This post is way too long. I’ve worked on it for four days. I’m not satisfied with it and it’s probably not as clear as I’d like. In any case, I hope we can find a better way of dealing with the issue of what is essential to our faith than the trail we have blazed thus far.
Last week, I started this series of posts on the issue of essentials and nonessentials. This is an issue that I’ve been wrestling with recently. All my life as a Christian, the essential/nonessential debate was easy for me. I had my line drawn in the sand–and you had to agree with me in order to “have fellowship” with me. Here’s the thing: everyone’s line in the sand is different. Many of us have our line in a similar place, but there’s usually an issue or two that we may disagree on (even if ever so slightly).
The responses to the posts were exactly what I expected: lists of doctrines.
Lines in the sand (heck, the second post asked for them).
As I’ve mulled this over and prayed about it, here’s my observation about our lines in the sand: By firing off a list of what we’re for, we let people know who we’re against. By doing so, we entrench ourselves against others, and our list of essentials is a “no man’s land” of sorts–don’t bother coming across until you agree with me on every single issue. I’m not saying at all that we ditch our differences with others as if they’re unimportant (some wish to do this, which I also think is an unwise approach). What I am trying to say is this: is there a better way of looking at this issue?
We’ve limited the essentials/nonessentials issue to a list of doctrines that must be mentally ascribed to in order to be part of the club. When people don’t agree 100% with our list, its easier to write them off and not consider them part of the family than it is to the difficult work of unifying under the authority of Scripture (by the way, Restoration Movement guys… isn’t that what the early leaders in our movement attempted to do?).
What also makes this issue difficult is that the early church didn’t wrestle with some of the issues we do. The mode and meaning of baptism in the NT wasn’t an issue. The charismatic issues were moot. If you asked Paul about the Calvinism/Arminianism debate, he would have looked at you like you were nuts. Here, however, is a list (off the top of my head) of the things the early church did wrestle with (by book of the Bible):
- Matthew – John: The person and work of Jesus–His virgin birth, incarnation, teaching, miracles, death, resurrection, humanity/divinity.
- Acts: What is needed for a person to be a part of the kingdom of God (see Acts 15)
- Romans: the message of the gospel and its practical implications
- 1-2 Corinthians: life transformational issues, the resurrection
- Galatians: grace vs. law, practical life transformation issues
- Ephesians: unity and make-up of the church, practical life transformation issues
- Philippians: the person and work of Jesus, practical life transformation issues
- Colossians: the person and work of Jesus, practical life transformation issues
- 1-2 Thessalonians: eschatology, practical life transformation issues
- 1-2 Timothy, Titus: sound doctrine, life
- Philemon: life transformation issues
- Hebrews: the person and work of Jesus
- James: life transformation issues
- 1-2 Peter: the gospel, Jesus, false doctrine, etc.
- 1-3 John: the person and work of Jesus
- Jude: contending for the faith
- Revelation: the ultimate victory of Jesus and His church.
Yes, this is a generalized list (and I may have overgeneralized some things), but there are some things that stick out to me that have everything to do with this essentials/nonessentials issue and how we can view this in a better way that isn’t so us-vs.-them (by the way–those who disagree with us are not the enemy… Satan is).
So, here’s my new way of looking at the essentials/nonessentials issue. Here are the things we must contend for:
- Jesus is essential. Jesus’ divinity/humanity, his incarnation, his miracles, his death and resurrection–all of these are absolutely essential to the Christian faith. Several of the NT writers, mainly John, Paul, and the author of Hebrews, spilled a lot of ink on this most crucial of issues. Without the biblical, historical Jesus (which are one and the same), Christianity is worthless.
- The church/kingdom is essential. God could have chosen any method he wanted to get the message of the gospel to the world. He chose a community of imperfect, forgiven people that Jesus died for. What a risk! We screw things up all the time. Yet, it has worked. There have been many mistakes and shameful sins along the way, but it has worked. Many say they can be Christians without the church. That’s like saying a finger can function apart from the body. It may be a finger, but because it isn’t plugged into the body, it has no life and no purpose. The books of the New Testament are all written to churches. The church is essential because Christ died for her and she is to be His hands and feet in the world. He has made us to be a kingdom of priests to serve Him.
