October 6, 2015

The Simplified Guide

by Jesse Johnson

I recently came across two principles that, when put together, show the spiritual difficulty that we often have in dealing with Christian gray areas. Before I share the principles, let me tell you about where I read them:

David Hazelton is a well-regarded attorney in the DC area. He wrote a book, The Simplified Guide to Paul’s Letters to the Churches, that systematizes all of Paul’s instructions to local churches in his Epistles. What makes this book so fascinating to me is that it reads almost like a legal brief—and I mean that as a compliment. Over the past few years I’ve developed a hobby of reading briefs filed with the US Supreme Court. A good brief asks the right questions, then answers the questions by assimilating the conclusions from many different cases, and then presents the desired conclusion in light of all of the evidence.  

This is exactly what Hazelton does. He lays out his conclusion—for example: chapter 2 is called “The Threats of Addition and Subtraction.” He asks these questions: “How important is it for us to remain faithful to the gospel?” “What is an example of addition to the gospel?” “What is an example of subtraction from the gospel?” “Who poses these threats to the gospel?” and “Why isn’t the content of the gospel open for debate?”

He answers each question by pulling verses from Paul’s Epistles, and inserting his own paragraphs between the verses to explain how they relate. He doesn’t arrange them chronologically or canonically, but polemically. In other words, each paragraph makes his argument, and the pillars of the argument are carefully chosen Pauline passages.

For that reason, it reads like the Apostle Paul filed an amicus brief on each of these topics. Obviously this approach to writing about ethics is open to proof-texting, as well as the possibility that verses are taken out of context to imply something other than what they may have meant to the original recipients. But Hazelton avoids that—like a good attorney, he obviously realizes that if he were guilty of that, then than the credibility of all of his arguments would suffer.

I found The Simplified Guide: Paul’s Letters to the Churches to be very helpful. It is helpful in sermon prep, and even in thinking through ideas for a topical sermon (if I ever were to backslide and preach one of those!).

The Simplified Guide works through this diagram for the progression of topics.

Which brings me to the point about Christian grey areas. Hazelton asks: “How should we deal with others who have different personal practices on secondary issues?” He answers with two principles:

First: “We should not be judgmental toward fellow believers.” He then quotes from Romans 14:4, 13-15, to make the point that Paul forbids elevating our conclusions on secondary matters into judgement against other Christians. And I think most Christians I know get this point. We use terms like “secondary” and “grey” and understand that people think differently on some issues, and that is because we live in a world where Jesus does not.

But then Hazelton adds his second principle: “The need to put others first.” Paul is not content to forbid a judgmental attitude. He goes beyond that and mandates that we actually prefer others. Hazelton writes:

After explaining that our purpose is “not to please ourselves,” he instructs: “Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up” (Rom 15:1-2). “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Cor 10:24). “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification (Rom 14:19). “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God (Rom 15:7). When we put others first, what seemed to be serious differences on secondary issues can begin to lose some significance.

Paul lives out this truth in 1 Corinthians 9-10. To the Jews he became as a Jew, and to the Gentiles, he became as a gentile. In the context of secondary issues, Paul did not sacrifice truth, but he did sacrifice preference as a guard against a judgmental attitude.

This was convicting to me, as I am quick to say “I won’t judge that person” for a secondary issue, but am certainly not quick to go beyond that and say “I’ll put that person with whom I disagree first.” But only then am I applying the full weight of what Paul commands.


Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
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  • tovlogos

    Very Nice — I could use this book, Thanks, Jesse.

  • Adam

    Here’s a “secondary issue that might ruffle some feathers – is going to church for 3 services on Sunday and then again on Wednesday night a primary or secondary issue? I have heard so many people/pastors contend that those who do not chose to attend all services are somehow lacking in their spirituality. My question is: How so? I contend that since the majority of our time is spent away from church, then the primary criteria for measuring our spirituality is determined by our actions when we are absent from the brethren. How much time do we spend in prayer and Bible study at home? Are we exhibiting the fruits of the spirit in our day to day lives? You mentioned our treatment of other people which further strengthens my argument – How do we treat other people away from church? And so the list goes on: what are we watching on TV? What are we reading on the internet? What kind of music are we listening to? How do I treat my wife and kids? While worshipping/praying with the brethren in a corporate manner is a required and essential part of our growth as Christians, our primary growth comes away from our churches when we are confronted with the issues of life. Church services confront us only in a doctrinal sense. Life confronts us with the practical application of our doctrine. All too often people forget the sermon as soon as the service is over. How many people do you know who gather together after the service to talk excitedly about the impact the service/sermon made on them. I find it rare – and this coming from a solid, fundamental, Bible exalting church. People are dry. The service is over and they leave. End of story. The fire is kindled away from the services, when we get to see and test our doctrine for real. And when it is tried and proven true, that it really does work, then our spirit comes alive to God. God has transcended the page and manifested Himself before us not as a word, doctrine, or theological concept, but as Truth Incarnate. Getting ready for church and putting on our “Sunday best” is easy. At church everyone is a “good” Christian. What happens when we are away from it? Now THAT is a primary issue.

