What does the Bible say about conflict management?
We live in a world where differences of opinion are common. But these disagreements can lead to conflict, strife and violence. This happens in marriages, in families, in neighborhoods, at work and in churches. It happens in all kinds of relationships between people.
Conflict between nations can lead to war. In January 2020 Donald Trump announced a Middle East peace plan to solve the Israel–Palestinian conflict. And after more than 18 years of war in Afghanistan, the US has signed a peace treaty with the Taliban.
Peace has been elusive. These wars go on and on. There are so many barriers to peace. (more…)
They say that a camel is a horse designed by a committee! Does this mean that groups make poor decisions because they incorporate too many conflicting opinions?
Christian churches and ministries are often led by leadership teams. But how should such teams make decisions, particularly when not all members agree? In this blogpost, we will use the example of a group of elders leading a church, but the principles also apply to other groups of Christians. We will see that the best approach to collective decision-making is to seek consensus rather than unanimity or a simple majority.
The Bible teaches that a Christian church should be governed by a group of elders. This is plural leadership by a team that makes decisions for the congregation. In this article we look at some of the biblical principles for making decisions at elders’ meetings. These are collective, corporate decisions; not those made by an individual. It is when the elders seek the best collective decision as to what is Christ’s will for the congregation.
It is important to make every effort to maintain peace and unity among Christians (Rom. 14:19; Eph. 4:3). After all, Jesus died to bring together all of God’s scattered people and make them one (Jn. 11:51-52). Unity among believers was so important to Jesus that it was the subject of His prayer for them during the final hours of His life on earth: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn. 17:20-23NIV).
The Greek word for “one” (hen, Strongs #1520) appears four times in these verses, the last occasion being translated as “complete unity.” Here “one” is a metaphor for union, concord, and unity and the example to follow is the unity that exists between God the Father and God the Son. The same word was used when Christ said “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30).
The reason for this unity is repeated in the above verses: so the people of this world will know that Christ was sent by God. Another reason is so they may know something of God’s great love for humanity. This means that Christ tied His reputation and the credibility of His message to how well His followers display unity and oneness.
Paul also gave reasons for harmony and unity amongst Christians, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:1-4).
Evidently there was a lack of unity amongst the elders at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-17). There were factions within this church. Paul said that there shouldn’t be such divisions or quarrels within a leadership team.
But unity doesn’t mean uniformity; that every elder will have the same opinion. If this was the case, there would be no need for the plurality of elders. Also, plural leadership harnesses the collective experience and wisdom of a group, which is not present in a single person.
Furthermore, unity doesn’t mean that one person makes the decisions and the others all agree. This is more like a dictatorship where one person insists on getting their own way (3 Jn. 9-10). Being unified on an issue means that after debate, discussion and prayer, all the elders can support a certain choice as the best collective decision for the church.
Unity in a leadership team mainly depends on the character of the team members. For example, the Bible gives the godly qualifications required for elders (1 Tim. 3:1-6; Tit. 1:6-9). In decision-making it’s important that elders be sensible, just, trustworthy, and self-controlled and not quarrelsome or quick tempered or overbearing.
Did you know that not making a decision is a decision? In this case, the situation remains the same as it is at present. So, we are choosing to remain the same instead of changing in some way. Such a bias in favour of the status quo can be harmful for a church which is facing ever-changing challenges.
According to the dictionary, consensus means general or widespread agreement. The two main components of decision-making are the process used to form a proposal and the method used to decide whether to implement it or not. The word “consensus” has been used in both of these contexts.
A consensus-oriented process is one in which people work together to reach as much agreement as possible. It is a collaborative and inclusive process in which all the elders should have the opportunity to contribute to drafting the proposal. As extra time can lead to a better proposal, be willing to defer finalizing the proposal to the next elders’ meeting.
A person can give their consent to a proposal that isn’t their first choice. Possible decision-making options include:
– Unanimous agreement (this is the most difficult to achieve)
– Unanimous consent (where the proposal isn’t necessarily their first choice)
– Unanimous agreement minus one or two votes
– Unanimous consent minus one or two votes
– Super majority such as 90%, 80%, 75%, or two-thirds.
– Simple majority. At least 51%.
Three decision-making methods
Some examples of decision-making in the early church are given in the Appendix. The three main methods for making decisions in elders’ meetings are unanimity, majority, and consensus.
In this case, decisions are based on unanimous agreement by all persons. This is the ideal that elders should be working towards. However, this method allows one person to shut down the decision-making process. Not taking an action is a decision. In this case, the decision would be made by one person, and not a plural group. This gives one person too much power. The choice to require unanimous agreement on all decisions allows any individual elder to stop the decision-making process in the elders’ group. So this approach can lead to government by the minority.
In this case, decisions are based on the agreement by a majority of elders. It is government by the majority, not the minority. Although there is biblical precedence for this approach (2 Cor. 5:6), it can also lack unity. For example, if a decision is based on a slim majority, then there is a lack of unity amongst the elders. How can the elders expect the congregation to follow such a decision? A proposal that cannot gain the agreement of all or nearly all the elders is not worthy of the elders’ support. So a super majority is better than a slim majority.
