“If ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye…” 1 Peter 3:14
It seems that a distinction was first made by attorney David Gibbs years ago in a sermon he gave many times in churches and fundamentalist conferences all over America. He told the story of an Amish man named Yoder who defied his state government by refusing to send his children to public schools. His case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where his lawyers argued that since his objections to obeying the compulsory school- attendance laws were based on his religious beliefs, his right to disobey those laws was protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of the, “Free exercise,” of religion. Interestingly, the Court found for Yoder, that his disobedience to the law really was based on his religious convictions by being willing to suffer severely rather than comply with the requirements of that law. Theoretically, Yoder was willing even to die for his belief, and thus he confirmed that he was acting on what he understood to be a mandate from God.
He refused to compromise. He was in jeopardy of imprisonment, but he wouldn’t budge. The Court declared that if he were willing to obey the law on any basis at all, if he would abandon his supposed convictions under the threat of any level of punishment, his objection to the law would be deemed a preference, and not really a religious conviction, and would not qualify for constitutional religious-liberty protection. Mr. Gibbs in this context emphasized the distinction between a conviction and a preference. If imprisonment or torture or financial disaster or even death would change what you would do, your reason for disobeying the law is a preference and not a real conviction. Of course, this legal principle parallels the Bible’s teaching, and the attorney was making an important point for Christians facing growing government power.
However, the conviction/preference distinction was changed and unintentionally perverted as others tried to use it to make other points in sermons preached in the years since Gibbs made his point. Very prominent fundamentalist preachers began to use it to describe the different weights of importance we should give to various Bible teachings. The most essential Bible doctrines were said to be worth dying for. They called for us to have a conviction about obeying them. Lesser doctrines call somehow for less commitment, and some of them are low enough on the scale of importance to call for only a preference to follow them. Can you see the problem in this reasoning?
Jesus taught us that everything in the Bible is important. He said that those who, “Break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men to do so,” will be judged, “The least in the kingdom of heaven,” while those who, “Shall do and teach them,” (the least commandments), “Shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 5:19). Even the least teachings of the Scriptures are important. However, some Bible truths are more important than others. By calling some statements in Scripture, “These least commandments” Jesus was saying that some truths are more important than others. This is also what He taught in Matthew 23:23, when He compared the command to tithe with what He called, “Weightier matters of the law.” Everything in the Bible is important, but some things are more important than others. Therefore they are all worth dying for, although the emphasis we give them must vary with their importance.
Unfortunately, the confusion created by unsound reasoning is giving some a way to persuade us to forsake some of our time-honored standards. They are saying in so many words that such cardinal doctrines as the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Christ are, “worth dying for,” but that such lesser matters as music standards or modest apparel are, “not worth dying for.” Therefore, they imply, Christians should be willing without much trouble to give up the smaller points of doctrine or practice that are widely criticized today. If they are not worth dying for, we might as well give them up. To a discerning person, however, this reasoning is neither logical nor scriptural, and it undermines good character!
In the Bible, good people risked their lives for seemingly small points of divine principle. Daniel put his welfare and even his life in jeopardy by refusing to violate the dietary stipulations of the ceremonial law. God blessed Mordecai’s willingness to die for refusing to bow before a wicked man (not an idol), and delivered him from the death penalty (Esther 2 – 7). Who would disagree that these were lesser matters of the law that the servants of God risked their lives to follow? The apostles got into trouble for refusing, not to deny the faith, but to stop spreading the faith in Acts 4 and 5. Obedience is never an issue of whether a commandment of God is important enough to obey. The original divine stipulation to man was thou shalt not eat the fruit of a certain tree! The issue of obedience is whether or not we will be subject to God and His wishes. The relative importance of those wishes is not an issue. If it pleases God, we must do it; if it displeases Him, we must not, no matter how minor the matter may seem to us.
The book of Titus addresses, “The things which become sound doctrine” (2:1). These are personal standards of conduct that go along with (become) or befit sound doctrine. Titus is told, “Rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (1:13). Practical purity goes along with doctrinal purity, and wrong practice undermines soundness of doctrine. Read about this in all three chapters of Paul’s epistle to Titus. Again the Bible contradicts the concept of dropping standards because they are not important enough to keep.
For the older generation of fundamentalists, the issue of church music standards is not one of preference. Neither are the issues of dress or media standards. Ecclesiastical separation is a matter of conviction, but so is personal separation. These lesser commands do not fall into the category of mere preference, or something nobody should die for. If they did not come from divine truth or mandates, we never should have taught them as if they did. If they were simply personal preferences, many fundamentalists were guilty of, “Teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9). Preferences (as opposed to convictions) are not lesser matters of scriptural teaching; they are human ideas and not biblical truth. If we have been unscriptural in our teaching, we should not only abandon the wrong ideas and the practices, but we should also repent publicly of ever preaching them as God’s will for His people. Nobody should be contemplating whether he would die for a concept. The question is not how important the principle is, but rather if it is scriptural. If it is based on the Bible, then we should all be willing to die for it, and should never give it up. There may be changes in how a Bible principle is applied as the world changes and the devil switches his tactics against us, but we must hold on to the principle. Whatever proceeds from the mouth of the living God is worth dying for.
Traditional fundamentalist standards that are now being criticized are indeed based on Bible principles. Without question the style of the music used in church reflects the concept of God that is being portrayed. That style, therefore, must reflect the order, holiness, and majesty of God’s nature as presented in Scripture to fit a reasonable description of the spiritual music God’s people are admonished to sing (Ephesians 5:19). The issue of clothing is addressed throughout the Bible, from Genesis 2 to Revelation 21, and scriptural requirements for the covering of nakedness are given no small prominence. Therefore, preaching that standards of propriety and modesty in dress should be maintained by Christian people is biblical preaching. The command that we have no fellowship with wicked works in Ephesians 5:11 supports the setting of guidelines for Christian living that draw a distinction between the children of light and the children of darkness. The truth is that the old standards of personal separation make sense and are based on Bible principle. Therefore, we should not be rating them according to their importance in order to decide whether or not to keep them. Good men would die for the right, no matter what the issue is. To say that a man may forsake some facet of eternal truth because the particular matter at issue is not worth the cost of maintaining it is like saying that every man has his price. Give every truth its scriptural emphasis (don’t major on the minors), but never forsake or deny anything taught in the Bible.