Last fall, the boys and I were scouting our favorite 13 acres on the planet. We were looking for a strategic place to set up our tree stand. It was bow hunting season, early fall in northwest Wisconsin. The glowing beams of sunlight characteristic of fall's low-hanging sun became an apt representation of the day's perfection. Until ...
Their panic was palpable and accompanied by real pain. One of them had inadvertently stepped on a hornet's nest in a decaying log. Within seconds, both boys were covered in hornets – angry hornets. The hornet's safety had been disturbed and there was hell to pay. This is the way of hornets. And, deep down, we understand them.
The apostle Paul seemed bent on finding those huddled places of safety and graciously giving them a swift kick. His letters are filled with incisive sentences that penetrate to the root of the “dearly held things” that made people feel safe apart from God.
For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? (1 Corinthians 3:3–4)
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? (1 Corinthians 5:1–2)
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. (1 Corinthians 8:1)
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6)
But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:14)
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. (Galatians 5:2)
The Corinthian and Galatian churches were tempted with different things. The Corinthians used grace as a license for selfish pleasure seeking. They proudly relied on their own knowledge. Personal value was determined not by the cross but by associations and favored gifting. Gatherings were nothing more than a disordered popularity contest. These were expressions of the Corinthians’ pursuit of safety.
The Galatians were tempted to find safety in their religious performance. Christ's death and resurrection were insufficient to establish their acceptability before God and each other. Another “gospel” with additional requirements was seeping into their community.
Kicking to Keep First Things First
As both churches settled into their nests, Paul started kicking and, it seems, the hornets became a little angry (2 Corinthians 7:8-9). Why was Paul so bent this way? Why would he import that trouble?
He answers that in 1 Corinthians 15.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:1–4)
Many view these verses as the first creed in Christian history. They represented the foundational elements of the Christian faith – those things that must be shared by all who claim to be Christ's disciples. But they also represent that which should be the primary focus of every Christian community. All of life and practice flow downstream from these matters of first importance. They are our source of eternal safety. Nothing is to be added or subtracted to provide additional safety. Christians rest here and here alone.
So our obedience is not an attempt at more safety; it is an expression of love for the one who finally established our safety. (Parenting, for instance, is not first about the behavior, education or “outcome” that validates us as parents: It is about our working for the Lord, as Colossians 3:23-24 says.) And every pleasure is a temporary rest and good only as it represents God’s eternal kindness (James 1:17). Understanding these things allows us to enter rest and to live generous lives of loving our neighbor as ourselves.
If other matters usurp those of “first importance,” competition, envy, strife, self-righteousness, malice, greed, lust and all forms of evil begin to creep into a church. They destroy the joy of the people and the display of God's sufficiency. Paul loved the people in Corinth and Galatia; he adored God; and he believed Jesus’ gospel to be glorious and absolutely sufficient for our final rest. So he kicked the hornets nest and held out Christ. He got stung but he did preserve life. Welts are the characteristic marks of a leader chosen by God. Welts … and life.
Now that doesn't mean that things beyond the cross and resurrection are inconsequential; they have their place. They just need to know their place. So how do we interact with those issues? I would suggest the following approach:
The Second Tier
Second tier matters are addressed specifically in the Scriptures. Expressions of our sexuality, roles/responsibilities in a family or church, responsibility to proclaim the gospel, use of our words, forgiveness, temptations of lust, greed and anger – these issues and many more are directed in the Bible. The directions are an expression of God's holiness, which, in the cross, we do not reject but accept. But they are not given as a roadmap to self-righteousness. Our approach to these directives must be cross-shaped. We strive for obedience and submission to the Scriptures here – not to be acceptable – because, in the cross, we have been made acceptable. The core of our appeal to obedience is to be the same as Paul's:
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (Romans 6:6)
Unity in these matters is essential because they are plain in the Bible. But performance in these matters must not establish a person's value.
The Third Tier
Third tier debates have no explicit direction in the Bible. When you ask, “Where is it written?” of these things, you have no chapter and no verse. Yet they may represent wise application of second tier commands. How are we to handle disagreements over personal choices regarding education, career, finances and even food? Or what about disagreements in the broader issues such as gun control, taxation, the environment, nationalism or national defense?
Thankfully, Paul gives clear direction in Romans 14. Christian unity does not depend on unity in the third tier. In these issues each person must stand before God. Certainly there is room for debate, but those debates should be full of freedom and trust in God's guidance through the Holy Spirit and a clear conscience.
Kenny Rogers may have said, "You've got to know when to kick 'em..." Or something like that.
In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas. (In necessary things unity; in uncertain things freedom; in everything compassion.) – Marco Antonio de Dominis (1560–1624)
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5–6)
Keeping first things first is the key. Happy (gracious) kicking.