Frequently, prudence is a matter of picking your problem. In a finite and fallen world, we will always be faced with trade-offs and difficulties. As church leaders, called to lead together in a particular locale, many of our decisions involve selecting which problems we hope to address and which problems we hope to manage over the long term.
One of the highlights of my job as a college and seminary president is regularly interacting with aspiring pastors at our weekly lunch-hour Table Talk.
The discussion invariably turns to matters of practical ministry in the local church. Questions about liturgy and the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Table, about the practical outworkings of our complementarian convictions, about requirements for church membership. Often, the question comes, “But is it biblical? Is it sinful to do things this way versus that way?”
Often, my answer comes back with, “This question belongs in the Prudence Bucket.”
The Prudence Bucket is my way of referring to the reality that many aspects of local church ministry and life are matters of biblically informed prudence. In the words of both the Westminster Confession of Faith and the London Baptist Confession, “There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (1.6).
The category of prudence or wisdom is built on the distinction between principles and application. On the one hand, we have general principles, derived from general or special revelation. On the other hand, we have the application of those principles in particular, concrete settings.
A classic biblical example of wisdom is Solomon. There was no verse in Leviticus that told him what to do when two prostitutes show up, both claiming to be the mother of one child. Yet by the grace of God, Solomon was able to wisely apply general principles of reality (for example, knowledge of motherly affection and grief) in a very difficult situation to reveal the identity of the mother. Wisdom consisted in rightly bringing the general principle to bear on that particular circumstance.
The book of Proverbs is filled with such general principles. What’s more, the book itself recognizes the need to apply the principles in different settings. The most obvious example is Proverbs 26:4–5:
Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
This juxtaposition assumes that there are times when we should follow the first, and times when we should follow the second. These are general principles that must be wisely applied in particular circumstances. Over the last two decades, I’ve come to appreciate the need for clarity on which issues are simple matters of obedience and disobedience, and which issues belong in the Prudence Bucket.
The Prudence Bucket allows us to distinguish decisions and practices that are directly unfaithful or disobedient from decisions and practices that are simply unwise and imprudent. This is important. Some people wrongly assume that putting a decision in the Prudence Bucket means “Anything goes.” But wisdom involves a spectrum or range of options. Applying the principle may take many forms.
Some decisions are outside the spectrum; that is, they violate the general principle itself. In that case, the decision is directly disobedient.