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Mark ix. 38–41; Luke ix. 49, 50.

The discourses of our Lord were not continuous, unbroken addresses on formally announced themes, such as we are wont to hear, but rather for the most part of the nature of Socratic dialogues, in which He was the principal speaker, His disciples contributing their part in the form of a question asked, an exclamation uttered, or a case of conscience propounded. In the discourse or dialogue on humility, two of the disciples acted as interlocutors, viz. Peter and John. Towards the close the former of these two disciples, as we saw, asked a question concerning the forgiving of injuries; and near the commencement the other disciple, John, related an anecdote which was brought up to his recollection by the doctrine of his Master, respecting receiving little ones in His name, and on which the truth therein set forth seemed to have a bearing. The facts thus brought under his notice led Jesus to make reflections, which supply an interesting illustration of the bearing of the doctrine He was inculcating on a particular class of cases or questions. These reflections, with the incident to which they relate, now solicit attention.

The story told by John was to the effect that on one occasion he and his brethren had found a man unknown to them engaged in the work of casting out devils, and had served him with an interdict, because, though he used the name of Jesus in practicing exorcism, he did not follow or identify himself with them, the twelve. At what particular time this happened is not stated; but it may be conjectured with much probability that the incident was a reminiscence of the Galilean mission, during which the disciples were separated from their Master, and were themselves occupied in healing the sick, and casting out evil spirits, and in preaching the gospel of the kingdom.

John, it will be observed, does not disclaim joint responsibility for the high-handed proceeding he relates, but speaks as if the twelve had acted unanimously in the matter. It may surprise some to find him, the apostle of love,347347The Tübingern school regard this designation as without foundation, and hold that the true character of John is to be learnt from the synoptical Gospels and the Book of Revelation. In this paragraph, as in other passages (vide next chapter), our aim is to supply hints of a proof that it is psychologically possible that John might be both the son of thunder and the apostle of love. consenting to so uncharitable a deed; but such surprise is founded on superficial views of his character, as well as on ignorance of the laws of spiritual growth. John is not now what he will be, but differs from his future self, as much as an orange in its second year differs from the same orange in its third final year of growth. The fruit of the Spirit will ultimately ripen in this disciple into something very sweet and beautiful; but meantime it is green, bitter, and fit only to set the teeth on edge. Devoted in mind, tender and intense in his attachment to Jesus, scrupulously conscientious in all his actions, he is even now; but he is also bigoted, intolerant, ambitious. Already he has played the part of a very high churchman in suppressing the nonconforming exorcist; ere long we shall see him figuring, together with his brother, as a persecutor, proposing to call down fire from heaven to destroy the enemies of his Lord; and yet again we shall find him, along with the same brother and their common mother, engaged in an ambitious plot to secure those places of distinction in the kingdom about which all the twelve have lately been wrangling.

In refusing to recognize the exorcist fellow-worker, however humble, as a brother, the disciples proceeded on very narrow and precarious grounds. The test they applied was purely external. What sort of man the person interdicted might be they did not inquire; it was enough that he was not of their company: as if all inside that charmed circle — Judas, for example — were good; and all outside, not excepting a Nicodemus, utterly Christless! Two good things, on their own showing, could be said of him whom they silenced: he was well occupied, and he seemed to have a most devout regard for Jesus; for he cast out devils, and he did it in Jesus’ name. These were not indeed decisive marks of discipleship, for it was possible that a man might practice exorcism for gain, and use the name of Christ because it had been proved to be a good name to conjure by; but they ought to have been regarded as at least presumptive evidence in favor of one in whose conduct they appeared. Judging by the facts, it was probable that the silenced exorcist was an honest and sincere man, whose heart had been impressed by the ministry of Jesus and His disciples, and who desired to imitate their zeal in doing good. It was even possible that he was more than this — a man possessing higher spiritual endowment than his censors, some provincial prophet as yet unknown to fame. How preposterous, in view of such a possibility, that narrow outward test, “Not with us “!