    • Alex

      Perhaps a better criteria for measuring our “spirituality” is a believer’s Christ-likeness. And while it might seem like I am just hitting on an issue of semantics here, I would contend that dividing our actions “with” the church and “apart from” the church into primary and secondary echelons is problematic and dangerous.

      If your primary concern is hypocrisy (“at church everyone is a ‘good’ Christian”), then speak to that concern. It is not the location that is at fault, nor the activity of assembling with believers, but the heart of the person who has created a spiritual dichotomy of behavior in his own life.

      To respond to your initial concern, I am not personally aware of pastors who argue that failing to be present at a worship service necessarily shows a person who is lacking in their spirituality. There are a great number of reasons why a person may not be able to attend every worship service of the church. But, a pastor should rightly express concern to a person who chooses not to gather with the believers because, “I’ve already gone twice this week,” or “I need some time with my friends,” or “the services are too doctrinal and don’t get my fire going.” If opening God’s word, worshiping in song, prayer, and preaching, and fellowshipping with the body of Christ don’t “kindle your fire,” then the issue is not frequency of services.

      You are right to express the need to consider our actions away from the church gatherings. But our concern should be with whether we are growing in Christ-likeness both when we are assembled with His bride and when we are scattered in the world.

      • Adam

        Alex, my point is precisely what you stated at the outset – “growing in Christ-likeness.” Read again what I wrote and you will see that you have simply summarized what I expanded upon. Going to church is not the primary determining factor whether we are going in Christ-likeness. As a matter of fact, it is not even second or third on the tier. (and this coming from someone who is involved in a ministry at his church) I went to church every Sunday until I was eighteen and it didn’t mean a whole lot. Countless of people do the same thing every Sunday and will continue doing so their whole lives. You said that if our spirits are not kindled under a corporate gathering among the body of Christ that “the issue is not frequency of services.” YES! That is precisely my point! The dominant factor in determining the genuineness of our Christianity is what we do when we are away from the body of Christ. To look at it from this perspective is neither dangerous nor problematic as you contend. It is reality.

        • Alex

          Adam, I apologize if I have misunderstood and/or misconstrued your position. I’m just concerned that you are over compartmentalizing the Christian life. To imply that gathering with the believers is some mandatory, lifeless Christian activity, but that the real work of the believer transpires outside the church promotes a division that is not found in the Bible or helpful for the Christian. In fact, it relegates corporate Christian life to the level of irrelevancy.

          In a world where I can listen to world-class expository preaching via podcast while I get my workout in, and I can engage in theological debate via Cripplegate posting, and I can tithe by direct deposit – in such a world, if the corporate gathering is demoted to just another “thing” we do as Christians, we are missing the point and setting ourselves up for difficulty.

          To put it another way, gathering together with the body of Christ isn’t something we do in addition to our Christian life – it is just as much a part of our Christian life as witnessing to our neighbors and morning devotionals.

          • Adam

            Alex, I am in full agreement with the necessity of the corporate gathering. I am in full agreement that it should not be some lifeless activity. What I am saying is that the majority of our growth comes during the week apart from the Sunday and Wednesday services because the majority of our time is spent away from the church; in the “real world” so to speak. This is when our doctrine is tested. We do not grow from hearing expository preaching, we grow when the exposition comes off the page and confronts us in our day to day activities with our families, at work, with our friends, with our enemies, and when we are alone. I do not grow when hearing a sermon on loving my enemies, I grow when my enemy “spits in my face.” At that point, I will either fail or succeed in applying Sunday’s sermon. This is when my doctrine becomes something tangible; something real. And so we hear Jesus say, ” If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed.” (John 8:31) The test of true discipleship is a life lived according to the doctrine, or as Jesus puts it: “My word.” And this, quite frankly, does not for the most part happen on Sundays. It happens when we are away from church. Without question the church services should refresh and invigorate us both in mind and spirit, but that is often times short lived. On Monday morning when our alarm clock goes off the world at large is ready to meet us with all its difficulties and trials and the words of Jesus in John 8:31 call to us from the pages of Scripture: Are you going to continue in My word? At this point we ask ourselves: Now what? What am I going to do? Am I going to find some life application for Monday from the sermon I heard on Sunday? If so, then I experience growth, even if in small measure. If not, what has the Sunday gathering exactly done for me except to refresh me for a brief moment in time? Then Tuesday arrives and the world is ready for us again. Then again on Wed. Thur. Fri. and Sat. All the while the words of Christ are heard: “If ye continue in my word…” Do we continue in His word apart from church, when the vast majority of our life takes place? This is the true test of our discipleship and why I say once again that the church services are secondary in determining how we are growing as Christians.

