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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]

In the NT ‘expedient’ is several times used in translating the Gr. συμφέρει, or neut. συμφέπον ( 2 Corinthians 12:1). Other translations of the word are ‘it is profitable,’ ‘it were better,’ ‘it is good.’ It will be seen when we come to consider some of the passages in which συμφέρει occurs that it is always used in its better sense, or, we may say, in its original sense, i.e. without that element of selfishness, or the attainment of personal advantage at the expense of genuine principle, in which sense the word ‘expedient’ is now generally employed. It is never found in the sense of what is convenient, as against what is right; nor has it the meaning of ‘expeditious,’ as e.g. in Shakespeare:

‘Expedient manage must be made, my liege,

Ere further leisure yield them further means’

( Richard II. , i. iv. 39).

We shall first of all refer briefly to some of the passages in the Gospels and the Acts where συμφέρει occurs, and then examine the general question of Christian expediency as it is treated in the Epistles.

1. The Gospels. -1 In  Matthew 5:29 f. we have what may be called the expediency of self-denial . Here Christ deals with the question of adultery, and shows how certain members of the body, such as the eye and the hand, which are in themselves serviceable and necessary, may become the occasion of sin for us, and, therefore, it is expedient (συμφέρει) for a man that one of his members should perish and not his whole body be cast into hell. There is no need to ask here how far these words of Christ are to be understood literally (cf. A. Tholuck, Sermon on the Mount , 1860, p. 211ff.). They certainly mean that whatever may bring temptation to a man, it is expedient-it is the best and wisest course-for him to resign; that it is better to live a maimed life, than with all our faculties about us to be destined to moral death. Christ here grounds His precept of the most rigid and decisive self-denial on considerations of the truest self-interest.

(2) In  Matthew 19:10 we have a reference to the expediency of celibacy . The teaching of Christ concerning divorce led His disciples to the conclusion that, without freedom to divorce, ‘it is not good (Revised Version‘expedient’) to marry.’ Jesus then refers to three classes of persons for whom marriage is inexpedient: ( a ) eunuchs ‘which were so born from their mother’s womb,’ i.e. those whose physical constitution unfitted them for marriage; ( b ) eunuchs ‘which were made eunuchs of men,’ i.e. those who by actual physical deprivation or compulsion from men are prevented from marrying; ( c ) eunuchs ‘which made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,’ i.e. those who voluntarily abstain from marriage, not for their own sake only, but also for the sake of all that the Kingdom of Heaven implies. In the case of these three classes it is expedient that they live a celibate life (cf.  1 Corinthians 7:35).

(3) In  John 11:50 we have the expediency of Christ’s death spoken of by Caiaphas. Here we have ‘a good principle basely applied, not in the interests of self-sacrifice, but to cover a violation of justice and truth’ (J. A. McClymont, St. John [Cent. Bible, 1901], p. 245). For the preservation of his power and influence, together with that of his confederates, Caiaphas says that it was expedient to put Jesus to death. The falsity of this statement, says F. W. Robertson ( Sermons , 1st ser., 1875, p. 132ff.), lies in its injustice. Expediency cannot obliterate right and wrong. Expediency may choose the best possible when the conceivable best is not obtainable; but in right and wrong there is no better and best. Better that the whole Jewish nation should perish than that a Jewish legislature should steep its hand in the blood of one innocent. That this saying of Caiaphas has made a deep impression upon St. John is evident from his reference to it again in  John 18:14. He regards the words as having an origin higher than him who spoke them. It was an unconscious prophecy.

(4) In  John 16:7 Christ refers to the expediency of His Ascension . ‘Nevertheless I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away,’ etc. However much the disciples might regret their Master’s departure from them, this was not only necessary, but would also be to their advantage, inasmuch as the glorified Christ working in them would be better than the visible Jesus present among them (cf.  John 14:16 f.).

2. The Acts. -In  Acts 20:20 we have the expediency of discrimination in teaching . Here St. Paul reminds the elders of Ephesus that he had kept back nothing that was profitable (τῶν συμφερόντων) unto them. As in the case of the Corinthians ( 1 Corinthians 3:1 f.) the Apostle confined his statement to the things that were profitable or expedient. In each case he considered what was required by the capacity of his disciples. It is the question of expediency in the matter of truth to be declared. The teacher must discriminate. He must, on the one hand, not cast his pearls before swine, must not give to men what they are incapable of appreciating ( Proverbs 9:7 f.,  Matthew 7:6); nor must he, on the other hand, give strong food to the weak ( Hebrews 5:2 ff.). He must consider what is expedient, profitable.

