Continued from this morning.
... Again, the specifics of Hebrews’ situation may be far removed from our current world. When we get to the central point of Hebrews, we will talk about the urge to substitute other means of atonement for the only means that actually works, Christ. But a good take-away from Hebrews 13:9 is for us to be able to live with ambiguity. So many of us have a compulsion to fill in the gaps. We cannot live with unanswered questions.
But we simply don’t have enough information to answer many, many questions not only about the Bible but about Christian faith in general. One thing that has impressed me about the Roman Catholic Catechism is not so much that it is way off base but that the Catholic church has been around so long that it has positions on almost everything. How can Mary give birth to someone without sin if she wasn’t without sin as well? Wouldn’t she have had to be born without sin too?
These are questions that those of us in younger denominations probably don’t think much about. How many churches have split over the answers to ridiculously unimportant questions? Is it prideful to have a horse drawn buggy with color? Should we use newly invented instruments in church if they weren’t mentioned in the Bible? Does God remove the nature inside us that causes us to sin or does he only suppress it once we are filled with the Holy Spirit?
Hebrews reminds us not to get “carried away” with these sorts of obscure issues. This was exactly what the Pharisees of the Gospels did. They majored on the minor and minored on the major. Their priorities were out of whack.
But what is the major? The major, in terms of our behavior, is the love of God and the love of others. The major, in terms of our beliefs, are the key Christian beliefs about God and Christ boiled down in the creeds. The creeds have distilled for us the most important truths of Scripture, because the Scriptures themselves are full of many details that applied to specific times and places that are themselves the source of much disagreement among Christians. Ironically, the content of Bible itself is perhaps the greatest point of disagreement among believers today!
There is a great saying from the 1600s that says, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things, charity.” While most everyone would agree that this saying is true, human nature inevitably then goes on to debate what is essential and what is non-essential! Some people have a very big list of things that they consider essential without question. Their lists are probably too big. Still others have a list that is probably too small.
I have personally resolved in the end to trust in God’s knowledge. When someone who believes in Christ feels very strongly that something is essential, I resolve to consider that issue seriously. This is especially the case when they seem to have significant passages in Scripture or the weight of Christian history on their side. Any believer who feels strongly about an issue deserves my respect and my consideration of their understanding—and the more of them there are, the more seriously I take it.
But there are other principles in play as well. One is that, ultimately, I am responsible for my faith with God. As Paul says of disputable matters in Romans 14:22: “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” This verse both indicates that we stand before God as a matter of our own conscience and that you can be wrong about what you think is okay.
Then there is the community of faith to which we belong. God made us to live in communities, and the person who removes him or herself from a community of faith is not likely to have a vibrant faith for very long. When we join a community of faith, as when we are a part of any community or society, to some extent we surrender some of our right to do things our way. Being part of a community means in part that we make the specific beliefs and practices of that community part of our identity. Certainly in the United States, there are so many communities of faith to join that we hardly have an excuse to join a community that violates our “essentials.” The person who can't find a church that suits them probably needs to begin asking whether something might be wrong with them!
But, again, what is a disputable matter? It is ironic that we debate whether it is essential to believe certain things are essential! I have personally decided that, because there are debates over what is clear in the Bible and because I am a Protestant who doesn’t put absolute stock in church history, I am just going to agree to disagree on some issues that seem to be essential to me but that are disputed by others, especially others who seem genuine in their disagreement with me. As with all issues, it is ultimately God who decides what is essential and what isn’t, not me. “Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves.”