As an illustration of what this way of judging lands in, one little fact in the history of the celebrated Sir Matthew Hale, whose Contemplations are familiar to all readers of devout literature, may here be introduced. Richard Baxter relates that the good people in the part of the country where the distinguished judge resided, after his retirement from the judicial bench, did not entertain a favorable opinion of his religious character, their notion being that he was certainly a very moral man, but not converted. It was a serious conclusion to come to about a fellow-creature, and one is curious to know on what so solemn a judgment was based. The author of the Saint’s Rest gives us the needful information on this momentous point. The pious folks about Acton, he tells us, ranked the ex-judge among the unconverted, because he did not frequent their private weekly prayer-meetings! It was the old story of the twelve and the exorcist under a new Puritanic form. Baxter, it is needless to say, did not sympathize with the harsh, uncharitable opinion of his less enlightened brethren. His thoughts breathed the gentle, benignant, humble, charitable spirit of Christian maturity. “I,” he adds, after relating the fact above stated, “I that have heard and read his serious expressions of the concernments of eternity, and seen his love to all good men, and the blamelessness of his life, thought better of his piety than of mine own.”348348Reliquiæ Baxterianæ, Part iii. p. 47.

In silencing the exorcist the twelve were probably actuated by a mixture of motives — partly by jealousy, and partly by conscientious scruples. They disliked, we imagine, the idea of any one using Christ’s name but themselves, desiring a monopoly of the power conferred by that name to cast out evil spirits; and they probably thought it unlikely, if not impossible, that any one who kept aloof from them could be sincerely devoted to their Master.

In so far as the disciples acted under the influence of jealousy, their conduct towards the exorcist was morally of a piece with their recent dispute who should be the greatest. The same spirit of pride revealed itself on the two occasions under different phases. The silencing of the exorcist was a display of arrogance analogous to that of those who advance for their church the claim to be exclusively the church of Christ. In their dispute among themselves, the disciples played on a humble scale the game of ambitious, self-seeking ecclesiastics contending for seats of honor and power. In the one case the twelve said in effect to the man whom they found casting out devils: We are the sole commissioned, authorized agents of the Lord Jesus Christ; in the other case they said to each other: We are all members of the kingdom and servants of the King; but I deserve to have a higher place than thou, even to be a prelate sitting on a throne.

In so far as the intolerance of the twelve was due to honest scrupulosity, it is deserving of more respectful consideration. The plea of conscience, honestly advanced, must always be listened to with serious attention, even when it is mistaken. We say “honestly” with emphasis, because we cannot forget that there is much scrupulosity that is not honest. Conscience is often used as a stalking-horse by proud, quarrelsome, self-willed men to promote their own private ends. Pride, says one, speaking of doctrinal disputes, “is the greatest enemy of moderation. This makes men stickle for their opinions to make them fundamental. Proud men, having deeply studied some additional point in divinity, will strive to make the same necessary to salvation, to enhance the value of their own worth and pains; and it must needs be fundamental in religion, because it is fundamental to their reputation.”349349Thomas Fuller, Holy State, bk. iii. c. 20. These shrewd remarks hold good of other things besides doctrine. Opinionative, pragmatic persons, would make every thing in religion fundamental on which they have decided views; and if they could get their own way, they would exclude from the church all who held not with them in the very minutiae of belief and practice. But there is such a thing also as honest scrupulosity, and it is more common than many imagine. There is a certain tendency to intolerant exaction, and to severity in judging, in the unripe stage of every earnest life. For the conscience of a young disciple is like a fire of green logs, which smokes first before it burns with a clear blaze. And a Christian whose conscience is in this state must be treated as we treat a dull fire: he must be borne with, that is, till his conscience clear itself of bitter, cloudy smoke, and become a pure, genial, warm flame of zeal tempered by charity.

That the scrupulosity of the twelve was of the honest kind, we believe for this reason, that they were willing to be instructed. They told their Master what they had done, that they might learn from Him whether it was right or wrong This is not the way of men whose plea of conscience is a pretext.

The instruction honestly desired by the disciples, Jesus promptly communicated in the form of a clear, definite judgment on the case, with a reason annexed. “Forbid him not,” He replied to John, “for he that is not against us is for us.”350350Mark ix. 39, 40 (Luke has “you” for “us”).

