"If any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant." These words will seem harsh to many, but they are Paul's words, and like all the words of Paul, whether harsh or gentle, they bring with them a lesson for the wise which makes it worth while to consider them.
They were uttered by Paul in reference to a class of critics who set themselves up as judges and censors of Paul's course, without being competent to fulfil their self-imposed function; being, in fact, pious hypocrites, perhaps without knowing it. These critics considered themselves to be spiritual; wherefore he says, "If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord, but if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant."--(1 Cor. 14:37). This challenge was doubtless humiliating to those concerned. Paul was willing to allow the possibility of their being prophets and spiritual men, but made their recognition of his teachings a test of the point. If they recoiled from the test, saying "we don't know," he then charged them with ignorance, and called on them to accept their place as ignorant men, and not pretend to be what they were not. The picture before us, is that of men in Paul's day professing attainments in the truth, but ventilating doubts as to Paul's authority, under a conceit of superior discernment, which was only a cloak of ignorance. By one trenchant sentence, Paul was able to tear the thin gauze from their faces, and reveal the pale, ghastly, green countenances of envious hypocrites, who made a profession of subjection to the truth, but were all the while spiritual cyphers [transforming the Bible to conceal its meaning], uncertain about the great realities of the spirit, and only faintly appreciative of even its palpable glories, being chiefly distinguished by a care of their own precious little dignities and reputations, which suffered eclipse from the orb of Paul's vigour and faithfulness.
There is such a thing as the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27); a faithful work of the Lord (Titus 1:9-14); an earnest contention for the faith (Jude 3); a full, wise, uncorrupted, saving testimony of the truth.--(1 Tim. 4:15-16). And there are those who never got farther than a mere smattering of the thing; whose energies are too much bestowed on mere temporalities to leave a sufficiency for growth in the Spirit, and stop short in pious "charitable" uncertainties, which embarrass the operations of the truth, and would spoil the work of God if they were to get their way. They are dealt with in Paul's words: "If any man think himself a brother, let him show it by acknowledging frankly and abetting heartily the whole counsel of God; but if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant." If he is uncertain in this or that, and disposed to temporize and compromise, let him take his place as an ignorant man, whose voice should not be heard in counsel, and least of all, lifted up against those who are where he professes to be, and who are doing the work which by his profession, he ought to be doing with all his heart.
We have not a Paul to cut the matter short in this summary way (though if we had, we should probably have the same fight to fight, considering how they flourished and obtained the ascendancy in Paul's day). We have, however, the word of God, and good sense to apply its most glorious facts and principles; and with a little timely firmness we may cut our way through the tangle-weed that would obstruct the progress of the boat, and by the merciful permission of God, land in the desired haven.
It is altogether a mistake to let ignorance or pusillanimity [showing a lack of moral courage] dictate the policy of the truth at any time, but more particularly in an age when the truth has to contend with almost insurmountable difficulties. If any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant; but let not those who are privileged to be otherwise, take direction or example from the ignorant man, nor let their course be influenced by him, either for the sake of pleasing him, or from any other motive. His way leads to destruction and death; and all the more so, because he wears the garb and talks the language of one who knows the way of life. "He thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual:" if he be so, let him show it by the manly, earnest, zealous carriage of such an one. But if he be but a spiritual ignoramus, let him take the consequences in being avoided.
This is the lesson of Paul's harsh words. Nor is it at all inconsistent with those other words with which, no doubt, the 'charitable' man of ignorance would run to the rescue: "We that are strong ought to bear with them that are weak, and not to please ourselves."--(Rom.15:1). It is a well known popular proverb that "the devil can quote Scripture." The charitable man of ignorance, quoting these words for such a purpose, is an example of it. nothing is more grievous to sound sense than to hear cogent words misapplied. How easy it is to do so, while all the while appearing to be arguing most justly. The apparent justness of it is the measure of its mischievousness and aggravatingness. Thus the hypocritical libertine justifies his flagitious ways by quoting Paul: "All things are lawful unto me." Thus too the Papist extenuates the claims, practices and pretences of the Roman priesthood, by quoting Leviticus, and the words of Christ to the apostles: "Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted." And thus charitable and mischief-working ignorance would plead for connivance at error and sin by quoting "we that are strong ought to bear with the infirmities of the weak." The sense of words must always be taken from their connection. Paul was speaking of brethren all alike believing and obedient to the gospel of their salvation. Some, however, had a weakness in relation to meats and drinks, inherited from the law which had only just ended in Christ. Paul says that strong brethren were not to reject such brethren, or ridicule their weakness, but rather bear with them and be careful to do and say nothing that would place a stumbling block in their way. The "strong" and "weak" brethren of the passage were both "in the faith." The "bearing" Paul recommends had no reference to the doctrines and precepts of that faith, but to certain things lying outside of it. He did not mean that brethren faithful to the doctrines and commandments of Christ were to "bear" with those who were loose and uncertain in their allegiance to these. On the contrary, you find in the same epistle, in the very next chapter, (16:17.) that he commands them to "avoid" those who "caused divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which they had learned." He meant that strong faithful brethren were to bear with weak faithful brethren in matters not affecting the faith and practice which united them in Christ. The lesson is serviceable in our own day, in both the ways of it. There are matters which do not affect the principles or precepts of the gospel in which a magnanimous forbearance will be exercised by all right-minded brethren towards those who may not have sufficient vigour of judgment to see their way clearly. On the other hand, there are principles and practices with which there is to be no forbearance whatever. If a man should be a violation of Paul's words to say that because "we that are strong ought to bear with the infirmities of the weak," therefore, those desiring to be obedient are to give in to this man's scruples, and suppress among themselves obedience to the second great commandment. Suppose he were to find fault with baptism as a needless preliminary to fellowship, as an obstacle keeping back many people; or suppose he were to complain of the gospel being preached as essential to salvation; or suppose he were to find fault with prayer or object to praise in the assemblies of the saints, instead of being called on the hear with such, as "weak" brethren, in the sense of giving in to their ignorant whims, the faithful would rather be under an obligation to apply the principle before us in the opening: "if any man thinketh himself to be a brother, let him show it by consenting to the wholesome words of the Lord Jesus; but if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant." And if any man be so ignorant as to stand in the way of the principles or practices of the house of God, which is the pillar and ground of the truth, he brings himself within the stern injunction of John, which commands us to refuse our "God-speed" to any who bring not the doctrine of Christ; and Paul's commands to "reject" a man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition.
Forbearance and faithfulness must never part company. Wisdom teaches when to forbear and when to earn the Lord's commendation of the Ephesian ecclesia: "thou canst not bear them that are evil." And this wisdom comes from above, through its appointed medium, to those who search diligently for it, as for hid treasure in the daily reading of the word.
(By Robert Roberts)