The Problem with "Christian Essentials"

I want to spend some time talking about an issue that I think I have gotten wrong in the past. Take this as a mea culpa, and hopefully a way for us to grow in thinking about faith.

It is common for modern Christians to draw a distinction between core, essential beliefs and secondary or non-essential ones. In that core are some combination of things deemed “necessary for salvation” (i.e. Jesus’s death and resurrection) and other doctrines whose clarity and historical unanimity mean they define Christianity (i.e. Apostle’s Creed stuff). Everything else is judged as less important than these essentials.

I recognize that I have often communicated something like this idea in some settings while trying to explain how the church should work. I don’t think that is all wrong, but I do think I have inadequately expressed the potential dangers of this approach, a failure I see in many other pastors as well.

Before I criticize it, there are two very good reasons we do need the idea of core beliefs. First, failing to make any distinction between the importance of different beliefs destroys catholicity (the universal nature of the church). We as Christians are called to love and be united with each other. We as Christians are also confronted with the reality that we disagree about what Scripture says. If we don’t see any difference between our views about church government and the cross, between the rapture and Jesus’s resurrection, we will forever be dividing into smaller and smaller groups isolated from each other and incapable of being on God’s mission together. We need a sense that what unites us as Christians is more important than what divides us.

In addition, we need some sense of certain core beliefs because certain truths are necessary for salvation in a way that others aren’t and treating them all as equal can cause us to neglect the most crucial ones in favor of the parochial. “These things I delivered to you as of first importance,” the apostle Paul tells the Corinthians, meaning that even though all his teachings as an apostle were authoritative, getting some of them wrong leads merely to confusion while misunderstanding others can result in damnation. (1 Corinthians 15:1-5) If we get these gospel issues wrong, there is a real sense in which no other doctrine matters.

So recognizing a core of essential Christian doctrine is good and beneficial in some cases. That said, it can also lead to problems. Almost all of these stem from the same root error: our tendency to take those doctrines not “essential for salvation” and assume that they are therefore unimportant for Christians in general. This is the theory of “nondenominational Christianity” – doctrine divides, therefore we won’t have any. It is also the functional approach of many laypeople – they insist that, knowing Jesus, they shouldn’t therefore have to worry about any of that theological stuff. This approach can result in at least three big problems for Christianity.

Problems With The Core
First, we unavoidably hold beliefs about secondary issues. It is self-deception to think we can remain truly neutral on these matters. Instead, our choice is whether we hold beliefs born of ignorance and the assumptions of a non-Christian culture or whether we hold ones we have examined, stated and tested against Scripture.

Years ago, I was a part of a Christian ministry that insisted it had just such a neutrality. “We don’t have opinions about secondary issues,” we were told. “Only on the essential stuff matters.” In my couple of years with that ministry, I began to see the cracks in this claim. There was the evening the worship leader (they rotated through lay worship leaders) started to speak in tongues. Many of the participants, unfamiliar with Pentecostalism, were flummoxed. He was quickly ushered off the stage and informed that “we didn’t do that here.” Or, closer to home, I and a friend were leading a bible study and the topic of baptism came up. Wanting to honor the organization’s neutrality, we decided the best approach would be to spend time the next week explaining our two views (I believed in infant baptism; he held to believers baptism) and letting people consider both. I was pulled aside a few weeks later and told I could not argue for my view in our bible study again; my friend was given no such warning.

The problem here was not that the organization had convictions on secondary matters. Indeed, it was unavoidable. If nothing else, I don’t know how you could do gathered worship in a room where half the people were speaking in the tongues of angels while the other half tried to cast demons out of them, convinced it was a work of the devil. Likewise, as a parent, you will choose either to baptize your child or not, and one of those choices is wrong and potentially harmful, even if we debate which is which. You can’t have it both ways. The problem was that the organization was denying it had the convictions it actually held, and therefore people weren’t able to know or disagree with them. Ecumenism is served by people clearly understanding their differences and loving each other anyway, not by trying to sweep them under the rug and ignoring the huge lump underfoot.

A second problem with ignoring secondary issues is that Scripture addresses them. You can’t read the Bible without forming opinions on these topics, and you have to ignore a great deal of the biblical witness if you aren’t willing to engage them.

I was reminded of that recently when, while preparing to preach through the book of Revelation, I was told by someone it was a bad idea because “people disagree about it.” I found myself wondering – if we ignore the controversial stuff, what parts of Scripture do we read? Certainly not the Old Testament, since Christians definitely argue about how to approach it. Acts and 1 Corinthians get you into that tongues-speaking stuff. Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Titus and 1 Peter all address gender issues in a way that will require us to make decisions on that debate. Even the gospels – Matthew and Mark have obscure end-times discussions, John is full of controversial symbolism and statements about God’s sovereignty and salvation, and even mild-mannered Luke gets us into issues of the Sabbath and church and state.

