“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.”
I have heard this quote repeated in regards to many of the differences between churches. It has been attributed as the watchword of Christian peacemakers by Phillip Schaff, a noted nineteenth century church historian. While some ascribe this quote to Augustine, it actually comes from a relatively unknown German Lutheran theologian of the early 17th century, Rupertus Meldenius who wrote it during the Thirty Years War, a war where the two sides were denominations, one of the wars of religion, and a war that killed somewhere between four and eight million people.1 History.com calls that particular war “one of the longest and most brutal wars in human history.”2 So it has been used to stop the violence between literally warring factions of the Christian Church,
This quote has since served as the peacemaking rallying cry for encouraging groups of churches with varying differences to join together in hope of bringing all the many churches back together, another most worthy cause. It is part of the ecumenical movement started a century or so ago, with its resultant World Council of Churches.3 I actually embraced this concept many years ago before I realized it was a non-starter.
There is just one problem. The In Essentials Unity quote itself, and especially the way it came to be applied is not part of the apostles’ tradition. While there is a little of this kind of teaching in the scriptures on truly insignificant issues, it is not on the scale in the word to which it has been applied and so, it is not part of the New Testament. There are others that have written things against the In Essentials Unity doctrine, but it is very popular.4
First here are things that are not truly important or essential according to scripture.
Let no one therefore judge you in eating, or in drinking, or with respect to a feast day or a new moon or a Sabbath day, (Col 2:16 WEB)
Now accept one who is weak in faith, but not for disputes over opinions. One man has faith to eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Don’t let him who eats despise him who doesn’t eat. Don’t let him who doesn’t eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you who judge another’s servant? To his own lord he stands or falls. Yes, he will be made to stand, for God has power to make him stand. One man esteems one day as more important. Another esteems every day alike. Let each man be fully assured in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks. He who doesn’t eat, to the Lord he doesn’t eat, and gives God thanks. (Rom 14:1-6 WEB)
These verses talk about how to deal with truly insignificant matters. Romans 14:1 says not to get into arguments over opinions on what to eat, which days are more important, and things like that. Romans 14:2 warns us to avoid getting into arguments over whether it’s a good thing to eat a vegetarian diet! Here we have clear instructions on avoiding arguments on insignificant, or nonessential items.
That said, the in non-essentials liberty part of the quote in question looks consistent with scripture. And the commandment to love God first, and your neighbor as yourself, means that there is nothing wrong with “in all things charity”
Also, one verse I have heard used to justify this doctrine is:
Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. (Php 4:5 KJV)
The word moderation above is the Greek word epieikes (Strong’s 1933). The other places it is used are translated gentle and patient in the KJV. Here is Philippians 4:3-9 in the WEB version:
Yes, I beg you also, true partner, help these women, for they labored with me in the Good News, with Clement also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say, “Rejoice!” Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things. The things which you learned, received, heard, and saw in me: do these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Php 4:3-9 WEB)
In the WEB version epieikes is translated as gentleness, “Let your gentleness be known to all men.” In looking at the context we see the subject being character; having the attitudes of rejoicing, gentleness, staying peaceful, staying focused on things that are lovely and of good report are encouraged here. There is nothing in the context that discusses essential and non-essential doctrine.
What it comes down to is what the “In Essentials Unity” promoters call essential.
Let’s look at the In Essentials Unity doctrine. The Moravian Church has its beginnings in this doctrine and is one of its founders if you will. And yes, it is a doctrine, one which I have heard referred to from the pulpit. It may not be called a doctrine but if it is taught then it is a doctrine. I just heard it referred to again the other day. At the beginning of the Moravian Church, they distinguished between Essentials, Ministerials, and Incidentals. In a time when the Catholic Church could take away your life, not to mention your bibles, robes, and everything involved in Christian services and Christian life Moravians initially distinguished Essentials to be living faith, love, hope. Then the Moravians progressed to teach that six things are essential: God creates (and God’s creation is good), God redeems, God blesses, and we respond by having faith in what God has done and is doing; by loving God, loving ourselves, loving our neighbors and loving our enemies; and by looking to the future with hope because we know we will be with God5
Okay, that does sound pretty good, right? I mean, what’s wrong with it?
What’s wrong with it is that it is elevating human reasoning to and making it the rule over God’s Word. Or as Jesus said to the religious leaders of his time, it makes the word of God to have no effect. How, you ask?
Where is the leading of the Spirit in the list of essentials? The answer is that it’s not there. Of course, if you want to believe that the Spirit leads, and guides, that’s fine according to this doctrine. But you can just as well believe that the Spirit does not lead people in our day and time according to this doctrine, and that’s also fine. This doctrine says that it doesn’t make any difference whether you are a cessationist or a continualist, that is whether you believe that the manifestations and gifts of the Spirit ended with the apostles or currently still happen. This doctrine says it doesn’t matter whether you believe the Pope is the head of the church on earth or not. It doesn’t matter what you think is a sin or behavior that is to be avoided. It doesn’t matter if you believe the Bible says marriage is between a man and a woman, or that that’s just an example and marriage is between any two or more consenting people. It doesn’t matter, according to this doctrine, that Jesus said the works that he did we can do also. Because those are not essential doctrines in this scheme.
