Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Differing Importance of Biblical Commands and Teachings

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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).

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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."

22 comments:

David Rogers said...

Bart,

I am unable to fellowship with anyone who openly admits that something is a commandment from Jesus that is applicable to them, but then refuses to submit to it. By definition (at least as I understand it), such a person is not truly born again, because they have not submitted to the Lordship of Jesus.

The real issue, as I understand it, is not whether or not we submit to greater commandments or lesser commandments. The real issue is that equally sincere and committed disciples of the Lord Jesus disagree on their interpretation of certain biblical commands and doctrines.

Now, it is also true that misunderstandings and misapplications of certain teachings have greater repercussions for our faith and practice than those of others.

We each have our opinions on these matters, and it is a good thing to be convinced we are right. But, at the same time, we must be humble enough to admit that the reason other people see things differently is not necessarily because they are living in "unrepentant sin" or because they are just plain stupid.

Also, as I understand the Bible, the command to love each other, and the command to endeavor diligently to keep the unity of the faith with all true disciples, are not commands that fall toward the "lesser command" end of the spectrum.

Bart Barber said...

David,

According to what Jesus has said, it wouldn't matter if the command to endeavor diligently to keep the unity of the faith WERE a "lesser command"—it still remains for us to keep it.

The best way to endeavor diligently to keep the unity of the faith is to endeavor diligently to show those in error the error of their ways wherever the Bible clearly speaks.

To pretend that, wherever believers differ, the Bible does not clearly speak, is to pretend that Christians are not as adept as they are sometimes at rationalization of sin. Jesus warned about the annulment of commandments because people do indeed do that.

In some cases, people disagree because the Bible is unclear. In other cases, some Christians are just in error.

David Rogers said...

Bart,

Yes, I agree with you that we should "endeavor diligently to show those in error the error of their ways wherever the Bible clearly speaks." However, whenever our diligent efforts in this regard get in the way of our diligent efforts to keep the unity of the faith and to accept all those who Christ has accepted, I think that something has gone awry.

I am not arguing for a minimalist "anything goes" ecumenism, as some have intimated. But I am arguing for an open-hearted, generous spirit towards those brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we disagree. And, also for greater cooperation and practical unity in the Body of Christ, but ONLY when such cooperation does not oblige us to compromise on our biblical convictions. Also, it is my contention that we, as Southern Baptists, have neglected, comparatively speaking, the biblical injunctions regarding unity. That contention, in many ways, lies at the root of much of the discussions in the blogosphere the last several years.

Dave Miller said...

You are phrasing this question is a way that is both ingenious and misleading.

I have seen no one advocating that there are primary, secondary, and tertiary commands of scripture. We all agree that what the Bible commands should be obeyed.

The question is about primary, secondary and tertiary doctrinal interpretations.

There are doctrines that are "of first importance" according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. That implies, does it not, that there are doctrines of secondary importance. Why use the phrase "primary" is there is nothing "secondary."

I think your whole blog is misleading. You are putting words in people's mouths, as if people are saying that certain commands of scripture are optional.

Where has anyone said that?

What David advocated above is the idea that we can apply a little humility to this discussion and realize that we may not have attained a position of absolute truth or knowledge. If that is so, maybe I can embrace a brother who disagrees with me on some doctrines that do not affect that gospel of Christ.

What is the problem with that?

Dave Miller said...

By the way, my comment above was directed at Bart, not David.

Bart Barber said...

Dave,

No, the conversation has indeed been over the significance of the various doctrines themselves, not over the interpretations. In other words, where has anyone suggested, "Now this right here is a PRIMARY doctrine, but your interpretation of this PRIMARY doctrine is a TERTIARY interpretation"

?

?????

Rather, the very clear rationale of the framework is that some doctrines or commandments are more important than others (which I myself have affirmed in this post), and therefore that the implications of different responses to these doctrines or commandments vary with the priority of the commandment or doctrine.

Nothing disingenuous or misleading in this post at all.

Bart Barber said...

Dave,

Indeed, looking back over what I have written, I can't help but wonder whether you are arguing with what I actually said or with what you think I mean.

Bart Barber said...

David,

I agree precisely with the rationale that you have advanced: That we remain in fellowship with other believers to the full extent possible without compromising our biblical convictions. That is precisely what I believe.

I would apply that to fellowship, but not to cooperation.

We're building a building for our Hispanic Mission here. We cooperated to do the framing a couple of weekends ago. I felt no need to make certain that everyone with whom I am in fellowship should come cooperate with us. Cooperation is a practical matter. I could hardly cooperate with someone with whom I was NOT in fellowship—working together outside of fellowship is usually not a very cooperative experience. Those with whom I cannot fellowship and those with whom I do cooperate are two categories that are mutually exclusive, but they are not collectively exhaustive. There is the further category of those with whom I fellowship, but with whom I am not presently cooperating to do anything.

