It may sound rather strange to some ears, but at the turn of the 20th century there was some debate among Churches of Christ whether the Sermon on the Mount was intended for Christians. For example, Lipscomb was asked on one occasion whether he could “show that it s a Christian duty to try to obey everything taught by Christ in the sermon recorded in Matthew 5-7 and in Luke 6?” Giving away their own heremeneutical perspective, the querist further asked, “Should not Christians in this age go to the Epistles, rather, for teaching as to their duty?” (See Shepherd, ed, Queries and Answers [Cincinnati: F. L. Rowe, 1918], 384.)
James A. Harding, who shared Lipscomb’s convictions on this point, contended that the Sermon of the Mount is kingdom ethics against those who would deny its applicability to Christians (see, for example,“To Whom Was the Sermon on the Mount Addressed? A Reply to Dr. Holloway,” Christian Leader and the Way 20.14 [3 April 1906], 8-9, “Bro. Devore’s Criticism and My Reply,” Christian Leader and the Way 21.8 [19 February 1907], 8-9 and “A Reply to Bro. Miller’s View Concerning the Sermon on the Mount,” Christian Leader and the Way 21.11 [12 March 1907], 8-9). It seems that the undermining of the Sermon of Mount as belonging either the Jewish dispensation or only applicable to the apostles was not too rare among Churches of Christ at the beginning of the 20th century.
While there is legitimate concern that some are devaluing Paul in order to exalt the Gospels in our own day, our history within Churches of Christ is one that exalts Paul over the Gospels. It is part of our original DNA as Alexander Campbell taught that “neither are the statutes and laws of the Christian kingdom to be sought for in the Jewish scriptures, nor antecedent to the day of Pentecost; except so far as our Lord himself, during his lifetime propounded the doctrine of his reign” (Christian System, p. 123). The exceptions quickly disappeared among some, and so much so that even the Sermon on the Mount was thought to only apply to the twelve or were versions of kingdom ethics for Jews or disciples prior to Pentecost.
Lipscomb responded, in part, that “the Sermon on the Mount is the summing up, the announcement of the great principles that were to govern in his kingdom. The Epistles and all the teachings of the apostles are a reiteration of his teachings and the application of them to the affairs of life as they arose.”
“So the Sermon on the Mount is the presentation of the great fundamental principles of the Christian dispensation, and the Epistles are the application of these principle to the conditions of life by the Holy Spirit. Then there is not a single principle taught in the Sermon on the Mount but what is reiterated and applied in the Epistles…these teachings of Christ were to make men like God, that they might be fitted to dwell with him. Do not all Christians need to be trained into a fitness to dwell with God as much as the apostles did?” (Queries and Answers, p. 384).
The Gospels are foundational and the Epistles are applications. Lipscomb is thinking about ethics, I surmise. I wonder if we should not think this way in terms of the Christian faith itself. The Gospels describe our faith as following Jesus, that is, participating in the ministry of Jesus. The Epistles (e.g., Paul) illustrate and apply how to do that in a Greco-Roman context. The Gospels lay the foundation and the Epistles guide our way. There is no need to choose one over the other. Instead, we hold both together and correlate their theological function.
Theologically, we might put it this way: the Gospels are foundational exhortations to participate in the story and the Epistles are concrete applications for concrete situations rooted in the ministry and work of Christ.
I think Lipscomb would have agreed to some extent. He writes: “One can find the principles and duties of life presented in the Epistles; he can find these principles much more concisely and connectedly set forth in the Sermon on the Mount. It is like a lawyer taking the laws, and then searching the decisions of the courts construing and applying the laws. The Sermon on the Mount is a presentation fo the principles that prevail in heaven. They are given that man may practice them here and by this fit himself to live in heaven.”
The centrality of the Sermon on the Mount is at the heart of Lipscomb’s political and ethical orientation. Here are a couple of other examples from Civil Government (pp. 57-58 and 133).
Christ having resisted successfully these tempting offers of the devil, and having shown his true loyalty to God, the angels of God came and ministered unto him. He then lays down the principles that must govern in his kingdom. They are epitomized in 5th, 6th, and 7th chapters of Matthew. These principles are diverse from and antagonistic to the principles that have obtained and must ever obtain in all human governments. No human government can possibly be maintained and conducted on these principles laid down for the government of Christ’s subjects in his kingdom. The spirit that prompts the practice of the principles is opposed to the spirit needful for the maintenance of human governments. The two spirits cannot dwell in the same heart, nor the same temple, or institution. A man cannot be gentle, forgiving, doing good for evil, turning the other cheek when one is smitten, praying “for them that despitefully use and persecute” him, and at the same time execute wrath and vengeance on the evil-doer, as the human government is ordained to do, and as it must do to sustain its authority and maintain its existence.
The sermon on the Mount, embraced in the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of Matthew, certainly contain the living and essential principles of the religion the Savior came to establish, those which must pervade and control the hearts and lives of men, without which no man can be a Christian.