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Friday, November 06, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: Majoring on the Majors

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: There’s a line I keep hearing these days that goes something like this:

“We should keep unity for the sake of the gospel. Major on the majors, and not on the minors. We shouldn’t fight over secondary issues.”

Immanuel Can, some things are worth fighting over. Jude urges his readers, who appear to be a very general believing audience, to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”.

So what’s really worth contending for, and what should be set aside for the sake of unity? In short, what makes something “major” or “minor”?

Immanuel Can: Ah. What do I mean, or what do most other people I meet seem to mean? Can you clarify?

Tom: I take it there’s a significant difference then.

IC: Oh yes … there certainly is.

Let Him Be Accursed!

Tom: Let me try it this way then: Galatians 1, for example, Paul has an issue he is prepared to fight about. It would be difficult to argue convincingly that for the sake of unity we should all accept the necessity of circumcision and obedience to the Mosaic law, since Paul spends an entire book of the Bible declaiming against it, even to the point of stating that if anyone preaches a gospel contrary to the one Paul preached, he is to be accursed. So that would qualify as “major”, I think.

And you could go through the epistles asking this question: What do Paul, Peter, James, Jude, John and the writer to the Hebrews think is worth fighting about? That would give you a good list of biblical “majors”.

But would that be an exhaustive list of everything worth contending for?

IC: Well, perhaps it might; but I suggest that would be true only if one reads very carefully and with an eye to the fact that some things may not be a comprehensive example so much as an indicator of a precedent.

Christ and the Pharisees

For example, the slanders raised against Christ by the Pharisees in the gospels and Acts are clearly “major” errors, and are treated as heaven-or-hell issues by the text itself. But those same texts don’t list every slander that can be raised, or has been raised against the Lord since. The larger principle one must take away from those incidents is that any slandering of the Lord, not just the particular slanders of the Pharisees, is an issue of major concern.

Discerning all the precedents requires more than just reading the explicit words; it requires submission to the Spirit of God to reveal how those also function as precedents for issues of equal or greater importance.

Tom: So what we might be saying here is that there are a large number of issues significant enough to the Lord that we ought to go to the wall for them.

Pews and Chairs

Here’s what I don’t want to fight about with other Christians: pews vs. chairs; the colour of the walls; the order of meetings on a Sunday … these sorts of things. These are truly minors, though I likely will have a preference about them, and it’ll generally be based on common sense and a perception of what best serves the Lord’s interests. But I am prepared to cave on such issues for the sake of unity. Unity’s important.

And yet these are the sort of things that often become intensely divisive, while when a truly important issue is raised, many Christians can’t be bothered to be bothered.

IC: Agreed. The cavilling over small, non-scriptural issues like the kind of wallpaper for the nursery is admittedly a problem. But today, I’m even more concerned with the categorizing of important issues as “secondary” and hence negotiable. It seems the modern church thinks that there are very, very few things indeed that are non-negotiables … far too few.

Consequences for Christology

Tom: That is certainly true. To me, the most troubling aspect is the almost systemic failure by some Christians to react strongly to negative implications of any particular new teaching about the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. If a doctrine has consequences for our Christology, we need as believers and followers of Christ to have an abundance of concern. These sorts of things seem to rile the apostles a great deal (see, for instance, 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul is troubled about the casual way in which people were evidently teaching in Corinth that resurrection was not a reality).

This is what immediately got under my skin about Michael Gungor and his dismissal of both the Eden story and the story of Noah as unhistorical. It suggested that he thought the Lord, who referenced both, was therefore fallible or possibly a bit of a con man. And sure enough, give Gungor enough rope and that’s exactly what he comes out and says.

Primary and Secondary 

IC: Yes, that’s a good case in point. I’ll give you another: Many churches today emphasize two things as major: “the gospel” and “unity”. Everything else is treated as secondary or doubtful. But we need to ask, how wisely are they determining what is part of the gospel and what is genuinely secondary: for many things which may appear to them secondary have very serious implications for matters that even they would probably recognize as major. So they often dismiss things that are deeply theological, things that have to do with differences of church practice, or things about prophecy as secondary. But these things don’t stay secondary very long before they impinge on the primary things.

For example, the secondary practice known as infant baptism immediately implies that salvation is not through faith but by church ritual, and so belies the gospel itself. Or treating Covenant Theology as secondary, and thus allowable and not worth hashing out, opens the door to things like Determinism and antisemitism to spread throughout the congregation unchallenged.

Very soon the church is far from where it should be — on the major as well as secondary issues.

Conflict-Averse Christianity

Tom: How much of this love of “unity” is genuinely scriptural and how much is simply an aversion to conflict? Because conflict is reliably unpleasant. Having been involved from time to time in disputes between believers, even if I was sure I was in the right (and years later find myself still convinced of it), when confronted by anger and hostility I found myself questioning my position and seeking the Lord a great deal. It didn’t mean I was going to back down without solid scriptural evidence for the other person’s position but it was — and would be for most people, I think — a very unpleasant experience. Unless you’re very slightly on the sociopathic side.

Is it possible this is really Christendom’s manifestation of the spirit of the age, which can be summed up in the statement “The only thing we can’t tolerate is intolerance”?

IC: Aversion to conflict? Certainly it’s that. It’s also the desire to think of oneself — and to be thought of by others — as open-minded and kind, but without the dirty work of earning that reputation. If I were cynical, I might point out that it’s a great ruse to escape the hard work of thinking. For you see, pretending to be open-minded is the sort of posture one can take to hide one’s actual theological ignorance, and to evade the duty to inform oneself of the truth. Again, if I were cynical, I would suggest it’s actually stupidity or laziness, but decorated with the virtue of tolerance.

Tom: So really, it’s a good thing you’re not cynical …

Pseudo-Tolerance and Real Tolerance

IC: Of course, as I have argued in earlier posts, this sort of tolerance isn’t actually a virtue: only knowledgeable, principled toleration is virtuous. The sort of pseudo-tolerance that is born of an unwillingness to think and an inability to discern is no virtue at all. It’s nothing more than fleshly pride coupled with intellectual sloth.

Interestingly, tolerance in the church is mentioned in scripture. It occurs four times: twice in 2 Corinthians, and twice in Revelation. Twice Paul chastises the church at Corinth for their excessive, ignorant and unprincipled tolerance. In the first mention in Revelation a church is greatly praised for NOT being tolerant. And in the final mention the Head of the Church says to another church, “I have this against you: that you tolerate …”

Tom: So, wait … toleration is NOT the cardinal virtue of Christianity?

IC: Well, not THAT kind of tolerance, anyway.

To tolerate people’s foibles, preferences, mistakes or human frailties, to “bear one another’s burdens” and to live with each other in understanding ways, these are all forms of righteous tolerance. But to preserve a space for evil, to let error persist uncontested, to give range for wicked people to hurt others, to refuse to judge what God has commanded us to judge, or to pretend not to know what God has given us reason to know … these things are not any kind of godly virtue at all.


  1. This latest news blurb is loosely connected to the topic here. What's your take, is it valid?


    November 10, 2015 5:00 p.m.

  2. Thanks Q! Give me a couple of days. I think that's an answer probably worth a full post.