Assuming the priority of the gospel and then moving on to other things can, and often does, lead to a loss of the gospel. In his book The Cross and Christian Ministry, D. A. Carson makes some observations along these lines in an exegesis of some passages from I Corinthians. One of the things he notes is that the idea of "wisdom," in I Corinthians 2 isn't so much about understanding principles of living or some of the other ideas we commonly associate with wisdom. Rather, "wisdom" refers to a worldview, or a "public philosophy of life." Hence, the "wise man" that Paul was talking about in I Corinthians was probably an advocate of one of the leading philosophies of the day.
Carson contrasts the wisdom of the world to the wisdom of God, which was made known in the cross. He says:
Where "wisdom," as in these chapters, is conceived to be a public philosophy of life and not simply healthy endowments of a common sense or the like, there are only two alternatives: ultimately wisdom is from the world and is opposed by God, or it is God-given and tied to the cross. There is no middle ground. Those who try to create some middle ground by imitating the Corinthians - who confessed the Jesus of the cross but whose hearts were constantly drawn to one or another of the public philosophies and values of the day will gain nothing but the rebuke of the Scripture.
This lesson is especially important when so many Christians today identify themselves with some "single issue" (a concept drawn from politics) other than the cross, other than the gospel. It's not that they deny the gospel. If pressed, they will emphatically endorse it. But their point of self-identification, the focus of their minds and hearts, what occupies thier interest and energy, is something else: a style of worship, the abortion issue, home schooling, the gift of prophecy, pop sociology, a certain brand of counseling, or whatever. Of cousrse, all of these issues have their own importance. Doubtless we need some Christians working on them full time. But even those who are so engaged must do so as an extension of the gospel, as an extension of the message of the cross. They must take special pains to avoid giving any impression that being really spirituaol or really insigutful or really wise turns on an appropriate response to their issue.
I have heard a Mennonite leader assess his own movement in this way. One generation of Mennonites cherisehd the gospel and believed that the entailment of the gospel lay in certain social and political commitments. The next generation assumed the gospel and emphasized the social and political commitments. the present generation identifies itself with the social and political commitments, while the gospel is variously confessed or disowned; it no longer lies at the heart of the belief system of some who call themselves Mennonites.
Whether or not this is a fair reading of the Mennonites, it is certainly a salutary warning for evangelicals at large. We are already at the stage where many evangelical leaders simply assume the message of the cross, but no longer lay much emphasis on it. Their focus is elsewhere. And a few, it seems to me, are in danger of distancing themselves from major components of the message of the cross, while still operating within the context of evangelicalism. It is at least possible that we are the generation of believers who will destroy much of historic Christianity from within - not, in the first instance, by rancid unbelief, but by raising relatively peripheral questions to the place where, functionally, they displace what is central. And what shall the end of this drift be? (pp. 62-63)
I thought this passage was well-nigh prophetic, particularly as he applied the example of the Mennonites to evangelicalism at large. Of course it's not everyone, but I see modern evangelicalism as being smack dab in the middle of that second generation which assumes the gospel to be true but emphasizes social and political commitments. We see this all around us in popular evangelicalism. Carson notes that, biblical wisdom is measured by one's view of the cross. But in this example, one's maturity is measured by one's view of a particular issue.
There's a fine line here. I have argued many times before (as have many others) that one of our problems today is that we are fighting battles that were caused by evangelical withdrawal from social and political spheres. So we certainly don't want to withdraw. However, I am not so sure that our re-engagement in these things as an extension of the gospel, or the message of the cross.
One of the things that I hear many evangelicals saying today is that we are involved politically and socially in order to enable the preaching of the gospel. In other words, our activities in these spheres will facilitate gospel ministry. Carson says that it's the other way around - gospel ministry facilitates activity in these spheres.
That's a distinction that has some merit, it's not merely a semantic thing. If Carson is right, and I think he is, too many of our evangelical leaders simply assume the gospel, while they are really energized by other issues. Michael Scott Horton has said that in evangelical churches today, you can have a completely heterodox view of the person of Christ and be warmly accepted, but if you have a differing view on abortion you will be shunned. Of course its not an either/or, but it does illustrate that our views on social issues far outweigh our views on the weightier issues of the bible and theology.
What I fear is that, in such a climate, we may be giving birth to a generation of Christians who know not the gospel, simply because we have assumed they do.