Do you see that it is universal among Christian denominations and groups that they teach that God is the creator, God sent his Son to redeem us, God blesses us with eternal life, and we are to respond by loving God, our neighbors as ourselves, and look to the future with hope. What Christian church doesn’t practice that? The Catholics do, the Baptists, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the missionary alliance, the Pentecostals, the charismatics, every Christian church that I can think of, they all do that. Yes, Christian denominations all have these so-called essentials. But do they have the whole counsel of God? No, they do not.
for I didn’t shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. (Act 20:27 WEB)
The whole counsel of God was what Paul preached because that was what his job was to preach. Paul was the apostle charged with the job of starting the church to which you and I belong.
of which I was made a servant, according to the gift of that grace of God which was given me according to the working of his power. To me, the very least of all saints, was this grace given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now through the assembly the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities and the powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord; in whom we have boldness and access in confidence through our faith in him. (Eph 3:7-12 WEB)
Here’s another problem. There are other lists of “essentials” and they are different from group to group. Most other groups’ interpretations of essentials include more things than the Moravian’s, mostly the things they have determined are important. The Gospel Project has a pdf on no less than 99 essential doctrines.6 We see with this edition of essential doctrines the ability to compile a list of essential doctrines that summarizes a denominational statement of beliefs using their interpretation of scripture to establish this standard. But look at the Moravian church essentials and Gospel Project essentials. They still miss on important, yes, essential, issues.
Here are some things not in these “essentials” lists. It is essential that Christians believe in the leading, and power of the Holy Spirit. It is essential that Christians believe in the manifestations of the spirit. It is essential that Christians believe that Christ died that the things that he did they can do also. It’s essential because Jesus said that what he did we can do too. It’s essential that Christians understand that the power is in the name of Jesus Christ because that’s the word of God and that is where the power is. It’s essential that believers understand they can’t change the word of God because the word of God says that. It’s essential that Christians understand how the Jews’ traditions placed undue burdens on the people while making the word of God of no effect with their traditions, and that they don’t wind up doing the same thing. It’s essential that if the word of God allows for people to ease their infirmity with a little wine as long as they don’t get drunk that no group calling itself Christian teaches against that. The in essentials unity group says that’s not important, but it is because the word of God makes that distinction. These are just some of the things in the whole counsel of God missing in the essentials lists. These things are missing in essentials lists but they are essential in the word of God.
The In Essentials Unity doctrine is a false doctrine. The so-called unity it creates is a false unity. It winds up being a loophole that allows Christians to teach almost anything they want, and it does not help apostles, pastors, evangelists, teachers, prophets build the body in Christ into a group of mature believers who are not tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. The In Essentials Unity doctrine doesn’t allow or help that because it allows so many winds of doctrine.
This website is about original Christianity. Paul and the apostles fought for unity where believers spoke the same thing. There were factions, albeit limited, springing up then. Centuries down the road original Christianity wound up being split in an untold number of pieces. The In Essentials Unity doctrine is just a Band-Aid. Even if the Band-Aid helped stop the warring factions from killing each other years ago the doctrine doesn’t work to facilitate the John 5:19 ideal in the church.
Jesus therefore answered them, “Most certainly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing of himself, but what he sees the Father doing. For whatever things he does, these the Son also does likewise. (Joh 5:19 WEB)
The Father is not telling one group we can drink and another group that drinking is an abomination. That’s bad parenting! Our Father is the best parent ever. Our Father is not telling some people that the manifestations have ceased, and others that they’re in full swing, and others that it’s okay to believe in the manifestations but not to teach them. That’s bad parenting and our Father is not that kind of parent.
The Father has prophesied that he wants to pour out his spirit on all men. He wants people to earnestly desire to prophesy and manifest the gift of the holy spirit he gives us. That’s not on the essentials lists I’ve seen and that is just one example.
Good sports teams know what unity is. They all know the same playbook and they carry it out the same way. Let’s say that you have an American football play called diamond sweep right foxtrot. The play calls for most of the team to start executing to the right except for two wide receivers both on the right. I’m oversimplifying but know this, every player has an assignment that needs to be carried out for the play to work. The receiver on the end runs around the opposite way, the left, and takes a handoff from the quarterback. The receiver in the slot position runs a pattern towards the left pylon on the goal line. After the first receiver takes the handoff he has the option to continue running if the field is open. But he’s looking for the other receiver and throws him the ball if he’s open.
Now that’s the play. Every person on that team has to be thinking the same thing for that play to work. That’s unity. Everyone understands the terms of the play the same way. One guy can’t be saying that what he thinks he should be doing instead of blocking is running down and catching the ball too. That would leave a hole for some defender to come right in and bust the play up. People understand unity when it comes to sports teams. But when it comes to the church they want to reduce it to just agreeing to these very basic concepts because that is all these immature churches can agree on. No, unity is all of us understanding the playbook the same way and carrying it out.
