By Elmer Ellsworth Shelhamer
By W. T. Hogue
It is sad to think that one who has been entrusted by God and the Church with so high and holy an office as that of the Christian ministry should ever disgrace himself and his calling by falling into sensual sin. That such is the case, however, and that such cases are by no means few, are facts that cannot be denied.
No church on earth is free from this horrible reproach. There was one Judas even among the twelve apostles. There have been some bad men among Christ's ministers ever since. With all her vigilance the church cannot keep unworthy and even base men from insinuating themselves into her ministry; nor can she always keep those who began in the Spirit and promised well at the first from deteriorating in character and finally "turning the grace of God into lasciviousness." It is especially humiliating and reproachful to those churches and associations which make a specialty of holiness, or entire sanctification, when they are confronted with the fact that even the preaching and the profession of holiness and membership in a body of people organized for the purpose of "spreading scriptural holiness over the land," is no security against certain of her ministers falling into sins of sexual impurity, and bringing reproach and disgrace upon the holy cause they represent.
The cases of this character, while forming only a small minority, are nevertheless by no means few. In fact, they appear to be on the increase. Tempting men to lust and sexual sin seems to be the masterpiece of Satanic effort in these days for reproaching and obstructing the thorough work of God. It should be understood once for all, and by all classes of people, that the frequent repetition of the holiness shibboleth is by no means a guarantee of purity of character on the part of him who speaks so readily on the subject. In not a few instances men who have begun to revel in beastliness give extraordinary attention to preaching holiness, and especially to the more radical issues connected with its general practice, as a mere hypocritical device for diverting attention from their own delinquencies and inconsistencies.
This of itself is no warrant for ceasing to declare clearly and boldly the whole counsel of God respecting the privilege and obligation of believers to be holy, or for declining to put forth special efforts to lead them into the precious experience of entire sanctification. We do not forbear to preach the great doctrine of regeneration, or to endeavor to bring men to experience the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, because many who profess to have been born again live wicked and hypocritical lives; and no more should we be deterred from pressing the claims of entire holiness upon all because a small minority of those who profess this high state basely yield to the dictates of the flesh and prove themselves "reprobate concerning the faith." As every counterfeit coin proves the existence and value of a genuine, so every hypocrite who masquerades under the guise and profession of holiness is evidence that there are genuine saints, and that true saintship is eminently worthy of our best efforts to attain unto it.
But why is it that so many ministers are fallen, and fallen through gross sins of the flesh? We would naturally suppose that their sense of the sacredness and responsibility of their calling and their fear of the horrible consequences of proving recreant to their trust, as well as every self-respecting consideration, and also that lofty respect for womanhood which is so essential to the character of every true gentleman, would safeguard them from everything savoring of temptation to social impurity, and incline them to the restraint of passion, in bringing their bodies under, and keeping their appetites and passions in due subjection. But, alas! with some this is not the case, be it acknowledged with shame and sorrow. Too many who fancy themselves immune venture to play with fire and in doing so are badly burned. Too many try to play with pitch, only to become shamefully and horribly defiled.
The sin of which I write is becoming a great and lamentable curse in the land, an abomination of desolation in Zion, or I would forbear to register my public protest and testimony against it. The ministry must be kept socially and morally clean, or the whole church will ultimately be defiled. "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump (loaf)."
What are some of the more common occasions through which ministers are betrayed into violation of the seventh commandment?
1. There are temptations in this direction which are peculiar to the ministerial office; temptations just such as no other class of men experience; and to be either uninformed or indifferent as to this fact is to be in jeopardy. If a man's Christian experience is superficial, if his ideals are low rather than lofty, and if he is given to experimenting as to how near the edge of the precipice he can go and not go over, the chances are that he will fall a victim to his own folly, and finally disgrace himself and the Church of God.
2. Some men, because of having been given to acts of social impurity before their conversion, have greater need than others to be guarded against the temptations above mentioned, lest they be "drawn away by their own lusts and enticed." Failing to be so guarded as prudence would require, they are soon found walking too near the brink of that pit which has hopelessly engulfed so many, and in a little while are added to the list of the shamefully fallen.
3. Others have prepared the way for their ultimate downfall by incontinence in the marriage relation. While holding no strained ideas on this subject, the writer does believe that there are many who, instead of maintaining at all times proper self-mastery, make the marriage relation a relation of legalized adultery, and in that relation live such incontinent lives as are injurious to themselves and to their wives, and which when certain physical changes occur in the course of nature with the latter, must be restrained. When this has been the case, and the time comes that demands restraint in the marriage relation, the man's will power has become so weakened that he is easily inclined, especially if temptation presents itself, to seek his accustomed gratification of passion in illicit relations. Possibly this accounts for the fact that the most of those ministers who fall through sexual impurity are not young men, but men approaching or past middle life.