In this case, decisions are based on the agreement by all (unanimity) or most of the elders. Consequently, it avoids the short-comings of the other two methods for making decisions. It is a decision which all or nearly all the elders can support (say at least two-thirds). So it is similar to a super majority where each person agrees to support the decision, even though it may not be their first choice. Note that disagreement by a minority does not have to mean disunity.
Today the complete Word of God gives us a general outline of God’s will. When we need specific guidance in matters not covered in the Word, we can pray and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The elements of decision making at an elders’ meeting include:
– Pray for corporate wisdom. If there is only a simple majority or if someone has serious objections, then there is a need for more prayer.
– Gather and assess information. Good leaders listen to the concerns of all the people involved. Don’t make a decision before you have all the facts (Prov. 18:13, 17). After an allegation was made the Israelites were advised; “you must investigate it thoroughly” (Dt. 13:14). As there are usually at least two sides to every story, it is important to talk to all the parties involved (Josh. 22:13-14; 31-34; Mt. 18:15-17).
– Apply appropriate Biblical principles.
– Discuss options. “After much discussion”, the early church at Jerusalem made a decision on the law of Moses (Acts 15:7, 25).
– Agree on a time frame for the decision. If we put it off indefinitely, then we accept the status quo. But if there is only a simple majority or if someone has serious objections, if possible, the decision could be delayed to the next elders meeting. Similarly for the case where a decision is a greater risk of going against Christ’s will for the congregation than the risk of delay. So patience is required for good decision-making.
– Seek consensus where team members either fully agree or have no serious objections. But if this is not achieved, to do nothing may be making a decision anyhow (status quo). And it seems better to favor the majority and not the minority, provided this doesn’t threaten unity amongst the elders.
Don’t let fear cripple your decision making. Fear of conflict, fear of what others may think and fear of failure must be overcome if we are to make good decisions.
Consensus is preferred because majority rule is better than minority rule and super majority rule is better than simple majority rule. Whereas a requirement for a unanimous agreement gives every member a veto, which is individual decision-making and not collective decision-making.
Let’s use the principles discussed above to make good decisions in our Christian leadership teams. The best approach is to seek consensus rather than unanimity or a simple majority. For example, in elders’ meetings it is best to seek consensus when making decisions. In this case, decisions are based on the agreement by all or most of the elders. It is a decision which all or nearly all the elders can support. This avoids the shortcomings of using the unanimous or majority approaches to decision making.
Appendix – Decision-making in the early church
Some examples of decisions made in the early church are given below.
Matthias chosen to replace Judas
After the resurrection of Jesus and the death of Judas Iscariot, it was necessary to appoint another apostle to be a witness Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1:15-26). The job description for this person would require that they knew what Christ taught so they could teach others. And they must be able to work together with the other apostles to lead the church in Jerusalem. Apparently several men met this requirement, so a decision had to be made as to which one would become the 12th apostle. Then the Bible says; “So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:23-26NIV).
They followed a three step process:
– The apostles nominated two men
– The apostles prayed for the Lord’s will to be revealed
– They cast lots
As this is the Bible’s last mention of casting lots, it’s not prescriptive for the church. It was a method used under the Mosaic covenant, but not under the new covenant.
The casting of lots for decision-making was a custom widely practiced in the ancient Near East. For example, lots were used in Persia in the 5th century BC (Est. 3:7). It seems as though marked pebbles or sticks were drawn from a receptacle into which they had been cast. This use of stones or sticks of wood to make decisions occurred often in Old Testament times (Ex. 28:30; Num. 26:55-56; 27:21; 33:54; 1 Sam. 10:20-21; 1 Chron. 26:13-16; Neh. 11:1; Ps. 22:18; Prov. 16:33; 18:18; Ezek. 21:21; Jon. 1:7). For example, the Urim and the Thummim were used to determine the will of God. Lots were used to reveal God’s selection of someone or something out of several possibilities in cases where a clear choice was not otherwise evident (Prov. 16:33). They provided a just and peaceful settlement of matters between people who might otherwise resort to force.
Deacons chosen at Jerusalem
When a practical need arose in the church at Jerusalem, the apostles said, “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3-4). So the congregation choose seven men who were endorsed by the apostles. But no details are given on the method used for this decision.
Barnabas and Saul chosen for missionary work
Paul’s first missionary journey began from Antioch in Syria (Acts 13:1-3). This decision was made when the elders of the church (and maybe the congregation) were engaged in a time of prayer and fasting. They may have been praying about the evangelization of the world. As they prayed the Holy Spirit told them set apart Barnabas and Saul for this missionary work. We are not told how this message came, but it may have been revealed to one of the men who were prophets (Simeon, Lucius, or Manaen). The elders (and congregation) must have agreed as “they placed their hands on them and sent them off”. Likewise, no details are given on the decision-making process used.
Do Gentile believers need to be circumcised?
At the church in Jerusalem, the leadership team (apostles and elders) met in about AD 48 to consider whether to impose circumcision on Gentile believers (Acts 15:1-35). There was “much discussion” on this topic. Peter, Barnabas and Paul spoke. James then made a recommendation that was accepted by the apostles, elders and the whole church. They “all agreed” to send Judas and Silas to Antioch with a letter about their decision (Acts 15:22, 25). The ESV, HCSB and NET call it “unanimous” (the Greek means, having come to one mind”). It seemed to be a consensus agreement (a general agreement) which everyone was willing to accept. This doesn’t mean that everyone fully agreed (unanimity) as evidenced by the ongoing Judaizers objections. This is a good outcome of decision making, but it isn’t always possible. For example:
– When Paul and Barnabas disagreed with regard to John Mark, they went separate ways (Acts 16:36-41). This shows that agreement will not always be reached. But in this case a peaceful outcome was achieved.
