What are the essentials?

A message that I heard recently started me ruminating (about foundational issues, as usual). This is good in that maybe there is some discussion merited here, but not so good in what I think I was hearing. It was a mixed bag so to speak, and I took a while to decide to write about it.

The message was an interpretation of Romans 14. It proposed that there was confusion within the church over what constituted essential and non-essential matters of faith and necessary practice, and that this results in divisiveness (read that as non-inclusiveness in this case) both within the body and in terms of attracting people to the church when the two categories are miss-applied. The unstated subtext of the message appeared to be church growth and it side-stepped the related and larger issue of ecumenical error.

The message sampled a few widely divergent attributes from various denominations, pointing out that these were often construed within those circles as indicative of and necessary for real Christian spirituality.

What sort of attributes? Here are some examples (there were a few more):
All denominations – dressing up or not for church
Reformed Presbyterians – no instrumentation and singing of psalms only.
Anglicans (also Roman Catholics) and others – the use of strict liturgy
CRC – use of catechism to teach doctrine and theology
Pentecostals – spiritual gifts in present times and exuberant worship

I think that you get the idea. Let me also point out that I did not make up these examples, and that the list likely contained some inaccuracies. Nonetheless, these are what were presented, and as you will see, although not completely without merit, I found some of the implications disturbing.

The message proposed that all of these attributes were optional and not essentials to the faith. Further, it declared that as non-essentials they were divisive within congregational life when viewed as anything other than surface preference, best applied only to one’s self. By implication it was also implied that these should not properly form the basis for Christian discernment.

Some years ago an wise Christian brother said to me that denominations were just expressions of preference with the body. I like that in some ways since it stresses the reality that although there are preferential differences we (true believers) are all one body in the Lord. Thus our preferential differences as evangelical believers should not separate us divisively. They are “items for family discussion”, so to speak. That works well as long as we are discussing truly preferential, and not foundational, matters. And therein lies the rub…

In the present case it seemed to go well beyond that, which concerns me. The conclusion of this particular message was that ALL attributes other than the Gospel (as expressed in a line or two) are non-essential. Everything else was deemed personal, and potential divisive. That may sound very inclusive in the surface (and that was indeed the subtext being delivered in this case, for other reasons), but it is also, I believe, very dangerous.

Certainly I can agree that some items are truly preferential. I may like to wear a suit to church and you may like to wear jeans. You may be more comfortable in the framework of liturgy, while I might prefer a more free spirited exchange. I may think the drums in the worship band are okay, but you are only really comfortable with the old hymns. Those are, as mentioned above, family discussion items. However, I clearly draw the line when it comes to the Bible, theology or doctrine being judged superfluous and potentially divisive.

If the ONLY criteria for inclusion is the simple Gospel, and every other attribute and tool is to be cast in the light of optional and unnecessary, then what of Biblical development and understanding?

Let us take the example of catechism. I am not a ‘rules’ fanatic and I do not actively use a catechism (though I likely should), but new or young believers often need tools for understanding the faith beyond initial belief statements. Without that they will not mature. Catechisms and similar simplifications help with that process. They are in fact in many cases essential to the processes. In the message in question, even The Word itself was not included in the stated essentials list. Since the Word is the Lord, this gives me very serious pause.

My concern here (thought I can not seem to state it as clearly as I would like) is that foundational Bible and related edification were being cast in the same optional, non-essential light as Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, all in the interest of seeker friendly warm fuzzies. The lynch pins of developing maturity were cast in a light of divisiveness. Nothing was considered solid beyond the simple Gospel. It is a clear case the baby going out with the bath water in the name of inclusiveness.

Surely this is error. We are, of course, called first to the Gospel. But henceforth we are called to development in the Word. For that to happen, tools including the Bible and supporting material are needed. Those are not divisive beyond dividing us rightly from the world.

