One concept that Jesus emphasized but which the church has sometimes failed to grasp is the concept that people are more important than principles.
I realize that “people are more important than principles” is itself a principle. But please bear with me.
As a kid in the 80s and 90s, I was aware of churches in my tradition that had a policy that divorced persons were not allowed to teach Bible classes, lead any aspect of worship, or lead church ministries in any capacity. It mattered not whether the person may have been an “innocent” party to the divorce. Divorce was taboo; the divorced believer was tainted, and could not be fully included in the ministry of the church.
I had a friend whose parents were divorced. Well, maybe he was more of a frenemy. But I’ll call him a friend for now. My friend’s dad had left him and his mom to live with a younger woman. The mom was a very devout Christian. And she was a school teacher. Yet, because she bore the stigma of divorce, she was not permitted to teach Bible classes. Nor adult classes for women. Nor children’s classes. Had she been a man, she could not have led singing or read Scripture from the pulpit. And there was nothing she could do to cleanse the taint. It was not within her power to bring her husband back from his new marriage and new children. She was branded for life.
Here was a talented teacher and devoted woman of God who was gifted and trained to teach in the very environment—the church—where she should have felt most accepted and loved. Not only did this treatment shame and dehumanize my friend’s mom, the children of the church were also deprived of having her as a teacher. I also wonder whether she might have had some wise things to tell the teenage girls about the kind of men they should be wary of.
But no. The rule was rigid. The line was clear. Divorced people could not be full participants in the work of the church, even in areas where they were gifted. How could followers of Jesus create and enforce such a policy?
Well, it was a matter of principle. These churches felt they were standing up for the sacredness of marriage. They wanted to give no ground to the idea that divorce among Christians might be the slightest bit acceptable. And to make an exception for someone who appeared to be an “innocent party”—a victim of adultery—would be the first step down a slippery slope.
I shouldn’t have to tell you that the Bible is anti-divorce. The sacredness of the marriage vows is a clear biblical principle. But what Satan had done among these churches was to introduce the lie that principles are more important than people. We had to tow the line on divorce, even if it meant hurting victims of adultery and depriving our education programs of one of our best teachers. We had to maintain our purity in the face of immoral social trends. There is a kind of almost-noble logic in this line of thought. But it is still evil.
My example of divorce is but one of many. Church history is littered with tales of church leaders who ostracized, wounded, shamed, oppressed, and even killed their fellow children of God in the name of moral or doctrinal purity. We sometimes pick a principle that seems important to us, draw a line, and then write off people who cross that line, as if their unconventional beliefs, moral failures, or simple bad luck strips them of their identities as infinitely valuable souls made in the image of God.
But Jesus isn’t like that.
There was a man who was partially crippled and wanted Jesus to heal him. But some people thought that healing on the Sabbath was “work” that was forbidden by scripture. Should Jesus have waited till Sunday to heal the man? Jesus asked his critics,
“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored (Mk. 3:4-5; see also Luke 6:6-11).
People are more important than principles.
Again, it was a Sabbath day. His disciples were hungry. But it was Saturday, the Sabbath. As they walked through grain fields, they plucked heads of grain and ate them to quiet their growling stomachs. Perhaps these morsels violated the Jewish laws. Even if they didn’t, the disciples’ behavior was a step down the slippery slope toward contempt of God’s holy day. The religious leaders brought accusations, seeking to label and ostracize Jesus and his friends. “Sabbath-breakers.” Jesus was having none of it. He said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). People over principles.
Jesus shouldn’t have been talking to her because she was a woman, alone. This woman by Jacob’s well was also a Samaritan, a heretic. Jesus, being a prophet, also knew full well that she had lived with six different men in her life. Now we don’t know how often she may have been widowed or been divorced. But clearly most men at the time would not have considered her a pure paragon of feminine honor. But Jesus took the time to talk to her, to teach her gently, to show her love. He pierced through all the religious taboos. And in doing so, the woman at the well became one of the most effective missionaries recorded in the New Testament (See Jn. 4:1-42).
This other woman was (most likely) a prostitute. Perhaps she’d slept with hundreds of men. But something Jesus did or said had moved her. She barged into a Pharisee’s house, and fell at the Master’s feet, weeping and kissing them. She anointed him with perfume, perhaps purchased from the fruits of the sex trade. To many who were there at that meal, this woman was unclean. Her mere presence was scandalous. But Jesus loved her and honored her. He pronounced her forgiven, and declared that her legacy would last through all time (See Lk. 7:37-39).
To Jesus, people were more important than principles, whether the principle was a religious rule or a moral boundary. If it meant feeding the hungry or healing the hungry, the rules can be bent. Because the greatest rule of all is love.
Love means people trump principles. Principles are important, and I cherish mine. But may my principles never get in the way of me honoring God’s children through acts of love.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t stand for principles. I’m not saying that churches should tolerate every doctrine (See Gal. 1:6-8; 1 Jn. 2:18-24). Christians who are sinning willfully may require discipline from the church (See 1 Cor. 5). At the same time, the teachings and example of Jesus remind me that when I reflexively take a stand on principle, I can sometimes violate the rule of love.
As Paul instructed in 2 Timothy 2:24-26:
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
So like so many things in life, people and principles are things we have to keep in balance. There’s a tension between the two. But I think Jesus (the Good Shepherd who pursued the one lost sheep) tells us that in close calls, the balance should tilt toward loving and protecting people. I mentioned at the beginning that “people over principles” is itself a principle. But it’s a big one. Christ taught that loving others was the second-greatest of all commandments (Matt. 22:39). And that the weightiest of God’s laws included justice, mercy, and faith (which I interpret to mean “faithfulness,” in the sense of dependability and trustworthiness) (Matt. 23:23).
God has commissioned you to be the organ through which he loves his struggling children. May this post encourage you on that calling.
Principles are vitally important, but people more so.
An attorney born in Nashville, Bren Hughes writes about spiritual growth, worship, biblical interpretation, and putting scripture into practice. His writing resonates most with people in spiritual transition who love Jesus, are open to experiencing the Spirit, and who rely on the authority of Scripture. A former campus minister, DJ, rock singer/guitarist, Wal-Mart department manager, and state Supreme Court judicial clerk, Bren (M.A., M.Div., J.D.) currently works as an attorney for the federal government’s judicial department in eastern Kentucky. He recently chronicled his spiritual journey in his book Heaven’s Muscle, which doubles as a biblical theology of the Holy Spirit (see HeavensMuscle.com).In his spare time, he blogs, writes articles for academic law journals, and records music with his talented wife. The Hugheses have three young sons, plus backyard chickens. Bren invites you to his blog at BrenHughes.com. Follow him @brenhughes.