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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
J. W. Chambliss
From The Baptist Preacher, 1846. Part 1 of 3
Take heed to yourselves: if thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; if he repent, forgive him. Luke 17: 3.
"To err is human," and to resent an injury is also human. Yes, it is the first dictate of fallen, corrupt, human nature, to revenge a wrong. Its language is, "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." "I will do so to the man as be hath done to me."
Christianity is the very opposite of this. Its golden maxim is, "love that suffereth long and is kind." (1 Cor. 13:4) It teaches, "be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good." (Rom. 12:21) "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; if he repent, forgive him." Men hear these capitals of love,—they admire the divine characters,—they laud the god-like sentiments: but alas! "They do them not." Unspeakably happy shall it be for the church of the living God, if, when "thy brother shall trespass against thee, thou shalt rebuke him; if he repent, thou shalt forgive him."
In the elucidation of the text before us, we propose an examination of three questions: First. What is the first duty of the aggrieved? Secondly. What is the duty of the aggressor? Thirdly. What is the second and last duty of the aggrieved? These three questions involve the whole divine law in the settlement of private difficulties: rebuke, repentance and remission. Let us consider:
I. The first duty of the aggrieved.—"If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him."
And here permit us to call your special attention to the character of the offence to which allusion is had in the text. In strict propriety, men commit three kinds of offences: those which are public; those which are both public and private; and those which are strictly private. To the first class belong drunkenness, profanity, Sabbath-breaking, idolatry and such like; because, they are not so much against any other individual particularly, as against the whole community equally.
Of the second description, we mean such as at the same time violate public good, and infringe private rights, as slander, murder, and all injury publicly inflicted upon the feelings, person or reputation of another. Deception, fraud, private abuse, and every species of crime perpetrated on the part of one individual toward another in their private intercourse, which is unknown to any besides themselves individually, and which could affect none others, if settled between themselves,—these properly belong to the third class. Nevertheless, since it behooves society to take cognizance of every offence that comes under its observation, the ordinary distinction, which is sufficient for all ordinary purposes, is simply between public and private offences.
The rule in our text has allusion only to the latter description of trespasses. Public offences, in so far as they are public, come not under our private jurisdiction. That authority alone, of whose laws they are a violation, has the right to dispose of them. It is only in the case of private wrongs, that as individuals, we have the right to administer rebuke. It is only of such, that as individuals, we can demand repentance. It is only to such, that as individuals, we can extend forgiveness. "If thy brother trespass against thee, (in thy private and individual capacity) even seventy times seven in a day, and turn saying, I repent, thou shalt forgive him." (Matt. 18:21, 22; Luke 17:4) No private person has the power, in his individual capacity, to forgive drunkenness, Sabbath breaking, profanity, etc.; and therefore, he can neither demand, nor accept of repentance as its satisfaction. The law of Jesus Christ is, "if thy brother trespass against thee rebuke him."
Let it also be remarked, the text supposes that one brother may offend against another. In the present state of human imperfection,—where our education, habits and interests are so widely dissimilar, and often so pointedly conflicting, it seems morally "impossible, but that offences should come:" (Luke 17:1) and that which often renders them the more painful, is the reflection, that he who is pledged to us by a thousand tender considerations, with his own hand inflicted the wound.
The betrayal of fraternal confidence,—the disappointment of fondly cherished expectations,—the blasting of highest hopes,—the withering of sweetest love; and all these evils produced by a brother's hand. Ah! It is this that renders the blow insupportable: "It was not mine enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him. But it was thou, mine equal, my guide and mine acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company." (Ps. 55:12-14)
Here is the most painful fact in the history of the case. "It was my brother that defamed me that defrauded me in business transactions,—that deceived my expectations,—that insulted my feelings, by flat contradictions, by unjust insinuations, or by unholy suggestions,--yes, it was my brother, from whom I had the right to look for better things, who "hath lifted up his heel against me." The affliction is deep. The grief is incalculable. What shall I do? To this question, the words of our Lord are given as the answer: "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; if he repent, forgive him."