          • Curtis

            Adam, I think you’ve got the right idea. Christianity is not something that occupies us only on Sunday. Every day we have the opportunity to obey, to love, to evangelize, to serve, to grow. You are correct to disagree with those who say that the only thing that matters is going to church on Sunday. The only suitable response to Christ is all of us–seven days’ worth.

            But the way you’re saying it makes it sound like you don’t think that Sunday matters–or at least that it’s not as important. If that’s what you think, I can’t agree with you. It’s equally important. If that’s not what you think, than I think I failed to understand your point, and you can stop reading now. =)

            Gathering with the body is important. It recharges us. It refocuses us. It gives us another opportunity to love and to serve. It puts us in contact with those that will hold us accountable, carry our burdens, and above all point us back to Scripture and the Lord found in it. That sermon is important, because it’s the Word of God preached. If the sermon isn’t impacting me then I have to ask myself, “Why?” Is it because I’m more focused on me that on the scripture? It it because I refuse to submit to the power of Scripture to speak truth into my life? Is it because I have a callousness toward the Word of God or toward the man God has equipped for its preaching? Let me be abundantly clear–you cannot claim to love Christ without loving his bride.

            Nobody is disagreeing with you that faith must be lived out every day of the week. Only remember to count Sunday among those days.

            If somebody thinks that Sunday is all that matters, that person is missing out on the great privilege of being an ambassador of Christ every day. If somebody thinks that all of the other days are more important than gathering together as the body, that person is equally mistaken. Christ demands all of us, and he equally demands all of us together. Let us not make divisions where there shouldn’t be, and let’s not disregard an indispensable means of grace in our lives.

          • Adam

            Curtis, you made some good points about Sunday services and I do agree, as I did with Alex, they are a necessity for us as Christians. Yet I disagree in that they are equally important as our time away from church. I just don’t see it. Maybe its a personality thing with me. But considering there are 168 hrs. in a week and only about 6 1/2 hrs. are spent at church between the 3 services on Sunday and Wednesday night prayer meeting, this means only about 4% of our time is spent at church while the remaining 96% is spent away from it. I just don’t see how we can say that what we do with our life 4% of the time is equally important as what we do with it 96%of the time. I simply disagree. The services should recharge us, I agree on that point. But I will contend over and over again that the church services do not test our doctrine, and when doctrine is not being tested there is no growth. As I stated with Alex, Jesus said “If ye continue in my word then are ye My disciples indeed.” (Jn. 8:31) Jesus was talking about a life application here of the doctrines He taught. He mentions nothing about temple services or sacrifices. The test of true discipleship doesn’t come from attending services, but from the 96% of the time when we are away from those services. The true test of whether we are “continuing” in the word of Christ is LIFE. The conclusion I come to, then, is that while I need to attend the weekly services, I need to pay much more attention to my life the other 96% of the time.

          • Alex

            Adam, is the 1 hour I spend eating less important than the 23 hours I spend not eating? The amount of time it takes to accomplish something is not directly proportional to the value it brings. I cannot simply say, “well, eating is only 4% of my day, so its just not that important.” It is necessary. And more than necessary, it is paramount. Because what I do in that 4% of the time I eat (or skip eating) has a direct influence on the entire 96% that remains. Have you tried doing homework on an empty stomach?

            But, more importantly, I wish we could move away from speaking about the corporate gathering of believers as if it were a pep rally. I don’t come to church services because they are mandatory. And I don’t come because they “kindle my spiritual fire.” I come because it is what God designed His church to do. God has crafted us into a new temple in His Spirit (Eph 2:22). When we come together we make His glory visible before the world. Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor – the church gathered is the tangible representation of the gospel of peace before an unbelieving world.

            When we consider the corporate church gathering as primarily something that benefits the individual believer (i.e., a spiritual pep rally), we become free to judge it’s worth based on our perceived benefit. “If I don’t feel fired up, this worship service wasn’t worth my time.” “I get more out of ‘doing life’ than listening to sermons, so I shouldn’t make a big deal out of church services.” This line of thinking grossly misunderstands what we are coming together to do.

