Maintaining Peace in the Church

Rev. Edward L. Kellogg

Matthew 18:15-17. "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican."

War is very costly. The bill for the last world conflict included billions of dollars worth of property destroyed and billions of dollars spent in equipment. Heaped upon that was the indefinable cost of physical torment to the thousands wounded, spiritual anguish to the thousands heartbroken, and death to thousands more. The cost was terrific! But not only are there wars between nations and within nations. There are also wars between families and within families and between churches and within churches. These wars too are very costly.

There has been a great deal of fighting in homes during the past decade. The cost has been far more than a lawyer's fee. It has soared into that rather indefinable area where you add broken homes and children pushed about without true parental love. With the rate of divorce at a high mark the cost is terrific! Then there are the church battles. To look at the church visible one might think a time of peace prevailed. Olive branches are in the hands of many church diplomats. "Let us be one," is the watchword. But when we begin to think about Christ the King of the church and about truth and righteousness the present peace seems very superficial. In fact it appears to be the lining up of the forces for an armageddon. The mark of the beast is being written on foreheads and in the palms of hands and the red horse is impatiently pawing the ground. Furthermore, it is certainly true that though in general the church visible may seem to have a form of peace the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has been wearing armor from the day of its birth.

Again the cost of war is terrific in the church as well as in the home and state. You can't sum it up by adding the cost of the new buildings when splits take place. You must add the rather indefinable cost of persons refusing to go to church because a fight is on, of lifelong friends refusing to speak, of heartache when the division reaches within the family circle.

Because war is so terribly costly the normal person hates it. He longs for continued peace. That does not mean that he will never want to fight. His love for freedom may cause him to want to fight in the state, his love for children or wife may cause him to want to fight in the home, his love for Christ may cause him to want to fight in the church. Nevertheless, the cost is so great that the normal person does not love war as such. Surely not when the cost tears his heart with broken friendships and crushes it down with heaps of scorn and reproach.

Many of us in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church feel like the troops as they rushed forward across France toward the German border or like a certain marine who told me that the first four days and nights on Saipan he couldn't sleep but was kept constantly on the alert. If we could just have a little rest how wonderful it would be! We think one battle is over, and we begin to offer a sigh of relief when suddenly we hear the rumble of artillery in the distance and know that another fight is upon us.

Naturally some of us begin to crack and break down with fatigue. Then you hear rather illogical statements such as, "I wish I had stayed in the U.S.A. church. At least they don't seem to be always fighting there." Another says, "If we could just get rid of the trouble-makers everything would be all right." Others hurriedly gather a few possessions and hasten out with the refugees into a more promising communion.

Why is there so much controversy in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church? Why does it seem that we have more struggles than most other communions? There is but one ultimate reason for our struggles and that is the presence of sin. It should be obvious that if there were no sin there would be no war. If there were no sin we would be at perfect peace with Christ the Head, and with our brothers the members. Of course, the unusual amount of controversy is not an indication that we have a corner on sin. Though one should avoid vain boasts, yet I dare say our gray would look very white besides the deeper blacks of some denominations. There is another factor which enters into controversy. Sin alone does not make controversy; you must also have a hatred of sin. The apparent peace of some denominations is not due to the absence of sin but to the presence of a peace pact with the devil. But what true Christian wants peace with the devil?

So in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church we have war at times because of the presence of sin and the presence of hatred of sin. This war is not so painful when sin is on the outside and we are just lobbing shells at the higher critics. It isn't too bad when we see the whites of Modernists' eyes and respond with machine gun chatter. The thing that is most disconcerting is when a Sergeant and Private within our own ranks get into this hand to hand business and not just for fun. Then we become most concerned about the high cost of war. Then we also incline to review our battle orders to be sure we are fighting the right foe. We can be thankful that we hate sin but we need to avoid being too jittery. Sometimes we may feel positive an [enemy soldier] is crawling toward us and hurl the grenade only to blast a shadow and find metal fragments painfully lodged under the skin of some of our buddies.

How then can we have peace? The only truly successful way is to get rid of sin and we ought to be doing that as faithfully as possible, but since we know that sin will continue with us in this life we must also know the proper method of dealing with sin and carefully follow that method. We do have a method set forth in the constitution of our church. That method prescribes a certain course to follow with private sins and another course with public sins. That method was not the ingenious idea of the framers of our constitution. It has been written in many constitutions throughout the years. The reason is that it is found in the Bible, the supreme Standard. Therefore, it is of great importance that we follow that method. Sometimes that is very hard to do. It is hard to do in a private offense because the Bible requires you to see the person you want to see least of all. It is hard to do in a public offense because there seems to be so much red tape. Yet it is all to the good. Consider briefly what the Word of God says in regard to the proper handling of a private offense.

