Healthy Theology 2: Discerning & Prioritizing Bible Doctrine
If God sets rules, we are called to keep them. “If you love me,” says Jesus, “you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). “Here’s how we can be sure that we know God in the right way,” writes John: “Keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3 MSG). It’s even possible to speak of “loving” God’s rules, since they give us peace, freedom, and hope (Psalm 119:97).
But over the years, some within Christianity have acted rudely, harsh, or even spiteful toward others, claiming they were simply “following the rules.” You can find stories of some groups boycotting military funerals, or leading murderous Crusades, or otherwise mistreating their fellow man–all in the name of keeping some rule they think they found in Scripture.
Most of us can appreciate these two “poles”: on the one hand, we know we should keep God’s rules. On the other hand, we know we shouldn’t act unChristian, since God would never make a rule like that. But how do we know how to read these rules? What can we tell our friends who are sincerely attempting to follow God’s rules, but end up acting unGodly in the process? I’d like to suggest that we find a lens through which all of God’s teachings should be read. Let’s start by putting first things first.
The Bible says that we must discern and prioritize Bible teaching. It’s easy to assume that every Bible teaching is on an equal level–and its easy to understand why we assume that. After all, it sounds right. How many times does God have to say something for it to be true? Just once! How many things does God command, without expecting obedience? Not one! But if you look at the Scriptures themselves, the Bible teaches that some things matter more than others — even when it comes to matters of Bible teaching. Let that thought sink in for a second. The Bible teaches that some Bible doctrines are more important than other doctrines.
What is the central teaching of the New Testament? Paul spells it out clearly in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4:
“Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you…For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
Paul says that he passed on to the Christians in Corinth matters that were of “first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). The Greek word here for “first” can mean “first in a list,” but more likely means “first in priority.” However, on either reading, it proves the point that some things take precedence. There are starting places, foundation stones, upon which we ought to build healthy theology. The foundation of a house is both the most important element in construction, and the first thing laid down.
But “first importance” implies some things are “more important” than others. According to some estimates, there are 613 specific commands or duties given in the Old Testament. But when Jesus was asked “Which commandment is the most important of all?”, he didn’t reply “What a silly question! Don’t you know that since they are all from God then they are all equal?” Instead, he answered the question.
“Jesus answered, The most important is…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. ” (Mark 12:28-31 ESV).
Do you remember when Jesus called the teachers of the Law “hypocrites” in Matthew 23? He had lots of reasons. One was this: “You have neglected –justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matthew 23:23 NIV) There are some teachings that have priority, ought to be learned first, and ought to take precedence when making judgments.
There are some teachings that have priority, ought to be learned first, and ought to take precedence when making judgments.
“The more important matters of the law” means there are some commandments that are more central, more tied to the foundation stone, than others. Yet notice how he ends the verse: “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” On the one hand, everything God says is important. But on the other hand, there are some teachings that have priority, ought to be learned first, and ought to take precedence when making judgments.
Jesus illustrated this very well in two stories concerning healing on the Sabbath. One Saturday, Jesus came to the synagogue and noticed a man with a withered hand. The text, speaking of Jesus’ adversaries, says, “they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him” (Mark 3:2). Jesus looked at them with justifiable anger, grieved at their hard hearts (Mark 3:5). On a different Saturday, when Jesus went to dinner at the home of a Pharisee, he was confronted with a man suffering from dropsy. Yet again, Jesus’ adversaries were “watching him carefully” (Luke 14:1).
The questions Jesus asks on these two occasions are profound. Listen carefully:
- “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” (Luke 14:3)
- “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4)
- “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” (Luke 14:5)
Consider these three questions in modern English. “Does God allow us to heal on Saturdays?” “In any given situation on a Saturday, is it God’s will to do good and to be life-giving, or to inflict harm, and destroy?” “Besides this, in actual practice, who wouldn’t rescue their son–or even their pet–if they needed help on a Saturday? You wouldn’t let your ox die of a broken leg on the Sabbath; but you condemn me for healing your fellow man!” The point of these questions is to reveal just how blind we can get when our misguided hearts cause us to place a higher priority on keeping every rule even if it means ignoring the hurting people around us. But in such cases, it means we never really understood the rule! Or, we were guilty of loving rules simply for the rules’ sake. Jesus is challenging us to live with a “common sense” that says some things take priority when two good rules collide (ex: help those hurting and keep the Sabbath). Rules and regulations are good, important, and often necessary. God gives lots of them and intends for us to follow them. But loving God and loving people take priority over loving rules for rules’ sake.
Loving God and loving people take priority over loving rules. tell the worldIn fact, “valuing rules over valuing people” seems to be one of the central problems that resulted from the Pharisee’s way of reading and applying Scripture. When Jesus is confronted with unhealthy teaching that stems from hard-hearted readings of Scripture, he does at times ask the Bible scholars of his own day (perhaps rhetorically) “have you not read” (Matthew 12:5), which is equivalent to “are we reading the same Bible?”
But more often, Jesus is less worried that the religious teachers don’t know what Scripture says; he is concerned that they don’t understand what Scripture means. Because they have failed to use proper lenses. When Jesus chose to reference Micah 6:6-8 and Hosea 6:6 (just some among a number of passages which show God’s priority for loving actions toward God and neighbor), the most provocative move is how he frames the conversation. “Go and learn what this means” says Jesus, as he cites Scripture (Matthew 9:13).”If you had known what this [passage] means”, says Jesus, “you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7). If we reflect on the meaning of Scripture, says Jesus, we’d be able to discern and prioritize Bible teachings.
In all of these passages, we see that God never intended for his Word to be read “flat”, where every teaching is held of equal weight without regard to priority. Some things are primary, some secondary, and it matters a great deal what teachings receive priority. This is the first thing healthy theology calls us to recognize.
Audio (sermon): Kevin Youngblood, The Heart of the Matter
(photo credit: “priority” by Robert S. Donovan via flickr)
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. He lives in Florence, Alabama, where he serves as President of Mars Hill Bible School.