The Essential/Non-Essential Doctrine Debacle
The Biblical Christian in the Age of the Unbiblical "Church"
The previous chapters have thoroughly established the biblical case for doctrinal unity; only when doctrinal unity has been established within an assembly can there be true, Christian fellowship within that assembly. Any attempt at “fellowship” without the foundation of doctrinal unity is nothing more than a mob—a “well-behaved mob”, if you’ll permit the obvious oxymoron, but a mob nonetheless.
There is a really wonderful Bible illustration of just this principle. The word translated “assembly” in the text below is the same word typically translated “church” in the NT:
So then, some were shouting one thing and some another, for the assembly was in confusion and the majority did not know for what reason they had come together.
The “assembly” that Luke describes was nothing more or less than a mob: a group of people doing the same thing at the same time in the same place, albeit with some violence and threat of violence. Their behavior, though, in this context is nearly irrelevant; if their meeting had been more “civilized” (like a typical “church” in America) it would still have been just as meaningless. As the text records: they “did not know for what reason they had come together”.
I maintain, on the basis of the detailed biblical truths presented in the previous chapters in this series, that without doctrinal unity most American “churches” today could not biblically defend why they bother to meet in the first place. Moreover, without doctrinal unity, they'd have an impossible time rejecting, for example, "believers" from the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Catholics, Methodists, etc., who might want to "fellowship" with them.
They have devolved into mere religious social groups, no more or less. They have also become just as useless and meaningless.
So, at this point we come face to face with one of the obvious, practical applications of this series: given the extraordinary doctrinal lethargy of that which professes to be the “Christian church” in our country and culture, what does the true Christian do? Where can he/she go to “fellowship” with other “believers”? This question is especially pertinent then we consider this important text:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
[It is vital to note that within the context of this text is the implication that some had begun to grow careless with their profession of faith which, in turn, led to the enumeration of some very serious sins in vv. 26-31. As a consequence of these, some had begun to isolate themselves, possibly because they were afraid of personal embarrassment and/or having their possessions confiscated (vv. 32-34).]
The NT is clear: the regular meeting of the saints, particularly on the first day of the week, is one vital means for faithfulness and obedience. It is the divinely-designed mechanism by which the saints mutually encourage and strengthen one another, especially during trials.
[EDIT Apr 2023: The saints meet on the first day of the week, not the LORD's Day! I have a lengthy article on the topic: The Day of the Lord.]
But what happens when a true, NT-obedient church does not exist within a workable and reasonable commute distance within which the obedient, true Christian can share, contribute and grow?
I can take a pretty good guess at what some of you reading this may be thinking at this point:
“You must be joking! There are hundreds/thousands of conservative churches in this country! This is especially true in larger suburban areas. You should have your pick of good places to go!”
If this is your response, then you’ve obviously not paying attention and missed the doctrinal truths of the previous chapters. You’re also not paying attention to what is happening within these so-called churches.
I invite you to answer a few questions:
- When is the last time you’ve reviewed carefully the doctrines expressed in your church’s (or any church's) Statement of Faith?
- Does your church even have a Statement of Faith for review?
- Is there any real, deep, detailed discussion of doctrine from the pulpit, the Sunday School classroom or among those who attend as members, both within and outside the assembly, particularly when "fellowshipping"?
- When is the last time you heard a message or lesson on God’s sovereignty or election (Rom 9), the depravity of the natural man (Rom 3), the history and nature of sin (Rom 5), the culpability of the lost person (Rom 1 and Rom 5), the Resurrection (1 Cor 15), the overwhelming confidence in the work of Christ and the power of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8) or a myriad of other serious, deep, doctrines of the Scripture?
[EDIT Aug 2020: I have looked for a biblical church for slightly more than 5 years now. When the Dallas, TX area yielded none, I expanded by search to other states.
At this time I have personally reviewed the published websites of well over 700 so-called evangelical churches in Texas, Arkansas, South Carolina, North Carolina, South Dakota, Wyoming and Florida. Only about one-third of them even bother to post a Statement of Faith (SoF). Of those, only a tiny fraction have a SoF which is consistent with sound Bible doctrine.
And, to eliminate one possible concern my readers may have at this point (that is, skewing my sample with unbiblical churches), I included in my review only those churches which would typically be called evangelical and conservative.
I did not include the following denominations:
- Roman Catholic
- Jehovah's Witnesses
- Latter Day Saints (Mormons)
- Church of Christ
- Assembly of God
- Calvary Chapel
- Southern Baptist
- Evangelical Free]
I’ve yet to encounter a conservative, evangelical church (within those I reviewed) that does not make the hellish distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” doctrine, along with its attendant, misguided and indefensibly-empty emphasis on “fellowship”.
[I can only hope that a few churches that hold to real doctrinal unity actually do exist. But, like the 7000 of the Lord's servants in 1 Kin 19.15-18 who were completely unknown to Elijah, they also seem to remain hidden in our day.
