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First and second order issues
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First and second order issues

And why it's hard to tell the difference

Dear friends

Welcome back to a new year of Two Ways News.

Tony is not quite back yet—he’ll be with us on next week’s episode—but in the meantime I hope you enjoy this conversation with Talar about ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ issues in ministry. 

It’s a common way of talking about things we disagree about in ministry or in the Christian life—that there are ‘first order’ questions of prime importance that we must resolve and be unified about, and then there are ‘second order’ issues that we can afford to put to one side and agree to disagree about. 

But is that the best way to think about the various issues we have conflict or disagreement about? 

That’s what my conversation with Talar is about this week. I hope you find it encouraging. 

Phillip


First and second order issues

Talar Khatchoyan: One of the things I’ve noticed, being out in ministry in churches for a few years now, is the reality of disputes and disagreements amongst ministry workers. And I’ve often heard people say that these disputes can be about ‘first order’ issues which we have to solve, and ‘second order’ issues we can afford to leave to one side. So how do we tell the difference, Phillip?

Phillip Jensen: I don’t really like the language of ‘first order’ and ‘second order’. Calling something ‘second order’ can just be a way of avoiding conflict, and sidelining the discussion. “We don’t need to talk about that now”—which can mean we don’t need to talk about that … ever. 

All the same, it is important to recognize that some issues are more important than others. Some things are critical, some things are trivial. Jesus pronounces a woe in Matthew 23 on those who can’t tell the difference: 

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)

There are ‘gnat’ issues and ‘camel’ issues, and not to be able to see the difference is to be blind and a hypocrite. 

But notice—even though we must see the importance of the weightier matters, we should still also care about the smaller ones. “These [weightier things] you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” 

We should pursue the big matters, but that doesn’t mean that the small matters don’t matter at all. And sometimes, those small matters that we gloss over or fail to talk about become very important down the track in a different context. 

TK: Is it a bit like Romans 14, where one person counts one day more important than another, whereas another person considers every day alike? 

PJ: Yes, that’s a good example. In the freedom of the gospel, I can come to understand that all days are alike, but another person doesn’t yet understand that—they think it’s very important for Saturday to be the Sabbath, or Sunday. And so although for me the day of the week on which we have church or Sabbath is a minor thing, in some situations it will be anything but minor—either because it will cause my brother to stumble, or because someone might be adding Sabbath-observance to the gospel and so undermining the gospel. 

TK: So a seemingly small thing can be a major thing, depending on the context—especially if it touches on the gospel—and so we can’t shy away from talking about it. 

PJ: That’s right, which is why I don’t like the ‘first order, second order’ language—as if there is a list of topics that I should never have serious discussion or conflict over. Because, depending on the context, a seemingly small thing can be very important indeed. 

Circumcision is a classic example in Galatians. In Galatians 6:15 Paul says that “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation”. So in light of the gospel, circumcision is really nothing. But earlier in the letter, circumcision is a very big deal indeed, because, he says, “if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.”  You can’t get more important than that! 

So whether something is really worth discussing, disagreeing about, and seeking to resolve together—this is determined by the context we are in, the rationale for what is taking place, and the relationship of all of it to the truth of the gospel. There’s no list of ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ topics, such that some things can be permanently relegated to the second category. 

For example, the clothing that a minister wears in church some people might regard as a ‘second order’ issue. And it can be. But if your people have come to believe that it’s very important for you to wear the ‘right’ religious haberdashery, and that your ministry isn’t really genuine if you don’t—well, then it’s probably time to stop wearing those special clothes and to discuss the issue.  

TK: You were saying earlier that the reason people want to have a list of ‘second order’ issues is to avoid conflict, to keep the peace. But if we really need to talk about something, and to disagree about it, how should we do that? 

PJ: Well, sometimes we need to find the right time, and the right amount of time. We may need to say, “This really is an important issue for us, and we need to take the time to talk about it properly together. But right at this moment or in this particular context, it’s not the right time and place.” Sometimes, throwing out a quick answer can just make people angry and divide us more. We’re better off putting aside a day or a weekend to talk through the issue properly and in love. 

It’s also the case that some issues are particularly emotional for people, and for our society, and you can’t afford to have them as throwaway lines. Gender and sexuality related issues would be a current example. In our current context, you can’t put these into the ‘second order’ category, because these issues are the very point of conflict between Christianity and our society. So you have to talk about them, because that’s where the battle ground is. It’s a funny place to be having a battle—and a hundred years ago our forefathers would never have dreamed that these would be the issues we’d need to be talking about. 

Perhaps there was a time when you could throw out a one-liner about homosexuality or abortion or other gender related issues, and no-one would have minded. But you can’t do that now—you have to take the time to address these questions properly and biblically, and as Christians to seek to come to agreement about what the Scriptures are saying. 

TK: If you keep retreating from having those kinds of conversations, you create a real problem don’t you?

PJ: Absolutely. This was the case with the charismatic question in the 1980s and 90s, or with the question of the ordination of women. Certain senior ministers decided, for the sake of maintaining congregational unity, to say nothing. But the long term effect of saying nothing was to let the other side of the debate to actually win—not because people had thought it through together, but because those who push their agenda strongest in a vacuum will succeed. 

I saw many times, with my friends in England, where clergy were completely clear as to what they believed about, for example, the ordination of women in the 1980s and 90s. The clergy were clear—they knew what they believed—but they would never speak about it because their church committees and parish councils wouldn't back them on it. And though they wanted to take clear action, they couldn't take any action, because any action would divide their congregation. It meant, of course, in the long run, that the views they held were consistently defeated. They could take no stand publicly in the denomination, because they'd taken no stand in their congregation. It's a sadness. The avoidance of conflict in Christian ministry is a nonsense. You’ve got to learn how to engage conflict productively, but you can't avoid it.

TK: How do you engage in that discussion and conflict well? 

PJ: Well, we must pray. Really pray. It’s easy to say and to slide past that step, but we must pray. 

We also must love people enough so that our relationships with them are strong enough to cope with disagreements. People need to know that they are loved, and that in love we have a responsibility to sit down with each other and speak the truth to each other. 

And then when we set aside some clear and sufficient time—such as a weekend conference—to deal with the issue, we need to go back to first principles and then work towards the answer together. 1 Corinthians provides a classic example of Paul doing this again and again—starting with the presenting issues of the Corinthian church and then going back to the theology of the gospel in order to address them. 

And we pray that our people, whom we have taught to know and love the gospel, will be persuaded by the theology of the gospel to change and renew their minds. But of course, the reality is that will not change, for all kinds of reasons. And some people will withdraw, and that’s a sadness and a loss. 

If we’re too afraid of people leaving, we’ll never face these serious issues together. We hope and pray for agreement and reconciliation, but if we are held to ransom by the prospect of people leaving, then we have already lost. 


PS

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Two Ways News
Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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