Jerome on the Fallibility of Leaders – and Commandment Keeping

While searching for some early Christian citations of Philippians, I ran into an interesting passage from Jerome, a 4th century Christian Father, in Against the Pelagians, 1:22 (available online at – search for “God certainly wishes bishops” to find the section quoted). In speaking of the qualifications for bishops and priests, he notes that all men are going to have flaws – something we always need to keep in mind – and shows a very typical early Christian attitude about the duty we have to keep the commandments. Some particularly interesting parts are in bold below (my emphasis).

God certainly wishes bishops or priests to be such as the chosen vessel teaches they should be. As to the first qualification it is seldom or never that one is found without reproach; for who is it that has not some fault, like a mole or a wart on a lovely body? If the Apostle himself says of Peter that he did not tread a straight path in the truth of the Gospel, and was so far to blame that even Barnabas was led away into the same dissimulation, who will be indignant if that is denied to him which the chief of the Apostles had not? Then, supposing you find one, “the husband of one wife, sober-minded, orderly, given to hospitality,” the next attribute—didaktikon, apt to teach, not merely as the Latin renders the word, apt to be taught—you will hardly find in company with the other virtues. A bishop or priest that is a brawler, or a striker, or a lover of money, the Apostle rejects, and in his stead would have one gentle, not contentious, free from avarice, one that rules well his own house, and what is very hard, one who has his children in subjection with all modesty, whether they be children of the flesh or children of the faith. “With all modesty,” he says. It is not enough for him to have his own modesty unless it be enhanced by the modesty of his children, companions, and servants, as David says, “He that walketh in a perfect way, he shall minister unto me.” . . . The next point is that the bishop must be free from accusation, that he have a good report from them who are without, that no reproaches of opponents be levelled at him, and that they who dislike his doctrine may be pleased with his life. I suppose it would not be easy to find all this, and particularly one “able to resist the gain-sayers,” to check and overcome erroneous opinions. He wishes no novice to be ordained bishop, and yet in our time we see the youthful novice sought after as though he represented the highest righteousness. If baptism immediately made a man righteous, and full of all righteousness, it was of course idle for the Apostle to repel a novice; but baptism annuls old sins, does not bestow new virtues; it looses from prison, and promises rewards to the released if he will work. Seldom or never, I say, is there a man who has all the virtues which a bishop should have. And yet if a bishop lacked one or two of the virtues in the list, it does not follow that he can no longer be called righteous, nor will he be condemned for his deficiencies, but will be crowned for what he has. For to have all and lack nothing is the virtue of Him “Who did no sin; neither was guile found in His mouth; Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again”; Who, confident in the consciousness of virtue, said, “Behold the prince of this world cometh, and findeth nothing in me”; “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be on an equality with God, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God gave Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth.” If, then, in the person of a single bishop you will either not find at all, or with difficulty, even a few of the things commanded, how will you deal with the mass of men in general who are bound to fulfil all the commandments?

Yes, we are all imperfect, even our bishops – but there is still the common obligation that see seek to do “the things commanded” since we all are “bound to fulfil all the commandments” that God has given us.

In Jerome’s Letter VII (to Chromatius, Jovinus, and Eusebius), there is a phrase I especially like: “For although you confess Christ every day by keeping His commandments, yet to this private glory you have added the public one of an open confession. . . .” The previous link also includes Letter X (to Paul, an Old Man of Concordia), praising that elderly Christian: “For see, the hundredth circling year is already passing over you, and yet, always keeping the commandments of the Lord, amid the circumstances of your present life you think over the blessedness of that which is to come.” Also, in Letter XXXVIII (to Marcella), is another interesting passage: “Satan means adversary, and one who dislikes Christ’s commandments, is more than Christ’s adversary; he is anti-christ.”

Now I hope none of you dislike Christ’s commandments, or think that early or modern Christians are somehow non-Christian for believing the Biblical teachings on the need to “keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:17). It’s not that commandment keeping can save us or raise us from the dead or do anything miraculous on its own, but it’s part of the covenant relationship that God in His grace offers to us. Follow Him, have faith in Him, repent of your sins, seek to keep His commandments, and He will make you His.

Jerome ends letter XXXVIII with a comment that echoes words from Joseph Smith and other modern Latter-day Saints in regard to the endless attacks of critics:

But what, I ask you, have we ever done that men should be offended at us? Have we ever imitated the apostles? We are told of the first disciples that they forsook their boat and their nets, and even their aged father. The publican stood up from the receipt of custom and followed the Saviour once for all. And when a disciple wished to return home, that he might take leave of his kinsfolk, the Master’s voice refused consent. A son was even forbidden to bury his father, as if to show that it is sometimes a religious duty to be undutiful for the Lord’s sake. With us it is different. We are held to be monks if we refuse to dress in silk. We are called sour and severe if we keep sober and refrain from excessive laughter. The mob salutes us as Greeks and impostors if our tunics are fresh and clean. They may deal in still severer witticisms if they please; they may parade every fat paunch they can lay hold of, to turn us into ridicule. Our Blaesilla will laugh at their efforts, and will bear with patience the taunts of all such croaking frogs, for she will remember that men called her Lord, Beelzebub.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

4 thoughts on “Jerome on the Fallibility of Leaders – and Commandment Keeping

  1. I’ve seen people say Mormons aren’t Christians BECAUSE we think we need to keep the commandments. That’s incredibly ironic. That would make Christ and the Apostles and even Saint Jerome all non-Christians.

    Guess there are some people who, as you say, “don’t like the commandments of God.”


    I could not find a place at the website above to post a response so I am posting it here. Your statement “he acted in good faith to make it available for analysis and evaluation” just is not true. I understand you may wish it to be true, but it is not.

    One of Hofmann’s goals was to demonstrate a lack divine inspiration, but that was not his major objective. Hofmann was annoyed about how his family and church leaders would not talk openly about church history and was convince that the leadership was actively trying to suppress the Church’s history (polygamy specifically). His ultimate trap was to see how the leadership would response to flattering forgeries and unflattering forgeries. Just as he suspected, the flattering forgeries readily announced with fanfare and the unflattering ones were not. He screwed up his experiment up with the Joseph Smith III forgery, but he performed the experiment flawlessly with the Stowell Forgery.

    When the $15,000 purchase was to occur ONLY on the condition of confidentiality, Hofmann became giddy because his experiment had proved his hypothesis that the leadership had been behaving disingenuously with regards to its history. For over two years Hinckley sat on the Stowell Forgery to such an extent that none of the other leadership is known to have been aware of it, resulting in Jerry Cahill officially denying its existence. The ONLY reason the purchase was acknowledge and the forgeries existence revealed was because Hofmann broke his promise of confidentiality in order to punish Hinckley. The argument that Hinckley doubted the authenticity of the document and for this reason did not reveal the purchase is also bogus. Authenticate documents verifying the Bainbridge, NY examination occurred more than a decade before the Stowell Forgery and Hofmann deliberately design the Stowell Forgery to be somewhat consistent.

    I understand that you yourself are fallible and that your statement was made from how you understood that episode in history. However, in light of how the event actual event occurred that statement should be modified (moderated) in some way. Leaving it the way it is would be a lack of academic honesty and intellectual integrity.

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