In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.
The words of St. Augustine have often served as a helpful reminder for me to focus on what is important. A basic understanding of church history, or even a casual observation of current church culture will show us that Christians are famous for majoring on the minors. The recent media fiasco concerning Phil Robertson’s comments about homosexuality demonstrate clearly that Christians today are standing on the periphery of a gospel-centered platform.
Why is that? Jesus’ message is blissfully simple. Salvation and new life are found in him. Repent and believe the gospel. Love God and love others. Observe communion, baptise and make disciples.
There is something about structured religion that appeals to people. It tends to lend the religious a sense of merit and control, neither of which are compatible with the gospel. In New Testament discipleship, self-worth is eclipsed in the light of God-given value. Control is an illusion, and the mature Christian surrenders his illusions of control to his Lord. Instead of code-driven morality, Jesus leads his followers to a new system (a New Covenant, really), where disciples walk in the Spirit, not the law.
Historically the people of God have fallen into trouble when we construct “doctrine” that goes beyond what God specifically states in Scripture. For example, on one occasion an earnest and sincere brother in the Lord informed me that “there is no Christian music written in a minor key”. Others I have known wrangle over whether Christians are on biblical grounds reciting the pledge of allegiance to the American flag. One particular passionate and theologically well-informed brother told me that “divorce is never permissible.” I suppose he had forgotten Jesus’ exception of marital infidelity. In each of these cases, well meaning Christians took their opinion on a subject and decided that their position was the only biblical position, without having real biblical grounds.
Another comical example of believers falling into this type of ecclesiastical mistake took place in Papua New Guinea many decades ago. A great missionary effort was undertaken to preach the gospel to a primitive tribe where no “modern” man had ever ventured. This particular tribe had worn penis sheaths for generations. A penis sheath is an elongated gourd, placed over the male anatomy and suspended from a string around the wearer’s neck. It is designed to accentuate the maleness of the wearer, and in that particular culture had been elevated to the most visible status symbol in use. After much prayer, effort and sacrifice, the Spirit of God wooed that tribe and won them over to himself. Repentance and revival swept through the village and the new believers found themselves eager to share their faith with the tribe in the neighboring valley. The missionary who had labored so hard to bring the light of the Gospel to these people was ecstatic, but slightly confused when the men of the village began to manufacture many more penis sheaths. When he asked what they were doing, the baby Christians responded that the neighboring village didn’t practice the display of the penis sheath, and were they to become civilized Christians, they would obviously need to adopt its use.
I would never assume perfect understanding of how to apply the bible in our culture today. In fact, it seems the more I study the word, the less obvious its application becomes. Jesus never said, “divorce is always wrong” or “Thou shalt not compose music in a minor key”. He never told us what clothes to wear, what to eat or drink, what position to hold our bodies in as we pray, or a host of other cultural issues that we can become so focused on. (I understand that divorce is a universal rather than a cultural issue-the focus of this piece is on how we often go beyond what the bible has clearly stated). Why is that? We have a tendency to reduce real discipleship to a set of cultural boundaries: what not to eat and drink. Where to go and not to go. Which words are permissible to speak. Although we certainly have the potential to please or displease the Master by the observance of those issues, the clear instructions that he left us are happily few: love God, love one another, baptize the nations and remember him through communion.
This is why the church, the bride of Christ is a truly multi-cultural entity. Enemies of Christianity often criticize the apparent disunity in the church, demonstrated by the sheer number of denominations. To me, this demonstrates the a-cultural nature of the Gospel. God has not dictated a culture to us. He has not bequeathed us with a dead list of rules. What we have in the Good News of Jesus is the opportunity to relate with the creator of the universe, in a truly organic fashion. When we are faced with a difficult biblical question and find no clear indication in the word, we are brought to our knees in earnest prayer. (He often allows difficulty in our lives simply so we will spend more time with Him!) God wants us not to live by a code, but to walk in His Spirit. Ergo the Gospel breaks through cultural boundaries. True worshippers of God find themselves in every tribe, tongue and nation, wrestling over his intentionally vague love letter, the Bible, and how to apply it in their lives.
I believe Paul was addressing this issue in his treatise on Love in 1 Corinthians 13. “For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away…For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known”.
Don’t get me wrong, there are issues on which there is NO room for variation. Only a few verses from the previous one I mentioned, Paul outlines one of our “non-negotiables”: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
Perhaps, then we can take our personal passions, particularly where they leave the bounds of clear biblical doctrine, and examine them in the light of Scripture. Maybe it’s time that we stop handing out penis sheaths to the world and live by St. Augustine’s advice, “In essentials, unity. In differences, liberty. In all things, charity.”