I. What Is an Offense?

I have met people who refused to go to church because the minister or a church officer passed on the street without speaking. Of course it is too bad when a person doesn't speak and there is the possibility that his failure is an offense, but it is also possible that the minister is working on the second point of his Sunday morning sermon and is hardly conscious of even being on the street, let alone passing someone. I know a professor who, deep in thought, walked into the side of a train. I am sure he didn't do it intentionally.

I have also know some people who were filled with bitterness because they weren't elected to a certain office or selected to do a particular work in the church. Sometimes such persons won't speak to others or may even leave a church. Some, though too proud to show outward bitterness, will nevertheless burn inwardly. Then like detectives they will trail their opponent with eyes searching for the slightest departure from the path of rectitude. Each discovery is then used to destroy a reputation.

What is truly an offense? Jesus gives us the answer. He says, "Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee..." That is the true answer. A trespass against you is an offense. Those words imply that some rule is violated and that rule is the will of God. God has revealed his will as to the proper relation between men. When that will is violated a trespass is committed. That rule as it relates to men is summarized in the second table of the decalogue—not that violations of the first table are all right; they too are offenses and may also at times be trespasses against a person. If your child is a Sunday School pupil and his teacher urges him to worship a false God and in so doing violates the first commandment, the teacher is also trespassing against you. If someone takes the name of God in vain in the presence of your family they may also be considered as trespassing against you. But, since the second table deals primarily with the proper relation between men, let us briefly consider some common violations of it.

The first commandment of the second table is this, "Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee." This command is not to be limited in its application to the proper relation of children to their parents, but in accordance with Scriptural usage, applies to people in their relations to all men. As the Shorter Catechism states, "The fifth commandment requireth the preserving the honor, and performing the duties, belonging to everyone in, their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals."

One day I learned that a little girl was not coming to Sunday School because another child ridiculed her clothing. Though the excuse was a poor one, yet the ridicule was indeed a violation of this command and did not show that proper respect.

One day I was talking to a professing Christian who spoke piously about her faith in Christ. Then the conversation turned to a certain neighbor and she emphatically said she would never speak to her again. What a way for a Christian to talk! Surely the spirit of Christ was not being manifested. She was guilty of a trespass.

In some churches there are men and women of wealth. Their contributions meet a large portion of the budget. Ministers lacking the fearlessness of Elijah or John the Baptist often show themselves to be respecters of persons by catering in their preaching and conduct to these persons. They also break the command.

There are church members who have been involved in trouble. The session with a true desire to maintain the peace and purity of the church has asked them to come for a meeting. The requests have been spumed even though given in a gracious manner. This has been a violation of the command. The Scripture calls upon such persons to submit to those who have the authority over them.

Ministers and elders have a position of authority in the church. Nevertheless, in performing the work of their office they may not show that proper respect for other members and thus yield to the temptation against which Peter warned when he said, "...take the oversight of the flock not as lords over God's heritage, but as examples." They are guilty of an offense.

Ministers gather for a presbytery meeting. They are members of one presbytery in the same communion. Nevertheless, because some do not like the manner of others, because some are jealous of the position or success of others, because some continually seem to vote on the opposite side from others; for one reason or another, a strained relation exists. Smiles are obviously forced. Some carefully avoid meeting others. The proper honor and respect for others is evidently lacking. The command is broken. Yes, and how often we all offend!

Or consider another command in the second table, namely, "Thou shalt not bear false witness." How often Christians are guilty of outright lies. But not only such acts are violations. This command requires the preserving of the good name of ourselves and others.

Jealousy or envy arises and manifests itself in false witness. "So and so is a nice person BUT..." and then we begin. Every person has some weak point and we have selected it and are enlarging upon it. But often that is false witness because it gives a wrong conception of that person and does not preserve his good name.

Then there are the choice bits of gossip. "I don't know whether or not it is true but so and so said it..." And the evil report is on the wing. While serving as pastor in Middletown a certain fine family prepared to move. Then I received word from a place in New Jersey to the effect that they were moving because there had been a "run-in" with the minister. It happened we were on the best terms.

A good practice to follow when someone brings a rumor or bit of gossip is to ask the simple question, "How do you know it is true?" When they reply, "Well, so and so said it." Then ask the question again, "But how do you know it is true?" Another rather effective method of killing gossip is to say, "I am very sorry to hear that about Mr. Brown, let us go and see him at once, perhaps the wrong will be corrected." Usually such suggestions meet with ominous silence.

