Essentials, Non-Essentials and Unity


During the dark ages, the Roman Catholic Church attempted to achieve unity by force.  Dissention was simply not tolerated.  Many true Christians were persecuted and killed for questioning official church doctrine.  The Reformation attempted to produce a new church, one that would be united in worship and free from the idolatrous practices of Rome.  However, today, there are estimated to be over 1700 Christian denominations.  The Reformation failed to bring unity.  Today Christians are divided by major issues, such as Christology, tradition versus scripture, and separation of church and state.  Sadly, we are also divided by minor issues, such as doctrinal details, prophetic interpretation, and personality conflicts.  Yet Paul said:

One body there is, and one spirit, even as YOU were called in the one hope to which YOU were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism;one God and Father of all [persons], who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6, NWT)

How can we achieve this?  How can our Christian fellowships be unified in worship?  We suggest the following guiding principle:

“In essentials unity, in non-essentials freedom, in all things love.”

What are Essentials?

Essentials are those scriptural beliefs and practices that are absolutely necessary for salvation.  Unfortunately some religious organizations have developed belief systems beyond these essentials which are then imposed on their followers.

The great thinker and Christian writer John Locke, in The Reasonableness of Christianity, written in 1695, protested against this.  Note he was protesting against the Church of England, not the Roman Catholic Church.

I allow to the makers of systems and their followers to invent and use what distinctions they please and to call things by what names they think fit. But I cannot allow to them, or to any man, an authority to make a religion for me or to alter that which God hath revealed.

We must clearly differentiate biblical essentials from the teachings that the “makers of systems” devise.  We must examine the scriptures to see what essential beliefs Jesus and the Apostles preached, and more specifically, what beliefs were considered essential for salvation.

A good rule of thumb, when trying to determine biblical truth, is the following.  If a teaching is an explicit bible teaching, then we should believe it.  If it is an interpretation, or opinion of man, then it should be held as tentative or of secondary importance.  It may or may not be true.  For example, an explicit bible teaching is “Jesus is the Christ”, or “God created the heavens and the earth.” These teachings are clearly and unambiguously stated in scripture, and we must believe them if we believe God’s Word is true.  An example of interpretation is “Babylon the Great is false religion.”, or “God’s Kingdom is expressed and developed through the Protestant churches.”   These beliefs may be true, but we cannot be certain, because they are interpretations, not explicit biblical teachings.  We should never impose interpretations of scripture or opinions on our brothers.  Christians are not required to believe them.

The bible clearly teaches that Jesus was the Messiah, but was belief in him sufficient for salvation?  We will examine the book of Acts and Paul’s writings to see what the disciples viewed as essential for salvation.

For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 3:11)

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:36-39)

Philip opened his mouth and, starting with this Scripture, he declared to him the good news about Jesus.Now as they were going over the road, they came to a certain body of water, and the eunuch said: “Look! A body of water; what prevents me from getting baptized?”—With that he commanded the chariot to halt, and they both went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. (Acts 8:34-39)

To him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness, that everyone putting faith in him gets forgiveness of sins through his name.” Acts 10:34-38

“Sirs, what must I do to get saved?”  They said: “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will get saved, you and your household.”  (Acts 16:30, 31)

For if you publicly declare that ‘word in your own mouth,’ that Jesus is Lord, and exercise faith in your heart that God raised him up from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)

So we see, from scripture, the belief essential for salvation is the belief that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord.  No man or religious organization is authorized to impose additional beliefs on us, claiming they are essential.  Of course belief in Jesus implies a belief in God the Father of our Lord, who sent him.  We cannot believe in Jesus without believing in God the Father, creator of all things.  This belief is implied if we believe Jesus, Son of God, is the Christ.

What about the Kingdom of God?

The Kingdom of God was central to the preaching and teaching of Jesus Christ.  His disciples continued to preach about the Kingdom of God after his death and resurrection, as well as the saving power of the name of Jesus (Acts 8:12, 19:8, 28:31).  But what is the kingdom?  It is the promised governance of God through His Messiah, Jesus Christ.  In the future the Messiah will rule over the earth, ushering in an era of Godly justice and righteousness.  The Jews and early disciples would know this from the many Old Testament prophecies (Psalms 2, Daniel 2:44).  By accepting Jesus as Messiah we are also accepting him as our King, the promised king of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus Christ is both priest and king in the manner of Melchizedek (Heb 5:6).  He saves us from our sins and is the embodiment and representative of God’s Kingdom, since he is the king of that kingdom.  By keeping Jesus Christ central in our fellowships, and not doctrinal systems, we avoid the arguments and divisions over details of what the Kingdom of God will be like in the future—most of which are interpretive in nature and therefore should not be viewed as requirements for salvation.

John Locke, in The Reasonableness of Christianity, summarizes:

But considering the frailty of man, apt to run into corruption and misery, he [God] promised a deliverer, whom in his good time he sent, and then declared to all mankind, that whoever would believe him to be the Savior promised and take him (now raised from the dead and constituted the Lord and Judge of all men) to be their King and Ruler, should be saved.  This is a plain, intelligible proposition, and the all-merciful God seems herein to have consulted the poor of this world and the bulk of mankind.