            The book of Acts does not say, “Hey, I know you guys are gonna get pretty tired out there, so make sure to get together once a week and ‘recharge.'” But rather, “they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer,” and through this Spirit-guided gathering the glory of God was evident to believer and non-believer alike (Acts 2:42-43).

            I’m not advocating that the worship service is in some fashion “more important” than how a believer spends the remaining 96% of his week. But, it is certainly not to be treated as a bad tasting, spiritual multivitamin that we choke down to be strong enough for the “real work” of the believer. As we read the book of Ephesians we are left with two indisputable truths: (1) God’s plan of redemption realized in the believer will change everything about his life, and (2) that new life is both corporate and individual.

            “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, NOT FORSAKING OUR OWN ASSEMBLING together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and ALL THE MORE as you see the day drawing near.” – Heb 10:24-25 (Emphasis mine, Words Paul’s).

            I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m disparaging you. I’m just pushing back on the idea that corporate church life is by definition: ineffective, dispassionate, and somehow less important.

          • Adam

            Alex, I guess you are just refusing to hear what I am saying. You are distorting/misrepresenting what I am saying about Sunday services. I AM NOT saying they are just spiritual pep rallies or something like a bad multivitamin that we are forced to choke down. I AM saying that in the overall life of the Christian they are not as crucial as we make them out to be RELATIVE TO HOW WE SPEND THE REST OF OUR TIME. Are they important? WITHOUT QUESTION. But are they as important as what we do the other 96% of the time. I say no and I believe the Scriptures back my position up. While the majority of the New Testament epistles were written to churches, the vast majority of the content does not deal with the paramount importance of the worship service, but rather our service and personal conduct before God as it relates to our personal relationship to Christ. Are church issues mentioned? Of course. But once again, relative to the whole content of the New Testament it is in the minority. Where is the Holy Spirit laying emphasis under the New Covenant? In what direction topically is He directing the New Testament writers to go? To give you a prime example, I will use the text you quoted from Heb.10. This mentions not to forsake the assembling together with others, but it is only 2 verses among the 300 verses that comprise the entire epistle. So where is the SPIRIT INSPIRED emphasis in this epistle? It certainly isn’t on the subject and importance of assembling together. We can go to the other epistles and ask ourselves the same thing: Where is the Holy Spirit laying emphasis? Whatever He is emphasizing, we need to do the same. As far as the illustration you gave concerning eating, well, I don’t believe the analogy fits. Eating has to do with the physical aspect of our body and the laws which govern the physical don’t necessarily apply to the spiritual. I don’t have to eat every single hour of the day because God did make the body to function that way. But I do have to monitor my spiritual “intake” every hour because my spirit is always subject to the negative influences of the world. This being the case only strengthens the argument that I am making, namely, because of this, what we do away from Church 96% of the time has a greater impact on our spirituality and relationship to Christ than the 4% we spend at church. As far as the worship service being a testimony to the world, it also is inferior to our personal conduct that we present before the world. The unbeliever of the 21st century (unlike the 1st century unbeliever in the Book of Acts which was a different cultural context than we have today)) doesn’t care if we attend services or not, they care how we live our lives in front of them. The argument that “Christians are hypocrites” is based upon the contradiction the world witnesses between the life of a believer and their confession of being a Christian. Attending church services doesn’t show the world we are Christians, but “continuing in the word of Christ” (Jn.8:31) before them does. I guess we will just disagree. You will contend that attending services has as much influence on our Christian conduct/testimony as does our life away from church. And I will contend that it does not. As Paul says, “let every man be convinced in his own mind.”

  • Jason

    Great article, which should come with a warning. It can be counter-productive to making every effort to peace and mutual edification (Romans 14:19) for the church as a whole to label some topics as *always* secondary.

    There is a priority to teaching and the growth of a believer. Because of this, there are secondary issues. You don’t start teaching someone math at integrals and you wouldn’t start edifying a person in godliness with anything other than the gospel, but at some point these secondary (and tertiary, etc…) issues become a legitimate area of growth for a believer.

    When an issue becomes primary really depends upon each person’s maturity, but at some point we should be tackling every issue as it comes toward mutual growth, otherwise we are failing to look out for the good of another and building them up simply because we’ve already decided exactly how “complete” a believer can be. Admittedly, some issues we’ll likely not get around to until after Jesus returns!

  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    Penny, may I ask why you copied and pasted my comment from another post?