The question has been asked often. Just today, as I was checking out the Network, I found a reference to the question dating back to the early church fathers. In the forum regarding Overtures 3 & 4 for this year’s Synod, Meg Jenista quoted Augustine of Hippo, who said: "In the essentials, unity. In the non-essentials, liberty and in all things, charity."
So what’s the question? The question is: what are the essentials, and what are the non-essentials when it comes to our faith?
In the example of Overtures 3 & 4, in which a group of churches are petitioning Synod to create a separate classis based on affinity of belief regarding the role of women in ecclesiastical office, there seem to be those who claim that what we believe about women in ecclesiastical office is an “essential,” and others who believe it is not. So, who’s right?
Of course, the role of women in the church is not the only topic in which we dispute amongst ourselves the question of “essential” vs. “non-essential.” Some of our churches seem to view the question of infant baptism vs. believers-only baptism as a non-essential, whereas others view it as extremely essential.
And then there’s the whole question of church unity. While some of our churches seem to want to separate themselves from their current classis based on a theological/doctrinal issue of some debate, our Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee (EIRC) is hard at work building bridges between our denomination and other denominations. It is laudable that the ERC continue this work on our behalf, but where are they to draw the line in our relationships with those who differ from us on theology and doctrine? What is “essential” and what is “non-essential” in our relationship and unity with other denominations?
Tough questions. Here’s what I believe to be a biblical way to look at this: the essentials are those things on which the Bible is very clear, the non-essential things are those on which the bible is not-so-clear.
As I write that, I think to myself (and maybe you do too): “What a cop-out! How do you know what the Bible is ‘clear on’ and what it’s not clear on?”
So, I leave it to you (I know, not fair at all): How can we know what the Bible is clear on? Be specific! How do you know that the bible is clearer about worshipping God alone, and not as clear about infant vs. believers only baptism, people? How do we know that the bible is very clear about Jesus Christ being the only way to salvation? How do we know that the bible is not as clear about working on Sunday? In other words: how do we determine what are the clear essentials, and what are the debatable non-essentials?