– Paul said that it was wrong for a church to be divided over leaders like in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-17). Instead there should be unity.
Dealing with an offender at Corinth
Paul wrote the letter of 1 Corinthians to address problems at the church in Corinth. One of the problems was that the church continued to accept a member who was in an incestuous relationship (1 Cor. 5:1-13). Paul rebuked them for not doing anything about it, and urged them to take action. He told them to expel the man from the church so that he would repent of this ongoing behaviour.
When Paul wrote a follow-up letter, it was evident that the church had obeyed Paul’s instruction to expel the offender (2 Cor. 2:5-8; 7:12). (Note that this passage may refer to someone else who had caused trouble in the church; we can’t be certain. Another possibility is that the offence in 2 Corinthians was a personal attack by the unrepentant incestuous man against Paul and his authority to exercise discipline in the church. And after Paul rebuked them again, the church finally disciplined the offender). Now as the offender had shown genuine sorrow and repentance for his sin, the punishment should be discontinued and he should be restored to fellowship in the local church. In this context, Paul writes,
“The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient” (v. 6NIV).
“For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough” (ESV)
“The punishment inflicted by the majority is sufficient for that person” (HCSB)
“This punishment on such an individual by the majority is enough for him” (NET).
The Greek word pleionon (Strongs #4119) means greater in quantity or quality (Thayer Greek Lexion). The short definition is “more” or “greater”. In 2 Cor. 2:6 it is translated as “majority”, because it means greater in quantity. Paul also uses this Greek word in the same sense in 4:15 (where it means “more and more”) and 9:2 (where is means “most”). This Greek word also occurs in 1 Cor. 9:19 (many); 10:5 (most); 15:6 (most).
The decision by the church to punish the offender had not been unanimous, as it was carried out by the “majority” of the church, not “all” the church. Some may have declined to take part in it because they refused to acknowledge Paul’s authority. But Paul felt that the agreement of the majority had been sufficient to attain the desired objective. Those who had shown disrespect for the apostle must have been the minority.
This suggests that in instances where unanimity isn’t achieved, then it should be majority rule and not minority rule. You may say that in the case of the Israelite spies of Canaan, the majority (10 out of 12) made a bad decision. However, this was because only two of the 12 spies were faithful to the Lord (See the importance of the godly character of team members mentioned above under “Unity”).
Reference Swartley RH (2005) “Eldership in action. Through biblical governance of the church”. Emmaus College Press.
Written, April 2017
Also see: New Testament shepherds
A praising, unified and serving church
The word “church” is the collective name for all true Christians and for those that meet together regularly. It is the theme of the letter of Ephesians. In this article we look at what Ephesians says about God’s plans for the church.
Plans For The Future Era
In Ephesians 1:3-14 Paul describes the spiritual blessings we have through God the Father, the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The phrase “In Christ Jesus” (or a similar one) occurs at least ten times in this passage. Clearly, Christ is the centre of all God’s plans for the church. “In Christ” refers to the spiritual union of Christ with believers, which is symbolised by the metaphor “body of Christ” (Eph. 1:23; 2:26; 4:4,12,16; 5:23, 30). It also describes the believer’s position, but not necessarily their practice.
As God plans to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ, the goal toward which all history is moving is to unite all things in the physical world and the spiritual world under Christ (Eph. 1:10). The Greek word used here means “to sum up”. In a world were things don’t always make sense we can look forward to a time when everything will be brought into a meaningful relationship under the leadership of Christ.
This will happen during the Millennium (“when the times will have reached their fulfilment”), which will be when God’s kingdom will come to earth and when His will “will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10). It will be a time of universal dominion: Christ will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. The one who is now despised by many will be the Lord of all, the object of universal worship; “Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11NIV).
In this coming era, the church will reign with Christ over the whole universe (Eph. 1:18-23; 2:6-7). Although He is far above the rest of creation, because the church is closely related to Him, like the body is joined to the head, and it is seated with Him, it will share His rule over the universe. What a great prospect to look forward to! It’s part of our hope and inheritance.
Three times in this passage Paul praises God for His grand plan for the future (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). likewise, praise should also be our response to God’s great plan for the Lord and for His church
Plans For The Present Era
God’s plan is that people will hear the gospel and believe it to be sealed by the Holy Spirit as a deposit of the inheritance that awaits them (Eph. 1:11-14). Such people are part of His global church and should be a part of a local church. The church is God’s people of all nations (Rev. 5:9) who lived between the day of Pentecost in about 30 AD and the rapture, when all believers are resurrected and transformed to enter heaven. Unless we have accepted God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, we will not share in these plans for the church.
The church is God’s plan for the present era. It was a new category of people, a new humanity, that was made known to Paul by direct revelation from God (Eph. 2:15). God used the Holy Spirit to reveal this new truth about Christ and the church to the New Testament apostles and prophets, such as Paul (Col. 1:26).