4. An over-emphasis upon the emotional element in religion is sometimes an occasion of laxity in respect to one's social relations which betrays him to his ruin. When religion runs excessively to emotionalism, nothing is more natural than for some to conceive the idea that emotion is the chief thing, if not the sum and substance of religion. When this state of things occurs, laxity in social and moral relations is almost sure to follow. Men are deceived into the belief that their illicit conduct is at least venial, only so their religious emotions are easily and strongly stirred. One of the vilest men I ever met, when confronted with his rascality, denied nothing charged against him, but simply said, with a feigned, saintly smile, "It cannot be so, brother, or the Lord would not bless me as He does," and then gave further vent to his emotions in a vain endeavor to deceive those who were present.
5. Little indiscretions, little deviations from the pathway of strict prudence, little violations of the conventionalities of refined society, are courses which, in their relation to the opposite sex, have led many a minister on to more adventurous things. and have resulted either in his moral ruin, or in so smirching his character and reputation as thereby to render his continuance in the ministry a stench in the nostrils of the public, and an occasion of casting suspicion and reproach upon all ministers, however decently and holily they may have lived. The minister of the gospel who does not observe that plain and sensible rule given by John Wesley to preachers. "Converse sparingly and conduct yourself prudently with women," will almost certainly become a moral pest in society, involving himself and the church in disgrace.
There is no justification for a brother, in shaking hands with a lady, to hold her hand unduly, press it to his own, gaze into the depth of her eyes, etc., even though he shout hallelujah while doing so. If she has not the moral courage or the disposition to rebuke his course, some one else should do it, and in a way to impress him strongly with the impropriety of his conduct. There is no justification for a preacher's holding so many private conversations and having so many private correspondences as some do with certain female members of their congregations, even though the private interviews and communications may be ostensibly on religious topics. Religion always thrives better in the daylight, and in relations between the sexes that require no privacy. Nor is there any valid excuse for a minister's devoting himself in the way of personal labor, especially in camp meeting and revival work, chiefly to trying to help the female sex. With some men this is a suspicious circumstance. They seem to feel specially called to labor with girls and women.
Not that judiciously endeavoring to instruct and help those of the fair sex is in itself wrong; but it is the paying an over-attention to them, and that to the neglect of others just as needy and worthy, that should be guarded against, lest it cause one's good to be evil spoken of, and lest familiarity should breed contempt, or something worse. And. of course, he who cultivates what is generally known as "spiritual affinity" outside his own family relations, is to be regarded with grave suspicion, since "spiritual affinity," so-called, is almost sure to become fleshly affinity or free-love before long, if allowed to run its course. Alas! how numerous have been the instances in proof of this!
In view of the condition of affairs as outlined in the foregoing, what becomes the church's duty? Her duty is twofold: First, she should, through her press and from her pulpits, speak out the truth that needs to be emphasized on this subject, and speak it plainly, repeatedly, and in the power and demonstration of the Spirit. More healthful sentiment should be created touching these delicate matters, and the only way to create such sentiment is by "line upon line, line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, and there a little," until young, aged, and middle aged are properly instructed, indoctrinated, impressed and molded by the process. A conviction that such a course is required is my only apology for writing on this subject. If any think I have spoken too plainly, I would answer, as Richard Baxter did, when accused of writing too plainly regarding the sins of the English clergy of his day, changing the name of the country merely: "If the ministers of America had sinned in Latin, I might have written in Latin; but as they have sinned in English, I have written in English."
In the next place, the Church should be prompt and vigorous in executing her discipline against all offenders in this direction. Laxity in this matter is a sure way to increase the evil complained of. Whitewashing smutty cases puts the Church in complicity with those who have made the smut. As a rule, such men do not repent if not dealt with according to stern discipline. When their sin is discovered they will manifest tokens of great sorrow, sometimes, but in nine cases out of ten it is sorrow over the humiliation and inconvenience of being caught in their deviltry, rather than sorrow at having sinned against an infinitely holy God. Hence, the first thing they want to do is to fix the matter up in some way, any way, that will admit of their retaining their ministerial standing, however much it may compromise and smut the Church.
