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Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?

 Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?

By Roland Allen

Chapter 10: Authority and Discipline


With the appointment of elders, the churches were complete. They were fully equipped. They very soon became familiar with all the orders of ministry both permanent and charismatic. They no longer depended necessarily upon St. Paul. If he went away, or if he died, the churches remained. They grew in numbers and in grace: they were centers of spiritual light by which the darkness of surrounding heathenism was gradually dispelled. In Galatia 'the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in number daily'. From Thessalonica 'the word of the Lord sounded out in Macedonia and Achaia. From Ephesus, the Gospel spread throughout all the neighboring countries so that many churches sprang up, the members of which had never seen St. Paul's face, and he himself could write to the Romans that he had 'no more place in those regions'.

They were no longer dependent upon the Apostle, but they were not independent of him. When there was occasion he did not hesitate to assert authority over the churches which he had founded and to claim that he had received it directly from the Lord. 'Though I should glory somewhat abundantly concerning our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for casting you down, I shall not be put to shame.' When he thought it necessary he could stop the mouth of an objector with the assertion, 'We have no such custom'. He laid down the general principle, 'As the Lord hath distributed to every man, as God hath called each, so let him walk', and added, 'So ordain I in all the churches'. He gave certain directions for public worship, and concluded, 'The rest will I set in order when I come,' When people resisted his authority, he proposed to set up a court in which every word should be established 'at the mouth of two or three witnesses', with the threat 'If I come again I will not spare'.

Now with regard to these assertions of the apostolic authority, it is necessary to observe that they all occur in the epistles to one church, and that they were called forth for the most part by the outrageous conduct of unreasonable and disorderly men. They certainly do not represent St. Paul's general attitude to his churches. They do not even represent the attitude of St. Paul to the Corinthians as a body. In the very epistles in which these threats are used, he repudiates the idea that he had 'lordship over their faith'. Though they certainly prove that the Apostle recognized that he possessed a power upon which he could fall back in case of necessity, yet they also prove how sparingly he used it. He had to deal with some of the most pressing and difficult problems which can agitate a church. Many of The problems most easily and effectively solved, as we should naturally suppose, by an appeal to authority, yet he scarcely ever lays down the law, preferring doubt and strife to an enforced obedience to a rule. It is important that we should examine these cases carefully, because they give us a most valuable insight into the method of the Apostle and greatly help us to understand the secret of his success.

The most important questions which came before him were those of personal purity, litigation, and the eating of things offered to idols.

(1) Fornication. The prevalence of sexual immorality in the Gentile world was one of the difficulties which most grievously vexed the Jewish party in the Church. They argued with perfect reason that if Gentiles were admitted into the Church without being compelled to keep the law of Moses, the moral condition of the Church would soon be dragged down to a very low standard: and when they failed to enforce the duty of observing the whole Mosaic Code upon the Gentile Christians, they succeeded in making this offense the subject of one of the four solemn decrees of the Jerusalem Council.

The event proved how just their anxiety was. St. Paul had scarcely ceased preaching at Thessalonica, he had been in constant communication with the church when he wrote his first epistle: yet the sins of fornication and adultery occupy the first place in his exhortations. He had not been absent from Corinth more than two and a half years when he wrote the first Epistle to the Corinthians; yet in spite of the fact that the church had enjoyed the instruction of Apollos and was notorious for the wealth of its spiritual gifts, it is perfectly manifest that fornication was a common offense.

How then did St. Paul deal with this very serious difficulty? There is not in his letters one word of law: there is not a hint that the Jerusalem Council had issued any decree on the subject: there is not a suggestion that he desires a code of rules or a table of penalties. He does not threaten offenders with punishment. He does not say that he shall take any steps to procure their correction. He beseeches and exhorts in the Lord people to whom the Holy Spirit has been given to surrender themselves to the guidance of that Holy Spirit, to recognize that He is given to them that they may be holy in body and in soul, and that uncleanness necessarily involves the rejection of the Holy Spirit and incurs the wrath of God.

