The Agora
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True principles and uncertain details

By Robert Roberts

It has pleased God to save men by the belief and obedience of a system of truth briefly described as "the gospel of our salvation," and also spoken of by Jesus and John and Paul as "the truth." "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."-- Jesus. For this reason, it is necessary for believers to be particular in requiring the full recognition of this truth at the hands of one another as the basis of their mutual association, and generally, to "contend for the faith once delivered to the saints," as enjoined by Jude. Those men are to be commended who faithfully exact this recognition both at the hands of applicants for baptism and claimants for fellowship.

But there is a danger of going too far. We live in a world of extremes of all kinds. It is difficult for any length of time to maintain an equilibrium in the application of any principle on account of the disbalances of mind so prevalent in the population, and the tendency of men to drive each other into extravagant positions through the sheer friction of personal antagonisms.

This is probably more manifest in the Truth than in anything else, because of the obligation to make a firm stand which arises out of the Truth, as it arises out of nothing else. When men differ about the Truth, their differences are more unappeasable than in any other subject because of the greatness of the interests involved and an earnestness of purpose and a depth of affection created by the Truth, as by nothing else. It was not without a reason that Jesus foretold division as the result of his appearance -- division so keen that "a man's foes should be they of his own house."

So much of division is inevitable, and while lamenting it, men of God can but submit, with as little asperity towards those who cause it as possible. But there are divisions that are uncalled for, and therefore sinful. Paul refers to such when he says: "Mark them that cause divisions among you contrary to the doctrine (the teaching on unity) that ye have learnt" (Rom 16:17). He was referring, no doubt, to the factions arising out of personal preferences, but the warning applies to all divisions that ought not to be made.

There is division enough, in all conscience division that is inevitable -- division that must be, unless we are to ignore divine obligations altogether; but there are divisions that ought not to be. It is possible to go too far in our demands on fellow believers. How far we ought to go and where to stop, is at one time or other a perplexing problem to most earnest minds. They are afraid on the one hand of compromising the Truth in fellowship, and on the other, of sinning against the weaker members of the body of Christ. The only end there can be to this embarrassment is found in the discrimination between true principles and uncertain details that do not overthrow them.

There are general principles as to which there can be no compromise: but there are also unrevealed applications of these principles in detail which cannot be determined with certainty, and which every man must he allowed to judge for himself without any challenge of his right to fellowship. To insist on uniformity of opinion on those uncertain details is an excess of zeal which may he forgiven, but which meanwhile inflicts harm and distress without just cause.

An exception would, of course, be naturally made in the case of the construction of a detail that would destroy the general principle involved, such as where a man professing to believe in Christ might also believe in Mahomet or Confucius -- of which there are examples. This supplementary belief destroys the first belief, for a true belief in Christ is a belief in his exclusive claims

It may help discernment if we consider some examples unaffected by uncertain details,


GENERAL PRINCIPLES.-- "He that cometh to God must believe that HE IS and that He is the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him." There can be no question as to our duty where men become unbelieving or doubtful of Cod's existence, or of His favourable disposition towards and purpose to openly reward the men who are diligent in their quest of Him and ready in their obedience.

Uncertain Detail.-- But as to how or where He exists, and in what form or aspect His person is shown and how surrounded -- whether He inhabits a world of His own or be the radiant centre of a cluster of celestial worlds; and whether His name means I SHALL BE or I AM, or both, and I HAVE BEEN as well (as in the Apocalyptic formula, "which art and wast and art to come"), there is truth concerning all these points -- truth that we shall know and revel in when we are spirit, but it is not possible in our present circumstances to be certain as to any of them, and we should do wrong to insist on any particular opinion as to them. The admission of the true principle that God exists and that He will reward His lovers and friends is all we can claim in fellowship at the hands of fellow-believers.


GENERAL PRINCIPLE.-- That God made man of the dust of the ground.

Uncertain Detail. -- But as to whether it was a direct action of the Father's formative energy, after the manner in which sound creates geometric figures in sand scattered loosely upon a tightly extended vibrating surface, or by the expert manipulation of angelic hands, we cannot be sure. There are grounds for a strong opinion in favour of the latter, but it would be unwarrantable to insist on the reception of that opinion as a condition of fellowship. It is sufficient if the brother or sister believe that "God made man of the dust of the ground."


