“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”
This phrase has shown up in a couple of conversations I’ve had in the past few days, and it has stuck with me. It is variously attributed: some say it was Augustine of Hippo, others say it was John Wesley, and still others attribute it to one or another person.
It is a phrase commonly used among Christians, and almost certainly it arose from some sort of theological discussion. It remains an extremely helpful reminder to us as we look at what it means to be the church in various expressions today, but it has its share of challenges, too.
I think most every sane follower of Jesus can agree that “in all things, charity”, or love, is crucial. Jesus told us his disciples of old to love one another, and that applies to his disciples today, too.
What, though, is considered “essential”, and what is considered “non-essential”? That’s the tough question this phrase begs.
There will be a lot of answers to this, to be sure. But followers of Jesus generally can agree on some key essentials, such as a belief in the Triune God: God the Father, made known in his Son Jesus Christ, living in believers today by the Holy Spirit. Basic stuff.
We can consider essential that Jesus died for our sins, and rose again – bodily – on the third day.
But once you get past these key beliefs, the definition of “essential” starts to vary. And this is why, I think, we will always have denominations. There will be different branches of the church of Jesus that hold different tenets as essential.
The big challenge comes when a Christian group opts not to define what it considers to be essential. If a creedal church – one that upholds the ancient creeds of the early church – simply states that the Apostles’ Creed, or the Nicene Creed, is what defines what is essential, is that sufficient? (After all, even the Nicene Creed has two versions, depending on whether you believe the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father. A lot of ink was spilled over that one a long time ago.)
The Bible is replete with statements that any church could consider to be essential, core statements of faith. I don’t think it’s up to each person alone to decide what is essential. Certainly, as an individual, I can read Scripture and discern what I believe is most important to my faith, but then I am wise to affiliate with a body of believers that holds those tenets as essential.
Whatever those essentials are, they need to be grounded in a simple reading of Scripture, and grounded in the history of the church. The Holy Spirit still works, to be sure, and the Holy Spirit never contradicts the Word of God.
So ask yourself: what is essential for your church? What is essential for you? And then ask the Holy Spirit living within you to enable you to live in charity – in love – even with those with whom you disagree.
Sometimes, that can be difficult, and sometimes it means keeping fellowship at a distance. That may be a different definition of unity, but in this day and age, it may be all we have.
“Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3.13-14, NLT).