Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Grading Christian Truths on a Scale of Importance

It should be seen as a fact that some truths of the Christian faith are vastly more important than others.  Each individual truth is somewhere on a scale, from the relatively insignificant through to the essential.

I am not for a moment suggesting that any biblical truth is so unimportant that it has no value at all.  But we should all recognize clearly that some things are far more important than others.

Passages which imply that something is very important

It is not always easy to tell what is relatively important or unimportant.  But the Bible gives us some pointers.

Sometimes a passage strongly implies that something is close to the most important end of the scale. 

For example, what Paul says in Galatians makes it clear that the people he is writing against were teaching some seriously wrong ideas.

In Gal 1:7-8 he says: 
“. . . there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”

(Scripture readings in this article are from the English Standard Version.)

And in Gal 2:4 he writes: 
“Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—”

Paul’s opponents were insisting that Gentile Christian converts must be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses.  The way that he wishes a curse on these teachers and describes them as false brothers shows how serious this error is.

Similarly, in 2 John 1:10 the apostle John, referring to professing Christians who reject the humanity of Jesus, says: 
If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching [that Jesus is fully human], do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting,”

Surely John would only instruct his readers not even to greet people if their error was near the most important end of the scale.

Again, in 1 Cor 6:9-10 Paul says to the Christians in Corinth: 
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Paul is explicit here that those who commit the sins he mentions will not inherit the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God in this verse refers to final, eternal salvation.  In other words, Paul is saying that those who unrepentantly commit these sins are on track for hell.

Paul’s words in these verses should make it clear that the sins on this list are all intolerable.

Similar teaching can be found in Rev 21:8, where God says: 
“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

This verse is very clear that people who unrepentantly practise these sins are on track for hell.  So there is no doubt that acting in these ways is intolerable.

Sometimes, then, the Bible itself strongly implies that a certain belief or practice is at or near the most important end of the scale. 

But we must also take note of where Scripture doesn’t give an implication of this sort. 

For example, nowhere in the Bible does it say that a female church leader should be accursed or that her portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur.

It is true that Scripture teaches that God normally wants men, and not women, to be leaders (although I think that sometimes He acts outside the standard pattern by raising up women leaders).  This is an important issue, and if a woman becomes a leader outside the will of God she is making a big mistake.  Nevertheless, this error is surely not nearly as serious as, for example, denying the humanity or deity of Christ or failing to condemn homosexual practice.

Similarly, Scripture teaches that we should expect God to work miracles throughout the Christian era.  Again, this is important, and those who deny that God still does this are making a big mistake.  However, nowhere does the Bible say that professing Christians who deny this are false brothers or that they will not inherit the kingdom of God.   

Frequency of references

Another way in which we can sometimes grade how important things are is by seeing how often they are mentioned in Scripture.

For example, there is a huge volume of biblical teaching on the cross of Christ, and this helps to show how fundamental His death is to the Christian faith. 

Or take the subject of love.  The Bible is full of instructions for Christians to act in love, and there is no doubt that this is an extremely important virtue for us to cultivate. 

By contrast, some topics are mentioned very rarely.  For instance, teaching on head coverings in public worship appears only in 1 Cor 11:2-16.  And only in 1 Cor 11:14 are we told that it is wrong for a man to have long hair.

We should be in no doubt that if a Christian is not good at acting in love, that is vastly more problematic than if they fail to get things right on head coverings. 

Similarly, if a Christian man has a weak understanding of what Jesus’ death was all about, that is far more serious than if he has long hair.

Satan’s deceiving work

Many Christians today are poor at grading biblical truths in terms of importance.  Satan is very active in trying to deceive us in this area. 

To begin with, he loves it when he can make a believer think that something essential is not that important.  When this happens, heresy is often tolerated and grave sins are overlooked.

Although Satan’s bigger victories come when he persuades Christians that important things are relatively unimportant, he is almost as happy when the deception is the other way round.  Church history is littered with examples of splits in churches over things that should never have been important enough to cause divisions.  Many Christians have been deceived into thinking that they have done God’s will by refusing to back down on something, when actually in their particular case backing down was a “lesser evil” than allowing a church to split.

Subtlety and discernment

We all need subtlety and discernment regarding how much importance we attach to various truths.  It’s not enough for us just to know what is true.  We also need to have an idea about where each truth is on the scale of importance.

Sometimes it will be difficult to know exactly where on the scale something is.  But usually, if we search the Scriptures and pause to think and pray, we should be able to gain some insight.

On the one hand, we must be careful not to fall into the trap of taking a casual attitude to any great moral or doctrinal principle of the Christian faith.

On the other hand, it is wrong to become hostile to other Christians simply because we are sure that they believe something false.  There are times when it is better to put up with the mistakes of others than to allow churches to divide or to create bad feeling. 

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