So what do I think are the essentials? Well, as a preliminary list I would included the Gospel, Bible, plus basic Christian theology and doctrine expressed through tools such as a catechism. Overall, the tools to understand the reality of Christian life. Even when these may differ between groups, they are nonetheless critical and definitely not unessential.

In writing this I realize that the real underlying issue is not the one stated. It is the one alluded to by the desired inclusiveness of the seeker friendly approach. That issue is – church growth are what cost? The requirement to be inclusive and seeker friendly, thereby stimulating growth and wide appeal, can result in the casting off of the very support framework that assists believers to mature. This is clearly happening today, and the push of church leadership for growth, albeit with an eye to conversions, seems to include extreme blinders as to the long term cost. Therein is grave danger of a completely emotion and experience based assembly. This may on the surface appear dynamic and my indeed grow dramatically, but below the surface it is developing without any real foundation.

One can only cry out – Beware!


2 thoughts on “What are the essentials?

  1. Sven

    Having heard the same message, I’m not sure that you’re taking the point farther than intended.

    Your are correct that there is a core, essential doctrine & belief that is required for a living, functioning, Christ-headed church. The Word is absolutely necessary, and if any kind of growth is to occur will be (increasingly) present.

    That said, believers are too quick to put their pet preferences into the necessary catagory. A missions group I am aware of made the observation that the apostles’ requirement for saving belief was the fact of the finished work of Jesus to reconcile with God. They take this to mean (for example) that a saving belief does not of necessity start with accepting a trinitarian view of the Godhead – that is the job for the Church to teach as the new born comes along in the faith. They do expect that the Spirit will make Trinity clear in due time, of course – the key is that the new believer call only on the name of Jesus to become right with God. I was a little surprised when I first read that; they do have a record serving in very hostile places which leaves me unwilling to write the observation off.

    The problem with things like catechism is that it is too often a reflection of the current polical climate, both in and outside the church. For an example, consider infant baptism. Jesus did command baptism, and went into the Jordan first. The church then decided that sooner was better than later. Many centuries on, Luther wasn’t as keen on infant baptism as are modern Luthereans (among others). He also didn’t think that it was worth splitting the church over it. Coming from a decided Protestant background, I think that the infant baptism is a none starter, a large error. Yet I don’t see why someone whose earthly father raised him in this tradition is of necessity outside of the kingdom. (I’m not suggesting you do, by the way – I’m trying to say that the number of basic beliefs that cannot be traded away is probably smaller than I think and or like, because God is a whole lot bigger than me.)

    As a body we need to be willing and able to take other parts of the body as they are now, and build into their growth as they build into ours. I think this was the point of the message; I’m not sure how to add the “keep all the important bits” without distracting from what was supposed to be the key point of the message. (Then again, my skills at communication are easily demostrated to be lacking…)

    A pastor in Victoria (while I was doing my Master’s, and so didn’t “need” to take notes because it was all so easily remembered :() observed that in every church there is a sprinkling of emphasis among the members. He had 4 “legs,” if you will: some who were very concerned about correct doctrine, some who were very concerned with showing the faith through good works, plus two others that I should have written down… The point was that the church needs all of these traits. Those who focus on reaching out are often prone to sluff over the core doctrine; those who focus on core doctrine are often prone to making life unbearable for anyway who sees things differently. The body only grows when all in it do their bit to help the others in the body do what God made them to do correctly. Sort of a team thing.

    I really hope this rambling makes some sense…

  2. kwilson Post author

    I would agree that doctrine and catechism could in some circumstances become part of a political agenda. However, in the modern church the reaction is to throw the baby out with the bath water, seeing the foundational issues a unfriendly, outdated and even divisive (as an aside, that is what they are supposed to be). All this in the interest of inclusiveness and the holy grail of church growth. That is what stimulated me to write this particular post. Further, I would disagree that I inferred too much.

    This specific instance aside, however, what I see is a more and more marked deviation from foundational preaching and biblical education, with the casting aside of the ‘full council of God’ in presenting the Gospel, all in the name of inclusive growth.

    I see this as significant error.

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