended; and this is really not so often as we are apt to conclude. Had we but patience to wait, or humility to inquire, we should find that many things were done by mistake, which we are prone to attribute to design. How often do we violate that charity which thinketh no evil, and which imperatively demands of us to attribute a good motive to another's conduct, except a bad one is proved?
Let us then deliberately determine that, by God's grace, we will not be easily offended. If such a resolution were generally made and kept, offences would cease. Let us first ascertain whether offence was intended, before we suffer the least emotion of anger to be indulged; and even then, when we have proved that the offence was not committed by accident, let us next ask ourselves whether it is necessary to notice it. What wise man will think it worthwhile, when an insect has stung him, to pursue and punish the aggressor?
When we have received an injury which is too serious to be passed over unnoticed, and requires explanation in order to our future pleasant intercourse with the individual who inflicts it, we should neither brood over it in silence, nor communicate it to a third person, but go directly to the offender himself, and state to him in private our views of his conduct. This is most clearly enjoined by our divine Lord—"Moreover, if thy brother trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained-thy brother." (Matt. 18:15)
Many persons lock up the injury in their own bosom; and instead of going to their offending brother, dwell upon his conduct in silence, until their imagination has added to it every possible aggravation, and their minds have come to the conclusion to separate themselves for ever from his society. From that hour, they neither speak to him, nor think well of him; but consider and treat him as an alien from their hearts. This is not our religion. Our duty is to go, and to go as speedily as possible, to the offender. The longer we delay, the more serious will the offence appear in our eyes, and the more difficult will it be to persuade ourselves to obtain the interview.
Others, when they have received an offence, set off to some friend, perhaps to more than one, to lodge their complaint, and tell how they have been treated. The report of the injury spreads further and wider, exaggerated and swelled by those circumstances, which every gossip through whose hands it passes, chooses to add to the original account, till in process of time it comes around to the offender himself, in its magnified and distorted form, who now finds that he in his turn is aggrieved and calumniated; and thus, a difficult and complicated case of offence, grows out of what was at first very simple in its nature, and capable of being adjusted. We ought to go at once to the party offending us, before a syllable has past our lips on the subject to a third person; and we should also close our ears against the complaints of any individual, who would inform us of the fault of a brother, before he has told the offender himself.
Sometimes when persons have received a supposed offence, they will endeavour to gain information from others in a circuitous and clandestine manner, in order, as they think, to conduct the affair with prudence. This is crooked policy, and rarely succeeds. It is next to impossible to creep with a step so soft, and to speak with a voice so muffled, as to escape detection; and if the individual surprise us in the act of ferreting into holes and corners for evidence, it will be sure to excite his indignation and disgust. No, go to him at once, AND ALONE.
This is the command of Scripture, and it is approved by reason, Matt. 18:15-17. This single admonition is worth all the volumes that philosophy ever wrote, and ought to be inscribed in letters of gold. It cannot be too often repeated, nor can too much stress be laid upon it. Third persons, whose ears are ever open to catch reports, should be avoided as the plague; they are the mischief-makers, quarrel-mongers, and pests of our churches.
Great caution, however, should be observed as to the spirit in which we go to the offending brother. All the meekness and gentleness of Christ should be in our temper and manner. We should dip our very tongue in the fountain of love. Every feeling, every look, every tone of anger, should be suppressed. We should not at once accuse our brother of the injury, for the report may be false; but modestly ask him if it be correct. All attempts to extort confession by threatenings should be avoided, and instead of these, nothing should be employed but the appeals of wisdom, the gentle persuasions of love.
There is a very interesting description of the manner in which private offences should be treated, in that inimitable book, Social Religion Exemplified. Part of a dialogue, I here transcribe, as showing the manner and spirit in which this very difficult matter ought to be managed:
"NEOPHYTUS: If Epenetus please, and with the good leave of the company, I would further request a brief account of private offences that probably occurred among these professing brethren.
"EPENETUS: I shall then gratify my young friend, which I am persuaded will not be ungrateful to the company. Upon a time, in some discourse which Egwan (of whom you have heard something before) and one Hyderus had, wherein they differed in opinion, the latter told the former that he was an insignificant fellow, whose thoughts were not to be regarded. Egwan said in answer, that he took it very ill of him.
The other replied, ‘You may take it as you please.’ So their conversation ended in a cloud. Egwan had but little rest that night.
‘Is it so, then,’ he says to himself, ‘and yet did Christ redeem me? Did the Spirit of the Lord visit my heart? Did the church of Christ receive me? And must I (though weak and feeble) be called insignificant?’
