Faithful gospel ministry has the challenge of holding two principles in ongoing tension with each other. We call these principles the open hand and closed hand.
Open and Closed Hands
The principle of the closed hand is found in Jude 3 where Jude writes, “although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” We are called to fight, to stand for gospel truth. What we believe matters and is worth contending for.
The principle of the open hand can be seen in I Corinthians 9:22-23, where Paul gives his ministry philosophy: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” We’re called to be as flexible as possible, sacrificing o
ur preferences in order to see the gospel advance and lives be changed. Paul dresses, talks, acts and works like the culture he is in, so that he can be heard by the people in that culture with the goal of the gospel advancing and lives being changed by Jesus.
Gospel ministry has a closed hand and an open hand. We recognize that certain things must be fought for. There are definite hills to die on. And at th
e same time, there is great flexibility allowed to us as we minister the gospel to varied cultural settings.
Two Open Hands
If you have two open hands, you have liberalism: nothing matters, nothing is certain, nothing is worth dying for, and you ultimately have no salvation to offer. With two open hands you find yourself accepting that which the Bible finds unacceptable. You end up like the false teachers in Ephesus, “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3.7). This kind of openness and uncertainty gives the perception of humility, while actually being deeply arrogant, presuming to know better than the scriptures.
Two Closed Hands
If you have two closed hands, you have fundamentalism:
everything is fight, everything is worth dividing over, and you quickly become incapable of communicating the gospel to the lost. These guys confuse unity in the gospel with uniformity in ministry. Any deviance from their preferred method is viewed as morally wrong. Paul warns Titus about people that act this way: “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3.10-11).
We need to keep things like the gospel, the inerrancy of the Scriptures, biblical preaching, the substitionary death of Christ, and the resurrection of Jesus as closed hand issues. These are things we will always hold on to no matter what. But we can put secondary doctrines and ministry methods in the open hand. Things like differing views on the end times, spiritual gifts, or the age of the earth. Or ministry strategies like multi-site, music style, liturgy, dress code, service order, or the size of the coffee cups (I wish I were making these examples up). These are things we can disagree over and still have unity.
Let’s not forget that God has given us two hands: contend for the gospel truth and be as flexible as possible for the sake of reaching the lost.