John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife. (Mark 6:18)
In the collect of this day, we pray God to enable us “boldly to rebuke vice” after the example of Saint John the Baptist, who died a martyr in the faithful discharge of this duty.
Herod the Tetrarch had taken his brother’s wife. John the Baptist protested against so heinous a sin; and the guilty king, though he could not bring himself to forsake it, yet respected the prophet, and tried to please him in other ways. But Herodias, the proud and cruel woman whom he had married, resented his interference, and at length affected his death. I need not go through the details of this atrocious history, which are well known to every reader of the Gospels.
Saint John the Baptist had a most difficult office to fulfill; that of rebuking a king. Not that it is difficult for a man of rude arrogant mind to say a harsh thing to men in power, — nay, rather, it is a gratification to such a one; but it is difficult to rebuke well, that is, at a right time, in a right spirit, and a right manner. The Holy Baptist rebuked Herod without making him angry; therefore he must have rebuked him with gravity, temper, sincerity, and an evident good-will towards him. On the other hand, he spoke so firmly, sharply, and faithfully, that his rebuke cost him his life.
We who now live have not that extreme duty put upon us with which Saint John was laden; yet every one of us has a share in his office, inasmuch as we are all bound “to rebuke vice boldly,” when we have fit opportunities for so doing. I proceed then to make some remarks upon the duty, as enforced upon us by today’s festival.
Now, it is plain that there are two sorts of men in the world: those who put themselves forward, and speak much; and those who retire, and from indolence, timidity, or fastidiousness, do not care to express an opinion on what comes before them. Neither of these classes will act the part of Saint John the Baptist in their intercourse with others: the retiring will not rebuke vice at all; the bold and ill-mannered will take a pleasure in giving their judgment, whether they are fit judges or not, whether they ought to speak or not, and at all times proper and improper.
These self-appointed censors of vice are not to be countenanced or tolerated by any serious Christian. The subjects of their attacks are often open to censure, it is true; and should be censured, but not by them. Yet these men take upon them, on their own authority, to blame them; often, because those whose duty it is, neglect to do so; and then they flatter themselves with the notion that they are energetic champions of virtue, strenuous and useful guardians of public morals or popular rights. There is a multitude of such men in these days, who succeed the better, because they conceal their names; and are thus relieved of the trouble of observing delicacy in their manner of rebuking, escape the retaliation which the assailed party may inflict on an open assailant, and are able to dispense with such requisites of personal character and deportment as are ordinarily expected from those who assume the office of the Baptist. And, by speaking against men of note, they gratify the bad passions of the multitude; fond, as it ever is, of tales of crime, and malevolent towards the great; and thus they increase their influence, and come to be looked up to and feared.
Now such officious accusers of vice are, I say, to be disowned by all who wish to be really Christians. Everyone has his place, one to obey, another to rule, a third to rebuke. It is not religious to undertake an office without a commission. John the Baptist was miraculously called to the duties of a reformer and teacher. Afterwards, an order of men was appointed for the performance of the same services; and this order remains to this day in an uninterrupted succession. Those who take upon them to rebuke vice without producing credentials of their authority, are intruding upon the office of God’s ministers. They may indeed succeed in their usurpation, they may become popular, be supported by the many, and be recognized even by the persons whom they attack. Still the function of censor is from God, whose final judgment it precedes and shadows forth; and not a whole generation of self-willed men can bestow on their organ the powers of a divine ambassador. It is our part, then, anxiously to guard against the guilt of acquiescing in the claims of such false prophets, lest we fall under the severity of our Lord’s prediction: “I am come in my father’s name,” he says, “and ye receive me not. If another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive.” (John 5:43)
I notice this peculiarity of the reprover’s office, as founded on a Divine Commission, and the consequent sin of undertaking it without a call, for another reason. Besides these bad men, who clamor against vice for gain and envy’s sake, I know there are others of a better stamp, who imagine that they ought to rebuke, when in truth they ought not; and who, on finding that they cannot do the office well, or on getting into trouble in attempting it, are perplexed and discouraged, or consider that they suffer for righteousness’ sake. But our duty is commonly a far more straightforward matter than excited and over-sensitive minds are apt to suppose, that is, as far as concerns our knowing it; and, when we find ourselves perplexed to ascertain it, we should ask ourselves, whether we have not embarrassed our course by some unnecessary or self-willed conduct of our own. For instance, when men imagine it to be their duty to rebuke their superiors, they get into difficulties, for the simple reason, that it is and ever will be difficult to do another man’s duty. When the young take upon them to set right their elders, private Christians speak against the clergy, the clergy attempt to direct their bishops, or servants their masters, they will find that, generally speaking, the attempt does not succeed; and perhaps they will impute their failure to circumstances, — whereas, the real reason is, that there was no call on them to rebuke at all. There is ever, indeed, a call on them to keep from sin themselves in all things, which itself is a silent protest against whatever is wrong in high places, — and this they cannot avoid, and need not wish to avoid; but very seldom, only in extreme cases, for instance, as, when the faith is in jeopardy, or in order to protect or rescue the simple-minded, is a man called upon in the way of duty, directly to blame or denounce his superiors.
