A Pauline Principle to Help You Avoid Reactive Theology

by Timothy Shorey
March 26, 2022

Just because one man hits his thumb with a hammer, that doesn’t mean hammers should be outlawed. Hammers are still useful for striking nails. We need not recall the world’s accelerators and return to Flintstone mobiles just because people use gas pedals to break the speed limit. And I wouldn’t decide to never eat again just because I’m 25 pounds overweight. In each case, misuse should lead to right use, not nonuse.

I learned this principle when studying Paul’s response to the Corinthians’ misuse of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14:26–40).

Better to Take Away the Hammer?

Early in ministry, I saw the miraculous gifts misused in Charismatic and Pentecostal contexts. In my view, health and wealth theology and an excessive elevation of tongues as a spiritual gauge were good reasons to discount the controversial gifts altogether. Better not to pursue the gifts than to misuse them and open the door to all manner of abuse, I thought. Why embrace what’s potentially distracting and perhaps dangerous? My fear of excess and failure inclined me toward nonuse.

Misuse should lead to right use, not nonuse.

As I studied 1 Corinthians 14, what arrested my attention was that for all the Corinthians’ guilt in misusing the gifts, it never occurred to Paul to tell them to cease and desist. Instead, he told the church how to use the gifts rightly: Sensational gifts shouldn’t overshadow preaching gifts or prayer or congregational singing (vv. 13–19). No more than two or three should speak in tongues, and then always with an interpreter (v. 27). Prophetic words should also be limited to two or three, and always sifted to discern what’s good and discard what isn’t (v. 29). The gifts’ abuse was not corrected by nonuse, but by principles of decency and order (v. 40).

I’m now convinced that miraculous gifts continue today, but even if you believe those gifts ceased with the close of the biblical canon, the principle behind Paul’s words to the Corinthians is still instructive for us. Paul knew the use of those gifts in the church was appropriate (at least at the time), so he didn’t answer the church’s misuse by recommending they stop using the gifts altogether. Instead, he appealed to biblical principles, created new boundaries, and ensured as a result that distracting misuse of the gifts would occur less often. Paul didn’t take away the hammer; he showed the Corinthians how to hit the nail.

Avoiding the Pendulum Swing

Paul’s right-use-not-nonuse maxim can help us with other theological reflections as well. In fact, I know few biblical truths and practices that can be held rightly without some attention to this principle. When one biblical teaching is misused, we should not deny that teaching altogether but rather find related texts and biblical principles that provide balance and contour to our understanding. We must ask what a Bible text teaches and then also ask what else the Bible teaches that can inform our understanding of that passage and define its scope, boundaries, application, and importance.

This is God’s safeguard against reactive pendulum theology, the pervasive tendency to swing our doctrine back and forth in reaction to perceived theological and methodological excesses. Too much of our theology today is reactionary, born out of a fear of excess or abuse rather than out of Scripture-informed and Spirit-filled wisdom, discernment, and care. We’ve overcompensated for misuse by rejecting beliefs and practices instead of reforming them. The trouble with a reactive pendulum is that it can swing like a recklessly misused and misguided hammer in the opposite direction.

Too much of our theology today is reactionary, born out of a fear of excess or abuse rather than out of Scripture-informed and Spirit-filled wisdom, discernment, and care.

The examples are too many to name, and violating the right-use-not-nonuse principle is one factor that has led to radical polarization within the body of Christ. Reactive debates over male headship in the home, leadership and authority in the church, male-female equality in Christ, the place of good works in the Christian life, the definition of biblical justice, expressiveness in worship, and Christian liberty have all led to this division.

Sober-minded reflection must triumph over zealous reactivity. We dare not jettison biblical teaching just because someone somewhere has somehow misapplied it. Doing so makes as much sense as going back to horse and buggy simply because people speed.

Call to Levelheaded Reformation

To counter our temptation toward hyperzealous, self-righteous “correction,” we’d do well to carry the right-use-not-nonuse principle into all our theological reflections. Wrestle with the text and let Scripture illuminate Scripture. Search for as many relevant passages as you can. Study church history. And then let your findings coalesce into a more cohesive and biblically nuanced understanding.

A cool, levelheaded approach asks clarifying questions:

  • What does this text say?
  • Are there other passages that inform my conclusions about this one?
  • Are there potential excesses to which my interpretation may lead?
  • Is this biblical teaching abused in the church today?
  • Has God addressed those abuses elsewhere in Scripture?
  • Has my experience of a teaching’s misuse or abuse stirred fears in me that are affecting the way I read this text?
  • Has God inspired right-use measures to address those excesses and abuses?
  • What principles from faithful Bible teachers or church history should inform and perhaps balance my conclusions?
  • In what ways have contemporary cultural voices colored my understanding and application?

Today, when hotheaded, reactionary theologizing scorches the land, we need a new generation of Christian disciples who are coolheaded enough to spare the baby before they heave out the bathwater. We need reverent disciples who pursue ongoing spiritual reformation through sound exegesis, biblical reflection, textual cross-checking, and Spirit-led application. If this is your goal, the right-use-not-nonuse principle is a good place to begin.

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