"The Letter of the Law"

Is there ever a time when a leader is justified in not applying the letter of the law?

Robert H. Pierson, President Trans-Africa Division

Paul, in writing to the believers in Philippi, said, "Let your mod­eration be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand" (Phil. 4:5).

I was interested in the way this word "moderation" is translated in some of the versions of the New Testament. Ronald Knox renders the phrase: "Give proof to all of your courtesy." The New English Bible* gives us this beautiful thought: "Let your magnanimity be manifest to all." The Christian, and especially the Christian worker, is to be known by his courtesy and by his bigness of spirit.

William Barclay, lecturer in New Testa­ment Language in the University of Glas­gow, declares that this word "moderation" is one of the most untranslatable of all Greek words. He then goes on to explain how the Greeks themselves used the word "epieikeia." "They said that epieikeia ought to come in in those cases when strict justice becomes unjust because of its gen­erality."

Rules and policies we must have in our church program. Every administrator and pastor has experienced the strength that is his when he faces difficult decisions and is able to turn to the Church Manual or the denominational policy book and there find counsel or a policy covering a like case with which he is dealing. We need policies and rules to guide us in our administra­tion of God's work. We must have them.

But Paul in his letter to the Philippians appeals for some exceptions to general rules or policies that may be good in them­selves. "Let your magnanimity be manifest." "Let your gracious gentleness be known to all men," says the Barclay translation.

According to Barclay, "A man has the quality of epieikeia if he knows when not to apply the strict letter of the law, if he knows when to relax justice and to introduce mercy."

In one field where I was labor­ing one of our young workers made a serious mistake. In fact, the committee might well have dropped him from the work be­cause of his misdeed. But the young man saw his mistake and was truly repentant. He appealed to the responsible committee for another chance to demonstrate his willingness and ability to make good.

This young worker had gravely erred. The policy would have justified dropping him from the work. But the committee, taking all things into consideration (his mistake was not a moral fall), decided to exercise epieikeia—tolerance, magnanim­ity, softness, patience, gracious gentleness, or whatever you want to call it. We were not thinking of all these pleasant terms at the time, but we were thinking of the young man's future, his repentance, and we wanted to give him another chance.

I am glad that the committee members knew when not to apply the letter of the law. I am glad they knew that there are times when the policies of the church may be relaxed—that there is, on occasion, something beyond justice! Several years now have passed and this worker has justi­fied the faith the committee had in him. He is carrying with credit the work later entrusted to him. About two years after the matter had been dealt with by the commit­tee I met this young man at a camp meet­ing in his new field of labor. He came up to me, put his arm around me, and said, "Thank you, Elder, for giving me an­other chance. The Lord is blessing me in my work, and I am determined to make good and to justify the faith the committee had in me. At the time I was so ashamed and so discouraged that Satan kept telling me to give up and get out. You brethren saved me by the understanding manner in which you dealt with me." Epieikeia paid dividends in this case.

During His earthly ministry the Saviour frequently went beyond the demands of justice. When the woman in sin was brought to Him, He might well have con­demned her—and broken her—even per­mitted her to be stoned to death according to the law of Moses.

Jesus knew the woman's heart. He knew the circumstances that surrounded her fall. He knew the blessed recovery she would make. He knew that this was one time when "gracious gentleness"—epietheia­should be exercised. He went beyond jus­tice.

Neither Paul nor Jesus taught that sin should be condoned or ignored. As leaders we can follow such a course only to the spiritual ruin of the church. The experi­ence of Achan illustrates graphically the damning consequences of having sin in the camp.

The messenger of the Lord requires that sin should be faithfully dealt with, even if it touches the highest men in the church. -We must not fail in our duty.

But circumstances vary. There are times when justice will bring more ruin to the church than would the exercise of epiei­keia—"gracious gentleness."

"As far as justice goes, there is not one of us who deserves anything but the con­demnation of God, but God goes far be­yond justice. Paul lays it down that the mark of a Christian in his personal rela­tionship with his fellow men must be that he knows when and when not to insist on justice, and that he always remembers that there is something which is beyond justice, and which makes a man like God."—WIL­LIAM BARCLAY, The Letter to the Philip­pians, p. 94.

Why are we as Christian leaders to mani­fest this attitude of gracious gentleness and magnanimity? The apostle answers the question himself: "The Lord is at hand." We are men looking for the coming of the Lord. As such we should seek to be as near like Him as possible. We must be ready to meet Him!

Another reason—and a very real one for those of us who frequently hold the reputation and perhaps, on occasion, even the eternal destiny of men in our hands—is that we are commissioned to save men, not to crush them! If we follow the Master we will be burdened to lift men up and not to tread upon their crushed morale. Fre­quently, because of our work, we have to deal firmly with sin and cause hurt and sometimes create enmity. We cannot avoid it. It is the only course to pursue. Since this is true, should we not then seek every op­portunity possible, when circumstances clearly warrant it, to know how to close the policy book and with Paul and Jesus exer­cise epieikeia, true gracious gentleness?

* The New English Bible, New Testament. © The Dele­gates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961.

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Robert H. Pierson, President Trans-Africa Division

November 1964

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