In the Epistle to the Thessalonians, for instance, this is his argument. He reminds his readers of his personal teaching when he was amongst them. He reminds them that God's will for them is sanctification. He suggests that there should be a difference between the conduct of Christians and that of Gentiles who know not God. He warns them that the Lord is the avenger of such misdeeds. He reiterates the truth that the purpose and will of God in calling them from the heathen world was that they should be made holy. Finally, he warns them that the rejection of his teaching on this subject is the rejection of the Holy Spirit.

Precisely similar is the language which he uses in the Epistle to the Corinthians. It has indeed been argued that he does in one verse apparently recommend that fornicators should be excommunicated when he says, 'I write unto you not to keep company, if any man that is named a brother be a fornicator? But this certainly does not refer to formal ex-communication, because it includes not only fornicators, but covetous, and revilers and extortioners, as well as drunkards and idolaters; and the same word is used of association both with heathen and with Christians. It is an exhortation to good Christians to use their private influence to correct the faults of their brethren by the silent rebuke of avoiding their company. It is to be compared rather with the exhortation in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, 'We command you, brethren, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly and not after the tradition which they received of us', then with the direction to 'Purge out the old leaven' and to 'deliver the offender to Satan'. The one is an exhortation 'to send a man to Coventry'; the other 'to expel him'.

Setting aside then this point, the language which St. Paul uses elsewhere in the Epistle to the Corinthians is exactly the same in character as that which we found in the Epistle to the Thessalonians. He argues that fornication is a violation of the true use of the body, that it is contrary to the glorious hope of the Resurrection, that it is a desecration of the members of Christ, that the body is not the Christian's own to use as he pleases, but is a temple of the Holy Ghost.

Surely it is very strange that St. Paul should not even hint at the fact that this sin had been condemned by the Jerusalem Council. Surely it is strange that in speaking of fornication in close connection with a flagrant case of incest he should not even suggest that it is a breach of the Ten Commandments. It is plain that St. Paul did not appeal to law at all. He did not seek the source of the moral life in any command or any exercise of authority. His Gospel was not a gospel of law but of spirit.

In this he was following the example of Christ Himself. It has often been pointed out that the method of Jesus was to inculcate principles and to leave His disciples to apply them; and it is interesting to observe that as St. Paul followed Christ so Clement of Rome kept the same rule in his Epistle to the Corinthians. It is a striking characteristic of that epistle that the writer never forgets that his duty is to point out the right course of action rather than to lay commands upon the church to which he writes. Again and again, he expresses his firm conviction that the church knows the will of God and will surrender itself to the guidance of the Spirit.

But it may be said that the church in Corinth was of such an independent spirit and was so conscious of its own capacities that it would not have tolerated any more autocratic method of government. The Corinthians was in no temper to accept directions simply on the authority even of St. Paul. That is, of come, true. But the question is, how did they come to that mind? If at conversion they had been admitted to a church and initiated into a religion, of which the most marked requirement was the observance of the law as laid down by authority, they would have understood that they could not be Christians unless they submitted to authority. Submission and obedience would have been the chief duty inculcated. Observance of the rules would have been the first duty of every convert. If St. Paul had from the very beginning insisted upon this aspect of the church that it is a society governed by rules which everyone who enters it must keep, the Corinthians and all his converts would never have thought of it in any other way. But that would have been precisely what St. Paul did not believe, and therefore could not teach. If he had begun in that way the difficulties which arose in Corinth could not have taken the form which they did take, and St. Paul could not possibly have dealt with them in the way in which he did deal with them. There might have been an insurrection against authority, but it would have been a revolt against the whole church system, and St. Paul must have suppressed it by authority, or the Church would have lost Corinth.

(2) Litigation. Some of the Corinthian Christians had apparently been prosecuting their brethren in the heathen law courts. Obviously this was an offense likely to bring the Name into disrepute. The simplest way to deal with it would have been to forbid it by decree, and to threaten any offender in the future with penalties. But that is not how St. Paul deals with it. He reasons with the whole body, and sets before the brethren his argument, and there leaves the matter. He puts before them the glaring inconsistency between their conduct and their position as Christians. It is, he says, unworthy of men, who are called to be judges of the world and of angels, to drag their brethren before a heathen judge. It speaks ill, he says, of the wisdom and moral tone of the church if there cannot be found in it one who can decide questions in dispute. He urges upon them that it would be better to suffer injury than thus to publish the immorality of the church, whilst to injure and defraud the brethren is to make themselves as the heathen. He warns them that such shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.

