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against the law of charity. For, says the Apostle, in v. 15. If thy brother be grieved at thy meat, thou walkest not charitably.
Now, in doing that which appears evil to others, though it be lawful in itself, yet it may be an occasion of sin to them Two ways.
(1) It may alienate their hearts from the ways of God.
When, notwithstanding all the profession thou makest of holiness and of strictness of life and conversation, yet they see that what they account loose and sinful is generally practised and maintained; whether it be sinful or not, yet seeing you generally practise that which is accounted evil, this alienates their hearts from the ways of God and from the profession of religion,
(2) It brings sin also, because it may encourage them to do the same things, that you do also.
Now that may be sin to them, that is to you lawful; because, as I told you, whatever is done contrary to the dictates and persuasions of a man's own conscience, that is sin to him. Now many weak Christians may be induced to act contrary to conscience, only acting according to the examples of stronger Christians, that are better informed, and that have more light to direct them; and so, by their unlimited doing what they think is lawful, they bring a great deal of guilt upon the consciences of others, that are weak; and that scruple the things they see others do; and yet, because they see others do them, will themselves venture to do them also, though they scruple it. It is not enough, therefore, that you yourselves are satisfied in your own consciences, that what you do is lawful; but you must weigh and consider how it will suit with the consciences of other men also: else, what you think is lawful, may be a sin both unto you and unto them; to them, because they are brought to sin by your example; and to you, because you brought them to sin by doing that which was to you lawful.
But here some may say, "This is to bring us under a most intolerable yoke of servitude, if we must be bound to observe every ignorant humorous man's conscience, that will scruple every thing. It is in vain to tell us, that some things are lawful and allowed to us, if yet we must do nothing to give offence in that which appears evil to others; for what one thing is there in the world, that doth not appear evil to some or other? This is to bring us into an intolerable bondage and slavery."
To this I answer: There are several cases, wherein, though there be an appearance of evil unto others in some things, yet we may lawfully do them: as,
First. We are not obliged to abstain from things indifferent, that may have in them an appearance of evil to others, unless we have some ground to conjecture, that they take offence and are scandalized at them.
We are not bound to ask every one that we meet with, whether they scruple such and such a thing that we must do this were endless and ridiculous. We are not obliged to abstain, if there be only a remote possibility of scandal, unless there be also some great probability of it: nor are we bound to divine whether or no it be not possible, that such an action of ours may be offensive to some or other; but if there be no present probability to conjecture that such a thing may be offensive, we may then lawfully do whatever is lawful unto us.
First. If, by comparing the circumstances of an action together, we cannot probably guess that any should be offended at it, it is their weakness, and not our sin, if they be offended at it. Indeed, whenever we converse with others, it becomes our Christian prudence and charity, to weigh such circumstances exactly; to consider the action that we do, though lawful, yet whether or no it be common or unusual; to consider the persons with whom we are, whether weak or strong, whether scrupulous or resolved Christians: for that, which may be lawful in some of these circumstances, may be unlawful in others of them. An action may be lawful, if it be common, though it be done before a weak and scrupulous Christian; and it may be lawful, though uncommon, if it be done before a strong and a resolved Christian: but, if it be unusual, and if it be done before a scrupulous and a weak Christian, it may seem to have in it a great probability of giving offence and being a scandal to them; and, therefore, we must forbear such uncommon, unusual actions before weak Christians, in which there may be any probable guess that they will take offence, and be scandalized at them; but if, upon examining these and the like circumstances, we can find no such probability of giving offence, we may then make use of our Christian Liberty in them.
Secondly. After we have weighed these circumstances and can find no probability of scandal in them, if others, with whom we are or who are liable to take exception, do not discover
their exceptions, we are not bound to abstain from any thing that is indifferently lawful. We have a hint of this from the Apostle 1 Cor. x. 28. If any one say unto you, This was offered.....unto idols, eat not; if he say to you. But, if they take offence and will not make it known, the offence, as it rests in their own bosom, so shall it lie on their own heads, and we shall be guiltless.
And that is the first limitation. We are not bound to abstain from things lawful in themselves, though they carry in them an appearance of evil towards others, if there be no probable grounds to conjecture that they will be offended at them.