3. The Epistles.

(1) St. Paul’s general attitude in 1 Corinthians .-Here we shall have to deal chiefly with the Epistles to the Corinthians, more especially 1 Corinthians. These Epistles represent the campaign and slow victory of the new Christian spirit over the debasing influence of the Corinthian ideal, which was the relentless pursuit of his own life by each individual. In 1 Cor. the question of expediency is treated in connexion with several matters relating to Christian conduct. This Epistle has been aptly called ‘the Epistle of the doctrine of the cross in application’ (Findlay, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle , p. 83). Social and other questions are discussed in their bearing on the relationship of men to Christ, and upon principles deduced from the word of the Cross. And so the keynote of the Epistle is found in  1 Corinthians 16:14 ‘Let all you do be done in love.’ The first direct reference to expediency is found in  1 Corinthians 6:12 ‘All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient’ (ἀλλʼ οὐ πάντα συμφέρει). It is probable that St. Paul here refers to some saying of his, which was subsequently drawn out of its limiting context by some members of the Corinthian Church who were inclined to exaggerate Christian liberty, so that they could please themselves in the matter of food, drink, etc.; or, still worse, that with an easy conscience they might satisfy their own sinful lusts. Consequently, the Apostle shows that, while he still held to what he had said, the words have by no means an unlimited application. It was necessary to show the Corinthians that there is an essential contrast between things in themselves indifferent and things in their very nature evil. The latter can be neither lawful nor expedient to the Christian, since they are grossly inconsistent with his union with Christ.

It must be remembered that pagan sentiment viewed ordinary sexual laxity in anything but a serious light: in fact, it was a prevalent belief among the heathen in apostolic times that fornication was no sin. Hence the need for its prohibition by the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).

On the other hand, there are many things lawful which are not always expedient. Meyer ( ad loc .) describes expediency as ‘ moral profitableness generally in every respect, as conditioned by the special circumstances of each case as it arises.’ In all things must the Christian ask not only; Is it lawful? or Does it lie within the range of my liberty? but also, Is it calculated to promote the general welfare of those around me? There is no place for individualism in the Christian life. One must ask not merely, What does my liberty permit? but, How will my conduct help or hinder my brother? While all things that are in themselves indifferent (ἀδιάφορα), i.e. not anti-Christian, are lawful, still it must be remembered that this liberty is the minister of love. For example, although in itself one kind of meat is neither better nor worse than another, the law of Christian love imposes restraint where indulgence would cause offence or lead to a violation of conscience. This love enables the Christian to take the right attitude to what is allowed; he will solve the questionable (casuistic) cases and collisions, not by rules which only lead into endless reflexions about their applicability or inapplicability, but by immediate tact, and by the power of the personality.

Again, this limited freedom is also in truth the highest freedom. ‘All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any’ ( 1 Corinthians 6:12). St. Paul’s was not a freedom to destroy freedom. That some at Corinth exposed themselves to this danger is quite evident. By indulging in impurity of life, as though that were as legitimate as eating and drinking, they tended to alienate their liberty, and bring their soul into bondage to sin. It is when one recognizes those limits within which freedom is to be exercised that one enjoys that perfect freedom which knows no subjection save to Christ alone.

Christian freedom, then, is a freedom which must not be applied to the injury of others or of oneself. In the exercise of liberty one must have regard to expediency; one must consider what course is the most likely to promote the best interests of oneself and others. In this section (chs. 6-10) in 1 Cor. St. Paul tells us again and again how in all things indifferent he thought of others. All his actions were founded on the ground of the higher expediency. Being free from all men, yet he made himself servant unto all, that he might gain the more ( 1 Corinthians 9:19). He became all things to all men ( 1 Corinthians 9:22). He pleased all men in all things, not seeking his own profit (τὸ ἐμαυτοῦ συμφέρον), but the profit of many ( 1 Corinthians 10:33).

By some modern critics St. Paul is described as hard and inflexible, and as incapable of anything like compromise and accommodation under any circumstances. But the above passages, as well as many others which could be quoted, by no means confirm this judgment. That he could be as firm and as inflexible as a rock where a question of principle was at stake is amply proved by his statement in  Galatians 2:5, e.g. , in the matter of the attempt to compel Titus to be circumcised: ‘to whom we gave place in the way of subjection, no, not for an hour.’ In his teaching of principles he was from first to last most resolute and uncompromising. But in things indifferent he was ever ready to go any length in order to avoid giving offence to others. In such matters it was with him always a question of expediency, not of rights; what was profitable, not what was lawful. To the Romans he says ( Romans 15:1): ‘We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.’ And again, he tells the Corinthians ( 1 Corinthians 8:13): ‘Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.’ While he held tenaciously to great principles, and was even ready to sacrifice life itself in their defence, yet in practical conduct he was willing to submit to any privation and suffering to meet the scruples and prejudices of the weak. And in this mode of conduct he claims to be following the example of Christ ( Romans 15:1 ff.,  1 Corinthians 11:1).

It will be seen that consideration must be had, not only for the weak members of the Church of Christ, but also for those who are without the pale of the Church. Cf.  1 Corinthians 10:32, where the sphere of moral obligation is enlarged. Jew and Greek, as well as the Christian Church, are to be objects of our Christian solicitude.

