MATURITY IN ESSENTIALS AND NON-ESSENTIALS
Pastor John Samson
“till we all come to the unity of the faith..” Ephesians 4:13
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” – Augustine
Doctrine divides! It divides truth from error. It divides the true teacher from the false teacher; the spirit of truth from the spirit of error; and the true Christ from the Anti-Christ.
In the Church, Christians hold differing views about important, yet non-essential matters. Let me explain. There are doctrines in the Bible that while very important, are not essential to salvation. For instance, whether or not someone believes in the baptism of infants or whether or not God still heals today, I think are important issues; yet, what someone believes about these is not essential to someone being included or excluded from the kingdom of God. Someone is not a “false teacher” who takes a different position on these issues. The same is true for doctrines such as whether Christians today should tithe on their income as in Old Testament times, or whether someone is “pre-trib,” “mid-trib,” or “post-trib” in their belief about the end times, or for those who take different positions on the millennnium – “a”, “pre” or “post.” Sincere, godly, dedicated believers believe different things about these issues, but it does not mean that one person is saved and another damned because they have a different view.
As Christians, what unites us, vastly outweighs what might divide us. In the essentials, such as the Deity of Christ, the Trinity, justification by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, etc., we need to be in agreement. As this quote, which historically has been attributed to Augustine states, “In essentials, unity.” We cannot compromise on these major issues of the Gospel. These are non-negotiables. In fact, to depart from these doctrines is to depart from the Christian faith itself.
Knowing the difference between the essentials and the non-essentials takes a great deal of maturity at times. Christians have been notorious for dividing over such minor issues, and the Body of Christ has been less effective because of it. Our track record is not at all good, in this regard. The boundary lines are drawn by the Gospel itself. We must be united in the Gospel for true Christian unity to exist. But where this does in fact exist, let us celebrate it, standing united for the cause of Christ.
Augustine went on to say, “in non-essentials, liberty.” Christians need to allow their brothers and sisters room to hold differing positions on some issues without breaking fellowship with them. This takes a great deal of maturity. Church history shows us that the Body of Christ as a whole has not been very good at this. We tend to disassociate ourselves from Christians who don’t have the exact same understanding of the spiritual gifts, the end times, Divine election, or even when a child is old enough to be baptized. These are important issues, of course. In fact, there is only one true biblical position on these issues – not everyone is right! There is a right answer and a wrong answer. In fact, there are many wrong answers. God is not confused on these issues, even if we are. We should note too that God doesn’t ever give us the right to believe false doctrine. If there are two people with differing positions on an issue, at least one of them is grieving the Lord in terms of what they believe. Yet the point is that both people can believe that, disagree on a certain issue with a fellow brother or sister and yet believe the best of the other – that if the other person could be convinced by sacred scripture concerning the truth of the matter, they believe the other one would change their beliefs immediately. But disagreement on these important but non-essential things should not divide us, if we are united in the Gospel.
This is not to minimize doctrine. In a local Church it is entirely right for eldership to state in categorical terms, just what it is that they believe scripture to be teaching. This is part of their function as elders. Yet, in doing so, we must all recognize our fellow brothers and sisters in the entire Body of Christ, and know that God embraces many who hold differing positions to us on some issues.
The scripture commands us to “maintain the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3) “until we all come to the unity of the faith.” (Eph. 4:13). For God to tell us to maintain something, it shows clearly that we already have possession of it. For instance, we cannot maintain a photocopier unless we first have the photocopier in our care. We are called to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. This we are to do “until we all come to the unity of the faith.”
Augustine’s quote ends by saying, “in all things, charity (or love).” Let love be chief amongst us, His people. May we unite for the sake of the Gospel, while God, the Holy Spirit continues to lead His people into all truth.
as a follow up to this, here are some scriptures to consider that show that some truths are more important than others – from an article by Dr. Phil Johnson:
Common sense makes it crystal-clear to most people that some truths in Scripture are of primary importance, and other truths are less vital.
