Principles vs. Methods

No two churches are alike. If you have been a Christian for any length of time, especially one that has attended more than one church, this reality is self evident. Isn’t it interesting that all (true) churches acknowledge the same God and the same Bible but can differ so greatly from one another? Often the differences lead churches to attack one another. Their variations can be seen as compromise or worldliness. Change often is not taken well. Some Christians bounce around looking for just the right church, assessing each one on all kinds of criteria that is important to that individual.

All of this can get confusing. Why the differences? Is one church more right than another? Things become messy when differences breed feuds between opposite-minded people. Yet it has been my observation that a lot of the ugliness that exists from church differences is unnecessary. Often times the root of the dilemma comes from honest misunderstandings. Don’t get me wrong – I believe that some churches compromise the truth and attempt to cater to the desires of people instead of the desires of God. Scripture speaks of this on a number of occasions. But what gets labeled as “compromise” is sometimes better labeled simply as “different”.

To be a healthy Christian, one must understand the difference between principles and methods. A principle is something the Bible sets forth as important. It is a command from God. On the other hand, methods are ways to carry out that command. A single principle might have dozens of methods that are all Scripturally valid. The problem arises when someone confuses a method with a principle. Let me give an example.

The Bible says in 1 Timothy 4:2 to “preach the word”. This is a principle given by Scripture. It is a command from God, therefore Christian churches must take action by fulfilling this command. However, what this verse does not say is how to preach the word. How long should a sermon be? What comprises a good sermon? Should preaching be topical or from a passage of Scripture? Are object lessons valid? Or how about video illustrations? Some churches even use video sermons, where a preacher’s sermon is recorded and replayed on the projector or even piped-in by a live feed. Is that valid? What is acceptable attire for the preacher? All of these questions rest in the realm of methods. In other words, they seek to answer, how should the principle be fulfilled?

The truth is that the Bible affords a lot of variety when it comes to methods. In cases where the Bible allows variety, it is up to individual churches to act based on their Biblical convictions. However, as long as a church is trying hard to stay true to the principle, they are free to seek out methods that seem successful. That is not compromise; rather, it is using Christian freedom for the forward progress of the gospel. So it is wrong for one church to judge another for doing things differently, unless that church is failing to treat the Biblical principle as a command from God. We must remember that the way we do something (our method) is one valid option among many, as long as we stay within Scriptural bounds. But if we elevate our method to the level of a principle, we have committed sin, holding churches to a standard that even the Bible does not.

A number of Biblical principles create controversy. Or should I say, Christians create controversy over a few common principles. In addition to preaching, church music is another hotly debated principle. The principle from Psalm 98:4 to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” can be done a number of ways. Song selection, musical styles, instrumentation, lighting, volume levels, and worship responses from the congregation can vary greatly without forsaking the Biblical principle. Same goes for evangelism, prayer, raising children, selecting church leaders, meeting locations and a whole host of other principles from Scripture.

The next time you find yourself disagreeing with the way another church does things, start by asking yourself, is your disagreement over a method or a principle? Be gracious with differences between methods. A lot of unnecessary angst can be removed if we afford other believers the same freedom in Christ that God does. Let’s all commit to being faithful to God’s Word in our own unique ways, seeking to fulfill every Biblical principle using the best methods that fit our own individual contexts.

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