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!).
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.