Saturday, February 02, 2008

Primary and Secondary

The longer I live and interact with other Christians the more I realize the importance of knowing the difference between what is primary and what is not. If we confuse the two we will slide off into error sooner or later. If we do not distinguish between the two we will not know when to hold the line and when to allow for diversity of opinion and practice. Too many of the problems that Christians face will never be resolved if we do not figure out what is non-negotiable and what is nothing more than personal preference or the best way to proceed given the situation.

Primary issues are those that are directly related to the gospel. For example, we must be clear about who God is, who we are as human beings made in his image, what has happened to us as a result of Adam's disobedience, and what God has done for us in his Son Jesus Christ. Erroneous or fuzzy thinking is downright dangerous at this point. Our eternal salvation depends up a proper understanding and appropriation of all that is involved in God's salvation of sinners. Seminaries need to pass on to students the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Pastors and church leaders must clearly teaching and inculcate the great doctrines of historic Christianity. While we continue to refine our understanding of the details, the main contours of the Christian faith have been known from the days of the apostles. Our job is not to creatively re-interpret them but to proclaim them and apply them to the times in which we live.

Secondarily issues are those that are peripheral to the gospel. Issues that have to do with how we go about things in the church and in the world. For instance, how should a service of worship be organized? What should come first, second, third and so on? How many songs should be sung? What instruments employed? How long should the sermon be? How many times should we pray? All of these questions are important in terms of the smooth operation of the service and the sensibilities of those involved but none of them are matters of life and death. There is no one right way to do any of them. Doing things one way or other will not insure the smile and blessing of God. These are secondary matters. They are negotiable. How one will proceed depends more on the cultural setting of a church, the likes and dislikes of the congregation, and a sense of what will enhance the gospel and complement evangelism and worship.

It is tragic when major issues are treated as minor and minor ones as major. But it is also tragic when people think that all of their ideas and preferences and traditions (and often their hangups and insecurities) are as important as the gospel itself. Churches that are making a discernible difference in their communities are those who know the difference between what is major and minor, what is primary and secondary. All of us must bring our ideas to the Scriptures and examine them accordingly. We also need to be aware of the diversity of practice throughout the history of the Christian church in different parts of the world. When it comes to the gospel we must not budge. But everything else must serve the Lord Jesus or be abandoned.

There is a well known saying of Saint Francis of Assisi which goes, "Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

In light of this discussion I will like to propose the following adaptation: "Lord grant me the courage to proclaim the unchanging truth of God, the freedom to adapt to the culture where necessary, and the wisdom to know the difference."

2 comments:

Milton Stanley said...

Not to quibble, but aren't the issues you list as secondary better described as tertiary? Secondary issues might include the roles of women in worship, divorce and remarriage, drinking, and pacifism. All of these are highly important issues, of course, but are not themselves the gospel.

Our apparent differences on what constitutes a secondary issue points up a recurring problem with them. Secondary issues, it seems, are often the focus of conflict between those who consider such issues primary and those who consider them secondary or tertiary.

Kirk Wellum said...

Thank you for your comment Milton. Yes, you are quite right and the distinction you make between secondary and tertiary is helpful. I was using secondary in a very broad way to refer to anything that is not primary. Certainly within that generic category there is room for further precision and explanation.