A truly penitent man who has sinned in the foregoing manner will accept the full penalty of the Church for his sin, and will do so unmurmuringly, acknowledging it to be only his just desert: while the man of mere pretended penitence will chafe under it, criticize the severity of it. and seek to work up a tide of sympathy such as will release him from its grasp. It seldom fails to be the case that, where the Church deals lightly with such a case, the party takes advantage of such leniency to make it appear that there was little or nothing against him, and that he is an aggrieved and injured party. The better way for the wrong-doer, for the Church, and for all parties concerned is, after the guilt of the offender has been established, either by his own confession or by an impartial and thorough trial, to execute the sentence fully which the church has affixed to such offense.
In too many instances, however, sympathy is allowed to interfere with the judicial process to the extent of defeating the end of Church discipline. Especially has this been the case among us in recent years. We used to have nothing but the most unsparing condemnation for those churches which whitewashed such cases, or passed them over lightly; and can it be that we will soon be following in the wake of those whose course we formerly condemned? God forbid. Yet such will be the case unless we put on nerve and courage enough to meet every such case in the spirit of the New Testament.
In dealing with all such cases the Church should be thorough. Let us remember that every minister among us, even though he may have admitted his guilt, has certain inalienable rights guaranteed to him by the Discipline of the Church, which we are bound to respect in all our proceedings against him, and which we should not allow to be set aside. But let us also remember that the church's honor is at stake in every case, and in no case allow sympathy to defeat the ends of truth and righteousness. They who pass such a case by lightly because of sympathy are laying themselves open to grave suspicions and inviting multiplied reproach upon the Christian ministry and the Church of God. The Church would be better off with no ministers than with large numbers of able men in her pulpits whose reputations have been smirched until they are malodorous.
But what about those cases in which ministers have contemplated impure conduct, and even sought to accomplish their devilish ends, but have been found out before the consummation of their Satanic plot? Clearly they are to be classed in the same category with out-and-out adulterers, and so far as church discipline is concerned, should be dealt with accordingly. In their cases there is prima facie evidence that the contemplated action was deliberate, which is not always so clear in the case of the wrong-doer who was not found out until the act of adultery had been committed. But these are the cases in which the strongest appeal is generally made for clemency, and made usually on the ground that there was no actual immorality or criminality committed.
Is the church warranted in entertaining such an appeal? By no means. If she goes into the business of condoning such rascals and wretches, she will soon be rotten to the core. We must execute the discipline vigorously and faithfully against all such hypocritical pretenders, and drive them from our ranks, or soon decent men will no longer seek admission to the ranks of our ministry, and some within the ranks, who have for many years stood for cleanness of life and purity of character, may feel compelled to take their stand outside, lest they should be judged by the general public as of the same ilk with those on whom the morally leprous spots so manifestly appeared.
"But even though a man has been guilty of lascivious and adulterous conduct, can he not repent; and if he does repent should not his brethren forgive him?" some one may ask. To this I reply, "Certainly he can and should repent; and, in case he manifests true repentance, his brethren should forgive him. But such forgiveness by no means carries with it the right to continue him in his ministerial relation. If a man steals my purse today, and tomorrow turns to me with penitence and asks to be forgiven, it is my duty as a Christian to forgive him; but it does not become my duty, even though I have forgiven him, and may believe God has also forgiven him, to trust him with my purse again as soon as he is forgiven. In doing that I would be placing temptation directly in his way, which might lead to his falling again."
It is doubtful as to whether, in ordinary cases, a minister of the gospel who has once brought reproach on himself and the cause of Christ by social impurity, whether the overt act was committed or failed for lack of opportunity, should ever again enter the ranks of the regular ministry. He can certainly never repent so deeply nor travel so far away, but that the unsavory odor of his former reputation will go with him, even as his own shadow ever accompanies him. If he should ever be restored it ought to be only after so long a time of living uprightly and purely that the confidence of the public has been fully regained, and that there is a general public demand for his services.
The foregoing has been written not for pleasure, but from a sense of duty. It has also been written in much tenderness, remembering the weakness of human nature, the subtlety and power of temptation, and the liability of all men to be overcome and to fall into the worst of sins. The fact that some will read what has been written to whom it will be the occasion of fresh grief over past failures and follies, has also been constantly before my mind, and has checked me where otherwise I might have employed invective and satire much more vigorously than has been done. I have written for the vindication of the truth and the honor of Christ's Church, and in doing so have had to write plainly, and call things by their proper names. I shall be sorry if I have grieved any, but I shall feel sure that those who may have most occasion to feel afflicted will, in their heart of hearts, approve of what I have written, whether acknowledging such to be the fact or not.
I will add but one word more, namely, in dealing with such cases as have been described in the foregoing, two thoughts should constantly guide our deliberations and actions -- the honor and purity of the Church of Christ, and the restoration of the erring brother to repentance, salvation and eternal life.