Thursday, 3 January 2008

Hierarchy of beliefs

What's your hierarchy of beliefs?

In politics, what determines your party or politician support? Welfare for the born, or the pre-born? Standard provision of education for all or freedom from imposing the dominant worldview? What issue topples it for you? It used to be abortion - now it's largely forgotten. But perhaps the affirmation of homosexual practice. Why not education? Comprehensive or selective? What does your theology say? Parental care or provision of childcare? Did you know that nursery school (vouchers available for 3 year olds) celebrates every religious festival equally? Welfare state - care for the homeless, the orphan and the widow. Or should the family care for them without state interference? Integration in Europe - or the world generally - the ethics of trade with dictatorships - the unity (or devolving of power within) the UK - fair trade, free trade - greenhouse gases - air travel tax - divorce - fishing subsidies: what's your theology? What's your hierarchy? Why does one issue grab your vote and not another? Do you let the culture decide? The papers? The government? The opposition? Your own wallet? Your vote indicates that you have a hierarchy of beliefs and values. Does that hierarchy reflect God's truth?

And our Christian beliefs. We have a bundle of beliefs. Some are collected from our church culture. Some from our studies. As we grow and interact, they might shuffle around in priority. Some we'd live and die for. Some we treasure, celebrate and live by, but still manage to fellowship with others who don't. But does our hierarchy reflect the emphasis of God's revealed truth?

I know many students who struggle with this in 2 extreme ways.

The first group know they struggle with it. They have a certain bunch of true and precious beliefs and practices and are shocked to find other professing Christians thinking and behaving differently. How do they cope? They won't cope - that is, they won't fulfil their calling to build up other Christians in Christ and together hold out the word of truth if they don't develop a gospel-shaped hierarchy of beliefs. All they believe is true, of course. All is important: because it's to live to please God. But which will they live & die for? Which will run in their veins because it is their very life? Which will spill from their lips unceasing so that others may find life? Unless they work that out, they will impoverish other Christians by non-gospel separation, defame the gospel of reconciliation, and distract others from seeing how they love one another.

The second bunch don't know they struggle with this. They don't feel a problem with other Christians - we all love Jesus, don't we? But a Muslim might say they love Jesus. They just don't believe he is one with the Father, died and rose again for our sin and justification. A Mormon will say they love Jesus. They just believe that he didn't always exist one with the Father: he became a god, just as did the Father, and just as we can, to rule over other world in celestial marriage. Unitarians say they love Jesus. They just don't think that he or the Holy Spirit are divine; we should only worship the Father. Liberals say they love Jesus. It's not very sure whether we need to say he existed historically - if so he was a revered teacher anyway, but an admirable way of life and thought anyway. You do have a hierarchy of beliefs. It's not enough to claim to love Jesus. But what will it be? Will you try to make it up as you go along, or will you think it through? At every stage of history, there are people claiming to be Christian, claiming to be orthodox, claiming to be Biblical, to love God. And at every stage of history, the church has had to turn to the Scripture and together form some statement reflecting a hierarchy of beliefs - we disagree over many things, and we haven't even realised that some things are issues yet (save that for a future generation), but we do agree that these things are vitally important: We believe...

It's in this climate that some students have recently got the idea that I care very strongly about a certain view of baptism. I don't. To my mind, within my hierarchy of beliefs, I care surprisingly little about a certain view of baptism. But I do care strongly that students should care about baptism somewhat. They should study it. They should hold a view on it and know why they hold that view. They should know what the other views are, and be able to represent them from Scripture before they press home why they disagree. Because this is important: it is God's truth and the life of his people. I also care about church polity. I'm concerned that the death of the denomination in Britain is not all the wonderfully gospel-unity thing it might be, but a complete apathy about God's revealed truth: seeing much of it as completely unimportant (why on earth Paul was so bothered with how the church should behave in such things that he wrote a whole letter to Timothy on it when he was stuck in prison, who knows?).

The reason why I work for an evangelical organisation such as UCCF, spending all my energy in the glorious gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, is not because I think these other things unimportant, but precisely because I think them important. But they are in my hierarchy of beliefs below more crucial things. Paul indicates as much to the Corinthian believers in the well-known 1 Cor 15 passage. He has dealt with baptism, spiritual gifts, favourite teachers, sexual practice, relationships, food offered to idols, government, head coverings, the Lord's supper,... he would not have them divide on any of these things: but they are to be taught and corrected in them, because they are important. Yet when it comes to some things, he is worried that they may have believed in vain if they abandon them:

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, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

Put another way, I am closest to being Presbyterian by confession. But I am not evangelical and then presbyterian: I am evangelical because I am by conviction presbyterian. And it is because I am presbyterian that I'm currently a member of an independent, baptistic local church with reformed teaching, not despite it. It is because I believe strongly in Church that I work with Christian Unions on university and college campuses. And it is because the Lord Jesus Christ, God incarnate and perfect man for ever, died, risen, ascended, reigning and coming again, is all in all at the top of my hierarchy of beliefs, that I will sound to some as if I care a curious amount about baptism.

For the sake of the Church and those who need us together to hold out the (what?) word of life, work out what your hierarchy of beliefs is. Oh, and then use it to love Jesus and show others why you love him - with the crucified and resurrected God incarnate at the top of a hierarchy, there's no place for pride.

For further thought from wiser people:
Carl Trueman writes Confessions of a Bog-standard Evangelical, and
Mike Reeves on expressions of holding some truths the dearest - creeds, confessions, and particularly, why UCCF have a doctrinal basis.

1 comment:

Caleb Woodbridge said...

Good thoughts and questions. Getting the balance between the fact that truth matters and so we should have definite convictions, and at the same time getting the level of importance we attach to different beliefs right, is a tricky matter.

One of your comments intrigued me, though:
"But I am not evangelical and then presbyterian: I am evangelical because I am by conviction presbyterian."

I'd be inclined to say that I am evangelical first, because my denominational convictions derive from what I believe the Bible says. I'm firstly an evangelical, because I begin with the authority of the Bible. But I don't think you're suggesting that you derive your beliefs from your denomination over the Bible! I'm not sure exactly what point you're trying to make though - what do you have in mind when you say this?