Theology Matters (2.3): Defining Terms Proportionally

Mark Minnick

This is a continuation of a series, the previous section was posted yesterday, other links below.

In the previous portions, Dr. Minnick discussed the importance of Defining Terms Honestly and Defining Terms Accurately. Today he moves to Defining Terms Proportionally


A third important criterion by which to test our theology is proportionality. Within the grid of a rigorously applied Biblical and systematic theology we must define terms and positions conscientiously, and then measure our preaching of them proportionately.

In other words, something can be true definitionally but untrue proportionately. For example, over a period of several centuries the Church hammered out precise statements about the person of Jesus Christ. He is both fully God and fully man. Both propositions are true.

But what would be the effect on a church if “fully God” was conceded but seldom emphasized while at the same time “fully man” was constantly and emphatically preached? What if church members hear one week, “Let’s get this straight, Jesus is fully man. Don’t let anyone deceive you about this, He’s a man!” Then the next it’s, “Folks, I’m really burdened that we get hold of this. Jesus is human. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that He isn’t God. He is, but, oh, the blessing of coming to realize that He was flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone—one with us—a real member of the human race!” Then again, a week later, “Jesus was, and is, and always will be a man! Why are we afraid of this teaching? It’s Biblical. It’s the teaching of the Church historically. It’s a truth we’ve got to get back to—the real, literal, undeniable manhood of Jesus Christ! He’s a man! He’s a man! He’s a man! Bless God, He’s a man!

Clearly, there’s not a word of error in those statements. But they’re being preached all out of proportion to the Scripture’s own emphasis. Of course, if the Church has lost a truth like this or if it’s actually under attack, then there’s a need for a recurring insistence that it’s truly taught in the Word of God. But may the Lord preserve us from unduly massaging even a truth into a huge lump that turns ulcerous to the Body of Christ. John Calvin wrote perceptively, “When one [scholar] has gone astray, others, lacking judgement, follow in droves.”

Mutual Accountability

In 1986 American sociologist Robert Bellah authored Habits of the Heart, an assessment of individualism in America. He told of a woman named Sheila who told him, “I have my own religion. I call it Sheilaism, just my own little voice.”

Anyone can slip into similar theological subjectivism. A Fundamental pastor doesn’t do it to Sheila’s extreme because he’s committed to putting everything to the test of inscripturated revelation. But on lesser points he can. Anyone of us may. It can happen with the best of intentions due to unfamiliarity with an issue about which one is called upon to give an off-the-cuff evaluation. We feel like we have to say something, and the something may be nothing more than subjectivism. But what we said gets repeated, then gets preached by others who respect us, and before we know it our opinion becomes a position— not just our own, but that of who knows how many other churches.

On the other hand, we can slip into subjectivism for utterly inexcusable reasons—disinclination to study, self-serving motivation, unwillingness to listen to others, mindless parroting of tradition. We subsequently do more damage than a Sheila ever could. Sheila never divided brethren or split a church. Only well-respected Christian leaders have the influence to do that.

So there’s one more way of checking our theology to ensure that we’ve got it straight and don’t, even unwittingly, slip into subjectivism. That’s to take seriously the Scripture’s admonitions to be subject to one another. To be mutually accountable for our theology. “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (Eph. 5:21). In the context, this is one of the sure evidences of Spirit-filling. “Yea, all of you be subject one to another” (1 Pet. 5:5). In the context, this is one of the sure evidences of humility.

We independents have no formal accountability structure. But we have ministerial friends and faithful church members who have proven their loyalty. They’re in our corner and have stuck up for us many times. They have a track record of consistently encouraging us and following our leadership. Can’t we accord to them a measure of liberty to call into question something we’ve preached that hits them wrong? Such a person probably fears that he’s risking the treasured relationship with his pastor just to come in and ever-so-respectfully express a concern. He probably prayed over the possibility for days or weeks or months before making an appointment. How should we receive him? “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6).

But if there’s not just one—one individual, one couple, or one extended family—but several trusted individuals, or several trusted ministerial friends, who express concern about our emphasis, surely we ought to fine-comb our theology again to see if it’s objectively credible.

No one likes to admit that he’s wrong. Perhaps our biggest fear is that we will lose so much respect that people will ever after suspicion our preaching. I don’t think so. People like that don’t tend to hang around. They find somewhere else to attend.

But regardless, we ought be so intensely Christ-centered that we jealously guard a precisely accurate theology about Him and all His ways and at the same time vigorously refute what is otherwise. If that means having to adjust our own statements from time to time, then we’re setting the very best possible example for our people. We’re showing them that more than anything else, including ourselves, theology matters.

Previously under the header, “Theology Matters”: Part 1.1; Part 1.2; Part 2.1; Part 2.2

Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November / December 2003. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)