Posts Tagged Applications

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.

, , , ,

No Comments

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.

, , , ,

No Comments