Written in 1822.
I. The first duty, and that which indeed seems to include every other, is LOVE. The stress which is laid on this in the Word of God, both as it respects the manner in which it is stated, and the frequency with which it is enjoined, sufficiently proves its vast importance in the Christian character, and its powerful influence on the communion of believers. It is enforced by our Lord as the identifying law of his kingdom. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12. By this we learn that the subjects of Christ are to be known and distinguished among men, by their mutual affection. This injunction is denominated the new commandment of the Christian economy; not that love was no duty before the coming of Christ—but it is now placed more prominently among the duties of believers; is urged on fresh grounds, enforced by a more perfect example, and constrained by stronger motives. The dispensation of Jesus Christ is a system of most wonderful, most mysterious grace; it is the manifestation, commendation, and perfection of divine love. It originated in the love of the Father, and is accomplished by the love of the Son. Jesus Christ was an incarnation of love in our world. Jesus was love living, breathing, speaking, acting, among men. His birth was the nativity of love! His teachings were the words of love! His miracles were the wonders of love! His tears were the meltings of love! His crucifixion was the agonies of love! His resurrection was the triumph of love! Hence it was natural, that love should be the cardinal virtue in the character of his people, and that it should be the law which regulates their conduct towards each other. And it is worthy of remark, that He has made his love to us, not only the motive of our love to each other—but the pattern of our love to each other. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you, John 15:17.
Let us for our instruction dwell upon the properties of the love of Jesus, that we might know what should be the characteristics of our own. His love was real and greataffection, and not a mere nominal one—so let us love, not in word and in tongue only—but also in deed and in truth. His love was free and unselfish, without any regard to our deserts—so ours should be independent of any regard to our own advantage. His love was fruitful unto tears, and agonies, and blood, and death—so should ours in everything that can establish the comfort of each other. His was a love of forbearance and forgiveness—so should ours be. His love was purely a spiritual flame; not loving them as rational creatures merely—but as objects of divine affection, and subjects of divine likeness. His love was unchangeable notwithstanding our weaknesses and unkindnesses—thus are we bound to love one another, and continue unalterable in our affection to each other, in spite of all those little infirmities of character and conduct which we daily discover in our fellow Christians.
The Apostles echoed the language of their Master, and continually enjoined the churches which they had planted, to love one another, and to let brotherly love abound and increase. It is a grace so important that, like holiness, no measure of it is sufficient to satisfy the requirement of the Word of God. Love is the basis, and cement, and beauty of the Christian union. The church where love is lacking, whatever may be the number or gifts of its members—is nothing better than a heap of stones, which, however polished, lack the coherence and similitude of a palace.
In the best and purest ages of the church, this virtue shone so brightly in the character of its members, was so conspicuous in all their conduct, was expressed in actions so replete with noble, unselfish, and heroic affection—as to become a proverb with surrounding pagans, and call forth the well known exclamation, “See how these Christians love one another!” A finer eulogium was never pronounced on the Christian church; a more valuable tribute was never deposited on the altar of Christianity. Alas! that it should so soon have ceased to be just, and that the church, as it grew older, should have lost its loveliness by—losing its love.
But it will be necessary to point out the MANNER in which brotherly love, wherever it exists, will operate.
1. Love to our brethren will lead us to a special DELIGHT in them, viewed as the objects of divine love.
Delight is the very essence of love! And the ground of all proper delight which Christians have for each other—is their relation and likeness to God. We should feel peculiar delight in each other as fellow heirs of the grace of God; partakers of like precious faith, and joint sharers of the common salvation. We must be dear to each other as the objects of the Father’s mercy, of the Son’s dying grace, and of the Spirit’s sanctifying influence. The love of Christians is of a very sacred nature, and is quite peculiar. It is not the love of close relatives, or friendship, or interest, or general esteem—but it is an affection cherished for Christ’s sake! They may see many things in each other to admire, such as an amiable temper, a servant’s heart, tender sympathy—but Christian love does not rest on these things, although they may increase it—but on the ground of a common relationship to Christ. On this account they are to take peculiar delight in each other, as being one in Christ. “These,” should a believer exclaim, as he looks on the church, “are the objects of the Redeemer’s living and dying love, whom he regards with delight; and out of affection to him, I feel an inexpressible delight in them. I love to associate with them, to talk with them, to look upon them—because they are Christ’s!”
