Agreement on Principles, Disagreement on Applications

In the last post I argued that we must see the difference between principles and their applications. Principles are timeless and absolute, whereas applications necessarily are timely and relative to the context in which the application is being made. I would also contend that failure to recognize the distinction between the two inevitably leads to trouble. Debate about biblical principles should always be controlled by the text of Scripture—what does it say and how should it be properly understood? Applications, however, require us to look outside of the Bible and reflect on how the biblical truth relates to life. That means we have to understand aspects of the world around us so that we can discern what significance particular biblical truths have to any particular piece of life. A simplified (hopefully not simplistic) way of thinking about it might look like this: The Bible says this, how does it relate to that?

Sometimes the relationship between principle and application is very clear, a relationship we could describe as this is that. Most believers agree with each other in such cases. There are times, though, when the relationship isn’t as clear, perhaps it could be described as this is like that. While there might be mainly consensus, this is where believers begin to disagree with one another, simply because they don’t all agree as to how much this and that are alike. What I’d like us to remember is that they do not disagree on the principle (this), but regarding its application (that). Unless we have legitimate reason to question the sincerity and integrity of those who disagree at the application level, we should allow for differences of application.

Another kind of relationship between principle and application introduces even greater variety of viewpoint into the equation. Sometimes people develop a position that could be described as that leads to the violation of this. Personally, I think this is a valid concern and represents a wise perspective on the danger of sin and the potential for dangerous self-confidence. There is Scriptural warrant for being more careful than careless about the pursuit of holiness and obedience. Yet, we must recognize that two people may agree on the principle (this) and not agree with each other on what might lead to its violation (that). The very fact that we say it might lead to its violation is precisely where the rub is. Again, believers should discuss and even debate the wisdom of their applications, but they must not do so with the dogmatism that is only proper for a valid, exegetically-derived biblical principle itself.

When we attribute the same weight to our applications that we do to the Scriptures (unless this is actually that), we are guilty of what the religious leaders in the Lord’s day where doing (Matthew 15:1-9). They were concerned about violations of “the traditions of the elders” more than they were violations of “the commandment of God” (vv. 2-3, 6). While I would never advocate being anti-tradition, we must never become traditionalists. This is where we legitimately can use the term Biblicist, i.e., the Bible is the source of our authority, not tradition. We of all people should have such a thorough commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture that we refuse to allow man-made traditions to threaten the functional control of the Word over all of our lives, including our separation and fellowship decisions.

The application of biblical truth is a matter of wisdom and discernment. It often requires us to make a judgment call. It is quite clear to me that we’ll never have universal agreement on judgment calls in this life! It won’t happen, so I see no point in pursuing it as a goal. A better approach would be to pursue relationships that have a basis in shared principles—relationships that agree on what stands as written by God and is non-negotiable. It would seem that if we are sure that we agree on principle, then we can have open, constructive debate about our applications. If, however, we confuse the difference between the two, it usually leads to questioning the motives of those who apply the Word differently than we do. Because we think doing something different than what we would do is actually a violation of the principle, we tend to assume it must be rooted in sinful desires.

It might be, but it may simply reflect a lack of discernment (not a good thing, but certainly better than evil motives). It also may reflect other factors of which you are unaware. It might even mean that your application is not as clear as you think it is.

I am not asking for something strange or new, but perhaps something that we’ve taken for granted too long. The first step in talking through our differences is to turn to the Scriptures to talk through the biblical principles which we believe are at stake. It is that discussion which is most significant, for if we disagree there, then talking about applications becomes somewhat irrelevant. If we agree there, then we have an objective reference point from which to evaluate the differing applications. We may not get past our disagreement on some issue of application, but at least we will know why this brother has made the judgment call that he has. How much room we will allow for differing applications is then the judgment call that we’ll have to make.

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