Warning #6 to the Church- The Fallibility of Min..
Written by: Ryle, J.C. Posted on: 04/09/2003
For more than a century, J. C. Ryle was best known for his plain and
lively writings on practical and spiritual themes. His great aim in all
his ministry, was to encourage strong and serious Christian living. But
Ryle was not naive in his understanding of how this should be done. He
recognized that, as a pastor of the flock of God, he had a responsibility
to guard Christ's sheep and to warn them whenever he saw approaching
dangers. His penetrating comments are as wise and relevant today as they
were when he first wrote them. His sermons and other writings have been
consistently recognized, and their usefulness and impact have continued
to the present day, even in the outdated English of the author's own day.
Why then should expositions already so successful and of such stature and
proven usefulness require adaptation, revision, rewrite or even editing?
The answer is obvious. To increase its usefulness to today's reader, the
language in which it was originally written needs updating.
Though his sermons have served other generations well, just as they came
from the pen of the author in the nineteenth century, they still could be
lost to present and future generations, simply because, to them, the
language is neither readily nor fully understandable.
My goal, however, has not been to reduce the original writing to the
vernacular of our day. It is designed primarily for you who desire to
read and study comfortably and at ease in the language of our time. Only
obviously archaic terminology and passages obscured by expressions not
totally familiar in our day have been revised. However, neither Ryle's
meaning nor intent have been tampered with.
All Scripture references are taken from the HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL
VERSION (C) 1978 by the New York Bible Society, used by permission of
Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Warning #6 to the Church
The Fallibility of Ministers
J. C. Ryle
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face,
because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men
came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when
they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself
from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who
belonged to the circumcision group.
The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their
hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that
they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I
said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you
live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then,
that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?"
We who are Jews by birth and not "Gentile sinners" know that
a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in
Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus
that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by
observing the law, because by observing the law no one will
Have we ever considered what the Apostle Peter did at Antioch? It is a
question that deserves serious consideration.
What the Apostle Peter did at Rome we are often told, although we have
hardly a jot of authentic information about it. Legends, traditions, and
fables abound on the subject. But unhappily for these writers, Scripture
is utterly silent upon the point. There is nothing in Scripture to show
that the Apostle Peter ever was at Rome at all!
But what did the Apostle Peter do at Antioch? This is the point to which
I want to direct attention. This is the subject from the passage from
the Epistle to the Galatians, which heads this paper. On this point, at
any rate, the Scripture speaks clearly and unmistakably.
The six verses of the passages before us are striking on many accounts.
They are striking, if we consider the event which they describe: here is
one Apostle rebuking another! They are striking, when we consider who
the two men are: Paul, the younger, rebukes Peter the elder! They are
striking, when we remark the occasion: this was no glaring fault, no
flagrant sin, at first sight, that Peter had committed! Yet the Apostle
Paul says, "I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the
wrong." He does more than this--he reproves Peter publicly for his error
before all the Church at Antioch. He goes even further--he writes an
account of the matter, which is now read in two hundred languages all
over the world.
It is my firm conviction that the Holy Spirit wants us to take particular
notice of this passage of Scripture. If Christianity had been an
invention of man, these things would never have been recorded. An
impostor would have hushed up the difference between two Apostles. The
Spirit of truth has caused these verses to be written for our learning,
and we shall do well to take heed to their contents.
There are three great lessons from Antioch, which I think we ought to
learn from this passage.
I. The first lesson is, "That great ministers may make great mistakes."
II. The second is, "That to keep the truth of Christ in His Church is
even more important than to keep peace."
III. The third is, "That there is no doctrine about which we ought to be
so protective about as justification by faith without the deeds of the
I. The first great lesson we learn from Antioch is, "That great ministers
may make great mistakes."
What clearer proof can we have than that which is set before us in this
place? Peter, without doubt, was one of the greatest in the company of
the Apostles. He was an old disciple. He was a disciple who had had
peculiar advantages and privileges. He had been a constant companion of
the Lord Jesus. He had heard the Lord preach, seen the Lord work
miracles, enjoyed the benefit of the Lord's private teaching, been
numbered among the Lord's intimate friends, and gone out and come in with
Him all the time He ministered upon earth. He was the Apostle to whom
the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given, and by whose hand those
keys were first used. He was the first who opened the door of faith to
the Jews, by preaching to them on the day of Pentecost. He was the first
who opened the door of faith to the Gentiles, by going to the house of
Cornelius, and receiving him into the Church. He was the first to rise
up in the Council of the fifteenth of Acts, and say, "Why do you try to
test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we
nor our fathers have been able to bear?" And yet here this very Peter,
this same Apostle, plainly falls into a great mistake.
