by Mark Minnick
This article first appeared in FrontLine • May/June 2004. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
This isn’t about some one text but about a category of them — those that deal with what we tend to call “doubtful things.” Passages such as Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 through 10, and single texts such as 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23 or 1 Thessalonians 5:22 — just to name the most pertinent to the debates over Christian liberties.
It’s been my experience that much of the debate involving these texts takes place at the wrong level. It often begins and persists at the level of applications; actually, those discussions ought to be left for the very end. In fact, unless they are, there’s little if any prospect for agreement — if for no other reason than that the two (or three or four or …) sides have no common pole star by which they’ve agreed to chart the course of their debate. It’s simply not enough for two Bible believers to go at each other with nothing more than a vague, mutually-taken- for-granted-assumption that the Bible is that pole star. There’s considerably more that must be agreed upon before two believers are adequately prepared to debate a question of Christian living profitably.
For instance, the Bible is a lengthy book of 1189 chapters written over a period of some 15 centuries by about 40 authors. Those authors were influenced by a variety of theological, historical, personal, and cultural factors as they wrote. I’m listing those four influences in just that order deliberately. It’s the order of priority which I would, in most cases, accord to them in the discussion of a debated passage (and hence its applications). But when my opponent presupposes a different priority for influences like these, we’ll often find ourselves incapable of resolving an issue. We’ll go away reporting to our brethren that we ended hopelessly divided over baptism, capital punishment, a Christian’s involvement in civil government, liberty to drink alcoholic beverages, or music styles when, in fact, the disagreement existed at a much deeper level even prior to our discussing the particular subject.
In addition, those same four factors are influencing us as the readers of Scripture. Our reasoning too, like that of the Biblical authors when they wrote, proceeds along the lines of our theology, the view we hold of our place in history, our personal identity, and the degree to which we’ve been nuanced by our culture. But unlike the writers of Scripture, whose priorities were superintended by the Holy Spirit at the very moment they laid quill to parchment, we’re not always conditioned by those influences in the right order. In the heat of battle, what ought to be the least controlling, our cultural conditioning, may actually override what we profess to be our theology.
There’s no possibility, of course, of coming to complete theological agreement before debating practical questions. Nor of shedding our cultural lenses to the degree that we see pristinely. But what is possible is at least recognizing and identifying the degree to which our presuppositions may be contributing to confusion.
Even more important is the need for joining our debates at the right place. We ought to begin at the level of exegesis. Long before we take off the gloves about how to apply a passage we ought to get down to working harmoniously on the texts to be sure of what they actually say. We ought to be asking one another, “What do you understand this text to be saying?” before we ask, “How do you believe this text ought to be lived?”
For instance, how often has someone thrown down I Thessalonians 5:22, “Abstain from all appearance of evil,” as the clinching argument for some fastidiously rigid conviction? No question but that we must live above reproach, but is this text really Divinely intended to be the trump card for ending all debate about whatever anyone perceives to be suspicious? What does the term translated “appearance” (eidos) actually refer to? The “look” of something or the “form” of something? Or both? This is a question to be settled by objective exegesis, not subjective argument.
Or what about, “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22)? Is this actually a blank check for any behavior not explicitly forbidden by Scripture? An “open sesame” to everything except what the Bible specifically calls sin? Well, how would we get at the answer? In this case there’s no key term in the verse on which the question turns. But there’s an immense context (three full chapters) stretching both backward and forward and loaded with significant words, Scripture quotations, admonitions, and even specific applications.
We’d probably find ourselves much closer to each other on applications if we’d begin by sitting down across a table from one another with Bibles, lexicons, and exegetical commentaries. It’s seldom done, but it should be if two Christian leaders are risking misunderstanding or even separation from one another over questions the Scripture doesn’t answer specifically.
It takes big doses of both humility and integrity to submit ourselves to such an approach. Apart from doing so, what chance do we have for ever being of one mind? If we won’t submit ourselves to the discipline of discovering the mind of the Spirit, how will we ever keep His unity in the bond of peace?
Dr. Mark Minnick is pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina.