What is Essential for Church Unity?
What is essential to Kingdom-advancing church unity and impact? This is, of course, a loaded question. The answer to what is essential to salvation (in the full sense of the word) is simpler. Jesus Christ is the clear and emphatic answer. But what is essential to church unity in light of the Kingdom of God; that is, what is primary, foundational and non-negotiable as opposed to that which is secondary, preferential and optional?
And this question is of vital import because we live in a church age where there are thousands of varying opinions on hundreds of different “doctrines” and in too many cases, arguments are at fever pitch on subjects that are unequivocally secondary. This is not to say that these secondary issues are unimportant or irrelevant. They are not. Our varying opinions and diverse interpretations are not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, they can be a very good thing, adding to the collective counsel and wisdom of God—if we heed the advice of Romans, Chapter 14.
Continue reading as we unpack what’s essential to church unity and Kingdom impact.
So, what’s essential for church unity?
Yes, our diversity actually provides a rich and broad kaleidoscope of the awesome Personality of God. And as we trust for a full and functional restoration of the priesthood of all believers, we can be sure that much, much more variety will flavour the Body of Christ. (And I need to remind myself often that many of those flavours may not initially suit my palate—and my flavour may be a little difficult for others to stomach too). Yet we can and should be outrageously generous in our communion with all those who have placed their faith in Christ. To do so requires clarifying what is essential versus what is non-essential.
It was Augustine who first taught: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity”. We ought to give this statement more than mental accent; it ought to become a rallying cry as we “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). If the unity of the Spirit is as important as Jesus revealed it to be (John 17:21), then this is certainly not an optional extra for us. So let’s now turn to the vital lessons we learn from the 14th chapter of Romans.
It seems that the believers in Rome were enjoying a good ‘ol fashioned theological bun fight. Of course, there are no good theological bun fights and most (if not all) are completely unnecessary. How many church splits have tragically occurred because people have split theological straws, only the Lord knows. A pithy African proverb says, “When the elephants fight the grass gets trampled”. Leaders may think they have won the day, having “saved” their followers from the wrong “straw” of the “other camp,” but often fail to realise that we are all weaker for it—many times, the collateral damage claims young believers who are ruined forever—and worse, the Lord’s Name is once again stained. And I find it important to remind myself, hay and straw do not bring pleasure to God (1 Corinthians 3:12-17 c. 2 Timothy 2:20-22).
Paul begins the 14th Chapter of Romans with this call:
Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things” (Romans 14:1)
Another translation reads: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters” (NIV). Paul calls us to unconditionally receive one another, urging us to accept those who we consider “weak in the faith”. In so doing, we are to avoid “doubtful things” or, in the words I’m using, non-essential things.
The Greek word for “doubtful things” (dialogismos) refers to opinions or disputes which arise from intellectual questioning and reasoning; it thus means, “opinionated or disputable issues”. Paul emphatically calls the Roman believers to actively receive one another, refusing to allow “doubtful things” to be a basis of rejection, and then goes on to exhort them: “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (v. 13).
What was the bun fight in Rome about? The Roman believers where arguing over non-essentials; to them this concerned at the very least what one could eat and what days were holy (vv. 2-6). Paul’s response to this could be summed up in two words… “STOP IT!” As mentioned, he called them to “stop passing judgment on one another” (v. 13 NIV). That could be the final word on the matter but as clear as this is; Paul also offered an additional piece of advice in his counsel.
After summing up their arguments, he writes:
Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5)
This is dynamite stuff. On non-essential matters we’re not just allowed to have an opinion but, in fact, should be “fully convinced in our own mind”. We’re to live by red-hot conviction not just lukewarm preference; full-blooded resolve day-in-and-day-out, not by what happens to suit our whims each week. Paul urged the Roman believers to make a personal choice about their diet or holy days as “to the Lord,” exhorting them to be true to their own convictions as worship to God.
Our personal convictions on non-essentials are important; they often shape our unique contribution to the Kingdom of God as part of Christ’s Body. For this reason, they are good and vital. Yet they find their full meaning as part of the whole—not by attempting to represent or “be” the whole. As Paul so brilliantly explained to the Corinthians, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? … And if they were all one member, where would the body be?” (1 Corinthians 12:17-19).
Paul then adds this to the Romans:
So then each of us shall give account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12)
While our convictions on non-essentials are valid and we’re to be true to our conscience in this regard, Paul’s telling reminder that “each of us shall give account of himself to God” (v. 12) behoves us to nurture convictions that are God-ward; that is, that aim to bring delight and worship to God alone. Or in Paul’s words: “to the Lord”. Convictions adopted to impress or expose others, or to feed our own ego, or to give us a sense of personal piety are nothing more than offerings heaped upon the pathetic altar of our own vanity. Amen? Or O-me?
When we pursue the “unity of the Spirit” we are certainly not conforming to a watered-down lowest common denominator “unity of man”. No sir! Rather, we are conforming up to the beauty and perfection of Christ. This requires that I become fully convinced in my own mind on every issue pertaining to my walk of faith – and in so doing, my own contribution to the Kingdom of God becomes clearer. However, it also requires that I resolutely avoid using my convictions on non-essentials as a barometer against which I judge others. Rather I am to offer to others the same liberty I’m given; that is, I am to give others the freedom to be fully convinced in their own minds on these same matters. I am to avoid turning my convictions, which are holy “to the Lord”, into “doubtful things” that reject my brothers and sisters.
Remember, Paul concluded with this statement on non-essentials:
Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (Romans 14: 13)
It is sadly, our human ego that concludes that what we are doing for the Lord is of fundamental importance in the economy of God, deeming our contribution of greater import than that of others. Confidence in what God has called us to is a good and powerful blessing, but arrogance is another thing altogether. There is a fine line between the two and we all do well to remember James’ attention-grabbing warning:
where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy” (James 3:16, 17)
Let me be brutally honest here in the hope that my confession will urge you to take a deeper peek into your own soul.
For too long, I found it too easy to turn my convictions into “pet doctrines” that I then attempted to use to “convert” other believers to my “version of the truth”. In a warped way this validated my calling and gave me, in my little mind, a “one-up” on others, assuring me of my own significance. Tragic! Why did I so desire to have the last word on the matter when I knew, in my honest moments. I didn’t even have the first word on any matter?
Somehow I was duped to believe that if I trumpeted the “conviction” as an essential matter—backing it up with a mountain of Scripture of course—I was actually helping others. But I have since learnt, through the gracious dealings of God and faithful counsel of friends, that trying to fill my need for meaning through these patronising, self-serving means only makes the hole in my heart deeper and adds darkness—not light—to others. By over-playing my hand on non-essentials, no matter how “fully convinced” on them I am, I muddy the waters of what is essential and spawn a divisive spirit. In the past, I was guilty of too often throwing out the baby while revelling in the bath water.
Graciously, God’s Word dealt a death-blow to my ego: “where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there … the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield…”
So while I am fully and deeply convinced on many, many issues—those who know me best know how opinionated I am (mostly for good, I’m told; yet at times for bad, I confess)—and feel that I carry a catalytic message that pokes people at their core, I concede that I’m wrong on some of the issues I’m convinced about. But the problem, of course, is that I don’t know which issues – such is the nature of blind-spots. And while I am grateful for those who I walk with, and their intentional commitment to me for growth and excellence, I realise that I desperately need the wider Body of Christ so that together we can be “His Body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). I realise more and more that those we, “my group,” don’t see eye to eye with, probably have the most to teach us.
I trust, by His grace, that I am now more willing to yield, gentler, more peaceable and thus purer in heart than I was before. And I lean heavily on the “wisdom that is from above” to keep growing.
The most amazing blessing to me now has been the blossoming of relationships with those I may, at one point, never have embraced. Relationships built on “like-minded convictions” alone can harness a passion unmatched elsewhere for sure. However, they’re often formed on what we don’t like or what we’re reacting against. Relationships of this nature, driven primarily by a cause, often don’t last long and tend to crash into an abrupt and detrimental conclusion.
Only when we build relationships on what we love—and as Christ-followers, Jesus personifies this love in the most amazing way—and in response to the Spirit of God, rather than in reaction against hurt (or to opportunity), can we begin to find true communion in the covenant nature of God’s love.
Okay, so what are the essentials for Kingdom-advancing church unity? We are back where we started, but the detour, I hope you agree, was important.
Paul continued his counsel to the church in Rome by declaring that “the Kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (v. 17). Yes, this wonderful and oft-quoted verse appears in the context of our discussion. Non-essentials are “eat and drink” issues and are not around which the Kingdom of God essentially revolves. As underlined already; in non-essentials, the Kingdom of God provides generous liberty, which we ought to be both the beneficiaries and channels of. “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).
Let us then attempt to outline the essentials of the Kingdom, which promote “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”.
First, I have found it helpful to revisit the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Paul spoke of the “traditions” he taught (2 Thessalonians 2:15). These traditions became summed up in, first, the Apostles’ Creed (in circulation by at least A.D. 180) and later amplified in the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325). While both these creeds do not in any way hold the authority and weight of Scripture, they are helpful starting points in clarifying what is essential, certainly in terms of doctrine. Allow me to transcribe them here without commentary (lest I start to add my interpretation to them and defeat the exercise entirely). As you read through them, notice how much more we have in common with other Christians than not; and how much greater the substance of what we have in common is compared to what defines our, dare I say it, party-line.
