A Warning from History
Written by W. H. B. in 1891
Submitted by Robert McClurkin
The implications of the above article written so many years ago would surely warn us to avoid the bitter fruit of that which was sown among us in those early days. —R. McC.
The solemn warnings of the Lord Jesus touching “the leaven of the Pharisees” is not out of date. Though “the sect of the Pharisees” has ceased to be as it existed in the days of our Lord, “the leaven of the Pharisees” shows itself in various forms, the germ of it being in fallen human nature, and only requiring congenial soil for its ready development.
The history of the Pharisees reveals that what had begun well as a movement of recovery in a degenerate nation, inspired by the Spirit of God, soon fell to the level of the flesh. The later Pharisees grew in likeness to their predecessors in Isaiah’s day who walked after their own thoughts and said to others, “Come not near to me, for I am holier than thou” (Isa. 65:2-5). The self-complacence of the Pharisees found expression in the words, “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are,” in strong condemnation of all who did not do as they did, and supreme contempt of such as did not come up to their standard in the matter of light and knowledge. In their self-confidence they could thus despise and pronounce as “cursed” some of the most godly of the nation, the true remnant who were “waiting for the consolation of Israel” and being prepared by the ministry of the Baptist, were ready to hear the Shepherd’s voice and to follow Him.
As before said, it is the degeneracy of what began in the fear of God, and with the desire for His glory, that causes the history of the Pharisees to be so full of instruction and warning to us, and it is the personal application of this lesson that we all so deeply need.
It may be easy to discern the corrupting leaven of the Pharisees in systems around us, and to see how men are being led away from the truth of God to traditions, and are substituting human forms for spiritual power. Inasmuch also as the Pharisees of the Lord’s day were unregenerate men, the ready thought of the heart might be that to such alone His warnings are applicable.
The fact that is was to His own disciples that the Lord said, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees,” shows us that this leaven may work in the children of God and servants of Christ. It may also suggest that the very effort to be faithful to God in a day of departure from His truth exposes us to the insidious working of this subtle evil. It behooves us, therefore, to consider in what way the Lord’s command may apply to us, and how we may profit by it. To help us in this, let us glance at another movement of the Spirit of God, its first results, and subsequent consequences.
About the year 1830 when the calling and hope of the Church of God were little known, it pleased God to lead some of His people to a more diligent study of His Word, and to enable them to put into practice what they had learned. Some of the truths that became living realities to them were, the heavenly calling of the Church, the unity of the Body of Christ, the priesthood of believers and the bright hope of the Coming of the Lord Jesus. As the result of this they gathered together in the Name of the Lord alone, for worship and the breaking of bread in remembrance of Him, depending on God for the ministry of His Word through those whom He fitted to minister it. They sought in the personal and family life to live as those who were but pilgrims here. As in their assemblies they endeavoured to own the oneness of all who are in Christ, so in their homes they gave equal proof that separation from the world by His Cross was a reality to them. Thus, again, God gave some of His people a little reviving, and the joyful sound of the Gospel went forth for the deliverance of many souls that had been held in bondage through lack of the knowledge of the truth.
Satan’s eye was upon this great work, and it was not long before it was marred. God may have seen secret pride and allowed it to be tested. Some, not content with the plain truths of Scripture, went beyond its teaching into serious error. Error was met in the haste of the flesh, instead of in the spirit of faith and prayer. Thus division came, and many not only turned from error, but, bringing in new conditions of fellowship, gradually built up a system, which by its own weight has fallen to pieces.
That there is danger of compromise in such a position is very evident, and it is a danger that there are only two ways of avoiding. The one is by maintaining a spirit of watchfulness and prayer, with an individual walking with God in the path of obedience. The other is that of rigid separation from everything or everyone that does not come up to what we regard as the divine standard. We may surely cherish a spirit of readiness to fellowship with saints who are not scripturally disqualified without compromising what we believe to be the truth. Any who disallow this, and think it necessary to adopt an alternative course, must make knowledge and attainment, with perfect agreement in external matters, the conditions of fellowship.