The reason assigned for this counsel of tolerance reminds us of another maxim uttered by Jesus on the occasion when the Pharisees brought against Him the blasphemous charge of casting out devils by aid of Beelzebub.351351Matt. xii. 30. The two sayings have a superficial aspect of contradiction: one seeming to say, The great matter is not to be decidedly against; the other, The great matter is to be decidedly for. But they are harmonized by a truth underlying both — that the cardinal matter in spiritual character is the bias of the heart. Here Jesus says: “If the heart of a man be with me, then, though by ignorance, error, isolation from those who are avowedly my friends, he may seem to be against me, he is really for me.” In the other case He meant to say: “If a man be not in heart with me (the case of the Pharisees), then, though by his orthodoxy and his zeal he may seem to be on God’s side, and therefore on mine, he is in reality against me.”

To the words just commented on, Mark adds the following, as spoken by Jesus at this time: “There is no man that shall do a miracle in my name that can lightly speak evil of me.” The voice of wisdom and charity united is audible here. The emphasis is on the word ταχὺ, lightly or readily. This word, in the first place, involves the admission that the case supposed might happen; an admission demanded by historical truth, for such cases did actually occur in after days. Luke tells, e.g., of certain vagabond Jews (in every sense well named) who took upon them to call over demoniac the name of the Lord Jesus, without any personal faith in Him, but simply in the way of trade, being vile traffickers in exorcism for whom even the devils expressed their contempt, exclaiming, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are ye?”352352Acts xix. 13. Our Lord knowing before that such cases would happen, and being acquainted with the depths of human depravity, could not do otherwise than admit the possibility of the exorcist referred to by John being animated by unworthy motives. But while making the admission, He took care to indicate that, in His judgment, the case supposed was very improbable, and that it was very unlikely that one who did a miracle in His name would speak evil of Him. And He desired His disciples to be on their guard against readily and lightly believing that any man could be guilty of such a sin. Till strong reasons for thinking otherwise appeared, He would have them charitably regard the outward action as the index of sincere faith and love (which they might the more easily do then, when nothing was to be gained by the use or profession of Christ’s name, but the displeasure of those who had the characters and lives of men in their power).

Such were the wise, gracious words spoken by Jesus with reference to the case brought up for judgment by John. Is it possible to extract any lessons from these words of general application to the church in all ages, or specially applicable to our own age in particular? It is a question on which one must speak with diffidence; for while all bow to the judgment of Jesus on the conduct of His disciples, as recorded in the Gospels, there is much difference among Christians as to the inferences to be drawn therefrom, in reference to cases in which their own conduct is concerned. The following reflections, may, however, safely be hazarded: —

1. We may learn from the discreet, loving words of the great Teacher to beware of hasty conclusions concerning men’s spiritual state based on merely external indications. Say not with the Church of Rome, “Out of our communion is no possibility of salvation or of goodness;.” but rather admit that even in that corrupt communion may be many building on the true foundation, though, for the most part, with very combustible materials; nay, that Christ may have not a few friends outside the pale of all the churches. Ask not with Nathanael, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” but remember that the best things may come out of most unexpected quarters. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Bear in mind that, by indulging in the cry, “Not with us,” in reference to trifles and crotchets, you may tempt God, while giving His Holy Spirit to those whom you unchurch, to withdraw His influences from you for your pride, exclusiveness, and self-will, and may turn your creed into a prison, in which you shall be shut out from the fellowship of saints, and doomed to experience the chagrin of seeing through the window-bars of your cell God’s people walking at large, while you lie immured in a jail.

2. In view of that verdict, “Forbid him not,” one must read with a sad, sorrowful heart, many pages of church history, in which the predominating spirit is that of the twelve rather than that of their Master. One may confidently say, that had Christ’s mind dwelt more in those called by His name, many things in that history would have been different. Separatism, censoriousness, intolerance of nonconformity, persecution, would not have been so rife; Conventicle Acts and Five-mile Acts would not have disgraced the statute-book of the English Parliament; Bedford jail would not have had the honor of receiving the illustrious dreamer of the Pilgrim’s Progress as a prisoner; Baxter, and Livingstone of Ancrum, and thousands more like-minded, by whose stirring words multitudes had been quickened to a new spiritual life, would not have been driven from their parishes and their native lands, and forbidden under heavy penalties to preach that gospel they understood and loved so well, but would have enjoyed the benefit of that law of toleration which they purchased so dearly for us, their children.

