By Bryan Johnson
The local church is to be the hub of a Christian’s spiritual life and growth. However, as we redeemed sinners live and interact with one another in the body of Christ, there is bound to be some occasional friction. One common area where this can occur is in doctrinal differences and opinions. Of course, these must be handled with clarity and conviction as well as grace and peace. A familiar phrase from church history provides us with helpful counsel: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Though the original source of this mantra is unclear, it undoubtedly forms a wise template for managing the scope of held doctrines, opinions and preferences among Christians in the church.
In Essentials, Unity
In Scripture, there are some basic fundamental truths that should be held and believed and over which there should be no debate within the church. Unfortunately, today’s political correctness and cancel culture are pressuring Christians to soften their grip on such core teachings. The push is to minimize vital doctrine for the sake of public acceptance and the perception that we are tolerant and therefore caring. However, these core teachings are not ours to soften. Instead, they belong to the very foundation of true Christianity itself. Some examples of these truths are: the existence of God, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the total depravity of man, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, salvation by grace through faith alone, the second coming of Christ, and the church as the body of Christ. Since these are foundational doctrines, we are to hold to them in absolute and complete unity in the church. They’re essential to life, which is why Jude 3 exhorts us to “contend for the faith.” That is, earnestly contend for the truths over which we share a common bond. And this unified commitment is needed now more than ever as objective propositional truth is assailed from every angle in our society. The world is steeped in relativism and thus needs Christian churches who are united together on essential truths. Furthermore, this bond to fundamental doctrines ties us together with everyone else who agrees despite any other minor differences we may have.
In Non-essentials, Liberty
At the same time, in the course of living and ministering together as a group of believers, there are inevitable matters on which we will differ. In any church, there are various opinions in what we practice and a range of preferences in applying scriptural principles. Most of these are not core doctrines vital to Christianity. Rather, they’re issues of Christian liberty and mere matters of conscience. The fact is, God’s Word doesn’t tell us what to do in every instance and in each specific detail of life. Therefore, on these issues, we can’t make the mistake that some do in seeking unanimity in the church. In fact, few things are more harmful to a church and to the spread of the gospel than seeking to require unity over non-essentials.Al Mohler, in an article A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity states, “The danger is when secondary issues are raised to a first-order importance, and Christians are wrongly and harmfully divided.” And so rather than seeking unity on non-essentials, we ought to grant one another freedom to come to whatever conclusion our consciences dictate on matters not clearly prescribed in the Scriptures. Romans 14 exhorts us not to pass judgment on one another in these areas. Instead, v. 5 says, ‘each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.’” Truth is, we can disagree on nonessentials and still be wonderfully united on the essentials mentioned above. In fact, when we practice this type of grace and peace with each other in matters of preference, it gives us a perfect opportunity to show a better way…
In All Things, Charity
The overarching goal of all we do as a church is love. 1 Cor. 13 says it best - regardless of what else we accomplish as Christians, if we don’t have love, if we don’t practice charity, we “gain nothing.” Whether it concerns an essential core truth or a non-essential matter of conscience, love must govern all we do. It can be an issue worth dying for or it can be an issue not worth sweating. Either way, we’re to show love to one another in the church. Every ministry we perform, every event we hold, every decision we make, every endeavor we pursue, every conversation we have, every person we serve, charity is our comprehensive and yet affectionate standard. For love is from God (1 Jn. 4:7). And Jesus said, mutual love is the most defining characteristic we can have as Christians in this world (Jn. 13:35). Gavin Ortlund writes in Finding the Right Hills to Die On: “Pursuing the unity of the church does not mean that we should stop caring about theology. But it does mean that our love of theology should never exceed our love of real people, and therefore we must learn to love people amid our theological disagreements.”
To summarize then, the helpful counsel: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” is a clarion call for Christians to make mountains out of biblical mountains and let preferential molehills remain molehills. When it comes to theology, we ought to major on the majors and minor on the minors. Sadly, many a church has wrought confusion and discord by mixing up the two. Worse yet, when that occurs, love is always the first casualty. So as we do life together in the church, let us be unapologetically unified on crucial matters, let us be patiently gracious in ancillary matters and, above all, let us be genuinely loving in every single matter.