In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity
For a few years I lived in Waverly, NY, which sits right on the New York/Pennsylvania state border. Rarely a day went by in which I didn’t cross into Pennsylvania for one reason or another. I am also a Canadian citizen and before COVID hit, at least once a year, passport in hand, I would head north to visit my family. All that to say that border crossing is nothing new for me.
One day I got to thinking about a well-known quote. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Though I am almost certain you have never heard of him, this quote is attributed to a German Lutheran theologian named Rupertus Meldenius (just try pronouncing that).
As Christians, there are things that separate us, just as borders separate states and countries and territories. I am part of a denomination (the Christian & Missionary Alliance) and just like every denomination, we have distinctives. While I love my Baptist and Presbyterian friends and have learned much from them, we hail from different tribes. We share much in common, but there are some elements of emphasis and doctrine that separate us. The same could be said of virtually all denominations.
I also have some non-denominational blood in my background. I attended three non-denominational theological schools — Briercrest College and Seminary, Regent College, and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Each of these schools draw students from literally dozens of denominational and non-denominational backgrounds.
The first church I pastored was an independent church in Ohio. But even as an independent, non-denominational church, the church still had distinctives. We had a doctrinal statement and a mission statement along with other elements that made us unique. This is true for every church. No two churches are the same, even those that hail from the same denomination or network. I think it would be fair to say that most (not all) churches and church leaders try not to let their distinctives hinder cooperation with other bible-believing, gospel-centered churches.
With that being said, let me also say there is a place for separation. The Bible clearly teaches separation (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1) from the non-believing and the apostate. There are going to be times where it is unprofitable (and even damaging) to align ourselves with those who reject Biblical truth and the gospel of Christ. So how do we know when to separate? When is it OK to extend the right hand of fellowship and when is it not? This takes us back to our opening quotation — In essentials unity, non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. We all long for unity, but what are the non-negotiables of the Christian faith that when violated would force separation?
Years ago, I heard John MacArthur talk about what he calls “the drivetrain of the gospel.” By this he means the essentials of the Christian faith. MacArthur defines these as belief in “a Triune God, deity of Christ, deity of the Holy Spirit, deity of God the Father, the virgin birth, the sinless life of Christ, substitutionary atonement, literal resurrection, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.”
These essentials, along with a belief and supreme confidence in the Bible as the Word of God, have formed the core of historic Christian doctrine. Where there is a denial of these core doctrinal elements, there can be no cooperation. If there is anything we should be rallying around which can serve as a basis for our unity, it is these foundational biblical truths.
What about non-essentials? What would be a doctrinal issue where two Christians (or churches) may differ on but liberty should be granted? I would suggest things like eschatology (views on the end times) and ecclesiology (views on church governance/baptism) are beliefs that would fit into this category. These are matters where it would be unhelpful and unwise to separate from a brother or sister in Christ just because they don’t share your particular view.
No one wins when all our energies are being poured into non-essentials that separate instead of essentials that should unite us. Charity is always the goal and aim of Christians (1 Corinthians 13).
Is there a place for standing for the truth? Absolutely! As it says in Jude 3, “I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” Satan is waring against the church of Jesus Christ like never before. He knows his time is short. Let’s make sure we are armed and prepared to stand for biblical truth and the essentials of the faith (1 Peter 3:15, Matthew 10:26-33). But let’s make sure we are fighting the right battles. And remember, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
The Rev. Daniel Stegeman is the pastor of Pine Glen Alliance Church in Lewistown.