The animosity between the Gentiles and the Jews was replaced with loving relationships when they became fellow members of the church with equal access to God (Eph. 2:11-22). This was because, “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). So, in the church, all believers share three things in common. First, they are heirs together (“joint-heirs” in Greek), sharing the same inheritance, being “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). Second, they are members together (“joint-body”), being fellow members of the same body, having equal positions before God in the church. Third, they are sharers together (“joint-sharers”), having the same promises that are the result of Christ’s work of salvation. For example, they share the Holy Spirit and all that is promised in the gospel message.
This is a radical idea. There is no basis for discrimination in the church. What a change from the Old Testament era when the Gentiles were pagans outside the promises that were made to the Jews. Now, all believers of all races and cultures and standings in life share equally in the privileges.
One of God’s purposes is to use the church to teach the angels about His manifold wisdom (Eph. 3:10-11). Although Adam and Eve sinned, God had a plan of salvation. He sent His Son to die, rise from the dead and ascend back to heaven so that sinners from all nations can confess their sin and trust in the saving work of Christ and become members of the church who will be honoured as the bride of Christ throughout eternity. Those who had been rebels were now part of God’s people. Those who were enemies were now partners. What an amazing drama!
Unity In The Church
Paul now shows how God made provisions for those in the church to live and work together in unity (Eph. 4:1-6). Christians are urged to live in accordance with their calling, which is as members of the body of Christ. In the rest of the letter Paul teaches that this means working for unity in the church, purity in our personal lives, harmony in our homes and vigilance against the powers of evil.
He lists four important attitudes and behaviors for the church (Eph. 4:2): be humble, not conceited or arrogant or dictatorial; be gentle, not judgemental or critical; be patient; don’t retaliate when provoked; and bear with one another in love, by accepting those with different convictions. These are Christlike and believers are to follow His example (1 Cor. 11:1).
Then he writes: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). When God created the church He destroyed the rift between the Jews and the Gentiles. All such distinctions were abolished in the church. All Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Nothing can destroy this fact. Nothing can destroy this unity that has been made by God. We can’t create this unity of the shared spiritual life, but we can disturb it. So, we are told to work to keep it by living at peace with one another. We all have different convictions over debatable matters, but these should be overlooked so we can work together in peace for our common good. Of course we should have unity on the essentials of our faith. For the non-essentials there is liberty and we should be able to agree to disagree in a humble, gentle, patient and loving way.
We are to concentrate on the basis of our Christian unity instead of being occupied by our differences (Eph. 4:4-6). Seven reasons are given for this: there is one body, which is comprised of all true believers from Pentecost to the rapture and as a physical body grows from a single cell and every cell shares that original life, every believer shares the spiritual life associated with the Holy Spirit and they share an eternal destiny; there is one Spirit, who indwells all true believers; there is one hope, which is to be with the Lord for eternity and to be like Him (1 Jn. 3:2); there is one Lord, who is the ultimate authority (Phil. 2:9-11); there is one faith to be believed, which is the body of truth in the New Testament (Jude 3); there is one baptism, which could be the baptism of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13) or the water baptism by which believers express their allegiance to Christ; and there is one God, who is the supreme ruler of the universe.
The Lord’s prayer was that believers may be unified in showing the character of God and of Christ (Jn. 17:20-23). This unity is important for the salvation of sinners. Can they see Christ in believers as the Father was seen in Christ? When they see this unity, they have a reason to believe that Jesus was the Son of God and not just a gifted man. The unity of believers can convince unbelievers of the mission of Christ.
Maturity In The Church
Although there is a unity in the church as the body of Christ, there is also diversity. We are all different in some ways and have different gifts and roles to play, like the different parts in a body. The purpose of these gifts is (Eph. 4:12-13): to equip believers for works of service, which means that everyone in the congregation should be trained in some aspects of Christian service; then by serving one another, the church will be built up (spiritual gifts are for the “the common good” and are not to be exercised individualistically, 1 Cor. 12:7); to help maintain our unity; and to produce maturity as God wants us to be grown up, responsible and well-adjusted people. Our standard for maturity is, “How much am I like Jesus Christ?” (Eph. 4:13, 15).
This growth process is to continue until the rapture when (Eph. 4:13): we will reach unity in the faith and in our knowledge of the Lord (our unity is not based on attitudes or feelings but on the truths of scripture which involves the doctrines about Christ and a common understand about God’s Son); and we grow to maturity in our spiritual development (as the perfectly balanced character of Christ).
When these spiritual gifts are operating and the congregation are actively serving the Lord, three dangers are avoided (Eph. 4:14):
- Immaturity – as children need exercise to grow into maturity, believers need to be involved in active service to become mature. Otherwise, they will be as the writer to the Hebrews says, “by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Heb. 5:12). Such people don’t know what they believe and are reliant on others.
- Instability – immature believers tend to be spiritually fickle, they keep moving around to follow the latest novelties.
- Gullibility – immature believers can be deceived by false teachers who use religious words and appear zealous and sincere. Unfortunately they have not studied the Bible well enough to discern good from evil. As Hebrews says, “solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14).
If these characteristics are present, then we are still childish and immature.