GENERAL PRINCIPLE.-- He was a living soul or natural body of life, maintained in being by the action of the air through the lungs like us, but unlike us, a "very good" form of that mode of being, and unsubjected to death.

Uncertain Detail.-- Would he have died if left alone, unchanged, in that state if he had not sinned? Who can tell? The testimony is that death came by sin: but the fact also is that, not being a spiritual body, he was presumably not immortal. Are we going to insist upon an opinion on a point like this, about which no man can be certain? We shall act unwarrantably if we do so. It is sufficient if a man believe that Adam after creation was a very good form of flesh and blood, untainted by curse. The uncertain points must be left to private judgment.


GENERAL PRINCIPLE.-- That they are the Father's multitudinous messengers in glorious bodily form, spiritual and immortal, to whom the brethren and sisters of Christ are to be made equal.

Uncertain Detail.-- Where do they come from? Where do they live? Were they made immortal at the beginning, or did they come through a state of probationary evil like the race of Adam? Who can tell?

We may have a strong opinion, but are we going to ask believers to profess an "opinion" as a condition of fellowship? This would be going too far. It is sufficient that a believer believe in the existence and employment of the immortal angels of God. It would be a cruel extravagance to ask him to subscribe to an opinion which may be wrong.


GENERAL PRINCIPLE.-- That the earth is the promised inheritance of the saints.

Uncertain Detail.-- Is the earth a globe or a plane, or is it a concavity as the latest speculation affirms on scientific grounds? Who can tell? If a brother choose to think it is a plane, let him think so. It matters nothing what his opinion of the shape of the earth is, so long as he believe that the earth is the inheritance of the saints. An opinion that the earth is going to be burnt up is an opinion that would interfere with the general principle, and therefore to be rejected: but any opinion as to the constitution of the earth is to be tolerated in charity


GENERAL PRINCIPLE.-- God made them, and they are His.

Uncertain Detail.-- Are they inhabited worlds, or are they mere lights in the expanse, as the new Koreishan science teaches? No one can tell, though there are grounds for a strong opinion. Let each one have his own opinion. We shall know all about it if we are chosen of the Lord at Christ's return. If a brother admit that God made them, and that they belong to Him, he admits what has been revealed and what is essential to an adequate conception of the greatness of God. He must be allowed to differ from the rest, if he does so, as to what they are in themselves.


GENERAL PRINCIPLE.-- That the glorified brethren of Christ will reign with him as kings and priests with Christ, when he has set up the Kingdom of God at his return.

Uncertain Detail.-- Will they be scattered over the surface of the earth in palaces of their own, with definitely allotted districts which they will individually administer: or will they be collected as one body always resident in Jerusalem near the person of Christ? There are good reasons for believing the former of these views to be correct, but as an uncertain detail, we dare not insist upon a particular opinion, as a condition of fellowship. It is sufficient if a brother believe that we shall reign with Christ, whatever dim ideas he may have as to details that do not interfere with the general principle.


GENERAL PRINCIPLE.-- That the Bible devil is the personified antagonism of flesh and Blood to God, in various forms and methods.

Uncertain Detail.-- What was the particular form of Bible diabolism that Michael encountered in the dispute about the body of Moses? What was the particular form of the Bible devil that tempted Jesus in the wilderness? We cannot positively know because we are not informed, and because the Bible devil is over and over again a man, an institution, a government, or a desire. We may have an opinion as to who the devil was in these two cases, but it is only an opinion, and a brother must be at liberty to hold whatever opinion commends itself to him in the case, so long as his opinion does not upset the general principle in the case, nor open the door for the supernatural devil of popular theology.


GENERAL PRINCIPLE.-- Moses was the servant of God, and at his death, was honoured with a divine interment.

