Saturday, December 8, 2012

In Essentials, Unity; In Non-Essentials, Liberty

The titular phrase is often invoked by Christians attempting to communicate that there are some battles over which we should not part company. Sometimes, however, the saying is attacked. Usually the idea is that all of biblical doctrine is important, so that there really are no non-essentials. Recently, I read a brief statement criticizing the saying, and I responded via e-mail. It is edited for identity purposes (for now), but is content-wise what I wrote.

Hello Mr. X,

I believe we ought to confront error lovingly within the realm of believers. I hope you feel the same way. Concerning your most recent . . . [post], you have a quoted passage from I.M. Haldeman concerning “non-essentials.” I believe it trades on an ambiguity in order to perpetuate a mistake in critical thinking.

First, some preliminary discussion on parts of the quote. “He is the great economist and never . . . does anything that is unnecessary.” Really? A consequence of this thinking is that God’s creation is therefore necessary. Not only that, but we are lead to the troubling conclusion that each individual God did in fact create is not only “helpful” but necessary as well. I see no reason God could not have chosen to create something else than that which He did create (or even to refrain from creating human persons at all). But since this is the premise on which the rest of the quote hinges, we can see his conclusions do not follow.

More than that, however, I think his conclusions are false. Whenever someone says something like “all doctrines are essential” in response to the oft-quoted “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty,” the first question that must be asked is this: essential for what? The people who quote the phrase tend to mean something very much like, essential for the Gospel and non-essential for the Gospel; the entire phrase means “One must believe X in order to be saved,” and “if one denies X, he is not saved.” 

I suspect you will want to know if that is indeed what people mean when they say this. In any case, I can tell you that I certainly mean it. John Hammett writes of believers, “He [God] brings believers together, building them into one holy temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21). Their common possession of the Spirit produces the mortar of fellowship that binds them into a community.” (Hammett, “Human Nature,” A Theology for the Church, Daniel L. Akin, ed. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007, 399). For Hammett, then, what the concept of unity in the church is intertwined with is the bond of the Spirit, which is what occurs between all believers. John 17 bears this out.

Now let’s explore the ramifications of this use of “essential.” If every doctrine is essential to salvation in the above relevant sense, then anyone who disagrees with me on any doctrine ought to be regarded by me to be unsaved. This hardline stance can only be avoided if we amend the definition of “essential” to mean something like “really important” or “of great holiness [God’s truth, after all] and value.” But using the same term to convey two different meanings is the fallacy of equivocation. Most of these men would agree to your use and application of this second definition. However, it is a mistake to criticize the teaching on that basis.

It occurs to me you could simply bite the bullet and declare that, yes, everyone who disagrees with you about a doctrine taught in the Bible is unsaved. I suspect you will not take this route. Rather, I suspect you will simply attempt to explain that these people don’t think doctrine is important enough. Let’s suppose that’s true for a moment. How would that invalidate the principle, again? Please consider what I have said. 

God Bless,

Randy Everist


  1. And in all things charity! That's my signature over at RF.

    It is a foolish thing to conflate one's interpretation, with Scripture itself. Well said Randy. ;)

  2. Thanks for commenting Frank! Hope all is well.

  3. It begs the question, what is essential? If there is disagreement, how do you determine if this is a liberty issue or unity issue? See, this is just a cop out for the mess Protestantism has wrought.

    1. Hi Adrian, thanks for your comments! I would like to point out, however, that there is no question-begging going on by anyone, at least not yet! In my thesis in my article above, I argue that something should be regarded to be essential, and not a matter of liberty (it's very important we restrict the content of "liberty" to being in matters of doctrine in local churches, and not that "anything goes" for every individual--this way they are responsible to a local community of faith in Jesus Christ) so long as it is essential for salvation. How we tell what is essential for salvation is from the Scriptures. I'm just not seeing what is a cop out, or what's being copped out of. :)


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