The Apostle Paul tells us, "I opposed him to his face." He tells us
"because he was clearly in the wrong." He says "he was afraid of those
who belonged to the circumcision group." He says of him and his
companions, that "they were not acting in line with the truth of the
gospel." He speaks of their "hypocrisy." He tells us that by this
hypocrisy even Barnabas, his old companion in missionary labors, "was led
astray." What a striking fact this is. This is Simon Peter! This is
the third great error of his, which the Holy Spirit has thought fit to
record! Once we find him trying to keep back our Lord, as far as he
could, from the great work of the cross, and severely rebuked Him. Then
we find him denying the Lord three times, and with an oath. Here again
we find him endangering the leading truth of Christ's Gospel. Surely we
may say, "Lord, what is man?" Let us note, that of all the Apostles
there is not one, excepting, of course, Judas Iscariot, of whom we have
so many proofs that he was a fallible man.
(Note: It is curious to observe the shifts to which some writers have
been reduced, in order to explain away the plain meaning of the verses
which head this paper. Some have maintained that Paul did not really
rebuke Peter, but only faked it, for show and appearance sake! Others
have maintained that it was not Peter the Apostle who was rebuked, but
another Peter, one of the seventy! Such interpretations need no remark.
They are simply absurd. The truth is that the plain honest meaning of
the verses strikes a heavy blow at the favorite Roman Catholic doctrine
of the primacy and superiority of Peter over the rest of the Apostles.)
But it is all meant to teach us that even the Apostles themselves, when
not writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were at times
liable to err. It is meant to teach us that the best men are weak and
fallible so long as they are in the body. Unless the grace of God holds
them up, any one of them may go astray at any time. It is very humbling,
but it is very true. True Christians are converted, justified, and
sanctified. They are living members of Christ, beloved children of God,
and heirs of eternal life. They are elect, chosen, called, and kept unto
salvation. They have the Spirit. But they are not infallible.
Will not rank and dignity confer infallibility? No, they will not! It
matters nothing what a man is called. He may be a Czar, an Emperor, a
King, a Prince. He may be a Preacher, Minister, or Deacon. He is still
a fallible man. Neither the crown, nor the anointing oil, nor the laying
on of hands, can prevent a man making mistakes.
Will not numbers confer infallibility? No, they will not! You may
gather together princes by the score, and ministers by the hundred; but,
when gathered together, they are still liable to err. You may call them
a council, or an assembly, or a conference, or what you please. It
matters nothing. Their conclusions are still the conclusions of fallible
men. Their collective wisdom is still capable of making enormous
The example of the Apostle Peter at Antioch is one that does not stand
alone. It is only a parallel of many a case that we find written for our
learning in Holy Scripture. Do we not remember Abraham, the father of
the faithful, following the advice of Sarah, and taking Hagar for a wife?
Do we not remember Aaron, the first high priest, listening to the
children of Israel, and making a golden calf? Do we not remember
Solomon, the wisest of men, allowing his wives to build their high places
of false worship? Do we not remember Jehosaphat, the good king, going
down to help wicked Ahab? Do we not remember Hezekiah, the good king,
receiving the ambassadors of Babylon? Do we not remember Josiah, the
last of Judah's good kings, going forth to fight with Pharaoh? Do we not
remember James and John, wanting fire to come down from heaven? These
things deserve to be remembered. They were not written without cause.
They cry aloud, "No infallibility!"
And who does not see, when he reads the history of the Church of Christ,
repeated proofs that the best of men can err? The early fathers were
zealous according to their knowledge, and ready to die for Christ. But
many of them advocated ritualism, and nearly all sowed the seeds of many
superstitions. The Reformers were honored instruments in the hand of God
for reviving the cause of truth on earth. Yet hardly one of them can be
named who did not make some great mistake. Martin Luther held tightly to
the doctrine of consubstantiation [believing that during communion the
bread and the wine became the actual body and blood of Christ].