Then Paul describes the proper process of growth in the congregation (Eph. 4:15-16). As right doctrine is essential (“speaking the truth”), we need to learn the fundamentals of the Christian faith. As the right attitude is also essential (“speaking the truth in love”), our conversation must always be accompanied with love. This is consistent with the requirement to bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2). In fact love is another important theme of Ephesians where it is mentioned 15 times; more than in any other of Paul’s letters.
As believers are equipped to use their gifts in active service they “will in all things grow up into Him who is the head, that is, Christ”. In every area of their life they will become more like Christ. They will more accurately represent Him before the watching world.
Next we are told that the body grows and builds itself up in love as each part does its work (Eph. 4:16). The Lord is the source of this growth; it is “from Him”. After all He said to Peter, “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18) and Paul wrote that it’s only God who brings spiritual growth (1 Cor. 3:5-9). Then the body is said to be “joined and held together by every supporting ligament”. In our human bodies the bones are held together by joints and ligaments and the organs are also attached by ligaments. Each part of our bodies needs to play its particular role, otherwise we are sick or injured. Likewise for the spiritual body of the church. Each member has a particular function to carry out and the church body grows as they carry their role. Otherwise the church is not healthy. God puts believers together in the church so that their different spiritual gifts work together in harmony (1 Cor. 12:18-24). He creates unity from our diversity.
The church grows as the congregation feed on the Bible, pray, worship, serve and witness for Christ. This is accompanied by a growth in love. As believers are equipped to use their gifts in active service and they serve and carry out their role in the church, they grow closer to one another in love and unity. In fact, maturity and unity in the church are impossible without love, which brackets these passages (Eph. 4:2, 16).
Lessons For Us
God has definite plans for His church, which we need to take into account when developing the vision and goals for our local church. Christ is the centre of these plans. With respect to the grand plan for the future to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ, we should be a praising church. With respect to His plan for the present, we should be a unified church. Are we working hard to maintain the unity of the Spirit by living in peace with each other, praying for one another, forgiving one another and not holding grudges?
Are we equipping believers for works of service? Are we in active service for the Lord? Are we becoming more like Christ? Are we doing our work in the local church? Are we helping the congregation grow and be built up towards maturity? Are we God’s co-workers; His agents, His subcontractors (1 Cor. 3:9)? Are we honest and loving? Let’s not hinder God’s plans, but work together with Him.
Remember God has put us in the body of Christ where He wants us to be, among the Christians He wants us to be with, because we need them and they need us. As each part of the body accepts this and serves one another, each part is doing what it was designed to do. We need to accept one another and let each carry out their function to ensure a healthy church.
Written, September 2008
Characteristics of a godly congregation
Children are born into families whose goal is to raise them to maturity. As Christians, God has placed believers in a spiritual family which will last forever. Let’s look at some key goals for our spiritual family, the local church.
The Greek word “ekklesia”, which means a “calling out”, is used in the Bible to describe a gathering, meeting or congregation. It has also been translated as a “church” or “assembly”. This word is used in the New Testament to describe Christians in either a global or a local sense. This article focuses on the local church, which is comprised of believers in a particular region who meet together regularly. For example, Paul begins his letters “To the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2 TNIV); “To the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Th. 1:1); “To the churches in Galatia” (Gal. 1:2).
When He was here, the Lord promised “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18). The church began on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s death, when the Holy Spirit indwelt the Lord’s followers (Acts 2). So, don’t look in the Old Testament to learn about the church, because it was unknown in those times.
The Church Revealed to Paul
God used Paul to bring us the most complete revelation about the church by revealing a new truth, which was unknown to previous generations (Eph. 3:2-12). The Greek word for mystery, “musterion” occurs three times in this passage (v.3, 5, 9) and means a secret, which in this case was made known by divine revelation at a time appointed by God. It has been referred to as, “The mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people” (Col. 1:26).
What was this new truth? “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). The church was to be comprised of Jews and Gentiles who followed the Lord. This truth was also revealed by the Holy Spirit to other New Testament apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:5). The gospel message that Christ as the Son of God offered up His life to enable a company of forgiven people to become members of the church was the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20; 1 Cor. 3:11).
Before this time, the world was divided into two classes of people: Jew and Gentile. But Jesus introduced a third class: the Christian church (1 Cor. 10:32). All Christians are equal before God and have equal access to God because the distinctions between people under the Old Testament law have been abolished: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
One of God’s goals is to show the angels His manifold wisdom through the church (Eph. 3:10-11). They see how a loving God triumphed over sin by offering His Son so that sinners of all races and nations could have a heavenly inheritance of eternal life. They see the church as being part of God’s new creation.
Churches in the New Testament
Before He ascended back to heaven, Jesus told the apostles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
On the day of Pentecost, the first church was formed at Jerusalem. Later when the church was persecuted, Christians were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1) and churches were established. Then they travelled to Phoenica, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19) and churches were established. Later Paul in a series of missionary journeys established churches in Galatia (now part of Turkey), Asia (now part of western Turkey; this is where the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 were located); Macedonia (now part of Greece), Achaia (now part of Greece), and a church was established in Rome before Paul was taken there. So, churches were established across the known world around the Mediterranean Sea.
Since that time missionaries have travelled across the earth and churches have been established in all countries.