And in truth we have quite enough to do in the way of rebuking vice, if we confine our censure to those who are the lawful subjects of it. These are our equals and our inferiors. Here, again, it is easy to use violent language towards those who are below us in station, to be arrogant, to tyrannize; but such was not Saint John the Baptist’s manner of reproving. He reproved under the prospect of suffering for his faithfulness; and we should never use a strong word, however true it be, without being willing to acquiesce in some penalty or other, should it so happen, as the seal of our earnestness. We must not suppose that our inferiors are without power to annoy us, because they are inferior. We depend on the poor as well as on the rich. Nor, by inferiors, do I mean those merely who are in a lower rank of society. Herod was Saint John’s inferior; the greatest king is, in one sense, inferior to God’s ministers, and is to be approached by them, with all honor indeed and loyal service, but without trepidation of mind or cowardice, without forgetting that they are servants of the church, gifted with their power by a divine appointment. And what is true even in the instance of the king himself is much more applicable in the case of the merely wealthy or ennobled. But is it a light matter to reprove such men? And can we do so without the risk of suffering for it? Who is sufficient for these things, without the guidance and strength of Him who died to purchase for his church this high authority?
Again, parents are bound to rebuke their children; but here the office is irksome for a different reason. It is misplaced affection, not fear, which interferes here with the performance of our duty. And besides, parents are indolent as well as overfond. They look to their home as a release from the world’s cares, and cannot bear to make duties in a quarter where they would find a recreation. And they have their preferences and partialities about their children; and being alternately harsh and weakly indulgent, are not respected by them, even when they seasonably rebuke them.
And as to rebuke those who are inferior to us in the temporal appointments of providence, is a serious work, so also, much more, does it require a ripeness in Christian holiness to rebuke our equals suitably; — and this, first, because we fear their ridicule and censure; next, because the failings of our equals commonly lie in the same line as our own, and every considerate person is aware, that, in rebuking another, he is binding himself to a strict and religious life, which we naturally shrink from doing. Accordingly, it has come to pass, that Christians, by a sort of tacit agreement, wink at each other’s faults, and keep silence; whereas, if each of us forced himself to make his neighbor sensible when he did wrong, he would both benefit another, and, through God’s blessing, would bind himself also to a more consistent profession. Who can say how much harm is done by thus countenancing the imperfections of our friends and equals? The standard of Christian morals is lowered; the service of God is mixed up with devotion to Mammon; and thus society is constantly tending to a heathen state. And this culpable toleration of vice is sanctioned by the manners of the present age, which seems to consider it a mark of good breeding not to be solicitous about the faith or conduct of those around us, as if their private views and habits were nothing to us; which would have more pretense of truth in it, were they merely our fellow-creatures, but is evidently false in the case of those who all the while profess to be Christians, who imagine that they gain the privileges of the Gospel by their profession, while they bring scandal on it by their lives.
Now, if it be asked, what rules can be given for rebuking vice? — I observe, that, as on the one hand to perform the office of a censor requires a maturity and consistency of principle seen and acknowledged, so is it also the necessary result of possessing it. They who reprove with the greatest propriety, from their weight of character, are generally the very men who are also best qualified for reproving. To rebuke well is a gift which grows with the need of exercising it. Not that anyone will gain it without an effort on his part; he must overcome false shame, timidity, and undue delicacy, and learn to be prompt and collected in withstanding evil; but after all, his mode of doing it will depend mainly on his general character. The more his habitual temper is formed after the law of Christ, the more discreet, unexceptionable, and graceful will be his censures, the more difficult to escape or to resist.
What I mean is this: cultivate in your general deportment a cheerful, honest, manly temper, and you will find fault well, because you will do so in a natural way. Aim at viewing all things in a plain and candid light, and at calling them by their right names. Be frank, do not keep your notions of right and wrong to yourselves, nor, on some conceit that the world is too bad to be taught the truth, suffer it to sin in word or deed without rebuke. Do not allow friend or stranger in the familiar intercourse of society to advance false opinions, nor shrink from stating your own, and do this in singleness of mind and love. Persons are to be found, who tell their neighbors of their faults in a strangely solemn way, with a great parade, as if they were doing something extraordinary; and such men not only offend those whom they wish to set right, but also foster in themselves a spirit of self-complacency. Such a mode of finding fault is inseparably connected with a notion that they themselves are far better than the parties they blame; whereas the single-hearted Christian will find fault, not austerely or gloomily, but in love; not stiffly, but naturally, gently, and as a matter of course, just as he would tell his friend of some obstacle in his path which was likely to throw him down, but without any absurd feeling of superiority over him, because he was able to do so. His feeling is, “I have done a good office to you, and you must in turn serve me.” And though his advice be not always taken as he meant it, yet he will not dwell on the pain occasioned to himself by such a result of his interference; being conscious, that in truth there ever is much to correct in his mode of doing his duty, knowing that his intention was good, and being determined any how to make light of his failure, except so far as to be more cautious in future against even the appearance of rudeness or intemperance in his manner.
These are a few suggestions on an important subject. We daily influence each other for good or evil; let us not be the occasion of misleading others by our silence, when we ought to speak. Recollect Saint Paul’s words: “Be not partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure.” (1 Timothy 5:22)