2. Love to our brethren will lead us to BEAR ONE ANOTHER’S BURDENS, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Gal. 6:2.
When we see them oppressed with a weight of anxious care, instead of carrying ourselves with cold indifference and unfeeling distance towards them, we should cherish a tender solicitude to know and relieve their difficulties. How touching would such a salutation as the following be, from one Christian to another, “Brother, I have observed, with considerable pain, that your countenance has been covered with gloom, as if you were sinking under some inward solicitude. I would not be unpleasantly intrusive, nor wish to obtrude myself upon your attention, farther than is agreeable—but I offer you the expressions of Christian sympathy, and the assistance of Christian counsel. Can I in any way assist to mitigate your care, and restore your tranquility?” At such sounds, the crushed heart would feel as if half its load were gone. It may be, the kind inquirer could yield no effectual relief—but there is balm in the mere expression of his sympathy.
The indifference of some professing Christians to the burdens of their brethren is shocking; they would see them crushed to the very earth with cares and sorrows, and never make one kind inquiry into their situation, nor lend a helping hand to lift them from the dust. Love requires that we should take the deepest interest in each other’s concerns, that we should patiently listen to the tale of woe which a brother brings us, that we should mingle our tears with his, that we should offer him our advice, that we should suggest to him the consolations of the gospel. In short, we should let him see that his troubles reach not only our ear—but our heart.SYMPATHY is one of the finest, the most natural, the most easy expressions of love.
3. Love requires that we should VISIT our brethren in their affliction.
“I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came unto me—for as much as you did it unto the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me!” Such is the language of Jesus to his people, by which he teaches us how important and incumbent a duty it is for church members to visit each other in their afflictions. Probably there is no duty more neglected than this. Christians often lie on beds of sickness for weeks and months successively, without seeing a fellow member cross the threshold of their chamber door. How often have I been shocked, when upon inquiring of the sufferer whether any fellow Christians residing in their neighborhood had been to visit them, it had been said in reply, “Oh! no, sir, I have now been stretched on this bed for days and weeks. My pain and weakness have been so great, that I have scarcely been able to collect my thoughts for meditation and prayer. The sight of a dear Christian friend would indeed have relieved the dull monotony of this gloomy scene, and the voice of piety would have been as music to blunt my sense of pain, and lull my troubled heart to some repose—but such a sight and such a sound have been denied me. No friend has been near me, and it has aggravated sorrows, already heavy, to be thus neglected and forgotten by a church, which I joined with the hope of finding among them the comfort of sympathy. But alas! alas! I find them too much occupied with the seen and temporal things, to think of a suffering brother, to whom wearisome nights and months of vanity are appointed!”
How could I help exclaiming, “O, Christian love, bright image of the Savior’s heart! where have you fled, that you so rarely visit the church on earth, to shed your influence, and manifest your beauties there?” There have been ages of Christianity—so historians inform us—in which brotherly love prevailed among Christians to such a degree, that, fearless of the infection diffused by the most malignant and contagious diseases, they have ventured to the bedside of their brethren expiring in the last stages of the plague, to administer the consolations of a immortal hope. This was love; love stronger than death, and which many waters could not quench. It was no doubt imprudent—but it was heroic, and circulated far and wide the praises of that dear name which was the secret of the wonder.
How many are there, now bearing the Christian name, who scarcely ever yet paid one visit to the bed side of a suffering brother! Shame and disgrace upon such professors!! Let them not expect to hear the Savior say, “I was sick and you visited me.”