Melancthon was often timid and undecided. Calvin permitted Servetus to
be burned. Cranmer recanted and fell away for a time from his first
faith. Jewell subscribed to Roman Catholic Church doctrines for fear of
death. Hooper disturbed the Church of England by demanding the need to
wear ceremonial vestments [priestly type garments] when ministering. The
Puritans, in later times, denounced Christian liberty and freedoms as
doctrines from the pit of Hell. Wesley and Toplady, last century, abused
each other in most shameful language. Irving, in our own day, gave way
to the delusion of speaking in unknown tongues [babble]. All these
things speak with a loud voice. They all lift up a beacon to the Church
of Christ. They all say, "Do not trust man; call no man master; call no
man father [spiritually] on earth; let no man glory in man; He that
glories, let him glory in the Lord." They all cry, "No infallibility!"
The lesson is one that we all need. We are all naturally inclined to
lean upon man whom we can see, rather than upon God whom we cannot see.
We naturally love to lean upon the ministers of the visible Church,
rather than upon the Lord Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd and High
Priest, who is invisible. We need to be continually warned and set on
I see this tendency to lean on man everywhere. I know no branch of the
Protestant Church of Christ which does not require to be cautioned upon
the point. It is a snare to the Scottish Christians to pin their faith
on John Knox. It is a snare to the Methodists in our day to worship the
memory of John Wesley. All these are snares, and into these snares how
We all naturally love to have a pope of our own. We are far too ready to
think, that because some great minister or some learned man says a thing,
or because our own minister, whom we love, says a thing, it must be
right, without examining whether it is in Scripture or not. Most men
dislike the trouble of thinking for themselves. They like following a
leader. They are like sheep, when one goes over the hill all the rest
follow. Here at Antioch even Barnabas was carried away. We can well
fancy that good man saying, "An old Apostle, like Peter, surely cannot be
wrong. Following him, I cannot err."
And now let us see what practical lessons we may learn from this part of
(a) For one thing, let us learn not to put implicit confidence in any
man's opinion, merely because he lived many hundred years ago. Peter was
a man who lived in the time of Christ Himself, and yet he could err.
There are many who talk much in the present day about the voice of the
early Church. They would have us believe that those who lived nearest
the time of the Apostles, must of course know more about truth than we
can. There is no foundation for any such opinion. It is a fact, that
the most ancient writers in the true Church of Christ are often at
variance with one another. It is a fact that they often changed their
own minds, and retracted their own former opinions. It is a fact that
they often wrote foolish and weak things, and often showed great
ignorance in their explanations of Scripture. It is vain to expect to
find them free from mistakes. Infallibility is not to be found in the
early fathers, but in the Bible.
(b) For another thing, let us learn not to put implicit confidence in any
man's opinion, merely because of his office as a minister. Peter was one
of the very chief Apostles, and yet he could err.
This is a point on which men have continually gone astray. It is the
rock on which the early Church struck. Men soon took up the saying, "Do
nothing contrary to the mind of the minister." But what are ministers,
preachers, and deacons? What are the best of ministers but men--dust,
ashes, and clay--men of like passions with ourselves, men exposed to
temptations, men liable to weaknesses and infirmities? What does the
Scripture say? "What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only
servants, through whom you came to believe--as the Lord has assigned to
each his task" (1 Corinthians 3:5).
Ministers have often driven the truth into the wilderness, and decreed
that to be true which was false. The greatest errors have been begun by
ministers. Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of the high-priest, made
religion to be abhorred by the children of Israel. Annas and Caiaphas,
though in the direct line of descent from Aaron, crucified the Lord. It
is absurd to suppose that ordained men cannot go wrong. We should follow
them so far as they teach according to the Bible, but no further. We
should believe them so long as they can say, "Thus it is written, thus
says the Lord," but further than this we are not to go. Infallibility is
not to be found in ordained men, but in the Bible.
(c) For another thing, let us learn not to place implicit confidence in
any man's opinion, merely because of his learning. Peter was a man who
had miraculous gifts, and could speak with the (then valid) gift of
tongues, and yet he could err.
This is a point again on which many go wrong. This is the rock on which
men struck in the middle ages. Men looked on Thomas Aquinas, and Peter
Lombard, and many of their companions, as almost inspired. They gave
epithets to some of them in token of their admiration. They talked of
"the indisputable" preacher, "the angelic" minister, "the incomparable"
pastor, and seemed to think that whatever these ministers said must be
true! But what is the most learned of men, if he is not taught by the
Holy Spirit? What is the most learned of all divines but a mere fallible
child of Adam at his very best? Vast knowledge of books and great
ignorance of God's truth may go side by side. They have done so, they
may do so, and they will do so in all times. I will engage to say that
the two volumes of Robert McCheyne's Memoirs and Sermons, have done more
positive good to the souls of men, than any one folio that Origen or
Cyprian ever wrote.
