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Warning #6 to the Church- The Fallibility of Min..

Written by: Ryle, J.C.    Posted on: 04/09/2003

Category: Sermons

Source: CCN

                                Preface

For more than a century, J. C. Ryle was best known for his plain and lively writings on practical and spiritual themes.  His great aim in all his ministry, was to encourage strong and serious Christian living.  But Ryle was not naive in his understanding of how this should be done.  He recognized that, as a pastor of the flock of God, he had a responsibility to guard Christ's sheep and to warn them whenever he saw approaching dangers.  His penetrating comments are as wise and relevant today as they were when he first wrote them.  His sermons and other writings have been consistently recognized, and their usefulness and impact have continued to the present day, even in the outdated English of the author's own day. 

Why then should expositions already so successful and of such stature and proven usefulness require adaptation, revision, rewrite or even editing? The answer is obvious.  To increase its usefulness to today's reader, the language in which it was originally written needs updating.

Though his sermons have served other generations well, just as they came from the pen of the author in the nineteenth century, they still could be lost to present and future generations, simply because, to them, the language is neither readily nor fully understandable.

My goal, however, has not been to reduce the original writing to the vernacular of our day.  It is designed primarily for you who desire to read and study comfortably and at ease in the language of our time.  Only obviously archaic terminology and passages obscured by expressions not totally familiar in our day have been revised.  However, neither Ryle's meaning nor intent have been tampered with.                                                   Tony Capoccia

All Scripture references are taken from the HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION (C) 1978 by the New York Bible Society, used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers. 

                        Warning #6 to the Church

                      The Fallibility of Ministers                                   by                               J. C. Ryle                               (1816-1900)

      When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face,       because he was clearly in the wrong.  Before certain men       came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles.  But when       they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself       from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who       belonged to the circumcision group. 

      The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their       hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.  When I saw that       they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I       said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you       live like a Gentile and not like a Jew.  How is it, then,       that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?" 

      We who are Jews by birth and not "Gentile sinners" know that       a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in       Jesus Christ.  So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus       that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by       observing the law, because by observing the law no one will       be justified.                                              Galatians 2:11-16

Have we ever considered what the Apostle Peter did at Antioch?  It is a question that deserves serious consideration.

What the Apostle Peter did at Rome we are often told, although we have hardly a jot of authentic information about it.  Legends, traditions, and fables abound on the subject.  But unhappily for these writers, Scripture is utterly silent upon the point.  There is nothing in Scripture to show that the Apostle Peter ever was at Rome at all!

But what did the Apostle Peter do at Antioch?  This is the point to which I want to direct attention.  This is the subject from the passage from the Epistle to the Galatians, which heads this paper.  On this point, at any rate, the Scripture speaks clearly and unmistakably.

The six verses of the passages before us are striking on many accounts.  They are striking, if we consider the event which they describe: here is one Apostle rebuking another!  They are striking, when we consider who the two men are: Paul, the younger, rebukes Peter the elder!  They are striking, when we remark the occasion: this was no glaring fault, no flagrant sin, at first sight, that Peter had committed!  Yet the Apostle Paul says, "I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong."  He does more than this--he reproves Peter publicly for his error before all the Church at Antioch.  He goes even further--he writes an account of the matter, which is now read in two hundred languages all over the world.

It is my firm conviction that the Holy Spirit wants us to take particular notice of this passage of Scripture.  If Christianity had been an invention of man, these things would never have been recorded.  An impostor would have hushed up the difference between two Apostles.  The Spirit of truth has caused these verses to be written for our learning, and we shall do well to take heed to their contents.

There are three great lessons from Antioch, which I think we ought to learn from this passage.

I. The first lesson is, "That great ministers may make great mistakes."

II. The second is, "That to keep the truth of Christ in His Church is even more important than to keep peace."

III. The third is, "That there is no doctrine about which we ought to be so protective about as justification by faith without the deeds of the law."

I. The first great lesson we learn from Antioch is, "That great ministers may make great mistakes."

What clearer proof can we have than that which is set before us in this place?  Peter, without doubt, was one of the greatest in the company of the Apostles.  He was an old disciple.  He was a disciple who had had peculiar advantages and privileges.  He had been a constant companion of the Lord Jesus.  He had heard the Lord preach, seen the Lord work miracles, enjoyed the benefit of the Lord's private teaching, been numbered among the Lord's intimate friends, and gone out and come in with Him all the time He ministered upon earth.  He was the Apostle to whom the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given, and by whose hand those keys were first used.  He was the first who opened the door of faith to the Jews, by preaching to them on the day of Pentecost.  He was the first who opened the door of faith to the Gentiles, by going to the house of Cornelius, and receiving him into the Church.  He was the first to rise up in the Council of the fifteenth of Acts, and say, "Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?"  And yet here this very Peter, this same Apostle, plainly falls into a great mistake. 

