Letter to one of a self-confident and unyielding spirit

From an anonymous work, published in 1855 by the Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia, under the title, Monitory Letters to Church Members.

Every man who is not recreant to all his social obligations, is entitled, as a member of society, to a certain degree of consideration and influence; but there are some men who are not satisfied with what they can legitimately claim in this respect; their whole life seems to be an unceasing struggle to bring other men’s opinions into harmony with their own. Let them be in whatever company they may, it is manifest that they are aiming at superiority. They speak on every subject with a sort of oracular assurance. If one ventures to question the correctness of their opinions, even in respect to matters of which they have had little opportunity to form a judgment, he quickly finds that he must be brow-beaten into silence, or else nerve himself to encounter a protracted, not to say angry opposition. It happens not unfrequently that men of this class are confident in proportion to their ignorance, and that, in endeavouring to carry a point by storm, they really expose themselves to ridicule and contempt.

Now it will, perhaps, surprise you to know that many of your friends think that you are vulnerable, in no inconsiderable degree, at this point; that you expect too much deference from other minds, not at all inferior to your own; in short, that, like Diotrephes of old, you love to have the pre-eminence. They say that you are impatient whenever any of your positions are questioned; that you look coldly upon those who cannot always see with your eyes; and that, in some matters of considerable practical moment, you have refused to act at all, because in certain unimportant details, you were not permitted to have your own way. I have too much reason to believe that the impression that exists concerning you is not exaggerated. You must pardon me for saying that I have myself witnessed that in your conduct which fully justifies it.

The least reflection, I think, must satisfy you that this characteristic does not bespeak any exuberance of modesty or humility. It is virtually saying that you have a quicker discernment, a more mature judgment, a more vigorous or grasping intellect, than those with whom you are associated; for if this were not so, why should their opinion or will bend to yours, rather than you yield to them? If you differ in opinion from others with whom you are called to act, you have a right indeed to say so, and to state the grounds of your dissent, and to do what you can fairly, in vindication of the measures that you prefer; and more than this, you have a right, undoubtedly, in obedience to the honest dictates of your conscience, to refuse your active co-operation; and all this may be done without subjecting yourself to the charge of an overweening vanity; but if you are extremely tenacious upon small matters; if you discover a morbid sensitiveness whenever one ventures to question your judgment; if you show that you would prefer to see an important object sacrificed rather than to have it gained by a departure from the course which you have marked out, then do you give the most decisive evidence that you are not minding that exhortation of the apostle, “Let not a man think more highly of himself than he ought to think.” Whatever may be your attainments in respect to other graces, you may rest assured that you are not perfected in the grace of humility.

In yielding to this temper, you offend not only against charity, but against justice. You are not satisfied with the measure of control that really belongs to you — you eagerly aspire to something more; and herein what better do you show yourself than a usurper? Those with whom you are connected, whether in Christian or civil society, have precisely the same rights, growing out of their relationship to society, that you have; but in your desire to have the pre-eminence, you infringe upon those rights, and forget the golden rule of doing to others as you would that they should do to you. You are abroad in the world as a sort of pirate; you would rob others of their influence, and enrich yourself with the spoils.

It is scarcely necessary to add that this spirit is utterly at war with the genius of social happiness and improvement — it works evil towards all the great interests of society. If you have a right to dictate imperiously to your associates and equals, they have exactly the same right thus to dictate to you; and if they avail themselves of it, it is easy to see that it must be at the expense of perpetual disquietude and wrangling; of keeping alive and hot the coals of strife. But the truth is, neither you nor they have any such right. As members of society, you are all bound to consider the common weal; to live in habits of mutual condescension; to exert all the good influence you can, fairly and honourably; while you are imperatively forbidden to assume the character of a dictator, or to overlook or undervalue the reasonable claims of others.

It deserves your particular consideration, that this spirit, which I am condemning, is almost sure to defeat its own ends. The man who is not disposed to claim more than fairly belongs to him, and who chooses rather to remain in the background, than to thrust himself forward, is the very man, provided he has the requisite qualifications in other respects, whom the mass of men are most willing to follow; whereas, he who is disposed to take lead, whether it is conceded to him or not — who can never consent to be anything, unless he can be everything — will rarely carry the considerate and well judging portion of the community along with him. I can think of several persons, at this moment, who have sunk into deep obscurity from the very effort to rise into too bright a light — men who might have been respected, and honoured, and even exalted to high places, had it not been that their insatiable love of power, their ambition to be the greatest, would not suffer them to wait for the honest judgment of society, or the slow movements of Providence.

I have adverted to the influence which this spirit exerts on society in general; let me say that it acts most disastrously on the well being of the church. The church is a community which has interests to manage and provide for that are peculiarly its own. It were not to be expected, considering the great variety of intellectual and moral constitution among men, as well as the different circumstances under which their characters are developed — it were not to be expected that there should be no diversity of opinion among either the officers or the private members of the church, in regard to the measures best adapted to promote its prosperity. In respect to everything fundamental, the Master has indeed spoken explicitly, so that there can be no apology for either disobedience or disagreement. But there are many matters of minor importance, in relation to which the teachings of Scripture are more general, and the wisdom of the church is profitable to direct. And here there is abundant scope for the spirit of mutual forbearance and condescension. But alas! it is just at this point that the opposite spirit has most frequently and most fatally discovered itself. Diotrephes is the representative of a mighty host in the church, whose inordinate desire for preferment has disturbed its peace, marred its purity, retarded its growth, and preyed upon its vital energies. Do what you can, I pray you, to discourage this spirit; and begin your efforts by bidding it depart from your own bosom.

Related Reading