Principles and Methods

The Bible tells us to strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). The many aspects of this require much thought, study and work. One particularly important area is the important distinction between principles and methods.

Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge anothers servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand (Rom. 14:1-4).

Note here that we are to receive those whom God has received. All squabbles over doubtful things simply show that we think that God’s standards for fellowship are too low, and that we have a better grasp of what constitutes personal holiness than He does. And the “doubtful things” are not determined by some supposed ambiguity in Scripture. Many doubtful things have a clear resolution in Scripture — which is not the same thing as a clear resolution in the heads of the saints. Courtesy and love are not relativism. In this case, the weaker brother ate only vegetables. Knowing who is in the right does not change this principle. In these judgments of charity, the traffic goes both ways. The one who eats may not despise (hold in contempt), and the one who refrains may not judge (condemn). And last, if you are right about your brother, God is able to correct the problem. If you are wrong, as you quite possibly are, He is able to correct your problem.

We often get into these tangles because we forget to focus on what is central (the principle), and focus instead on how we have decided to implement that principle. When that happens, we find ourselves in a controversy, and everything around us is muddled. One of the muddles is a simplistic rejection of “methods.” But methods are not bad; they are necessary. And “my” methods are not in view here. This is not a battle of methods. The problem is caused by confusing a method with a principle, and is not caused by using a method.

And remember, when you are in a controversy, if you guess at the motives of others, you should assume that you are almost certainly wrong. It may help you to remember that God requires you to be a steward of all He gives. This includes how you avoid controversy, and how you conduct yourself in it. And just as it is wrong to sinfully give offence, so it is wrong to sinfully take offence.

The reason people have trouble with all this has nothing to do with chance (Matt. 23:16-24). The teaching of Scripture is plain, and the problems which come from ignoring this important distinction are the result of sin. This spiritual problem is perpetuated by a certain kind of individual — the kind our Lord calls fools and blind.

Contemporary examples are almost endless. The principle is that Christian parents must provide their children with a biblical education. The methods vary — homeschooling, Christian private school, co-ops, Internet tutorials, etc. The principle is that Christian mothers must feed their children. Methods vary — schedule feeding or not, bottle feeding or not, etc. The principle is that we are to be good stewards of our bodies. The methods vary — workout or not, jog or not, eat salted grease or not, etc. The principle is that children are a blessing from the Lord. The methods vary — birth control, no birth control, etc. The principle is that modesty is a virtue for Christian women. The methods vary — makeup, no makeup, jewelry, minimal jewelry, no jewelry with feathers, etc. Whenever we are tempted to strain out a gnat and swallow a camel, we must remember that what was obvious to Christ was not obvious to the Pharisees. Our temptation is to reason from right to left in an improper fashion. If they were really committed to this principle, then they would . . .

Are you fully convinced on whatever the issues are? That, in itself (assuming you are right), is good (v. 5). But if there is any occasion for troubling others for whom Christ died, then you should keep your supremely correct convictions to yourself. At the same time, know your own heart — there are many ways to steer a conversation into troubled waters without overt comments. “I don’t know why she got so defensive. All I did was . . .” We must pray for a love of peace, and strive for humility of mind. And we should remember that one of the clearest indicators that someone really is correct on an issue like this is that he has the ability to keep it to himself. The more imperialistic a brother is, insistent that being correct is very important, the more likely it is that he cannot hold it in. And the more likely it is that he is factually wrong on top of all his evangelistic fervor. It is far easier to trouble the saints with errors than with the truth.

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