- Sound doctrine is essential. I like Dr. Jack Cottrell’s assessment of this issue (click here for a really good .pdf file on his thoughts). He writes that while perfect doctrine may not be a reality, it is something to strive for. When we draw our lines in the sand so definitively, what we’re saying is that we’ve got it figured out. Those that don’t agree with us on certain issues don’t have it figured out. What would happen if we stopped doing the easy thing of writing others off and, instead, started talking with those we differ with? I don’t mean debate. I mean sit down over coffee, many times, and talking about the issues while developing a friendship? Don’t forget, we’re all in process. There are things that I’ve changed my mind on over the years. There are people that are changing their minds on things (Francis Chan dropped a huge bombshell at the Exponential Conference this year about his beliefs on how someone becomes a Christian–it was amazing to hear him say that just by reading the Bible, he’s come to the conclusion that people need to repent and be baptized to become a Christian). Drawing lines in the sand closes doors. Realizing we’re all in process and are striving toward sound doctrine can open doors. We may find that some are willing to sit down and talk. We may find others aren’t so open minded. Fine, as long as we’re not the ones closing the doors. Let the Bible–God’s entire revelation to us–be our line in the sand, not our lists.
- Life transformation is essential. Almost every book in the New Testament speaks about the practical implications of living out the gospel. Yet, when in a conversation about essentials/nonessentials did you hear anyone say anything about holy living? Never. The writer of Hebrews makes is clear that without holiness, no one will see the Lord. Holy living, repentance, and life transformation (sanctification) are absolutely essential. Paul told Timothy to watch both his life and his doctrine closely, and by doing so he would save himself and others.
- Humility is essential. As one old-school guy once said, “Sometimes people aren’t rejecting the meat we’re serving. They’re rejecting the platter we’re serving it on.” When I was a hard-core, debate at the drop of a hat (and I carried my own hat) guy, I had my list and would defend it to the death. My pride did damage to relationships. I’m not saying we tolerate absolutely everything. That’s not humility. Humility is being able to admit that we are not perfect, that we are in process as we’re figuring out how to live out the gospel with our church, and that we are willing to listen. We may end up having to part ways after listening and discussing, but at least we didn’t slam the door shut. Remember, God gives grace to the humble… and humiliates the proud. We can still stick to our guns without shooting others in the process.
- Grace is essential. It’s much easier to label those who don’t agree with us as liberal than it is to have grace. We need to have the attitude of Hezekiah in 2 Chronicles 30 (look what happened):
15 They slaughtered the Passover lamb on the fourteenth day of the second month. The priests and the Levites were ashamed and consecrated themselves and brought burnt offerings to the temple of the LORD. 16 Then they took up their regular positions as prescribed in the Law of Moses the man of God. The priests sprinkled the blood handed to them by the Levites. 17 Since many in the crowd had not consecrated themselves, the Levites had to kill the Passover lambs for all those who were not ceremonially clean and could not consecrate their lambs to the LORD. 18 Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the LORD, who is good, pardon everyone 19 who sets his heart on seeking God—the LORD, the God of his fathers—even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” 20 And the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people.
Many who ate the passover didn’t do it correctly according to what God had revealed. Yet, because one king humbled his heart before God and was willing to pray for them, God listened and healed the people who had set their hearts on seeking God. That must be our attitude towards those who differ from us on certain issues. There are those who love Jesus just as much as we do, but they differ with us on certain issues. Instead of writing them off and labeling them, we need to pray for both them and ourselves–that we would set our heart on seeking God, and that he would forgive and restore us when we (and those who disagree with us) are not correct.
Yes, there will be people we won’t be able to associate with. But let’s not be a people who are known for what and who we’re against. Let us be kingdom-minded people, known for what we are for–reclaiming people and places for the kingdom of God as we do the hard work of reconciling people to Him while also working to reconcile ourselves to each other.
Whew. That’s enough. Let’s hear your comments–what do you agree and disagree with, why, and how can we approach this issue better?