Study of Important Biblical Distinctions - 16 - FUNDAMENTALS AND NONESSENTIALS

A Study of Important Biblical Distinctions
By William MacDonald


It is tremendously important to distinguish between passages that deal with matters of fundamental importance and those that are concerned with nonessentials.  When we are dealing with basic Bible doctrines or principles a certain set of principles applies.  On the other hand, when we are dealing with matters of moral indifference, an entirely different set of rules is applicable.  If we confuse the two, the results can only be catastrophic.
    Let us illustrate what we have just said.  If the passage under study deals with the deity of Christ, or His sinless humanity, or His substitutionary sacrifice, or His bodily resurrection, there is no room for difference of opinion.  These are nonnegotiable truths of the Christian faith, and no compromise is possible.
    Or think of some of the unchanging moral laws of God.  It is always wrong to commit adultery.  It is always sinful to lie and to steal.  Idolatry in any and every form is forbidden by the Scriptures.  In these and many similar areas, there can be no excusing, no palliating, no ameliorating, no softening.  We must stand unequivocally with God against these evils.
    But there are other matters in the Christian life that we speak of as matters of moral indifference because they are not right or wrong in themselves.  The principal examples given in the New Testament are:

    Eating food that has been offered to idols.
    The observance of days.
    Eating meat (in contrast to vegetables only).
    Drinking wine.
    Eating foods that were unclean under the Law of Moses.
    Methods of Christian service.

    When we come to passages dealing with these questions, we find room for a difference of opinion.  Provision is made for a certain degree of latitude.
    With regard to foods that have been offered to idols, the principal passages are 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and 1 Corinthians 10:14-30.  The gist of the teaching there is that it is all fight to eat such foods as long as the Christian does not participate in the feast where the food is offered to idols, as long as his conscience is clear in the matter, and as long as he does not stumble some other person.  But when Paul says, "All things are lawful," we must understand that he is not speaking about all things without exception.  He is referring only to the subject at hand-matters of moral indifference.  If you don't see this, you might adopt the gross interpretation that Paul would condone immorality!
    Chapter 14 of Romans deals with the subjects of observance of days, eating meat (in contrast to vegetables only), and drinking wine.  Among the other guidelines which Paul lays down is this one: "Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind." Now if you take this out of its context and apply it to such doctrines as the inspiration of the Bible or salvation by grace through faith, you are in serious trouble.  It is imperative to see that the principles laid down in Romans 14 deal only with matters that are not black or white in themselves.  Another statement in Romans 14 that must be understood in this same way is verse 14: "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself . . . " (RSV).  Paul knew as well as we that certain things are unclean, but here he is only speaking of foods like pork, shrimp, or rabbit that were unclean under the Old Testament regime.
    In Titus 1, Paul devotes considerable attention to those false teachers who were trying to put the Christian believers under the Law of Moses.  In verse 15 the Apostle says:

    To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted (RSV).

    Now it should be clear that when Paul says, "To the pure all things are pure," he is not stating a universal truth, but is referring only to such matters as meats that had been condemned as unclean by the Law of Moses.  To the Christian in this age of grace, all foods which God has provided for human consumption are pure.  The labels "Kosher" and "Non-Kosher" no longer apply.
    In the matter of Christian service there is allowance for a certain amount of accommodation to the culture and customs of the people.  Thus in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 Paul tells how he identified with his audiences (without, of course, sacrificing any basic truth or compromising his loyalty to Christ).

    For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.  To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law-though not being myself under the law-that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law-not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ-that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.  I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (RSV).

    But when Paul says, "I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some," there is no suggestion that he ever compromised the truth of the gospel or participated in any sinful activity.  Where it was possible to make a concession without sacrificing truth (as in the circumcision of Timothy, Acts 16:3), he made the concession in order to get a greater hearing for his message.  But where the truth of salvation by grace apart from law-keeping was at stake (as in the controversy over circumcising Titus, Galatians 2:1-5), Paul never budged an inch.
    The student of the Bible should learn to detect those passages that deal with non-vital matters and should realize that the principles found there must not be applied to basic truths or unchanging laws.  This will save him from coming up with applications of the Word that are grotesque and ludicrous.