Not only is this true in terms of theology, but also of practice. Biblical truth and wisdom should be applied to every area of our lives, but we will often disagree about how that application should work itself out. People read the Bible and reach conclusions about parenting, politics, education, the economy, and a hundred other things. We need to give room for Christians to have these debates, and we ought not be dogmatic about certain conclusions. However, we also must admit that there is benefit to this process. While someone who is seeking to live out Scriptural principles in every area of life might still get it wrong, someone who has never made the effort certainly will.

A third issue, and this is perhaps the most worrisome to me, is that choosing to focus only on the core leaves what that includes up to us. God creates the canon, but we are the ones who make the canon within the canon. Our temptation will always be to decide that the inconvenient parts of the Bible are “less clear” and “secondary” while those that we support are necessary and true.

You can see it happen in political debates. The Right loves to quote Scripture about personal responsibility and sexual ethics; the Left likes to point to the parts about helping the poor and caring for the immigrant. When either side is pressed, it tends to insist that their opponent’s quotations are “less central” in some way, that they were more open to debate, which is a de facto decision about what Scripture clearly teaches and what gets to be ignored.

To zoom in on a specific issue I’ve seen pop up recently – several evangelical leaders have started to apply this approach to issues of human sexuality. Their argument is not that the traditional understanding is wrong; rather, it is simply that “Christians disagree on this issue,” and therefore we should judge it non-essential and (thus) unimportant. As long as we believe in Jesus, why muddy the gospel with all this sex stuff?

Of course, this is exactly the same move that at other points in history were used to excuse things like slavery. Many of the southern defenses of that practice sound eerily similar to modern logic – “Sure, it might be wrong, but the church needs to prioritize the gospel. We must not be distracted by some secondary issue like whether white people can own black people.” When we decide that Christians only have to care about “gospel issues,” we will easily start picking and choosing what those issues are in a way that best masks our sins.

What is the Alternative?
So what do we do? As we said at the beginning, the answer cannot be to abandon the idea of the core completely. We need something that gives us fellowship with believers with whom we disagree, and we need to keep the truths of the gospel central and not gloss over them for theological foibles. That said, we also need to safeguard against the many ways a commitment to the essentials can turn into an excuse for disobedience.

The answer rests in the gospel itself. To understand that, let me first make a statement that to some will be controversial: every wrong belief we hold is sin. That is true theologically, and it is true practically. Whenever we fail to do what God commands, we are sinning –sin is any lack of conformity to the will of God. This fact means that we can sin in what we think. We can misunderstand God’s commands. This also means that we often sin unintentionally. There is a whole set of Old Testament sacrifices to be made for unknown offences, and Scripture offers many prayers for the revealing of hidden sins. Crucially, that applies both to others and to us. We are almost certainly sinning in some of our incorrect beliefs, and others presumably are too. Worst of all, sin always has consequences, so people are being hurt by wrong beliefs.

Another way of stating the problem with essentialism is that it treats such sins as no big deal. It fails to appreciate how getting things wrong, even if we aren’t conscious of it, can hurt people deeply. That said, it does raise a hard question – if wrong belief is sin, and we all hold wrong belief, what do we do?

The gospel provides the framework within which we can confront this troubling reality. In the gospel, I am not righteous because I am righteous myself but because Jesus is. I am not accepted because I have purged every beshadowed error from my heart by because I am united to Christ. That is how I can survive in a world where I am certainly in all sorts of sin, both intentional and unintentional. It is also how I must treat others – as those justified by grace alone just like me.

The beauty of this gospel vision is that it solves both problems at once. On the one hand, it does maintain the crucial importance of the core and unites us with everyone who believes it. People are brothers and sisters not because they are correct about everything but because they have put their trust in Jesus’s sacrificial death and victorious resurrection. On the other, it also stresses why we should still care about those secondary issues. We cannot believe the gospel without it calling us to turn from sins. We cannot turn from sin without making an ongoing, diligent search for it in our hearts and in our opinions. Therefore, we must treat secondary issues as serious and necessary – to say they are unimportant is to say righteousness is unimportant, and that is not the mark of a son or daughter of God.

Let me close by giving a practical picture of what I think a life in proper balance looks like. On the one hand, such a person deeply believes the gospel of what God has done to save us and recognizes in that the beating heart of Christianity. This gospel focus means the person will have a healthy love in their heart for others who also love that gospel. It also gives a deep sense of humility, since we cannot believe the gospel without being deeply convinced of our sin.

At the same time, this balanced person will realize that Christian growth will include growth in understanding of all of Scripture and growth in faithfulness in all areas of life. Unavoidably, that person will therefore have to learn about and develop convictions about the whole range of Christian belief. Their gospel humility will keep them from becoming arrogant in those beliefs, but their gospel acceptance will give them the confidence they need to form and hold opinions and engage in iron-sharpening-iron discussions with those who disagree.