The Quixotic Quest for Conformity

Over the past couple of posts I’ve tried to assert main two ideas: (1) we should recognize the difference between principles and their applications; and (2) we must treat disagreements over applications differently than we do disagreement over principles. I think these are helpful ideas, but even if we agree on them, we still have to put them into practice and inevitably differences will surface. My hope is not to end or avoid all differences, but to help us be able to interact about them more effectively so that we make biblically sound decisions and provide wise leadership for our churches.

In trying to show the difference between principles and applications, I mentioned the timeless, transcultural principle that children are to honor their parents, but I also pointed out that applying that principle takes different shapes in different cultures. And it was this difference that I tried to highlight in the second post with the shorthand of this and that. We might agree completely on the obligation that children have to honor their parents, but disagree just as completely about what that means when it comes down to the choice of a mate, for instance. Clearly, some have elevated their particular application to the point where it must be followed or else one’s commitment to the principle is called into question. In terms of my two main ideas, because they fail to distinguish between principle and application, they subsequently fail to treat the disagreement on this matter properly (i.e., as a matter of judgment, not as a matter of disobedience).

To move it closer to the issue which is central to this whole discussion, even if two people agree completely that, for instance, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 teaches a principle which calls for separation from persistently disobedient brothers, the task of making applications still has to be done. Using my this and that rubric, these two may agree fully about this (the biblical principle), yet not be completely in agreement on that (to whom it applies). My contention is simply that debates about applications should be handled differently than disagreements about principles.

Let me share an anecdote to illustrate my concern. Years ago, our pastoral staff attended a conference in which a number of hot topics were being addressed and position statements were being formed to rally the younger generation to stand for the truth (and at that time I was 28 years old and clearly part of that younger generation). One of the topics was dress standards. I’d already clashed with some folks at the conference on another issue, so I decided to stick to something where I could just sit quietly in (basic) agreement, but a couple of men from our staff decided to attend this session. The man leading the session did an excellent job, I was told, of navigating a pretty strenuous debate about how to word the position statement. The side that won the debate produced a statement that focused on the principles of modesty and gender distinction, whereas the side that lost wanted specific applications that detailed exactly what those principles looked like in the fall of 1989. One of our guys heard one of the men who had lost the debate complaining on his way out of the session, “We need to give our people absolutes and we just gave them relativism.” This guy had it completely backward!

He wanted to make his applications absolute and bind the consciences of God’s people with them. Allowing room for godly believers to wrestle with applications seemed to him to be a concession to compromise. There are probably a few reasons for this kind of thinking—faulty views of sanctification and pastoral leadership being two of them—but they’re not my concern right now. More significant to me is the danger that his thinking would do if it were included in the mechanism being used by the conference. The goal was to produce a statement that outlined commitments to remain faithful to God’s Word. Injecting his applications into it would have placed them on the same level as Scripture. That would have been both unfaithful to the Word and unfruitful for God’s people.

I am sure this brother was not self-consciously wanting to add to the Scriptures and, thereby, undercut their sufficiency. His dogmatism about his own particular applications, though, had the functional effect of doing just that. He had decided what modesty and gender distinction actually looked like, so everybody else needed to get in line with that. To doubt his applications was tantamount to rejecting the Bible’s authority (and clearly to show that you were not Spirit-filled!). I wish what was happening in this case was unusual, but the fact is that we’ve all seen plenty of similar kinds of man-made guidelines passed off as biblical requirements—no hand held microphones, no overhead projectors, no singing songs not in our hymnbooks, no facial hair, no small groups on Sunday evenings, no playing sports against public schools, etc.

I honestly have little problem with anybody who happens to think the things on that list are defensible applications of some principle, but none of those come close to being the principle itself. Getting to them always takes at least one step and thus they must be held more loosely than Scriptural mandates. The failure to recognize that step has lead to a lot of unnecessary fights among God’s people.

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