At North Heights we often describe ourselves as "biblical" Christians. By this we mean that we hold the Christian Scriptures as the final rule of right belief and conduct. The Bible is our "first precedent." What was normative for the New Testament church sets the standard by which we gauge our lives 2,000 years later.
But saying we are "biblical" does not clarify how we approach the Bible itself. Theologians call this "hermeneutics." Our hermeneutic is the style and standards we use when handling the Bible. Specifically, how do we wield our sword? Once we read the Bible, and affirm our faith in its authority, how do we go about applying what it says to our lives?
In Acts 15, the early church addressed her first major theological crisis. As a result of Paul's and Barnabas's successful mission trip, many Gentiles were now flooding into the church. Did these new believers have to become Torah observers? Did they have to become circumcised? When they converted to faith in Jesus did they also have to convert their culture? Did they have to live their lives as Jews? This was, of course, a matter of huge significance for these new believers.
That first council decided that the Gentile believers did not have to become Jewish to follow Jesus. This opened the door for great cultural latitude in the church. Jesus, the light, could shine through any color window and the result would be a beautiful mosaic of diversity.
The leaders in Acts 15 did lay down three universal prohibitions that they said were for all Christians in any culture: no occult activity, no sexual immorality, and no confusion of the blood atonement of Jesus. In all other matters they were flexible. Aside from these absolutes, all else was relative to context, what Luther called adiophora, or "things indifferent." This council decision became the precedent and the theological basis for Christian freedom and for a basic Christian approach to scriptural application.
During the Reformation, Martin Luther made a judgment call about the cultural impact of his reforms that he believed stemmed from Acts 15. Luther's goals were foremost theological. But as parishes across Europe switched from Catholic to Protestant, as priests became pastors and church cathedrals became sanctuaries, Luther had to decide how radical to take the changes.
John Calvin and others took a more vigorous approach. Calvin said, in essence, "If a matter is not in the Bible we won't do it." Calvinists consequently broke stained-glass windows and defrocked their pastors. Their hermeneutic required that unless the New Testament specifically permitted musical instruments, for instance, they would not have them. And they didn't. And today, some still don't.
Luther, on the other hand, taking Acts 15 as his guideline, said, "Unless a matter is categorically forbidden in the Bible we will allow it." Thus Lutherans preserved their windows and robes on pastors, decisions that at the time were broadly and culturally sensitive given the extent and pace of change the continent was enduring.
Luther thus became the father of what we might call an "evangelical hermeneutic." Calvin used what we might term a "fundamentalist hermeneutic." While each one considered the Bible authoritative in his ministry, each came to a different conclusion based on how he approached the Bible.
A question like, "should we allow drums and guitar in worship?" may be controversial in the contemporary church. Because it is not specifically endorsed in Scripture, the fundamentalist tradition often chooses to forbid it. But because this practice is not categorically prohibited in Scripture, the evangelical tradition usually welcomes freedom of worship expression.
At North Heights, we follow Luther's approach more than Calvin's. Unless a matter is categorically forbidden, and unless it falls within the three prohibitions of Acts 15, we generally approach it as adiophora and tend to take a grace/freedom stance. We boldly and unapologetically affirm the Bible as our authority.
Understanding how we approach applying the Bible is of utmost importance in creating an atmosphere of love and unity in our fellowship.