On Principle

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My spouse had better things to do than plunge into my moral angst.

My fellow Canadians in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and I will pray for you, our American cousins, when you head for the voting booth next month. You have difficult and important choices to make that will affect you and the whole world.

In that context, I find the conversation between two CRC members (“Can We Just Talk?” p. 18) so fascinating. Both belong to the same denomination and, presumably, share the same basic beliefs. Both have been taught the same principles yet have very divergent views about the real world. How can that be?

I believe it is a function of the mind-numbing complexity of identifying principles, deciding which apply, and then actually applying them to real-life situations. We might agree with Mitt Romney on one point of principle and with President Obama on another. So then what?

Distilling clear principles from Scripture is an important first step. But it’s only a first step, as is clearly indicated by the Dutch word for “principle,” which is beginsel.

Beginsel literally means “a place to begin.” Hence, a “principle” doesn’t automatically and inexorably lead us to one clear conclusion at all. It merely gives us a place to start. From there we’ll need to use our wits and our communal understanding and wisdom to figure out how and when and where to apply it. That’s why we can share the same principles yet end up on opposite sides of an issue.

We should also admit that we aren’t just driven by logic. The deepest inclinations of the heart often masquerade as rationality. For example, my favorite television show airs when I’m often out visiting, so I miss more episodes then I catch. For $300, an upgraded cable box with a digital video recorder would resolve my dilemma. At the touch of a (pre)programming button I could watch “Mayday” anytime I want.

Conflicting principles made this a tough decision. On the yes side: we should keep some Sabbath, we should watch more edifying shows, and so on. On the no side: such materialism adds to global warming, we should donate money to save lives instead, and more.

My spouse had better things to do than plunge into my moral angst. “Darlin’, just do what you think you should; it’s fine by me either way.” Generous, but not exactly the oracle of Delphi.

Truthfully? Ultimately, principle had nothing to do with the final decision. I didn’t buy a DVR for the plain and simple reason that I’m too cheap to slap down 300 bucks for a spinning magnet in a metal box. Besides, Discovery Channel airs so many reruns that I’ll catch those missed episodes anyways.

Let’s recognize that we also adopt many of our political views based on something deep and personal and emotional and ingrained, quite apart from principle. Dare we start afresh by carefully examining whether we are actually basing our views on principle at all—then humbly, and in dialogue with others, explore where principle might actually take us? If so, we’ll probably discover more than one legitimate point of view.

We really need to talk. And because political positions and decisions matter, we need to drench that conversation in prayer.

About the Author

Bob De Moor is a retired Christian Reformed pastor living in Edmonton, Alta.

See comments (1)


Two people with the same principles on a specific issue, say economics or government, should not come to completely opposite conclusions.  Consider the following from http://principlestudies.org/articles/?id=IPS_Commentary11_ImportanceOfPrinciples.html

Our understanding of the world around us is largely shaped by the core principles which we have accepted.  Principles recognize what is true and help us apply truth to new or unknown situations…  They help guide us in our decision making. 

That is how principles should work—principles are sets of uncompromising truths that provide us with tools for evaluating thought and action.  Principles, because they are based on truth, are universal and can be applied without exceptions.  A good set of principles will enable us to make decisions very quickly, even if the situation we are facing is completely new. 

It’s a lot like learning how to read. Some of us were taught how to read by memorizing words.  Once we have memorized a good number of words, we can read away happily, until we come across an unknown word.  We don’t know what to do with it.  We’ve never seen it before, and have no tools for discovering its meaning.  On the other hand, some are taught to read by phonetics.  You learn the alphabet and the sounds each letter makes.  By itself, this information seems useless—but when you sit down to read, you can slowly sound out each word.  You may have never seen the word before, yet the foundation you were given enables you to move forward, with great accuracy. 

Solid principles can help in all aspects of life.  Principles can be found in the areas of family, friendships, relationships, and business.  Principles also can be found in studies like economics, government, psychology, and communication.  Not all principles, however, are correct.  In fact, “basic” principles are the most debated.  Principles provide the foundation for all other conclusions we reach.  Thus, they are most important.  We should not take this concept lightly.  By accepting a flawed set of principles, we will reach flawed conclusions.  And having no principles to guide us will leave us vulnerable to be swayed by popular opinion—unable to make consistent or wise decisions, especially in the face of new difficulties or questions. 

Unfortunately, as important as they are, we often do not take much care in forming our guiding principles.  But it is essential that we build a set of principles that are solid and true, in every aspect of life.  Only then will we be able to discern what to do in a struggling relationship, how to handle trials at work, and what government and economic policies should be passed next.