Thoughts on Keeping the Gospel Central

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.


Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of a t-shirt I once got at a youth conference. It read, "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."

I recently had a similar discussion with a friend/family member about Chist-centeredness and Gospel focus. I have grown in this area over the last several years - almost completely due to our attending FPBC (and God using means...).

Thanks for helping us to grow in this area.

Anonymous said...

I love this blog Pastor Brian. Thanks. I am going to use the "reparing fences" paragraph comment for an upcoming post and use it as a quote. I think we are too busy knocking down bridges within the Christian community, while others are dying quickly

mwh said...

Yes, I think the Gospel should be the central and main thing. I agree it's what we should say the loudest. I agree it's what we should say the most often. I agree it should be the point on which we unite. I agree it should be that upon which we build our identity.

But at the end of the day, your proposal seems only to work at the inter-church level, not the intra-church level.

Re: "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."

If the local church is still taking a singular stance on these issues, then all this talk becomes practically meanlingless. Most congregants have little contact with other churches at the level of co-ministry and co-worship. Instead most of the time, the context in which these issues come up is within the local, individual congregation. So what should congregants do who don't agree with the leadership's clear stance on these issues? Find another church?

Brian G. Hedges said...

That's an interesting question. I'm not sure what the answer should be. I suppose it would depend on how significant the disagreement was and whether a person felt that they could not continue to worship and minister effectively within their current church's stance.

I don't mean to imply that there is no room for discussion about these issues within the local church. So, appeals on specific issues could be made, reasons presented for the difference of opinion, and suggestions made for how to give more latitude. I would always be open to receiving this kind of feedback and think our elders would as well.

Thanks for commenting.

mwh said...

Personally I don't see why the local church needs to take a singular, clear stance at all on these issues. Your claim about avoiding distractions and fractures seems to be a self-defeating argument. So the Gospel and Christian charity are enough to cover the issues on the inter-church level but not the intra-church level? Why can't the leadership just teach the congregation that these are areas of Christian liberty, and allowance should be made for diversity of positions among brothers and sisters?

Brian G. Hedges said...

Well, on some issues I think the church can do that and many churches do.

But lots of things have to be considered - including the history and beliefs of the church and where they are. So for example, a pastor (let's use John Piper for an example) may be willing to allow much more latitude on the issue of baptism and even teach that, but the church he pastors is Baptist. So, the elders eventually rescinded the recommendation to allow paedo-baptists to join their church. But they are still worshiping and serving together.

In our church context, we have some people who come from a charismatic background. Theologically, I'm a continuationist. But at this juncture in our church's life, practicing or acting on those beliefs would probably do more harm than good. It could be distracting, uncomfortable, and even divisive.

Then there are some issues where liberty can be allowed, even when some within the church leadership have stronger convictions than others. I have stronger leanings toward Calvinistic soteriology than some preaching/teaching men in our church, but that has not hindered our fellowship or their participation in ministry.

There are also some issues where one party (whether in leadership or not) may be more settled in their convictions. In which case, it becomes for them a matter a conscience to follow what they believe Scripture is clearly teaching. In those situations, the most mature pathway is one of love and deference to the other party.

I'm not sure if these are satisfactory answers to you. Maybe you still feel like my claim is a self-defeating argument. Just know that it is born out of a desire to honor Scripture, a genuine love for the church, and a mind/conscience struggling to grapple with how to handle secondary issues while still keeping the gospel central. I'm sure there's growing to do, both in my own heart and thinking, as well as in the thinking of the church.

Anonymous said...

Can I add if possible Brian,

I think this brother is taking Christian "liberty" out of context. Say for example prayer language or tongues in the local fellowship. Though I will not divide with anyone on this issue as it relates to Christian fellowship, I by no means believe this is an issue of liberty. Correct me if I am wrong Brian, but we are not talking alcohol consumption or homeschooling here, we are talking doctrinal distinctives of a paticular fellowship.

Just because there could be a wide range of positions doesn't mean that there is "liberty" so to say. A Pre-Mill Pre-Trib guy wouldn't call an Amill guy's position liberty, he would call it false, though they could still worship together. The problem would become when we preach it. If you have two teaching elders holding opposing views, the ELDERS must decide which of these positions the church as a local fellowship will hold to be doctrinally true in order to prevent mass confusion. The same with gifts of the Spirit, Divorce and Remarriage (see Piper and Bethlehem on that one), Women in Leadership, and many other issues, that are not heretical but could effect the face and theological distinctives of the church.

Just my opinion Brian, let me know if I am off.

Brian G. Hedges said...

I think it was Augustine who first said, "In the essentials let there be unity, in the non-essentials let there be liberty, and in all things let there be charity." It is probably in this sense that mwh speaks of liberty, and if so, then I agree with his use of the term.

