The Essential/Non-Essential Doctrine Debacle
The Modern Charade of "Fellowship"
We study the Bible to learn about the Lord in order to develop and apply various terms to the nature and attributes of God. We identify such elements as holiness, purity, righteousness, justice, truth, life, love, and so on; each of these terms has useful meaning and purpose for building our understanding of the Almighty.
But, none of these may be presented as the main attribute, the Lord’s “most important attribute”.
There is an unassailable reason why no one may declare any of the Lord’s attributes as “most important” or “primary”: God is unity:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!
The prophet Zechariah spoke of a time, yet future, when this will be fulfilled:
And the Lord will be king over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be One, and His name One.
The Apostle Paul speaks of the same concept, along with an event that will occur at the end of time:
Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.
1 Cor 15.25-28 [key: God the Father, the Lord Christ]
For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.
Because He is unity, it follows that any identifiable attribute is just as significant as any other identifiable attribute. The LORD can’t be divided by any metric or method, nor should be.
The early church developed a creed, a simple, summary statement that expressed the reality that the Lord is self-consistent in every way:
2 Tim 2.11-13
It is a trustworthy statement:
For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him;
If we endure, we will also reign with Him;
If we deny Him, He also will deny us;
If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.
The Lord will never be divided against Himself because it is impossible for Him to do so. The “doctrinal expressions” of the current church, however, are very different.
And this brings me to the purpose of this series:
A great many of the so-called conservative, evangelical churches of our day have expressly divided up the Scripture into what they term “essential” and “non-essential” doctrine. This high-sounding, “generous”, culturally-friendly position comes from Apollyon himself and is usually phrased something like this on their websites:
“In essential doctrine, unity; in non-essential doctrine, charity.”, or
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, charity.”
This is supposed to express that, of the aggregate doctrine found in the Scripture, it is advisable (perhaps it should actually be understood as: "It is implicitly necessary."?) to divide them into these two distinct categories:
- Essential: the doctrinal subset of all Bible doctrines concerning which there must be agreement between Christians, without which fellowship can’t be established or maintained.
- Non-essential: whatever is left over from the above subset, concerning which agreement is optional and therefore should not hinder fellowship between Christians in any way.
It should be obvious from these distinctions that two extremely important questions need to be asked:
- Why are the doctrines of the Bible to be divided?
- On what criteria are the doctrines of the Bible to be divided?
The “Why”: that Which is Falsely Called "Fellowship"
Since the beginning, the Adversary has sown division regarding doctrine within the professing people of God. Some may regard a specific doctrine as vital and “not suitable for discussion or disagreement”; others may regard the same doctrine as optional, controversial, or simply beyond human understanding (and therefore off-limits from a so-called "practical" point-of-view). Since the Bible presents fellowship as an operating principle of the assembly, any disagreement is a “bad thing” and should therefore be avoided.
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this contemptible and hellish expression. I could have purchased my own small, private island:
If “good men disagree” on any single doctrine, then it is therefore regarded as prudent (in this defective and unbiblical view) to regard that doctrine as non-essential—or at the very least, its discussion and/or debate is something to be limited or avoided altogether.
You may be sure that when you hear this expression, you're hearing the Adversary's own commentary on the Word of God. Shame on that man who unthinkingly and irresponsibly repeats this error!
Mere men don't establish what the Word of God teaches, they are to believe and obey what is written rather than trying to rewrite it in their own understanding!
The “Criterion”: an Artificial and Unbiblical Distinction
The typical reason given (a nearly “knee-jerk” response by those when asked) is this: those doctrines that bear directly on the salvation of the lost must be considered essential:
So, in the words of this common error, if the doctrine contributes tangibly to the gospel, then that doctrine is essential; otherwise, it is non-essential.
“After all”, their obstinate reasoning goes, “if the doctrine in question doesn’t directly bear on the salvation of the lost, then why should it be necessary to agree on it? To disagree on the non-essential doctrines certainly won’t harm the lost or impede the preaching of the gospel, so what is the concern?”
This is an Ancient Error which began in Jerusalem!
It is part of fallen human nature to corrupt what the Lord has established; in the context of this series that corruption manifests itself by attempting to divide the very unity of the Almighty. A very significant example of this is found in Act chapter 15 where James "officially" pronounces the following "rules" for Gentile converts to Christianity:
“Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”
James' decision accomplished two things, both very bad:
- It divided the Word of God into the "essentials" and everything else; in NT terms, it was the beginning of the error which this article exposes.
- It gave official "Apostle-cover" (lacking a better term) to the incipient "salvation needs the Law" error that infected the early church.
