Let’s address a common response to church divisions taught in the Churches. Years ago John Wesley made a distinction between “essentials” and “non-essentials” and appears to use the Bible properly as a guide. “Essentials” includes the doctrines of the Bible (baptism, salvation, etc.) while “non-essentials” includes topics such as foods, hymns, and practices.
Lately, however, there are teachers who teach that the “essentials” are only things like the Trinity and salvation by grace. They teach that things like many of the disputes in Christendom shouldn’t divide us. They include things like baptism, the gifts of the spirit, and tithing vs. giving in the “non-essential” group. There is a quote I have heard in numerous places, “In essentials unity, In non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Some say this quote originated with Augustine over 1500 years ago and Wesley focused on this in his approach to doctrinal matters. This quote reflects the goal of a movement within Christianity called the Restoration Movement. This movement has been around since mid-1800’s and was a pre-cursor to the ecumenical movement.
While these teachers may have good intentions the sad truth is that these doctrines have divided us. They divide us because they are essential to living our faith. It is tragic how divisive Christians have become. I’ve seen Baptists tell charismatics that they were of the devil because they spoke in tongues. I have seen Churches refrain from even teaching about speaking tongues because so many charismatic churches teach that not only the spiritual gifts of the Bible like speaking in tongues and prophecy are biblical, but being slain in the spirit, holy laughter, and other phenomena are biblical also. I have seen pastors malign the church across the street because they don’t teach tithing, or another dividing doctrine.
Reformers like Luther and Wesley did not want to split the church. Rather they wanted to reform it by just correcting a few crucial aspects they demonstrated as erroneous. Still their goal was to have a unified church, howbeit a reformed one. Wesley wrote, “Would to God that all party names and unscriptural phrases and forms which have divided the Christian world were forgot, and that we might all agree to sit down together, as humble, loving disciples, at the feet of our common Master, to hear his word, to imbibe his Spirit, and to describe his life on our own!”[i] Wesley was very concerned for the unity of the Church, writing, “and if ye salute your friends only — our Lord probably glances at those prejudices, which different sects had against each other, and intimates, that he would not have his followers imbibe that narrow spirit. Would to God this had been more attended to among the unhappy divisions and subdivisions, into which the church has been crumbled! And that we might at least advance so far, as cordially to embrace our brother and in Christ, of whatever party or denomination they are!”[ii] From this we see how divided the church was in his time.
Most Christians Don’t Fellowship Together
Believers and churches don’t fellowship with other believers because of the issues that are discussed here. The last thing that most Christians want is to to argue about the baptism of the spirit, tithing, or healing. As a result, Christians working side by side may not fellowship with each other because one is a Lutheran and the other a Pentecostal.
Paul writes, “giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”Eph 4:3
Some preachers preach that “unity” is not “unison” and so it’s okay that we disagree on all these non-essential doctrines. They teach that unity of the spirit means we simply acknowledge together that Christ saved us both. But the unfortunate truth is that these differences that many call “non-essential” cause vehement disputes and even violence while causing people to continuously divide from one church and go to or start another.
It’s just sad.
[i] JOHN WESLEY’S THEOLOGY TODAY, Colin W Williams, Abingdon, Nashville, 1960, p17
© copyright 2009 Mark W Smith, All Rights Reserved