Tossed through the night in much uneasiness, he thought to go in the morning to one of the elders to complain. He got up and as usual, in the first place committed himself to God: but while he was at prayer mourning over his present uneasiness, that word came into his mind, ‘If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone.’ He quickly saw that it was not his immediate business to divulge it to anybody,—no, not to an elder; but to go directly to the brother who gave him the offence. Accordingly, he desired God to give him meekness of wisdom from above, and to bless his design. So he went to Hyderus, and spoke to him as follows:
Egwan: Brother I have had a very uneasy night; you spoke, I think, very unadvisedly with your lips, to say no worse of it; you have grieved me much, and surely you have sinned against God. I have judged it my duty to come and have some talk with you about it; and have mentioned it to none but the Lord. You know you called me, in disdain, ‘An insignificant fellow.’ Pray, what do you think of the expression, and of the spirit in which it was spoken?
Hyderus: Truly, I think it was not worth your while to come to me about it. I charge you not with pride; yet pray does it not look very much that way that you should make it your business to come hither to prove yourself valuable and significant?
Egwan: I came with no other design than to tell you my grievance. For if I am such a person as, with disdain, you described me, then am I not regarded by the Redeemer; have no portion in him; nor doth his Spirit dwell in me; nor hath he ever taken notice of me; otherwise, sure, I should be entitled to a place in the esteem of his children. Why did the church receive me? You have censured the whole church, as, well as myself.
Hyderus: I do not pretend to justify what I said, but think you greatly aggravate it; whereas, you might as well have been easy without taking any notice of it.
Egwan: And suffer the sin to lie upon you? Brother, nothing is desired but repentance for sinning against God. I hope I am willing to think meanly of myself; but am not so willing that anything appertaining to the Redeemer's kingdom should be treated with derision or disdain.
Hyderus: Dear brother, I disdain you not; you discover yourself to be a Christian of good improvement. I am sorry to have so sinned against God and you, and desire that brotherly love and tender respect may continue.
Egwan: Amen; I am satisfied, dear brother.
CHRISTOPHILUS: What a speedy, happy end was put to this offence! Oh, what endless strife of tongues, evil surmisings, animosities, and popular clamour, spring and prevail in some planes, for want of observing such a method as this!
NEOPHYTUS: But what if Egwan had gone to the elder first as he thought once to do?
EPENETUS: Why, then he would have been reproved for taking such a wrong step; he would have been better informed, and sent about his business.
NEOPHYTUS: But what if Hyderus had justified himself and persisted in his sin?
EPENETUS: Then Egwan must have taken another opportunity, and desired a brother or two to go along with him; that they might use their joint endeavours to bring the offender to repentance.
If we succeed in such a private interview to gain our brother so far as to produce a little relenting, we ought to cherish, by the kindest expressions, these beginnings of repentance, and to avoid all demands of unnecessary concession, all haughty airs of conscious superiority, all insulting methods of dispensing pardon. “Brother," we should say, “my aim was not to degrade you, but to convince you; and since you see and acknowledge your fault, I am satisfied, and shall forgive and forget it from this moment."
If the offender should refuse to acknowledge his fault, and it should be necessary for us to take a witness or two, which is our next step in settling a disagreement, we must be very careful to select men of great discretion and calmness; men who will not be likely to inflame, instead of healing the wound; men who will act as mediators, not as partisans.
It is absolutely necessary in order to offences being removed, that the offender, upon his being convicted of an injury, should make all suitable concession; and it will generally be found, that in long continued and complicated strifes, this obligation becomes mutual. Whoever is the ORIGINAL aggressor, a feud seldom continues Iong, ere, both parties are to blame. Even the aggrieved individual has something to concede, and the way to induce the other to acknowledge his greater offence, is for him to confess his lesser one. It is the mark of a noble and ingenuous mind to confess an error, and solicit its forgiveness. "Confess your faults one to another," (James 5:16) is an inspired injunction.
The man who is too proud to acknowledge his fault, when his conduct demands it, has violated his duty, and is a fit subject for censure. There are some persons, so far forgetful of their obligations to Christ and to their-brethren, as not only to refuse to make concession, but even to give explanation. Their proud spirits disdain even to afford the least satisfaction in the way of throwing light upon a supposed offence. This is most criminal, and is such a defiance of the authority of the Lord Jesus, as ought to bring the individual before the bar of the church.
We should be very cautious not to exact unreasonable concession. A revengeful spirit is often as effectually gratified by imposing hard and humiliating terms of reconciliation, as it possibly could be by making the severest retaliation. No offender is so severely punished as he who is obliged to degrade himself in order to obtain a pardon. And, as all revenge is unlawful, we should be extremely careful not to gratify it at the very time and by the manner in which we are dispensing pardon. To convince a brother, not to degrade him, is the object we are to seek, and especially should we endeavour to show him, that his offence is more against Christ than against ourselves.
