My last post sparked what I thought was good, respectable, healthy discussion in most cases about "tertiary" doctrines. The classification of doctrines into categories is, of course, a post-biblical development largely reflective of the sin of our denominational division in the Body of Christ today. Should errant denominations abandon divisive sin and come into Christian unity, we would have no more need of such classifications than did the New Testament church. But, we live in the world that we live in.
To say that the Bible does not categorize its teachings is not to say that the Bible advances all biblical commands as being of identical importance. It does not. And there is value in knowing something about which biblical commands and teachings are the most important.
Jesus was more than willing to converse regarding the identification of the greatest commandment (e.g., Mark 12:28-34). He didn't respond to the question by saying, "What a moronic question! They're all equally great, of course!" Not at all. Jesus directly and specifically identified two ultimately important Old Testament commandments.
Likewise, Paul was willing to identify the most important teachings of the Bible: our affirmation of the death, burial, resurrection, and appearance of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:3-7). And this comes a scant two chapters (really, a chapter and a couple of verses) after Paul identified the three most important attributes/actions of a Christian, and then the most important of those three (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Contrary to what you may have been taught, the Bible isn't shy at all about specifying variations of intensity among both virtues and vices—there is a best of the best and there is a worst of the worst.
The difficulty of that Praisegod Polling question that I offered comes in the fact that, although we find in the Bible the occasional exposition of the greatest commandments or teachings, we find very little information in the Bible about the least of the commandments. But there are Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount:
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20, NASB, emphasis mine)
There's so much we could say about this little snippet of scripture. I'm blogging, not preaching, so I'm not going to make any effort to plumb the depths of this passage. But I would like to offer a few observations about the whole idea of how we ought to respond to the differing importance of biblical commands and teachings:
It is entirely valid for us to have conversation about the relative importance of various biblical ideas. The Bible gives us a concept of lesser and greater commandments without spelling out all of the details as to what fits where. I think it can be a healthy thing for us to go through the exercise of theological prioritization.
There is, clearly articulated in the New Testament, the idea that the requirements of the Old Testament Law are fulfilled in Christ once and for all who believe (to coin a phrase). Likewise, there is a pretty strong implication that this fulfillment of the Old Testament Law has left some aspects of the Old Testament (animal sacrifices, for example) fulfilled in such a manner that further practice of those commandments no longer pleases God in the slightest. On the other hand, there are aspects of Old Testament practice that clearly continue to embody God's will for the lifestyle of the Christian believer (the honoring of parents, for example), for God reiterates them in a hortatory manner toward Christians (Ephesians 6:1-3).
The difference between the two categories seems not to be the relative IMPORTANCE of the commandment (animal sacrifice was pretty doggone important, wasn't it?), but rather the specific relationship that the commandment had with the work of Christ. Some commandments in the Old Testament seem to have been entirely placeholders for some aspect of the person and work of Christ, while others define for us the righteousness that no man can achieve apart from Christ but that every man achieves in Christ.
Whatever the least important commandment or teaching of the Bible might be, Christ's will for us all is that we keep it AND that we teach other people to keep it. The Sermon on the Mount advances no threshold below which we ought to keep a biblical command to ourselves and make no effort to convince others.
Any unity based upon a willful annulment of even the least biblical commandment is a unity in error. Of course, error can be a very successful unifier, because it is one of the few things that every human being shares in common. But unity in error is not the unity for which Christ prayed and it is not a unity that pleases God. Biblical unity is compatible with keeping and teaching even the least of the commandments.
Nevertheless, knowing which are the greatest commandments is quite helpful to us in knowing which areas of my disobedience deserve my earliest and most devoted attention. Indeed, Jesus suggested that the most important commandments, when matured in the believer, are of great assistance to the maturity of the other attributes that depend upon them (Matthew 22:40).
Rather than priding ourselves in what we are willing to set aside to cooperate and find unity, we ought to be ashamed at having become "least" in the kingdom when we start to set aside what the Bible teaches.
Certainly there are vast areas of church practice and common theology that are areas not directly addressed at all in the Bible. These are the items about which the New Testament warns us not to get bogged down in quibbling over minutiae. But many of the topics at play in our modern world (Homosexuality, Women Pastors, Divorce, Baptism, the Exclusivity of Christ, Refraining from the Murder of Anyone..Born or Not, etc.) are matters directly and forcefully addressed in the Bible. Yet many within the churches are hard at work to try to empty these passages of their force and to annul them. Such actions stand in direct opposition to the Spirit of Christ.
Nitpickiness over keeping the tiniest, least important commandment or doctrine in the Bible is, according to Jesus, a sign of spiritual greatness. Furthermore, Jesus' critique of the scribes and Pharisees was, every time, a critique of the commandments that they annulled, not a critique of the commandments that they kept.
To sum up, in determining whether to obey and teach others to obey a commandment or point of doctrine, THE ONLY QUESTION is whether it is taught in the Bible, not "how important" we might adjudge it to be in the Bible. How important is that commandment or teaching? Important enough that God put it in the Bible and that Christ commanded us to keep it. That's important enough for me, even if someone considers the commandment to be "tertiary."