Wheat and tares
"More bitter controversies have been waged over this portion of the Scriptures
than over any other, with the exception, perhaps, of 'this is my body'! Some
fierce upholders of purity in the church have applied the prohibition against
tare pulling to the purging of those without, namely in 'the world' and have
proceeded to arrogate to themselves the business of gathering the tares into
bundles and burning them - even doing so literally in the case of thousands of
heretics burned at the stake! Others have taken a different view and have made
this parable an excuse to contain within the church every evil thing on the
basis that to remove them would root up the wheat also! Neither view... is
This parable has caused much controversy among Christadelphian
expositors. Some rather strange and disconnected interpretations have been put
forth because the expositor "looked ahead" and sought to avoid an inevitable but
unwelcome conclusion. Let us look carefully at each section of the parable, not
fearing any conclusion simply because it may be unfavorable to an old viewpoint.
Brother Thomas has well said, in his "Rules for Bible Students":
"The mild and loving discipline to be exercised by the church of our Lord is
amply provided for in other NT writings, apart from this parable; and, it seems,
what is forbidden here is exactly the thing that was done in the brutal, savage
excommunications so characteristic of the church of the Middle Ages, which
mounted the Spanish Inquisition and many other diabolical institutions upon the
pretense of purifying the church"
"Never be afraid of results to which you may be driven by your investigations,
as this will inevitably bias your mind and disqualify you to arrive at ultimate
This parable goes one step beyond the previous parable (that
of the sower), yet it follows on in the natural life-cycle of the seed: sowing,
sprouting, growing to maturity, and finally harvest. In this parable the "seed"
has become more than simply the word of God, as it was in the previous parable
(Mat 13:19). The "seed" now symbolizes the individuals subsequently begotten by
the sown word (Mat 13:38) -- again, one step further along in their personal
"The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good
seed in his field" (Mat 13:24). "The field is the world" (Greek kosmos: an
arrangement or order) (v 38): Here is the preaching of the gospel message first
by Christ and then, by extension, by his disciples and later brethren, in
obedience to his command of Mar 16:15,16 and Mat 28:19 -- a command which is
still obligatory today. The "seed" takes root and produces fruit from place to
place, known as "children of the kingdom" (Mat 13:38). (This "sowing" has been
continuous from Christ's day to ours; there is no arbitrary "boundary line" at
AD 70 after which the "sowing" was to cease!)
The men who sleep (Mat 13:25) must refer to Christ's followers
and "fellow-laborers" (1Co 3:5-9), the parabolic "workers in the vineyard" (Mat
20:1-16). The "sleep" represents the sluggishness and carelessness of the
appointed ecclesial watchmen in every age (Eph 5:14; Rom 13:11; 1Th 5:6) which
allows the enemy to do his diabolical work.
The enemy who sows "tares" among the wheat is the "devil" (v
39), the lusts of the flesh (Heb 2:14) embodied in individuals and organizations
who sow evil and false thoughts secretly in the midst of the ecclesias in every
age. Again compare Paul's loving warning in Act 20:30, where he foretells that
after his departure men will arise speaking "perverse" things with the effect of
leading away unsuspecting believers. (See also 2Ti 3:4-6 -- men who "creep in
stealthily"; Jud 1:4 -- "unawares"; 2Pe 2:1; and Gal 2:4.)
The "tare" or "darnel" is a very troublesome weed found in
Oriental wheatfields. It was thought by the ancients to be a degenerate form of
wheat (LTJM 1:589). It looks exactly the same as wheat until late in its growth
cycle. Its seed is similar in size and shape, but is gray in color; its fruit is
very scarce. When present in a field with good wheat sown broadcast, the roots
of the two are intertwined. Thus the darnel can be successfully separated from
the good wheat only at the time of harvest. Thankfully, it causes no danger
during growth, but even a little will spoil the finished product!
There is a definite and intended contrast in the Lord's
parables between the "tares", sown in the midst of the ecclesial field, and the
"thorns" (Mat 13:7,22), already active in the field of the world, in the "soil"
of human nature (Gen 3:18), before the "good seed" is even sown.
The "tares" sown by a subtle and secret enemy produce fruit in
the "children of the devil" (v 38). There were many such intertwined among the
faithful believers in Christ's day (Joh 8:44; Mat 3:7; 23:33). Such "children"
are lip-servants, hypocrites, "questionable brethren" -- not "questionable",
certainly, to him who knows what is in the heart of every man (Joh 2:24,25), but
indeed "questionable" to his brethren who lack such infallible discernment. By
the explicit teaching of Christ, his brethren have no right nor duty to exclude
these "tares" from their "fellowship".
