When my wife and I were students in Bible college, at the beginning of every semester we had to sign a document stating we would abide by the student handbook which had loads of rules. You couldn’t go to the movies. You couldn’t kiss on campus. There were pages and pages of rules. One rule was that you couldn’t dance. That was in the early 90s when grunge music was popular, and our area was a hotbed for local Christian bands. Every weekend we could pick from multiple venues featuring grunge style rock and roll. If you’ve ever been to a grunge concert, you know that you don’t really dance to that style of music. Instead there is a mosh pit, featuring a rowdy form of jumping around and crashing into each other. It is a lot of fun. So because we Bible college students couldn’t dance, we would mosh.
Were we breaking the college rules? Should the college even have rules like that?
As we continue studying Paul’s teaching in his letter to Titus, I want us to think about the intersection of Christianity and rules. In Titus 1:15-16, what we saw in our last post is that Paul was teaching something very new about rules. I want ask: are there ways in which we have been taught that Christians have certain rules to follow? Oh yes.
A heritage of rules is a long-held part of evangelical Christianity. Yet, I think Paul would say the same thing to us that he said to the churches in Crete in his letter to Titus: We are free. We shouldn’t have rules like the OT Law.
So where did our contemporary Christian rules come from?
Our evangelical heritage had a strong holiness emphasis. It started off well and good, I believe, where people wanted to pursue the blamelessness we talked about in the series of posts on Titus 1:5-9. But it is so interesting how a pursuit of blamelessness can lead to creating new rules.
When my Bible college’s administration discovered, for example, that many students were moshing at grunge concerts, and they created a new rule about it. I’ll never forget the college chapel service when the dean of students got up in front of the student body and tried really hard to read the new decree that there would be no more…and he stuttered…he couldn’t get the word out right…he said, “mooshing?” He didn’t know how to properly pronounce it, so he kept saying, “mooshing.” We were not allowed to moosh. There was much laughter in the crowd that day.
My dad was a professor at the time at the college, and he regularly taught in his New Testament classes the exact kinds of passages that we are looking at this week, “To the pure, all things are pure.” His suggestion was that we should scrap the entire student handbook, and just allow the Bible to guide us. I agree.
This is tricky, though, because we have so many rules in a church family that we disagree about. We’ve talked about this many times over the years on this blog. Can girls and women wear bikinis? Can we watch R-rated movies, smoke, drink, dance, curse, work on Sundays, and on and on it goes.
Clearly, Paul was saying to Titus that those people in the church who made following OT cleanliness rules a test case for faith were wrong. Likewise, we should not be creating any rules and regulations and trying to bind people to follow them. We Christians are under the New Covenant in Christ, which is the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament. That is what guides our lives. When people are trying to teach us to follow some other rules and regulations, we should rebuke them just as Paul is saying here.
But as we rebuke, we can do so using the principles of patient encouragement and inclusion that Paul taught Titus. We want to encourage people to sound doctrine so that they can be part of the church family. We give them chances. To that end, we pursue unity, not uniformity.
There is plenty of room for disagreement, so long as people in a church family are willing to agree to disagree, in a gracious manner. There is a phrase that I have mentioned before, and I’ll say it again here because I think it is so helpful to guide us during those times when we disagree.
It is the Pyramid of Doctrine: “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
What are the “essentials”? I would suggest that the top part of the pyramid should be tiny. It is why I so appreciate the my denomination’s membership ceremony which does not require new members to agree with the 25 Articles of the EC Church. Admittedly, different denominations and churches have disagreements about what should be included in this top level, but for the EC Church we only ask people to agree to faith in and discipleship to Jesus, baptism, and commitment to the church. Some people have suggested that we Christians should just rally around the Apostles’ Creed. Either way, the top level is reserved for the major doctrines of the faith, and we should major on the majors, and minor on the minors. As the phrase goes, at this top level of the pyramid, we should have unity. Not uniformity, by the way, as, even at this level, we can have some differences.
What are the minors, the “non-essentials”? I would suggest that they are things like Predestination vs. Free will, Church government format, Evolution vs. Creation, how to do baptism, communion, and worship services. There are a great many issues about which Christians will disagree, but we should do so with grace, love and humility. In our church, we have a variety of opinions about these matters. As the pyramid moves downward, the levels grow larger, meaning that there will be more and more areas of disagreement. But that is okay. At this middle level of the pyramid, we should have liberty, meaning we give people freedom to choose and disagree, while still maintaining loving family relations with them. Again, it is unity, not uniformity, that allows for liberty.
Finally, what are “all things”? In this, the largest level of the pyramid, there are so many areas we could include: politics, issues of ethics, gray areas in Christian behavior, and so on. Here, as the phrase goes, we should have charity, meaning love is our focus, because we could have sharp disagreements, but we should still love and not break relationship with one another.
Paul is saying, in other words, that leaders take divisiveness in the church seriously. We pursue unity in doctrine and in relationships. Paul said we should not tolerate sin and divisiveness in the church family. Church leaders should commit to following his teaching of silencing, rebuking and encouraging rebellious ones among them to return to sound doctrine.