Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s advisor in the Reformation, is the one who first said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity”. What are the essentials and non-essentials he was talking about?
This saying, which relates to how Christians should treat each other, relies on agreement as to what is essential and what is not. As Martin Luther believed that the Scriptures were the only rule of faith and life, he would have used the Bible to distinguish between the “essentials” and “non-essentials” of the Christian faith. However, just as there can be variations in the interpretation of some portions of the Bible, there can also be variations on where different people would place the boundary between the essentials and non-essentials. In fact, numerous books have been written on this topic.
Essentials of the Christian Faith
As the essentials are mandatory, indispensable and vital, they should be shared by all true Christians in a spirit of unity. Paul wrote, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:3-6 TNIV). He urged Christians to work together in peace and unity because the basis of their unity was the fact that they shared the following:
- One body – Whatever their race, nationality, culture, language, or circumstances all believers were part of the church, the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13).
- One Spirit –Tthe Holy Spirit lived within all believers and the body of Christ (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19).
- One hope – In the future, all believers will be the Lord and will be like Him eternally (1 Pt. 1:3-5; 1 Jn. 3:2-3).
- One Lord – Jesus Christ, the Son of God was their common Savior (1 Cor. 8:6).
- One faith – They held in common the doctrine preserved for the Church in the New Testament (Jude 3).
- One baptism – All believers were baptized by the Holy Spirit into the one body and this new life was symbolized by water baptism (Rom. 6:3-4; 1 Cor. 12:13).
- One God – God the Father was the supreme ruler of the universe (1 Cor. 8:6).
Sometimes the essentials of the Christian faith are summarized in a creed or a statement of faith.
Other truths that are often viewed as being essentials are the authority of Scripture and New Testament doctrines such as: our sinfulness and God’s judgment; the reality of heaven and hell; and the forgiveness of sins by grace through repentance and faith in Christ’s death and resurrection.
We should not be afraid to associate with any people who share our belief in the essentials of the Christian faith. If God accepts them as His, we should too (Acts 10:34-35). Our unity will not be complete until we become mature when we are raptured to heaven (Eph. 4:13). In the meantime we grow towards maturity and maintain this unity by “speaking the truth in love,” which means holding the essentials in a loving way (Eph. 4:15).
Non-Essentials of the Christian Faith
As to the non-essentials, Christians can differ in these areas. As they are neither right nor wrong, there is room for various views. Among believers there are different levels of understanding of aspects of the Bible and their implications. For instance, in Rome this applied to whether to eat meat that had been offered to idols and whether to keep Jewish religious festivals (Rom. 14:1–15:7). Paul taught them not to judge one another with respect to these topics (Rom. 14:4, 10- 13). Instead they were to accept one another as God had, because differences were allowed in these areas as they were debatable matters (Rom. 14:1,3; 15:7). This would provide for an overall unity amidst diversity and people would agree to disagree and allow each to follow their own convictions.
The New Testament contains many principles, but not much detail on how to apply and practice them. This allows these principles to be applied in different ways in different cultures, circumstances, times and traditions. And many situations we face in daily life are not addressed specifically in Scripture. There is liberty in the non-essential areas provided Christians act in love, consistent with the teachings of the New Testament.
We have identified some “essentials” and a few “non-essentials” of the Christian faith. However, due to the difficulty of this task and the spectrum of possible issues, I would suggest that we consider three categories instead of two. The new category, secondary essentials, would fit between the other two and contain biblical doctrines of secondary importance, but which have a range of interpretations and do not relate to salvation or threaten unity. This also avoids referring to these doctrines as non-essential. This model can represent the unity and diversity of the Christian faith and the agreement and tolerance required in Christian relationships.
The revised saying for Christian relationships might be: “In essentials (primary doctrines), unity; in secondary essentials (other doctrines), tolerance; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things love.”
Published, October 2011