When suitable acknowledgments are made, the act forgiveness is no longer optional with us. From that moment every spark of anger, every feeling of a revengeful nature, is to be quenched. "Let not the sun go down upon your wrath, neither give place to the devil." (Ephes. 4:26, 27) If we suffer sleep to visit our eyes before we have forgiven an offending, but penitent brother, we are committing a greater offence against Christ, than our brother has committed against us. The man that takes a revengeful temper to his pillow is inviting Satan to be his guest. Such a man would probably tremble at the thought of taking a harlot to his bed, but is it no crime to sleep in the embrace of a fiend?
The word revenge should be blotted from the Christian's vocabulary by the tears which he sheds for his own offences. How can an implacable Christian repeat that petition of our Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us.” (Luke 11:4) Does he forget that if he uses such language while he is living in a state of resentment against it brother, he is praying for perdition—for how does he forgive them that trespass against him? By revenge? How strong is the language of Paul! "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, and wrath, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: and be kind one to another, and tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ's sake, hath forgiven you." (Ephes. 4:30-32)
What motives to a forgiving spirit! Can that man have ever tasted the sweets of pardoning mercy who refuses to forgive an erring brother? Go, Christian professor, go first to the law, and learn thy twice ten thousand sins; go in imagination to the brink of the bottomless pit, and as thou hearkenest to the howlings of the damned, remember -that those howlings might have been thine; then go the cross, and while thou lookest on the bleeding victim, which is nailed to it, hearken to the accents of mercy which breathe like soft music in thine ear, "Go in peace; thy sine are all forgiven thee." What, will you, can you return from such scenes, with purposes of revenge? No; impossible. A “cruel Christian” is a contradiction in terms. Bigots there may be, and have been, of all denominations; but an implacable, irreconcilable, unforgiving Christian, is of the same figure of speech, as a “godly adulterer”, a “religious drunkard,” or a “devout murderer.”
The last step in reclaiming an offender is to bring him before the assembled church. “If he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses, every word may be established; and if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican." (Matt. 18:16-17) Every effort that ingenuity can invent, affection prompt, or patience can conduct ought to be made before it be brought to be investigated by the brethren at large. If every trivial disagreement be laid before the church, it will soon become a court of common pleas, and have all its time consumed in adjusting matters of which it ought never to have heard.
An offence ought never to be considered as removed until love is restored. We should never rest until such an explanation has been given and received, as will enable us to return to harmony and confidence. A mere cessation of actual hostilities may do for the affairs of the world, but not for the fellowship of the saints. There is no actual strife between the tenants of the sepulchre; but the cold and gloomy stillness of a churchyard is an inappropriate emblem of the peace of a Christian church. In such a community we expect, that not only will the discords and sounds of enmity be hushed, but the sweet harmonies of love be heard; not only that the conflict of rage will terminate, but be succeeded by the activity, of genuine affection.
When once an offence has been removed, it should never be adverted to in future. Its very remembrance should, if possible, be washed from the memory by the waters of Lethe. Other causes of disagreement may exist, and fresh feuds arise; but the old one is dead and buried, and its angry ghost should never be evoked to add fury to the passion of its successor. Nor should we, when in our turn we are convicted of an error, shelter ourselves from reproof, by reminding our reprover that he was once guilty of a similar offence. This is mean, dishonourable, unchristian, and mischievous.
Every Christian should bear reproof with meekness. Few know how to give reproof with propriety, still fewer how to bear it. "Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be as excellent oil, which shall not break my head…" (Ps. 141:5) How small is the number who can adopt this language in sincerity. What wounded pride, what mortification and resentment are felt by many when their faults are told to them. When we have so far sinned as to deserve rebuke, we ought to have humility enough to bear it with meekness, and should it be delivered in greater weight, or with less affection than we think is proper, a penitential remembrance of our offence should prevent all feelings of irritation or resentment.
Scripture is very severe in its language to those who turn with neglect, anger, or disgust from the admonitions of their brethren. "He that despiseth reproof sinneth." (Prov. 10:17); "He that hateth reproof is brutish." (Prov. 12:1); "He that is often reproved, and yet hardeneth his neck, shall be suddenly destroyed, and that without remedy." (Prov. 29:1) Such persons are guilty of great pride, great neglect of the Word of God, and great contempt of one of the ordinances of Heaven, and thus injure their souls by that which was given to benefit them.
Do not then act so wickedly as to turn with indignation from a brother that comes in the spirit of meekness to admonish and reprove you. Rather thank him for his fidelity, and profit by his kindness. I know not a more decisive mark of true and strong piety than a willingness to receive reproof with meekness and to profit by admonition, come from whom it might.