Uncertain Detail.-- Is Moses living now? Some think so, because he appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration. Some think not, because that transfiguration is styled a " vision." What are we to do? Let every man have his own view, so long as the divinity of the work and writings of Moses is recognised. We shall find out presently from Moses himself whether he has been alive since the first appearing of Christ and the information will be very interesting; but how absurd it would be to require at the present moment a particular view on the point as a condition of fellowship.


GENERAL PRINCIPLE.-- That we shall be gathered to meet Christ at his coming whether living or dead, when that great event occurs.

Uncertain Detail.-- How shall we be gathered? Shall we be carried off as Elijah was, or Philip, or Christ himself -- by the prehensile energy of the Spirit of God? or shall we he conveyed by natural means, such as railways and steamboats? Who can be quite sure? It matters not. When the time comes, there will be no mistake about it. There is a strong probability that it will be by the power of the Spirit of God, and not by human locomotion. But are we to reject a brother because he strongly thinks it will be by natural means? So long as he believes in "the coming of our Lord Jesus and our gathering together unto him," he may form his own ideas as to the particular method by which we are to be gathered. No opinion on that point is inconsistent with the general principle.


GENERAL PRINCIPLE.-- That God will bestow immortality of nature on His accepted servants at the coming of Christ.

Uncertain Detail.-- At what particular moment will this be done? Will it be done individually as we appear one by one before the judgment seat of Christ? or will it be done en masse when we have all been judged? If the latter, will it be done immediately the judgment is finished, or will it be deferred to the time when the whole earth has been subjugated by the war of the great day of God Almighty in which the saints take part? Who can tell? We may have our opinions, but we must not insist on our opinions as a condition of fellowship, unless opinions trench on general truth. An opinion to the effect that we are immortal already would clearly destroy the truth that we are to become so only when Christ comes and at his hands. In that case, we would be under the painful necessity of objecting. But provided the general truth is received, we dare not insist on a particular view as to the moment that general truth will be carried into effect.


THE GENERAL TRUTH.-- That Christ will build the temple of the future age as a house of prayer for all people.

Uncertain Detail.-- What will be the size of it? What will be the shape of it? There are no grounds for absolute certainty. There are strong grounds for the view presented by brother Sulley in his temple book: but we should not be justified in making the reception of this view a condition of fellowship. It is sufficient that the general truth is received. Any view that may be entertained as to details is not inconsistent with the general truth.


GENERAL PRINCIPLE.-- That Christ will call the living and the dead before his judgment seat at his coming.

Uncertain Detail.-- Where will he set it up? Will it be in Palestine, or in Egypt, or in the Arabian Peninsula, in the solitudes of Sinai? We cannot be sure. All available evidence seems to point in the direction of the last-mentioned; but an uncertain detail must not be made a basis of fellowship. We must not insist upon a man believing the judgment seat will be set up at Sinai or any particular place so long as he believes that "Jesus Christ will judge the living and the dead at his appearing and his Kingdom."


GENERAL PRINCIPLE.-- That men are responsible to the resurrection of condemnation who refuse subjection to the will of God when their circumstances are such as to leave them no excuse for such refusal.

Uncertain Detail.-- But when, in our age, are men in such circumstances? Who can tell but God alone? Some think it is enough if a man have a Bible. Some think that is not enough unless the Bible is explained to him (as in a lecture or book). Some think that is not enough unless the man have the capacity to understand the explanation. Some think even that is not enough unless the hand of God is openly shown in certification of the divinity of the Bible, as in the apostolic age, when "the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word with signs following.''

What are we to do? Are we to insist upon a precise shade of opinion on a point about which no judicious man can be absolutely clear? All we can be sure about is that when men are "without excuse" knowing the judgment of God (Rom 1:20,32; 2:1); when they have "no cloak for their sin" like the men who saw the miracles of Christ, and yet both "saw and hated both him and his Father" (Joh 15:22,24), that they will come forth at the resurrection to receive punishment according to the righteous judgment of God. When men admit this, they admit enough for purposes of fellowship as regards this particular point. To insist on more than this is to go too far, and to inflict needless distress and cause unnecessary division.

