Posted by: jmark | April 26, 2007

Is there only ever one right answer?

Tim Challies is asking over here if error in doctrine is always sin. I would say yes, but that doesn’t mean that a person has deliverately chosen to sin. Sin is still sin even if we act in ignorance.

Just yesterday I sent a while responding to a similar question so here’s part of that response:

They wrote:

But I think what we differ on here is the fact that you say there is ONE right answer for EVERY issue in the Bible, and I don’t believe that to be true.

I replied:

Let me clarify what I believe the bible teaches. It all comes down to guidance – in all matters we take our guidance from the bible. In any decision making process the Christian will find that there are 3 types of decision:

  • Right or wrong decisions
  • Wise or foolish decisions
  • ‘Doesnt matter’/personal preference decisions

With regard to each of those situations the bible functions like this

  • Right/wrong decisions – Bible tells us what we are to do and not do
  • Wisdom decisions – Bible provides guidelines for what is wise or foolish.
  • ‘Doesnt matter’/personal preference decisions – Bible doesnt especially speak about them, because they dont matter

Here’s how this fits together

  • Right/wrong decisions – There is only one right answer – a thing is either right or wrong
  • Wisdom decisions – There is a principle which is right, but it may result in different outcomes depending on situations
  • ‘Doesnt matter’/personal preference decisions – There are many right answers.

When we come to look at at issue you need to ask which category does it fit into? Depending on which category it fits into there may be more than one right answer. But not if it is a right /wrong issue. When it comes to wisdom decisions we need to recognise that the principles that guide us are the same for all Christians, but may result in different outcomes. So in a sense there is one right principle, but different outcomes, yet all Christians are bound to keep to the same principles, although some may differ as to which principles to apply.

Also some issues dont just fit into one category – there are aspects of each involved. There may be right/wrong rules to be applied, then wise/foolish principles, finally before you find you have one option left, or maybe you still have several – and you are free to choose which you want. For example – marriage.

  • Right/wrong decisions – You must marry a Christian, of the opposite sex, and not a blood relative.
  • Wisdom principles – Bible teaches that they should be good for you spiritually, and you should be able to submit to them.
  • ‘Doesnt matter’/personal preference decisions – That still leaves quite a few candidates – so pick one you like!

So no-one can tell you that you are wrong for marrying Bill if Bill is a Christian, single and not related. They might feel that you were unwise, or they mighn’t agree with your preference.

When it comes to any issue – marriage, work, worship, baptism, etc – we have to work through each of these categories.

They had said:

Again, from Romans 14, “He who regards one day as special does so to the Lord. He who eats meat does so to the Lord…he who abstains does so to the Lord.” How can all these be right if there is just 1 answer? They do what they believe is right before God. “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” It doesn’t say we all have to be convinced of the same thing, but in our own minds.

When we come to Romans 14 we can look at it under those headings

These people were concerned that meat sacrificed to idols shouldnt be eaten, or that they should keep the Jewish Sabbath as well as the Lord’s day, or the other Jewish feasts.

  • Was it a matter of right/wrong? No, eating meat sacrificed to idols wasnt a sin, neither was not eating the meat. Keeping an extra day as special wasnt a sin, neither was NOT keeping the extra day a sin.
  • Was it a matter of wisdom? For Paul, who knew there was nothing wrong with the meat, it boils down to a matter of wisdom. The great principle at stake is – Since there is no sin involved, will one action or another tend to build up more? These people arent convinced yet that the meat is ok, so Paul will not insist on eating it in their presence, and offending them.
  • Was it a matter of personal preference? Yes – for those who didnt eat meat it was important for them to see that this wasnt a biblical position, nor was it unbiblical – simply they had a problem with the close association with idols and preferred not to eat. And it was important that both sides knew that and didnt judge the other.

The issue to note is that neither course of action was wrong in itself, therefore there was freedom. God had not spoken against it.

This is a Category 2 (Wisdom issue) hence – one principle, different answers. Or in might even be a Category 3 (preference) problem – with the people mistaking it for a matter of biblical truth. Each person is to make up their own mind on the matter, and be consistent with what they have decided.

Also they had asked:

As well, the passage in 1 Corinthians 7; 36-38, where Christians are given options of doing things. One way is “right” but another way is “better”. Not wrong.

This one is a Category 2 problem – the principle is set out in v8-9. “Dont marry, unless you can’t control yourself.” He then applies the principle to different groups.

When you asked me was there only one right answer on issues I was thinking of Category 1 issues. Clearly there are other areas where there are multiple answers which are right, but those areas are clearly defined and outside the boundary of category 1.

There are issues on which Christians can legitimately differ without one being right and the other wrong, but only really when it comes to category three. All Christians should agree on right and wrong, and on principles of wisdom. But personal preferences will differ, or cultural preferences will differ.

You might think it seems harsh to think that another person is wrong, or even arrogant. Just because I believe someone is wrong, doesnt mean that I dont love them or respect them, and it certainly doesnt mean I think I am better than them. It is possible to be right on an issue and still expect to learn from others.

Of course it cuts both ways – they think I am wrong. I dont have a problem with that either.

One thing that is missing from much of today’s Christianity is the ability to have a robust discussion about issues. Either people get angry, which is wrong, or they think that it isnt loving to disagree.

Humility doesnt mean being wimpish and vague in our belief. Humility is being sure of what you believe and yet being willing to learn from anyone. There is an idea that it is wrong to seek to be certain about anything. Christianity must not accommodates itself to this spirit of the age which says it is arrogant to says that there is such a thing as absolute truth.

However since some matters are complex and sincere Christians do differ, we must hold our positions with humble firmness.

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