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How then should we behave ourselves in this case? What rules must we walk by, so as to keep consciences void of offence, not only to God, but, as far as is possible towards men also? In this, if in any thing that belongs to Christianity, there lies a great deal of difficulty, to state the case aright, or aright to practise it.
And the difficulty is increased from these two considerations, which I shall lay down as general premises to the following discourse.
First. If we give no power to the scrupulous judgments of weak and tender consciences to oblige us to duty, to abstain from what appears evil to them, then we shall sin evidently against the law of charity; and against many apostolical injunctions and commands, that we should have respect to their opinions and censures: especially in Rom. xiv. and in 1 Cor. chap. viii. & x. almost throughout. Indeed there is scarcely any one thing belonging to Christianity, that hath more rules and prescripts prescribed by the Apostle to us, than this of abstaining from offending the weak consciences of others.
Secondly. If we make other men's consciences the rule of ours, and if we lay down this for a maxim, that we ought to do nothing that appears evil to another; this
First. Would be utterly impossible: since men are of such contrary persuasions, that, if the doing of an action appear evil to one, the omission thereof appears as evil to another; so that, unless we can at once both do it and not do it, some will unavoidably take offence at it, and be scandalized at us.
Secondly. This would abridge, yea utterly destroy, all Christian Liberty in things indifferent: because, if nothing should be lawful that another scruples, then almost every thing would become sinful, since almost every thing is scrupled by some or other. In vain, therefore, is it to reckon it as our privilege, that we are freed from the old Ceremonial Law, and that heavy yoke of ordinances that none were able to bear, if yet Christian Religion brings our consciences under the most imperious laws of men's humours, censures, and opinions: it were far easier to observe all the Levitical Law from one end of it to the other, than to be bound to those worldly rudiments; as the Apostle calls them in Col. ii. 21. Touch not, taste not, handle not: wear not, speak not; if such a person be offended at it, and count it unlawful.
From the consideration of these Two Particulars, I shall lay down this Fourth Position, concerning abstinence from the appearance of evil, in respect of others.
IF THE APPEARANCE OF EVIL BE TO OTHERS, AND NOT TO OURSELVES, THEN, IN SOME CASES, WE ARE BOUND, IN DUTY AND CONSCIENCE, TO ABSTAIN FROM IT, AND IN OTHERS NOT.
Whatever hath the shew or appearance of evil in it, it must either be commanded, and so it is necessary; or, else, it is left indifferent and arbitrary.
And, accordingly, we may take these following Rules.
1. If so be those things, that appear evil only to others, either are in themselves, or at least appear to us to be, commanded, and so necessary, we are bound not to regard, yea we are bound to despise and scorn, the scruples of all the world.
If they will be offended at us for doing of that, which is our duty, let them be offended. We may, in this case, use the same plea, that the Apostles did: Acts iv. 19. Whether it be right before the Lord, to obey men, rather than God, judge ye. To perform a duty, can be but a scandal to men at the most; and those also, usually, of the profaner sort: but to omit a duty for fear of scandalizing men, is a scandal and an offence even unto God himself. It is most preposterous charity, to run upon sin in ourselves, only to prevent scandal in others. Though all the world censure holiness and strictness of life, to be only a sour and rigid humour, and an affectation of singularity; yet must we not, upon any pretence of gratifying their humour or winning upon them, remit the least part of that severity, that the Law of God and our consciences require from us.
But suppose, as too often it happens, that this strictness and holy severity prove to be an occasion of sin unto others accidentally, what must we do in that case? What is it, that makes so many hate religion and scoff at the professors thereof, but only that their lives are too morose and reserved? Duties are too frequent and tedious: so that some laugh and mock; others storm and rage; and all are frighted from the embracing of that profession, that requires so much rigour and severity.
Be it so yet we must not abate any thing of our duty, nor sin ourselves, to keep others from sinning. Is it your duty to pray, or are you called to any other duty? though you are assured that all that hear you will scoff at you, yet you ought not therefore, for fear of it, to forbear that duty, or to lessen your fervency and affection in it. Here, indeed, is required much
spiritual prudence and discretion, to discern the seasons of our duty for several circumstances: and, among those offences that wicked men may take, it may make that cease from being a duty that at other times is our duty: and, therefore, the Wise Man in Prov. xxvi. 4. bids us, not to answer a fool according to his folly; and yet, in the next verse, he bids us, answer a fool according to his folly: two commands quite contrary, in two verses following one another. Now this is to note to us, that, according to several circumstances and several opportunities, it may be our duty to abstain at one time from that, which at another time it is our duty to do: it is our duty sometimes, not to reprove a fool, but to answer him according to his folly; and, according to divers circumstances, at another time, it is our duty to reprove him, and not to answer him according to his folly. But yet, notwithstanding, that, which is our duty in its particular season, and which we are convinced to be so, we ought to perform, though all the world be offended at it: yea, and if it were possible that it should prove an occasion of sin unto all the world; for, as we must not do evil out of hope that it may prove an occasion of good, so neither must we forbear the doing of good that evil may not occasionally ensue thereupon. Our Saviour Jesus Christ was, as it was prophesied of him, to be a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence: almost all were scandalized at him; some at his doctrine, as a despiser of the Law of Moses; others at his conversation, as being a glutton, a winebibber, and a friend of publicans and sinners: but yet, for all these outcries, he alters nothing either in his teaching or his living; but, whilst they are clamouring against him and speaking evil of him, he still goes about doing good. And, truly, those, that will be the disciples and followers of Christ, though the way in which they are to worship and serve God be generally decried, and every where spoken against and carped at as needless peevishness; yet, if it be a known duty, they must not, they ought not to put themselves out of the way of their obedience, to put others out of their groundless offences.