No doubt the men who do so think they are doing God service. There is a little excuse for them in the extraordinary doctrine that has been propounded that in the matter of resurrection, God "does not proceed on principles of justice," but on principles of law, and that if a man have not gone so far in submission and obedience as to be baptised into Christ, Christ has no hold on him, however great and deliberate a rebel he may be.

But they go unwarrantably beyond what is just in withdrawing from those who have not received this doctrine, but who are hazy as to the application of the scriptural rule of responsibility in our particular age. Their zeal for a true doctrine is good, but not the shutting of their eyes to the reasonable qualifications that belong to the true view of the subject. They read "He that believeth not shall be condemned," and they exclaim, "Why hesitate?" They forget that these words refer to those who saw the signs. If they say, "No, they apply to everybody also", they have to be reminded that they do not really think so themselves. Do they believe the Mahometans, and the Chinese who "believe not" will be raised to condemnation? Do they think the benighted millions of Christendom, who "believe not" will be raised? They do not. They have only to ask themselves "Why?" to he reminded of the qualifying fact associated with the words they quote. That qualifying fact was that the men referred to had no excuse for not believing. As Jesus said, " If I had not come and spoken unto them (and done among them works which none other man did), they had not had sin" (to answer for). "If ye were blind, ye should have no sin" (in rejecting me).

God is just. The mere circumstance of believing not, is not a ground for resurrectional condemnation in the absence of those attendant circumstances that demand belief. So with the other statement, "He that rejecteth me," etc. It has to be qualified by the parenthesis understood, "having seen the works I have done."

But say they, "Where the Gospel has power to save" it has power to condemn; and if rejectors are not to be raised, what guarantee have we that acceptors will be saved?" The answer is, Where the Gospel has power to save, it certainly has power to condemn; but where has the Gospel power to save? Only where it is known and believed. In that case, it will condemn the man who does not conform to its requirements. But has it power to save where a man is ignorant or uncertain? No enlightened man would say "Yes" here, and therefore it will be observed that the conclusion as to the condemning power of the Gospel, where it has power to save, has no application to the class of persons in dispute, viz., men, who in the darkness of the age are uncertain as to the truth, though knowing it in a theoretical manner.

Men who say to Christadelphians, "I understand what you believe and it is beautiful; but is it true? If the Bible is divine, no doubt it is true; but I have my reservations as to the Bible." There is no quarrel as to the men who recognise the Bible as the Word of God, and, understanding it, are aware of its demands upon them to repent and submit to the service of Christ; and yet refuse submission because of the present inconveniences of submission. The responsibility of these men to the resurrection of condemnation is without doubt, but where there is one man of this kind, there are hundreds who are in a haze and a maze of uncertainty as to the truthfulness of the Truth, though knowing what the Truth is, and concerning whom it is not possible to take the ground that they will rise to condemnation at the coming of Christ.

A mistake is made in contending for precise views on a matter that cannot be made precise. Where men admit that rebels and unbelievers who deserve punishment will rise at the resurrection to receive that punishment without reference to the question whether they are baptised or not, they admit all that can righteously be exacted from them. It is impossible for any man to say, who are so deserving. We know that God is just, and will do no unrighteousness. When men admit that He will resurrectionally punish the men who are deserving of it, whether baptised or not, it is inadmissible that we should withdraw from them because they are unable to say who are and who are not so deserving.

There is the less need for the extreme demands of some on this head, since those who have espoused the extraordinary doctrine that a man must obey God a little before he is punishable, have separated themselves from those who will not receive their doctrine. "But this has not brought peace," say they. Do they imagine that this other movement is going to bring peace? Behold how much the reverse. They are separating men who ought to remain united because holding the same truth, though made by an artificial contention to appear as if they did not. They are sowing division and bitterness and strife on the plea of producing harmony and peace. They are refusing the friends of Christ because of uncertainties as to how much Christ will punish a certain class of his enemies. And compassing sea and land to make proselytes to this most unenlightened proceeding.