Of course there are some brethren whose errors in doctrine or
conduct clearly place themselves beyond the boundary of traditional
Christadelphian "fellowship", and faithful ecclesias will deal with these
brethren in accordance with Mat 18 and related passages -- always remembering,
of course, that every opportunity must be given for repentance and
reinstatement. It would seem that, in practical terms, this parable is designed
to teach us that most of our time should be spent in sowing the good seed
instead of rooting out those who may or may not be unacceptable to Christ at his
judgment. If there is ever any doubt, Christ says, as to a brother's
"fellowship" standing, then let him grow until the harvest (v 30), when the
infallible Reaper will decide his case.
"Let both grow together until the harvest" (v 30). Some would
contend that this commandment refers to the apostasy outside the ecclesia. But
if this were the case then it would be a pointless commandment, for we have no
responsibility there -- in the churches of Christendom -- at all. Our only
freedom of choice lies in the "ecclesial world" (James Carter, "Questions and
Answers", Tes 39:272-274). And Christ very clearly is telling us there will
arise a questionable class within the ecclesias which cannot be discovered and
extricated without the risk of doing grievous damage to the true wheat. He is
pointing out to ecclesial laborers their inability to judge perfectly , and thus
their inability to be always certain that they are uprooting tares instead of
wheat. And furthermore he is implying that the "roots" even of the wheat might
be weakened by continual agitation.
"The harvest is the end of the world (Greek "aion": age, era,
dispensation)" (Mat 13:39). Some brethren suggest that this means AD 70, and the
related overthrow of Israel is the fulfillment of this parable, but this seems
to involve more than a minor dislocation of several related references. In the
first place, such an interpretation would imply that the "sowing" or gospel
proclamation must also have ceased in AD 70, and this is far from the case.
Furthermore, the end of the aion means generally in the Bible the full and final
end of Gentile times, marked by the resurrection and the judgment of the
responsible. In this very same chapter (Mat 13), in Mat 13:49, the phrase has
that obvious meaning. In the world (aion) to come, ye shall receive eternal
life, Jesus said (Luk 18:30).
It is at this judgment that all things will be made manifest
(Mar 4:22; Luk 12:2; 1Co 4:5). This is the time for the rewarding of both
classes. Then and only then will the tares be separated; for, according to the
type, they do no damage to the good grain in the field, but even a very little
will taint the finished product!
All of the other allusions in Christ's explanation of the
parable of the wheat and the tares point just as directly to the judgment of the
saints. Consider the following references:
Mat 13:39: "The reapers are the angels" -- Other examples of
angels at the judgment:
Mat 24:31: "He shall send his angels with a great sound of a
Mat 25:31: "All the holy angels with him."
Mar 8:38: "When he cometh in the glory of his Father, with the
Luk 12:8,9: "Him shall the Son of Man confess before the
angels of God."
Luk 12:41,42: "They shall gather the tares out of his
kingdom...there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." Similar Scriptures have
to do with the last judgment:
Mat 8:12: "Ye shall be cast out of the kingdom."
Mat 13:50: "And shall cast them into the furnace of fire;
there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."
Mat 24:51: "Shall cut him asunder and appoint him his portion
with the hypocrites."
Luk 13:28: Same as Mat 8:12.
Luk 13:42: "A furnace of fire": This is the "second death"
(Rev 20:14; cp Mat 25:41 and Mar 9:43-47). These allusions to the second death
clinch the argument that the "tares" represent false believers, not a
"Christian" apostasy which is not even amenable to resurrectional judgment.
Luk 13:43: "Then shall the righteous shine forth." This is a
quotation from Dan 12:1-3, a prophecy of the last days, the resurrection, and
the judgment. The righteous ones -- the good seed -- will shine forth in the
newness of Spirit life at the same time that the wicked will be subjected to a
well-deserved shame and contempt. The analogy of the "harvest", it must be
emphasized, requires that the tares be separated at the same time as the
righteous are rewarded.
"The parable of the tares cannot refer to the Romish apostasy, or equivalent
heresies, for the good seed is NOT growing together with that! If, however, some
still persist in not recognizing the plain teaching of the parable of the tares,
what of the adjacent parable of the net and the good and bad fishes? These are
not sorted out until they are brought to land, and then, and not until then, is
the division made. This cannot refer to outside apostasy, but rather to
developments inside the ecclesia, and Jesus is warning his followers what to
expect" (Ibid, p. 273).