What could be less like legislation for the church? It is not the part of a legislator to argue, or to exhort the injured party to suffer in silence rather than bring discredit upon the body. St. Paul does not legislate, neither does he urge them to legislate, he appeals to the Spirit in them. He does not suggest that he will take any action if they refuse, as some of them certainly would refuse, to listen to his arguments. For them he has no threat of action to be taken on his part, only a warning that sinners will be excluded from the Kingdom.

(3) Eating of things offered to idols. At the Jerusalem Council it had been decreed that the Gentile Christians should abstain from things sacrificed to idols. At Corinth, some of them not only ate things sacrificed to idols: they attended feasts in the idol's temple, a far more flagrant offense, and one which brought many other offenses in its train. A feast in a temple was associated not only with idolatry, but too often with impurity also. Surely on such a subject, it would be right to appeal to the decree of the Council, and to close all mouths with the word 'Forbidden'.

St. Paul on the contrary not only does not legislate himself, he makes no reference to any law on the subject. No one who was not acquainted with the decree of the Jerusalem Council from some other source would guess from St. Paul's treatment of the subject that such a decree existed. He not only does not quote it, he does not even maintain it. In Corinth it was a disputed point whether it was lawful to eat of the sacrifices. St. Paul does not decide the question. It is quite plain that he does not approve of the practice. 'I would not that ye should have communion with devils.' But he speaks, 'as to wise men, judge ye what I say'. He appeals to the spirit of charity. Some, he says, have the knowledge and know that the idol is nothing and can eat things sacrificed to idols without acknowledging the idol as a god. They are not conscious of the idol, they feel themselves superior to such vanities. But others still retain something of their former superstition. They cannot escape from the sense that the idol really is something to be feared. They cannot escape from the sense that when they share in an idolatrous feast they do actually bring themselves into communion with the idol deity. Their conscience revolts and is distressed, but they are ashamed to refuse to do what other bolder and more enlightened brethren do. They eat and suffer the pangs of an evil conscience. They feel that they have sinned against Christ by sharing in the service of an idol.

St. Paul then appeals to the highest Christian virtue in his readers. He contrasts knowledge and charity. He says that to rely upon knowledge, to seize the liberty of pure enlightenment of the mind, to demonstrate the truth at all hazards and in every way and by any means, is not Christian. He subordinates knowledge to charity. He argues that charity must come first, and that if acts based upon knowledge injure and mislead the weak, they are not only not praiseworthy, they are sinful. To injure the consciences of the weaker brethren is to sin against Christ.

We cannot even imagine a modern European missionary acting like that. If any of his converts showed a tendency to kowtow to the tablet of Confucius on the ground that they knew quite well that Confucius was only a man, and that the act was only one of respectful recognition of his virtue as a teacher of the nation, would he write a letter leaving them to judge on principles of charity whether they should continue to do so or not? Or would he rather hasten to judge the question in consultation with his fellow European missionaries, perhaps not even consulting any native Christians at all, and issue a rule for the church? If he were a Roman Catholic would he not appeal to the decree of Pope Clement XI and say the question had been settled?

In our dealings with our native converts, we habitually appeal to law. We attempt to administer a code which is alien to the thought of the people with whom we have to deal, we appeal to precedents which are no precedents to them, and we quote decisions of which our hearers do not understand either the history or the reason. Without satisfying their minds or winning the consent of their consciences, we settle all questions with a word.

