Mutual Exhortation, debated in 1740 by James A. Haldane
In various passages of Scripture we find the duty of mutual exhortation either referred to, or expressly enjoined.
In the epistle to the Romans, the apostle writes, "I myself am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able to admonish one another. Nevertheless, brethren, I have written the more boldly unto you," Rom. 15: 14. 15. This epistle is addressed, not to the elders, but to the saints at Rome, to whom it was to be read when assembled together. Col. 4:16.
It is alleged, that this passage seems to refer to the exercise of miraculous gifts, but no proof is adduced to show that this is actually the case. It is said indeed, that "it will seem very improbable, if we compare the language of the 14th verse with that of 1 Cor. 1.4.7. where gifts are certainly spoken of." But there is a very slight resemblance between the passages. In the latter, the apostle probably refers to miraculous gift, whereby the testimony of Christ was confirmed in the brethren at Corinth. In the former passage, he merely speaks of their being filled with all goodness, able also to admonish each other. Doubtless here is a gift, but such a gift as is common to the churches in our days. Surely then it is a fair conclusion from this passage, that where the members of a church are able to admonish each other, they should not neglect it.
The above explanation of the passage not proving satisfactory, Mr. Aikman observes, that "all such addresses evidently refer to the discharge of peculiar duties, are, by their very language, limited to the persons upon whom the duties are binding." True; but this is just the question, and we affirm that the peculiar duty of exhortation is binding on the brethren who are qualified for it; and in proof of this, we refer to this passage where the saints are addressed as a collective body, and where the apostle saith, "I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish ONE ANOTHER." Does not the apostle here sanction the mutual exhortations of the brethren? Can words more strongly imply, that those 'who are able, ought to admonish each other in the church?'
Having reminded the church at Thessalonica of the happiness of their brethren who had fallen asleep in Christ, the apostle concludes, "Wherefore comfort, or exhort, one another, with these words," I Thess. 4:18. In the same epistle, he says, "Wherefore comfort, or exhort yourselves together, and edify one another, as also ye do." This is evidently addressed to the whole church; for it is added," And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake, and be at peace among yourselves," 1 Thess. 5:11,13. That the brethren are here expressly commanded to exhort and edify one another, and that their practice in doing so is referred to, is evident. Some have alleged that these passages exclusively refer to the private conversations of the brethren, when they certainly ought also to promote each other's edification to the utmost of their power. But this is a mistake. In order to understand these and various other precepts, we must observe, that the epistles are not addressed to individuals, but to collective bodies, and consequently such precepts must be understood as applicable to them in every situation, especially when assembled together.
In all the passages then in which the brethren are addressed as a body, and commanded to exercise their gifts for mutual edification, we have an injunction for them to exhort each other when assembled together. If, on the other hand, it could be shown, that the exhortation of the brethren refers merely to private conversations, the same arguments would prove, that the admonition of the elders is also to be thus understood; for no positive example can be adduced from Scripture of the public teaching of an uninspired elder. God indeed bestowed miraculous gifts both on elders and other members of some churches; but if this be no reason why men may not labor in the word and doctrine, although destitute of these gifts, it can never prove that the brethren ought not now to exhort.
As to 1 Thess. 4:18. it has been said, that it "seems immediately to refer to what Paul had just been saying about those who sleep in Jesus. Having given the most consolatory information concerning them, he adds, " Wherefore, comfort (or exhort) one another with these WORDS." We are then asked, Is this the institution of an ordinance? If the remarks which have been already made on the apostolic mode of teaching be attended to, perhaps this question may not appear convincing.
The other passage, 1 Thess. 5:11, is considered as little more than a repetition of the former. Ye are told, "This practice does not appear to be the giving of public exhortation by the brethren at large. Like the former, it was what the women were called to no less than the men, and public exhortation seems to be alluded to in the very next verse, as the distinct employment of those gifted brethren who then conducted all the exercises of public worship. This is a strong assertion, but it requires proof. It never has, and never can be shown, that brethren possessed of miraculous gifts conducted all the exercises of public worship. If this were the case, how is it that miraculous gifts were not declared to Timothy and Titus to be an essential requirement for those who were to shepherd in the churches, and lead the exercises of public worship? And what warrant have we for conducting the exercises of public worship, while destitute of these miraculous gifts?