That this branch of Christian love may be performed with greater diligence, it would be a good plan for the pastor, at every church meeting, to mention the names of the afflicted members, and stir up the brethren to visit them. It would be particularly desirable for Christians to go to the scene of suffering on a Sabbath day, and read the Bible and sermons to the afflicted, at that time, as they are then peculiarly apt to feel their sorrows, in consequence of being cut off from the enjoyments of public worship.
4. “PRAY one for another.” James 5:16.
Not only with—but for one another. A Christian should take the interests of his brethren into the closet. Private devotion is not to be selfish devotion. It would much increase our affection for others, did we devote more of our private prayers to each other’s welfare.
5. FINANCIAL RELIEF should be administered to those who need it.
“Distributing to the necessities of the saints,” Rom. 12:13, is mentioned among the incumbent duties of professing Christians. How just, how forcible is the interrogation of the Apostle, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” 1 John 3:17. Nothing can be more absurd than those pretensions to love, which are not supported by exertions to relieve the needs of the object beloved. It is a very peculiar affection—which is destitute of showing mercy to the object of affection. So powerfully did this holy passion operate in the first ages of the church, that many rich Christians sold their estates, and shared their affluence with the poor. What rendered this act the more remarkable is, that it was purely voluntary. It is not our duty any more than it was theirs, to go this length; still, however, it is evident both from general principles as well as from particular precepts, that we are under obligation to make some provision for the comfort of the poor and needy. This duty must be left in the statement of general terms, as it is impossible to define its precise limits. It does not appear to me to be at all incumbent to make regular periodical distributions to the poor, whether in circumstances of distress or not. Some churches have a registered list of pensioners, who come as regularly for their pay, as if they were hired servants. If they are old, infirm, of unprovided for, this is very well—but for those to receive support, who are getting a comfortable subsistence by their labor, is an abuse of the charity of the church. The money collected at the Lord’s supper, should be reserved for times of sickness and peculiar necessity.
It should be recollected, also, that public contributions do not release the members from the exercise of private liberality. The shilling a month which is given at the sacrament, seems, in the opinion of many, to discharge them from all further obligation to provide for the comfort of their poorer brethren, and to be a sort of excuse for the further exercise of charity to others in need. This is a great mistake; it ought rather to be considered as a mere pledge of all that more effective and abundant liberality which they should exercise in secret. Every Christian who is indulged with a considerable share of the bounties of Providence ought to consider the poorer members of the church, who may happen to live in his neighborhood, as the objects of his peculiar care, interest, and relief.
6. PATIENCE is a great part of love.
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Ephes. 4:2. In a Christian church, especially where it is of considerable magnitude, we must expect to find a very great diversity of character. There are all the gradations of intellect, and all the varieties of disposition and temperament. In such cases, great patience is absolutely essential to the preservation of harmony and peace. The strong must bear with the infirmities of the weak. Christians of great attainments in knowledge should not in their hearts despise, nor in their conduct ridicule, the feeble conceptions of those who are babes in Christ—but most meekly correct their errors, and most kindly instruct their ignorance. This is love.
In very many people there will unhappily be found some things, which, although they by no means affect the reality and sincerity of their piety, considerably diminish its luster, and have a tendency, without the caution of love, to disturb our communion with them. Some have a forward and obtrusive manner; others are talkative; others indulge a complaining, whining, begging disposition; others are abrupt, almost to rudeness, in their address. These, and many more, are the spots of God’s children—with which we are sometimes so much displeased, as to feel an alienation of heart from the subjects of them, although we have no doubt of their real piety. Now here is room for the exercise of love. These are the cases in which we are to employ that love which covers all things. Are we to love only amiable Christians? Perhaps, after all, in the substantial parts of religion, these rough characters far excel others, whom courtesy and amiableness have carried to the highest degree of polish. I do not say we are to love these individuals for their peculiarities and infirmities—but in spite of them. Not on their own account—but for Christ’s sake, to whom they belong. And what can be a greater proof of our affection for him, than to love an unlovely individual, on Christ’s account?