The Apostle Paul tells us, "I opposed him to his face."  He tells us "because he was clearly in the wrong."  He says "he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group."  He says of him and his companions, that "they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel."  He speaks of their "hypocrisy."  He tells us that by this hypocrisy even Barnabas, his old companion in missionary labors, "was led astray."  What a striking fact this is.  This is Simon Peter!  This is the third great error of his, which the Holy Spirit has thought fit to record!  Once we find him trying to keep back our Lord, as far as he could, from the great work of the cross, and severely rebuked Him.  Then we find him denying the Lord three times, and with an oath.  Here again we find him endangering the leading truth of Christ's Gospel.  Surely we may say, "Lord, what is man?"  Let us note, that of all the Apostles there is not one, excepting, of course, Judas Iscariot, of whom we have so many proofs that he was a fallible man.

(Note: It is curious to observe the shifts to which some writers have been reduced, in order to explain away the plain meaning of the verses which head this paper.  Some have maintained that Paul did not really rebuke Peter, but only faked it, for show and appearance sake!  Others have maintained that it was not Peter the Apostle who was rebuked, but another Peter, one of the seventy!  Such interpretations need no remark.  They are simply absurd.  The truth is that the plain honest meaning of the verses strikes a heavy blow at the favorite Roman Catholic doctrine of the primacy and superiority of Peter over the rest of the Apostles.) 

But it is all meant to teach us that even the Apostles themselves, when not writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were at times liable to err.  It is meant to teach us that the best men are weak and fallible so long as they are in the body.  Unless the grace of God holds them up, any one of them may go astray at any time.  It is very humbling, but it is very true.  True Christians are converted, justified, and sanctified.  They are living members of Christ, beloved children of God, and heirs of eternal life.  They are elect, chosen, called, and kept unto salvation.  They have the Spirit.  But they are not infallible.

Will not rank and dignity confer infallibility?  No, they will not!  It matters nothing what a man is called.  He may be a Czar, an Emperor, a King, a Prince.  He may be a Preacher, Minister, or Deacon.  He is still a fallible man.  Neither the crown, nor the anointing oil, nor the laying on of hands, can prevent a man making mistakes.

Will not numbers confer infallibility?  No, they will not!  You may gather together princes by the score, and ministers by the hundred; but, when gathered together, they are still liable to err.  You may call them a council, or an assembly, or a conference, or what you please.  It matters nothing.  Their conclusions are still the conclusions of fallible men.  Their collective wisdom is still capable of making enormous mistakes. 

The example of the Apostle Peter at Antioch is one that does not stand alone.  It is only a parallel of many a case that we find written for our learning in Holy Scripture.  Do we not remember Abraham, the father of the faithful, following the advice of Sarah, and taking Hagar for a wife? Do we not remember Aaron, the first high priest, listening to the children of Israel, and making a golden calf?  Do we not remember Solomon, the wisest of men, allowing his wives to build their high places of false worship?  Do we not remember Jehosaphat, the good king, going down to help wicked Ahab?  Do we not remember Hezekiah, the good king, receiving the ambassadors of Babylon?  Do we not remember Josiah, the last of Judah's good kings, going forth to fight with Pharaoh?  Do we not remember James and John, wanting fire to come down from heaven?  These things deserve to be remembered.  They were not written without cause.  They cry aloud, "No infallibility!"

And who does not see, when he reads the history of the Church of Christ, repeated proofs that the best of men can err?  The early fathers were zealous according to their knowledge, and ready to die for Christ.  But many of them advocated ritualism, and nearly all sowed the seeds of many superstitions.  The Reformers were honored instruments in the hand of God for reviving the cause of truth on earth.  Yet hardly one of them can be named who did not make some great mistake.  Martin Luther held tightly to the doctrine of consubstantiation [believing that during communion the bread and the wine became the actual body and blood of Christ].

