Offence and upset in churches abound. You name it, we can find someone who’ll get upset about it. And when we are feeling discontent, it’s easy for us to pick up on issues in the church and make them into big, even ultimate, things.
The problem is that sometimes we are right to do that. If somebody – or, rather, an elder – begins openly denying the deity of Christ or something, that is not an indifferent thing. It isn’t ‘over the top’ to get worked up over somebody holding to teaching that would put them outside the bounds of Christianity in a supposedly Christian church.
But then there are other things that aren’t quite marks of orthodoxy, but they are biblical issues. For example, I think you can be essentially orthodox and yet affirm an egalitarian position on women in ministry. But that doesn’t mean that position is Biblical. It is more than a mere matter of tradition or preference. It might be less than damnable heresy – I do think you can be a genuine believer in Jesus Christ and egalitarian – but it isn’t Biblical. It is counter to what what I read in scripture and, therefore, a matter of sin to affirm and do what (I believe) the Lord has told us not to do. One’s conscience may not be troubled by it, may even believe in faith that the position is legitimate – I don’t think it is a salvation issue in that sense and isn’t wilful unrepentant sin if held in good faith – but it is against what I believe the Bible teaches and therefore, as I view it, goes against God’s expressed will for the church.
Again, to make an issue of something that is unbiblical isn’t unreasonable. You might not be saying that this thing puts the church beyond Christianity, you might not be arguing that it departs from orthodoxy or that it puts those who hold to it beyond the bounds of salvation. But if it is sinful, so far as one judges it, if our consciences are held captive to the Word of God – as Luther put it – to go against our conscience in regards to the Word is neither safe nor right. It isn’t safe nor right to go against what our consciences tell us the Word of God says. As Christians, it is surely right that we ought to do what we believe is right and pleasing before God. To do otherwise is sinful and to continue in what we believe to be unrepentant sin is not of faith. Such things, therefore, matter.
But the overwhelming majority of things that people get hot under the collar about in churches are neither matters of outright heresy nor biblical issues. There is plenty that we do in our churches that, at best, are legitimate applications of biblical principles or simply indifferent things. Usually, when we are in the realm of biblical principles, there isn’t one right way to apply them, but there are various ways we could legitimately abide by the principle. When we are in the realm of adiaphora there typically isn’t a right or wrong question at all.
So, the principle that we are to share the gospel is a biblical one. But there isn’t a specific, single application of that principle. There are any number of ways we might do this. The time that we hold our church service on a Sunday isn’t specifically drawn from any biblical principle at all; it is an indifferent thing. We can meet whenever we like. These things are not strictly speaking ‘biblical issues’. They are not matters of sin that go against something expressly taught in the Word. They are matters that we are free to work out in our context.
With these latter things, we might have all sorts of views and preferences on these questions. We might have very set views on the type of evangelism we should do, or the Bible version we should use, or the timing of services, or the kind of songs we sing, or whatever. On and on these things go. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: is this a biblical issue?
Most issues in the church could, and should, be dealt with simply like this. If the matter is not a biblical one, there is no grounds for us pressing our preference to the point of division. If we are considering leaving our church, we should only be thinking along those lines if our church is teaching heresy – that is, a false gospel – or they are pushing an unbiblical line on something that, we believe, forces us into sin by going along with it. But if neither thing is at play, we are not dealing with a biblical issue, but one of preference. And the Bible is quite clear that our preferences are really not matters over which we should divide.
Next time you begin to get frustrated with your church, ask yourself this: is this a biblical issue?