"Majoring on the Majors"
Who gets to decide "what's important" in Christianity?
One thing I learned from my old church was principle of “majoring on the majors” and “minoring on the minors.” The idea here is that if you’re publicly writing or speaking about faith, you should spend most of your time and energy on the most important topics, and less time and energy on minutiae1.
But I think something we need to spend a lot more time interrogating is “what counts as a major topic?” and even more fundamentally “who gets to make that decision?”
The list of “major” topics in well-off white Evangelical churches, considered central to the Christian life, often includes things like:
The divinity of Jesus
The inerrancy of the bible
Sexual ethics and a conservative view of gender (especially when it comes to LGBT people)
Forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death and eternal life through his resurrection
Eternal, conscious hell for essentially all non-Christians.
You’ll notice immediately that this is a mixed bag — I would consider 1 and 4 to be two of the most important facts in the world. 2 is, at least in the Evangelical sense of inerrancy, both rejected by the bible itself and not something anybody believed for the first fifteen hundred years or so of the church. 3 is a combination of very important things (consent) and actively hurtful things (99% of how the conservative church interacts with LGBT people). 5 was hotly debated by the early church, and views have varied wildly both historically and by denomination.
On the other hand, the list regularly excludes things like
Care for the poor
Liberation from oppression
Love for immigrants and refugees and people in other countries
Truth (in the context of standing up to propaganda and misinformation)
Actual examples of loving your neighbor (wearing a mask, getting vaxxed, volunteering, donating to charity, etc.)
I cannot tell you the number of sermons I’ve attended that have contained statements like “sure, I’m not opposed to working for justice, but what’s really important is X, Y, and Z” or “this passage condemns the rich who didn’t take care of the poor, and the primarily lesson for us today is that we all need to believe in Jesus.”
The problem with this, of course, is that our priorities affect both our beliefs and our actions. I’ve written previously about the dilemma of Christians who believe that homosexual behavior is a sin, but not a worse sin than e.g. straight sex outside of marriage or their own personal sins. If the “major” here is “loving our LGBT friends and neighbors”, these Christians will find themselves allied with the “fully affirming” side against the cruel bigotry that’s destroyed so many lives. But when our churches convince themselves “sexual ethics” is the “major”, they ally with these forces of cruelty and pass terrible policies like the PCA and SBC continue to, and Jesus weeps.
I think this question of “what is a ‘major’?” is behind a lot of the disagreements and frustrations I’ve had with other Christians in the past few years. In both the 2020 and 2016 election I found myself horrified at Christians whose votes for Trump were in part motivated by a sincerely held belief that laws against anti-LGBT discrimination were a bigger threat to Christianity than e.g. anti-refugee policies. Even before I became fully affirming, it was clear to me that “not having gay sex” was at best a very minor point of Christianity compared to “caring for the poor and the stranger”, a fact the bible very clearly backs me up on:
Similarly, a number of my conservative friends misinterpreted the outrage over Trump’s “pussy grabbing” comments to be about his using crude/sexual language (their major) rather than his admitting to sexual assault (my major).
Likewise, a number of disagreements I had with my old church’s leadership were met with a message of “yeah, but the gospel is being preached, which is more important.” To somebody with my church’s majors, I can completely understand this as a response. But with my (and I think Jesus’s) majors it was a very frustrating response, because justice and care for the poor are central parts of the gospel. If you believe this is a major, then a failure to preach on these topics isn’t just a small oversight to maybe eventually fix, it’s an indictment that what’s being preached isn’t Christianity at all!
(You can imagine how, in failing to lay out the source of the distinction explicitly as I have in this post, these conversations became deeply frustrating for both sides as we talked past each other.)
Perhaps the most ridiculous example of this major/minor distinction comes from Owen Strachan and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a group devoted to recovering “biblical” sexism against the modern zeitgeist of gender equality. Strachan teaches “the eternal subordination of the Son” — a belief that Jesus is permanently submissive to God the Father, and has used this to explain the “proper role” of women as subjugate to men.
What’s weird about this is that the church has traditionally held (since at least Nicaea) that this belief about Christ is not just wrong, but actively heretical. So groups that continue to platform and support Strachan’s views have not just promoted their conservative American gender roles to a deeply outsized level of importance, they’ve actually decided that American gender roles are more important than the church’s traditional views on Jesus himself!
I don’t know what the solution is. The traditional definition of a “major” is something like “something that’s required for salvation”. But several beliefs on that list don’t fit — and on the other hand, Jesus’s preaching about judgment is almost always about how rich people who don’t care for the poor go to hell, even if they have faith in him, which would move “care for the poor” up to a “major.”
I don’t think we can ignore the question entirely. It’s hard for me to imagine a church where people who major “love for the poor” coexist with people who explicitly object to it being particularly stable in the long run — we just get frustrated and sad when leadership won’t major the important things, while I’ve heard stories of people leaving churches because the leadership majored these things!
Part of me wants to write a list of things I think should be major and advocate for that, but I think that would just be a new form of the same problem — after all, where did the white Evangelical church’s list of majors come from? They came from men like me making lists like this of their opinions and teaching that these were “objectively the most important parts of faith”. (Maybe the lack of justice themes reflects the fact that, in the American context, an outsized number of these men who continue to influence us owned slaves.) They got some things right, and some things very very wrong, and I’d equally risk enshrining my own blind spots as “the faith”.
Maybe the lesson is just that we should have lots of diverse churches and people in leadership, so that lots of different aspects of faith get represented? But that’s not quite what I’d hope for: when I see pastors on twitter posting racist or conspiratorial nonsense there’s a very deep part of me that says “these men fundamentally don’t understand the gospel,” which means I am holding other people to my standard of majors and minors and I think I’m right to.
So maybe the answer is we just chaotically and imperfectly plod along and we’ll be right about some things and wrong about other things and we do our best to find churches that are right about what we think is important and we hope God sorts it all out in the end.
I’m not sure. But I think I’m going to keep this “major/minor” language, because I think it will at least help me to understand where people I deeply disagree with are coming from.
I happened to spell this word right on the first try, and I’m very proud of myself.