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Matt. xviii. 15–20.

Having duly cautioned His hearers against offending the little ones, Jesus proceeded (according to the account of His words in the Gospel of Matthew) to tell them how to act when they were not the givers, but the receivers or the judges, of offences. In this part of His discourse He had in view the future rather than the present. Contemplating the time when the kingdom — that is, the church — should be in actual existence as an organized community, with the twelve exercising in it authority as apostles, He gives directions for the exercise of discipline, in order to the purity and wellbeing of the Christian brotherhood;333333Matt. xviii. 15-17. Keim views the whole discourse (which he regards as substantially one continuous utterance as recorded in Matt. xviii. with the supplement in the other evangelists) as meant by Jesus to serve the purpose of organizing the disciples into a religious community (Gemeinde in view of His probable death. This piece of work Keim calls Christ’s last Galilean task, and he represents it as in accordance with Christ’s wisdom and love that He attended to the duty the. Vide Geschichte Jesu, ii. 605. confers on the twelve collectively what He had already granted to Peter singly — the power to bind and loose, that is, to inflict and remove church censures;334334Ver. 18. and makes a most encouraging promise of His own spiritual presence, and of prevailing power with His heavenly Father in prayer, to all assembled in His name, and agreeing together in the objects of their desires.335335Vers. 19, 20. His aim throughout is to insure beforehand that the community to be called after His name shall be indeed a holy, loving, united society.

The rules here laid down for the guidance of the apostles in dealing with offenders, though simple and plain, have given rise to much debate among religious controversialist interested in the upholding of diverse theories of church government.336336Persons curious concerning these controversies will find abundant information in Gillespie’s Aaron’s Rod Blossoming. Of these ecclesiastical disputes we shall say nothing here; nor do we deem it needful to offer any expository comments on our Lord’s words, save a sentence of explanation on the phrase employed by Him to describe the state of excommunication: “Let him” (that is, the impenitent brother about to be cast out of the church) “be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” These words, luminous without doubt at the time they were spoken, are not quite so clear to us now; but yet their meaning in the main is sufficiently plain. The idea is, that the persistently impenitent offender is to become at length to the person he has offended, and to the whole church, one with whom is to be held no religious, and as little as possible social fellowship. The religious aspect of excommunication is pointed at by the expression “as an heathen man,” and the social side of it is expressed in the second clause of the sentence, “and a publican.” Heathens were excluded from the temple, and had no part in Jewish religious rites. Publicans were not excluded from the temple, so far as we know; but they were regarded as social pariahs by all Jews affecting patriotism and religious strictness. This indiscriminate dislike of the whole class was not justifiable, nor is any approval of it implied here. Jesus refers to it simply as a familiar matter of fact, which conveniently and clearly conveyed His meaning to the effect: Let the impenitent offender be to you what heathens are to all Jews by law — persons with whom to hold no religious fellowship; and what publicans are to Pharisees by inveterate prejudice — persons to be excluded from all but merely unavoidable social intercourse.”

Whatever obscurity may attach to the letter of the rules for the management of discipline, there can be no doubt at all as to the loving, holy spirit which pervades them.

The spirit of love appears in the conception of the church which underlies these rules. The church is viewed as a commonwealth, in which the concern of one is the concern of all, and vice versa. Hence Jesus does not specify the class of offences He intends, whether private and personal ones, or such as are of the nature of scandals, that is, offences against the church as a whole. On His idea of a church such explanations were unnecessary, because the distinction alluded to in great part ceases to exist. An offence against the conscience of the whole community is an offence against each individual member, because he is jealous for the honor of the body of believers; and on the other hand, an offence which is in the first place private and personal, becomes one in which all are concerned so soon as the offended party has failed to bring His brother to confession and reconciliation. A chronic alienation between two Christian brethren will be regarded, in a church after Christ’s mind, as a scandal not to be tolerated, because fraught with deadly harm to the spiritual life of all.

Very congenial also to the spirit of charity is the order of proceeding indicated in the directions given by Jesus. First, strictly private dealing on the part of the offended with his offending brother is prescribed; then, after such dealing has been fairly tried and has failed, but not till then, third parties are to be brought in as witnesses and assistants in the work of reconciliation; and finally, and only as a last resource, the subject of quarrel is to be made public, and brought before the whole church. This method of procedure is obviously most considerate as towards the offender. It makes confession as easy to him as possible by sparing him the shame of exposure. It is also a method which cannot be worked out without the purest and holiest motives on the part of him who seeks redress. It leaves no room for the reckless talkativeness of the scandalmonger, who loves to divulge evil news, and speaks to everybody of a brother’s faults rather than to the brother himself. It puts a bridle on the passion of resentment, by compelling the offended one to go through a patient course of dealing with his brother before he arrive at the sad issue at which anger jumps at once, viz. total estrangement. It gives no encouragement to the officious and over-zealous, who make themselves busy in ferreting out offences; for the way of such is not to begin with the offender, and then go to the church, but to go direct to the church with severe charges, based probably on hearsay information gained by dishonorable means.

