The ‘Exceeding Sinfulness’ of Sin
HOW bad is sin? How far-reaching may the effects of even a “little” sin be? Jesus’ statement in counseling his disciples on faithfulness bears on the question. He said: “The person faithful in what is least is faithful also in much, and the person unrighteous in what is least is unrighteous also in much.” (Luke 16:10) Unfaithfulness to God is sin, and, according to the apostle John, “everyone who practices sin is also practicing lawlessness, and so sin is lawlessness.” (1 John 3:4) As with one person, also with a group or body of people, large or small, a slight deviation from right principles, if let run, can cause gross lawlessness and incalculable trouble.—Rom. 7:13.
A forceful illustration of the terrible effects of what at first might have been considered a small thing is found in the development of the “man of lawlessness.” The Bible describes it through the writings of the apostle Paul at 2 Thessalonians chapter 2. About the coming of this “man” the apostles Paul and Peter both gave the congregations advance warning that “from among you yourselves [elders in the Christian congregation] men will rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves,” that they would “bring in destructive sects” and that many would “follow their acts of loose conduct.”—Acts 20:30; 2 Pet. 2:1-3.
DESIRE FOR PROMINENCE THE BEGINNING OF APOSTASY
‘How,’ someone may say, ‘could such a situation originate in God’s own congregation?’ Well, it was not something that occurred overnight. It developed in a very insidious way. Jesus had set the proper example, and he had clearly warned his disciples against the spirit of the religious leaders of the Jews, saying:
“All the works they do they do to be viewed by men; . . . They like the most prominent place at evening meals the front seats in the synagogues, and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi [Teacher] by men. But you, do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your teacher, whereas all you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One. Neither be called ‘leaders,’ for your Leader is one, the Christ. But the greatest one among you must be your minister. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”—Matt. 23:5-12.
There are many other like admonitions in the Christian Scriptures. But some men in responsible positions in the early congregation evidently began taking little advantages. They felt somewhat important in the position they held. They felt that it entitled them to a little more than the “ordinary” member of the congregation deserved. They allowed themselves special privileges, and they expected things of a material nature from the brothers. In that way they could live a little easier, they could be looked up to as being “somebody.” That was all they wanted, at first. But gradually they and their successors in office became more demanding, more bold, more arbitrary in expressing authority. They deceived and misled the congregation in order to gratify their desires and ‘exploited them with counterfeit words.’ The apostle Paul describes some such men at 2 Corinthians 11:19, 20.—2 Pet. 2:3.
Possibly at the beginning these men had no idea as to what their merely wanting a few favors would eventually lead to—the terrible, hideous thing their catering to the “small” selfish desire would in time produce. They likely felt that their deviation, if any, was minor. But let us trace the history of this trend and see the outcome for which these very men became responsible.
From the Bible’s account of the preliminary manifestation of the apostasy of the “man of lawlessness” we can trace its development in historical records.
Jesus Christ had given no instructions for his disciples to be divided up into clergy and laity. They were all equals as members of a spiritual family, all spirit-begotten brothers of Jesus Christ, anointed to be a body of priests, with prospects of being heavenly kings and priests with Christ. The apostle Peter called them “a royal priesthood.” (1 Pet. 2:5, 9) Though some had responsibilities as “shepherds,” all were priests in a spiritual sense and all engaged in the work of offering spiritual sacrifices. (1 Pet. 5:1-4) There was no hint of a “clergy-laity” division. However, note what history says:
“The Jewish antithesis of clergy and laity was at first unknown among Christians; and it was ‘only as men fell back from the evangelical to the Jewish point of view’ that the idea of the general Christian priesthood of all believers gave place, more or less completely, to that of the special priesthood or clergy. . . . So Tertullian, even (De Baptismo, c. 17, before he became a Montanist): ‘The laity have also the right to administer the sacraments and to teach in the community. The Word of God and the sacraments were by the grace of God communicated to all, and may therefore be communicated by all Christians as instruments of the divine grace. But the question here relates not barely to what is permitted in general, but also to what is expedient under existing circumstances. We may here use the words of St. Paul, “All things are lawful for men, but all things are not expedient.” If we look at the order necessary to be maintained in the Church, the laity are therefore to exercise their priestly right of administering the sacraments only when the time and circumstances require it.’ From the time of Cyprian, . . . the father of the hierarchical system, the distinction of clergy and laity became prominent, and very soon was universally admitted. Indeed, from the third century onward, the term clerus (kleʹros, ordo) was almost exclusively applied to the ministry to distinguish it from the laity. As the Roman hierarchy was developed, the clergy came to be not merely a distinct order (which might consist with all the apostolical regulations and doctrines), but also to be recognised as the only priesthood, and the essential means of communication between man and God.”—M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia, Volume II, page 386.