The law of the text is opposed to retaliation. Retaliation is the devil's theology. It has nothing good,—nothing holy in it. The merest dog would bite, if one were to strike him. To man, and to man alone,—holy and refined—of all the beings of this world, it belongs to observe the principles of the sacred volume: "Say not, I will do so to him as he hath done to me; I will reward the man according to his works." "Recompense to no man evil for evil."
"Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves; but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord." (Prov. 24:29; Rom. 12:17-19)
The text is equally opposed to retelling the wrong through the community. Alas! alas! for this world, that men are so much more apt to whisper the faults of their neighbors to anybody else, than they are to tell them to the offender himself. An irascible temper, with a secret, unbridled tongue, makes a dangerous friend and a deadly enemy. A tattler is a mortal gangrene upon the vitals of society, for whom no odium is a sufficient punishment.
Had men the moral courage of an infant,—had they the independence and boldness of innocence itself, they would sooner suffer decapitation than breathe to the prejudice of a brother. "Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people." "Debate thy cause with thy neighbor himself, and discover not the secret to another, lest he that hear thee put thee to shame, and thine infamy turn not away." "If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother." (Lev. 19:16; Prov. 25:9, 10; Matt. 18:15)
Nor yet may we treasure up the injury in our own hearts. To conceal the offence in our own bosom, until it festers in the blood and poisons all the fountains of life, is not less at variance with scriptural authority, than is back-biting and retaliation. O! what a bane to human happiness, is an evil cherished in the soul. It bewilders the imagination—it embitters the affections—it corrupts the heart—it perverts the tongue—it palsies the hand—it stifles animation in the birth—it spreads blighting and mildew over the fairest prospects of the community. It is a universal injury. It an injury to the aggrieved—it is an injury to the aggressor—it is an injury to the whole society. "Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him." "Therefore, take heed to thyself, if thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him: if he repent, forgive him." (Lev. 17:17; Luke 17:3)
But what are we to understand by rebuke, in this place? Does it mean to "chastise" the offender? No. Does it mean a harsh and bitter censure? No. Does it mean a severe and unkind accusation,—" rendering railing for railing, and reviling for reviling"? No. It means a mild, a gentle, an earnest, and an affectionate expostulation: adapted to show the offender his fault, in its reality, its enormity, and its sinfulness.
The manner of reproving is clearly defined in the scriptures, as is the duty of it; and men are equally bound to observe the one, as to perform the other. "We may not do evil that good may come." If we are commanded to "rebuke with all authority," (Tit. 2:5) we are also to "reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long suffering and doctrine," (2 Tim. 4:2) and a violation of the latter rule is not less sinful, than is a neglect of the former. "The work of heaven may not be done by a tongue set on fire of hell. Has Christ need of mad men? Or shall we talk deceitfully and passionately for him? As a potion given, too hot scalds the patient and does more harm than good; so, many a reproof, good for the matter of it, has been spoiled by its irregular management." The divine law is, "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye that are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness: considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted." "A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger." (Gal. 6:1; Prov. 15:1)
What object do we seek in reproving a brother? The answer to this question will suggest the rule by which it should be done. Do we aim to convince him of his fault? Do we desire to lead him to repentance? Do we seek to recover him from his error, and to restore him to that place in our confidence and affection, from which, by transgression, he fell? In vain may we attempt the accomplishment of these objects by railing and acrimony. "Bitterness and wrath" are not the instruments with which to perform the works of religion. As latent heat occasions more pain than light, so a violent and sour temper aggravates the wound, rather than mollifies it.