I do not doubt that the one volume of Pilgrim's Progress, written by a
man who knew hardly any book but his Bible, and was ignorant of Greek and
Latin, will prove in the last day to have done more for the benefit of
the world, than all the works of the schoolmen put together. Learning is
a gift that ought not to be despised. It is an evil day when books are
not valued in the Church. But it is amazing to observe how vast a man's
intellectual attainments may be, and yet how little he may know of the
grace of God. I have no doubt the Authorities of Oxford in the last
century, knew more of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, than Wesley or
Whitefield. But they knew little of the Gospel of Christ. Infallibility
is not to be found among learned men, but in the Bible.
(d) For another thing, let us take care that we do not place implicit
confidence on our own minister's opinion, however godly he may be. Peter
was a man of mighty grace, and yet he could err.
Your minister may be a man of God indeed, and worthy of all honor for his
preaching and example; but do not make a pope of him. Do not place his
word side by side with the Word of God. Do not spoil him by flattery.
Do not let him suppose he can make no mistakes. Do not lean your whole
weight on his opinion, or you may find to your cost that he can err.
It is written of Joash, King of Judah, that he "did what was right in the
eyes of the LORD all the years of Jehoiada the priest" (2 Chronicles
24:2). Jehoiada died, and then died the religion of Joash. Just so your
minister may die, and then your religion may die too. He may change, and
your religion may change. He may go away, and your religion may go.
Oh, do not be satisfied with a religion built on man! Do not be content
with saying, "I have hope, because my own minister has told me such and
such things." Seek to be able to say, "I have hope, because I find it
thus and thus written in the Word of God." If your peace is to be solid,
you must go yourself to the fountain of all truth. If your comforts are
to be lasting, you must visit the well of life yourself, and draw fresh
water for your own soul. Ministers may depart from the faith. The
visible Church may be broken up. But he who has the Word of God written
in his heart, has a foundation beneath his feet which will never fail
him. Honor your minister as a faithful ambassador of Christ. Esteem him
very highly in love for his work's sake. But never forget that
infallibility is not to be found in godly ministers, but in the Bible.
The things I have mentioned are worth remembering. Let us bear them in
mind, and we shall have learned one lesson from Antioch.
II. I now pass on to the second lesson that we learn from Antioch. That
lesson is, "That to keep Gospel truth in the Church is of even greater
importance than to keep peace."
I suppose no man knew better the value of peace and unity than the
Apostle Paul. He was the Apostle who wrote to the Corinthians about
love. He was the Apostle who said, "Live in harmony with one another;
live in peace with each other; the Lord's servant must not quarrel;
There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to one hope
when you were called--one Lord, one faith, one baptism." He was the
Apostle who said, "I have become all things to all men so that by all
possible means I might save some" (Romans 12:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:13;
Philemon 3:16; Ephesians 4:5; 1 Corinthians 9:22). Yet see how he acts
here! He withstands Peter to the face. He publicly rebukes him. He
runs the risk of all the consequences that might follow. He takes the
chance of everything that might be said by the enemies of the Church at
Antioch. Above all, he writes it down for a perpetual memorial, that it
never might be forgotten, that, wherever the Gospel is preached
throughout the world, this public rebuke of an erring Apostle might be
known and read of all men.
Now, why did he do this? Because he dreaded false doctrine; because he
knew that a little leaven leavens the whole lump, because he would teach
us that we ought to contend for the truth jealously, and to fear the loss
of truth more than the loss of peace.
Paul's example is one we shall do well to remember in the present day.
Many people will put up with anything in religion, if they may only have
a quiet life. They have a morbid dread of what they call "controversy."
They are filled with a morbid fear of what they style, in a vague way,
"party spirit," though they never define clearly what party spirit is.
They are possessed with a morbid desire to keep the peace, and make all
things smooth and pleasant, even though it be at the expense of truth.
So long as they have outward calm, smoothness, stillness, and order, they
seem content to give up everything else. I believe they would have
thought with Ahab that Elijah was a troubler of Israel, and would have
helped the princes of Judah when they put Jeremiah in prison, to stop his
mouth. I have no doubt that many of these men of whom I speak, would
have thought that Paul at Antioch was a very imprudent man, and that he
went too far!