Nothing appears more plain than that in I Thess. 5:11,12 the brethren are first commanded to comfort and edify one another, as they really did, and then to respect those who are over them; which is a plain proof that public exhortation was not confined to the elders. To set aside this argument, which seems conclusive, a supposition is made "The General of an army in passing along the lines, addresses one of the regiments. "I trust, he says, that this regiment will acquire immortal honor in the field of battle, and that it will be especially distinguished by strict discipline and attention to the orders of its officers." But are the cases parallel? To be so, the General should say, "Soldiers, support each other, and encourage each other, as I see you are doing; and be particularly attentive to the orders of your officers." Should this speech be reported to a person who was a stranger to the art of war, he would naturally conclude, that the officers were not the only persons who were to be actively engaged, and at the same time he would see, that they were to receive particular respect so when we read the apostle's injunction to the Thessalonians, we are clearly taught, that the brethren should at once exhort each other in the church, and highly esteem their elders.
But though the illustration is defective, it deserves consideration. It is a full admission, that the brethren are addressed in their collective, and not in their individual capacity; and consequently our brother gives up the idea of the passage referring to their private conversations.
This passage is peculiarly difficult on the plan of those who deny mutual exhortation; but Mr. Aikman attempts to explain it by giving a translation, which although differing in words, perfectly accords in meaning with our own, and then observing, that "taking the passage as it stands in our translation, it will never prove, in opposition to the plain account 1 Cor. 14 of the manner in which the public exercises of the churches, were conducted, that men destitute of spiritual gifts then engaged in the work of public teaching." Enough, I hope, has been said on I Cor. 14 to prove, that those who could speak to edification and exhortation and comfort, might speak in the church, however they came by the gifts; and therefore, there is no shadow of opposition here. It is strange, that any one would suppose that 1 Cor. 14 which, as they contend, refers to miraculous gifts, a subject with which we are wholly unacquainted, is more plain than such passages as 1 Thess. 4:18: 5:13 and Heb. 10:24, 25.
It is also thought, that when the apostle addresses the church as exhorting or teaching, he judged it altogether unnecessary to refer to those members of the body on whom this office was binding, seeing these were subjects on which there was no necessity of explanation, as every one perfectly understands when we speak of the body seeing or feeling, that it is not the hand that sees, nor the eye that feels. I will so far agree with this. The precept to teach and admonish each other, is only intended for those who are in some measure qualified. No person supposes that all are even occasional teachers. But surely if the apostle had intended that 1700 years after he wrote, none but the elders should speak in the church, he would have written in a different manner. In his days those who had gifts taught their brethren, although not called to be stated teachers. Granting that these were miraculous gifts, to which we have no pretensions, might we not naturally think, that if our elders, who are as destitute of miraculous gifts as ourselves, may teach, the brethren who are qualified for it may exhort; for surely these brethren are not more inferior to the gifted brethren at Corinth, than our elders are to primitive elders possessed of miraculous gifts.
In writing to the Hebrews, the apostle directs them to "exhort one another daily, while it is called today, lest any of you he hardened through the deceitfulness of sin," Heb. 3:13. Can anyone suppose, that this precept does not include the duties of that day, when the brethren are commanded to assemble together for the purpose of instruction and edification. Again, chap. 10:24, 25. "And let us consider one another; to provoke unto love and unto good works; not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another." Nothing surely can be more evident, than that mutual exhortation formed a part of their exercises when they assembled together.
Upon this passage Mr. Ewing observes, "Many understand the exhorting here recommended, to be mutual encouragement, given by individual Christians to one another, to assemble statedly for the observance of ordinances, notwithstanding the persecution which deterred some from the practice. Thus, Newcome's translation is, "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting to it; and so much the more," etc. Surely this is most arbitrary and unnatural. It is not properly a translation, but an interpretation. The obvious meaning of the apostle's words is, that they should assemble, and when assembled should exhort one another. Of this Mr. E. seems sensible; for he proceeds - But granting that Heb. 10:24,25 does speak of the exercises of their assembled churches," (indeed it can hardly with decency be denied); "it cannot be understood as referring to a particular ordinance, far less as fixing the manner in which a particular ordinance should be observed, because the word "exhorting" is, in the acceptation supposed, a general term for all the exercises of social worship taken together. But by whom is this supposed? I understand exhorting each other to refer simply to that one ordinance of mutual exhortation, just as I suppose that I Cor. 11:20-31 refers exclusively to the Lord's supper. Though the apostle mentions their assembling, there was surely no impropriety in referring to one particular duty then incumbent upon them.
