We are all, at times, guilty of swapping non-essentials with essentials and not discerning between what is negotiable and non-negotiable in our lives.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ time are the best examples of this. Let’s take a look at what Jesus said to them in Matthew 23:23: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”
Can you see the point that Jesus was making? Compared to justice, mercy and faithfulness, the measure of mint, dill and cumin they religiously gave as tithe was non-essential in God’s sight (although not totally unimportant). The reason tithing was instituted by God in the Old Testament was to provide for the needs of the Levites and the needy in Israel. So, Jesus rightly argued: what is so great about your tithing when you have neglected to show justice and mercy to the poor and needy? That’s hypocrisy!
There were other ways in which the Pharisees took issue with Jesus. For instance, they accused Him of breaking the Sabbath on several occasions because He healed people on those days. They thought Jesus was a liberal (Matthew 12:10, Mark 3:2, John 9:14-16)! Jesus responded to them aptly, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The religious gurus of His day were holding on to the ‘letter’ and not the ‘spirit’ of the Word.
The Pharisees thought Jesus was a liberal
Unfortunately, the first century religious leaders of Jesus’ day were guilty of several pitfalls where non-essentials were concerned. We see this in the rabbinic interpretations of the OT Bible, especially the Pentateuch (Torah). Like our commentaries and study Bibles, there were scores of interpretations for passages from the Torah.
The Rabbis often fought among themselves over minute issues, such as how many footsteps were allowed on the Sabbath day, how much weight could be lifted by hand on the Sabbath, etc. They could not agree with each other. What was essential for one Rabbi was non-essential for another and vice versa. They knew their Bible so well, they used it to prove anything they wanted to prove. But their differences left the common man confused and puzzled.
Jesus was concerned about the unnecessary burden that religious leaders of his day made people carry. In Matthew 23:4, He says, “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders…” The religious leaders of the day mercilessly attacked those who didn’t follow what they said.
In fact, Matthew 11:28 was addressed to people who were under this religious burden: “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” When teachers of the law decreed non-essentials as essentials, it invariably led to weariness.
The Rabbis often fought among themselves over minute issues, such as how many footsteps were allowed on the Sabbath day
As preachers, teachers and elders of the local assemblies, how can we help our brothers and sisters differentiate between essentials and non-essentials? Let me suggest seven guidelines.
1. Expose the flock to God’s Word
As preachers and teachers, we have a major role in teaching the flock the Lord has given us. Don’t just dictate or spoon-feed them all the time. Avoid merely giving them a set of do’s and don’ts. Don’t give them easy answers or one-word responses like yes or no. Make them read the Bible. Help them to see for themselves what the Bible says. The Bible’s truth matters and not our opinions.
One example to understand the role of a Bible teacher can be seen in Nehemiah 8:7-8. Let people identify the truths by themselves (Nehemiah 8:13-15). Giving understanding and illumination is the work of the Holy Spirit. We are just channels. I do not think that people need a lot of extra Biblical study material to understand the basic truths of God’s Word.
I’m certainly not undermining the additional value of Bible study tools. I spent almost six years in a theological institute and know very well the value of such resources. However, I do believe that anybody can understand the essentials of Christian life by taking time to study the Bible on their own.
The Church in India, by and large, has been a preacher-dominated movement. The preachers often call the shots. Others simply follow their favourite preachers. It is high time that we teach everyone in the local assembly to study the Bible for themselves. As preachers and teachers of God’s Word, let us give them fish from the pulpit periodically — but let us also teach them how to fish from the Bible daily!
I believe anybody can understand the essentials of Christian life by taking time to study the Bible on their own
2. Exercise humility
In grey areas, have the humility to say “I don’t know”. There are many areas of Scripture that remain a mystery even after 2,000 years of theologising by devout minds from various centuries. Let us not think that we know it all. That is pride! Remember Paul’s statement: “And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him” (1 Corinthians 8:2).
3. Honour the silence of Scripture
Don’t use the silence of Scripture to argue for or against any teaching. If Scripture is silent on some issues, it simply means that the Lord doesn’t want us to probe them further. Otherwise, He would have made it clear to us through His Spirit-inspired writers. Let us learn to accept the silence of the Scripture and not take advantage of the Bible’s silence on some issues.
4. Test all opinions
When we are not able to defend our views based on the Bible, we are sometimes tempted to quote famous preachers or writers to back our views. There is nothing wrong or unspiritual in reading or quoting other men of God to understand their views on certain subjects. However, don’t blindly follow them.
Every man is fallible (Galatians1:8, 1 Thessalonians 5:21). Test every teaching based on the Bible and hold on to what it clearly says. If the Bible does not offer clarity on a particular subject, take other people’s teaching as an opinion — no more. Likewise, as a preacher or teacher, when you don’t have enough Biblical support for a view, don’t hesitate to tell people that it is your opinion and not a dogmatic truth. This, of course, requires integrity on your part.
When you don’t have enough Biblical support for a view, don’t hesitate to tell people that it is your opinion and not a dogmatic truth
5. Respect one’s liberty in Christ
There are some things that fall under the category of freedom or liberty in Christ. Take time to read what Paul has to say about such matters in 1 Corinthians 8:7-13:
“However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat, are we the better, nor if we do not eat, are we the worse. But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
With regard to non-essentials, don’t pass judgements when you don’t personally hold on to a certain position. Resist the temptation to call others liberals or compromisers just because they don’t agree with you on certain non-essentials. The terms ‘false teachers’ or ‘heretics’ are not used casually in the Bible. They are reserved only for those who deny the fundamental doctrines. Apostle Paul, who vehemently opposed heretics with strong words, was different when he handled non-essential matters.
Romans 14:13 says, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.” Verse 22 of the same chapter says: “So, whatever you believe about these things, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves.”
Even when his views were different from others, he was willing to let God reveal it to them. “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if at some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you” (Philippians 3:15).
The term ‘false teachers’ was not used casually in the Bible. It was reserved for those who denied fundamental doctrines
6. Seek to advance God’s work and edify His people
This should be the only goal of a preacher or teacher who makes an attempt to debate or discuss such matters. Consider what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:3-7:
“As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.”
Any discussion or debate which will not edify God’s people should be shunned as meaningless talk. “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:19).
7. Let all that you do be done in love
There is absolutely nothing wrong in expressing our understanding or opinion on a particular subject. Whether we write or speak, discuss or debate, however, let everything be done in the spirit of love, as it says in 1 Corinthians 16:14.
Let us not forget the fact that we are still in our fallen nature. Never take up an opportunity to score a brownie point over others. God judges our hearts. Stand for truth but don’t forget love. And don’t forget to show charity. That’s the way to Christian maturity even as we deliberate on difficult issues (Ephesians 4:15).
As the Latin phrase goes, “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas” — in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity!
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