The believers at Thessalonica became a model to all the believers in Greece (1 Th. 1:7). The reason given by Paul for this was, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Th. 1:6). In the context of seeking the good of others, Paul wrote “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Also, in the context of being kind, compassionate and forgiving, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2). Two characteristics are mentioned here: love and sacrifice. We will look at the topic of “love” shortly. Christ sacrificed His life for us; He gave up His life. That’s an example for the church to follow.
One of the metaphors of the church is a body, with Christ as the head. This illustrates the close connection between Christ and the church. As a head directs its body via the nervous system, the church should be directed by Christ. That’s why an essential goal of the local church is to imitate the Lord. After all, it’s His representative on earth. So, the local church is to be Christlike and godly.
“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). The word “Christian” means “follower of Christ”. Although probably originally used in a derogatory sense, it took over from the term “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22).
So the saying “What would Jesus do?” is a good one when looking at goals for the local church. The best way to find Christ’s example is to see how the apostles wrote about this between Acts and Revelation, because these letters were written to the church. We can also learn from the Gospels, but we need to realise that, although they were written after the day of Pentecost, they record what happened when Jesus came as Messiah to the Jews. They fill the gap between the Old Testament and the church, describing what happened while Christ was on earth before the church commenced.
Faith, Hope and Love
Paul commended the Thessalonians for “your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 1:3). Later he says, “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Th. 5:8). They were motivated by faith, love and hope. These are the characteristics of a godly life: dependence on God, love for the Lord and for one another, and the hope of Christ’s return. They are often mentioned together in the New Testament and we will look briefly at each of these.
The Greek word for faith, “pistis”, means a spiritual conviction. It is used in the New Testament to describe: trust, trustworthiness and by metonymy (a figure of speech in which the name of one thing is used for another associated with it), what is trusted (“the faith”). Faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit that accompanies salvation (Gal. 5:22-23).
This word is used to describe living by faith; “… let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:22-24). We trust in God because He gave Christ as our Saviour. He is “faithful”; He keeps His promises. In the case of the believers in Thessalonica, their faith in God became known everywhere (1 Th. 1:8).
This word is also used to describe the truth we trust: “dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (Jude 20-21). Here the faith is the truth of the gospel and the doctrine of the New Testament. The church is built up by studying and obeying the Bible. In the case of the believers in Thessalonica, they shared the gospel with their neighbours and friends—“The Lord’s message rang out from you” (1 Th. 1:8).
The Greek word for hope, “elpis”, means favourable and confident expectation. It is something that is certain, not something that is doubtful.
In the context of waiting eagerly for the resurrection of our bodies, Paul wrote, “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Rom. 8:24-25). Hope accompanies salvation. It involves the future, “what we do not yet have”.
The believers in Thessalonica had “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” and waited “for His Son from heaven” (1 Th. 1:3, 10). Despite severe suffering, they had an attitude of joy. They saw the big picture that God was in control of their circumstances and their eternal destiny was secure. (1 Th. 1:6)
We have the hope of eternal life in heaven. It’s a part of the gospel. This hope is a reason to be faithful and loving: “we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all His people—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard in the true word of the gospel that has come to you” (Col. 1:3-6).
Our hope comes from God: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). “Through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pt. 1:21). Because He is the Son God who died for our sin, Christ is our only hope of getting to heaven: “Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1).
As a church we need to be optimistic, not pessimistic. We may experience disappointment and hardships, but God is working towards the time when we will be taken to be with Him in heaven where we will be like the Lord. This will be a great celebration, like a wedding feast where the Lord will be the groom and we will be the bride.
One of the Greek words for love, “agape”, means God’s deep and constant love of sinful humanity (seen in the gift of His Son) that fosters a reverential love in them towards God and a practical love towards others.
In all His actions, God is loving: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). His plan of salvation through Christ was an act of love that should cause us to love one another: “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:9-11).
Love accompanies salvation; it is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22). When we experience the Lord’s amazing love, it causes us to respond by loving Him and others. This love distinguishes Christians who comprise the church. Jesus told His disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34-35). Also, “He has given us this command: Those who love God must also love one another” (1 Jn. 4:21).
In 1 Corinthians 13, “love” is mentioned 7 times in 13 verses and Paul emphasises that everything must be done in a spirit of love. This love is a selfless concern for the welfare of others. It concludes, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”. One of the reasons for this is that love is eternal.
With regard to the church Paul wrote “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:15-16). The truth must be taught in a loving manner if we are to become more Christ-like. Like a human body, the church should develop with time so that it matures and becomes more loving as it carries out its functions.
The Thessalonicans service for God was motivated by love to the Lord; in their “labour prompted by love”, they served “the living and true God” (1 Th. 1:3, 9).
Initially the church in Jerusalem and Judea was Jewish, but then God showed Peter (Acts 10:1-11:18), Paul and Barnabas (Acts 11:19-24) that Gentiles could now also be a part of God’s people. Combining such people with different cultures and traditions together in the church was one of the biggest issues in the early years of the church. Firstly, some Jewish believers went from Judea to Antioch teaching that the male Gentile believers needed to be circumcised as the Jews were in the Old Testament times (Acts 15). Some likeminded Christians in Jerusalem were teaching that the Gentiles were also required to keep the law of Moses. This matter was discussed and resolved amongst the church at Jerusalem who then informed those who had been affected by this controversy.
