The Importance of Framing Things Rightly
Law, Liberty, and Love | Re-framing the Conversation on Human Sexuality
The way we frame a situation or an idea has a significant impact on the way we understand that situation or idea. If we frame it inaccurately, we will understand it incorrectly.
An everyday example for many parent’s is the way in which we perceive an argument between our children. If we immediately assume the two children are being “emotional” or “stubborn,” it’s going to affect the way we see and respond. If they’re just being “stubborn” then the argument is trivial and should be ignored. Sometimes this is an accurate way of framing the situation--and therefore an appropriate response. However, if this is an inaccurate way of framing the situation, you will handle the situation poorly. How we frame a situation or idea is extremely important.
In Essentials, Unity; In Non-essential, Liberty; In All Things, Charity
There’s a famous quote that has impacted the way many Christians have framed issues throughout history. Although the exact source and wording are debated, it is most often attributed to St. Augustine: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." This sentiment rings true with many people and has served as a guide for Christian unity over the ages.
However, as soon as you begin to apply the principles of this statement, things get difficult. What is essential? What is non-essential? How do we differentiate between the two? What are the guidelines for evaluating these things? How do we frame this distinction?
A Salvation Issue?
For much of my time in the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA), I’ve heard people frame the answer to these questions in one particular way: Is this a salvation issue? On the surface this makes sense. Salvation is essential. As a result, whenever the CRCNA has come to a point where they may face division over a theological issue, people immediately begin to ask the question, “Is this a salvation issue?” This perspective suggests that if something isn't a "salvation issue," it must fall under the category of “non-essential.” They believe we should find unity in our denomination by allowing liberty in these non-essential (“non-salvation”) issues. For these people the Augustine quote could read, “In Salvation issues, unity; In non-Salvation issues, liberty; in all things charity.” This is one way to frame the discussion.
John Calvin Frames Things Differently
However, this doesn’t seem to be the way the church has framed these distinctions throughout history. In particular, John Calvin frames the distinction between essential and non-essential very differently. He writes, “Those, however, commit a two-fold error, who do not distinguish between things indifferent and things unlawful, and accordingly do not hesitate, for the sake of pleasing men, to engage in things that the Lord has prohibited.”1 In this quote, and throughout his writings, Calvin repeatedly uses these two categories: (1) Things Unlawful/Lawful and (2) Things Indifferent. If we apply Calvin’s previous thoughts to Augustine’s quote we can suggest the following: “In things unlawful/lawful, unity; in things indifferent, liberty; in all things, charity.” I believe this is a much more helpful way to frame the discussion.
When Calvin discusses things lawful and unlawful, he is talking about the place of the law–how it relates to sanctification and the ongoing work of the Spirit. He is suggesting that when God has commanded us not to do something, it is unlawful for us to do that thing, and it is lawful (or in accordance with the law) to not do that thing. Along these same lines, when God has commanded us to do something, it is unlawful for us NOT to do it (sins of omission), and it is lawful for us to do it .
We see these distinctions throughout the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the law. When the catechism begins to explain the sixth commandment it says, “I am not to belittle, hate, insult, or kill my neighbor” but also gives us the positive command that we should “love our neighbors as ourselves.” This means it is lawful for us to love our neighbor and refrain from belittling and insulting them and it is unlawful for us to kill and not love our neighbor.
“Whatever arguments may be employed by ingenious men, or by those who have not sufficient courage to correct vices—that they are doubtful matters, and ought to be held as indifferent—certainly it cannot be endured that the rule laid down by Christ shall be violated.” -John Calvin
Calvin helps us understand the essential nature of God’s commands saying, “Let my readers only bear in mind, first, that whatever be the offenses by which Satan and the world attempt to lead us away from the law of God, we must, nevertheless, strenuously proceed in the course which he prescribes; and, secondly, that whatever dangers impend, we are not at liberty to deviate one nail’s breadth from the command of God, that on no pretext is it lawful to attempt any thing but what he permits.”2 Put simply, we do not have permission to disobey God’s commands. The law of God is essential.
Elsewhere, Calvin comments that mankind is constantly faced with the temptation to come up with crafty ways of making the law of God non-essential, or to come up with ways to take liberty with the law of God. He says, “Whatever arguments may be employed by ingenious men, or by those who have not sufficient courage to correct vices—that they are doubtful matters, and ought to be held as indifferent—certainly it cannot be endured that the rule laid down by Christ shall be violated.”3
Yet, Calvin does not believe everything falls under the category of “essential.” There are some things that are non-essential where Christians are allowed liberty. He calls these matters “things indifferent.” He categorizes things indifferent as things that are “neither good nor bad.”4 Another way of saying that is: things indifferent are things that are not covered by God’s commands. When we have no direct command from God to do something, or not to do something, these things fall under the category of things indifferent, which makes them non-essential and allows liberty for the Christian.
