It’s not uncommon (wherever you are) to hear someone say, “We need more teaching and preaching on first principles.” That may or may not be true—it depends upon the particular situation and circumstances they’re part of. I’m much more interested in exploring what we mean by the phrase “first principles.”
My guess is that in most cases when someone speaks of first principles they have in mind subjects like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the new covenant, etc. For the most part, it’s the same topics that you’ll see covered in most books chronicling the history of the restoration movement associated with churches of Christ. Let me go on record as affirming the importance of these subjects as well as the validity of pursuing the teachings of Jesus and His apostles as opposed to being a culturally driven church of even one following some governing body. The church answers to no authority but God and may it always be.
My concern is that our focus on first principles is too narrow. Most of the things we typically think/talk about have to do with either becoming a Christian or the assembly. Very important subjects—but you’re only baptized once and you spend maybe four or five hours in the assembly per week. That leaves about 160+ hours—do any first principles apply to the rest of our lives? (I’m overstating things here because as we recognize you can’t compartmentalize things this way). Still . . .
When Jesus is addressing the Pharisees in Matthew 23, He notes that they are tithing amounts of tiny spices but overlooking “the more important matters” of “justice, mercy and faithfulness” (v. 23). He’s not against tithing spices—He’s upset that they’re so attentive to tithes and yet oblivious to the elements that were so fundamental to the law (v. 24). Before we distance ourselves from the Pharisees, when was the last time you heard justice, mercy and faithfulness used in the same sentence with first principles?
If we’re not careful, we can become like the calorie counter who goes through the drive-through ordering the big burger, the large fries, the fried pie—and a diet drink! It’s not like the things we talk about aren’t first principles, we just need to broaden the category to be more inclusive. From my perspective this has little to do with our practice. I think we’re generally living this way—we just need to recognize its place in our teaching.
Too many times our first principles list can consist only of those things which make us distinctive from other groups rather than those things which are fundamental to the kingdom of God. The Pharisees fell into this very trap and ended up with a house that was excruciatingly scrubbed, despairingly empty, and ultimately worse than before (Luke 11:24-26).
We should learn from them!
We must learn from them!