Paul also told those at Corinth to stop following different leaders because this was divisive, but to have unity instead (1 Cor 1:10-13; 3:1-9). In the letter to the churches at Galatia, he opposed legalism because it divided the church. In Romans he dealt with tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers over eating meat that had been offered to idols and over Jewish festivals (Rom. 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor. 8).
The church in Ephesus was told that the Jewish and Gentile believers were “fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His household” (Eph. 2:19). Consequently the hostility between them was to be replaced with peace (Eph. 2:14-18). They were to “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). While it takes an effort to promote unity, all these spiritual things we have in common are powerful unifying forces in the church.
Lessons for us
As a congregation are we imitating Christ? What are we willing to give up to follow the Lord’s example? The local church depends on people giving up their time, resources, abilities and energy. When we make corporate decisions we should include the question, “What Would Jesus Do”?
What about the core qualities of faith, hope and love? If our faithfulness is strong, we will witness for Christ. If our hope is strong, we will be encouraging and optimistic about what God is doing. If our love is strong, we will be humble and compassionate.
Are we faithful in studying and obeying the Bible as a congregation? Are we sharing our faith in the gospel message? Are we optimistically looking forward to being with the Lord? Are we joyful to be a part of His new creation? Are we known for our love for one another? Does an attitude of love permeate all we do in word and deed?
If we imitate Christ and strengthen our faith, hope and love, surely we will have unity. Nevertheless, we need to be reminded as a congregation of the many spiritual things which we have in common, and which are more important than our differences.
Let’s be more Christ-like, faithful, hopeful, loving and united and develop these goals to become the congregation that God wants us to be.
Written, November 2007
Peace in a world of trouble
In the beginning of time, the Garden of Eden was a paradise and there was peace on earth. People had peace with God and peace with one another. But soon after this Adam and Eve disobeyed God and there was a radical change in the world. They attempted to hide from God; there was fear instead of peace. People had enemies; there were conflicts, disagreements and war rather than peace. They were banished from the garden and God’s presence; there were physical and spiritual barriers between them and God (Gen. 3:8-24).
We can identify with this because problems, conflict and differences of opinion are facts of life. There are two obvious reasons for this situation. Firstly, we are not clones, but are all different, having individual personalities and opinions. This is God’s design and it is good (Gen. 1:31). Secondly, we are all sinners who are selfish, and many disagreements are the direct result of sinful motives and behavior.
Jesus Christ told his followers, “In Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33 NIV). So, peace is possible; trouble is inevitable.
There is trouble and conflict across the world, between nations and within nations. Religious and ethnic tensions abound. Disagreements form barriers to peace in our families, our businesses and our churches. Fortunately God has provided a solution to our troubles in the peace process. It is possible to have peace with God and with others, and peace within ourselves, by following our Maker’s instructions in the Bible.
Peace is harmony and unity, understanding and goodwill. It is not just the absence of difficulties or conflict. For instance, Paul had peace in prison: he sang praises to God, while his feet were locked in stocks!
God is deeply interested in peace. He is often described as “the God of peace” (Rom. 15:33). Christ was the “Prince of peace” and “He Himself is our peace” (Isa. 9:6; Eph. 2:14). The word “peace” occurs in all the books of the New Testament except 1 John.
Jesus said: “Blessed (or happy) are the peacemakers” (Mt. 5:9). Peacemakers reconcile or restore relationships. Reconciliation is the means of restoring and maintaining peace and unity. The Greek word for reconciliation means to “change” or “exchange,” especially money. When applied to people it means to change a relationship from hostility to friendship.
The attempt to build the Tower of Babel was a vivid illustration of the power of unity (Gen. 11:1-9). The people desired to build a tall tower as a monument to their greatness. They were unanimous in their opposition to God’s will. God stopped them by giving them different languages, so they couldn’t understand each other. Once they were unable to communicate, they were unable to build. The barriers between them were their different languages. Likewise, if we cannot communicate we cannot build anything together. We cannot build a marriage, a family, a business, a community, or a church if we cannot communicate.
To ensure harmony we must keep the doors of communication open. Each of us must make it a priority to stay in harmony with God and with each other. But, how can we maintain these relationships?
The Bible teaches that there is a process for dealing with the barriers that hinder our peace. This requires effort, and there is a cost involved; but we are encouraged to “seek peace and pursue it” (1 Pet. 3:11). The process involves recognizing barriers to peace, destroying them and being reconciled via confession, repentance and forgiveness.
Confession is acknowledging our role in allowing the barrier to develop and being genuinely sorry for this. It reveals a change of heart and a willingness to destroy the barrier. Repentance is changed behavior; living as though the barrier has been destroyed. Forgiveness keeps the barrier down. Although barriers may be caused by either or both of the parties involved, both must be involved in the process of reconciliation. As it takes two to form a relationship, two are required to heal and restore a broken one.
We all want an inner peace. The Bible teaches that this is not possible until we have peace with God and with others.
Peace With God
One reason why there is so much difficulty in achieving peace on earth is that we are not at peace with our Maker. Our sinful thoughts and behavior have separated us from God. Sin is the barrier that keeps us from having any lasting peace. We cannot have peace until we are right with God.
