[By Alexander Campbell, with words emphasized in bold by Scott Shifferd Jr.]
IN the preceding essays under this head, we have paid some attention to the nature of private and public offences, and to some of the general principles which are to be regarded in our treatment of them. We have also had occasion to call up to the attention of our readers some prevailing defects in the morality of Christians, which are not generally taken cognizance of in any of the modern establishments. In our last we spoke of the deep solicitude for the restoration of a delinquent, and long continued forbearance which Christians are to exhibit towards him, for his ultimate recovery from the snare of the wicked one. But, while recommending to the consideration of our brethren the christian propriety and expediency of exercising much long suffering towards transgressors, and all mildness in our efforts to reclaim them from the error of their way, we must imitate the conduct of one, who, while attempting to pull another out of the fire, has to use the greatest caution lest the flame seize his own garments. Jude says, “Have compassion indeed on some transgressors; but others save by fear, snatching them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh”. There is to be no conformity to the obliquity of the transgressor to reclaim him. We are not to drink a little with the drunkard, nor to tattle a little with the tattler, nor to detract with the slanderer, in order to convert them from the error of their way. While we show all tenderness for their persons, and all solicitude for their complete and perpetual felicity, we are not to show the least partiality for their faults, or a disposition to diminish aught from the malignity of their trespasses. We ought to lay their sins before them in all their true colors, without extenuation or apology; while we beseech and entreat them to abandon every sinful and pernicious way. There is often too much care taken to diminish from, and make excuses for an immoral or unchristian act. Hence we cheapen offence in the eyes of those who were wont to regard it in a much more heinous point of view. To show all willingness to restore him that is overtaken in a fault, and at the same time to exhibit the most unmingled detestation of the fault, crime, or whatever it may be called, is just the point to be gained by all those who aspire to the character of perfect men in Christ Jesus.
Indeed there cannot be too much circumspection exercised over the conduct of all those with whom we fraternize in the kingdom of Jesus. Many of those in all countries who profess the christian religion, are extremely ignorant of the dignity of their profession, and they are too familiar with the low, mean, and demoralizing converse of the world. Many of them, too, are altogether uncultivated in their minds and manners, and so completely enchased in penury and ignorance, as to preclude the hope of much mental enlargement or improvement, except from the sheer influences of reading and hearing the oracles of God. Christianity can, and does, impart a seal dignity and elevation to all who cordially embrace it. The poor and the unlettered become not only tolerable but agreeable members of the christian community; and while they are commanded to rejoice in that they are exalted, the rich and the learned in this world who rejoice in that they are made low, can most cordially congratulate them on their promotion to the rank of sons of God. But there must not be, for indeed there cannot be, any insolence, haughtiness, or superciliousness amongst those who are all made one in the kingdom of Jesus, arising from any of the relations which exist in the frame and government of this world. The virtuous, poor, and unlettered christian, who is walking in truth, is just as honorable and exalted in the estimation of all the inhabitants of the upper world, as those who, from circumstances beyond their creation, have ranked higher and been more adored by a mistaken and ill-judging world. Piety and pure morality constitute the only nobility in the kingdom of heaven.
It is, too, a happy circumstance in the original development and exhibition of Christianity, which must eternally echo the praise of its founder, that the scene of its perfecting purity is laid rather below, than at, or above mediocrity, as respects all earth-born distinction. While but a few of the rich, the learned, and the noble, were honored with a place amongst the heirs of immortality, the poor and the unlettered constituted not only the great mass of the army of the faithful; but all the captains, commanders, generals, and chiefs were of the most common class of society. So that the history and biography of the New Testament present the most astonishing spectacle ever seen before–the poorest and most illiterate of men, shining in wisdom and purity, which cast into an eternal shade the wisdom and morality of all the sages and moralists of the pagan world. It thus adapts itself to the great mass of society, and proves its superlative excellence in giving a moral polish and lustre to that great body of men which all other systems had proved ineffectual to renovate, to improve, of even to restrain.
Now this great improvement is not the effect of good laws, but of good examples. No system of policy, no code of laws could have at first effected it, or can effect it now. The living model of the glorious chief, the living example of his immediate disciples, and the example of the disciples in their associated capacity, give the first impulse. The continued watchfulness of the brotherhood and their affectionate regard for the welfare of one another, operate like the laws of attraction in the material system. But not only the happiness of the society, but also its usefulness in the world, depend chiefly upon this care and watchfulness of the members of the body, one over and for another. Nothing has ever given so much weight to the christian arguments as the congenial lives of those who profess them. On the other hand, nothing has defeated the all-subduing plea of speculative Christianity (as it may be called) so much as the discordant lives of those who profess to believe it. Had it not been for this one drawback, Christianity this day had known no limits on this side of the most distant home of man.
Now we must admit that in no age, the primitive age of Christianity not excepted, have all who have professed it acted up to its requirements. Many have apostatized from its profession altogether, and many who have not acted so flagitiously as to exclude them from the name, have, even in the estimation of their own friends, forfeited the character of real believers. Paul wept over the lives of such professors, and deplored their profession as more inimical to the doctrine of the cross than the avowed hostility of the open enemies of Christianity. The hardened skeptic (for such there are who hate the light) rejoices over the flaws and blemishes of Christians as the shamble fly over the putrid specks in the dead carcass. He feasts and fattens in his infidelity upon the moral corruptions of those who in deeds, deny the Saviour. And as the heavenly messengers rejoice more over one sinner that reforms, than over ninety-nine just persons who need no reformation; so he rejoices more over one christian that apostatizes, than over the wickedness of ninety-nine profligates who never professed the faith. Now as a real christian would be the last in theory or in practice to afford him such a feast, so let every christian watch over his brethren, that none of them may either comfort the wicked or afflict the saints–that none of them ma encourage the unbelieving, or cause the faithful to drop a tear over his fall.
So long as a man evidently desires to please Christ, whatever we may think of his opinions, we are to love him as a brother. But when he evidently departs from his law, and tramples upon the authority of the Great King, we must exclude him.
There are some who talk of forgiving their brethren when they transgress. This is a mode of expression which is to be used with great caution. When a brother trespasses against a brother, he that has received the injury may, and ought to forgive the injurious, when he acknowledges his fault. But when a man publicly offends against Christ, (for example, gets drunk,) his brethren cannot forgive him. There is no such power lodged in their hands. How then are they to be reconciled to him as a brother, and receive him as such? When they believe, or have reason to believe that God has forgiven him. But how is this to be ascertained? When any christian has been overtaken in a fault, repents of it, confesses it, and asks forgiveness for it, we have reason to believe that he is pardoned. “For if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins; and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.” Whenever, we have reason to believe that our Heavenly Father has forgiven our brother, we cannot avoid forgiving him, and receiving him, because God has received him. And if he has kindly and graciously received him, how much more we, who are also polluted, and in the same hazard of falling while in the body. This then is the rule and reason in all disciplinary proceedings, against offenders:–When their penitence is so manifest as to authorize us to consider them as received into the kingdom of God, we must receive them into our favor, and treat them as though they had not transgressed. And here it may be observed, that the more frequently a brother transgresses, it will be the more difficult for us to know that he has repented; and it may be so often as to preclude, in ordinary cases, all hope of his restoration. But before there has been any fall, it is much easier to prevent than to restore; and therefore, in all Christian congregations, prayer for one another, and watchfulness, with all love and tenderness, will, than all other means, do more to prevent faults and failings in our brethren.