One of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories was The Sneetches. Do you remember that book?
It began with divided community:
Now the Star-bellied Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-bellied Sneetches had none upon thars.
The stars weren’t so big; they were really quite small.
You would think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
But because they had stars, all the Star-bellied Sneetches would brag,
“We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort,
“We’ll have nothing to do with the plain-bellied sort.”
And whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
they’d hike right on past them without even talking.
Have you ever felt that you didn’t have the right star on your belly?
Too often that is the way we feel in church.
Maybe you have felt judged because you didn’t dress the right way, or look the right way. Maybe your beliefs seemed out of step with the church – or your family was different from the other families. The issue wasn’t big – it was really quite small – you would think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all – but it did matter and you were hurt – in the church.
Let’s talk about the gray issues of the church.
Some things are black and white – but there are many shades of gray. And when it comes to unity in the local church – gray issues often become the dry tinder upon which sparks of conflict are lit and blaze.
WHAT IS A GRAY ISSUE?
Romans, chapter 14, verse one reads: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” (NIV) In this church, believers were passing judgment on other believers concerning, “disputable matters.” You see, some had stars on their bellies and others did not.
The Greek word is translated in the NIV as “disputable matters.” It is translated in other versions as: “differing opinions” (NET), “opinions” (NASB, ESV, RSV) or “doubtful issues” (HCSB).
The word is a plural noun – indicating there were multiple such issues at work in Rome. The word has a basic meaning of a “conclusion reached through use of reason, thought, opinion” (BDAG, 232).
On these types of issues, Paul said – “Don’t judge or quarrel with each other.” Different opinions on these kind of issues are OK!
Stars on bellies or not, both are just fine.
Theologians call these issues: adiaphora which means, “The range of morally neutral actions, neither good nor bad…things neither commanded nor forbidden by the Word of God.” (Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985, 25-26.).
Here is my working definition for a “gray issue”:
“Gray issues are either not directly addressed in the Bible,
or if addressed, leave room for legitimate differences of interpretation.”
Synonyms for gray issues include secondary issues, disputable / doubtful issues, peripheral, amoral, secondary items, areas for Christian liberty / freedom, etc.
One reason we struggle with gray issues is because us Christians have a very hard time coming to grips with the fact that the Bible does not provide clear answers for every issue. There is a temptation to think that the Bible should be like the old Shell Answer Man – it should answer every question and address every issue with equal specificity.
But gray issues remind us that God the Holy Spirit gave us everything we needed, but not everything there was. We are left, from time to time, with very intentional “divine ambiguity.”
NOT EVERYTHING IS GRAY
Before we look at some examples of gray issues, let’s talk about what gray issues are not.
First, cardinal doctrines are not gray issues. A cardinal doctrine is something very clear – central to the Christian faith, such as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, Jesus’ death, bodily resurrection, and His return. Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson provide this definition: “A belief is considered a dogma (i.e. cardinal) if it seems essential to the gospel. In other words, if its denial would seem to entail apostasy – rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Who Needs Theology, p.73).
These are black and white issues. Cardinal doctrines.
Second, in addition to cardinal doctrines, there are also many clearly taught matters. They are not necessarily things that will be in a church’s doctrinal statement – but they are not gray. These are clear issues.
For example, the Scripture presents clear prohibitions against the practice of adultery (Mark 10:19), stealing (Ephesians 4:28), lying (Colossians 3:9), and being drunk with alcohol (Ephesians 5:18). These clear items (and many other topics) are not gray areas to debate but commands to obey.
GRAY ISSUES AND CHURCH UNITY
Let’s return now to gray issues. They fall into two broad areas.
The first area in which gray issues are found is theology. We have many gray areas within the various disciplines of theology. How exactly should a person be baptized? When, exactly does the Bible allow for divorce or remarriage? When exactly will Jesus return, and how are those events to be ordered? When did the church begin? These are just a few theological issues where the Bible is not as clear as we might like – people hold differing opinions – they are gray areas.
In 1529 German Reformer Martin Luther and Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli met for a meeting of great importance. The purpose was to unify their two branches of the reformation. Together they would be able to advance the cause of Christ in ways neither could do alone.
However, the theology of the Lord’s Table became a sticking point.
Historian Justo Gonzales writes “On most issues there was agreement, but not on the meaning and efficacy of communion” (Gonzales, 1:52). In a chapter of his book called “Disaster of Disunity” Historian, Peter Hammon writes, “It was one of Zwingli’s greatest regrets that he and Luther could not come to any point of agreement on this 15th doctrinal point.” Zwingli urged toleration for the difference views.
Luther regarded Zwingli’s plea for toleration as an indication that the Zurich pastor did not take his own views seriously enough.
Gray issues “1”. Unity “0”.
There are many gray theological issues that tragically divide people, churches and movements.