Other parables picture the same sequence, especially those of
the foolish and wise virgins (Mat 25:1-12); the servants and the talents (Mat
25:14-28); and the sheep and the goats (Mat 25:31-34).
"If, however, we had to admit that the claims of the critics are true, and that
they really are consistently more strict in their fellowship than we are, still
it does not necessarily follow that they are more faithful. We want to act as
the Lord would have us act. We want to be guided by the precept and example of
scripture. The Lord Jesus was not as strict in condemning offenders as were some
contemporary sinners. The apostle to the Gentiles revealed extraordinary
patience in dealing with faults of both doctrine and practice. With these
examples before us it must be admitted that it is possible to err on the side of
severity in the matter of withdrawing from those who are accounted weak or
faulty. Even in ecclesial life an industrious rooting out of tares may be a
mistaken zeal" (IC, "A Pure Fellowship", Xdn 95:259; reprinted from Xdn
"It is possible to err on the side of severity." This might be the keynote of
Brother Collyer's writings on the broad subject of fellowship. Such an emphasis
is notably anticipated in the well-balanced comments of John Thomas on several
occasions, with special reference to the parable under consideration. I quote
these as a sort of appendix to our study of the wheat and the tares: "Beloved
brethren, human nature is always tending to extremes and transcending what is
written. As the saying is, it will strain at gnats and swallow camels by the
herd. It set up the Inquisition and is incessantly prying into matters beyond
its jurisdiction. It is very fond of playing the judge and of executing its own
decrees. It has a zeal but not according to knowledge, and therefore its zeal is
intemperate and not the zeal of wisdom or knowledge rightly used. It professes
great zeal for the purity of the Church, and would purge out everything that
offends its sensitive imagination. But is it not a good thing to have a church
without tares, black sheep, or spotted heifer? Yea, verily, it is an excellent
thing. But then it is a thing the Holy Spirit has never yet developed, and it
cannot be developed by any human judiciary in the administration of spiritual
affairs. There are certain things that must be left to the Lord's own
adjudication when he comes..." (The Ambassador, 1866, pp. 91,92; reprinted under
"Dr. Thomas and Divisions", Xd
"The Mystery of Iniquity, then, had its beginning in the Apostolic State. The
seeds of it were then sown broadcast by the enemy. But they did not ripen as
soon as sown; they only began to grow. The fruit was to be the 'Lawless one'.
But fruit, when first formed, is not mature. Considerable time passes from the
first appearance of fruit to the time of ingathering because of ripeness. So
with the Lawless One, he had to appear as the fruit of the Mystery of Iniquity;
but after his appearing, he had to grow and ripen for the vintage, when he
should be 'consumed with the spirit of the Lord's mouth, and destroyed with the
brightness of his coming' " (Eur
"As Paul testified 30 years before, 'the Mystery of Iniquity' was 'already' at
work, and showed itself in the 'false apostles' at Ephesus; the spurious Jews of
the Synagogue of the Satan, at Smyrna; the Balaamites and Nikolaitans at
Pergamos; the children of Jezebel and the Satan, at Thyatira; the twice dead, at
Sardis; the but little strength, at Philadelphia; and the wretched and pitiable,
and poor, and blind, and naked, at Laodicea. These were tares, which in 280
years from the day of Pentecost, choked the good seed, so that a separation had
This basic interpretation is followed also by Robert
"But while the Mystery of Iniquity was thus developing 'after the working of the
Satan' with all power, and signs and lying wonders...there existed a class, who
not only knew the Truth, but loved it. This was 'the salt' of the first three
centuries, which gave savour to pre-Constantinian christendom. It was the
redeeming and antagonizing element in the Ephesian haters of the deeds of the
Nikolaitans; in the Smyrnean rich in faith...
"The Apostolic Christendom, then, to which John wrote, was divisible into these
two sections, which were more or less commingled in the ecclesias generally --
real and nominal christians..." (Ibid
"The reservation [about particular additional demands in fellowship] is a
reasonable one, and needless distress is being caused by the insistence of a
ruthless rule of excision. There is great danger in this course. While trying to
pull up an incipient tare or two (if they are such) they are levelling whole
rows of genuine wheat" (Xd 35, July cover
And, finally, it is followed by HPM also ("The Parable of the
Tares", SB 9:65-69).