I. "All things lawful are not expedient, because all things lawful edify
not." So Paul substantially affirmed. A position of licentious tendency,
if not well qualified. As defined by its author, it is perfectly safe. He
only assumed that there were many things which he might lawfully do, which
were not expedient for him to do. He might, for example, have married
a wife, eat the flesh of either Jewish or Pagan sacrifices, or drunk the
wine of their libations, etc. etc., according to the Christian law; but in
the circumstances of his peculiar vocation and localities, to have done these
things would have been inexpedient.
II. Law itself is, indeed, at best but an expedient - a means, supposed at
the time of its promulgation, suitable to some rational end. But, owing to
the mutability of things, laws often fail to be the best means to the ends
proposed; and are therefore abolished, or, for the time being, suspended.
This is true of all laws and institutions prescribing the modes and
forms of action, whether in religion or morality. Moral laws, properly
so called, are, indeed, immutable; because the principle of every moral law
is love, and that never can cease to be not only a way and means,
but the only way and means, to rational, to human happiness. Positive
precepts, however, prescribing the forms of religious and moral action,
emanating from God himself, have been changed, and may again be changed,
while all the elements of piety and morality are immutable. It would now,
for example, be immoral to marry a natural sister; yet it was for a time
done by divine authority. It became inexpedient to continue the practice,
and the law was changed.
III. There is, therefore, a law of expediency, as well as the expediency
of law. This law of expediency, as it is, indeed, the basis of the expediency
of law in the divine government, has been, as in the case of David eating
the loaves of the presence, and the priests profaning the Sabbath by the
labours of the Temple, occasionally elevated above the precepts that prescribe
the forms of religious and moral action. True, indeed, that such cases are
exceedingly rare; and they are rare reasoners who can safely decide when
any particular precept prescribing the form of action, may, for the
sake of the action itself, be waived or suspended. It is, moreover, exceedingly
questionable, whether, under the more perfect institution of Christianity,
the law of expediency can ever clash with any moral or religious precept
in the New Covenant.
IV. Still there are many things left to the law of expediency, concerning
which no precepts are found in the apostolic writings. To ascertain these
is the object of this chapter. They are, then, in one sentence, those things,
or forms of action, which it was impossible or unnecessary to reduce to special
precepts; consequently they are not faith, piety, nor morality; because whatever
is of the faith, of the worship, or of the morality of Christianity, was
both possible and necessary to be promulgated; and is expressly and fully
propounded in the sacred scriptures. The laws of expediency, then, has no
place in determining the articles of faith, acts of worship, nor principles
of morality. All these require a "thus saith the Lord" in express
statements, and the sacred writings have clearly defined and decided them.
But in other matters that may be called the circumstantials of the gospel
and of the church of Christ, the people of God are left to their own discretion
and to the facilities and exigencies of society.
V. Many things, indeed, that are of vital importance to the well-being and
prosperity of the kingdom of Christ, are left to the law of expediency. A
few examples will suffice: - Can any one imagine any measure of more consequence
than the safe-keeping of the apostolic writings, the multiplication of copies,
the translation of them into different languages, and the mode of distributing
them throughout the whole world? Now, who can show a positive or special
precept on any one of these four vital points? Scribes or copyists, paper-makers,
printers, book-binders, and vendors of the oracles of God, are as unknown
to the apostolic writers as mails, post-offices, rail-roads, and steam-engines.
So negligent, too, has the kingdom of Christ been on some of these points,
that she has not at this hour a received copy of the Living Oracles.
We American and English people have a received version by authority
of a king; but we have not a RECEIVED ORIGINAL by the authority
of any king or government civil or ecclesiastic. A startling fact, truly!
But who dares to deny it?
VI. Next to these are meeting-houses, baptisteries, Lord's tables, the emblematic
loaf and cup, times of convocation, arrangements for the day, etc. etc. Acts
of Parliament, decrees of synods and councils, but no apostolic enactments,
statutes, or laws, are found for any of these important items. There is neither
precept nor precedent in the New Testament for building, hiring, buying,
or possessing a meeting-house; for erecting a baptismal bason, font, or bath;
for chancel, altar, table, leavened or unleavened bread, chalice, cup, or
tankard, and many other things of equal value.
VII. There is no law, rule, or precedent for the manner of eating
the Lord's supper, no hint as the quantity of bread and wine to be used by
each participant; nothing said about who shall partake first, or how it shall
be conveyed from one to another. These are all discretionary matters, and
left to the prudence and good sense of the Christian communities - in other
words, to the law of expediency.