If you had the picture of a valued friend, would you withdraw from it your affection, and throw it away, because there was a spot upon the canvass, which in some degree disfigured the painting? No you would say, it is a likeness of my friend still, and I love it, notwithstanding its imperfection. The believer is a picture of your best Friend—and will you discard him, neglect him, because there is a speck upon the painting?
7. Love should induce us to WATCH over one another.
Am I my brother’s keeper? was an inquiry suitable enough in the lips of a murderer—but most unsuitable and inconsistent from a Christian. We are brought into fellowship for the very purpose of being keepers of each other. We are to watch over our brethren—and admonish and reprove them as circumstances may require. I do not mean that church members should pry into each other’s secrets, or be busy bodies in other men’s matters—for that is forbidden by God and abominable in the sight of man. 1 Thess. 3:11. 1 Pet. 4:15. Much less are they to assume authority over each other, and act the part of proud and tyrannical inquisitors. But still we are to “exhort one another daily, lest any be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” We are not to allow sin to be committed, or duty to be omitted by a brother, without affectionately admonishing him. What can be more incumbent, more obligatory, than this? Can we indeed love anyone, and at the same time see him do that which we know will injure him—without entreating him to desist? “Brethren, if any man is overtaken in a fault, you which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness.” Gal. 6:1.
Let us then take heed against that Cain-like spirit which is too prevalent in our churches, and which leads many to act as if their fellow-members were no more to them than the stranger at the ends of the earth. Striking are the words of God to the Jews, “Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.” Lev. 19:17. Not to rebuke him, then, when he sins, is, instead of loving him—to hate him. This neglect is what the apostle means by being partakers of other men’s sins. The admonition to “warn the unruly,” 1 Thess. 5:14. was delivered not merely to ministers—but to private Christians.
I know no duty more neglected than this. It is one of the most prevailing defects of Christians. Many a backslider would have been prevented from going far astray, if, in the very first stages of his declension, some brother, who had observed his critical state, had faithfully and affectionately warned and admonished him. What shame, and anguish, and disgrace, would the offender himself have been spared, and what dishonor and scandal would have been averted from the church—by this one act of faithful love!
I am aware it is a difficult and self-denying duty—but that cannot excuse its neglect. Love will enable us to perform it—and the neglect of it violates the law of Christ.
II. Christians 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. 3:11. “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. Christians should be SUBJECT one to another in humility. ”Likewise, you younger men, submit yourselves unto those who are older. Yes, 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 others. 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 people 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 godly disciple, old enough to be his grandfather? Youth loses its loveliness when it loses its humility. 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 biblical principle would let them, in giving up their own views and personal biases, to the rest of the group. Everyone should hearken with respectful attention to the opinions of others, and be willing to sacrifice his own personal opinion. 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 any one 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, unity, 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 churches, 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. “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” Romans 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 people are crude, dogmatic, or imprudent; 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 that love which is kind, courteous, and civil. A Christian should be ever afraid of giving offence; he should be 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, if possible, to never be the occasion a moment’s pain in another. For this purpose he should be kind, 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 neighbors.
We should all be backward to RECEIVE offence. Quarrels often begin for lack of the caution I have just stated—and are then continued because people are too quick to take offence. An observance of these two principles would keep the world in peace. There are some people whose passions are like cotton—kindled into a blaze in a moment by the least spark which has been purposely or accidentally thrown upon it. A word, or a look—is in some cases quite enough to be considered a very serious injury! It is no uncommon thing for such people to excuse themselves on the ground that their ‘feelings are so delicate’—that they are offended by the least touch. This is a 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, irritable and peevish! Delicate feelings!! In plain English, this means that they are petulant, irritable and peevish! I would like to have a sign hung around the neck of such people–and it would be this, “Beware of the dog!”
We should never allow 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 would find that many hurtful things were done by mistake, which we are prone to attribute to design. How often do we violate that love which thinks no evil, and which imperatively demands of us to attribute a good motive to another’s conduct—until a bad motive 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 allow the least emotion of anger to be indulged; and even then, when we have proved that the offence was committed on purpose, let us next ask ourselves whether it is necessary to notice it. What wise man will think it worth while, 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 communion 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, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” Matthew 18:15.