Melancthon was often timid and undecided.  Calvin permitted Servetus to be burned.  Cranmer recanted and fell away for a time from his first faith.  Jewell subscribed to Roman Catholic Church doctrines for fear of death.  Hooper disturbed the Church of England by demanding the need to wear ceremonial vestments [priestly type garments] when ministering.  The Puritans, in later times, denounced Christian liberty and freedoms as doctrines from the pit of Hell.  Wesley and Toplady, last century, abused each other in most shameful language.  Irving, in our own day, gave way to the delusion of speaking in unknown tongues [babble].  All these things speak with a loud voice.  They all lift up a beacon to the Church of Christ.  They all say, "Do not trust man; call no man master; call no man father [spiritually] on earth; let no man glory in man; He that glories, let him glory in the Lord."  They all cry, "No infallibility!"

The lesson is one that we all need.  We are all naturally inclined to lean upon man whom we can see, rather than upon God whom we cannot see.  We naturally love to lean upon the ministers of the visible Church, rather than upon the Lord Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd and High Priest, who is invisible.  We need to be continually warned and set on our guard.

I see this tendency to lean on man everywhere.  I know no branch of the Protestant Church of Christ which does not require to be cautioned upon the point.  It is a snare to the Scottish Christians to pin their faith on John Knox.  It is a snare to the Methodists in our day to worship the memory of John Wesley.  All these are snares, and into these snares how many fall!

We all naturally love to have a pope of our own.  We are far too ready to think, that because some great minister or some learned man says a thing,  or because our own minister, whom we love, says a thing, it must be right, without examining whether it is in Scripture or not.  Most men dislike the trouble of thinking for themselves.  They like following a leader.  They are like sheep, when one goes over the hill all the rest follow.  Here at Antioch even Barnabas was carried away.  We can well fancy that good man saying, "An old Apostle, like Peter, surely cannot be wrong.  Following him, I cannot err."

And now let us see what practical lessons we may learn from this part of our subject.

(a) For one thing, let us learn not to put implicit confidence in any man's opinion, merely because he lived many hundred years ago.  Peter was a man who lived in the time of Christ Himself, and yet he could err.  There are many who talk much in the present day about the voice of the early Church.  They would have us believe that those who lived nearest the time of the Apostles, must of course know more about truth than we can.  There is no foundation for any such opinion.  It is a fact, that the most ancient writers in the true Church of Christ are often at variance with one another.  It is a fact that they often changed their own minds, and retracted their own former opinions.  It is a fact that they often wrote foolish and weak things, and often showed great ignorance in their explanations of Scripture.  It is vain to expect to find them free from mistakes.  Infallibility is not to be found in the early fathers, but in the Bible.

(b) For another thing, let us learn not to put implicit confidence in any man's opinion, merely because of his office as a minister.  Peter was one of the very chief Apostles, and yet he could err.

This is a point on which men have continually gone astray.  It is the rock on which the early Church struck.  Men soon took up the saying, "Do nothing contrary to the mind of the minister."  But what are ministers, preachers, and deacons?  What are the best of ministers but men--dust, ashes, and clay--men of like passions with ourselves, men exposed to temptations, men liable to weaknesses and infirmities?  What does the Scripture say?  "What, after all, is Apollos?  And what is Paul?  Only servants, through whom you came to believe--as the Lord has assigned to each his task" (1 Corinthians 3:5). 

Ministers have often driven the truth into the wilderness, and decreed that to be true which was false.  The greatest errors have been begun by ministers.  Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of the high-priest, made religion to be abhorred by the children of Israel.  Annas and Caiaphas, though in the direct line of descent from Aaron, crucified the Lord.  It is absurd to suppose that ordained men cannot go wrong.  We should follow them so far as they teach according to the Bible, but no further.  We should believe them so long as they can say, "Thus it is written, thus says the Lord," but further than this we are not to go.  Infallibility is not to be found in ordained men, but in the Bible.

(c)  For another thing, let us learn not to place implicit confidence in any man's opinion, merely because of his learning.  Peter was a man who had miraculous gifts, and could speak with the (then valid) gift of tongues, and yet he could err.

This is a point again on which many go wrong.  This is the rock on which men struck in the middle ages.  Men looked on Thomas Aquinas, and Peter Lombard, and many of their companions, as almost inspired.  They gave epithets to some of them in token of their admiration.  They talked of "the indisputable" preacher, "the angelic" minister, "the incomparable" pastor, and seemed to think that whatever these ministers said must be true!  But what is the most learned of men, if he is not taught by the Holy Spirit?  What is the most learned of all divines but a mere fallible child of Adam at his very best?  Vast knowledge of books and great ignorance of God's truth may go side by side.  They have done so, they may do so, and they will do so in all times.  I will engage to say that the two volumes of Robert McCheyne's Memoirs and Sermons, have done more positive good to the souls of men, than any one folio that Origen or Cyprian ever wrote. 

