In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.Rupertus Meldenius
We all know this famous line but it is much easier said than done. Especially because there isn’t always an agreement in the articulation about what the “essentials” and the “non-essentials” are.
Years ago, the Committee on Evangelical Unity in the Gospel attempted to articulate a new statement of faith and put together an ecumenical work entitled “This We Believe.” While the articulation was generally accepted by the evangelical community, it didn’t address a foundational concern about the nature of the Bible from which the gospel (main message) is derived. It implied the truth of the New Testament message but did not even mention division in the hermeneutical approach of the contributors. Each ended up with the same conclusion even if they didn’t agree on the method to get there.
There is something to be said about this and the multitude of creeds that have emerged over the years.
Are the essentials found in the Apostles Creed or are they articulated best in the Nicene Creed? How about the Westminster Confession? Or how about the Baptist Faith and Message? Or the Methodist book of discipline? In my persuasion as an ordained minister in the PAOC, we have a SOFET – Statement of Faith and Essential Truths. We have found it lacking and are in the midst of an update.
Each creed may be imperfect in its own way, however, there is general agreement in many areas including:
- The Importance of the Bible
- God in Trinity: Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit
- The Gospel: Sinful humanity, bodily death and resurrection, the atonement of sin, the impartation of righteousness, salvation by grace through faith alone, the return of Jesus to earth, a new heaven and earth
I would contend this constitutes the “essentials” of the faith that need to be held. This list is much shorter than one might expect.
The unfortunate part is that followers of Jesus are often distracted and disagree on issues that are really non-essential in nature. This was the case in the early church which we are directed to avoid (1 Timothy 1:4; Titus 3:9)
Romans 14 is an entire chapter devoted to helping believers distinguish the difference between essentials and non-essentials and navigate them together. The key idea in this chapter is that there are some situations that the Bible remains neutral about. The principle that follows is that each person will ultimately give an account to God for what they do and so where there is no clear directive – the matter must be left between the individual and God. The chapter is clear that this principle only applies where scripture is silent about appropriate moral behaviour. Where there is a clear directive, the principle of conscious’ does not apply.
This is not to say that non-essentials are not important issues. There are many issues that are very important to individuals but the ramifications of ones choice do not have an impact on eternal salvation.
So what are some of these non-essentials that we can apply this principle.
Diet – Are you convinced that it’s better to eat vegetables only? Are you convinced that eating meat is ok? Are you convinced that you can consume certain food and drink? This passage tells you that it is up to your personal conscious. It also tells believers not to compel each other and treat each other differently for having different convictions. The scripture does not give permission to a person to consume substances that make it impossible to walk in self-control.
Days of Worship – This has been an issue right from the beginning. There were those convinced that the day of Christian worship should pattern after the Jewish custom of Saturday. There were those who were convinced that Sunday should be the day of worship. In Romans 14, Paul emphasizes that intention of the person matters and this decision is left up to personal conscious.
Purchases – Meat purchased from pagan temple markets offered a cheaper alternative to meat sold by local butchers. For some, the purchase was similar to financially supporting the local pagan shrine. Others were simply after cheap meat to feed their families. This decision was up to personal conscious. Are their similarities here to arguments for and against fair trade, purchasing local, and supporting sustainable practices? Perhaps.
Science – You probably learned in school that all science is based on a hypothesis that is tested through experiments, observations are made, and so are the conclusions. Scientific journals house the results of thousands of peer-reviewed studies. Time introduces various opinions and the latest research. There is a scientist and a study for various points of view. No one can authoritatively speak on behalf of all science because it is by its nature a discipline of doubt. Science doesn’t trump scripture. Science may present different points of view that a person can be convinced of in their own mind. Do you believe the world was created in epochs or literal days? Do you believe in western or eastern medicine, evolution or creation, etc?
Government & Politics – History has provided different styles and structures of government. The oldest being the authoritarian model of a king ruling over their subjects. In the 17th century, the idea of democracy and capitalism began to spread around the world. in the eighteenth century Marxism and later communism and socialism were models introduced around the world. In the Bible, we know the progression of a theocracy to an authoritarian model in 1 Samuel. Which model is the best? There are arguments for and against. One may have a preference that is rooted in the personal biblical understanding that has become a conviction.
Is there a biblical political party? Does one have to be republican or democrat to be a follower of Jesus? That is personal perspective that is non-essential to ones eternal destination.
Another perspective is this. Perhaps the system isn’t the problem but those running the system. Perhaps we really are all broken and in need of a heart change so that no matter the system everyone can benefit. Or perhaps it’s an indication that we are waiting for heaven and for God the benevolent ruler to oversee us all. Perhaps our tension with our struggle here on earth is an indication that there is a better future yet to come and no matter how hard we try it’s not the system – it’s human nature.
How about gun control, environmental views, reparations, or education styles?
There are several non-essentials that we as believers must not let divide us and learn to handle with kindness – even if we hold a different view. If we don’t, we can create polarization within the body of Christ.
The temptation is to try to use scripture to justify and compel ones platform and point of view. This does not add to unity and the power of diversity in the body of Christ.
Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.Ephesians 4:3
Can you think of other issues that can bring polarization and need to be generally classified as a non-essential?