If you are one such church, send me an email at
In over 50 years of listening to sermons from these so-called conservative, evangelical churches, I’ve never heard even one which expounds the beautiful, fundamental and organic unity of the Bible’s doctrine with its attendant requirement that those within that assembly actually “be of one mind”. In contrast, I’ve frequently heard of various “Interpretations” of doctrine, many times concluding with a “pick-whichever-one-you-like-the-best” type of “application” (if they had any real conclusions at all).
[Some pastors have the mistaken notion that if they review all the "interpretations" of a text they're presenting that they'll be thought to be well-studied, intelligent and thorough. Instead, they dishonor the LORD by their implicit biblical equivocation.
The "preaching and teaching" of these careless and unthinking men is the diametric opposite of the OT prophets' "Thus says the Lord God ...". The so-called pastors of these churches are the religious version of the politician: they "multiply words" but say mostly nothing.
The truly sad realization is that they have no idea of their sin and error.]
It is a sad fact that today emphasis on assembly-wide, doctrinal unity simply does not exist. And, to make matters worse, today's "spiritual cemeteries" (aka., seminaries) abet the same sin with their unrelenting emphasis on multiple, "spiritual-sounding" and overrated "theological interpretations".
The questions I asked above are pertinent because they highlight a hallmark of our age. The famous line from the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, comes to mind:
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
To make here what I hope is the obvious application: there may, in fact, be “churches on every corner” in this country, but where is the foundational, organic unity of doctrine, the firm adherence to the unity of the Scripture and its LORD, the basic fear of and reverence for the LORD Almighty and His Word?
It nearly does not exist! Instead, what is typically the first question in response when someone says: “I heard of a church …”?
The predictable follow-on question/response is “What is their denomination/affiliation?”
[Or, the equally useless,
- "Do they have a good band and a coffee bar? Or,
- "Do they have "services" on Saturday evening so that I can sleep in on Sunday?" Or,
- "Do they have both 'contemporary' or 'traditional' services?", Or,
- "Do they have a great, up-to-date audio/visual system?" Or,
- "Do my friends go there?" Or, "Do the elite go there?" Or,
- "Do they have 'classes' on the latest fads?"
You get the idea...]
If “churches” today were based on a solid biblical foundation the questions above would be completely unnecessary: the Bible is very clear that there is one Lord, one faith, one Spirit, one Body of Christ …. (Eph 4.4-6) There would be no practical differences between geographically disparate assemblies. (I'm deliberately ignoring differences in language for the sake of this principle.) This unity is what the Lord Christ intended and what is meant when the phrases “the church is the Body of Christ” and “many members, one Body” are used.
The only time within the written history of the NT when this ideal was (mostly) realized (and then only for a very short time!) was the very early church:
Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
However, even this did not last very long, as the remainder of the NT documents; the churches in Corinth and Galatia, along with most of the churches addressed in chapters 2 and 3 of the Revelation come to mind as examples. Moreover, there are ominous hints of trouble in the Epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians as well as in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus. Finally, the Epistle to the Hebrews contains several warnings regarding carelessness and indifference.
[I won’t here provide the biblical proof of this assertion of the very early decline of the church. This problem will be the subject of another series in the future.]
Section 6, “Unity is the Command that Produces Fellowship”, clearly details from the Scripture the responsibility of the assembly is to “be of one mind”.
Just as important, there is nothing in the Bible to indicate that this command has ever been rescinded.
So, without doubt, this command falls with full force on the “modern” church as well. But, like the ancient churches to which the Lord sent the well-known letters of Rev 2-3, this is the typical state of the modern church—even/especially those who dare to refer to themselves as conservative evangelicals:
But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.
But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam
But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.
… I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God.
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.
Remember: these are the inspired words of the Holy Spirit to the churches! And nothing—nothing—has changed today! (In fact, one can easily make the biblical case that it has become worse.) The modern church demonstrates abundantly and daily the truth of these sins of disobedience and indifference. Without any doubt, one of the engines of this destruction is the de-emphasis on doctrine and the over-emphasis on fellowship.
So, we still have before us the question of “What does the obedient Christian do? Where can he/she go for unity of mind and purpose with other believers?”
I structured the question above very carefully and deliberately: “unity of mind and purpose”. “Fellowship” was not part of the question for the simple reason that true fellowship is automatic when there is doctrinal unity and is not itself the goal.
Rather, to implement biblical, doctrinal unity is to unconditionally result in fellowship among those of like minds.
I believe that something close to the steps outlined below are required to form the basis of a biblical response to this situation:
- You pray—a lot!
- Have you searched diligently for a biblical church? (The internet can be useful for this phase.)
- Have you reviewed carefully their posted Statement of Faith? (If they don’t have one, then that “church” can be eliminated from any further consideration; it is very likely that they don't regard doctrine highly enough to document what they believe.)
- If the distinction of “essential” and “non-essential” doctrines is not mentioned per se in their SoF, then schedule a discussion with one of the elders. If that conversation goes well (e.g. the leadership believes in doctrinal unity), then you may have found something worthy of attendance. However, as I’ve maintained in this series, it is more likely (based on the scenario that “essential” and “non-essential” doctrines was simply not mentioned in the SoF) that the leadership actually does believe that error but simply did not think highly enough of doctrinal unity even to bother to mention it explicitly. You therefore have eliminated that “church” from serious consideration.