I do not doubt that the one volume of Pilgrim's Progress, written by a man who knew hardly any book but his Bible, and was ignorant of Greek and Latin, will prove in the last day to have done more for the benefit of the world, than all the works of the schoolmen put together.  Learning is a gift that ought not to be despised.  It is an evil day when books are not valued in the Church.  But it is amazing to observe how vast a man's intellectual attainments may be, and yet how little he may know of the grace of God.  I have no doubt the Authorities of Oxford in the last century, knew more of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, than Wesley or Whitefield.  But they knew little of the Gospel of Christ.  Infallibility is not to be found among learned men, but in the Bible.

(d) For another thing, let us take care that we do not place implicit confidence on our own minister's opinion, however godly he may be.  Peter was a man of mighty grace, and yet he could err.

Your minister may be a man of God indeed, and worthy of all honor for his preaching and example; but do not make a pope of him.  Do not place his word side by side with the Word of God.  Do not spoil him by flattery.  Do not let him suppose he can make no mistakes.  Do not lean your whole weight on his opinion, or you may find to your cost that he can err.

It is written of Joash, King of Judah, that he "did what was right in the eyes of the LORD all the years of Jehoiada the priest" (2 Chronicles 24:2).  Jehoiada died, and then died the religion of Joash.  Just so your minister may die, and then your religion may die too.  He may change, and your religion may change.  He may go away, and your religion may go. 

Oh, do not be satisfied with a religion built on man!  Do not be content with saying, "I have hope, because my own minister has told me such and such things."  Seek to be able to say, "I have hope, because I find it thus and thus written in the Word of God."  If your peace is to be solid, you must go yourself to the fountain of all truth.  If your comforts are to be lasting, you must visit the well of life yourself, and draw fresh water for your own soul.  Ministers may depart from the faith.  The visible Church may be broken up.  But he who has the Word of God written in his heart, has a foundation beneath his feet which will never fail him.  Honor your minister as a faithful ambassador of Christ.  Esteem him very highly in love for his work's sake.  But never forget that infallibility is not to be found in godly ministers, but in the Bible.

The things I have mentioned are worth remembering.  Let us bear them in mind, and we shall have learned one lesson from Antioch.

II. I now pass on to the second lesson that we learn from Antioch.  That lesson is, "That to keep Gospel truth in the Church is of even greater importance than to keep peace."

I suppose no man knew better the value of peace and unity than the Apostle Paul.  He was the Apostle who wrote to the Corinthians about love.  He was the Apostle who said, "Live in harmony with one another; live in peace with each other; the Lord's servant must not quarrel; There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to one hope when you were called--one Lord, one faith, one baptism."  He was the Apostle who said, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (Romans 12:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:13; Philemon 3:16; Ephesians 4:5; 1 Corinthians 9:22).  Yet see how he acts here!  He withstands Peter to the face.  He publicly rebukes him.  He runs the risk of all the consequences that might follow.  He takes the chance of everything that might be said by the enemies of the Church at Antioch.  Above all, he writes it down for a perpetual memorial, that it never might be forgotten, that, wherever the Gospel is preached throughout the world, this public rebuke of an erring Apostle might be known and read of all men.

Now, why did he do this?  Because he dreaded false doctrine; because he knew that a little leaven leavens the whole lump, because he would teach us that we ought to contend for the truth jealously, and to fear the loss of truth more than the loss of peace.

Paul's example is one we shall do well to remember in the present day.  Many people will put up with anything in religion, if they may only have a quiet life.  They have a morbid dread of what they call "controversy." They are filled with a morbid fear of what they style, in a vague way, "party spirit," though they never define clearly what party spirit is.  They are possessed with a morbid desire to keep the peace, and make all things smooth and pleasant, even though it be at the expense of truth.  So long as they have outward calm, smoothness, stillness, and order, they seem content to give up everything else.  I believe they would have thought with Ahab that Elijah was a troubler of Israel, and would have helped the princes of Judah when they put Jeremiah in prison, to stop his mouth.  I have no doubt that many of these men of whom I speak, would have thought that Paul at Antioch was a very imprudent man, and that he went too far!

