Practices are many,
Principles are few,
Practices often change,
Principles never do.
These words have shaped my life for a long time…
I wrote in my last blog about how people may not live the things they believe. Or at least the things they espouse to believe. In other words, they may give verbal or cognitive ascent to certain truths or principles but then fail to live consistently with these principles. The scriptures are a combination of principles and practices.
Principles are enduring truths that transcend cultures and time, whereas practices are how those principles are applied to specific times and cultures. Much of the New Testament was written to specific people in specific times and therefore has some practices for those audiences.
For instance, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul deals with a cultural understanding of worship as it relates to the length of hair of men and women in the church in the city of Corinth. A great deal of division has arisen over this passage throughout the centuries because Paul is dealing with a specific practice of worship in this first-century church. One can’t take that practice out of the context of everything Paul had to say to that specific church about worship. In fact, most of the sixteen chapters of this letter center around various practices in worship.
I grew up in a culture that emphasized practices over principles. We couldn’t dance, play games with face cards, or marry anyone who wasn’t a part of the Church of God, Anderson. Wow, how easy is it for these practices to become primary and yet so small. It is so much easier to tell who is in and who is out by setting up practices that are easy to measure. In other words, if you keep these practices and you will be safe…or so we were told.
I rejected them while a young kid. I saw through them quite easily. I ran for 8th-grade student council president specifically so I would have to go to the dances to oversee the event…it worked! My parents let me go. There were people in my church who were critical of those who smoked because of the damage it did to their lungs, yet they were obesely overweight. I challenged them that they were putting as much strain on their physical anatomy as were the smokers. It just didn’t make sense to me to pick on one behavior, vice, or addiction when others were just as damaging but maybe not as identifiable.
I rejected these practices quickly, and it wasn’t until I was at college did I hear the principle from scriptures on how I could experience life in relationship with God full of intention, purpose, and meaning. It was this principle, the principle of grace, that transformed my life. It is a principle that is portrayed throughout the NT. From that point forward, an inner transformative process has been at work. Surely, it has produced changes in my practices, that is, the way I live my life. But it is principles that transform and then govern the way we live.
So how does one separate practices from principles in the New Testament?
Dallas Willard states in Hearing God:
Principles of Scripture are to be identified most of all from the actions, spirit, and explicit statements of Jesus himself.Dallas Willard
We read about Jesus in the Gospels, and Philippians 2.6 tells us that Jesus is the exact representation of God. So we see God’s principles through his life and teachings. And the rest of the NT is the story of how the Holy Spirit worked in the church(es) after Jesus’ ascending to heaven and the Spirit came to finish the work he started.
As one reads the Bible, the principles become evident from Genesis to Revelation. Our doctrine comes out of the new covenant, which is why it is called the New Testament (or covenant), and from the principles that result from the covenant of grace. In the New Testament, we read about the principles that Jesus taught and modeled and then how the first-century Christians practiced these principles and literally changed the world.
I find it interesting that as I have read the scriptures through somewhere around fifteen times so far in my lifetime, the principles become obvious. I think age has something to do with it as well. I have seen how so many people have capitalized on practices to their own and others’ detriment.
Principles are those concepts that articulate God and our relationship to him. They describe who we are in relationship to others. They describe the world and our relationship to it. It seems that people get in trouble when they don’t read the word in total enough to gain insight into the principles therein. It seems that people get into trouble when they focus on the practices rather than the principles. And it also seems people get into trouble when they search the scriptures for practices to justify something they want to do. Surely, they can find it somewhere in the Bible by twisting a verse.
I have always been drawn to Principle Living over Practice Living. This is because principles tend to work down deep in my soul. Surely, practices eventually emerge which reflect these principles. But for me, it always starts with principles. The challenge with principles is that each of us may apply them differently. In other words, we both may agree on the principle, but the practice that emerges in each of our lives may look very different. Therefore, denominations/churches in the past identified specific practices by which they could monitor behavior. It was called sin management.
It is impossible to monitor principles the same way you monitor practices.
As I have met with followers of Christ around the world, it has been fun for me to see how various cultures practice very similar principles in very different ways. This may be hard to understand for those who have not been exposed to sincere believers from many different cultures. But those with greater cultural exposure have had to develop greater Cultural Intelligence (CQ).
I spent a few hours identifying the principles that I find in scriptures that govern how I live my life. I have listed those which came to mind below but let me assure you they are neither complete nor definitive. There are many better thinkers than I who have given much thought to this. Here is my shot at it:
- I am created for intimacy with God, and therefore I must love God with every part of me and before everything else in my life (mentally, emotionally, physically, relationally, financially, etc.)
- God has graciously provided wholeness in my relationship with him by providing for my own selfishness in Christ’s death on the cross
- I experience a new and transformed life as I appropriate Christ’s forgiveness and participate in that redemptive gift
- I need to mature myself well over my entire lifetime to love God more by seeking things which draw me toward him and avoid those things which draw me away from him
- God’s Spirit literally transforms me inwardly as I cooperate with him
- I am created for intimacy with others; therefore I am to love others
- I need to manage myself well to love others more
- In my marriage I must honor, love, and serve my spouse.
- In my parenting I must steward the kids God has given me through loving, setting boundaries, and serving them
- My love for God and others is demonstrated by submitting my own desires for their benefit
- I am on earth to fulfill my calling of seeing others grow in their relationship with Christ through my own unique, natural, and gifted way
- I sacrifice in the short term for impact in the long term
I live by these primary principles, and I experience a lot of freedom because I am not bound by practices. Rather I am committed to living by these principles, which can grow and adjust as the situation changes. By the way, my practices have changed throughout my life thus far, but the principles have remained firm.