DEVELOPMENT OF THE SCRIPTURAL
PRINCIPLES UPON WHICH IT IS BASED.
IT is the Saviour?s will of precept that the constituents of His churches shall be regenerated persons. He authorizes none to receive the ordinance of Baptism, and to have a lot among His visible people, but those who believe with the heart that He is the Son of God. His churches, however, are not composed of perfect beings. Men of passions and infirmities, of prejudices and defective knowledge,?frequently of discordant tastes and conflicting worldly interests,?are congregated together, and organized into visible local societies. In these circumstances, it must needs be that offences come. The influence of the grace of God, and the precepts of the gospel, serve to counteract this tendency; but it is never impossible for the flesh to get, for the time, the mastery of the spirit, and produce alienation among individuals, or discord in communities where brotherly love, order, and harmony usually prevail.
The Great Lawgiver in Zion recognizes the possibility of the action of disturbing elements, and has left His people in no doubt as to the remedy to be applied in every instance. He has not left us to legislate on the subject, nor to resort to expedients to meet cases as they arise, but Himself has classified offences, and prescribed the course to be pursued in every case. It only remains for us to perceive clearly the Divine discrimination, and to carry out implicitly the Divine prescription.
What then is the inspired classification of offences??and what, under the classification, is the course of treatment prescribed by Infinite Wisdom?
The Scriptures cite us to but two kinds of offence. Matt. xviii. 15 points out the one kind, where the object of the offence is an individual,? "If thy brother trespass against thee;" and 1 Cor. v. to the second kind, where the object of the offence is either public morals or the Church. The former of these is usually characterized by the term PRIVATE, and the latter by the term PUBLIC. The use of these terms will be retained in this essay, though they are each liable to some ambiguity of meaning. PERSONAL is employed by some in preference to "Private;" but neither term is exactly suited to the case, since private may be understood in the sense of secret; and personal is not necessarily in antithesis to public. Nor is the term public more happy in conveying the idea intended, since it may be understood in the sense of ostentatiously?before the world. If this criticism be repeated in substance, it will be only to warn the reader against a misapprehension of the idea designed to be conveyed.
1. What are "private offences," as described in Matt. xviii.?
Ans. 1. Not necessarily secret offences. Many "public offences" are committed secretly; as theft, fornication, &c. The thief and the fornicator select the time usually when the friendly darkness will conceal them,?when they confidently trust no eye will detect them. But theft and fornication are not "private" but "public" offences, according to scriptural classification, even though the former may have been committed against a brother. But of this more anon.
Ans. 2. "Private offences," then, i.e. those referred to in Matt. xviii., are those that are personal, committed exclusively against individuals as when encroachments are made upon individual rights, interests, or feelings. A, on the impulse of the moment, accidentally cripples B?s stock that have broken into his enclosure, or, through mistake, makes encroachments upon his territory, or speaks harshly or disparagingly of him, or accosts him in a cold and repulsive manner, or refuses to speak to him at all:?these are a very few examples of an offence specific in character, but endless in combination and manifestation. The specific character is that the act is not a crime against religion and morality, and the object of the act is a brother.
2. What are "public offences?"
Ans. 1. Not necessarily those that are committed publicly and ostentatiously. One church-member may publicly and ostentatiously refuse to speak to another, and in other ways unjustly treat him with contempt. But, as has been seen above, this is not a "public" but a "private" offence, since the object of it is exclusively an individual. Those who perpetrate "public offences" more frequently, though not always, try to conceal them under the veil of secrecy.
Ans. 2. "Public offences" may be subdivided into two classes:?(1.) Where they are crimes exclusively against religion and morality; and, (2,) where they are offences against the Church in its organized capacity.
(1.) A crime is committed against religion and morality exclusively when the offence has no individual or body of individuals for its object; but when it is incited for the gratification of a depraved taste or for the indulgence of a corrupt propensity; as drunkenness, profanity, lewdness, falsehood, &c.?the last not perpetrated against an individual. Here the offences are crimes not against men, but against God. The drunken church-member, in the mere fact that he is drunk, infringes upon no brother?s personal rights, tramples upon no brother?s individual feelings, and damages no brother?s personal individual interests. This is not the intention, this is not the result. The only object may have been to gratify a depraved appetite. He is a "public offender," (1st,) because he has committed a grievous offence, and (2d) because the object affected by the offence is not an individual, but public gospel morality and the cause of Christ.
(2.) Transgressions committed against the Church in its organized capacity constitute another class of "public offences." The instances of this kind of offence are innumerable, some of which may be given as follows:?