While it is true that there is a distinction between areas of Christian liberty where Scripture is silent and areas of doctrine where believers have different interpretations, it is also true that the church needs to work harder at uniting around the essentials of the gospel, while keeping other secondary doctrines in the margins and allowing "liberty" for other positions. The big question is how does a local church do this? I'm still trying to figure that out.

mwh said...

Brother Woods,

I appreciate your remarks, although I do think we take different tacts. If I have not misunderstood you, I would state your proposal like this: Each individual, local church should hold clear, singular stances on secondary doctrinal issues as distinctives of that fellowship. If I have misrepresented you please correct me. This is one approach to the problem, and makes the issue simple for the congregant: If they don't align with the stance of the individual, local church on these secondary doctrinal issues, they should just move on to another fellowship. Personally, I don't prefer this approach.

I tend to feel like individual, local churches do not need to have singular stances on secondary doctrinal issues. I do not agree that "if you have two teaching elders holding opposing views, the ELDERS must decide which of these positions the church as a local fellowship will hold to be doctrinally true in order to prevent mass confusion." In high school, I attended along with my parents a baptist church where one of the teaching pastors was a classic dispensationalist who held that the seven churches of Revelation were real, historical congregations. And he taught it as such when he taught through Revelation. A second teaching pastor at the same church held to a historicism view of the seven churches of Revelation (i.e., each church represented an era of church history). He too taught his position on Revelation (the same year!); it caused no trouble for the congregation. I think it's good to acknowledge the margin of error on our interpretations; I think it's healthy for the congregation as we model interpretation for them.

In college, I attended a presbyterian church a few times where they allowed all forms of baptism--infant baptism, sprinkling, pouring, and immersion ("believer's" baptism)--depending upon the conviction of the individual congregant/family. The church didn't spend any time distracted or fractured over the issue. Contrary they clearly recognized it as an issue on which there could be liberty and unity, without a singular stance. The same church had both a premillenialist and an amillenialist on the teaching pastoral staff (as I recall), without a singular church position.

You stated, "a Pre-Mill Pre-Trib guy wouldn't call an Amill guy's position liberty, he would call it false." In practice I think this is true, but I don't think it is right. Empirically the Calvinist denigrates the Arminianist, the "believer's" baptist derides the paedo-baptist, and Charles Ryrie sneers at the amillenialist. But I don't think this is the way to go. I think there are other ways of entertaining the differences without calling each other wrong. (I've been mulling over a theory on this for a while. Maybe I'll blog on it sometime.)

Maybe you disagree, and that's okay. But this is my perspective on the issue.


Can you clarify what you mean by this paragraph?

"There are also some issues where one party (whether in leadership or not) may be more settled in their convictions. In which case, it becomes for them a matter a conscience to follow what they believe Scripture is clearly teaching. In those situations, the most mature pathway is one of love and deference to the other party."

Brian G. Hedges said...

Here's one example of what i meant by the above statement. Based on my current understanding of Scripture, I believe that only believers should be baptized. I believe this strongly enough that I could not in good conscience administer infant baptism. I have no hesitation sharing communion with paedo-baptists. But I could not myself administer infant baptism. This is an issue that impinges upon church practice. I am open to further discussion on the issue. Frankly, most of my heroes have taken the other side of the debate! But, I can not in good conscience follow them in this, as I believe it would violate Scripture.

Anonymous said...

Hey MWH,

You will make a terrific pastor. There are some things that I would draw lines in the sand on, like I stated not divide in Christian Fellowship , but I think preaching a pre-mill vs amill or charismatic vs cessasionist, or even paedo vs credo could get a chuch in a world of trouble. I would love to see how this was worked out in the church you mention. I would love to see that on my own. It is funny because I was almost conviced that a church I had been visiting was the one for us. However, to be a leader you have to agree with their "fine" points. Such as pre-mill, dispensational 4 pointers. And I am neither. I decided that it may not be the best church for us due to that.

mwh said...

Well, Lionel, if you ever decide to move to South Carolina, let me know, and I can point you to those churches, so that you can experience them yourself.

It's not that these teaching pastors didn't have firm, personal convictions on these issues. Three of the four men had their Master of Divinity, and all of them had conservative credentials. Instead, all of them recognized that Scripture was not completely unambiguous and church history was not unanimous on these issues. They wanted to give plenty of room to their brothers and sisters to follow their own conscience before the LORD on these secondary issues. This modeled humility and charity for the congregation, and sent the congregants back to their Bibles for themselves to consider deeply these issues. I found this to be a healthy thing.

I'm sorry that this church didn't work out for you. I trust that the LORD will continue to guide you.

CityStreams said...

Great post!! It's so easy to let the basic stuff go. I tagged you for a seven random things meme that's being passed around the blogosphere. Hope you don't mind.

mwh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sludgemeister said...

Excellent post, and I enjoyed it despite being a Conservative Calvinistic Reformed Postmillennial Presbyterian.