October 20, 2017

Weightier Matters of the Law

the genius of Fundamentalism’s contention for the fundamentals

Don Johnson

When listening to a sermon recently, the speaker alluded to the passage in Matthew where Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law. The phrase caught my attention and reminded me about a debate that rages (for some folks, anyway) about fundamentalism and its determination to separate from other professing Christians over some (but not all) differences.

There are generally two ways the fundamentalist stance is criticized. One is a criticism of any separation at all. This view looks at fundamentalism as a bad thing generally. (I’m reading a church history book just now where the author talks about various denominational groups, often repeating a line like this “this group was not infected with fundamentalism.” You can see his point of view pretty clearly in his word choices!) The other view is one that claims that fundamentalists are inconsistent because they won’t separate over every difference (especially the differences the one making the criticism holds dear).

One passage that is often cited in defense of the fundamentalist approach of separation over primary differences is 1 Corinthians 15.3:

For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;

The fundamentalist takes the “first of all” to mean “first in importance” or “primary.” In other words, some points of doctrine (or practice) are primary ones that need to be defended, even to the point of separation, whereas other points are less important. Good men can “agree to disagree” when it comes to the less important points.

As noted above, this interpretation is disputed by some, but I think our Lord himself supports the fundamentalist point of view in the statement he made about “weightier matters of the law.” It is found in Matthew 23.23.

Matthew 23:23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

Notice first of all that the Lord himself notes that some parts of God’s revelation were weightier matters than other parts. The doctrine of the tithe was part of God’s law – it was important; it was not to be left undone. But there are weightier matters that were left undone, that were omitted. It was failure in these weightier matters that drew the Lord’s rebuke. The rebuke was no light matter, “Woe unto you” is a curse, not just a rebuke. Some years ago I read a commentator who suggested that to pronounce a woe (as God does many times through the prophets) is to say “You are as good as dead.” That’s pretty serious talk, but it is the Lord who is pronouncing a curse because of the neglect of the weightier matters.

The word weightier has a proper meaning of “heavy in weight” as in comparison with other physical objects. In this case the word is used metaphorically, meaning “of great moment … the weightier precepts of the law.” (Thayer) This can mean nothing other than that some precepts have greater significance or import than others.

The things Jesus names as weightier matters are “judgment, mercy, and faith.” The comment is an allusion to Micah 6.8, which says:

Micah 6:8 He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

Judgement here seems to be judgement about spiritual behaviour – doing ‘justly’ as Micah says. Distinguishing between righteousness and unrighteousness. The idea of separation is inherent in the word. One could say that it includes matters of personal separation from the world as well as distinguishing between holy and unholy alliances between professing Christians.

Mercy is to transfer the character of God into the behaviour of men. Surely mercy is what our Lord displayed to the woman caught in adultery. No less is required in our relationships with other sinners. When men repent of their misdeeds mercy is required. When men are pursuing spiritual growth, growing pains and errors of judgement should be overlooked. (Of course, some men are not merely exhibiting growing pains, they are displaying a pattern of disobedience. That calls for judgement.)

Faith here is referring to faithfulness, as seen in the comparable “walk humbly with thy God” from Micah. Faithfulness in personal practice, faithfulness in doctrine, faithfulness in ecclesiastical connections, faithfulness to the gospel.

Much more could be said about each of these weighty qualities, but the point that must not be missed is that these matters are weightier than the also required tithe of the minutest particle of harvest a faithful Israelite produced.

Some would have us make every personal standard a matter of ecclesiastical separation. The result would be an encyclopedic definition of every matter of life in order to conform to some kind of absolutist perfectionism. Every hem line, every style of clothing, every book in one’s library, every personal activity would be subject to the critical gaze of … somebody … in order to prescribe fundamentalist bona fides if this approach were to be endorsed.

Unfortunately, fundamentalism has been somewhat plagued with an absolutist mentality. Sometimes we have lost sight of the forest for the trees, as the saying goes. There are weightier matters and these especially become the matters where separation will eventually need to be applied. The list of weighty matters is not infinitely long, although it is probably more than the mere “five fundamentals” of the old Presbyterians. But it is not unrelated to that list, and it is certainly a matter of faithfulness to those kinds of doctrines (virgin birth, inspiration of the Scriptures, vicarious atonement, bodily resurrection and miracles) that is at issue. Unfaithfulness to matters like these doctrines become matters of deep concern that will lead to ecclesiastical separation if the unfaithful parties insist on their unfaithfulness. But the issues that form fundamentalism have to be the weighty matters, and with the less weighty some divergence of opinion must be allowed.

May God grant us wisdom to see what the Lord Jesus and Paul are plainly saying about the relative weight and importance of the various points of Scripture. May God help us to keep our focus on the weighty matters when it comes to ecclesiastical cooperation and separation.


Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.


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