There is another violation of this command which is often overlooked. This command calls for speaking the truth but sometimes if you speak the truth you break this law.

A missionary who would go to a heathen land and there tell the natives about the adultery and murder of David, and then with no further information concerning his godly life, simply declare that he was a man after God's own heart, would surely be guilty of false witness. The application should be easily made to our own conduct.

Or again, in conversation someone may make a derogatory statement about another person. It may be that in general he has the highest regard for this other person but he criticizes one point. If you hasten to convey that criticism to the person referred to, you may break this command. Not that what you say is technically wrong, but what you say does not convey a true impression of the attitude of this person. In truth he has a high regard, but the manner of your speech may give the impression he has a low regard, for the person criticized and thus the good name will be affected and hard feeling will be encouraged.

O that the Lord would set a watch by our mouths and keep the door of our lips. "In many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body." James 3:2. Is there one who can say, "I am innocent"? Alas, we all are guilty and we would do well each to concentrate on his own offense rather than on that of others.

II. How to Deal with an Offense

But what shall be done when offenses are committed in the church? What shall be done if someone commits a trespass against me? Many people say, "I'll forgive him if he comes and apologizes, but of course I'm not crawling to him on my knees. I didn't do anything wrong, he did. He'll have to come to me." Now those words may sound rather logical. If I didn't do any wrong to the other person but he wronged me, why shouldn't he have to come? But that reasoning does not accord with the words of Jesus. He says, "Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee thou hast gained thy brother." In this place Jesus teaches that he who is offended should go to the other person. In Matthew five Jesus teaches that he who offends should go to the other person. Therefore, whether I have offended a person or he has offended me, in either case it is my duty to go and seek a reconciliation.

The underlying principle is this, that members of a church ought to love each other and they ought to be one. There are times when husbands and wives who love one another have sharp words or disagreements. Perhaps at the time neither one wants to give in, yet because of the underlying love they can hardly stand the barrier that seems to separate them. Soon they both are eager to seek a reconciliation. We ought to love one another in the church so that we would hate the thought of any barrier arising to cause a separation. So often, however, through envy, jealousy, and pride we get ourselves into such a state that we don't want a reconciliation. We come to the point where we feel the difference is too fundamental and we just can't get along together. Therefore, if we do speak together neither one is willing to acknowledge the slightest fault. Both act as if they were free from sin. But Jesus says, "This is my commandment that ye love one another as I have loved you." John 15:12. The apostle John said, "He that loveth his brother abideth in the light and there is none occasion of stumbling in him." I John 2:10. And again, "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar." 1 John 4: 20.

Thus Jesus teaches that if I have committed an offense against another person or he has committed an offense against me, in either case, with hearts filled with true love, we should get together and seek a reconciliation.

That is not an easy thing to do but it is the right thing to do. Often that person is the last one you want to see. He slandered you. He robbed you of your good name. You feel like fighting him. But Jesus says,"If thy brother trespass against thee go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone." Usually one wants to speak to someone else. He wants to say, "So and so said this about me. He is spreading a false story and it makes me angry." Then that person hastens to tell someone else and soon there are sides and a real fight is on. Jesus says, go to the person who has offended you.

But it is also important to consider how one should go. Should one say, "That person can't get away with such things, I'm going to straighten him out?" The answer is easy. Does that gain the brother? Surely not. Go in anger to one who has offended you and the fire breaks out more than ever. The apostle Paul tells us the proper way. "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself lest thou also be tempted." Gal. 6:1.

In other words, sit down and think about yourself. Think of the times you have done similar wrongs. Think of the many sins of your own life. Then after earnest prayer that you may gain your brother, go with true meekness and Christian love. It is wonderful what results come from such procedure. Often the closest and most lasting friendships have resulted when quarrels have been straightened out in the Biblical manner. It is wonderful what results come when we follow the instruction of Christ the Head of the church. The cost of war is terrific. Therefore, let us seek peace. But there is a stronger reason, a much more basic reason. It is this. Christ the Lord and Sovereign Ruler of the church has commanded us to seek peace. He has instructed us to seek to be one in Him. If we ignore this instruction and do those things which destroy unity one day Christ the Judge will say, "Give an account!"

Reprinted from the Presbyterian Guardian, Volume 15, No 17, September 15, 1946. The OPC Committee for the Historian has made the archives of the Presbyterian Guardian available online!


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