Thursday, June 23, 2011

Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

Kevin DeYoung on primary and secondary issues:
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the average reader of this blog is a fan of theology. Most of you are thoughtful, doctrinally attuned Christians. I also imagine a few of you might be a wee bit opinionated. It takes one to know one.

I don’t use “opinionated” as a bad word. We should be immovable on some matters, absolutely convinced of others, and it’s not bad to have strong informed opinions on all the rest. But let’s be honest: sometimes in conservative evangelical circles the intensity with which we hold to our convictions (let alone our opinions) is all out of whack.

See What I Mean

The Lord has been gracious over many years to preserve the unity at our church. So I’m not writing about the members of University Reformed Church. But I’ve seen and heard enough—from other church leaders and from church visitors who end up not staying with us—to know that some conservative Christians can make things that are secondary (or tertiary or whatever words come next for four and five) into things that are primary.

There are Christians who want homeschooling to be the top agenda for the church. Others insist that every church leader must embrace private Christian schools. I’ve met Christians whose number one passion seems to be age-integration in church ministries. Others are adamant that kids should be in all church services and aren’t allowed to draw pictures or look at books. For others, paedocommunion is a must. For some the issue is the Ten Commandments every Sunday or the presence of two services (morning and evening good; two in the morning bad). I’ve heard of other Christians getting up in arms about Christmas trees, the use or non-use of wine during communion, and whether infants should wear white garments or black when they are baptized. And too many have taken the regulative principle, which as a general principle is helpful and scriptural, and made the detailed application of this principle the end all and be all of church life.

Please hear me out. I like Christians who know what they believe and why they believe it (I’ve never been criticized for having too few convictions and opinions). So, I’m not saying the items above are unimportant issues (okay, a couple might be). The problem is not that we care about all sorts of issues or that we want to think carefully about every aspect of church ministry. The problem is we haven’t always thought carefully about how we express and hold to our careful thoughts.

And Here’s Why

First, we are not always gracious in the way we talk about secondary issues. Most Christians speak kindly and calmly about their convictions. But sadly it often feels like the less important the issue the more intensely someone will hold to it. We make up for the lack of gravity surrounding the issue by promoting that issue in the gravest possible terms. And even if we are right and someone else is dead wrong we should still correct our opponents with gentleness and grace (2 Tim. 2:25), not with hand grenades.

Second, some of us have never considered that certain issues in the Christian life belong in a Romans 14 category. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in polemics. I believe in dying on some hills. I believe in standing fast on doctrine, even on “non-salvation issues.” But on some matters we should say with Paul, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). And sometimes we must ask, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother?” After all, “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (14:10-11). It’s okay on some matters (not all!) for Christians to agree to disagree (even if you know you’re right like Paul did!). It’s not a failure of theological nerve to recognize that some good believers we’ll make different decisions than other good believers. The mature Christian can hold strongly to his opinions without insisting strongly that all other Christians do the same.

A third problem is that some Christians inquire too early and too often about their particular hot-button issues. When a brother visiting the church for the first time asks where I stand on Rushdoony, I’m a little freaked out. It’s like taking a girl out on a first date and asking if her parents have digital cable. What?! Don’t you want to know a few other things first? In checking a church I hope you’d be interested to hear about the role of prayer, the importance of missions, the understanding of the gospel, the integrity of the leaders, their view of Scripture, and a dozen other things before launching into the rareified air of Rushdoony. Besides, I would also hope visitors, as a matter of courtesy, would not land at a church ready to insist on items 16-25 on their theological checklist.

Finally, we must be careful our passions are not out of proportion. There is no problem with Christians who feel strongly about schooling, the placement of the congregational prayer, or the frequency of communion. The problem is when our passion for these issues exceeds our passion for the gospel, for the cross, for the lost, for the afflicted. Not every issue matters as much as every other issue. Not every position deserves out fieriest passion. Save the big guns for the big ones. Get the heart pounding for the doctrine of the Trinity or penal substitution or God’s sovereignty. If your “thing” is Christmas trees or the kind of beverage in the communion cup, it’s time to get a better “thing.” The Christian life allows for lots of passion, discourse, and detailed application—as long as we don’t get everything out of whack.

This article first appeared in the June issue of Tabletalk.

HT: Justin Taylor

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