Bart Barber said...

David,

I'll also differ in analysis of the SBC's recent track record on Christian Unity.

David Rogers said...

Bart,

This has potential to be a constructive conversation.

I generally agree with you about fellowship and cooperation, if I am understanding you correctly.

What I see happening, on various fronts, though, are the following:

1. There are some with whom we can (and must) have fellowship (CBF folks, for the most part, and those of other denominations, etc.) but with whom it is not necessarily expedient to cooperate on certain ministry projects. However, the lack of expediency in cooperation has led some to take a practical position of "disfellowshipping" true brothers and sisters in Christ. This is a shame, and, as I understand it, not honoring to Christ.

2. There are certain projects with which we can cooperate with those with whom we do not share fellowship (i.e. humanitarian aid, certain social and moral concerns, etc.). There is a tendency, though, among some with more liberal, ecumenical, and/or pragmatic tendencies, to make a common platform for cooperation part and parcel with spiritual fellowship. I think we must be careful to maintain this distinction.

3. I think cooperation in certain ministry projects requires a corresponding degree of doctrinal, philosophical, and pragmatic compatibility. This is not always as "black and white" as we would like for it to be. Thus, we should be flexible, and fluid, in the way we deal with these concerns. Whenever considering a potential ministry partnership, we should ask what we each have to gain, and what we each have to lose, by working together rather than separately. Particularly in regard to world missions, I think that what we have to gain is greater than what churches and believers who have limited cross-cultural and inter-denominational experience often assume. However, this does not mean we should be naive in our cooperative agreements.

Regarding the SBC's track record in Christian unity, I would say that, before the Conservative Resurgence, there were those among us who were much too open in regard to conciliar ecumenism. However, it seems that the pendulum has now swung, on many accounts, in the opposite direction. I am advocating a move back to a more biblically-grounded center.

I think that Dr. Rankin, and IMB admistration have made some positive advances in these areas, in regard to both cooperation and fellowship overseas. However, it seems there is a move, in certain sectors, towards reining this in, and towards greater isolationism.

Dave Miller said...

I think I am going to have to plead guilty. I was responding to other arguments with some folks. I skimmed your post and assumed it was advocating what others had said.

Sorry.

Todd Benkert said...

Bart,

If I am perceiving you correctly, I sense that this whole discussion of secondary and tertiary commandments is relevant because of the context of the past two years of discussion on the blogosphere concerning Baptist cooperation generally, and the IMB personnel policies specifically.

My question is, in the various fronts of division in the SBC right now, which of them have anything to do with obedience to commands whether lesser or greater?

What command do we violate if we come do different understandings of election? What command do we violate if we allow some missionaries to pray in a PPL? What command instructs us who may Baptize a believer? Those who disagree with me on these doctrinal issues are equally committed to obedience to the commands of Scripture and difference of interpretation on these issues is not disobedience.

The SBC has historically treated such issues as tertiary. Why now must we make them secondary?

Blessings,
Todd

Bart Barber said...

Todd,

Believe it or not, I strive for a little bit of variety in my blogging. Do you REALLY want to read the same thing in every post? The world doesn't revolve around IMB policies—not for me, anyway.

The connection to the past two years of blogging is only this: There's been a relentless emphasis upon our need to gather around the few central things (in some cases, explicitly the gospel only) that unite us and to set aside all other things as relatively unimportant. The issue of women as pastors has arisen explicitly within that context, and with good cause, since this is one biblical command that separates us from a good many other evangelicals, and evangelical ecumenism sits at the heart of most of our contests these days.

Nevertheless, I would be going to far if I were suggesting that anyone on any side of our issues has called for the explicit disobedience of many commandments beyond those barring women from pastoring, and that wasn't even so much on my mind as I wrote this. This is not so much an idea opposed by evangelical ecumenists as it is an emphasis not made. But it is one worth making, and my reason for making it is simply that I believe it to be an important concept, and one not receiving enough press these days.

Bart Barber said...

It's my day off, and I've only responded in those manners that have required very little thought. I'm flying out of town on Sunday afternoon, and will be out for several days. Will I comment much tomorrow? I'm not sure. We'll see.

Todd Benkert said...

Bart,

Fair enough. It is difficult for me to talk about this issue without an underlying subtext of Baptist cooperation and the IMB policies.

