On Principles and Applications

I am convinced that a very significant issue at stake in present discussions about ecclesiastical relationships and the practice of separation is recognizing the distinction between biblical principles and their application in specific contexts. I can’t recall if I’ve blogged on this before, but I know I’ve spoken on it tons of times over the past two and half decades. It probably warrants a string of posts to explain fully, but let me do the risky thing of boiling it down to an axiom—principles are absolute and timeless, applications are relative and timely.

If you’ve properly identified a biblical principle (through solid exegesis), then it stands as God’s Word regardless of time and place. But you still have to apply it to specific times and places, and because time and place introduce variables, the application needs to be fitted to each particular time and place. The biblical call for children to honor their parents is timeless and transcends all cultures, but what obedience to that looks like will vary from culture to culture (and sometimes even within the same culture). And it may even change within the same culture as time passes and the culture itself changes. The principle, being absolute, remains fully intact, but the application, being relative, adjusts so that the principle is truly honored.

This holds true to the application of the biblical principles regarding separation from false doctrine and compromise with it. Those principles never change, but the application of them must be done in real time. We generally concede this when we look back in time. For instance, we applaud the early, original fundamentalists for pursuing separation first by trying to remove the liberals from their ecclesiastical fellowships, but then, realizing that the leaven had spread too fully, deciding to pull out in order to have no fellowship with liberalism. They held to the same principles, but different circumstances demanded different applications.

It is the application side of the equation that introduces so much complexity to our discussions. I hope to address a few aspects of that complexity as time and interest allows, but there is one that I think is germane to a few recent posts (and the present ecclesiastical landscape). I would contend that we will actually compromise our commitment to biblical principle if we do not periodically review our applications to make certain that they still fit. This is where I see the connection to the issue of labels. If the labels are imprecise, then they don’t help the application process and may even hinder effective application. Part of the imprecision comes from the changes that take place over time—changes in the people or ministry with the label, but also changes in the landscape.

I’m going to risk an analogy from history, so please work with me here. Let’s assume, for discussion, that we embrace as a governing principle this idea, “We must not treat our enemies as if they are our allies.” In 1943, Japan was labeled an enemy while the Soviet Union was labeled an ally, but in 1963 it was clearly the opposite. Obviously, the alliance with the Soviet Union was pragmatic in that we had common enemies. Once those enemies were neutralized, the alliance was over. By 2003, there was no Soviet Union and our relationship to the countries that composed it varied—some favorable and positive, some not so much. Wouldn’t it be short-sighted and unproductive for the USA to look at the Ukraine as if it were still a Soviet satellite? My point is that the principle remains intact even though its application changed in significant ways over those six decades.

Let’s think about the situation with Japan a little too. Clearly there was enormous conflict between the USA and Japan and even though the United States emerged victorious, the tensions of that war were not immediately erased. Officially, and in reality, Japan moved from enemy to ally over the years following the end of WWII. The two nations generally stand together against the same enemies, share many of the same objectives, and view each other as partners in tackling problems in the world (except competition in the automobile industry!). Clearly the situation has changed so that our principle, while still true, would not apply with regard to Japan any longer.

Here’s part of the rub—we acknowledge that last sentence in our heads, but that’s easier than accepting it in our hearts. Years ago I was visiting the Pearl Harbor Memorial and was very surprised to see so many Japanese people there—it just felt very odd. That’s all it felt for me, odd, but I’ve talked with some folks who were older than me, people who were children or young adults during WWII and it felt worse than odd to them. They were actually indignant about it. My guess is that my sons, being so far removed from the actual events, wouldn’t even think about it (9/11 is the new December 7th for them). I don’t think anybody in my story would deny that Japan is really no longer our enemy, but they would all feel differently about how we should relate to the Japanese people and government.

So, back to my point—to keep treating former Soviet bloc countries or Japan as enemies even though they no longer are is to actually invalidate the principle, not honor it. Failure to update the application results in disregard for the principle itself. Further, persisting in that application is more likely rooted in prejudice, not principle.

This is my concern about a lot of contemporary discussions regarding separation. Labels, because they are application-oriented, run the risk of serving prejudice more than principle. IOW, rather than really looking at what that man believes and practices, I judge him on the basis of a label. “He’s a fundamentalist” is used as the shorthand for he’s okay or he’s a kook (depending on who’s talking). “He’s an evangelical” is used for shorthand for he’s cool or he’s a compromiser (again, depending on who’s talking). I would argue that kooks and compromisers come with either label. That means neither label really helps me know who is okay. I can only make that call when I look at things in light of biblical principles. Bottom line: applications that turn into traditions can be a dangerous thing if they are allowed to rival or supplant the Scriptures.

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