VIII. Touching these and very many other such matters and things, nothing
is enacted, prescribed, or decided by apostolic authority; but all the things
to be done are enjoined in the very clear and broad precepts, or in very
striking and clear apostolic precedents. General laws and precepts, embracing
the whole range of religious and moral action, are often found in the sayings
of the Lord and his ministers of the New Institution, from which also our
duties and obligations may be clearly ascertained. That "marriage is honourable
in all" - is clearly taught; but who ever read a verse on the manner
in which the most important of all social institutions is to be performed?
No age is fixed at which the covenant shall be made or ratified - on time
of life prescribed for its consummation , nothing said about who shall perform
the service, the formula, the witnesses, the record, etc. And, still more
singular, there is no table, no law, or statute in all the New Covenant saying
who may, or who may not, enter into that relation on any principle of
consanguinity or affinity. By the consent of the Christian church the Jewish
law obtains in this matter.
IX. The communion of saints, of all Christian churches - the co-operation
of churches as one holy nation, a kingdom of priests, as a peculiar people
in all common interests and benefits - an efficient gospel ministry, supported
justly and honourably by the whole community - are matters clearly and fully
taught by both apostolic precept and authority; but the forms, the ways and
means by which these ends shall be attained, are left to the law of expediency.
X. But here arises a practical and all-important question, viz. - Who
shall ascertain and who shall interpret this law of expediency? We all
agree that expedients are to be chosen with regard to times, seasons, and
other circumstances. Changes in these must always change expedients. The
mariner's compass, the art of printing, new modes of travelling, Banks and
their commercial operations, new forms of government, etc. etc., have changed
the order of society and all human expedients. Now the law of expediency
is the law of adopting the best present means of attaining any given end.
But this is a matter which the wisdom and good sense of individuals and
communities must decide. This is not, this cannot be, a matter of standing
revelation. Now if the church was always unanimous in opinion as in faith
- if all the accumulated wisdom gave one uniform decision on all such questions,
then the whole church is by one voice to ascertain the law of expediency
on any given point. But this is not the case. No class of men - apostles,
teachers, privates, ever did agree on questions of expediency. Paul and Barnabas
dissented and differed, without any breach of communion, on a question
of this sort. Hence arises the necessity of the spirit of concession,
subordination, bearing, forbearing submitting to one another. When there
are two views or opinions on any question of expediency entertained by two
parties, one of them must yield, or there are two distinct systems of operation,
and ultimately two distinct parties. According to the law of expediency,
then, the minors in age, experience, or numbers, must give place to the majors
in age, experience, or numbers. But as numbers are supposed to represent
the ratios of age, wisdom, and knowledge, it is expedient that a clearly
ascertained majority of those whose province it is to decide any matter,
shall interpret the law of expediency; or, in other words, the minority shall
peaceably and cordially acquiesce in the decisions of the majority. Since
the age of social compacts began till now, no other principle of co-operation,
no other law of expediency, can secure the interests, the union, harmony,
and strength of any people, but that of the few submitting to the many.
XI. He that asks of unanimity asks for what is not often attainable in a
small number of persons. He asks for the liberty of one or two to govern
or to control a whole community - for the government of a minority, however
small, over a majority, however large. This is virtually, though not formally,
and not often intentionally, the demand of all the advocates of unanimity
in ascertaining or interpreting the law of expediency in any given case.
The law of expediency enacts that a majority of the seniors shall decide
in all cases what is most expedient to be done in attaining any of the ends
commanded in the Christian Institution, the means to which are not divinely
ordained in the written laws of that institution; and that the minority shall
cheerfully and conscientiously acquiesce in such decisions.
XII. The law of love is the supreme law of religion, morality, and expediency.
No code of laws, without it, could make or keep any people pure, peaceable,
and happy; and, with it, we only want, in most matters, but general laws.
- This is the spirit, and soul, and body of the Christian Institution. We
cannot love by law, but we can walk in love with no other law but that of
love. The Christian system contemplates love as supreme, and makes no
arrangements nor provisions for keeping together a carnal, worldly, selfish,
self-willed population. Better such a confederacy had burst into as many
particles as persons, by the repellent principle of selfishness, than to
be hooped together by all the laws of expediency from Noah to John Wesley.