Understanding Essentials from a Christian Perspective: In a word…Truth (Watch Your Step)

Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about peace and unity. I’ve heard it from various media outlets, political pundits, and some well-meaning evangelical Christians. Normally, I don’t read Christianity today, but I happened to stumble upon an article by Kate Shellnutt the peaked my interest. Its a talk about how Christians need to focus on essentials and not get entangled with that which is not. And so, I was prompted to write the following little article. I hope you enjoy.

I’m going to go out on a limb and imagine that you are somewhat familiar with the following phrase:

In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”

Rupertus Meldenius, German Lutheran theologian of the early 17th century

What are essentials? How does one determine the difference between an essential and a non-essential? Is it a practical application of the biblical worldview to be charitable “in all things.”

Would you agree that context matters? In a nut shell context means background. In terms of literary study it gives the reader a foundational understanding of what the author’s direction of thought is. And so, without a context everything becomes a pretext; an assumed reality driven by what a person already presupposes to be true.

Since the quoted phrase above is given within a Christian context (background, foundation) I will offer my insight into how I think we should treat this oft repeated mantra in light of proper reasoning.

What are essentials?

The whole counsel of the Word of God. That is to say, everything contained within Scripture provides the believer the necessary prerequisites to be fully trained in living a righteous life (2Tim 3:17; 2Pet 1.3-12). The sort of life that properly mimics God our Father (Eph 5.1-2), Jesus Christ our Lord (1John 2.6), and the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth (John 16.13-14). As Jesus said, His disciples would be defined by God’s Word as it leads them truthfully down the path towards godly sanctification (John 8.31-32; 17.14-18), which is the right and proper way to access the Tree of Life (Rev 22.14-19). In short, what is essential is God’s Truth, His Way, and His Life (John 14.6).

What are Non-Essentials?

No, we are not speaking about the multitude of businesses that we forced to shut their doors, because of some arbitrary standard. That type of foolishness is the fault of our civil governing authorities here in the United States at the local, state and federal levels. I bring this up not just to poke at the jesters we have running our civil institutions today, but to highlight a reasonable conclusion. If something is non-essential rather than essential, then it must have been judged by some non-moving, non-relinquishing standard called Truth.

Anything that falls outside the realm of foundational truths in light of personal conviction is non-essential. For example, a non-essential is eating vegetables rather than meat. Both meat and vegetables (as well as fruit) come from God. It is He that has declared all things good to eat (Gen 9.3;Mark 7.19), but He gives His people freedom to eat what they desire. Such freedom in living under the righteousness of God would fall into the category of non-essentials. Those material practices do not deny the truth, but they fall at different points on the spectrum: eating only vegetation; eating both meat and vegetation; eating only meat.

The only way that one would be allowed to declare it an abuse of “liberty” is when one person harbored in their heart something negative against their neighbor that didn’t think like them. If the vegetarian said to the meat-eater, “Shame on you! You shouldn’t be eating meat since you had to kill one of God’s creatures to provide your meal. It would be better for you to be like me, who is more in line with Adam and Eve in the beginning, than to kill another to satisfy your hunger!” Or, a person from the opposite end of the spectrum saying, “You weak-willed nilly-willy. What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you eat meat? Why do you eat only vegetables? Don’t you know that God has given them both for our consumption? (And then, they go and make a show of it among other members of the body).

Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand”1

Romans 14:3-4

In such a case, this would be an abuse of the “non-essential liberty cause” and would need to be challenged as a deviation from the Truth of God’s Word; an essential to Christian faith. A call to repentance against such a violation would be necessary.

Some tend to think that “non-essentials…liberty” gives Christians the right to believe whatever they desire about a particular biblical teaching. At this point, I believe you have begun to walk on some very thin ice, unless you carefully define your parameters. Truth is essential. A non-essential offers some leeway within the spectrum that a certain truth may offer, but it does not give to the individual the right to reason however they so choose about a given topic. A good rule of thumb at this point would be to consider the wisdom behind Proverbs 30:5-6,

Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar”

(Also see: Deut 4:2; 12:32; Rev 22:18-19)

As you can see this truth is repeated in the Pentateuch and the book of Revelation. All instances give the reader both encouragement and warning. God does not lie, His word is always true…He is worthy of your (our) trust. However, do not be so presumptuous to add or take away from the meaning that He intends to convey in what He has spoken. Such activity proves that you are worthy of rebuke for lying about what God has said.

A non-essential where one might give liberty may be seen in varying doctrinal standards regarding the sacraments of communion and baptism. How one falls along the line of that particular truth spectrum may differ from individual to individual, congregation to congregation. For example, speaking specifically of communion, one might believe that doing it every time a congregation gathers it is necessary, but others believe it is better to do it a little less in order to prevent one taking it lightly. One church may believe that wine (undiluted) is what should be served, whereas others might believe grape juice is more appropriate since there are members who have struggled with drunkenness in the past. In either case, liberty is to be granted, so long as honoring the Lord is the primary concern.

On the other hand, I would argue that the doctrine of creation is one where liberty should not be allowed. Allowing theistic evolution, turning the days into long ages rather than approx. 24-periods of time, having death before the fall when sin entered in is a clear deviation from the written text. Therefore, I do not believe it should be taught from the pulpit or the classroom (regardless of the level of education) as a possible interpretation. Unless, it is being taught so that students are aware of the inherent error in order to refute it.

Now, you may wonder why I take such a hard stance here. The answer is rather simple: “You cannot come to such conclusions unless you add to the historical creation account in Genesis 1-3.” Therefore, no quarter is to be given.

  • (Note to reader: I should add that I don’t believe that this is a salvation issue, since our salvation comes from faith in Christ alone via the grace of God alone, not our belief of origins. The truth of the matter is that when one becomes a Christian they are a mixed bag of falsehoods, but it is the truth of Jesus that saves. However, as we walk with the Lord in His word the truth is supposed to be setting us free of those falsehoods. Learning to be taught, rebuked, corrected and properly trained in the path of righteousness is the sign of maturity in Christ).

In what way are we to understand “All things charitable?”

Again, we are speaking in context of a Christian worldview (faith-system). To be charitable can mean to be “full of love…and goodwill toward others,” or “merciful or kind in judging others.” Both ways of understanding the term fit nicely in terms of Christian living. We are told by God, whom we love, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and yes, to love even our enemies. In fact, our mode of operation in this life is defined by the apostle Paul in this way,

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all”

Romans 12:18

That is to say, we are responsible for being as loving, as kind, as respectful, and as peaceful with others as we can. We attempt this as our Christian responsibility, but this by no means that we are at fault when those who we come into contact with deny our attempts at being charitable.

However, there is no way that one can faithfully apply the mantra “in all things charity” when the “in all things” finds itself in opposition to the truth. By the way, opposition to false teachings, false worldviews, false convictions is a form of Christian charity. It is a kindness to save a life. It is a kindness to point out sin. It is a kindness to show people to Christ. This charity is only possible when we are willing to sacrifice our comforts in sharing, standing and fighting for the Truth of God in all areas of life.

Closing Remarks:

All in all, the above quoted phrase sounds nice in theory and it should be practiced when practical within a Christian context, but it is not a blanket statement that can by applied across the board.

My original desire was to write on the following terms: peace, unity, war, violence and disunity. In order to simplify that a bit and just use four of the five words listed, since the way I shall use them will be opposites. That is, war and peace, and unity and violence.

What should a Christian do? Is the ever a time to adopt a violently warring mindset? Or is it better to have peaceful unity? I will discuss those things in an upcoming post….


1All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).