[In the near future I'll post Part 2 of the 3-part series on the Office of Apostle. In it, I'll detail this spectacular error which James and the Apostles initiated with that council, namely, the beginnings of combing works with grace. Here, I mention it only to demonstrate that James had no problem with carving up the Word of God into the "essentials" and everything else.
The damage of that decision literally is beyond measure and persists to this day.
EDIT Feb 2019: The series on the office of the Apostles contains two parts. What I originally intended as part three was merged with Part 2.
EDIT Feb 2019: The article referred to above is now complete and can be found here: The Jerusalem Council: the Second Serious Error of the Apostles.]
Even the venerable John Calvin held to the same error (Institutes, Eerdmans, 1972, 4:1:12) centuries ago:
12. When we say that the pure ministry of the word and pure celebration of the sacraments is a fit pledge and earnest, so that we may safely recognise a church in every society in which both exist, our meaning is, that we are never to discard it so long as these remain, though it may otherwise teem with numerous faults. Nay, even in the administration of word and sacraments defects may creep in which ought not to alienate us from its communion. For all the heads of true doctrine are not in the same position. Some are so necessary to be known, that all must hold them to be fixed and undoubted as the proper essentials of religion: for instance, that God is one, that Christ is God, and the Son of God, that our salvation depends on the mercy of God, and the like. Others, again, which are the subject of controversy among the churches, do not destroy the unity of the faith; for why should it be regarded as a ground of dissension between churches, if one, without any spirit of contention or perverseness in dogmatizing, hold that the soul on quitting the body flies to heaven, and another, without venturing to speak positively as to the abode, holds it for certain that it lives with the Lord? [emphasis mine]
Did you notice that he (correctly!) cites the truth of the unity of God but nevertheless proceeds to carve up the Word of the One God into "essentials" and "controversies"!
A little farther into the same section, Calvin laments:
Does he not sufficiently intimate that a difference of opinion as to these matters which are not absolutely necessary, ought not to be a ground of dissension among Christians? The best thing, indeed, is to be perfectly agreed, but seeing there is no man who is not involved in some mist of ignorance, we must either have no church at all, or pardon delusion in those things of which one may be ignorant, without violating the substance of religion and forfeiting salvation. Here, however, I have no wish to patronize even the minutest errors, as if I thought it right to foster them by flattery or connivance; what I say is, that we are not on account of every minute difference to abandon a church, provided it retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists, and keep the use of the sacraments instituted by the Lord. Meanwhile, if we strive to reform what is offensive, we act in the discharge of duty. To this effect are the words of Paul, “But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent.” (1 Cor. 14:30). From this it is evident that to each member of the Church, according to his measure of grace, the study of public edification has been assigned, provided it be done decently and in order. In other words, we must neither renounce the communion of the Church, nor, continuing in it, disturb peace and discipline when duly arranged. [emphasis mine]
Do you see Calvin's contradiction, the inevitable result of attempting to hold to the distinction of "essential" and "controversial" doctrines? He decries error, yet is willing to accept it for the sake of "unity". (A "unity" based on what? Certainly not Bible doctrine!)
A very simple and obvious question that needs to be asked is this:
If "controversy" within the church is the criterion by which a doctrine moves out of the "essential" category into the "controversy" category, then I dare anyone to show me a single doctrine which has not been the subject of controversy at any time! What single doctrine has been accepted consistently and uniformly by "professing" Christianity from NT times?
If we accept this criterion, then history unequivocally demonstrates that there can be no "essential" doctrine since all are casualties of "controversy"!
Even the great John Calvin got this very wrong, as this series will detail from the Scriptures.
The purpose, therefore, of this series is to prove from the Scriptures that the division of the Scripture into the categories of essential and non-essential doctrines is
- serious biblical error (heresy, really),
- a philosophy and implementation that was inspired by Apollyon himself, and
- something which has effectively rendered the so-called conservative evangelical churches of our day as little more than religious social clubs.
Ironically, in spite of all their effort to establish and maintain fellowship around the “essential” doctrines, these churches have become havens of division and distortion—they possess a "fellowship" which is little more than a joke.
In reality they are soul-less organizations brimming with mutual courtesy and feigned, self-proclaimed fellowship but know nothing of true, biblical unity.
[Thinking of a similar example in the political arena, their "fellowship" is tantamount to the internal "cooperation" of the US Congress.]
There is, practically speaking, no Bible left in modern assemblies. They have become, to use the Lord’s description:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
The typical conservative, evangelical churches of today are, truly, whitewashed tombs.