The Wide Chasm Between Biblical Principles and Biblical Ideals
We were both Calvinists. We were both convinced of believer’s baptism. We both agreed church membership was biblical. We even agreed that congregationalism was biblical. We both appreciated 9Marks.
But in practice, we actually didn’t agree. He thought I was too picky and idealistic. I thought he was too pragmatic. While on paper, it looked like we agreed—in practice, we didn’t agree on how our shared ideas should play themselves out in the actual decisions of a church’s life.
So, what was getting lost in translation?
In my experience, people mean at least two different things when they say something is “biblical.” It can either mean, “It’s what God has set down for us to do and so we must do it” or it can mean “it fits with the more important things God has commanded, and is a good example, so we are free to do it—and probably even should.”
In practice, this translates into the way we talk about biblical polity. It can either be necessary for faithfulness, or something nice to have that helps us to be faithful.
What is a Principle? What is an Ideal?
In other words, the diverging practical implications of our ecclesiology exists because of the difference between seeing the biblical teaching about polity as providing either binding principles or aspirational ideals for God’s people. Both principles and ideals are given to us in Scripture, and we must be able to tell the difference between the two.
A principle helps you know how to live. An ideal tells you where you would like to go. A principle guides your actions, regardless of the situation. An ideal usually guides your actions, but only insofar as it pertains to the end you want to accomplish.
A principle is rigid in the sense that it doesn’t change according to external circumstances. But it’s also flexible, providing guidance that can be applied in all circumstances and contexts. A properly biblical principle is one that the Bible fixes for us, so it never inherently conflicts with the demands of reality, even if our application of that principle may.
An ideal feels flexible because ideals inherently acknowledge the distance between how things are and how they ought to be. But they can feel restrictive if having accomplished the ideal becomes your measure for success.
Ministry is full of both principles and ideals. If we confuse the two, then we’ll either require something that God does not require for faithfulness, or we’ll disregard an aspect of faithfulness.
Why It Matters—The Church as One Gathering
Let’s use what’s often presented as the test-case of ecclesiological seriousness these days: the “single-service model.” On the one hand, those who agree with this might mean that having one service is the ideal for a church community. It’s the best situation for a church’s life, but external circumstances may alter whether a particular church can actually live that way or not. On the other hand, agreement about this might mean they understand the biblical definition of “church” essentially entails one assembly or one gathering. In that brother’s mind (i.e. mine), the “single-service model” isn’t an approach as much as it’s a recognition of the biblical reality about what a church just is.
You can see how this changes the way they might answer the question about whether a church should move to two services. If it’s an ideal, then two services is a viable (though perhaps regrettable) option, depending on the circumstances. If it’s a principle, then even in a situation where two congregations think of themselves as one church, the principled definition of what a church is must guide and instruct even the way you as a pastor treat and lead those two churches.
Why it Matters—Ethnic Diversity in Leadership
Let’s speak to another aspect of church life in which more Christians are invested: ethnic diversity in church leadership. Here, the distinction between ideal and principle is finer, but equally as crucial to life and unity in the church.
A church must be open and proactive in seeking unity in Christ—unity that should transcend ethnic lines. The biblical principle is that if even Jews and Gentiles are fellow heirs and members of the same body (Eph. 3:6), then the lesser ethnic divisions among us Gentiles shouldn’t define the body of Christ. That’s a biblical principle, and I’d argue that faithfulness to that principle must include more than mere openness to those not like you joining your church. It must include proactivity to remove hurdles and overcome the natural barriers that exist because of our history and own sinful hearts.
And yet, we are in danger of elevating the traditions of men to the level of God’s commands if we say a church must have ethnic diversity in its leadership. That’s an ideal, and one that many churches simply may not be able to attain at a given time. So, if we speak as though an ethnically diverse eldership is a requirement for a faithful church, then how many churches—in rural and majority-white America, in villages made up of one tribe, or in nations with restricted immigration—do we inadvertently condemn?
It’s all too easy to idealize a principle we feel is too hard or unrealistic for our context. But before anything else, we must ask the question if the so-called principle is biblically required or not. Furthermore, it’s easy to “principalize” the things we care deeply about and long to see in the life of our church—without realizing what we long for is ideal, not essential for faithfulness.
Careful distinctions here require more than armchair theologizing. They actually will guard pastors and church leaders from imposing their standards onto other churches. They also guard will us from neglecting the commands of God that we find too difficult or impractical.