3. The divided state of the church has ever been a cause of grief to good men, and attempts have been made to remedy the evil by schemes of union. All honest endeavors having in view the healing of breaches, which, since the days of the Reformation, have multiplied so greatly as to be the opprobrium of Protestantism, deserve our warmest sympathies and most earnest prayers. But we cannot be blind to the fact that through human infirmity such projects are apt to miscarry; it being extremely difficult to get a whole community, embracing men of different temperaments and in different stages of Christian growth, to take the same view of the terms of fellowship. What, then, is the duty of Christians meanwhile? We may learn from our Lord’s judgment in the case of the exorcist. If those who are not of our company cannot be brought to enter into the same ecclesiastical organization, let us still recognize them from the heart as fellow-disciples and fellow-laborers, and avail ourselves of all lawful or open ways of showing that we care infinitely more for those who truly love Christ, in whatever church they be, than for those who are with us ecclesiastically, but in spirit and life are not with Christ, but against Him. So shall we have the comfort of feeling that, though separated from brethren beloved, we are not schismatical, and be able to speak of the divided state of the church as a thing that we desire not, but merely endure because we cannot help it.

Many religious people are at fault here. There are Christians not a few who do not believe in these two articles of the Apostles’ Creed, “the holy catholic church” and “the communion of saints.” They care little or nothing for those who are outside the pale of their own communion: they practice brotherly-kindness most exemplarily, but they have no charity. Their church is their club, in which they enjoy the comfort of associating with a select number of persons, whose opinions, whims, hobbies, and ecclesiastical politics entirely agree with their own; every thing beyond in the wide wide world being regarded with cold indifference, if not with passionate aversion or abhorrence. It is one of the many ways in which the spirit of religious legalism, so prevalent amongst us, reveals itself. The spirit of adoption is a catholic spirit. The legal spirit is a dividing, sectarian spirit, multiplying fundamentals, and erecting scruples into principles, and so manufacturing evermore new religious sects or clubs. Now a club, ecclesiastical or other, is a very pleasant thing by way of a luxury; but it ought to be remembered that, besides the club, and including all the clubs, there is the great Christian commonwealth. This fact will have to be more recognized than it has been if church life is not to become a mere imbecility. To save us from this doom one of two things must take place. Either religious people must overcome their doting fondness for the mere club fellowship of denominationalism, involving absolute uniformity in opinion and practice; or a sort of Amphictyonic council must be set on foot as a counterpoise to sectarianism, in which all the sects shall find a common meeting-place for the discussion of great catholic questions bearing on morals, missions, education, and the defense of cardinal truths. Such a council (utopian it will be deemed) would have many open questions in its constitution. In the ancient Amphictyonic council men were not known as Athenians or Spartans, but as Greeks; and in our modern utopian one men would be known only as Christians, not as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Independents, Churchmen, and Dissenters. It would be such a body, in fact, as the “Evangelical Alliance” of recent origin, created by the craving for some visible expression of the feeling of catholicity; but not, like it, amateur, self-constituted, and patronized (to a certain extent) by persons alienated from all existing ecclesiastical organizations, and disposed to substitute it as a new church in their place, but consisting of representatives belonging to, and regularly elected and empowered by, the different sections of the church.353353In recent years the phenomenon of “Pan-presbyterianism” has made its appearance. It is to be feared that this movement will not serve the cause of catholicity, but will rather work in a purely antiquarian direction, and serve the purpose of those who would bind the reformed churches to the seventeenth century. Our Amphictyonic council is yet, like Plato’s Republic, in nubibus. Perhaps disintegration must go farther before the era of reconstruction arrives. Or is it ever to arrive? Is the day for catholic Christianity past?

One remark more we make on this club theory of church fellowship. Worked out, it secures at least one object. It breaks Christians up into small companies, and insures that they shall meet in twos and threes! Unhappily, it does not at the same time procure the blessing promised to the two or three. The spirit of Jesus dwells not in coteries of self-willed, opinionative men, but in the great commonwealth of saints, and especially in the hearts of those who love the whole body more than any part, not excepting that to which they themselves belong; to whom the Lord and Head of the church fulfill His promise, by enriching them with magnanimous heroic graces, and causing them to rise like cedars above the general level of contemporary character, and endowing them with a moral power which exercises an ever-widening influence long after the strifes of their age, and the men who delighted in them, have sunk into oblivion.

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