As to the Hebrews having persons who had shepherds overseeing them, watching for their souls, and speaking to them the word of God, and that these also exhorted them, it is freely granted, but it in nowise affects the passage where the brethren are commanded to exhort each other when they assembled.
But it is said, The term exhort, Heb. 10:24,25 is used to "include the whole of public teaching. To apply it to the spontaneous teaching of any private church members whom the churches have never called nor proved as their teachers, is certainly greatly to misapply the language of the Scriptures." This is merely begging the question, that none are to exhort in the church, but those who have been called and proved. No evidence of this, however, is attempted. We know the elders were teachers in a church. That they are to wait on teaching is undoubted; but there are others to wait on exhortation, Rom. 7:6; and in short every man is to occupy the gift he possesses, Rom. 12:6, 1 Pet. 4:10.
In Hebrews 10: 24,25, we have an express precept addressed, not to the elders, but to the brethren, to exhort one another. Indeed less is said in the New Testament of the elders, and more of the teaching of the brethren, than might have been expected, probably because the Lord knew, that they would endeavor to comfort the edification of the church to their own teaching.
Having thus examined the objections brought against these plain and obvious passages, I would just observe, that after all the pains and ingenuity employed on them, no explanation has been given which seems satisfactory, even to those who oppose exhortation. Our brethren not only contradict each other, but themselves. The various and opposite explanations given of the passages plainly show the difficulty under which they labored. It was the remark of an eminent physician, that formerly there were many cures for the ague, but since the use of bark there was but one. In like manner, there is one, and but one interpretation which will suit Rom. 15:14,15. 1 Thess. 4:18: 5:11; Heb. 3:13, 10:24, 25 and that is, that the brethren are called upon mutually to exhort each other.
In writing to the Colossians, the apostle says, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord," Col. 3:16. Here is a general exhortation to the brethren to teach and admonish each other; they are not directed to seek for miraculous gifts in order to do this, nor do we hear that they possessed any; but to let the word of Christ dwell in them richly, which is certainly equally incumbent on us, and equally in our power.
There are various other proofs that the brethren were in the habit of teaching in the first churches, and we are sure they were not always inspired, because they sometimes taught false doctrines. Thus, Acts 15:1.2. "Certain men came down from Judea to Antioch, and taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation in with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other with them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question." Here we find uninspired persons, not only teaching in the presence of the apostles, but disputing with them. Will our brethren affirm that they only taught in private? The contrary appears evidently to have been the case; and nothing can be more arbitrary than to affirm, that the teaching of Judas and Silas, verse 32, was public, and at the same time to maintain, that the other was private. The apostle, I Tim 1:6,7 gives directions as to some false teachers; "From which, says he, some having swerved, have turned aside unto vain jangling, desiring to he teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm." This does not seem to refer to elders or other servants, who were to be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. It is most natural to understand it of improper persons who attempted to teach in the churches. Again, says he, speaking of the same characters, "There are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision; whose mouths must he stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not for filthy lucre's sake." Let it not be said, this was private teaching. What introduced so much confusion into the churches but the Judaizers teaching false doctrines? Did the false teachers at Corinth not teach in public? Those false apostles who had acquired so much influence in the church. It cannot be doubted. Here then are instances which cannot be set aside, of persons who had not the Spirit teaching in the primitive churches and this fact subverts the foundation of the theory of those who oppose exhortation on the ground that we have no instance of an uninspired person teaching.
The principal abuses in the first churches evidently arose from false teachers; see epistles to Corinthians and Galatians. The apostle labors to check the abuse, yet he does not forbid the thing. Our brethren apprehend, that abuses will arise from exhortation, and to prevent these they would supersede the thing itself.
Nothing can be more express than I Pet 4:10,11. "As every man hath received a gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God." This speaking evidently refers to speaking in the church; and it cannot be considered as addressed exclusively to elders. Whoever is possessed of a gift is to use it, and none will maintain, that there are not in the present times persons capable of edifying their brethren. . . . If any member possesses gifts for being useful to his brethren, he is commanded to use them, whether the gift be that of speaking in the church, or any other.
On the whole, it appears, that the evidence for mutual exhortation by the brethren is clear and conclusive. We have seen, 1st, That it was practiced in the Jewish synagogues. 2dly, That it springs from the very nature of a church of Christ, and the relation in which the members stand one to another, and, 3rdly, from the commandment to each member to use the gift he has received. 4thly, various passages of Scripture have been brought forward, in which mutual exhortation is either referred to, or expressly enjoined, together with directions to prevent the abuse of this ordinance. Let this evidence be impartially weighed, and the remarks made upon the apostolic mode of teaching at the same time kept in view and let believers judge with what consistency they can reject this, while they attend to other ordinances for which it is impossible to bring stronger proof.