Secondly. We must consider whether or not the action that we do, which another takes offence at, be as indifferent to us, as it is indifferent in respect of God; that is, whether it be of great conveniency, or of great importance and concernment to us: if it be not of such convenience and importance, then the Rule of Charity obligeth us to abstain from it.
There are those things, that are indifferent in respect of God, that yet may not be indifferent in respect of us; because they may be of great concernment unto us. If it be so, then we ought to observe this method: so long as we may without any notable inconveniency, we must abstain from these things; endeavouring, in the mean time, to satisfy their doubts, and inform their consciences of the lawfulness of that wherewith they are offended. This rule the Apostle lays, down for us, Rom. xv. 2. Let every one seek to please his neighbour for his good to edification. We ought to abstain from those things, that are indifferent in respect of God and yet of importance unto us, from the exceptions of others, so long as we have no notable inconveniency accruing to ourselves thereby, endeavouring also to inform them of the lawfulness of them.
"But what if they continue scrupulous, and contemn information; resolving not to be satisfied with any reasons, that we can produce: what must we do in this case ?"
Truly, it ceaseth now from being any longer an offence to a weak brother; and becomes a groundless offence taken up by a peevish, froward, and malicious person: and, certainly, in this case, no man is bound to abstain from that which is lawful, though he may give offence to such an one; especially, if it he of moment and concernment to him. As, for instance: if any be unsatisfied of the lawfulness of another man's calling and profession; as, at this day, the Socinians are unsatisfied of the
lawfulness of warlike and military employments; if they will not be satisfied when sufficient reasons are alledged to justify it, we are not bound in this case to quit our callings; for they are matters of concernment to us: but we are bound rather to neglect their censures; as proceeding from malice and spite.
But what if others still continue unsatisfied, not out of pride and malice, but out of weakness; as being insufficient to receive that information from us that we give them, and to conceive of the depth of our reasons and arguments for the justifying of such and such actions: what shall we do in that case?"
To this I answer, in the third place: We are not bound to abstain from what they are offended at, unless they produce some probable grounds and reasons for their offences. It is not enough to oblige our consciences, that they tell us they imagine such a thing to be evil, unless they shew some grounds for their imagination. Nor is it here required, that the grounds they produce should be demonstrative; but it is enough if they be probable grounds: though they amount not to prove the things that appear evil to them, to be in themselves evil; yet, if they prove that these things carry in them a probable presumption of evil, this is sufficient to oblige us to abstain from them. Hereupon it was, that the Apostle forbad the Corinthians to eat meat offered unto idols. If any took offence at that meat, others were not to eat thereof in their presence and company; and that, because their offence had some probable shew of reason to judge that they thought they had too much communion with idols, because they did eat of those things that were sacrificed to them.
And, upon this ground, the Apostle himself resolves, in 1 Cor. viii. 13. that if meat made his brother to offend, he would eat no flesh while the world stood: that is, as I take it, no flesh offered to idols; for that is the subject of which he had been treating all along in that chapter. Though it was lawful, in itself considered; yet, because the weak had probable grounds and reasons to shew why flesh offered to idols might not be eaten, therefore he would abstain from it whilst the world stood.
And so, in like manner, if any except against what we do, and bring this reason for it, that it is too like the custom of wicked men, that none do thus and thus but the generality of the looser and profaner sort: this is such a ground, that, though the thing in itself be not sinful, yet we ought hereupon to
abstain from it; being a probable ground of evil, though the thing in itself be not evil.
But, if there be no such probable reasons produced as carry in them a shew and appearance, that probably that is evil which we do; then we are not bound to abstain, merely because such a man says or thinks such an action is evil. As, for instance: if any take exception against preaching in a Pulpit and by an Hour-Glass, as things unlawful, as of late many have; truly, unless they produce some grounds to prove these things to be unlawful, their cavils are not to be hearkened to nor regarded. And so, in any other things, that are indifferent to be used.
3. In the last place, take this limitation also: We are not bound to abstain from those things that appear evil to others, though they are in themselves lawful; unless in those places, and at those times, where there is danger of giving offence. At other times, and in other places, we may lawfully do what is lawful. When there are any present, that are weak and scrupulous, and apt to be scandalized at us, then we must have respect unto their weak consciences; but, at other times, we are left to the free and full use of our Christian Liberty *.
* The author does not appear to have completed this discourse according to the plan proposed in the beginning, as he has omitted the Third General Head.