How perfectly melancholy it seems in the presence of the real work of the Truth. While the world is up in arms against the Bible, or where not against the Bible, against the doctrines of the Bible, and some good and honest hearts surrender, and joyfully profess faith in the writings of Moses, the prophets and the apostles, and receive the Gospel as preached to Abraham, and expounded by Jesus to the hearers of the apostolic age with all readiness of mind and they ask for baptism that they may become servants of Christ in the obedience of his commandments, and heirs of the great salvation promised to the faithful. We examine them and find them fully enlightened in "the glorious Gospel of the blessed God," and we baptise them.

They come to the table of the Lord: an extremist steps forward and says:

"Do you believe rejectors of the truth will rise to condemnation?"

The newborn says: "I believe the rejectors referred to by Christ will rise."

Extremist: "Will not all rejectors rise?"

Newborn: " Not all rejectors, I think. The Mahometans reject Christ. I do not expect them to rise."

Extremist: "You are trifling with the question."

Newborn: "I think not. I understood that rejectors were not responsible unless they rebel against the light knowing it to be the light."

Extremist: "That is what I mean, but many are hazy who these are: will you promise to withdraw from such?"

Newborn: "You put me in a difficulty there. If men believe that the Lord will punish those who deserve it, and that rebels and unbelievers will be excluded from the Kingdom of God, I should scarcely feel justified in refusing them because of any little uncertainty they might have as to the Lord's precise method of dealing with them. It would depend upon the nature of their reasons. If they were to contend that Christ had no hold on rebels unless they were baptlsed, and that rebels could outwit God, as it were, by refusing to go into the water, and that in fact resurrectional condemnation was only for the obedient, and that the safe way for men when the Gospel comes is to have nothing to do with it, I confess I should look upon that as such a confusion of Truth in its most elementary principles as would justify me in refusing identification with it. But if their difficulty were merely as to the precise amount of privilege needful to make an unbeliever responsible, I should hesitate in refusing them. I should, in fact, fear to do wrong in doing so."

Extremist: "Oh, I see you are prepared to compromise the truth for the sake of numbers."

Newborn: "I think you are not justified in that expression of opinion."

Extremist: "I have a right to form my own opinion."

Newborn: "A man may have to answer for wrong opinions of that sort. You judge and condemn where you are forbidden to do so."

If the Extremist will walk out under those circumstances, there is nothing for it but to bear it.

This "doctrine of fellowship" (as it is called) is also carried to an excess never contemplated in apostolic prescription. I was called upon by a man in dead earnest who contended there were no such things as "first principles," and that every detail of Truth, down even to the date of the expiry of the Papal 1260, should be insisted on as a condition of fellowship.

Such outrageous extravagance would not be contended for by every extremist; but in principle, they are guilty of it when they insist on uncertain details, as well as true general principles.

Fellowship is friendly association for the promotion of a common object -- with more or less of the imperfection belonging to all mortal life. To say that every man in that fellowship is responsible for every infirmity of judgment that may exist in the association is an extreme to which no man of sound judgment can lend himself. There will be flawless fellowship in the perfect state. Perhaps it is the admiration of this in prospect that leads some to insist upon it now. But it is none the less a mistake. This is a mixed and preparatory state in which much has to be put up with when the true principles are professed.

Judas was a thief, and Jesus knew it, but tolerated him till he manifested himself. Was Jesus responsible while he fellowshipped him? Certainly not. Judas was qualified for the fellowship of the apostolic circle by his endorsement of the common professed objects of its existence, viz., the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom in conjunction with Jesus as the accepted "Christ, the Son of the living God." His thieving character did not exclude him from that circle till he went and hanged himself.

There were men among the Corinthian brethren who denied the resurrection: did Paul charge the brethren with complicity with that heresy because of the presence of such among them? Doubtless their rejection of the resurrection nullified their claims for that place, but still it did not make the true brethren guilty of their false doctrine while merely tolerating them, pending an appeal to Paul.

