BROTHER Keller, of Virginia, desires our views of Matthew xiii. 15-17, and whether this rule is alike applicable in cases of a public and private nature. At an early period in the primitive church the question arose among the disciples, and as they could not exactly agree among themselves, they brought the question for a decision to the Master, viz.: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” Our Lord did not tell them that Peter, James, or John, or the Pope, or the Bishop, was the greatest; nor did he say directly, as he might with great propriety, that this honor belonged to him exclusively. He understood them to mean the greatest among the disciples. How many of them had anticipated the palm we are not informed; but it is natural to conclude that the disputants at least were actuated by ambitious, if not absolutely arrogant feelings – feelings very unbecoming them as the disciples of him that is meek and lowly. “And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them; and said, Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” What a lesson for their instruction! what a reproof for their ambition! and what an example for their guide! “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Strictly speaking, Christ is the only one that has ever humbled himself in the manner described; others have been truly humbled under his mighty hand, and Christ is beyond all dispute greatest in the kingdom. The more child-like, therefore, his disciples are, the more are they like Jesus.
With this preliminary instruction, our Lord proceeded to admonish the disciples of the unavoidable occurrence of offences, and how they should deport themselves when such offences should come. Although such offenders as cannot be reclaimed in the gospel manner are to be expelled, however conspicuous their standing or important their station, although they may be to the church as the right eye or the right hand is to the body, we are not to indulge in carnal reasoning, nor suffer anything to be done by partiality. With all the severity which the order of the house of God demands, gentleness, meekness, and a desire to reclaim an erring brother, is to mark the course of the disciples one towards the other. This lesson is set home by the most admirable argument contained in the scriptures: “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost;” and this declaration is beautifully illustrated by the man that had an hundred sheep, of which one is lost; he goeth into the mountain to seek the truant sheep, and when he has found it, he rejoiceth over its restoration more than over those which had not strayed. Now is this christian-like? Then it is the proper course for christians to pursue when any have strayed from the footsteps of the flock.
“Moreover,” besides these general lessons of instruction, which are always to be observed by the saints, “if thy brother shall trespass against thee.” We cannot understand this to mean any particular kind of trespass, as to smite thee, rob thee, slander thee, or even that the trespass shall be against thee personally; but if thy brother shall trespass, or transgress the laws of Christ, so as to effect thy fellowship towards him, then the duty becomes indispensable to apply the instruction which follows: “You that are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness.” It is not said, If thy brother trespass against thee privately, then tell him his fault between thee and him alone; nor is it said, If he trespass against thee publicly; but, If he trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone. Observe the figure laid down – one sheep has gone astray. It is sufficient that he has gone from the ninety-nine; no matter whether he went off secretly or openly, he has gone, and must be looked up. As the Son of man came to save that which was lost, we are to be Christ-like, and go in pursuit of the stray brother, with a becoming desire to render him a real service in restoring him to his place.
We are aware of some of the objections to the application of this rule to cases of open or public transgression; and there are also some arguments used against its application to offences of a strictly private character. A case is supposed: a brother has been seen and heard in open court, to curse and swear, and deny that he has any knowledge of Jesus Christ. This offence was open and before the world, in presence of the enemies of the cross of Christ; now what is to be done in this case? Certainly an individual brother, although he might convince the offender of his error, has not the power to exonerate the offender from his responsibility to satisfy every member of the church; but still he is a stray sheep, and should be sought for. Now, to follow the direction and rule under consideration, how shall he proceed? To us it appears that this should be the course: My brother, I am grieved with your conduct; you have inflicted a deep wound upon your brethren in denying our dear Lord and Master, and in the profane language which you used on the occasion; do you still persist in that course, or are you convinced of your error, and ready to make acknowledgments of your wrong? Now suppose the brother says, as David said to Nathan, “I have sinned,” and manifests the same contrition that David did, what will the laboring brother require to heal the wound? Will he not say, I rejoice that God has given you repentance for the wrong, and filled your heart with godly sorrow for your transgression; and if the matter were only known to myself, here the difficulty should end; but you know, my brother, that this offence was committed openly, and has come or must come to the ears of all your brethren; they are or will be as sensibly grieved as I have been. Now do you not see the importance of leaving here thy gift before the altar, and going