What are the essentials of the Christian faith? What are the beliefs and practices worth fighting for and what are the ones about which can welcome and even encourage differences? There are some matters of belief and doctrine that are primary and non-negotiable, there are others that are secondary and over which we can both disagree and remain unified as a church. What are they? Where do you draw the line? What perspective does Scripture bring? How do we know what things are worth dividing over and what things we can charitably disagree about?
During our study through Romans 14:1-15:13 we’ve seen a remarkable thing: encouragement to preserve two different opinions about how to live the Christian life, while remaining unified in the church. A controversy seems to have developed in the church in Rome and some believers believed they should only eat vegetables, preserve certain days as special, and not drink wine. Others, including Paul, thought otherwise, but his counsel to them wasn’t to all get on the same page about these things, but to be convinced of their own opinions and to love and respect one another, welcoming one another as Christ welcomed them (14:1 & 3; 15:7).
God has provided no master list of these things; he’s left it to us to engage our hearts and minds, and to lean on him, as we sort these things out. And sort them out we must. For example, churches and denominations are deciding today whether homosexual marriage is a legitimate expression of biblical Christianity, and whether to unite or divide over that. How do we know where to draw the line? Here are four principles we can put into practice to help.
- Listen to Scripture for clues.
As we read through Scripture, God gives us hints and pointers as to which things are more important and which are less. We hear in 1 Corinthians 15:3 some things of first importance: Christ’s death, resurrection, and appearance to many. We hear in 1 Timothy 1 of speculations and vain discussions about myths and genealogies, clearly these are non-essentials (or less!). We also hear about trustworthy sayings (1 Timothy 4:9-10) and the essential message God gave to Paul to preach (1 Timothy 2:7), which reveals salvation through God and the only mediator between God and people: Jesus Christ. We want to listen to Jesus summarize the OT into two laws of love (Mark 12:30-31). We’ll note places like Acts 15 where the church had to settle a dispute and determined that the essential thing was for Gentiles to trust in Christ, not to be circumcised. Essential beliefs and practices rise to the top as we listen in this way and we see salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone at the top of the list.
- Listen to the Holy Spirit speaking through the church.
Churches and church history are not infallible, yet the Lord is at work in his church and there’s much we can learn from how the church has sorted out essentials and non-essentials. Creeds, like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed summarize the basics for us. Catechisms, like the New City Catechism, boil down the essentials that must be passed along to children or new believers. Statements of Faith, like the one RGC has developed here, are our attempt to get the essentials out there in a few pages.
We can also benefit from reading church history and seeing where they got it right (see the Reformation’s focus on the gospel) and where they made mistakes. In the 1800’s, for example, many Christians expected Jesus’ return so soon that they quit their jobs and sold their possessions. An unfortunate elevating of a non-essential to an essential.
- Consider the impact.
What happens if people believe or practice in a certain way? Asking this can help clarify the importance of the matter. If some spiritual gifts are neglected, or if one approach to educating children is overemphasized, this will weaken the church, but it won’t prove to be fatal. However, if the exclusivity of salvation in Christ alone is abandoned, then the church will quickly lose its identity as the body of Christ and its authority as the herald for the gospel of Christ.
- Distinguish between areas of command/prohibition and areas of wisdom.
Some things in the Christian life are required; some things are prohibited. The rest must be sorted out looking for biblical principles, depending upon the Holy Spirit, and gaining wisdom from life in community. In the church in Rome, for example, some believers seemed to understand that they couldn’t eat meat because they needed to adhere to the clean/unclean standards of the old covenant. Paul knew better, and he himself ate meat. But he understood that while eating meat was permissible it was not required to live the Christian life. He left this in the category of wisdom.
We will do well to look for biblical principles and allow for a variety of practices. For example, when it comes to giving away our money, we have principles of giving generously and joyfully, with tithing as a recommended practice. Settling questions of exactly how much, and when, is a matter of wisdom.
This is all hard work, isn’t it? As we work at this, in all these things we want to walk together in love (Romans 14:15), pray for unity (Romans 15:5-6), welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us (Romans 15:7), and pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding. (Romans 14:19)
P.S. Do you have thoughts about this post? Or ideas for future posts? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org