Wisdom has built her house while most of us are still tinkering with Legos. We have a surplus of wise-guys and a shortage of wisdom. We would all do well to remember that it takes biblical wisdom both to guard us and to guide us. Discernment keeps the ship off of the rocks and directs us toward our God-given goals. This being so, we must remember that every facet of the ministry requires a great deal of wisdom. With all of our getting, we must grab a few fistfuls of that invaluable resource. This is certainly true when it comes to preaching.
A high view of Scripture would seem to indicate that everything in the Word of God is of equal importance. This view naturally translates to emphases on certain strange homiletical hobby horses in the pulpit. While honoring the Word in high form, this “high view” denies it in substance. When Jesus tells us that two commandments are the greatest commandments, He is saying by implication that some commandments are of lesser importance (Mk. 12:29).
When Paul comments on how he delivered to the Corinthians that which was of first importance (“first of all”), he intimates by this that some things are not of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3). And, of course, love is greater than faith and hope (I Cor. 13:13). Careful students of Scripture understand this. “At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar” (I Chr. 26:18). Such a passage from the Word of God is not as important as the following: “But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor. 15:13-14). Both are absolutely true and are God-breathed, but both are not equally important.
This is no disparagement of any portion of the Word; the Word contains such things in part to teach us our doctrinal priorities. David ate the shewbread because he was hungry, and God had it recorded because, in part, He wanted to exasperate tidy-minds (1 Sam. 21:6).
Now it would be nice to simply affirm the general principle, and have done with it. Unfortunately, this would be empty teaching—clouds without rain. There was once an old country preacher who used to preach on heaven constantly. When asked why he did so, he replied that he had preached on chicken-stealing once, but it had dampened the enthusiasm. In the same way, in order to keep peace in the church, those things which are truly important must be taught and insisted upon, while those issues of lesser importance must be discussed and named. Unless they are named, and named in particulars, we cannot repent of our foolish disputes.
In order to maintain the peace of Christ’s Church, we must not only know what is true, we must also know the relative importance of each truth. The Deity of Christ is important; head coverings for women are not as important. Justification by faith is very important; whether Pastor Jones ought to be be drinking Michelob is not. Of course, there is a sense in which drinking Michelob can be controversial. In modern evangelical circles, drinking Michelob is controversial because it is drinking beer. In more reformed circles, it is controversial because it is bad beer. But I digress. The doctrine of sola Scriptura is important; whether the church baptizes by immersion alone is of lesser importance. Election is important; wrangles over the color of the choir robes are not. Christians often quarrel, and part ways, over things which ought not separate them. Preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is important; whether it is lawful to keep the refrigerator plugged in on the Lord’s Day isn’t. The ministry of the pulpit must reflect these relative priorities.
The Bible contains a great deal about doctrinal priorities. Some of the most withering criticism leveled by our Lord was directed at religious meatheads who did not know that the altar was more important than the gold placed on it, and honoring parents was more important than contributing to the current pledge drive for the church’s new parking lot. He also had some rough things to say about people who forgot justice and mercy while tithing from every container in their spice rack. The Pharisees used to strain out a gnat while swallowing a camel. In the last two thousand years, the Church has perhaps advanced a little bit. Now we strain out a June bug while swallowing a camel.
In order to avoid this problem, we have to ask two questions about every doctrine we seek to present in the pulpit. The first concerns whether the teaching is true. Having established that something is true, it is crucial to determine the relative importance of that truth. Knowing what is important, and what is not important, is central to the ministry of the Word.
We must consequently know our Bibles, because sometimes doctrinal issues of the greatest moment can hang on apparently trivial matters. Paul faced down Peter at Antioch because the gospel was at stake in Peter’s avoidance of certain dinner companions. Other issues are apparently trivial because they are, well, trivial. When forbidden to destroy our brother in a dispute over vegetables, we sometimes obey and then seek to destroy him over some other food group. “Who are thou that judges another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth” (Rom. 14:4).
“Ah,” we say, “but our doctrinal hobby horse isn’t in view in Romans 14. The Greek indicates…” Whatever the secondary issue we use to harass our brother may be, we must guard our hearts. “But why dost thou judge thy brother? Or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Rom. 14:10). If these squabbles and disputes are going to follow us into the throne room of Christ, then our Greek had better be pretty good.
Of course this is not to say that we must have no convictions on secondary matters. No pastoral problems result from being fully convinced in our own minds. So how are we to determine what is of less importance, and what is only apparently unimportant? These sorts of disputes exist in Scripture, and so we must study these disputes to discover what they had in common and then apply to what we have found, by analogy, our own squabbles.
The Christian faith has a center. When Christians gravitate toward the periphery in order to conduct fights along the fence, it betrays a lack of love at the center, and perhaps reveals a desire to get over the fence entirely. As we seek to live together in the congregation of God’s saints, we must be mindful of what the Lord is seeking to perform in our midst and be jealous for the protection of it. “For meat detroyeth not the work of God” (Rom. 14:20).