This blog post started as a comment to a post and comments over at Pondering Critically on What Should Missions Look Like? But my comment started getting way too long, so I decided to just do a blog post here instead.
One of the comments (from mwh) was about how the question of what's normative is huge and relates to so many issues, which he then listed ("What about church polity, or ministry structures, or gender roles, or forms of baptism, or locations of worship, or styles of administering the LORD's supper, etc.") Then he warns against "elevating one style (whatever the issue) to the exclusion of all others." I agree.
But I haven't always agreed. I think I've (slowly!) become more fluid and flexible over the past several years (at least on a number of these issues!) - partly because I see that the basis for certain practices in Scripture is not as clear cut as I used to think and as some people would make us think.
That's not to say that I don't still have my opinions. I still believe in believer's baptism and that it should be by immersion. I really do believe that an elder led church is the most biblically faithful form of church government. I'm pretty firmly complementarian when it comes to gender roles. Etc., etc.
I also think it is healthy for churches to have a clear stance on these issues - for pragmatic reasons if for no other. It would simply be too distracting and fracturing to a local church to always be debating these issues. It would take them off task - meaning more time was spent on the margins and less on the center.
Which brings me to a crucial point - what clearly is normative is the gospel, the central message of the Creator God redeeming fallen men through the doing, dying, and rising again of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the perfect God-man, who is coming back again. This is at the center and should be our primary focus.
The question then is how does one hold a position on any or all of these less-than-clear, secondary issues, yet still keep the gospel central? That's a big question that probably needs a lot of thought and attention from people much more qualified than me.
But here's a few thoughts:
(1) Whatever you say the loudest is what other people are going to hear. We need to speak the gospel loud and clear. But when we teach on the other things, it should perhaps be more like a gentle whisper. Clear enough to be heard, but soft enough to not be dominant.
(2) Whatever you say the most frequently is what other people are going to hear. So, the gospel needs to be said over and over again, all the time. Other things much less often. Some things not at all.
(3) The gospel should be the issue around which we unite with or separate from others. Baptists should be able to collaborate with Presbyterians. Calvinists and Arminians should be able to do evangelism and missions in mutual partnership (think of Whitefield and Wesley, Spurgeon and Moody, Lloyd-Jones and Campbell Morgan). Elder led churches should not snicker or sneer at congregational churches, or deacon led churches, or churches overseen by a bishop or denominational leader, etc. And on and on.
(4) We (especially church leaders, but this applies to followers as well) must learn to build our identity around Christ and the gospel, not around secondary doctrines or issues. Or other people. Perhaps the temptation of the leader is to build his/her identity on doctrines and issues, ("I'm a Calvinist. A Complementarian. A Baptist. A New Covenant Theologian." etc.) while the tempation of the follower is to build his/her identity around a person ("I like John Piper." "I agree with Billy Graham." "I'm a Rick Warren fan." etc.). But when we do this, we get off center. Jesus must always have first place in the way we think about ourselves. ("I belong to Jesus Christ." "He is my Lord and Savior." "I have no hope, except in Christ alone.") Sadly, it has taken me a long time in my walk with Christ to come to this point - and I'm sure I still have a long ways to go. I know I've spent too much time building and reparing the fences on the borders of my particular belief system rather than tending to the gospel which is in the center of the garden. I think there's been a slight shift even in the last year. Hopefully, I'm growing . . .
When we do adopt gospel-centeredness and apply it to all of our thinking about everything else, the results will be: (1) Humility that we're even in the conversation to start with. I (moving to the first person singular now!) should be in hell. I'm not. Why? Sheer grace. (2) Love and tolerance to others who are also in the family - even though they have a different set of beliefs about some of the marginal issues. If those issues won't separate us in heaven, should they divide us now? (3) A more winsome collective witness from the diverse body of Christ - who despite their many differences are not engaged in friendly fire, but are instead trumpeting loudly and clearly the single note of Christ crucified for our sins and risen from the dead.