To move away from our internal debates and address the wider evangelical community, I would still submit that not all issues are created equal. For example, on the issue of homosexuality, I would agree that there is a refusal to obey the Scripture and repeated attempts to explain away the clear commands of Scripture. I would also make this a first level command as a refusal to cease homosexual practice is evidence of a lack of repentance.

On issues like women pastorates, however, not all those who disagree with us are willfully disobedient or have a low view of Scripture. This week, I debated with a pastor friend of mine who argued for women pastors and tried to convince him of the truth that only men should serve as pastors. While I am quite confident I have exegesis on my side, he did not see things as clearly as I did. In such a case, he is in error, but not willfully disobedient. I do not believe he is twisting the Scripture to suit is own fancy. Rather, he interprets the Scripture differently than I. The complementarian view is not a primary issue, but I personally have no problem making it a secondary one in our denomination. Still, while the issue provides significant barriers for cooperation, it is not on the basis of obedience to commands, but a different (wrong) interpretation of Scripture.

On a similar note, not all people who believe a woman can be a pastor do so on the same hermeneutical method. I have known persons who use the historical-critical method of interpretation and yet interpret the biblical data to allow women pastors. I have known others that affirm women pastors because they think that Paul's words are not inspired and he is wrong. Big difference, in my opinion.

BTW, I'm glad I could write the comment that required the least thinking to respond to :-) In any case, I enjoy these online discussions. I hope you find them as profitable as I do.

Blessings,
Todd

Bart Barber said...

Todd,

Perhaps yours was the comment that I had anticipated and already thought through.

Todd Benkert said...

Bart,

Hope you had a great day off! I know I did (I caught 33 rainbows yesterdays).

Blessings,
Todd

p.s. If you fish, I'll be happy to take you in Louisville next year :-)

DMP1994 said...

The Apostle Paul offers some excellent advice for Christians in Romans chapters 13-14. I've found it liberating to try to put into practice what he teaches in those chapters. He suggests that we not divide over "doubtful things." He suggests that we all have a personal relationship with the Lord, and that the Lord will lead us personally to the truth in issues of "tertiary" importance.

He suggests that the ones "weak in faith" are the ones who tend to make divisions over small issues.

I think a close reading of those chapters supports the notion that some issues we cannot surrender (such as the Ten Commandments and the Lordship of Christ), but other issues we cannot allow to separate us--debatable issues that are not worthy of separating fellow members of God's family.

Bart Barber said...

DMP,

Unless Jesus was off his rocker, the items from Romans must necessarily be items that do not qualify as commandments from God, right? That's pretty much where everyone settled on the last post.

DMP1994 said...

Bart:

I think your hermeneutical principle is a good one--that commandments from God are not "debatable" (as Romans 14-15 would describe them), but some issues are matters of conscience before God.

A vast number of issues today come under the heading of "matters of conscience." I think we could put the use of alcohol, fashion, hair styles, worship styles, and many other real subjects in this category. I think the principle of freedom is operative, areas in which we will give a personal account to the Lord (Rom 14:12), and he will judge us according to how he's led us and guided us on a personal level.

Thanks! Just my two cents worth...

Anders Branderud said...

Ribi Yehoshuas authentic teachings reads:
[Torah, Oral Law & Hebrew Matityahu: Ribi Yehoshua Commanded Non-Selective Observance
The Netzarim Reconstruction of Hebrew Matityahu (NHM)]:

"I didn't come to subtract from the Torâh of Moshëh or the Neviim, nor to add onto the Torah of Moshëh did I come. Because, rather, I came to [bring about the] complete [i.e., non-selective] observance of them in truth.
Should the heavens and ha-Aretz exchange places, still, not even one י or one of the Halâkhâh of the Torah of Moshehshall so much as exchange places; toward the time when it becomes that they are all being performed -- i.e., non- selectively -- in full.
For whoever deletes one [point of] the Halâkhâh of these mitzwot from Torah, or shall teach others such, [by those in] the Realm of the heavens he shall be called 'deleted.' And whoever ratifies and teaches them shall be called ' Ribi' in the Realm of the heavens.

For I tell you that unless your tzәdâqâh is over and above that of the [Hellenist-Roman Pseudo- Tzedoqim] Codifiers of halakhah, and of the Rabbinic- Perushim sect of Judaism, no way will you enter into the Realm of the heavens." (see NHM)

Quote from www.netzarim.co.il ; “History Museum”

Anders Branderud

Bart Barber said...

Thank you, Anders. Do you realize that the paraphrase (not translation) of Matthew 5:17-20 that you have offered here differs at several very important points from the Greek text of that passage? The Greek text of this passage can be attested as far back as 250 AD. How old is the earliest existing written text of this paraphrase that you have given to us? Where is it housed?