Here’s the play that Jesus has been calling since Pentecost:
He gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, shepherds and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, to the work of serving, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a full grown man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we may no longer be children, tossed back and forth and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in craftiness, after the wiles of error; but speaking truth in love, we may grow up in all things into him, who is the head, Christ; from whom all the body, being fitted and knit together through that which every joint supplies, according to the working in measure of each individual part, makes the body increase to the building up of itself in love. (Eph 4:11-16 WEB)
This play is an intricate play led by the spirit working in members in the body to work together like a well-oiled team. The knowledge that is being talked about here isn’t just a few generalizations. It’s the teaching and practices of the epistles. It’s the whole counsel of God that Paul and the other apostles wrote about as well as the prophets. Our team, the body of Christ, is mature and powerful when it is armed with all the knowledge available and unswayed by all the arguments and excuses that try to stop it.
Ephesians 4:11-16 is what a unified church looks like. That’s not what we have now. And as long as the In Essentials Unity doctrine is allowed to prevail it is blocking the church from going after true unity.
The In Essentials Unity clause is not scripture! It is not found in scripture! Furthermore, the In Essentials Unity clause is actually an impediment to the growth and movement of the word of God because it says the things required to make Ephesians 4:11-16 happen are not important, that they are not essential doctrines, and just the opposite is true!
The In Essentials Unity doctrine is a modern Christian tradition. It was not written by the apostles and prophets. And it is not part of the apostles’ traditions. As such it a case of teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.
The Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why don’t your disciples walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with unwashed hands?” He answered them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. But they worship me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Mar 7:5-7 WEB)
What did the Apostles say that we should follow?
But we are bound to always give thanks to God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief in the truth; to which he called you through our Good News, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm, and hold the traditions which you were taught by us, whether by word, or by letter. (2Th 2:13-15 WEB)
Hold the traditions which you were taught by us, whether by word, or by letter, Paul wrote. Do you believe that Paul was the apostle charged to teach us what was important in the church Jesus made alive by his sacrifice?
Moreover, was what Paul and the other apostles taught the essentials of the faith? What did Paul say to do about believers, even church leaders, who taught differently than what he and the other apostles taught?
Now I beg you, brothers, look out for those who are causing the divisions and occasions of stumbling, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and turn away from them. (Rom 16:17 WEB)
Whoa! That is a strong stance. But you either believe the whole counsel of God or not. If you want to exclude parts of the apostles’ teachings then you just wind up with another gospel.
The ones to avoid in Romans 6:17 isn’t every follower in the pews, it’s just the one promoting doctrines at odds with the apostles’ doctrine. The man in the pulpit may be preaching that prophecy ended almost two thousand years ago, which makes him one to avoid. The people listening to him may not have made up their minds about it. I have talked to a lot of people in churches who are taught against the manifestations of the spirit in our day and time, and a lot of those people have told me they believe the Spirit does lead them and does manifest. More than that, we are to love always, not just our like-minded brethren, but even those who oppose us. And I believe that the charge to avoid these false teachers doesn’t mean you can’t hire them to work in your kitchen, buy things from them at the store, sit with them at a PTA meeting, or even eat with them at a family dinner. You need to not be there when they are teaching things contrary to the apostle’s doctrine, you need to avoid them when they are teaching things contrary to the apostles’ traditions.
Now, there are times when we are charged not to eat with certain believers, but it is not because they are teaching something other than the apostles’ doctrine. It’s because they are caught up in serious sinful habits.
I wrote to you in my letter to have no company with sexual sinners; yet not at all meaning with the sexual sinners of this world, or with the covetous and extortionists, or with idolaters; for then you would have to leave the world. But as it is, I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who is called a brother who is a sexual sinner, or covetous, or an idolater, or a slanderer, or a drunkard, or an extortionist. Don’t even eat with such a person. (1Co 5:9-11 WEB)
We, as believers, are charged not even to eat with one who is called a Christian but who is caught up in these serious errors like promiscuity, drunkeness, worshipping false gods, and extortion. Even then, for people who don’t know the word of God and have not accepted Christ, we are called to be ambassadors to all people including all kinds of sinners. But if a so-called believer persists in doing that kind of stuff, if they are just caught up in sin and rejecting reproof to stay away from those sins then we stay away from them.
But this is the exception. You have people in your life who profess Christianity. You can’t fellowship with them because they are sincerely professing doctrines that are not the apostles’ doctrine and have rejected your words to advise them of such. But you work with them, or they’re in your family, or bowling league. They are not drunkards, or promiscuous or extortionists or any of the kinds of habitual sin talked about in the verse above. Then you are not charged to “not even eat with them.”
Instead of the In Essentials Unity doctrine, we need to carefully examine the whole counsel of God in the apostles’ traditions and all of scripture, come together on what that means independent of all the traditions and philosophies of men and work that until Ephesians 4:11-16 is a reality in our day and time.
1In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity, by Mark Ross at https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/essentials-unity-non-essentials-liberty-all-things/