This is unfortunate because it leaves the people unconvinced and uneducated, and teaches them the habit of unreasoning obedience. They learn to expect law and to delight in the exact fulfillment of precise and minute directions. By this method, we make it difficult to stir the consciences of our converts, when it is most important that their consciences should be stirred. Bereft of exact directions, they are helpless. They cease to expect to understand the reason of things, or to exercise their intelligence. Instead of seeking the illumination of the Holy Ghost, they prefer to trust to formal instructions from their foreign guides. The consequence is that when their foreign guide cannot, or will not, supply precise commands, they pay little attention to his godly exhortations. Counsels which have no precedent behind them seem weak. Anything which is not in open disobedience to a law can be tolerated. Appeals to principles appear vague and difficult. They are not accustomed to the labor of thinking them out and applying them. If a missionary explains to his converts that some act is not in harmony with the mind of Christ his words fall on deaf ears: if he tells them that it was forbidden in a council of such and such a date, they obey him; but that is the way of death not of life; it is Judaism, not Christianity; it is papal not Pauline.

St. Paul cannot have believed that by his appeal to charity the question would be settled. He must have foreseen strife and division. He must have deliberately preferred strife and division, heartburnings, and distresses, and failures, to laying down a law. He saw that it was better than his converts should win their way to security by many falls than that he should try to make a short cut for them. He valued a single act of willing self-surrender, for the sake of the Gospel, above the external peace of a sullen or unintelligent acceptance of a rule.

By this refusal to prejudge the question of the presence of Christians in idol temples, St. Paul avoided one great difficulty which constantly besets us in our work. He made it possible for converts to continue to work at their trades as members of a heathen guild or society. It is perfectly clear that the Christians in the Four Provinces of whom very many, if not the majority, were of the commercial or artisan classes, did not abandon their labor in workshops where heathen rites were performed. Such of them as were slaves could not escape from their attendance at heathen functions, and probably most of those who were free men could have done so only at great loss. They were present, but they did not partake. Tertullian in his treatise de Idolatria, shows that there was scarcely a trade or business in which a Christian could engage without being mixed up with idolatry in some form or other, but there was not in the Four Provinces any immediate break. Christians did not feel it their duty to live in idleness and beggary rather than work at their old trades. St. Paul did not feel it necessary to forbid them from continuing at their trades from fear lest they should be drawn back into the gulf of heathenism from which they were hardly escaped. New-born Christians and their children were not withdrawn from their heathen surroundings into the seclusion of a select society which had nothing to do with the outside world. They did not establish Christian villages from which idolatry might be excluded. They did not withdraw their children from heathen schools from fear lest they might be led astray into idolatry. There must indeed have been some who in those early days sacrificed their living rather than continue in trades which were directly and definitely associated with the practice of idolatry, and very soon the Church began to make some provision for such persons left penniless by their adherence to the doctrine of Christ. But for the most part, it was not necessary for Christians to forsake their work because idolatrous rites were practiced in their workshops.

With us, there is a tendency manifest to encourage that kind of separation, a physical separation from a heathen society. Our converts often cease to live in a heathen society. Sometimes this is involuntary, because they are expelled by the heathen; but sometimes it is voluntary. They congregate in Christian villages, they are put into Christian workshops, they cease to work under heathen masters. Christian schools are provided for their children, which heathen scholars may indeed attend, but where the teaching is strictly Christian.

By this, we have gained something and we have lost something. We have gained immunity from temptation. Our converts enjoy the privileges and support of Christian intercourse; it is easier to watch over them; the children grow up as Christians without being called upon to face the fiery ordeal of the heathen school and workshop. But on the other hand, we have lost something: the Christians cannot so leaven society when they are, as it were, outside it, as they can when they are really in it, living the same life, sharing the same toil, the same gains, the same losses, as their heathen fellows; they and their religion are peculiarly the care of the foreign missionary; they are looked upon as having separated themselves from the life of the nation; their religion does not appear to belong to their people.

Of course, I know that this criticism has always in every age been directed against Christians. They cannot escape from it, however much they live in their nation. They must always be a peculiar and suspect people. But if they are separated and collected in little groups of their own, that criticism has a keener edge and bites more sharply, and they do not, and cannot, so readily influence their fellows. Besides this the converts themselves, separated from their fellows, tend to lean more heavily upon the foreign missionary. They learn to imitate him more closely, to expect more and more support from him, to adopt more and more Western habits. They get out of touch with their heathen neighbors. The missionary, too, suffers somewhat. By ministering constantly to Christian communities, he, too, fails to attain or to maintain a close intercourse with the heathen around him. It is easier to deal with his converts in groups and to keep a close hold upon them, but it is less easy to avoid the danger of over-much direction. It becomes easier to minister, more difficult to evangelize. I do not wish to lay too much stress upon this or to exaggerate it; but, seeing that the besetting sin of European missionaries is the love of administration, I wish to suggest that this tendency to separate converts into groups apart from the native life around them is not without its dangers and disadvantages, and to point out that St. Paul rather laid stress upon a spiritual separation than upon a physical separation from an idolatrous society.