A look of tenderness and pity, from him who said, "learn of me, for I am meek and lowly is heart," broke the spirit of an erring Peter, and " he went out and wept bitterly," (Luke 22:61-62) whereas, the haughtiness of Jeptha involved the tribes in civil war, in which not less than "two and forty thousand" Ephraimites perished. (Judg. 12:1-6) St. Paul states a good rule in all cases of offence, viz: to "instruct" the offender "with meekness"—that is, without anger; and he positively commands that "the servant of the Lord must not strive,"—must not bring a bad spirit to the reclaiming a sinner from the error of his way. (2 Tim. 2:24) "The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God." (James 1:20) If we would do God's work, we must do it in God's way; and that way is, to "reprove with long suffering," and to "restore with meekness."
The apostle refers this question back to ourselves, that from thence also, we may be admonished of our duty to an erring brother, "considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted." He has fallen to-day; thou mayest fall to-morrow. What, if thou thyself wert the offender? Wouldst thou, that he should suffer sin upon thee to thy injury? Wouldst thou, that he should indulge the recollection of it—brooding over it, till he could see nothing good in thee, think nothing good of thee, nor speak anything good concerning thee? Wouldst thou that he should emblazon it abroad, upon the wings of the wind, that all the world might read thy weakness, and hate thee therefore? Wouldst thou that he should approach thee with an air of superiority and vaunting, as though he rejoiced in thy downfall? Or yet with railing and bitterness, with harshness and severity? In the, honesty and candor of your own judgment, were not all this decidedly wrong? Then, be reminded of what is due to him who hath trespassed against thee. "Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." (Math. 7:21)
There is yet an additional consideration that may aid us to understand our duty towards an offender. It rarely fails, in private difficulties, especially if they have been of any considerable standing, that both parties are more or less involved in the blame. Perhaps, our deportment was at first more careless than strict propriety would justify. Perhaps, we ourselves threw some temptation, a "stone of stumbling and a rock of offence," in the way of the transgressor. Perhaps, we were oversensitive, and received an offence where it was not intended. Perhaps, we indulged a needless suspicion, and expressed an unjustifiable doubt of his character and motives. Perhaps, we exhibited undue and untimely censoriousness and resentment, by one or all of which, he was provoked to wrath.
Thus, in a thousand ways, we may have been, unintentionally, accessory to the identical offence of which we now complain. And should not this remind us not to be too rigid and uncompromising? Should it not teach us the utmost forbearance and tenderness? Does it not lay a proper foundation, upon which- to approach him—not with harshness and severity,—but with our own concessions and acknowledgments? Does it not prepare us to be satisfied with the first and slightest marks of genuine repentance? As, on the one hand, there can be no more effectual and felicitous method of exciting feelings of ingenuous sorrow in the heart of the offender, than by approaching him with tenderness and pity,—conceding and regretting, that we ourselves may have been the unfortunate occasion of his sin; so, on the contrary, nothing seems mere unreasonably severe, unjust and oppressive, than harshness and bitterness towards him, whom our own-misdemeanor may really have led into transgression. Reason, religion and common justice enter their claims, and urge us to rebuke with mildness, gentleness and long suffering.
Say not, my brethren, that the offence is one of peculiar aggravation, and that it will be forever impossible to receive adequate reparation. This may be true: but surely it can be no reason why the offender should be denied the best satisfaction in his power. Especially, it can be no reason why we should neglect the positive duty of the text. The magnitude of his crime is no excuse for our sin: – His trespass against us is no apology for our trespass against God. Least of all, may we cherish malice and ill-will in our hearts merely because the full amount of our dues cannot be paid us? We are responsible to God for the performance of his commandments and for their performance in the prescribed manner. Our Lord seemed to anticipate, that partly from this cause, and partly from other considerations, men would be prone to defer the great duty of the text, and therefore, rising in all the majesty of his divine nature, and investing himself with all the authority of the Godhead, he enforced it with peculiar emphasis and caution, "take heed to yourselves, if thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; if he repent, forgive him."
