“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”
– Rupert Meldenzie
We cannot overemphasize things of highest importance. But, conversely, we can overemphasize that which is of secondary value, though equally necessary or true. All truth is true (duh), all necessities are necessary (duh), but not all truth and necessities are of equal importance. This should be fairly obvious.
Think Jesus’ emphasis on the Greatest Commandment, “Love God, love people,” or his words to the Pharisees, “Woe to you, hypocrites! For you tithe, yet have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” Or Paul, “Now faith, hope, and love abide; but the greatest of these is love” and “of first importance: that Christ died for our sins…” Slaves of Christ should be known not for nitpicking things of secondary importance, but rather for embodying the love of the crucified Lord of creation. My cynicism aside, this is generally my biggest frustration with Christians on social networking.
Proclaiming Jesus is more important than damning homosexuality or a sin you particularly dislike; worshipping the Lord is more important than singing songs to your musical or theological preference; loving your neighbor is more important than arguing against his political views; identifying with the broken body of Christ is more important than identifying with Texas pride or the Cowboys; living out New Testament ethics is more important than captioning a Bible verse with your selfies and Instagram bio; contributing to the church is more important than complaining that you can’t consume what you’d like from it; damning global injustice is more important than bashing Obama; demonstrating authenticity through weakness is more important than faking the happiness and strength that you don’t always have; celebrating great music and cinema is more important than hiding from anything with the F word in it; being an agent of change is more important than voicing what’s wrong with our generation; and evaluating me based on how I love God and love people is more important than thinking I’m solid because I post a Facebook status you like.
C.S. Lewis writes, “When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.” We should not neglect things of secondary importance; and I cannot draw a universal line and define what’s of greatest and least value. But, I can echo Christ’s words in the sermon on the Mount: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
“To love you as I should, I must worship God as Creator.
When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. In so far as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.”
– C.S. Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis
“Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things. We never get, say, even the sensual pleasure of food at its best when we are being greedy.”
– C.S. Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis
“The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping.
The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication.
It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman—glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens?
Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made…You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.”
– C.S. Lewis, “First and Second Things,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics
“1. Jesus Himself suggested that some errors are gnats and some are camels (Matt. 23:24-25). And He stated that some matters of the law are “weightier” than others (v. 23). Think about it; such distinctions could not be made if every point of truth were essential.
2. Paul likewise speaks of truths that are “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3)—clearly indicating that there is a hierarchy of doctrinal significance.
3. Certain issues are plainly identified by Scripture as fundamental or essential doctrines. These include:
a. doctrines that Scripture makes essential to saving faith (e.g., justification by faith—Rom. 4:4-5; knowledge of the true God—Jn. 17:3; the bodily resurrection—1 Cor. 15:4; and several others).
b. doctrines that Scripture forbids us to deny under threat of condemnation (e.g., 1 Jn. 1:6, 8, 10; 1 Cor. 16:22; 1 Jn. 4:2-3).
Since these doctrines are explicitly said to make a difference between heaven and hell while others (the “gnats” Jesus spoke of) are not assigned that level of importance, a distinction between fundamental and secondary truths is clearly implied.
4. Paul distinguished between the foundation and that which is built on the foundation (1 Cor. 3:11-13). The foundation is established in Christ, and “no other foundation” may be laid. Paul suggests, however, that the edifice itself will be built with some wood, hay, and stubble. Again, this seems to suggest that while there is no tolerance whatsoever for error in the foundation, some of the individual building-blocks, though important, are not of the same fundamental importance.
5. The principle Paul sets forth in Roman 14 also has serious implications for this question. There were some differences of opinion in the Roman church which Paul declined to make into hard-and-fast matters of truth vs. heresy. In Romans 14:5, he writes, “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” That clearly allows a measure of tolerance for two differing opinions on what is undeniably a point of doctrine.
As an apostle, Paul could simply have handed down a ruling that would have settled the controversy. In fact, elsewhere he didgive clear instructions that speaks to the very doctrine under debate in Romans 14 (cf. Col. 2:16-17). Yet in writing to the Romans, he was more interested in teaching them the principle of tolerance for differing views on matters of less-than-fundamental importance. Surely this is something we should weigh very heavily before we make any point of truth a matter over which we break fellowship.”
– Phil Johnson, Does Scripture Permit Us to Regard ANY Doctrine as “Secondary”?
“Four levels of uncertainty: Decide, Debate, Divide, or Die For
Die for: Essential gospel truths that if one were to abandon, would be outside of the historic Christian faith, evangelicalism, and therefore salvation. e.g. the Trinity, the virgin birth, the full divinity of Jesus, the bodily resurrection, etc.
Divide for: You don’t consider those who differ as outside of the faith, but you wouldn’t say, partner with them, invite them to speak at your church, or fly under the same banner as them. e.g. ecclesiological differences, baptism, gender roles, etc.
Debate for: These are issues you might engage in healthy debate over (perhaps even emotional debate over), but in the end you’d do it while maintaining regular fellowship, joining together in worship and proclamation. e.g. worship style, politics, views of spiritual gifts, etc.
Decide for: These are issues that are subject to an individual’s conscience, as led by the Spirit, within bounds of Christian liberty. e.g. whether you can have alcohol, whether you raise hands during singing, whether you sponsor a child or not.
– Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Vintage Church
– R. Albert Mohler, Jr., A Call For Theological Triage and Christian Maturity
– Luke Stamps, Let’s Get Our Theological Priorities Straight