(4) Marriage and Divorce. But it may perhaps be said that there is one subject of the first importance upon which St. Paul does very distinctly lay down the law. It may be argued that the whole of the seventh chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians dealing with marriage is written in a tone of authority. In answer to this it must be observed, first, that the chapter is expressly written in answer to an appeal for guidance, secondly, that St. Paul is here extremely careful to distinguish between the command of the Lord and his own judgment, and, thirdly, that the treatment of the marriage question is very incomplete, and on some points singularly inconclusive.

For instance, he seems to lay it down as a principle that if widows marry again, it must be 'in the Lord', that is, presumably, with Christians, but he does not insist on this in dealing with the marriage of virgins. Finally, where he most distinctly lays down a law and claims for it the authority of Christ, he yet issues directions for the conduct of the person who acts contrary to the law which he has just asserted. Thus it would appear that throughout the chapter he is rather expressing his own view of what is desirable than legislating for the Church, and though he expresses himself with clear-cut directions, yet for the most part he does so with reasons given which he evidently intends to be weighed as arguments tending to support his expression of opinion.

I cannot help concluding, from these characteristic notes, that this chapter is not really an exception to the general rule which we have hitherto found to dominate the Apostle's attitude to the church. He avoids in every possible way making clear-cut legal demands which must be obeyed in the letter. He rather suggests principles and trusts to the Spirit which dwells in the church to apply them.



Nevertheless, when individuals broke through all bounds and committed flagrant offenses he did not hesitate to insist upon the need of discipline. There is a point at which the conscience of the whole Church ought to be stirred to protest, when for the Church to pass over an offense in silence is to deny her claim to be a moral society. It is in just such cases that the Church is often slow to act. Comparatively small offenses are sometimes visited with stern severity: horrible crimes shock the whole congregation, but none dares to move.

Such an offense was committed at Corinth, and Christians who wrote letters to St. Paul to inquire what they should do in the case of members of the church who wished to live a life of continence against the will of their partners, took no action themselves and apparently did not mention the subject to the Apostle. St. Paul could not avoid moving in the matter, but he obviously did so with great reluctance. It is quite clear that he was determined in the last resort to take action himself, but it is equally clear that he was most anxious to avoid it. He wished the church to realize its responsibility, and to act as a body. In his epistle he did not tell the church what penalty it ought to enforce, he did not write to exhort the offender to submit. He wrote to accuse the church of its failure to realize its duty in the matter. In a case of this kind, according to his view, the church, as a church, had a duty to perform, a duty to the offender, and a duty to itself. To shirk that duty was criminal. Therefore he waited to see if the church would do its duty before he interfered himself. In the result the church did respond to his exhortation, the offender was excommunicated by the majority, he accepted his discipline, he repented, he was restored.

With us today a very different rule generally obtains. If a serious offense is committed, the foreign priest in charge of the district, with or without the assistance of a local committee, inquires into the case; he reports to the bishop. The bishop either hears the case or accepts the report, excommunicates, and issues a sentence which is published in the church. But the church in which the offender lives feels little or no responsibility, and the man is not excommunicated by the majority. Consequently, the act has little effect. It does not come home to the offender; it does not come home to the church. A man can afford to present a stubborn front to the fulminations of a foreigner, who is perhaps only an occasional visitor and is always a foreigner. He cannot so treat the ex-communication of his neighbors.