Characteristic of the loving spirit of Jesus, the Head of the church, is the horror with which He contemplates, and would have His disciples contemplate, the possibility of any one, once a brother, becoming to his brethren as a heathen or a publican. This appears in His insisting that no expedient shall be left untried to avert the sad catastrophe. How unlike in this respect is His mind to that of the world, which can with perfect equanimity allow vast multitudes of fellow-men to be what heathens were to Jews, and publicans to Pharisees — persons excluded from all kindly communion! Nay, may we not say, how unlike the mind of Jesus in this matter to that of many even in the church, who treat brethren in the same outward fellowship with most perfect indifference, and have become so habituated to the evil practice, that they regard it without compunction as a quite natural and right state of things!

Such heartless indifferentism implies a very different ideal of the church from that cherished by its Founder. Men who do not regard ecclesiastical fellowship as imposing any obligation to love their Christian brethren, think, consciously or unconsciously, of the church as if it were a hotel, where all kinds of people meet for a short space, sit down together at the same table, then part, neither knowing nor caring any thing about each other; while, in truth, it is rather a family, whose members are all brethren, bound to love each other with pure heart fervently. Of course this hotel theory involves as a necessary consequence the disuse of discipline. For, strange as the idea may seem to many, the law of love is the basis of church discipline. It is because I am bound to take every member of the church to my arms as a brother, that I am not only entitled, but bound, to be earnestly concerned about his behavior. If a brother in Christ, according to ecclesiastical standing, may say to me, “You must love me with all your heart,” I am entitled to say in reply, “I acknowledge the obligation in the abstract, but I demand of you in turn that you shall be such that I can love you as a Christian, however weak and imperfect; and I feel it to be both my right and my duty to do all I can to make you worthy of such brotherly regard, by plain dealing with you anent your offences. I am willing to love you, but I cannot, I dare not, be on friendly terms with your sins; and if you refuse to part with these, and virtually require me to be a partaker in them by connivance, then our brotherhood is at an end, and I am free from my obligations.” To such a language and such a style of thought the patron of the hotel theory of church fellowship is an utter stranger. Disclaiming the obligation to love his brethren, he at the same time renounces the right to insist on Christian virtue as an indispensable attribute of church membership, and declines to trouble himself about the behavior of any member, except in so far as it may affect himself personally. All may think and act as they please — be infidels or believers, sons of God or sons of Belial: it is all one to him.

Holy severity finds a place in these directions, as well as tender, considerate love. Jesus solemnly sanctions the excommunication of an impenitent offender. “Let him,” saith He, with the tone of a judge pronouncing sentence of death, “be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” Then, to invest church censures righteously administered with all possible solemnity and authority, He proceeds to declare that they carry with them eternal consequences; adding in His most emphatic manner the awful words — awful both to the sinner cast out and to those who are responsible for his ejection: “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.” The words may be regarded in one sense as a caution to ecclesiastical rulers to beware how they use a power of so tremendous a character; but they also plainly show that Christ desired His church on earth, as nearly as possible, to resemble the church in heaven: to be holy in her membership, and not an indiscriminate congregation of righteous and unrighteous men, of believers and infidels, of Christians and reprobates; and for that end committed the power of the keys to those who bear office in His house, authorizing them to deliver over to Satan’s thrall the proud, stubborn sinner who refuses to be corrected, and to give satisfaction to the aggrieved consciences of his brethren.

Such rigor, pitiless in appearance, is really merciful to all parties. It is merciful to the faithful members of the church, because it removes from their midst a mortifying limb, whose presence imperils the life of the whole body. Scandalous open sin cannot be tolerated in any society without general demoralization ensuing; least of all in the church, which is a society whose very raison d’être is the culture of Christian virtue. But the apparently pitiless rigor is mercy even towards the unfaithful who are the subjects thereof. For to keep scandalous offenders inside the communion of the church is to do your best to damn their souls, and to exclude them ultimately from heaven. On the other hand, to deliver them over to Satan may be, and it is to be hoped will be, but giving them a foretaste of hell now that they may be saved from hell-fire forever. It was in this hope that Paul insisted on the excommunication of the incestuous person from the Corinthian church, that by the castigation of his fleshly sin “his spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” It is this hope which comforts those on whom the disagreeable task of enforcing church censures falls in the discharge of their painful duty. They can cast forth evil-doers from the communion of saints with less hesitation, when they know that as “publicans and sinners” the excommunicated are nearer the kingdom of God than they were as church members, and when they consider that they are still permitted to seek the good of the ungodly, as Christ sought the good of all the outcasts of His day; that it is still in their power to pray for them, and to preach to them, as they stand in the outer court of the Gentiles, though they may not put into their unholy hands the symbols of the Saviour’s body and blood.