2. If the peace of the church be preserved, the members must watch against and repress A TATTLING DISPOSITION.
There are few circumstances which tend more to disturb the harmony and repose of our societies, than a proneness in some of their members to a gossiping, tattling disposition. There are persons so deeply infected with the Athenian passion to hear or tell some new thing that their ears or lips are always open. With insatiable appetite, they devour all the news they can by any means collect, and are never easy until it is all disgorged again to the unspeakable annoyance and disgust of others around them.
It is one of the mysteries of God's natural government that such should gain a sort of adventitious consequence by the mischief they occasion, and be thus sheltered from scorn by being regarded with dread. The tattler is of this description: I mean the individual who loves to talk of other men's matters, and especially of their faults. For it will be found that by a singular perversity of disposition those who love to talk about the circumstances of others, rarely ever select their excellencies as matters of discourse, but almost always fix upon their failings and thus, to borrow a simile of Solomon's, they resemble the fly which neglects the healthful part of the frame to pitch and luxuriate on the sore.
In the case of tattling, there are generally three parties to blame: there is first the gossip, then the person who is weak enough to listen to, and report the tales; and lastly, the individual who is the subject of the report, who suffers his mind to be irritated, instead of going, in the spirit of meekness, to require an explanation from the original reporter.
Now let it be a rule with every church member, to avoid speaking of the circumstances, and especially of the faults of others. Let this rule have the sanctity of the laws of Heaven, and the immutability of those of the Medes and Persians. Let every individual resolve with himself thus: "I will be slow to speak of others. I will neither originate a report by saying what I thing, nor help to circulate a report by repeating what I hear." This is a most wise regulation, which would at once preserve our own peace and the peace of society.
We should beware of saying anything, which by the perverted ingenuity of a slanderous disposition, may become the basis of a tale to the disadvantage of another. It is not enough, as I have hinted, that we do not originate a report, but we ought not to circulate it. When it reaches us, there it should stop and go no farther. We should give it to prudence, to be buried in silence. We must never appear pleased with the tales of gossips and newsmongers, much less with the scandals of the backbiter; our smile is their reward. If there were no listeners, there would be no reporters. In company let us always discourage and repress such conversation.
Let us avoid and discourage the hollow deceitful practice of indulging a tattling disposition under the cover of lamenting over the faults of our brethren.
Many who would be afraid or ashamed to mention the faults of a brother in the way of direct affirmation or report, easily find, or attempt to find, a disguise for their backbiting disposition m affected lamentations.
"What a pity it is," they exclaim, "that brother B should have behaved so ill. Poor man, I am sorry that he should have committed himself. The petulance of his temper is exceedingly to be regretted. He does not much honour religion."
"And then," replies the second, "how sorry I am to-hear this report of sister C.; how the world will talk, and the cause of Christ suffer by such unwarrantable things in the conduct of a professor. It will not be a secret, long, or I would not mention it."
"Oh," says a third, "I have heard whispers of the same kind in times past. I have long suspected it, and mentioned my fears some months ago to a friend or two. I thought she was not the person she appeared to be. I am very sorry for her, and for the cause of Christ. I have long had my suspicions, and now they are all confirmed. I shall tell the friends to whom I expressed my fears what I have now heard."
In this way is a tattling disposition indulged in the circle of even good people, under the guise of lamentation for the sins of others. “Odious and disgusting hypocrites," would a noble and honourable Christian exclaim, with hallowed indignation, "which of you, if you really lamented the fact, would report it? Which of you has gone to the erring individual, inquired into the truth of the matter, and, finding it true, has mildly expostulated? Let your lamentations be poured out before God and the offender, but to none else."
Others, again, indulge this disposition by running about to inquire into the truth of a report which they say has reached them, respecting a brother:
“Have you heard anything of brother H. lately?” they ask with a significant look.
"No;" replies the person.
“Then I suppose it is not true."
"Why, what have you heard? Nothing I hope affecting his moral character.”
“Not very materially, but I hope it is false."
The tattler cannot go, however, without letting out the secret, and then sets off to inquire of another and another. Mischief making creature! Why had he not gone, as was his obvious duty, to the individual who was the subject of the report, and inquired of him the truth of it? Aye, but then the story would have been contradicted at once, and the pleasure of telling it would have been ended.
There are cases in which a modest disclosure of the failings of others is necessary. Such, for example, as when a church is likely to be deceived in the character of an individual, whom it is about to admit to membership. In such instances, the person who is aware of the imposition that is likely to be practiced, should go directly to the pastor, and make him acquainted with the fact; instead of which some persons whisper their suspicions to any and to many, except the pastor. It is perfectly lawful also to prevent any brother from being betrayed into a ruinous confidence in pecuniary matters by informing him of the character of the individual by whom he is about to be deceived. Silence, in such cases, would be an obvious injury.
BE SLOW TO SPEAK, then, is a maxim which every Christian should always keep before his eyes. Silent people can do no harm, but talkers are always dangerous.