Monday, April 28, 2008

"It's a gospel issue"

I was reading this article in Christianity Today about Jim Wallis, who is a leader among a Christians with a progressive political perspective, and I was struck by the fact that Ted Olsen (who interviewed Wallis) asserted that, for some, the issue of blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples is, in Olsen's words, "a gospel issue."

It's not.

Make no mistake: it IS an important issue. And it certainly is an issue of biblical authority. But it is NOT a
gospel issue.

There's a key difference between an issue that is a matter of biblical authority and a "gospel" issue. A Gospel issue is one that actually threatens the truth of the Gospel-- such as a challenge to the incarnation of Christ, an assertion that the resurrection didn't happen, a claim that Jesus didn't live a sinless life, etc. Something that questions the underlying concepts of salvation is a Gospel issue. Thus, when folks in the PCA express their concern about the Federal Vision's position on Justification, for example, they are demonstrating concern about a Gospel issue.

There are a number of issues of biblical authority that aren't Gospel issues. Questions of infant baptism vs. believer's baptism, or of the function of the sacraments, are issues of biblical authority.
These are very important issues. But they aren't matters of Gospel integrity, in the same sense that Jesus being God in the flesh is a matter of Gospel integrity.

Take note of this: it is possible for someone to be in error on an issue of biblical authority and still be a Christian, and it's possible for them to remain in their error and not be considered a heretic. This is because there are differing degrees of error in terms of understanding matters of biblical truth and authority:

Working through this concept, then, Here's how these break down:
  • Truth: these are the real "gospel issues" that are universally agreed-upon as aspects of salvation, as well as a few other core beliefs (which include biblical inerrancy and authority, by the way). You might think of these as that which is required for membership in the church.
  • Mistaken opinions: Minor matters of conscience typically fall here-- someone who is of the opinion that liberty in Christ allows them to drink as much alcohol as they want on occasion, for example, holds a mistaken opinion about biblical truth. In terms of agreement or disagreement, you might think of these matters to be often matters of "semantic" differences-- where often our language and the way we say things suggests differences that suggest differences that aren't really there.
  • Errors: These are problematic, but not necessarily matters to divide over. Issues like "paedocommunion"-- where a child is offered the sacrament of communion on the basis of baptism, not on the basis of a profession of faith-- have been judged to be in this category. As such a matter was recently described by our presbytery, these might be judged as more than semantic, but not out of accord with the fundamentals of our system of doctrine.
  • Systemic errors: When we get to this stage, there are concerns that may lead to division, without requiring that we dismiss those who differ as "unbelievers." For example, in the PCA we hold that the Assemblies of God theologians have instituted systemic error in the way they view the gift of tongues. I would also argue that matters such as the one discussed with Wallis, regarding the blessing of same-sex unions by the church, falls into this category. Presbytery would label these as beliefs which "strike at the vitals of our system of doctrine."
  • Heresy: These are matters that violate the essence of the Gospel-- in other words, they are true "gospel issues" in the same way that the category of "Truth" above is, only in an opposing sense. When the remonstrants challenged the idea of the total depravity of man-- arguing that man in not inherently sinful, that he can, in fact, act in true and pure righteousness-- they were guilty of heresy. (Incidentally, they were judged as such by the courts of the church, and the response to their various points of doctrine was what we call the "five points of Calvinism.")
(Credit to David Jones and Michael Williams for this concept.)

I think it is not just useful, but essential for Christians to gain a better understanding of this. We all disagree on something-- and if you view disagreement as strictly a black-and-white, right or wrong, truth or heresy matter, then you are asserting that someone who is or may be a true brother or sister in Christ has given up the gospel.

Worse, you are asserting that your perspective is completely right and biblical-- which is never the case.

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