Such considerations, indeed, would go far to reconcile those who are sincerely concerned for the spiritual character of the church, and for the safety of individual souls, to very considerable reductions of communion rolls. There cannot be a doubt that, if church discipline were upheld with the efficiency and vigor contemplated by Christ, such reductions would take place on an extensive scale. It is indeed true that the purging process might be carried to excess, and with very injurious effects. Tares might be mistaken for wheat, and wheat for tares. The church might be turned into a society of Pharisees, thanking God that they were not as other men, or as the poor publicans who stood without, hearing and praying, but not communicating; while among those outside the communion rails might be not only the unworthy, but many timid ones who dared not come nigh, but, like the publican of the parable, could only stand afar off, crying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” yet all the while were justified rather than the others. A system tending to bring about such results is one extreme to be avoided. But there is another yet more pernicious extreme still more sedulously to be shunned: a careless laxity, which allows sheep and goats to be huddled together in one fold, the goats being thereby encouraged to deem themselves sheep, and deprived of the greatest benefit they can enjoy — the privilege of being spoken to plainly as “unconverted sinners.”

Such unseemly mixtures of the godly and the godless are too common phenomena in these days. And the reason is not far to seek. It is not indifference to morality, for that is not generally a characteristic of the church in our time. It is the desire to multiply members. The various religious bodies value members still more than morality or high-toned Christian virtue, and they fear lest by discipline they may lose one or two names from their communion roll. The fear is not without justification. Fugitives from discipline are always sure of an open door and a hearty welcome in some quarter. This is one of the many curses entailed upon us by that greatest of all scandals, religious division. One who has become, or is in danger of becoming, as a heathen man and a publican to one ecclesiastical body, has a good chance of becoming a saint or an angel in another. Rival churches play at cross purposes, one loosing when another binds; so doing their utmost to make all spiritual sentences null and void, both in earth and heaven, and to rob religion of all dignity and authority. Well may libertines pray that the divisions of the church may continue, for while these last they fare well! Far otherwise did it fare with the like of them in the days when the church was catholic and one; when sinners repenting worked their way, in the slow course of years, from the locus lugentium outside the sanctuary, through the locus audientium and the locus substratorum to the locus fidelium: in that painful manner learning what an evil and a bitter thing it is to depart from the living God.337337See Bingham’s Origines Ecclesiasticæ for an account of the ancient church discipline.

The promise made to consent in prayer338338Matt. xviii. 19, 20 comes in appropriately in a discourse delivered to disciples who had been disputing who should be the greatest. In this connection the promise means: “So long as ye are divided by dissensions and jealousies, ye shall be impotent alike with men and with God; in your ecclesiastical procedure as church rulers, and in your supplications at the throne of grace. But if ye be united in mind and heart, ye shall have power with God, and shall prevail: my Father will grant your requests, and I myself will be in the midst of you.”

It is not necessary to assume any very close connection between this promise and the subject of which Jesus had been speaking just before. In this familiar discourse transition is made from one topic to another in an easy conversational manner, care being taken only that all that is said shall be relevant to the general subject in hand. The meeting, supposed to be convened in Christ’s name, need not therefore be one of church officers assembled for the transaction of ecclesiastical business: it may be a meeting, in a church or in a cottage, purely for the purposes of worship. The promise avails for all persons, all subjects of prayer, all places, and all times; for all truly Christian assemblies great and small.

The promise avails for the smallest number that can make a meeting — even for two or three. This minimum number is condescended on for the purpose of expressing in the strongest possible manner the importance of brotherly concord. Jesus gives us to understand that two agreed are better, stronger, than twelve or a thousand divided by enmities and ambitious passions. “The Lord, when He would commend unanimity and peace to His disciples, said, ‘If two of you shall agree on earth,’ etc., to show that most is granted not to the multitude, but to the concord of the supplicants.”339339Cyprianus, De Unitate Ecclesiæ. It is an obvious inference, that if by agreement even two be strong, then a multitude really united in mind would be proportionally stronger. For we must not fancy that God has any partiality for a little meeting, or that there is any virtue in a small number. Little strait sects are apt to fall into this mistake, and to imagine that Christ had them specially in His eye when He said two or three, and that the kind of agreement by which they are distinguished — agreement in whim and crotchet — is what He desiderated. Ridiculous caricature of the Lord’s meaning! The agreement He requires of His disciples is not entire unanimity in opinion, but consent of mind and heart in the ends they aim at, and in unselfish devotion to these ends. When He spake of two or three, He did not contemplate, as the desirable state of things, the body of His church split up into innumerable fragments by religious opinionativeness, each fragment in proportion to its minuteness imagining itself sure of His presence and blessing. He did not wish His church to consist of a collection of clubs having no intercommunion with each other, any more than He desired it to be a monster hotel, receiving and harboring all comers, no questions being asked. He made the promise now under consideration, not to stimulate sectarianism, but to encourage the cultivation of virtues which have ever been too rare on earth — brotherly-kindness, meekness, charity. The thing He values, in a word, is not paucity of numbers, due to the want of charity, but union of hearts in lowly love among the greatest number possible.

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