- If their SoF is reasonable and strong on doctrinal unity, have you visited? From my own experience I’ve found that sometimes a church posts a reasonably good SoF but falls far short of it in the assembly and their services. In other words, they don’t “practice what they preach”.
[In such cases I wonder if they found a SoF online and simply copied it without much/any thought or review.]
- What is the public persona of that church/denomination? Do they actually live the doctrine they express in their SoF?
[The Southern Baptist Church is a prime example of my point here: they typically have a good SoF but allow within their conventions elements which are clearly unbiblical (i.e.., women teachers and preachers).]
- During your visit, I recommend highly that you attend the adult (Sunday school) classes before attending a service whenever possible. Listen carefully to what is being taught: do they bother to actually open their Bibles or do they teach from some other source like a book, workbook, DVD, denominational materials, other man-sourced notes, etc.? What is the nature of the discussion? Do those in attendance show that they have a profound respect for and fear of the Word of God, or is useless discussion the order of the day? Does the teacher use the Bible? Do those who attend actually have a Bible with them, and if so, do they appear to be following the lesson from and with their Bibles? Is the class taught by a woman (something clearly wrong)?
- In those classes that do open and teach from the Bible, engage with them! If you hear something that doesn’t track with Scripture, challenge it by opening the Bible and showing what it actually teaches. How does the teacher respond? How do those in attendance respond? In my experience, churches are typically courteous to newcomers—until you begin to expose their doctrinal errors. It then quickly becomes evident that they really have no true respect for the Word.
- Walk away—without looking back—if there is no real, doctrinal unity!
If this sounds like something that can and does turn adversarial from time-to-time, you would be correct; it is not pleasant, but it is necessary. As I've said before on this site: evil does not like to be exposed.
Biblical error is rampant within those organizations that call themselves churches. They’ll “play nice with you” as long as you “play nice with them” (their working definition of “fellowship”). The issue, of course, is that the true Christian has neither the liberty or authority to look the other way when the Lord’s Word is treated with contempt!
So, what happens when you’re left empty-handed? You’ve searched diligently and found no place that actually fears the Word of God? One response is to keep looking on some schedule (twice yearly, yearly, etc.).
Well, you continue to pray; remember, the goal is to meet regularly and faithfully with other believers with "one mind". This should be the essence of repeated, daily prayer.
But, the reality is that after considerable due-diligence there still is nowhere to go: the solution is obvious: you therefore do not attend any “church” because there is no true "one-mind-assembly" to attend! It's probably time to move to somewhere that a "real" church exists. (Of course, you're faced with the daunting task of trying to find a place remotely, that is, without the practical logistical advantage of searching locally. Researching multiple churches that are likely a great distance away is very difficult and very time consuming!)
I’m sure that some are asking: “This is all well and good, but can you really justify staying home? Shouldn’t you go somewhere regardless of whether you agree with them completely or not?”
If this is your response, it is evident that have you have not understood anything of the truth I've laid out in this series! You're not paying attention!
The question you failed to consider is: “If going to church is important regardless of the quality of the doctrine taught”—a "choose-the-least-doctrinally-offensive-church-of-the-bunch” type of decision—then you’ve completely missed the preeminence of, and command for, doctrinal unity.
Stated another way, if you are willing to “choose the best of a bad lot”, then how could you even raise any consistent, valid objection of likewise attending the Roman Catholic, Watchtower, Mormon, Methodist, Unitarian or scores of other so-called “Christian” churches that are "doctrinal badlands"?
You sell doctrinal purity for the paltry price of artificial “fellowship”, a mere courteous social backdrop for your otherwise empty and pathetic theological life.
Shame on you! You truly deserve the misery and emptiness you’ll experience—as well as the LORD's displeasure when you stand before Him.
If this line of reasoning seems difficult or harsh, it is both. And if this is your disposition then you’ve forgotten that the true Christian is in a real life-or-death spiritual struggle:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
You also need to remember that our adversary Apollyon is focused on winning and will do whatever he thinks is needed to win. Notice his strategy in conjunction with our current modern church leaders, especially within the context of this series:
2 Cor 11.13-15
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.
The devil knows that a very effective strategy is to work from the top down in the so-called churches of today; and no wonder: they are his servants, carefully disguised as “servants of righteousness”. All too frequently, wherever the leadership goes, the congregation follows; if the leadership falls, so does the congregation.
1 Cor 15.33
Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.”
That "bad company" may well be the elders and leaders of your congregation!
I’ll end this chapter with this admonition:
Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.
It is time to wake up! If you are a member of a church that adheres to the debacle identified by this series, you need to get out and find something else (that is, if you truly worship the Lord Christ and His Word)! You are hurting only yourself by staying, since no good can come of supporting a church which shows only active contempt for God's Word.
And make no mistake: if you stay, you are supporting the active contempt of God's Word by coexisting with it.