“Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?… If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church. I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren?” (1 Cor 6:1, 4-5).
This section in Paul’s first (recorded) letter to the Corinthian ecclesia is often used to discourage (and in some circles, prohibit) going to law in any circumstances. It also appears to have given rise to one of the later additions to our statement of faith, added right at the end of the doctrines to be rejected, which says: [It is a doctrine to be rejected] “that we are at liberty to recover debts by legal coercion.” It is clear, from the whole context of the discussions in the pages of The Christadelphian, that the prohibition of Paul against suing your brethren was extended to become a prohibition against suing anyone for debts: the phrase was added to the BASF around 1900 only because many brethren were suing at law in their business affairs. But the interesting point is that there was no mention, as far as I can see, of the recommendation of Paul: that regarding disputes between brethren, we ought to follow the advice of our “wise men.”
So it is not directly the topic of “going to law” I want to address: indeed, I covered the limits of such ideas in a previous editorial.2 However, the advice of Paul as to what to do when faced with disputes between brethren has been turned into a simple prohibition against using the resources of our legal system, without considering the alternative Paul recommended.
So what is the solution to the problem of disputes within the brotherhood? There are of course many types, from disputes about details of Biblical interpretation, to ways of conducting our services and operations, to inter-personal disputes, and, sadly, problems of morality. Our methods of handling interpersonal disputes, or accusations of wrong-doing, are often based upon the advice of Jesus:
“Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” (Matt 18:15-17).
I believe in his letter to the Corinthians Paul is recognizing that there are limits in bringing a problem or dispute before a whole ecclesia.
If this was true in Paul’s day, it is true in our times. Our nominally democratic society and education emphasizes independent thought, distrust and questioning of authority, and lack of respect of our elders. Anyone who has brought up teenagers can attest to the fact that in the eye of the teenager, from the ages of 15 or so, their parents are woefully ignorant of anything of value or interest: it is only when true adulthood arrives at 25 or so that parents suddenly become quite knowledgeable. (And I can attest to this, not only from the point of view of a parent, but from that of a son.)
Long gone are the days when age commanded any sort of respect, as age is now merely assumed to prove that the person is totally out of date. Any accumulation of knowledge is distrusted: after all, “all human knowledge is to be found on the internet, that reliable arbiter of truth.” (Anyone who has had to study almost any topic in some depth will soon come to realize how little of human knowledge is actually found on-line!)
“Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the Lord” (Lev 19:32).
Wisdom down through the ages
“Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt” (Gen 41:33).
“Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man” (Eccl 9:15).
“Who is the wise man, that may understand this? and who is he to whom the mouth of the Lord hath spoken, that he may declare it, for what the land perisheth and is burned up like a wilderness, that none passeth through? (Jer 9:12).
“Then the king made Daniel a great man, and gave him many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon” (Dan 2:48).
“And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me” (Acts 15:13).
“Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13).
Not only were the wise respected by all, but clearly: Timothy was respected as the leader in Ephesus: he was the “wise man” despite his relative youth.
Titus was the leader in Crete.
And of course Paul was the true apostle and wise man to the gentiles.
It is also true that in past generations among our community, there were several who were respected, both for their Biblical knowledge, and also their wisdom. We think of Bro. John Carter, and more recently Bro. Harry Tennant, who both did a great deal of good with their widely-respected advice. I have seen such respect accorded few, if any. More often, advice is rejected out of hand if it does not line up with pre-conceived notions. (Sometimes, it must be admitted, advice is offered without wisdom!)
It is difficult to know how the problem of lack of acknowledged wisdom can be addressed. But the following situations call out for solutions:
Divorce is unfortunately becoming somewhat prevalent among our community. A buffer is often needed between the parties: who better to act than a “wise man.”
Perhaps an ecclesial “wise man” can act whenever two members come together in any contractual relationship, to help forestall or solve any disputes before (or after) they arise.
I have become aware, unfortunately, of situations when our members have acted in a morally inappropriate way — and essentially gotten away with it, because of our communities’ reluctance to bring it to the attention of the legal authorities. Perhaps a “wise man” can avoid this, by eliminating the occurrence of false accusations, but ensuring the correct actions are taken.
Disputes between and within ecclesias are also more common than many realize. A “wise man” could bring perspective and stop such disputes from causing the sort of harm that we see all too often.
The way forward
So how do we identify a “wise man”? I am not sure we have any such individual: in some situations in which I have been involved, we have had many discussions about appealing to individual brethren, but none came to mind, or at least none that commanded respect from all involved. In a situation where distrust and suspicion is prevalent, almost any brother with widespread experience has probably offended many by coming to any sort of conclusion. Wisdom does not mean infallibility in this day and age, where we lack the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit.
So perhaps we need a sort of “court,” to use the term most are used to. A group of several brethren, selected to represent all the diverse views within our community — but who can be relied upon to be balanced, compassionate, and spiritual in all their doings, guided by the principles in the Bible and long experience and Bible study. Perhaps such a group could be neutral, fair, and truly wise. And perhaps such a group could lead to a more harmonious and spiritually active community.
Is there not a wise man?
1. Some of this editorial is based upon a Reflection by Sis. Eileen Henthorn, The Tidings, October, 2011, p. 254.
2. The Tidings, June, 2011, p. 209.