God’s Word, the Bible

We are assuming, in this investigation, that the bible is the Word of God.  Without this assumption, it would be impossible to find agreement on belief, since there is nothing else from which to measure or test a belief upon.  We also note that the apostles and Jesus himself had the highest regard for scripture as then written, quoting from it liberally.  The second essential, then, is that the bible is God’s Word and therefore true.

All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness,that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17)

Our Christian essentials, then, can be reduced to the following three points:

There is one God, our Heavenly Father, creator of all things, to whom we render exclusive worship

Jesus Christ, the son of God, is our Lord, Savior and King, the only mediator between God and man

The bible is the Word of God

Our Christian unity, then, at least as far as essential doctrine, should be based on these essentials.  We should not impose additional beliefs on our brothers, claiming that these are important for salvation.  We should keep Jesus Christ central in the worship of our Heavenly Father, always remembering the love the Father had for us in that He gave his only son so we could have life.  If we keep this in mind, it will be a unifying force in our fellowships.

In Non-Essentials Freedom

Worshipping our Heavenly Father, accepting Jesus Christ as Savior, and the bible as the Word of God are certainly essentials, yet the Christian is expected to progress beyond basic teachings.

For this reason, now that we have left the primary doctrine about the Christ, let us press on to maturity (Hebrews 6:6).

So the new Christian is encouraged to study God’s Word, meditate upon it, pray about it, read books about it, and discuss it with other Christians, as he or she progresses to Christian maturity.  It is important for us all to do this, but it is equally important to understand that these things are not essential for salvation.  What things are we talking about?

Prophetic interpretation

Views regarding the millennium

The nature of our new bodies in the resurrection

Israel’s place in God’s purpose

The death state

The interpretation of types and patterns in the Old Testament

The nature of the Holy Spirit

…and so on

These are all important questions for study, and many brothers and sisters have developed some interesting and thought-provoking views.  But again, although important questions, these are not essentials for salvation according to scripture.  We should allow maximum freedom to our brothers in Non-Essentials.  Where we have points of difference, instead of getting into protracted arguments, why not simply state our position, have a discussion, and then move on?  Ongoing arguments over non-essential points of doctrine divide and cause hurt feelings.  Christians should instead show humility, love, and patience with their brothers and sisters.  We should have the faith that Jesus Christ, head of his congregation, knows how to teach each of us.  We should then show patience and allow him to do this.

A word of caution may be in order.  We shouldn’t attempt to suppress discussion in our fellowships, in an attempt to avoid arguments.  This is not a healthy situation.  Our brothers and sisters must be able to express their beliefs and ideas in an atmosphere of freedom, and we should listen respectfully.  We should try hard to understand what they are saying and why they believe what they believe.  We should never ridicule someone for having a particular belief, but we should simply present our scriptural view, and trust the Lord to lead them in his time.  We should also have the humility to admit when we are wrong, and be willing to change our beliefs.

In All Things Love

Correct doctrine is important if we are to worship in “spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).  But it is primarily love that would identify Jesus’ true disciples.

Note that highly principled Christian love begins with Jesus and his Father:

“If anyone loves me, he will observe my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our abode with him.” (John 14:23)

“And I have made your [the Father’s] name known to them and will make it known, in order that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in union with them.” (John 17:26)

Note the encouragement to love our brothers and sisters:

“I am giving YOU a new commandment, that YOU love one another; just as I have loved YOU, that YOU also love one another.By this all will know that YOU are my disciples, if YOU have love among yourselves.” (John 13:34-35)

“This is my commandment, that YOU love one another just as I have loved YOU. No one has love greater than this, that someone should surrender his soul in behalf of his friends.” (John 15:12-13)

Do not YOU people be owing anybody a single thing, except to love one another. (Rom 13:8)

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. (I Cor 8:1-3)

In brotherly love have tender affection for one another. In showing honor to one another take the lead. (Romans 12:10)

Through love slave for one another. (Gal 15:13)

What do these scriptures tell us?

Love begins with God’s love for us through Christ

We are to return that love from our Heavenly Father and His son Jesus Christ

We are to have principled, Christian love for our brothers and sisters, even to the point of slaving for them and suffering for them if necessary

True Christians are identified by this love, not by adherence to some doctrinal system

True, principled, Christian love is the most powerful source of unity—much more powerful than agreeing to a doctrinal system.  If the person of Jesus Christ is central, and we have a deep love and devotion to him and our Heavenly Father, as well as to our brothers and sisters, then it will be difficult for divisions to arise.  In such an environment, doctrinal truth will increasingly emerge as the Lord gently leads each Christian in their walk with him.  Instead of imposing doctrine, we allow truth to emerge naturally, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, according to scripture, and under the leadership of our teacher and Lord, Jesus Christ.

“In essentials unity, in non-essentials freedom, in all things love.”

Image: Aaron Burden.

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