God says, “There is no peace … for the wicked,” and by His standards we are all wicked (Isa. 57:21). When Christ was born the angels said “peace on earth,” so God has provided a way to peace (Lk. 2:14). Jesus Christ destroyed the barrier by suffering the punishment for our sin. So, we can have “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” because Christ made peace through His sacrificial death (Rom. 5:1; Col. 1:19-22). This is possible by confession, admitting our sins to Him, and believing that He will forgive us and give us peace through His Son, Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:9-10). Our change of heart is evident by repentance – a change in our attitude and behavior (Acts 2:36-38).
For example, after his conversion, the Philippian jailer washed his prisoners’ wounds and invited them into his house for a meal (Acts 16:33-34). In this case the barrier was caused by humans, who were God’s enemies due to their evil behavior (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:21). Only one party, God, was able to destroy the barrier and offer reconciliation to humanity (2 Cor. 5:18-19). As it takes the agreement of both parties to have peace, reconciliation only occurs when people recognize the barrier and accept God’s generous offer (2 Cor. 5:20).
“Peace” summarizes the gospel message: “You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). The good news is that you can have peace with God. The barrier has been destroyed!
He wants to make peace with us. He wants us to be reconciled to Him. Jesus sacrificed His life and paid the full penalty for our sins, so we could experience peace both now and forever. God is the greatest peacemaker of all, as He plans to make peace with everything in the visible and the invisible world (Col. 1:20). The price was the horrible execution of His Son in the greatest injustice ever committed.
Peace With Others
Peace with other people is often referred to as “unity” – and it is wonderful and pleasant (Ps. 133:1). We are commanded to live at peace and in harmony with each other (Mk. 9:50; Rom. 12:16; 1 Cor. 7:15).
We are to try to live at peace with everyone: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18; Heb. 12:14). There are no qualifications to this statement, which is consistent with the great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:39).
The illustration of the barrier to peace comes from Paul’s description of the “dividing wall of hostility” that existed between the Jews and the Gentiles (Eph. 2:14). They were enemies who lived in separate worlds, just as Adam and Eve were separated from the presence of God. We still see this today, as national and cultural animosity occurs across the world.
Paul claimed that Christ destroyed the barrier and enabled unity between the Jews and the Gentiles. As believers they could be “fellow citizens” and “members of God’s household” (Eph. 2:14-19). This demonstrates how peace with God should lead to peace with each other.
So, the Jewish and Gentile believers were reconciled completely, with all hostility removed and no impediment to unity and peace. Likewise, Paul urged the Corinthians to “agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you” (1 Cor. 1:10). He states clearly that there should be unity, not divisions, in the Church (1 Cor. 1:10-17; 3:1-23).
It is particularly important to make every effort to maintain peace and unity among Christians (Rom. 14:19; Eph. 4:3). After all, He died to bring together all of God’s scattered people and make them one (Jn. 11:51-52). Unity among believers was so important to Jesus that it was the subject of His prayer for them during the final hours of His life on earth: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in Me and I am in You. May they also be in Us so that the world may believe that You have sent Me. I have given them the glory that You gave Me, that they may be one as We are one: I in them and You in Me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me” (Jn. 17:20-23).
The Greek word for “one” appears four times in these verses, the last occasion being translated as “complete unity.” Here “one” is a metaphor for union, concord, and unity and the example to follow is the unity that exists between God the Father and God the Son. The same word was used when Christ said “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30).
The reason for this unity is repeated in the above verses: so the people of this world will know that Christ was sent by God. Another reason is so they may know something of God’s great love for humanity. This means that Christ tied His reputation and the credibility of His message to how well His followers display unity and oneness.
Peace and unity among believers are so important that Jesus commands us to seek reconciliation with a believer even ahead of worship: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5:23-24). This means that the peace process – of destroying barriers and seeking reconciliation through confession, repentance and forgiveness – should be applied regularly to maintain our relationships with others.
Peace With Self
Internal peace is a sense of wholeness, contentment, order, rest and security. Although nearly everyone longs for this kind of peace, it eludes many. If you want to experience internal peace, you must seek harmonious relationships with God and with those around you.
Christians can experience peace within: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).
Although sin hinders our peace, God has provided a way to destroy this barrier: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). After confession and repentance we experience God’s forgiveness that removes guilt and restores peace. In this way, we should regularly apply the peace process to ourselves in order to ensure peace and communication with God on a daily basis.
Inner peace and security is a gift of God to those who believe in His Son and obey His commands, including loving one another (1 Jn. 3:21-24). It is a result of right living: “The fruit of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever” (Isa. 32:17). It is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22; Rom. 8:6).
Those who have not come to trust in Christ do not know what true peace is (Rom. 3:17). They oppose Christianity; there is division instead of unity, war instead of peace, and hate instead of love (Mt. 10:34-36; Lk. 12:51-53; 1 Jn. 3:12-13). In this sense the gospel divides people according to whether they accept it or not (Acts 14:4). God wants peace, reconciliation and unity in our world; not conflict, separation and division. Peace is the result of reconciliation and unity. Do you have peace with those around you? Do you have peace with God?
Published, November 1999
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