We look upon the sting of ex-communication as exclusion from spiritual privileges, but the man who so acts as to incur ex-communication is often the last person to feel that sting. His spiritual apprehension has already been deadened before he falls into sin. What he needs is the public censure of the majority of his fellow churchmen to awaken his conscience. If the majority of his fellow churchmen do not avoid him and cast him out, it is little use for a formal sentence of exclusion from church privileges to be issued against him and carried out by the officials of the society alone. That does no good; it very often only does harm. It hardens the man without humbling or instructing him.

Moreover, an act of this kind is done not only for the good of the offender, but for the good of the church. It is meant to clear the church's good name which has been sullied by the act of one of its members. It is meant to be a real clearance of the church. But if the majority feel that they have not a real share in the action of the church, if they do not heartily and sincerely realize that the act is their own act, if they consequently do not support it, then there is no real clearance of the church. Nominally the man is excommunicate, nominally the church has repudiated his act, nominally it has cleared its good name; but if, in fact, this has only been the act of a few officials, then, in reality, there is no clearance. Christians and heathen alike recognize that the leaders of the church have expressed their disapproval. Christians and heathen alike recognize that the body has done nothing of the kind.

In this case at Corinth, we see St. Paul's principle of mutual responsibility again enforced, and he enforced it by staying away from Corinth until the church had realized and executed its duty, and had cleared itself of complicity in the crime of this offender. The difficulty with us is that we cannot appreciate this doctrine of mutual responsibility. If a member of a church commits a serious offense we cannot hold the church responsible for his action. We are so individualistic that we cannot understand the practical meaning of St. Paul's doctrine of the body and the members. Mystically we accept it; but when it is a question of a single man's crime we ourselves cannot realize, and we cannot bring home to others, their real unity. To punish the society for the offense of the one would seem to us almost unjust. But Eastern people more easily appreciate the corporate aspect of life. To them St. Paul's action would not appear at all strange. A Chinese church would not be surprised if the Apostle upbraided them with complicity if they failed to excommunicate an offender. But of course, it is quite impossible to exercise any real discipline unless the common conscience of the church is really injured by the offense. That conscience needs to be quickened. By throwing the responsibility on the majority, St. Paul stirred and educated the conscience of the whole Corinthian church. If he had sent a letter of ex-communication to the elders, and the elders had read it in the church, none of those effects would have followed.

Thus his exercise of discipline was in exact accord with his exercise of authority. Just as he appealed to the corporate conscience to check serious and growing evils in the church, arguing and pleading that the Holy Spirit might enlighten and strengthen his converts; setting forth the principles, persuaded that the Holy Spirit in them would show them how to apply the principles and strengthen them to use them; so in discipline he showed them the right way, but left them to discover how to walk in it. He told them what they ought to do, but not in detail. He threw upon them the responsibility and trusted to them to learn in what way it was to be fulfilled. In the last resort, he threatened to intervene, if they refused to do their duty, but it was only after he had exercised all his powers to make his intervention unnecessary.

Therefore he succeeded through failure where we often fail through succeeding. We exercise discipline and leave the church undisciplined. He disciplined the church; we discipline individuals. He left the church, and it stood, tottering on its feet, but still standing; we leave the church without any power of standing at all.

How different would be the action of a modern missionary in dealing with such a state of affairs as that which St. Paul encountered at Corinth. His first action, when he discovered the real state of the case, would be to remove the priest in charge as incapable and to substitute another with orders to deal personally with the individual offenders. The errors would be corrected by authority, but the principles would remain unknown and untaught.

I know that someone will say that this is an absurd comparison, that our Eastern converts are infants, and that to talk about principles and to leave the people to find out how to apply them would be to court disaster. But this argument, so convenient for the masterful man, is not really so powerful as it appears. The Easterns are not such infants. They are people who can understand principles. They understand corporate responsibility, in many ways better than we do. Or even if they are infants, infants can only be taught truly by exercising their infant faculties. Dependence does not train for independence, slavery does not educate men for freedom. Moreover, they have the Holy Ghost to strengthen and to guide them. Christians are not only what they are by nature, they are a Spirit-bearing body. It is not a question merely of our faith in them: it is still more a question of faith in the Holy Ghost. We look too much at our converts as they are by nature: St. Paul looked at his converts as they were by grace.