The above-mentioned Thascius Caecilius Cyprian was the bishop of the church in Carthage, Africa. He was born about 200 C.E. and died in 258 C.E. He was a clergyman, called here “the father of the hierarchical system,” one of the body of clergy that existed not much more than a century after the death of Christ’s apostles and their close associates. From that time on, throughout the “Dark Ages,” into the time of the Reformation and the beginning of the Protestant Churches, and down to the present, this clergy-laity distinction has existed in Christendom.
It is this so-called “Christian” clergy that demonstrated itself to be “the man of lawlessness . . . the son of destruction,” in connection with the apostasy or rebellion of 2 Thessalonians 2:3. It is evident that by the use of this expression the Holy Bible means a composite “man,” who exists over a long period of time and whose makeup and personnel change as time goes by.
DIRECT OPPOSITION TO GOD
This rebellion being (as discussed in our previous issue) against Jehovah God, it is no cause for surprise that this composite “man” should try to make a god of himself, as did the great rebel Satan the Devil, whom the Bible calls “the god of this system of things.” (2 Cor. 4:4) The apostle Paul said prophetically of the “man of lawlessness”: “He is set in opposition and lifts himself up over everyone who is called ‘god’ or an object of reverence, so that he sits down in the temple of The God, publicly showing himself to be a god.”—2 Thess. 2:4.
The “man of lawlessness” is a composite body of men. We can, however, point to the claim made for one of these clergymen that reflects the general attitude of the body. Of the pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Ferraris’ ecclesiastical dictionarya says:
“The pope is of such dignity and highness that he is not simply a man but, as it were, God, and the Vicar of God. . . . Hence the pope is crowned with a triple crown, as king of heaven, of earth and of hell. . . . Nay, the pope’s excellence and power are not only above heavenly, terrestrial and infernal things, but he is also above angels, and is their superior . . . So that if it were possible that angels could err from the faith, or entertain sentiments contrary thereto, they could be judged and excommunicated by the pope. . . . He is of such great dignity and power that he occupies one and the same tribunal with Christ . . . So that whatsoever the pope does seems to proceed from the mouth of God. . . . The pope is, as it were, God on earth, the only prince of the faithful of Christ, the greatest king of all kings, possessing the plenitude of power; to whom the government of the earthly and heavenly kingdom is entrusted. . . . The pope is of so great authority and power that he can modify, declare or interpret the divine law. . . . The pope can sometimes counteract the divine law by limiting, explaining,” etc.
This power and might attributed to the pope has been upheld by the Catholic clergy, and, though many of the Protestant clergy may disagree, they too hold themselves up as “Reverend,” “Right Reverend” and “Father” and use other titles that put them high above the laity, to be looked up to, honored and materially supported, often in a very elaborate way—in a manner similar to the spirit of the papal claim.—Job 32:21, 22.
Not only in this self-exaltation, but also in making himself a “friend” of the world, the “man of lawlessness” has manifested himself to be in opposition to God. (Jas. 4:4) This collective “man” also opposes God when he tries to nullify the inspired Word of God, calling it “myth,” “outdated,” “unreliable,” “full of error” and even saying that “God is dead.”