(2) The dangers of expediency. - (a) As regards what is immoral, and so, strictly prohibitive . The question of expediency involves that of accommodation and compromise. Hence in an endeavour to win men over one must always guard against allowing oneself to countenance what is unlawful. It is evident that some at Corinth had taken St. Paul’s words ‘All things are lawful unto me’ as a general maxim. Such persons are always inclined to have regard to the lawfulness of an action rather than to its expediency, and so require, for their own good, to be firmly treated. ‘A great many cannot be pleased unless thou cocker their lust; so that if thou wilt be gracious with a many, thou must not so much regard their salvation as satisfy their folly; neither mayest thou respect what is expedient, but what they covet to their own destruction. Thou must not, therefore, study to please such as like nothing but that is evil’ (Calvin on  Romans 15:2 [ed. Beveridge, 1844, p. 396]).

( b ) As regards what is indifferent . (i.) It is possible for the Church to show itself over scrupulous-a thing which would lead to government by the weak, and legislation by the unintelligent. And so, while the law of love calls upon the strong not to use their liberty in a reckless manner, and demands that in certain cases they should abstain from certain disputed modes of action, in order not to shock the weak members, and thus to break down the Church instead of building it up, still this love requires that this submission shall not be unlimited. For then the weak would only be confirmed in their mistake, whilst the strong would be hindered in their progress. It is for the strong, therefore, to seek to lead the weak to a clearer knowledge, and to show them that the matters in dispute may he contemplated from another point of view than the merely worldly and unethical. Thus accommodation is to be combined with correction.

(ii.) But perhaps there is less danger of this than of over-assertiveness, i.e. a strong and persistent maintaining of one’s lights, against which St. Paul again and again warns his readers. By indifference to external observances we may injure another man’s conscience. To ourselves it is perfectly indifferent whether we conform to a certain observance or not. But we are called upon to conform for the sake of our weak brother. Still, this call to submission is not to be always or in all circumstances.

(iii.) Another danger to which a man who always considers the expediency of his actions is exposed is that of being misjudged. A mode of conduct largely regulated by consideration for others is always open to misconception. And that St. Paul did not escape the charge of being a mere obsequious time-server, with no steadfast principle, aiming only at pleasing men, is evident from his writings. We can easily understand how readily such accusations would be set on foot, and how plausible they could be made to appear. That they painfully affected the Apostle’s mind is evident from the frequency of the references he makes to them, and from the earnestness and deep pathos of feeling which not infrequently mark these references. It is to such sinister criticism that he alludes when in  2 Corinthians 5:11, after saying ‘we persuade men,’ he adds, ‘but we are become manifest unto God’; i.e. although he did make a habit of aiming at persuading (=making friends of) men, still the unselfishness and sincerity of his action were known to God. Another reference to this matter is found in  Galatians 1:10 ‘For am I now persuading men, or God? or am I seeking to please men? if I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ.’ Possibly the reference here is to his action in the matter of the Jerusalem Decree (Acts 15) and the circumcision of Timothy ( Acts 16:3).

It will be observed that the case of Timothy and that of Titus ( Galatians 2:5) are totally different. The former being by birth ‘a son of the law’ on his mother’s side, might naturally conform to the usages of what was so far his national religion. Titus, on the other hand, was a pure Gentile, and his circumcision was urged as necessary, on principle, and not as a voluntary sacrifice to expediency for the greater good of others. Hence it is clear that St. Paul acted with perfect consistency. There is no betrayal of principle, no unworthy endeavour to win the approval of men.

To sum up, we see that expediency in its NT sense is quite consistent with loyalty to principle. It denotes the noble aim of one seeking ‘the greatest good of the greatest number.’ It is not the action of a trimmer ever seeking the applause of men, but rather of a strong man willing to curb his own personal inclinations for the sake of others. And it may be said that the more steadfast one is when principles are at stake the more ready one is to give way on non-essentials.

Literature.-Newman Smyth, Christian Ethics , 1892; H. Martensen, Christian Ethics ( Social and Individual ), 1881-82; G. G. Findlay, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle , 1895. See also the various NT Commentaries.

Robert Roberts.

Webster's Dictionary [2]

(1): ( n.) Expedition; haste; dispatch.

(2): ( n.) The quality of being expedient or advantageous; fitness or suitableness to effect a purpose intended; adaptedness to self-interest; desirableness; advantage; advisability; - sometimes contradistinguished from moral rectitude.

(3): ( n.) An expedition; enterprise; adventure.

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary [3]

The fitness or propriety of a man to the attainment of an end.

See Obligation

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [4]

fitness of means to ends. On expediency as the ground of morals, see Dwight, Theology, sermon 99; Robert Hall, Complete Works, 1:96; 2:295; Lit. and Theol. Review, 4:388; Wayland, in Bibliotheca Sacra, 1843, page 301; and the article ETHICS (See Ethics) .