I shall now very briefly notice a few objections to which I have not particularly adverted,
It is said, that in Eph. 4:11, where the apostle evidently speaks of the edification of the body of Christ the public teaching of the brethren is not hinted at. Now granting this, it would only prove, that the duty of the brethren to exhort each other, could not he inferred from this passage, and that, although some of the means of the edification of the body are here mentioned, yet all are not spoken of, which is very common in general descriptions, such as that before us. But if we read the passage in its connection, we shall find in verses. 14, 15, that these gifts were given, that "we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the slight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive, but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, fitly joined together, and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body, to the edifying itself in love.." Here the body is said to speak the truth in love, and to edify itself in love, according to the various abilities of the members.
As to 1 Cor. 12 the apostle is speaking of the gifts bestowed on the members by the Spirit. We have already seen, that these were not confined to elders or other teachers. Every direction in this chapter applies as much to the gifts now possessed by the brethren, as to miraculous gifts. It is equally true of believers in the present day, that by one Spirit they are all baptized into one body, although the extraordinary gifts have ceased.
Again, It is said, that mutual exhortation sets aside the distinction of teachers and taught, and that the former ought to be maintained by the church, Gal. 6:6. Ye have seen that the Lord has appointed stated and official teachers in the churches, and that mutual exhortation by no means precludes this. I would also ask, whether all those who are called prophets, and who possessed miraculous gifts in the first churches, received temporal support? This would hardly agree with the number who are supposed to have been thus endowed; and if so, Gal. 6:6 has no more to do with our exhortation than it had with miraculous gifts.
Mutual exhortation is said to stand in direct opposition to James 3:1. "This plan appears to me," says Mr. Aikman, "to stand in direct opposition to the commandment James 3:1. "Be not many of you teachers" as the word ought to have been translated here and elsewhere. The Lord well knew that as in the days of the apostles, so in all succeeding ages, some would be desirous of becoming teachers, who "knew not what they said, nor whereof they affirmed." Against this spirit the precept now quoted appears to be directed." I am inclined to think that the translation suggested by Mr. A. is the proper one, although, from the context, some rather suppose that the apostle warns his brethren against censoriousness proceeding from a haughty domineering spirit, and not merely against teaching.
But admitting our brother's interpretation, and his reasoning upon it, what would it prove? That the apostle warns his brethren against abusing the privilege they enjoyed of mutually exhorting each other. There are two evils which ought to be avoided. On the one hand, those who are qualified for it must not neglect to stir up the gift that is in them; on the other, unqualified persons may become unruly and vain talkers, while they are completely unfit for edifying their brethren. No one will maintain, that those who know not what they say or whereof they affirm, should speak in the church. If the apostle then (as our brother thinks) intended to direct the precept against that spirit which would lead such persons to endeavor to teach others, it is only guarding us against abuse, which is very necessary on this and every other subject. But if only those who were inspired spoke in the churches in the apostle's time, as our brother elsewhere affirms, there was any need of this precept, for inspired persons could not teach error. And if it was intended, that when miraculous gifts ceased, only the elders should speak in the church, the simple statement of this fact would at once have prevented the evils which our brother apprehends; whereas, in the way the precept stands, it in fact sanctions the teaching of those who are qualified for it, while it instructs us not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but to think soberly.
It is said, that we consider the cultivation of gifts by diligent study to be necessary to fit men to go to preach in the highways and hedges. We do not think it necessary, that is indispensable, because learning is not a qualification enjoined in the word of God but we think it highly desirable to cultivate as much as possible the gifts of any of our brethren where there is an opportunity for it. And we doubt not, but the more the primitive practice is restored, the more careful will the brethren be to stir up their gifts by such cultivation as circumstances may permit.
Further it is alleged,that the law of mutual exhortation is subversive of order, comfort, edification, and peace in the churches. So it was said of lay preaching; but both assertions require proof. It always argues a deficiency of Scripture proof, when our brethren have recourse to such general assertions, which they cannot prove, and which experience does not confirm!