Of these two, the latter is by far the easier. The former can only be pursued in the grace and spirit of Christ, by wisdom and power received from Him continually, and therefore by constant dependence upon the Word and Spirit of God. The latter simply requires the laying down of a law, which may then be carried out with the zeal of a Jehu and with as little grace as he possessed. It is sad to see that some are diligently pressing this mode of action as if it were the only antidote to laxity, and charging those who do not follow them with unfaithfulness to God. The Pharisees went so far as to consider themselves defiled by contact even with other Jews, who, while faithful to the law, were not so vigorous as themselves in ritual observances. So those of whom we speak deem it necessary to refuse fellowship with others, who, while seeking to be obedient to the Word of God, do not join them in usurping the prerogative of our one Master, and sitting in the judgment-seat.
Those who were called out of worldly systems in those early days of the movement, did not need to make great professions of being separate, simply because they were separate, nor was it necessary for them to make rigid rules and conditions, for there was power among them. They had learned that “the Kingdom of God is not in word but in power” and instead of being loud in their condemnation of other Christians, they were diligent in good works and their lives were a standing witness for Christ. They thought and spoke of Him more than of themselves. He was the great attraction to others. Just as in Israel’s brightest days they gloried in what God was to them and what He had done for them. In their days of degeneracy ideas of themselves were uppermost and their empty boast was, “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, are these” (Jer. 7:4).
In all human systems, ecclesiasticism is the chief thing, with conformity to external rule. The principle of Rome is, “Be a good Catholic, go to mass, pay your pence, and hate Protestantism, and you are all right.” So in this country there is a widespread feeling that if only a man is a good churchman, it is of secondary importance what else he may be. The same principle is at work where-ever there is a severing of what God has joined together, and even correct church position is made of more importance than the cultivation of personal godliness.
We cannot help seeing that this dangerous tendency is steadily growing in some quarters. In conference the one topic ever to the front is church position, while what would feed souls and stir hearts to practical godliness is altogether ignored. In this way those who are correct ecclesiastically are encouraged to regard themselves with complacency and despise others, and the young and inexperienced are trained to pass sentence upon the most devoted servants of Christ, who, while separate themselves from the various systems around them, would not refuse fellowship or brotherly intercourse with any true fellow-servants who do not fully take the same stand. It has even been said that he who is right ecclesiastically, though his general conduct is not what it should be, glorifies God more than one who is in a wrong ecclesiastical position, however devoted and blameless he may be in His life. This simply puts into words the principle that underlies the teaching we refer to and gives evidence of its effect upon those who receive it.
We in no wise make light of scriptural position, or of the responsibility of all believers to own the Name of our Lord Jesus alone, in separation from worldly systems which call Him “Lord, Lord” but do not the things that He says. We are quite sure that amid the growing pretensions of priestism and the assumptions of clericalism, the Lord looks down with pleasure upon any little companies of His people who seek to give Him His true place, keeping His word and holding fast His Name. Those, who at much personal cost, take this despised place in fellowship with Him will have His approval in the coming day. But that against which we raise the warning voice is the strong tendency to make a certain position the one thing and thus to lead children of God to put conformity to the will of God in daily life, and the cherishing of the mind of Christ toward His people, in a secondary place. For in this way pride is fostered instead of humility, and the habit of suspecting everybody takes the place of the love that “hopeth all things.”
Does the constant pressing of one line of ecclesiastical truth lead to greater devotedness to Christ and greater zeal in the spread of the Gospel both in this land and abroad? Is it not the reverse?
In order to keep the soul healthy and fervent, all truth is needed in due proportion. And wherever Church position is made the one prominent point, to the setting aside of that which is designed to keep the soul exercised before God and the heart warmed with the love of Christ, the withering effect upon spiritual life and service is too evident, self-judgment is lacking, springs of sympathy and compassion are dried up and there can be little fruit for God.