Many people 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 forever 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 godliness. 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 farther and wider, exaggerated and swelled by those circumstances, which every gossip through whose hands it passes, chooses to add to the original account, until, in process of time, it comes round 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 passed our lips on the subject to a third person! 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 people have received a supposed offence, they will endeavor 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 he starts to ferret into holes and corners for evidence, it will be sure to excite indignation and disgust. No! the offended party should go to to the supposed offender 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.
People, whose ears are ever open to catch slanders and gossip, should be avoided as the plague; they are the mischief-makers and quarrel-mongers, and are the 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 hearts and manner. We should dip our very tongue in the fountain of love! Every feeling of anger, every look of anger, 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 humbly ask him if it the report is correct. All attempts to extort confession by threatenings should be avoided; and instead of these, nothing should be employed but the appeals of wisdom—and the gentle persuasions of love. If we succeed in this 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 demeanor 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 asmediators, 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 long, before 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 godly mind to confess an error, and solicit its forgiveness. “Confess your faults one to another,” 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 people, so far forgetful of their obligations to Christ and to their brethren, as not only to refuse to make concession—but even to give excuses for their sinful behavior. 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 discipline 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 endeavor to show him, that his offence is more against Christ than against ourselves.
When suitable acknowledgments are made, the act of 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 anger, neither give place to the devil.” Ephes. 4:26, 27. If we allow 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—himself! The word revenge should be blotted from the Christian’s vocabulary by the tears which he sheds for his own offences. How can an merciless Christian repeat that petition of our Lord’s prayer, “Forgive me my trespasses—as I forgive those who trespass against me?” Does he forget that if he uses such language while he is living in a state of resentment against a 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! “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave 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 your twenty thousand sins! Go in imagination to the brink of the bottomless pit, and as you hearken to the howlings of the damned, remember that those howlings might have been your! Then go to the cross, and while you look on the bleeding victim who is nailed to it, hearken to the accents of mercy which breathe like soft music in your ear, “Go in peace, your sins are all forgiven you!” What, will you, can you return from such scenes, with purposes of revenge? No! Impossible!
An implacable, merciless 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, a devout murderer!” (Grosvenor’s most touching sermon on the “Temper of Jesus”)
“The last step in reclaiming an offender, is to bring him before the assembled church. “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Matthew 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 is 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. Before a public inquiry takes place, the pastor should be made acquainted with the matter; who, if he possess the confidence and affection of his people, will have sufficient influence, at least in all ordinary cases, to terminate the difference in an amicable manner. It is best to settle it even without his interference, if possible—but it is better to consult him in every case, before the affair is submitted to the last tribunal.
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 communion of the world—but not for the fellowship of the saints. There is no actual strife between the tenants of the sepulcher—but the cold and gloomy stillness of a church-yard 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 forgetfulness. Other causes of disagreement may exist, and fresh feuds arise—but the old one is dead and buried, and its angry spirit 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, dishonorable, unchristian, and mischievous.
Every Christian should bear reproof with meekness. Few know how to give reproof with propriety, still fewer how to receive reproof. “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.” 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. The scripture is very severe in its language to those who turn with neglect, anger or disgust from the admonitions of their brethren. “He who despises reproof, sins.” Prov. 10:17. “He who hates reproof is brutish.” Prov. 12:1. “He who is often reproved, and yet hardens his neck, shall be suddenly destroyed, and that without remedy.” Prov. 29:1. Such people 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.
3. 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 people 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 and rumors 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 advantageous 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 excellences as matter 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 feast and luxuriate on the loathsome sore.
In the case of tattling there are generally three parties to blame; there is first the tattler, then the person who is weak enough to listen to the tales; and lastly, the individual who is the subject of the gossip, who allows 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 personal 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 think, 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 tattlers. In company, let us always discourage and repress such conversation. Talkers know where to find a market for their stuff; and like poachers and smugglers, who never carry their contraband articles to the house of an tax-man, they never offer their reports to an individual who, they know, would reprove them in the name of Jesus.