A second area where gray areas can impact unity is cultural issues. In the 1950’s great debate surrounded Rock-and-Roll music. In the 1990’s do you remember all the gnashing of teeth over Harry Potter? More recently, COVID brought numerous gray issues into the church. Do we wear masks? Hang Plexiglass? Take out rows? Continue passing the offering plates? Is the government helping us love our neighbors or taking away our rights? These are items not covered in Scripture, at least not directly.
And so good Christian people come up with different, sometimes opposite, viewpoints.
Let’s visit Luther and Zwingli again. In the late middle ages there was a great change happening in the area of corporate worship – people were wondering whether they could use contemporary music and contemporary instruments in a worship service. It was an intense debate. Sound familiar?
If you think worship wars are new – they aren’t.
While Luther was pretty dogmatic on the meaning of communion – he was more flexible in the area of music. He would use secular tunes and give them new meaning in his services. He encouraged the use of different instruments, even if they were not “traditional” for that time. Luther believed that as long as his innovations did not contract the Bible, he was good to go.
Zwingli, on the other hand, while willing to flex on communion – was not flexible in the area of worship. He believed that if an instrument was not specifically mentioned in the Bible – it should not be used in a service. So Zwingli prohibited the use of organs in his churches (they were new at the time), and he never allowed the violin to be used in church, even though he was an accomplished violinist.
Differing opinions on cultural issues. Opposite views.
Gray issues are not unimportant issues. I am not saying that.
Gray issues are worthy of study, debate, and even a conviction or two. But gray issues are not so important that they should cause breaks in fellowship.
EXAMPLES & KEY WORDS
The below examples show how we can “assign” each issue with the label of “cardinal,” “clear,” or “gray.” Once we have an issue properly identified we can deal with it biblically.
- The Deity of Jesus (Cardinal)
- Stealing (Clear Teaching)
- Getting drunk (Clear Teaching)
- Drinking Alcohol (Gray Issue)
- Harry Potter (Gray Issue)
- The Trinity (Cardinal)
- The Return of Jesus Christ (Clear Teaching / Cardinal)
- Pre-millennial dispensationalism (Gray Issue)
- Parent’s responsibility to train their children (Clear Teaching)
- Whether you homeschool, public school or private school your children (Gray Issue)
- Lying (Clear Teaching)
- The importance and permanence of marriage (Clear Teaching)
- Exact occasions under which a person may be divorced and remarried (Gray Issue)
- Christian’s celebration of Halloween (Gray Issue)
- The Deity of Jesus Christ (Cardinal)
- Punching your kid brother in the stomach when he bothers you (Clear Issue)
- Modern use of sign gifts – such as healing, tongues, etc. (Gray Issue)
- Style of worship music (Gray Issue)
- Virgin Birth (Cardinal Doctrine)
- Gossiping about someone else (Clear Teaching)
As you think about these concepts – let me leave you with three words:
1) FIGHT: For Cardinal Doctrines the key word is “fight”. These are worth fighting for – preserving – we dare not give up on them. If you like a good fight, these are your issues. Every day Christians are killed around the world for not compromising the foundational truths. We honor God by fighting for these few but weighty doctrines.
2) OBEY: For clear Bible teachings – the key word is “obey”. Just do it – love, serve, share, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat in school. Obey. In our obedience we find God’s blessings and demonstrate our love to Him.
3) ACCEPT: For Gray issues, the key word is “accept”. Accept the fact that in this area you will have differences of opinion. Accept the fact that some people have stars on their bellies and others do not. Leverage gray issues for a deeper unity. Agree to disagree peacefully. Turn conflict into concord.
THE SNEETCHES LEARN A LESSON
The Sneetches did not accept one another – but they judged one another and became divided. Each side argued they were right and the other was wrong.
And the story gets worse before it gets better.
A man Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes to the town and says to the Sneetches without stars – that the solution to the problem is not to keep their diversity – but to make sure everyone is the same – for a price he can put a star on their bellies – and he does so…
All the rest of the day on those wild screaming beaches,
the Fix-it-up-Chappie was fixing up Sneetches.
Off again, on again, in again, out again,
through the machine and back round about again,
still paying money, still running through,
changing their stars every minute or two,
until neither the Plain- nor the Star-bellies knew
whether this one was that one or that one was this one
or which one was what one or what one was who!
Then, when every last cent of their money was spent,
the Fix-It-Up-Chappie packed up and he went.
And he laughed as he drove in his car up the beach,
“They never will learn; no, you can’t teach a Sneetch!”
But McBean was quite wrong, I’m quite happy to say,
the Sneetches got quite a bit smarter that day.
That day, they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches,
and no kind of Sneetch is the BEST on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars,
and whether they had one or not upon thars.
The Sneetches finally learned to accept secondary differences within their community and so must we. We can be taught. We must not let small things divide us.
The diversity of opinions from different people on disparate topics form the foundation of a strong, unified church. Our unity proves that the gospel works.