One of the most frequent causes for unrest in local churches is the question of how we are to conduct ourselves as Christians, particularly when it comes to the operation of the family. Typically, views regarding various elements of conduct clash as one side stresses certain personal convictions as if they were commanded in Scripture. The Bible, of course, provides plenty of information concerning what is and what is not proper behavior for all believers. And in a family, the Scriptures address the unique role of the father, the mother, and the children. Each party finds instructions in the Word that are intended to help us know how to please God in our role, whatever it happens to be.
At the same time, the Bible gives us a lot of freedom to order our lives and our households as we see fit. Maintaining the proper balance between that which is required and that which is a matter of liberty is a challenge we face in every area of life, but this is a particularly significant issue when it comes to the functioning of the family because the family, by its nature, provides multiple aspects for evaluation and, far too often, criticism.
Most of us have encountered situations in which the convictions of one family are not the convictions of another. In regard to what God commands, all Christian families should display the same response—one of obedience. But in regard to those things or questions concerning which the Bible is silent, we should expect to see a great deal of diversity even within a single congregation. This is precisely where the conflict that has unsettled so many churches begins and I am convinced that at the heart of this discord is the question of how we understand the gospel. It is the gospel, after all, that we are living out, so to speak, both as individuals and as households.
When a congregation seems divided over the desire of some to extract conformity from others, in matters where God has not spoken specifically, I believe you will find, in essence, two gospels in competition with one another. I know there is only one true gospel, so what I’m actually referring to is two different interpretations of the gospel regarding that which constitutes proper conduct before a watching world.
In the paragraphs that follow, I have provided a contrast between the two interpretations or applications of the gospel just mentioned. In summary form, as we are about to see, one gospel is characterized by freedom and deliverance. From this perspective, the gospel provides all we need, so nothing is added or altered. Another gospel is characterized by spiritual bondage in which we must combine our efforts with the work of the Savior.
Before continuing, let me emphasize that when I speak of an interpretation of the gospel that stresses freedom, I am not suggesting that we have no obligations to conform to the commands of God. Obedience is mandatory whenever God speaks. What I am saying is that my good works have nothing to do with my acceptance before God. Christ has taken care of that in my place. My good works, therefore, are the fruit of the gospel being manifested in my life. This fruit comes after my regeneration and is proof that I have, indeed, been born again.
Now I will continue with brief statements comparing and contrasting the application of the Biblical gospel that emphasizes freedom from condemnation and the application of the gospel that emphasizes conformity to a pattern. The former gospel requires nothing more to establish its authenticity. The latter gospel requires works to establish its authenticity. In one gospel you are acceptable before God because of the substitutionary work of Christ and the imputation of His obedience to you. In this case, we receive the gift of salvation. In the other gospel, you must become acceptable before God; that is, you must meet some standard in order to prove that you are born again. The problem is that this standard is not part of what God has commanded, but is typically composed of someone’s strong convictions. Strong convictions, however, do not carry the weight of God’s own Word.
The Biblical gospel brings confidence and peace—confidence that Christ’s work is complete and peace with God whose demand for the payment of our transgressions and the perfection of our souls has been satisfied. The other gospel, however, leaves us with doubt and anxiety—doubt about where exactly we stand with God and a life of anxiety because we never know if our efforts have been enough. The Biblical gospel eliminates burdens. The other gospel, the one that represents a misinterpretation and misapplication of the Savior’s labors, creates burdens. Instead of having no worries whatsoever regarding our standing before God, this latter interpretation leaves us with a life-time of uncertainty and the ever-present awareness that peace with God is still just out of reach. Both gospels produce hope. The Biblical gospel creates a sure hope in our hearts of future bliss based on the promise of God to accept the work of His Son as full payment for our debt. The other gospel creates hope of a different kind; this is the hope that my life is such that God is pleased with me and my efforts.
When rightly understood, the gospel teaches us that we answer to God alone as we live out our days on this earth. But when wrongly understood, the false gospel leaves us answerable to men. These men are the ones who create the standard to which they demand conformity before they consider our lives rightly ordered. And this brings me to one of the most essential aspects of this other gospel. Since those who erect standards that are to function in addition to what God’s Word requires and forbids cannot see the heart, their system necessarily depends on that which they can evaluate, which is the external.
In the Biblical gospel, the reality of our regeneration is shown by living displays of spiritual fruit. In the other gospel, regeneration is said to be evidenced by increasing displays of conformity to the standard of externals. Here I would add that the Biblical gospel focuses on the obedience of Christ, which provides the sinner with an imputed righteousness. The errant gospel, once again by necessity due to the nature of the system, places emphasis on the sinner and his efforts to conform to the standard of externals.
Finally, I offer one last contrast. The gospel of the Bible, when rightly understood and applied, is the beginning and end of man’s need to be reconciled to God. The other gospel, the one corrupted by the addition of elements requiring the sinner’s obedience, represents the beginning only, a beginning that can never end with redemption but one that sets the sinner on a path of apprehension and insecurity.
Obviously, there is a crucial question to be answered: What are these externals? As I am using this word, externals, I am thinking of those aspects of our lives that can be seen, measured, evaluated, and judged. As I noted above, this is the manner in which those who wish to add rules and regulations to the manifestation the gospel in our lives must function because they do not have access to the heart. In my experience, the externals are similar wherever they exist, which is whenever some take the freedom we have in Christ and turn it into compulsion.
Typically, a concern for externals focuses on dress, entertainment choices, recreational activities, use of financial resources, and even decisions regarding the education of children. Someone who judges based upon externals might, for example, find fault with the way your teenage daughter dresses. Assuming, of course, that the Biblical principle of modesty is not being violated, this issue should be left to the parents and really is not an invitation for others to seek to impose their sense of style on your family. Choices in entertainment are also frequently found at the heart of congregational disputes of the kind I have been describing. In this area, some will have determined that a particular style of music is unchristian. With this notion in mind, it can reach the point where even certain instruments used to create music are condemned.
Rather than analyze the product in regard to its edification value, such people simply rule out entire classes of creativity. If they would stop with the application of their conviction to their own family, there would be no problem. But that is not what happens. What happens is that this kind of opinion becomes mandatory for all and if you disagree, you are looked upon as less mature, less sanctified, and less serious than those who hold to this view.
I have mentioned entertainment choices in the area of music only, but the same kind of thinking can be found in other entertainment preferences. Movies, books, and “free time” activities all are subject to the inspection of those who give great weight to the externals. The challenge facing local churches is differentiating between gospel essentials and personal choice non-essentials. What characteristics should be seen in every Christian family and what characteristics are matters of individual conviction and not subject, therefore, to the judgment of others? Answering this question may require a lot of attention from church leaders, but leaving the question unanswered while opinions clash in the congregation will certainly be much costlier in the long run.