Does it really matter if there is no distinction between the gospel and other teachings of the New Testament?
What are the practical implications?
Every doctrine becomes a salvation issue
The good news about Jesus is the most basic and fundamental teaching held by disciples of Jesus. Believing the gospel is a salvation issue; we can’t be saved unless we believe what the Bible teaches about Jesus. If everything taught in the New Testament is part of the gospel, then every doctrinal issue becomes a salvation issue. If a person makes an incorrect conclusion about any doctrine or practice, then his or her salvation is forfeit!
The more conservative preachers, elders and teachers in the Church of Christ want to expand the meaning of the gospel to include teachings they consider to be vital. Some of our leaders are conceitedly dogmatic to the point of doubting the intelligence, integrity and devotion to God of anyone who would dare disagree with them.
We steadfastly enforce some doctrines, yet agree to disagree about others. Who decides which ones are and are not salvation issues? When I was a newcomer to the Church of Christ, I recall being very puzzled about this. I noticed how the various big name preachers were quite willing to fellowship those who took a different view than them about the head covering or those whose conscience do not allow them to serve as a soldier or a policeman. However, lines of fellowship were drawn over other issues that seemed just as benign to me. I asked my preacher about this. It was many years ago and I can’t recall his answer, but I do recall that it was very unsatisfactory in that it didn’t explain the inconsistency. Surely if every teaching in the New Testament is part of the gospel then every single concept in the New Testament is one that will damn us to hell if we get it wrong. If not, why not?
Even the most minor changes can lead to division
Failing to understand the distinction between the gospel and other doctrines makes change nearly impossible and results in division. Christians who exert effort to study their Bibles will, as they learn more and more, come to understand that they have been mistaken on any number of topics. A conscientious person will want to make changes to correct their prior mistakes, but in doing so they will invariably meet with resistance from other Christians who do not share their new conclusions. Never mind that the change is small and also scriptural, someone will protest vehemently because to them it is a possible digression into error.
For example, Preacher Jim teaches a new insight he has gained from the Scriptures in bible class and explains the practical implications of this new understanding. Preacher Jim is quite convinced he is right and that the church should make a minor adjustment. Elder Tim believes he, and others in the church, could lose their salvation if they deviate from the understanding they already have. Elder Tim is automatically suspicious, defensive and threatened by this new idea. After all, he does not want to go to hell for accepting Preacher Jim’s mistake. Fear is a powerful motivator; he resists Preacher Jim at all cost. There will be no change on his watch. If Preacher Jim and Elder Tim aren’t able to reach a consensus, it is quite possible they will part ways and in the process split the church.
Creates an atmosphere where legalism can flourish
Failing to understand the distinction between the gospel and other doctrines lays the foundation for legalism. If God’s grace is not big enough to cover our doctrinal failings then we must make sure we get things exactly right. The line of thought is that God’s generosity (grace) surely does not extend to doctrinal matters since every teaching is a part of the gospel. Therefore everything taught in the New Testament must be perfectly obeyed if we are to be saved. God’s grace, it is said, is more than enough to cover moral failings such as theft, adultery, lying, etc., but not doctrinal mistakes (yes, this is being taught in some places). We must be correct about the five acts of worship, we must be make sure the church treasury is spent on only authorized expenses, etc. Faith in God is not enough to save us, we must rely on our own efforts to identify the “law of Christ” and perfectly obey it. This is why that it is taught in some Church of Christ circles that, “It takes faith of the right kind and works of the right kind to be saved.”
Legalism is relying on something in addition to the true gospel to save us. The Galatian disciples were being taught a distorted gospel which required that in addition to the gospel, they must also be circumcised and keep the law of Moses in order to be saved. Do we not do the same? We don’t require circumcision as a requirement to be saved, we require other things instead. Things such as acapella music, a perfect understanding of the true purpose of baptism, not eating in the church building, and so on.
Do you doubt this is so? If you are in a congregation with very conservative leaders, ask them which doctrines you can be mistaken about which would cause you to lose your salvation. If they answer that using instrumental music, supporting colleges or orphans homes, eating in the church building, having praise teams, premillennialism, etc will cause you to be lost, then they have succumbed to legalism. They believe that the gospel plus something else is necessary for salvation. In addition to the gospel, they have added the requirement of perfect doctrinal understanding.
By adding requirements to the gospel for salvation, have we become the very people that Paul warned the Galatians about? Do we teach another gospel?
All of this has the effect of turning the good news into the bad news. We’ve replaced the law of Moses with a law of our own making turning the freedom which is in Christ into slavery (Gal 2:4). The practical implications of not distinguishing between the gospel and other teachings of the New Testament are chilling and potentially lethal to our spiritual well being.
It should be noted that just because a teaching is not a part of the gospel does not mean it is uninspired or unimportant. All teachings in the bible are inspired and therefore important. As Jesus taught us in Matthew 23:23, some inspired teachings are “weightier” than others. The gospel is of paramount importance. All other matters are secondary. We should all be diligent and studious to understand all matters of the scriptures the best we can. However, if history teaches us anything, it is that honest, intelligent people who love God will arrive at different conclusions about any number of issues. We must be patient with one another and maintain unity understanding that honest misunderstandings of secondary matters do not condemn. God’s loving-kindness (grace) is bigger than our mistakes.
The attempt to merge the special teachings of the gospel with all other teachings of the New Testament has no basis in Scripture. It is an artificial blending invented by men to serve whatever agenda they might have.
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. Gal. 5:6 ESV