Calvin typically speaks about things indifferent as “external things” or “outward observances.” He says, "The third part of this liberty is that we are not bound before God to any observance of external things which are in themselves indifferent (ἀδιάφορα), but that we are now at full liberty either to use or omit them."5 Later in his Institutes he will say that certain practices like not eating meat on Fridays or not working on holidays, when stripped of their superstition, should be considered external matters that are indifferent.6 Calvin also considers some of the external practices surrounding the Lord’s Supper to be indifferent matters: type of bread, type of wine, distribution of elements.7 These external things are considered indifferent because God has neither commanded nor prohibited their practice. Therefore, they are considered non-essential matters that allow for Christian liberty.
Are Matters of Human Sexuality Essential?
The current question in the CRCNA revolves around whether matters of human sexuality are essential or non-essential. Some have been trying to make this distinction by framing the question, “Is this a salvation issue or not?” People have come up with various answers to that question. However, I have found it to be an unhelpful framing of the question, causing confusion. Calvin provides us with a much better question to ask, “Has God given us commands or prohibitions about matters of sexuality?” If he has, then these commands and prohibitions would fall into the category of essential matters in which there is no liberty. The answer to that question is much, much clearer.
Calvin sees matters of human sexuality clearly falling into the category of essential matters. He says, “For example, God not only commands us to keep our mind chaste and pure from lust, but prohibits all external lasciviousness or obscenity of language. My conscience is subjected to the observance of this law, though there were not another man in the world, and he who violates it sins not only by setting a bad example to his brethren, but stands convicted in his conscience before God. The same rule does not hold in things indifferent.”8 In his commentary on 1 Corinthians he also states, “our liberty ought not by any means to be extended to fornication” and goes on to explain why Paul is correcting the Corinthian church for placing matters of human sexuality in the category of “things indifferent.”9 Calvin believes God’s Word clearly places matters of human sexuality into the category of lawful/unlawful, which means they are essential matters where we must have unity.
In All Things Love God First
In the midst of this conversation, it’s also important for us to understand the final line from Augustine—“in all things charity”—and its relation to the rest of the statement. I think we all understand how charity relates to non-essential matters, but how does charity affect the way we respond to essential matters? Does charity force us to become soft on essential matters? Does charity cause us to be silent on essential matters so that we don’t offend anyone?
“Things which are necessary to be done cannot be omitted from any fear of offense. For as our liberty is to be made subservient to charity, so charity must in its turn be subordinate to purity of faith.” - John Calvin
It’s important to understand what is meant by the word “charity.” In an overly simplistic explanation, “charity” is the old-fashioned word for “love.” Yet, it carried a more specific meaning than that. Listen to the way John Calvin explains and uses the word charity: “First, our mind must be completely filled with love to God, and then this love must forthwith flow out toward our neighbor. This the Apostle shows when he says, ‘The end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned,’ (1 Tim. 1:5).”10 Notice how Calvin says that the end of the law is love because love refers to God first, then our neighbor. This helps us understand that “charity” is not a simple reference to love, but a reference to loving God first, which then flows to the love of our neighbor.
This helps us understand why Calvin would make this statement: “Whatever I have said about avoiding offenses, I wish to be referred to things indifferent. Things which are necessary to be done cannot be omitted from any fear of offense. For as our liberty is to be made subservient to charity, so charity must in its turn be subordinate to purity of faith. Here, too, regard must be had to charity, but it must go as far as the altar; that is, we must not offend God for the sake of our neighbor.”11 Yes, in all things love, but first and foremost our love must be directed to God. When we turn essential matters into non-essential matters—even in the name of love—we are not showing love to God, rather we are offending Him for the sake of our neighbor.
The current conversation within the CRCNA regarding human sexuality has become muddled and unproductive. If we want to find clarity and have productive conversations, we must begin framing these conversations in a more helpful manner by asking better questions.
Are matters of human sexuality commanded or prohibited by God? The answer is clearly: Yes. Therefore, they are not indifferent. They are essential. It’s that clear.
In our efforts to extend love and maintain unity, we must not allow ourselves to compromise on matters that God has made essential. Offending God in the name of loving people is a distortion of true charity/love. True love prioritizes God first, then our neighbor. If we do this, we will begin to experience true unity in the CRCNA: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love God first, then neighbor.”
John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 306.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997), 3.19.13.
John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on the Gospel according to John (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 163.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997), 2.4.6; Ibid., 3.19.13.
Ibid., 4.17.43; Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 1.260–261.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997), 3.19.16.
John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 215–216.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997), 2.8.51.