When speaking about “Essentials” we are referring to what is indispensable concerning Christian faith and practice. In reflecting upon this subject we always want to leave room for varying ideas, convictions, and opinions. However, we are often confronted with voices that want to make non-essentials essential, making the conversation all the more challenging.
The tribe of which I am part, the Church of the Nazarene, released a publication last year entitled “Nazarene Essentials” in an attempt to bring more clarity to the subject. Unity is the goal. For unity to exist among any group there must be underlying principles that the adherents of the group subscribe to. When digression from foundational doctrines takes place, harmony is lost.
The Bible has always been central in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. In John Wesley’s words, “God himself has condescended to teach me the way. He has written it down in a book. Oh, give me that book! At any price give me the book of God. Let me be a man of one book.” Later Wesley’s methods were categorized in what we call the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. In this, theological reflection and doctrinal development are filtered through four sources pertaining to what we believe and how we live as being: (1) Established in Scripture; (2) Clarified by Tradition; (3) Confirmed by Reason; and (4) Vivified in Experience.
Many churches today live in a state of tension due to an increasing openness toward social ethics. When cultural preferences begin to replace scriptural principles division is soon to follow. This error is common among religious progressives and conservatives. Progressives frequently rally around social issues and by default undervalue biblical standards. Conservatives tend to stress conformity to strict codes of conduct often resulting in legalism. Disunity occurs because people in both camps focus on personal convictions and preferences, thus placing too much emphasis on lower level theological issues.
So, how do we know what is most important? We must start with the Gospel; it is central to the Christian faith. Everything revolves around the birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, it’s imperative to understand exactly what the Gospel is and what it is not. The Gospel is not my response to Jesus. The Gospel is not the results of believing in Jesus. Essentially the Gospel is the fact that Jesus, God incarnate, died for our sins, arose from the dead, ascended to the Father, and promised to return.
With that as a foundation allow me to provide four tiers pertaining to how we should distinguish Christian essentials from non-essentials. These lists are not exhaustive, but serve as a point of reference concerning levels of importance for Christian faith and practice.
Tier 1: Essentials. These are matters of orthodoxy versus heresy. In other words, you cannot be a Christian if you do not believe these things: (1) Doctrine of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit); (2) Person and Work of Jesus Christ (deity, incarnation, atonement, resurrection); (3) Continual Work of the Holy Spirit; (4) Original and Personal Sin (we are born sinners in need of a savior); (5) Salvation by grace through faith; (6) Divine Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures (the bible reveals the nature of God and all things necessary for salvation). These are matters worth defending. It is appropriate to correct those who contradict sound doctrine in these areas.
Tier 2: Practices. These are matters that determine local church practice and ministry: (1) Polity or Church Governance; (2) Administration of Sacraments (Baptism and Communion); (3) Philosophy of Ministry; (4) Theological Persuasions (Calvinist vs. Arminian). These are issues that a local church needs to have general agreement on in order to minister effectively. While differences in these areas should not lead us to question one another’s faith, we might have to agree to exist in different fellowships.
Tier 3: Interpretations. These are matters that we can disagree on peaceably. Interpretations vary, but should never cause us to questions a person’s dedication to Christ. I will name a few that seem to get more attention: (1) End Times (preterism, historicism, futurism, etc.); (2) Views of Creation (literal 24-hour, gap theory, day-age, etc.); (3) Spiritual Gifts (miracles, healing, prophecy, etc.). I’ve pastored people who hold diverse opinions on various third tier theological issues, yet were able to exist in unity.
Tier 4: Convictions. These are often matters of the conscience, where scripture does not bind all, yet some may need to live a certain way while others live differently. Convictions often revolve around: (1) Education (public or private); (2) Politics (social issues); (3) Entertainment (movies, music, etc.). The last category refers to matters similar to the ones that Paul dealt with in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-11. When scripture does not give us a command, we must use wisdom. Also, we must refuse to lay our convictions on the shoulders of others.
Again, none of these lists are exhaustive. However, they do give us a place to start thinking about what is truly indispensable to the Christian faith. To be absolutely clear, the most essential part of our faith is Jesus. He is the way, truth, and life; no one comes to God except through him. So, the best advice I can give is… put Jesus first and with everything else live by the famous words of Saint Augustine, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”
(Source: Nazarene Essentials; Discipline of The United Methodist Church; Derek Radney)