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 gossip, easily find, or attempt to find, a disguise for their ‘backbiting disposition’ in affected lamentations. ”What a pity it is,” they exclaim, “that brother B. should have behaved so badly. Poor man, I am so sorry for him. The petulance of his temper is exceedingly to be regretted. He much dishonors the church.” “And then,” replies a 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 circles of even good people, under the guise of lamentation for the sins of others.
“Odious and disgusting cant!” would a noble and honorable 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.” “Nothing very substantiated—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? Yes—but then the story would have been abolished 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 communion. 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 people 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 financial 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!
III. Besides these things, there are duties which Christians owe to the church in its COLLECTIVE capacity.
1. They are bound to take a deep interest in its concerns, and to seek its prosperity by all lawful means. Everyone should feel that he has a personal share in the welfare of the society. He should consider that, having selected that particular community with which he is associated, as his religious home, he is under a solemn obligation to promote, by every proper effort, its real interest. He is to be indifferent to nothing which at any time affects its prosperity. Some members, from the moment they have joined a Christian church, take no concern in any of its affairs. They scarcely ever attend a church meeting; they know neither who are excluded, nor who are received. If members are added, they express no delight; if none are admitted, they feel no grief. They fill up their places at the table of the Lord, and in the house of God; and beyond this, seem to have nothing else to do with the church. This is a most criminal apathy! A Christian ought to be as tremblingly alive to the welfare of the church to which he is united—as he is to the success of his worldly affairs.
2. They are bound to attend all the meetings of the church, at least so far as their circumstances will allow. They had better be absent from sermons and prayer-meetings, than from these. How can they know the state of the church, if they are not present when its affairs are exhibited and arranged? or how can they exercise that proper confidence in the piety of the brethren, which is essential to fellowship, if they are absent at the time of their admission?
3. They should most conscientiously devote their gifts, graces and abilities to the service of the church, in an orderly and modest way; neither obtruding their assistance when it is not required, nor withholding it when it is solicited. Those who have gifts of prayer, should not be backward to exercise them for the edification of their brethren. Those who have penetration and sound judgment, should render their counsel and advice upon every occasion. People of large and respectable temporal means may often use their influence with great benefit to the temporal affairs of the church.
And there is one line of charitable exertion, which would be peculiarly beneficial, and which has been too much neglected in all our societies; I mean the practice ofrespectable members reading the Scriptures, religious tracts, and sermons—in the habitations of the poor. I am aware that this is an age when many run to and fro, and when lay preaching is carried to a very improper and mischievous extent. Some who have no other qualification for preaching than boldness and ignorance, are every Sabbath employed, of whom it might be said, that, it is a pity they have not the gift of silence. Unfortunately, those who are most qualified, are frequently least disposed; while the least qualified, are frequently the most zealous. But how many wise, judicious, holy men, are there in our churches, who would be most honorably and most usefully employed, in reading the words of life, and short evangelical sermons, in the cottages of the poor! Let a convenient house be selected, and the neighbors invited to attend—and who can tell what vast benefit would accrue from such a scheme? By the blessing of God upon these efforts, reformation would be wrought in the lower classes; religion would gain an entrance where it could be introduced by no other means, and our churches be replenished with holy, consistent members. People of respectable circumstances in life, especially, should thus employ themselves, as their situation gives them greater influence. Females may be thus engaged, without transgressing either against the injunction of the apostle, or the modesty which is so becoming their sex. I am astonished that means of usefulness so simple, so easy, and so efficient, are not more generally employed.
4. It is due to the authority of the church, that every member should cordially submit to its discipline. Without this, order would be destroyed, and the reign of anarchy introduced. This, indeed, as we have already considered, is essentially implied in the very act of joining the church—and no one ought to think of such an act of union, who is not determined to submit to its rules and its decisions.