immediately to be reconciled to the brethren? Go confess to them as you have now to me, and they will rejoice to receive you; yea, they will rejoice more over you than over ninety-nine just persons that need no repentance. If this offending brother’s contrition be genuine, will he hesitate one moment? Will he not rather hasten to acknowledge his fault, and do all in his power to remove the stumbling block which he has been the unhappy occasion of? Would not such a course be in the spirit of the instruction of this eighteenth chapter of Matthew, and much better calculated to restore the offender, (if he be a subject of grace) than to simply cite him to be and appear before the church, and make satisfaction to the church for offences of a public nature? Where a real disposition exists to restore a wandering brother in the spirit of meekness, there is seldom any difficulty in understanding the mode of procedure directed. But when a difficulty occurs, (as, alas! too many have) where, instead of the spirit being grieved, the old man is mad, and seeks occasion to be avenged or to retaliate, it is astonishing how very exact he can be in requiring his offending or accused brother to pay the utmost farthing. How keen the eye to detect the difference between a public or a private offence. If public, he says, I will make it still more public – I will let the world see how much worse that brother is than I am. I will not go and labor to reclaim him; it is his duty to come before the church and confess, and if he should be excluded it will serve him right. Such a person will plead eloquently for scripture rule, but remain stupidly inconsiderate of the application of that rule to his own case. We would by no means be understood that it is unimportant that christians should be at all times and under all circumstances governed strictly by the scriptures of the New Testament; but we do object to that selfish construction of the word which would lead a brother to pursue a fellow-member out of the church, without laboring to reclaim him in the spirit of the directions laid down by our Lord in the chapter under consideration.
Again, instances have not been lacking where an individual has been conscious that he had given just cause for complaint, but, instead of being melted down with contrition for his wrong, he coolly sets about making his defence. In his turn he becomes amazingly tenacious for an exact conformity to certain instructions of the scriptures; or rather for his version of them. Now, says he, if I have offended let my brethren pursue the course laid down in the 18th of Matthew, or I will give them no satisfaction; I’ll let them know that I know something about church discipline, and if I have offended my brother, he is required to come and tell me my fault, &c.; let him, therefore, come to me if he wants anything. Is there a particle of gospel exercise manifested in this sort of contending for bible rule, while such scripture as requires the accused to go and be reconciled to his brother is altogether unheeded?
We have heard this argument also used in some cases: If a brother should inflict an injury upon a brother in private, so that the sufferer has not the means to prove his charge, that he is bound to bear the grief without pursuing the course of labor enjoined in this chapter, because that he cannot establish every word by two or three witnesses. But we trust this mode of reasoning does not prevail very extensively. The rule makes all necessary provision, for instance: My brother offends me privately; the facts of the case are known to none but ourselves. I go and tell him his fault, as directed, between him and me; he will not hear me. I then take what is called the second step of labor; taking one or two brethren we visit him; now before these brethren he denies all the facts in the case. I affirm and he denies; and if I proceed to tell it to the church, his word is supposed to be as good as mine, and the church, it is thought, cannot decide upon the just merits of the case for want of clearer testimony.
But let it be remembered, I am to go in obedience to the command of Christ, in the spirit of Christ, and of course trusting the issue to him; (if I perish, I perish,) and in the second step of the labor, also trusting in God, I cannot be without sufficient witness. I have the very best of witness. My one or two brethren and myself make up the number of two or three, and being assembled to labor with an offending brother in obedience to Christ, we are together in his name, and we have the assurance that he is in our midst. This assurance is given in the same chapter and in the same connection with the rule, and Jesus says every word shall be established, and he will make good the pledge, so that when the matter is brought before the church, if the directions of Christ have been truly observed there is no possibility of failure in regard to the issue.
Before we close our remarks we wish to say that, although we fully believe this rule is always binding on individuals, requiring them thus to proceed in all cases, whether public or private, yet we do not believe that the church, in her church capacity, is always bound to see that private labor has been taken, before she can consistently exercise that authority which is vested in her for dealing with transgressors. Cases may occur in open church meeting, requiring the immediate reproof of the church before all, that others may fear, &c. But in all cases where a charge is brought before the church against a member by an individual member, we do not believe that it is the duty of the church, before acting upon the church, to see that the first and second steps of gospel labor have been duly taken according to the rule.
New Vernon, N.Y.,
May 1, 1845
Elder Gilbert Beebe
Editorials Volume 2
Pages 546 – 552