Only, let me add a necessary caution to this particular also: for we cannot be too exact in stating this case of giving offence to others and that is this. If that appear a duty to us, that hath an appearance of evil in it to the generality of the most sober and serious Christians (let us suppose that) though this should not presently sway our consciences, yet it should engage
us to make a strict search and inquiry, whether it be our duty or not: if it is that, which is contrary to the opinion and prac tice of holy and pious Christians, it ought to have this authority with us, to put us to a stand; and to make us to examine, whether that, which we account a duty, be indeed a duty or not. As, for instance, some among us at this day are persuaded that they ought to worship God one way, and some another; and what appears a duty to one, hath the appearance of evil in it to another. Follow neither of these; because it is their judg ment and practice: but yet, if thy persuasion be contrary to the persuasion of the most pious and most sober Christians, this ought so far to prevail, as to make men suspect lest they mistake; and to put them upon a diligent inquiry, and an impartial search into their grounds and arguments: but, after all, still follow that, which you are convinced in your own conscience is your duty, how evil soever it may appear to others, either one way or the other.
And that is the first particular: If those things appear evil to others, that are our duty, or necessary, or that appear so to us, we ought not to regard the censures and opinions of others concerning them.
2. If so be those things, that are in themselves indifferent, and appear to us so to be, have yet an evil appearance unto others, if they be offended and scandalized at them, then the rule of Christian Charity obligeth us to abstain from them.
I call those things indifferent, that are neither in themselves forbidden, nor yet commanded; but only permitted, and left to the arbitrary government of every private Christian's prudence and discretion. As, for instance: under the Levitical Law, some kinds of meat were unlawful; as in Lev. xi. and some kinds of garments were unlawful to be worne; as in Lev. xix. 19. But now, under the Gospel, since the abolishing of those carnal ordinances, as the Apostle calls them, Heb. ix. 10. both all sorts of meat become lawful, whilst we use them within the bounds of temperance and moderation; and all sorts of garments may be lawfully worne, while we use them within the bounds of modesty and decency. These things are left free, for us to use them or not to use them, without sin, according to our own conveniency and discretion. These things I call indifferent things.
And yet, such is the strictness of Christian Religion, that these indifferent, lawful things are not to be used at random,
neither. It is a certain truth, though it may seem a paradox, that we never sin in any thing more, than in doing that, which is in itself lawful. In these things we usually offend, either by using them immoderately; or with a neglect, yea with a contempt of those consciences, that are weak. The use of our Christian Liberty is not uncontroulable; but God hath subjected it to the consciences of others: so that it is utterly unlawful for us to do that, which is in itself lawful, if it give offence
How this ought to be limited, I shall shew you by and by.
In the mean time, see it clearly proved out of 1 Cor. x. from v. 25 to the end: where the Apostle decides this question, Whether it were lawful to eat meat that was offered to idols. For the understanding of this, you must know, that it was a custom among the heathens to offer cattle in sacrifice to their Idol-Gods; part whereof they did eat in their religious feasts in the temple, selling the remainder in the common market. Now the question was not, whether it was unlawful to join with the heathens in eating of their sacrifices in the temple, before their idols; for this were to join with them in their idolatrous worship: but there were some more scrupulous Christians among them, that judged it unlawful to eat of those sacrifices, when sold in the shambles or common market. The Apostle determines this matter to be altogether indifferent, in v. 25. Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, whether offered to idols or not, that cat. weak Christian even so scruple to eat that which is offered to idols, after it is sold in the shambles, and if he be offended at others for eating of it, the Apostle then gives this rule, that the strong ought not to eat for the sake of the weak: though the thing be indifferent, and might be done; yet the strong ought not to eat for the sake of the weak: v. 28. If any man say, This was offered in sacrifice unto idols, though sold in the shambles, yet eat not, for his sake that shewed you it Now what the Apostle here speaks of meat offered in sacrifice to idols, holds true proportionably in apparel, in recreations, and the like indifferent lawful things; all of which become sin to you, if they become offences and scandals unto others. The reason of this is evident: because when men rashly do what they think is lawful, without regarding the scruples of others, hereby they do, as the Apostle speaks, in Rom. xiv. 13. put a stumbling-block and an occasion of falling in their brother's way : that is, they bring him into the commission of a sin, and this is