If a man lend himself to the evil projects of others and wish them well in them, no doubt they are as responsible for those projects as if they actually promoted them with their own personal labours. This is the principle to which John gives expression when he says, "He that biddeth him (the holder of false doctrine) God-speed, is partaker of his evil deeds." But the principle is carried too far when it is made applicable to the individual diversities and idiosyncrasies of a community concurring in a common object and a common doctrine and a common service, and having fellowship one with another in the promotion of these common things. Men thus associated together are not responsible for each other's peculiarities or doubtful thoughts on matters of uncertain detail. They are responsible only for what they wittingly espouse. They would be responsible for the admission of a Mahometan, or a Papal idolator, or an orthodox denier of the Gospel, as such. They are not responsible for every shade of opinion that may dwell in the breast of a man admitted on account of his professed subjection to the Truth. It is nothing but monstrous to contend for a fellowship-responsibility of this sort. In fact, it would make fellowship impossible. It would turn ecclesial life into an intolerable inquisition, instead of a source of comfort and edification and help and joy, from the sharing of a common faith.

It is asked, Why did you take such strong ground then, with regard to fellowship, on the question of inspiration? Wise men do not require an answer. If there are those who feel they require it, here it is. The question of the inspiration of the Bible is a question of whether it is God speaking or man: a question of whether we may trust absolutely to what we read as of divine authority, or whether it may possibly be the vagaries of unenlightened human brains.

Such a question goes right to the foundation. It is the first of all first principles, for without the absolute reliability of the Bible, there is no such thing as a first principle possible. For any doubt to exist on this question was to render fellowship impossible on various strong grounds. Such a doubt was raised in harmony with the widespread rot that prevails under various learned auspices in the religious world. It was espoused warmly by some in our midst; by many others who do not profess to receive it there was an unwillingness to refuse it fellowship. Consequently, we had either to tolerate the currency of a doctrine quietly and gradually destructive of all Truth in our midst, or refuse to have anything to do with it, and stop up all leak-holes by insisting not only on the right doctrine, but on the refusal of toleration to the wrong.

To contend for the equal applicability of such measures to the question of the responsibility of rebels and unbelievers, does certainly seem to indicate an inability to distinguish between things that differ. A brother's uncertainties on the subject is an affair of interpretation of the Lord's acknowledged word. He does not deny the Lord's utterances: he asks what do they mean? This is a position to be treated in a very different manner from the attitude that calls in question the authenticity of the Lord's words. And any misapprehension he may labour under as to the meaning of the words does not affect any general truth in the case, but merely the application of said truth in detail. He does not say, "I believe rebels and unbelievers will go unpunished if they are not baptised."

He says, "l certainly believe they will be punished, whether baptised or not, in all cases in which the Lord thinks they are deserving of it. But," adds he, "I see the Lord makes blindness a reason for exemption. And therefore I feel in a state of uncertainty as to how much the Lord will punish various classes of unbelievers in a day like ours when all is so dark." To apply to such a position the stringent measures called for by the denial of the complete inspiration of the Bible indicates a fogginess of mental vision.

Upon which, there rises the exclamation: "How are the mighty fallen! What a change in the position of brother Roberts with reference to the question of fellowship! " We can endure such objurgations because they come from the mouths of wellmeaning men, and because they are based upon entire misapprehension. We have changed in nothing since the day we commenced the active service of the Truth. In the beginning, we had to deal with men who were prepared to compromise first principles in fellowship. To every disease its own remedy. We took a line of argument suitable to the exigency. But now, there is another extreme of an equally destructive character in another way. It is an extreme requiring another kind of argument. Have we changed because we take a line of argument suited to a new dilemma? There are several sides to a camp. When the attack is on the north, the troops are sent that way in defence. Is the general inconsistent because when the attack comes from the west, he withdraws his troops from the north, and sends them to the new point of attack? We are sorry for all the brethren affected by the varying tactics of error (for this is an error of action of a very serious character: if it is not an error of doctrine). It is an offence against the little ones believing in Christ, of which he expressed such great jealousy. It may be forgiven as Paul's persecution of the disciples was forgiven: but for the time being, it is a grave offence which we refuse to share. There is nothing for it but to wait. We are all helpless in these periodic fermentations, and must bear them as well as we can, and come through them with as little friction as possible in comforting prospect of the master hand that will soon take the helm, and give to the world peace, after storm; and to his accepted brethren, rest after the exhausting toils of this great and terrible wilderness.
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