(1.) When a member of the Church openly renounces its doctrines of faith, and engages in an active and uncompromising effort to subvert them,?when he denounces its practice of restricted communion, gives notice at the means to disregard it, and carries the annunciation into effect by the overt act,?he is a public offender. Here the object affected by the offender?s act is not the individual members of the Church, but the Church in its organized capacity. Let not this citation, however, be misunderstood. No reference is made to those who are ignorant of Gospel doctrines, or who even have doubts as to the Scriptural character of those held by the Church. A gospel church is not a circle of doctrinal proficients, but a school for learners, where those who are acquainted only with the alphabet of the gospel?with the first principles of the doctrine of Christ?may receive instruction, and know as they follow on to know the Lord. The only qualification for admission into a gospel church is repentance towards God, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There are, doubtless, multitudes in the churches who know nothing of the profound doctrines of grace, or even have misgivings as to the correctness of the interpretations put upon them, who are yet guilty of no offence, and members in good standing. Reference is had to those, solely, who declare open war against the doctrines and practices of the Church and engage in active efforts to subvert and destroy them. The Church is bound to hold these as "public offenders;" and if there is to be any difference in the treatment of their case and in that of other public offenders, it is to be found in the injunction, "A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject." Tit. iii. 10.
(2.) Refusal, after admonition, to attend upon the stated conference-meetings of the Church, is a "public offence." Here, again, the object affected by the act is not the individual members of the Church, but the Church in its organized capacity. Nor is the act an infraction of the public rules of gospel morality, excepting in so far as it may be a violation of the member?s vows when he entered into the Church. Nowhere in the Scriptures is a rule in so many words, (such as not a few of our churches have passed,) requiring attendance of members at such an hour of such a day on conference-meetings. According to the Scriptures, there is necessarily no immorality in an absence from any place on any Saturday in the month; yet our churches, acting within lawful limits, have passed such a rule, and their members have pledged themselves to abide by it. Nothing is more common than for churches to expel members, after admonition, for non-attendance upon conference-meetings. Why? What is the nature of the offence? Not "private," certainly; because no infringement has been made upon individual rights, interests, or feelings; not public, in the sense that a crime, in the nature of things, has been committed against gospel morality, for simple absence from any time and place contains essentially no moral character; but a "public offence," because it is committed against the authority of the Church, which the member is bound and pledged to regard.
(3.) Rebellion against the lawful authority of the Church?a refusal to heed its citations, or, in other ways, a denial of its lawful jurisdiction over him?is, on the part of the member, a "public offence." He neglects to hear the Church, and, if he persists,?by Divine direction,?is to be considered by her in the light of a "heathen man and a publican." Every consideration drawn from the Scriptures, and from the Church?s sense of duty to herself and to the cause of Christ, requires her to cut off from herself a member in a state of open rebellion. But the offender may not have trespassed at all upon individuals, and he may have been guilty of no gross offence against morals,?i.e. such as is incited by depraved tastes and corrupt propensities. He is, nevertheless, guilty of a public offence, since he is found arrayed in open rebellion against the authority with which Christ has invested His Church.
(4) It is a "public offence to attempt to make divisions and disturbances in a church. A schismatic, one who factiously distracts the Church, and threatens to divide it, the Church is expressly commanded to excommunicate. ?Mark them who cause divisions and offences, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them.? Rom. xvi. 17, 18. Here, again, the act, because perpetrated against the Church in its organized capacity, authority, and interests, is a public offence." These are but a few of the many instances that may be cited.
The following, then, are the conclusions to which we arrive:?
1. A "PRIVATE OFFENCE" is one in which the act is not essentially a crime against religion and morality, and the object affected by it is a brother.
2. A "PUBLIC OFFENCE" is one in which the act is essentially a crime against religion or morality, or the object of it the Church in its organized capacity.
But it is sometimes the case that these two kinds of offence are so blended together as to seem to constitute a third class. It is from this combination that nearly all the difficulty originates in the treatment. Further on, it will be shown that these do not constitute a distinct class. For the sake of convenience, however, they will be termed here mixed offences. Where the act is essentially a crime against religion and morality, and the object affected by it is a brother, we have both offences in combination. The following may be given as examples of this:?willful and malicious slander against a brother; profane denunciation of him; theft from him; fraud perpetrated upon him, seduction; personal violent assault upon him, with fist, bludgeon, or horsewhip, violent and libelous publication of him in the newspapers, or by advertisement set up in conspicuous places. These are a few of many examples which may be given. Falsehood, profanity, theft, fraud, seduction, a breach of the peace by personal violence or libelous publication, are offences against religion and morality, though they may be perpetrated against members of the Church.
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