For example, most people would agree that the deity of Christ is an essential doctrine of Christianity, but Sabbatarianism is not. (In other words, committed Christians might differ among themselves on the question of whether and how rigorously the Old Testament Sabbath restrictions should apply to Christians on the Lord’s day; but authentic Christians do not disagree on whether Jesus is God.) Again, common sense is sufficient for most people to recognize the validity of some distinction between primary and secondary truths.
Unfortunately, “common sense” is not as common as it used to be. (It’s one of the early fatalities of the postmodern era.) And with increasing frequency, I encounter people who challenge the distinction evangelicals have historically made between fundamental and secondary doctrines.
Some rather extreme fellows have begun a quasi-Christian cult located not far from where I live, and they actually teach that all truth is primary and every disagreement is worth fighting about and ultimately dividing over if agreement cannot be reached. Either agree with them on everything, or you are going to hell.
Others””equally extreme””argue, in effect, that “truth” isn’t primary at all; relationships are, and therefore no proposition or point of truth is ever worth arguing about with another professing Christian. The latter position is gaining adherents at a frightening pace.
Does the Bible recognize a valid distinction between fundamental and secondary doctrines? How would you refute someone who insisted that all truth is of equal import? How do you answer those who claim no truth is worth arguing over? Could you make a biblical case for a hierarchy of truths, or for recognizing a distinction between core doctrines and peripheral ones? If so, how do you tell the difference? Do you have biblical guidelines for that? What if we disagree on whether a particular doctrine is essential or secondary? How is that question to be settled?
Those are questions which in my opinion have not been pondered seriously enough by contemporary evangelicals. You have to go back a couple of centuries to find writers who wrestled with such concerns in any depth. Volume 1 of Francis Turretin’s Elenctic Theology includes a section discussing this subject (starting on page 49). Herman Witsius also deals with it near the beginning of vol. 1 of his two-volume work titled The Apostles’ Creed.
It seems to me that the distinction between primary and secondary doctrines is implicit rather than explicit in Scripture. But I think the distinction is still very clear. Here, briefly, are five biblical arguments in favor of making some kind of distinction between primary and secondary doctrines:
Jesus Himself suggested that some errors are gnats and some are camels (Matt. 23:24-25). And He stated that some matters of the law are “weightier” than others (v. 23). Think about it; such distinctions could not be made if every point of truth were essential.
Paul likewise speaks of truths that are “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3)””clearly indicating that there is a hierarchy of doctrinal significance.
Certain issues are plainly identified by Scripture as fundamental or essential doctrines. These include:
doctrines that Scripture makes essential to saving faith (e.g., justification by faith””Rom. 4:4-5; knowledge of the true God””Jn. 17:3; the bodily resurrection””1 Cor. 15:4; and several others).
doctrines that Scripture forbids us to deny under threat of condemnation (e.g., 1 Jn. 1:6, 8, 10; 1 Cor. 16:22; 1 Jn. 4:2-3).
Since these doctrines are explicitly said to make a difference between heaven and hell while others (the “gnats” Jesus spoke of) are not assigned that level of importance, a distinction between fundamental and secondary truths is clearly implied.
Paul distinguished between the foundation and that which is built on the foundation (1 Cor. 3:11-13). The foundation is established in Christ, and “no other foundation” may be laid. Paul suggests, however, that the edifice itself will be built with some wood, hay, and stubble. Again, this seems to suggest that while there is no tolerance whatsoever for error in the foundation, some of the individual building-blocks, though important, are not of the same fundamental importance.
The principle Paul sets forth in Roman 14 also has serious implications for this question. There were some differences of opinion in the Roman church which Paul declined to make into hard-and-fast matters of truth vs. heresy. In Romans 14:5, he writes, “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” That clearly allows a measure of tolerance for two differing opinions on what is undeniably a point of doctrine. As an apostle, Paul could simply have handed down a ruling that would have settled the controversy. In fact, elsewhere he did give clear instructions that speaks to the very doctrine under debate in Romans 14 (cf. Col. 2:16-17). Yet in writing to the Romans, he was more interested in teaching them the principle of tolerance for differing views on matters of less-then-fundamental importance. Surely this is something we should weigh very heavily before we make any point of truth a matter over which we break fellowship.