I believe this is all wrong. We have no right to expect anything but the
pure Gospel of Christ, unmixed and unadulterated; the same Gospel that
was taught by the Apostles; to do good to the souls of men. I believe
that to maintain this pure truth in the Church men should be ready to
make any sacrifice, to hazard peace, to risk dissension, and run the
chance of division. They should no more tolerate false doctrine than
they would tolerate sin. They should withstand any adding to or taking
away from the simple message of the Gospel of Christ.
For the truth's sake, our Lord Jesus Christ denounced the Pharisees,
though they sat in Moses' seat, and were the appointed and authorized
teachers of men. "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you
hypocrites," He says, eight times over, in the twenty-third chapter of
Matthew. And who shall dare to breathe a suspicion that our Lord was
For the truth's sake, Paul withstood and blamed Peter, though a brother.
Where was the use of unity when pure doctrine was gone? And who shall
dare to say he was wrong?
For the truth's sake, Athanasius stood out against the world to maintain
the pure doctrine about the divinity of Christ, and waged a controversy
with the great majority of the professing Church. And who shall dare to
say he was wrong?
For the truth's sake, Luther broke the unity of the Church in which he
was born, denounced the Pope and all his ways, and laid the foundation of
a new teaching. And who shall dare to say that Luther was wrong?
For the truth's sake, Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer, the English
Reformers, counseled Henry VIII and Edward VI to separate from Rome, and
to risk the consequences of division. And who shall dare to say that
they were wrong?
For the truth's sake, Whitefield and Wesley, a hundred years ago,
denounced the mere barren moral preaching of the clergy of their day, and
went out into the highways and byways to save souls, knowing well that
they would be cast out from the Church's communion. And who shall dare
to say that they were wrong?
Yes! peace without truth is a false peace; it is the very peace of the
devil. Unity without the Gospel is a worthless unity; it is the very
unity of hell. Let us never be ensnared by those who speak kindly of it.
Let us remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, "Do not suppose that
I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace,
but a sword" (Matthew 10:34) Let us remember the praise He gives to one
of the Churches in Revelation, "I know that you cannot tolerate wicked
men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and
have found them false" (Revelation 2:2). Let us remember the blame He
casts on another, "You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a
prophetess" (Revelation 2:20). Never let us be guilty of sacrificing any
portion of truth on the altar of peace. Let us rather be like the Jews,
who, if they found any manuscript copy of the Old Testament Scriptures
incorrect in a single letter, burned the whole copy, rather than run the
risk of losing one jot or tittle of the Word of God. Let us be content
with nothing short of the whole Gospel of Christ.
In what way are we to make practical use of the general principles which
I have just laid down? I will give my readers one simple piece of
advice. I believe it is advice which deserves serious consideration.
I warn then every one who loves his soul, to be very selective as to the
preaching he regularly hears, and the place of worship he regularly
attends. He who deliberately settles down under any ministry which is
positively unsound is a very unwise man. I will never hesitate to speak
my mind on this point. I know well that many think it a shocking thing
for a man to forsake his local church. I cannot see with the eyes of
such people. I draw a wide distinction between teaching which is
defective and teaching which is thoroughly false; between teaching which
errs on the negative side and teaching which is positively unscriptural.
But I do believe, if false doctrine is unmistakably preached in a local
church, a Christian who loves his soul is quite right in not going to
that local church. To hear unscriptural teaching fifty-two Sundays in
every year is a serious thing. It is a continual dropping of slow poison
into the mind. I think it almost impossible for a man willfully to
submit himself to it, and not be harmed.
I see in the New Testament we are plainly told to "Test everything" and
"Hold on to the good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). I see in the Book of
Proverbs that we are commanded to "Stop listening to instruction, my son,
and you will stray from the words of knowledge" (Proverbs 19:27). If
these words do not justify a man in ceasing to worship at a church, if
positively false doctrine is preached in it, I do not know what words
--Does any one mean to tell us that to attend your local denominational
church is absolutely needful to a person's salvation? If there is such a
one, let him speak out, and give us his name.
--Does any one mean to tell us that going to the denominational church
will save any man's soul, if he dies unconverted and ignorant of Christ?
If there is such a one, let him speak out, and give us his name.
--Does any one mean to tell us that going to the denominational church
will teach a man anything about Christ, or conversion, or faith, or
repentance, if these subjects are hardly ever named in the denomination
church, and never properly explained? If there is such a one, let him
speak out, and give us his name.
--Does any one mean to say that a man who repents, believes in Christ, is
converted and holy, will lose his soul, because he has forsaken his
denomination and learned his religion elsewhere? If there is such a one,
let him speak out, and give us his name.
For my part I abhor such monstrous
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