Questions of Emphasis


(Jamie Dickson) #1

I’ve been thinking recently about how to have better discussions/disagreements with people. One sort of conversation that often feels circular and fruitless is the “question of emphasis”. Wondering if anyone had any thoughts/advice on how to deal with these?

Example: “the church should promote marriage”, “yes but the church should also affirm the value of single people”, “yes but the church should promote marriage”, “yes but…”

You get the picture


John Piper on Preaching
(Fr. Bill Mouser) #2

Hi, Jamie,

I’d need further examples to know for sure if my “solution” (following shortly) is applicable across all the exemplars you might mention. I should hit some of them, at least.

I’d turn chiefly to the emphases that Holy Writ itself puts on Topic A over against Topic B. Your example is “promoting marriage” over against “affirming the value of single people.” I’m don’t think these are precisely topics of differing emphasis, but at least in this case, I’d agree that debates about the relative weight one merits over the other is a debate I’ve run across for a very long time, at least back to my own university days, 40 years ago!

So, into such a debate I’d raise this question: which of the two might one find Scripture (as a whole - Genesis to Revelation) giving to these agendas? Which of the two - affirming value of single people, promoting marriage - gets a bigger exposure, a heavier emphasis - in Holy Writ?

Even to answer this question could generate a profitable (and, likely, a lively) discussion.

As you volunteered that you’re in Scotland, I’ll report that from my perspective (broadly evangelical American Protestantism), affirming the value of single people has gotten way more emphasis for the past 40 years than promoting marriage.

As a single seminarian in the 1970s, all the church ministries I visited (including my mother church in a university town) had gigantic “singles ministries.” Sometimes these were sort of inevitable - by far, most university students are single. But so far as I could tell (and I looked!) there was nothing in these churches’ programming aimed at young married couples, much less married couples qua married couples. Maybe there’d be a “marriage enrichment” seminar once in a while. But, that’s it. And, never did I find a ministry where older women were deployed in ministry toward younger wives (or young potential wives) in a way Paul mandates in Titus 2.

So as I hold up Genesis to Revelation in one hand and the usual church ministerial programming in the other hand and compare them, it would appear to me that “affirming the value of single people” is WAY OVEREMPHASIZED and promoting marriages is virtually ignored.


(Lucas Weeks) #3

Who’s doing the emphasizing? In the example you gave regarding marriage and singleness (which is a very common argument in this regard), I’d say we’re probably talking about church leadership. And so, using the wisdom God has given them, those church leaders have decided to focus on marriage or singleness. (Of course, the perception of what is being emphasized may be just as much in the mind of the listener as anything else.) Presumably, it is people who are unhappy with the emphasis who raise the issue in order to complain. In that situation, almost all the time, the complainers need to stop complaining and stop being precious with their own hurts and desires. They may not think a sermon on greed or singleness or lust is what they struggle with, but those who listen humbly and with faith will grow in wisdom and be thankful even when the pastor isn’t giving his attention directly the them.

I think this is why these discussions are usually unhelpful and circular. They are being had with people (maybe between people) whose real problem is their bitterness and selfishness, and so there’s no resolution until those issues are resolved.

Can someone – can church leaders – make mistakes in emphasis? Of course they can. Knowing what the best thing is to say or do is, perhaps, the very definition of wisdom. So it’s not easy. But we must not be selfish. If we’re going to love each other, we need to set aside our own desires and perquisites and consider others as better than ourselves.


(Jesse Tiersma) #4

Well said. One additional way Scripture is our example is that in different contexts or situations, a different emphasis can be made. In the context and situation of 1 Corinthians, Paul can speak to singleness and its importance. In the context and situation of Ephesians, he can speak of marriage and its importance in showing the gospel. The Bible can speak of man’s responsibility in one context, and it doesn’t need to be said that of course God is sovereign. Not every emphasis needs to be made all the time, and you are not denigrating anyone or the situation by not always refering to it, and the Bible models this better than anything.


(Jamie Dickson) #5

Thank you all! Lots of helpful stuff to think about. Could I maybe throw out some other examples to see if solutions work more broadly? I think the common theme is that both people agree both things are true, but they’re being “balanced” against each other in some way.

We’ve already had the examples of promoting marriage/valuing singleness and divine sovereignty/human responsibility.

How about “take up your cross and follow me - go labour on spend and be spent” vs “it’s important to have rhythms of rest and not to burn ourselves out”?

Sacraments as signs (reminding us of what’s true) vs seals (not merely symbolic but means of grace). I’ve been dragged round in circles on that one before!

The need to love your church family as a family without being insular or in a “holy huddle”.

The need to be persuasive (“winsome”) in evangelism against the need to not be compromising.

To be clear, I’m not particularly looking for answers to all of these questions! They’re just topics around which I’ve had very similar feeling conversations, typically characterised by the phrase “yes but also…”


(Joseph Bayly) #6

I think the big picture here almost always comes down to a feeling/claim that somebody is leaving out part of God’s word. That is a claim that I have a lot of sympathy for, since I believe many churches today leave out God’s “No.”

@ldweeks the people deciding what to say are often parachutes organizations. TGC is a great example of pandering to the bitter complaints of single people.


(Jamie Dickson) #7

Have you ever been accused of leaving out part of God’s word? How do you go about self-assessing and responding?


(Joseph Bayly) #8

Yes. I’ve been accused of not preaching the gospel, or not emphasizing it enough. It forces me to go back to what I believe, and see whether it’s right and whether my teaching matches it, big picture.

But I have another suggestion for thinking about how to filter some of these things. Ask yourself whether you are being pushed to sacrifice the normal on the alter to the abnormal.

As marriage gets more delayed and less common, there are a lot more singles around, so they aren’t as “abnormal.” So it will need more teaching, I suppose. But the question is what sort of teaching? And now you’re down to a theological question. Is singleness the gift or continence? Would the Apostle Paul praise the increase in singleness we see today or vice verse? Are singles today taking all their free time to serve the kingdom? Etc. What those who complain actually don’t like is what you believe about singleness.

It’s usually theological at root. So studying the Word deeply is central to dealing with these conflicts. I try to turn it to the theological root disagreements in general.


(Jason Andersen) #9

On the one hand, I think we all need to learn to be gracious as listeners, and recognize that no one can talk about everything all at once. While every topic of life and doctrine is interconnected, it’s simply not possible to cover everything in one sermon or in one conversation, and every dialogue will inevitably end up with its own specific emphasis. If we aren’t careful, we can become so overcritical of what a person is saying that we actually fail to hear them, just because they aren’t explicitly making all the immediate connections that we happen to see. And that is very dangerous, as it will render a person to be essentially unteachable.

Have you ever talked to a person whose immediate response to everything you said was, “but what about x?” These are the sorts of people that never actually connect with anything you are saying, and it’s virtually impossible to have a conversation with them. They aren’t actually listening, they are just looking for an opportunity to interject and puff themselves up, to tell you how they see something that you don’t.

Don’t be one of those people. Be quick to listen and slow to speak.

On the other hand, over time, you may definitely begin to sense when a person is making much of one facet of truth to the detrimental neglect of another. Basically, I’d just be careful not to judge errors of emphasis on the basis of a single interaction.