It is also said to be subversive of Christian liberty, as it does not allow the church to choose their own teachers . (Our brother strongly asserts, that no man can claim authority to teach without the suffrage of his brethren. I have already proved the contrary. As to churches being entitled to call those who shall be over them in the Lord, it is an undoubted fact. Let him, however, attempt to prove this from Scripture, and then compare the proof with what has been adduced for exhortation, and see whether it would be possible to reject the latter, while we admit the former. Plausible reasoning has been brought against the one as well as the other. The plan of the people choosing their own teachers, has been said to be in its very nature destructive of order, comfort, edification and peace in the churches of the saints; that it promotes party spirit, &c. It is well known, that the right of Christians to choose their own teachers is a subject on which great differences of opinion have existed.) Properly speaking, the church does not choose its own teachers. The choice ought to be an act of submission to Jesus, by calling the persons to be over them on whom he has bestowed the requisite qualifications. In doing so, he points them out to the church, who are thus directed to acknowledge them as the gift of Jesus. But the question is not about elders. Did the church choose the teachers who had miraculous gifts? No; the Lord bestowed them severally as he would, and the man who had a gift was to use it for the good of his brethren. There is just as little infringement of liberty in the present day. As to improper persons coming forward, this may happen from a church not being properly taught on this subject, and the overseers must watch, as they who must give account, to repress from time to time any abuse of this ordinance.
Let us not cast a stumbling block in the way of the world. Every part of the order of Christ's kingdom is foolishness to the natural man; but we are not to neglect any of his ordinances. If we simply follow the Lord, we shall edify believers, and turn sinners from the error of their way. If being foolish in the eyes of the people of the world be a good reason for neglecting mutual exhortation, it will be conclusive against gathering churches at all.
It is well known, that throughout this country, except perhaps in a few large towns, the number of people attending the preaching of the gospel has always been diminished when believers have begun to observe all the ordinances. But shall we on this account neglect the ordinances of Jesus? By no means. Let us act as God commanded his servant of old. "Let them return unto thee, but return not thou unto them," Jer. 15:19.
I cannot conclude my remarks on Mr. Aikman's Observations without noticing, that his views on exhortation are not only opposed to the Scriptures, but altogether inconsistent with his own practice, and in fact entirely set aside mutual exhortation in the church. He professes to oppose indiscriminate and spontaneous teaching, but recommends meeting on the evening of one of the days of labor, for the trial of the gifts of the brethren. From this it would appear, that any of the brethren may then speak. But we find him observing, that on this evening the churches may hear any of their brethren whom they judge able to instruct them." Those who thus instruct their brethren, must be considered teachers, for he maintains, that no person can be engaged in exhorting, without occupying the place of a teacher, and that mutual exhortation in the church sets aside the uniform distinction between teachers and taught." "The persons" he also observes, "who engage in the work of exhortation, are supposed to continue in it. It is not a work to be taken up occasionally, or laid down at pleasure. No, he that possesseth this gift is called diligently to cultivate it, statedly to exercise it, and to devote himself to it, and to the means of improving his qualifications for it." These persons must of course be supported by their brethren, according to the passage which he quotes, "Let him that is taught in the word communicate to him that teacheth," Gal. 6:6. Yet Mr. A. still countenances spontaneous and indiscriminate teaching on the evening of one of the days of labor, while none of the brethren have been appointed to the office of teachers after some years of trial.
Our brethren seem to have departed entirely from the first principles on which we set out, for they are now strenuously opposing in others, what they themselves formerly practiced. A few individuals, without any foreign assistance or authority, joined together as a church, which assembled at the Circus grounds in Edinburgh; and upon this is founded all that our brethren and their churches have been doing to this day. They also fully recognized and practiced what is now branded with the name of spontaneous and indiscriminate teaching; and they approved of the conduct of some of their number, who, without any call from others, or trial of their gifts, had gone forth to preach in the highways and hedges. The principles on which we then acted, still appear to me sound and scriptural, and I only plead for others to enjoy the same liberty we then made use of.
While I have shown, I trust, the inconclusiveness of the reasoning of a dear brother on the subject of this ordinance, I feel towards him the same affection as ever I did; and although in this case I think him wrong, I give him full credit for acting conscientiously and knowing his regard for the authority of Jesus, I trust we shall yet be of one mind on these subjects. Of one thing we are sure, if any man be inclined to do his will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it is of God or not. I am sorry my brother has declined entering at present on the question, Whether a church should prevent those who desire it, from witnessing the observance of all the ordinances of Jesus. I trust he will be led to change his views also on this subject; but if not, I sincerely hope he will state his sentiments respecting it; persuaded that the more it is canvassed, the more its evidence and importance will appear.