THE ‘MARRIAGE’ OF CHURCH AND STATE
In many lands there has been and even now is a union of Church and State. In such ‘marriages’ the Church has endeavored to do the dictating. The clergy have controlled the thinking of the people to a great extent, and the political rulers, knowing this, have accorded the clergy authority, prestige, protection and immunities, financial support, and so forth. Concerning “Church and State,” The Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 6, pages 657, 658, says:
“Between these two institutions, in modern times, there has rarely, if ever, existed perfect harmony. This struggle, so long protracted, bids fair, unless some astonishing upheaval occurs, to last for all time. It has been a bitter one. It has involved large interests and brought to the forefront momentous discussions. It has fomented uprisings of all kinds and originated a literature of vituperation without parallel outside of political strife. It has been, not seldom, mere political contention. . . . Under Constantine the Church entered the arena of universal activity as a collaborator in the task of civilizing the peoples. Acknowledged as the spiritual ruler, it gradually acquired a local habitation and a name as a temporal potentate. It became a world power. This success was the beginning of all the many disasters of the Church. . . . From Constantine to Charlemagne the civil power, while giving legal recognition to the Church, interfered in its government. From Charlemagne to a period approaching that of the Reformation, Church and state were closely united and there was a generally acknowledged subordination of the civil to the spiritual authority.”
In this twentieth century, the situation has continued. Wars have been fought over religious issues, and the greatest, most gory, devastating World Wars have been fought, Christendom’s nations taking the lead with the most murderous weapons.
Think of the heartaches, the misery, the slaughter, the defamation of God’s name and of the name of Christianity, that have resulted from that beginning of desire for personal prominence and gain! Of those early elders appointed to shepherd the flock of God, many remained faithful. They followed the principle stated by Jesus, who said: “Whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all.” (Mark 10:44) But the selfish ones among them caused a religiously lawless rebellion that resulted in misery to millions. If they had followed the clear, simple command and example of Christ, such a terrible thing would not have taken place.
We as individuals can learn much from this. When God says a thing is wrong, it is really wrong. When we ignore his warning against any form of sin, we should never think we are doing ‘only a small thing.’ We are out of harmony with God’s universal arrangement and are indulging in the beginning of something that could be greatly harmful to many persons. The Bible rule is: “A little leaven ferments the whole lump.” (1 Cor. 5:6) Unless we quickly repent, turn away from such sin and do all we can to straighten up the matter, we can be responsible for unbelievably bad developments.
As an example, note what James the half brother of Jesus Christ wrote of a loose tongue: “The tongue is constituted a world of unrighteousness among our members, for it spots up all the body and sets the wheel of natural life aflame and it is set aflame by Gehenna.” (Jas. 3:6) Wrongly used, the tongue can upset our life and the lives of many others. James also showed that sin can have a very deceptive beginning. He said: “Each one is tried by being drawn out and enticed by his own desire. Then the desire, when it has become fertile, gives birth to sin; in turn, sin, when it has been accomplished, brings forth death.”—Jas. 1:14, 15.
Everyone, it is true, sins at times. But, thanks to Jehovah God for providing help, through his undeserved kindness, so that we may avoid going on in a course of sin, with its awful effects. We can avoid the disastrous course of the “man of lawlessness.” This we can do through faith in the propitiatory sacrifice of his Son Jesus Christ. (Rom. 7:21-25; 8:1, 2) Only by recognizing sin’s ‘exceeding sinfulness,’ and, when committing a sin, going to Jehovah for forgiveness on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice, can we get Jehovah’s help to escape the full consequences of our errant action.
a Prompta bibliotheca canonica, juridicao-moralis, theologica partim ascetica, polemica, rubricistica, historica, prepared at Bologna, Emilia-Romagna region, in Italy, in 1746 by Lucio Ferraris, Vol. VI, pp. 31-35; according to copy at Columbia University, New York city.