1 Corinthians 14:20
Brothers, be not children in understanding: however, in malice be you children, but in understanding be men.
1. The scholar alludes here to the teaching of his Master, and defines it (Matthew 18:3; Matthew 11:25). It was notably the manner of the Great Teacher to fling out thoughts in a round unguarded axiom which He trusted the good sense of His sympathetic disciples to define and limit. His very doing so is of itself conclusive proof that He meant His pupils to be no children, but men, in understanding. He might have addressed us as Moses addressed the Israelites, and given us details instead of principles, and an example in the room of an axiom. It pleased Him, on the contrary, to inaugurate an adult dispensation.
2. The Church, however, has not entered into this purpose of its Founder. Others besides the Galatians desire to turn back again to be in bondage to "beggarly elements." But if men will be childish in their religion, they shall not shelter themselves under Christ's injunctions if St. Paul can hinder it. To be children in malice towards one another, and in humility towards God, is that state to which alone the Father reveals His grace. But to be children in understanding; to be credulous without reflection, obedient without intelligence; — this could not appear to the noblest intellect of his age worthy of that gospel which reveals the wisdom of God, and educates man into perfect manhood, into the stature of the fulness of Jesus Christ.
3. The right use of the understanding in regard to Christianity is, of course, determined by the special nature of the Christian faith. Christianity rests upon facts which are wholly supernatural. It reveals mysteries of which reason can say nothing, either to confirm or to dispute. At the same time, a Divine system which is to recover man must be fitted to men. It cannot override one part of man, his reason, in reaching another, his spirit. Consider the manly use of the understanding —
I. IN REFERENCE TO DIVINE TRUTH. The revelation of God in His Son's gospel asks of our understanding —
1. To estimate its credentials with a candid mind and a pure heart.
(1) Suppose that I have been educated within the bosom of Christ's Church, and have thus, by the happy experience of a religious life, put the faith of Jesus to frequent proof. In that ease I only use my understanding, as a man should, if I decline to reopen without cause the question of Christian evidences. A man may know whom he has trusted, and be no fool.
(2) Others, however, have had an educational belief in Christianity, which personal experience never verified. Before the understanding of such men the gospel pleads. It asks no more than a full hearing and an honest verdict. Their duty is to be, in malice, indeed, children, but in understanding, men; asking fair proof, and taking no less; grappling with a robust, not finical, intellect the question of questions. There is a reason which can be given for the faith that is in us.
2. The intelligent interpretation of its records. A child's open heart may drink in so much of God's light from a text or two as will quicken it into holy life; but God means grown Christians to be at pains, by manly research and the use of reason, to ascertain the sense of His book. It is childish to dip into its pages with a pin, as if it were a book of fate; it is hardly less childish to cite texts at random, out of their connection, without asking when they were written, or with what design.
3. To grasp its truths as a whole. There is no intellectual manliness in shunning all dogmatic statements of theological truth, as if, in the haze of revelation, nothing could confidently be made out. It is true that few propositions in theology have escaped contradiction, and that at particular periods a rage for defining and systematising has been carried too far. But when all this has been conceded, the fact remains that the Church, from the second century to the nineteenth, has exercised its understanding on the materials of revelation with such substantial harmony that all its main doctrines have survived and commanded the assent of the most opposite schools. But were theology a chaos of conflicting opinions, still it would be manly to grapple with the teaching of Scripture, and endeavour to digest it into a system. Shall the facts of nature be classified and not the results of revelation?
4. An attitude towards all truth of fearless and open-minded candour, so long as it is unproved; so soon as it is proved true, one of rejoicing welcome. The crude and hasty theories of the day, whose value is chiefly to stimulate and guide further research, will make no man uneasy who has studied the history of past discovery. The shadows which coming truths cast before them are often mis-shapen, after the manner of shadows, and they startle the timorous; but the truth itself is always reassuring, a cheerful thing to healthy souls. No man ought to be so eager in the search for truth as the friend of Christ, nor can any man afford to meet it with a manlier greeting.
II. IN REFERENCE TO HUMAN PRACTICE.
1. It was in connection with a practical question — the profitable conduct of congregational worship — that St. Paul gave this injunction. When people are possessed by a very high ideal of duty, or ruled by their faith in what is Divine, they come easily in danger of despising common sense. Once let men imagine that God can possibly be pleased with a thing which offends reason, and there is nothing too irrational for them to do in His service. Or, let them only suppose that He cares for external form, apart from the inner spirit of an act, and the door is opened at once to childish trifling in worship and a painful casuistry in morals.
2. Two principles rationally applied will solve many knots of casuistry.
(1) That we are no longer children, who please our Father by an unintelligent observance of mere external rules, but men, whose service, to be worth anything, must proceed from intelligent sympathy with His mind. To do, or abstain from doing, this, that, or the other petty act, because you are told you ought to, without knowing why, is to be a child. Be men.
(2) The subordination of the morally small to the morally great. All right things are not equally important. Seek therefore to make sure of "the weightier matters of the law." For if our eye is set on the doing of these, the "mint, anise, and cummin," which are apt to give us so much trouble, will not be left undone. Conclusion: The understanding holds the function in Christian life of a regulator, nowise that of a moving power. A Christian who is only one intellectually is simply no Christian at all; for, till the heart is converted and become that of a little child, the man cannot see, cannot, by force of intellect, discern, the kingdom of heaven. Let us seek to retain the heart of childhood, but let us guide it by the understanding of a man.
(J. Oswald Dykes, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.