Nor is the question now, as to whose duty it is to make the first approach,—whether his who committed, or his who received the injury. Whatever reason there may be in the ordinary language of men, that "it is the duty of the offender to make the first approach and confess his fault," sure we are, that nothing of this can be found in the sacred scriptures. Throughout, they proceed upon the supposition, that he who hath trespassed against his brother, would not hesitate to sin against his God: and hence their general tenor agrees with the text, and says to the aggrieved, "if thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him,"—" go and tell him his fault between him and thee alone."
Grant that "the offender may already know that he has done wrong." Did he learn this from us, in a direct and friendly effort to bring him to repentance? If he did not, our duty is still unperformed. The object of reproof is not alone to convince the transgressor of sin. It includes in it every reasonable and religious endeavor to lead him to a full and hearty confession of his fault, and an honest and final restoration to that place in our love and confidence, from which he has fallen by reason of transgression. Nor do men act upon the principle involved in this objection, in any of the transactions of life.
Our debtor owes us a large amount, and he already knows it. Nevertheless, if he does not promptly and punctually meet his engagements, we avail ourselves of every lawful measure to bring him to do so. All men know that they are sinners against God, but no Christian considers this a reason why he should not use every possible exertion to lead them with tears and contrition to humble themselves before him, and yield him a faithful service. Thus, notwithstanding thy offending brother may already have a knowledge of his trespass against thee, thou art bound by the law of the text to use every exertion to bring him to repentance. "If he trespass against thee, rebuke him."
Is the disposition of the offender refractory? So much the better reason why we should go to him at once, and why we should observe the greater caution and prudence in our approach. The most adverse spirit may be softened and won by mildness and affection. The meekness and gentleness of Christ,—the long suffering and patience of the gospel,—these are powerful instruments, with which to subdue and tame the ferocious tempers of madmen. He that goes forth from his closet weeping, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless return again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him. "If he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother." Is not this at once a sufficient motive, and a sufficient encouragement, to the most patient and vigorous effort?
If, after all, he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, prudent and pious brethren, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. If still he refuse to harken to their piety and counsel, tell it to the church. If he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. (Math. 18:15-17) Here is the last act, after which alone thou art exonerated. Not until every other expedient has failed, may we bring it to the church. "Every effort that ingenuity can invent, affection prompt, or patience conduct, must be made before it is brought to be investigated by the brethren at large." Nor, until their combined piety, wisdom and counsel have failed to induce his repentance, may we set him at naught, and regard him "as an heathen man and a publican."
My brethren, with what arguments shall we impress this duty upon your minds? You have heard the fame of "faith," by which the ancients subdued kingdoms--wrought righteousness—obtained promises—stopped the mouths of lions—quenched the violence of fire—escaped the edge of the sword—out of weakness were made strong—waxed valiant in fight—turned to flight the armies of the aliens. You have tasted the sweetness of "hope "—immortal hope—hope that comes to all, irradiates the darkness of the tempestuous firmament, and whispers peace to the troubled soul, amid the storms and commotions of life's dangerous voyage. But greater far, and sweeter, is "charity,"—that charity that suffereth long, and yet is kind—charity that beareth all things—charity that believeth all things—charity that hopeth all things—charity that endureth all things--charity that covereth a multitude of sins. "Now abideth faith, hope, charity: and the greatest of these is charity." (1 Cor. 13:13)
And yet we will show you what is better than charity itself, if it only lies concealed in the heart. "Open rebuke is better than secret love." (Prov. 27:5) Here is the climax formed and completed. Faith, hope, charity, open rebuke—these four, and the last is first. Magnify faith as we may,—above it exalt hope,—above hope extol charity,—and yet, "open rebuke is better than secret love." Would you be a faithful Christian? Would you perform the best office to an erring brother? Would you do the best act in the recognition of the Christian religion? Would you promote the glory of God, and the interest of his cause? "Then take heed to yourselves: if thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; if he repent forgive him."