I believe this is all wrong.  We have no right to expect anything but the pure Gospel of Christ, unmixed and unadulterated; the same Gospel that was taught by the Apostles; to do good to the souls of men.  I believe that to maintain this pure truth in the Church men should be ready to make any sacrifice, to hazard peace, to risk dissension, and run the chance of division.  They should no more tolerate false doctrine than they would tolerate sin.  They should withstand any adding to or taking away from the simple message of the Gospel of Christ.

For the truth's sake, our Lord Jesus Christ denounced the Pharisees, though they sat in Moses' seat, and were the appointed and authorized teachers of men.  "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites," He says, eight times over, in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew.  And who shall dare to breathe a suspicion that our Lord was wrong?

For the truth's sake, Paul withstood and blamed Peter, though a brother.  Where was the use of unity when pure doctrine was gone?  And who shall dare to say he was wrong?

For the truth's sake, Athanasius stood out against the world to maintain the pure doctrine about the divinity of Christ, and waged a controversy with the great majority of the professing Church.  And who shall dare to say he was wrong?

For the truth's sake, Luther broke the unity of the Church in which he was born, denounced the Pope and all his ways, and laid the foundation of a new teaching.  And who shall dare to say that Luther was wrong?

For the truth's sake, Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer, the English Reformers, counseled Henry VIII and Edward VI to separate from Rome, and to risk the consequences of division.  And who shall dare to say that they were wrong?

For the truth's sake, Whitefield and Wesley, a hundred years ago, denounced the mere barren moral preaching of the clergy of their day, and went out into the highways and byways to save souls, knowing well that they would be cast out from the Church's communion.  And who shall dare to say that they were wrong?

Yes! peace without truth is a false peace; it is the very peace of the devil.  Unity without the Gospel is a worthless unity; it is the very unity of hell.  Let us never be ensnared by those who speak kindly of it.  Let us remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34)  Let us remember the praise He gives to one of the Churches in Revelation, "I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false" (Revelation 2:2).  Let us remember the blame He casts on another, "You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess" (Revelation 2:20).  Never let us be guilty of sacrificing any portion of truth on the altar of peace.  Let us rather be like the Jews, who, if they found any manuscript copy of the Old Testament Scriptures incorrect in a single letter, burned the whole copy, rather than run the risk of losing one jot or tittle of the Word of God.  Let us be content with nothing short of the whole Gospel of Christ.

In what way are we to make practical use of the general principles which I have just laid down?  I will give my readers one simple piece of advice.  I believe it is advice which deserves serious consideration.

I warn then every one who loves his soul, to be very selective as to the preaching he regularly hears, and the place of worship he regularly attends.  He who deliberately settles down under any ministry which is positively unsound is a very unwise man.  I will never hesitate to speak my mind on this point.  I know well that many think it a shocking thing for a man to forsake his local church.  I cannot see with the eyes of such people.  I draw a wide distinction between teaching which is defective and teaching which is thoroughly false; between teaching which errs on the negative side and teaching which is positively unscriptural.  But I do believe, if false doctrine is unmistakably preached in a local church, a Christian who loves his soul is quite right in not going to that local church.  To hear unscriptural teaching fifty-two Sundays in every year is a serious thing.  It is a continual dropping of slow poison into the mind.  I think it almost impossible for a man willfully to submit himself to it, and not be harmed. 

I see in the New Testament we are plainly told to "Test everything" and "Hold on to the good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21).  I see in the Book of Proverbs that we are commanded to "Stop listening to instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge" (Proverbs 19:27).  If these words do not justify a man in ceasing to worship at a church, if positively false doctrine is preached in it, I do not know what words can.

--Does any one mean to tell us that to attend your local denominational church is absolutely needful to a person's salvation?  If there is such a one, let him speak out, and give us his name. 

--Does any one mean to tell us that going to the denominational church will save any man's soul, if he dies unconverted and ignorant of Christ?  If there is such a one, let him speak out, and give us his name. 

--Does any one mean to tell us that going to the denominational church will teach a man anything about Christ, or conversion, or faith, or repentance, if these subjects are hardly ever named in the denomination church, and never properly explained?  If there is such a one, let him speak out, and give us his name.

--Does any one mean to say that a man who repents, believes in Christ, is converted and holy, will lose his soul, because he has forsaken his denomination and learned his religion elsewhere?  If there is such a one, let him speak out, and give us his name.

For my part I abhor such monstrous

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