Read through them through slowly, deliberately and preferably out loud.
The Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God,
the Father Almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
On the third day He rose again;
He ascended into heaven, He is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy church, the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
The Nicene Creed 1
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty
Maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through Him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
He came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day He rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and His kingdom will have no end
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son He is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy, catholic2 and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Allow me re-stress this statement. We have more in common with other believers than what we don’t; and what we have in common has far greater substance than what we don’t have in common.
Second, once I re-engaged with the essential substance of Christ through these creeds, I then found it helpful to re-visit the Great Commandment and Great Commission. While the creeds helped me to find a starting point in clarifying the essentials with respect to the Doctrine of Christ, Jesus’ words in the Great Commandment and Great Commission helped me to zero in on the essential Practices of Christ.
As we all know so well, when Jesus was asked to clarify the greatest commandment, He quoted Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). And without pausing for a breath, He continued by quoting Leviticus 19:18, “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Matthew 22:39).
His next words are just as significant: “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40). The Greek word “hang” (kremannumi) is the word used to describe the hinge that a door opens on. Hence, it’s these two simple yet profound commandments that open the door to the nature of God; it’s these two commandments that are the heart and reference point to all we do in practice. Of course, who doesn’t nod their head in agreement to this? Yet, embracing it as the definitive and functional gauge to what is essential—and what is not—is a supernatural leap into the unity of the Spirit. If we will allow a pure love for God and a true love for others—everyone, without condition—to saturate the motivations of our heart, our practices will “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).
For only when we allow God’s love to invade the motivations and affections of our heart, the deepest recesses of our soul, will we learn to prize the character of Christ, such as “peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness … gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23 c. Ephesians 4:2; James 3:17), as essential, non-negotiable, primary—and our personal sense of calling and distinctive contribution as secondary (yes, important, but secondary nonetheless).
Jesus’ parting words to us, as captured in Matthew 28:18-20 for example, are again so familiar to us that they can begin to lose their impetus. It’s important to remind ourselves that we refer to this as the Great Commission for a reason; it is not the Great Suggestion or Great Elective. Yet “go” can so quickly become “come” and “make disciples … in [His] Name” can quickly become “win followers to our brand”. Thus, building our own exclusive empire rather than advancing His inclusive Kingdom is clearly contrary to the love of God. In words that are as simple as I can muster, the Great Commission means that our love for God and for our neighbours must translate into a selfless, united service of the world as we show His love to others, or we’ve departed from the essential Practice of Christ.
A fresh and vital rediscovery of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission has helped me to start to grapple with what’s essential for church unity and discern what’s non-essential. Of course, we’re not after a list of “indisputable points” which we must all sign off on or a concrete formula that we can squeeze everyone into. Can you imagine how quickly such a list would be used as a dagger to again torture the Body of Christ by a new breed of Pharisees?
What is desperately needed today is a fresh outpouring of the love of God upon all those who follow Christ so that, with open hearts and transparent lives, we overwhelm one another in outrageous and otherworldly displays of kindness, gentleness, humility and service. This is possible only…
- as we renounce our self-serving agendas, embracing instead the King’s essential agenda of love;
- as we reject the temptation to demonise leaders we don’t agree with, seeking instead to believe the best about them;
- as we defect from the religious systems that separate us through structure, name or personality, engaging instead with all who love His Name and seek to reflect His Personhood;
- as we denounce our human tendency to seek a “one-up” platform over others, purposing instead to put others first as our Master Himself taught and modelled.
- (any other suggestions?)
These four actions, in my opinion, are the “very least” steps required out from the current fractured, brother-eat-brother world of Christendom.
But repentance is only the first step. In faith, we ought to proactively…
- resolve to (really) listen as much as we want to be heard;
- admit our own weaknesses and failures while honouring the strengthens and successes of others;
- acknowledge God’s grace that has allowed us to journey as far as we have to date while giving God’s grace to others, wherever they are in their journey;
- seek the collective good of the whole resolving to offer our part intentionally for the edifying and blessing of all;
- build relational bridges of integrity and trust so that all feel welcome to participate in this engaging dialogue around the King’s table;
- weep compassionately with those who weep and rejoice sincerely with those who rejoice;
- realize that if the team is losing we’re all losing even if we’re enjoying a man-of-the-match performance;
- refrain from attempting to have the final word on a matter, offering instead a humble contribution – which we make subject to counsel – to the collective wisdom of God;
- (any other proposals?)
Let’s continue talking as we continue walking. It’s through an honest and open dialogue, in a commitment to journeying forward in truth, which will unlock the full download from above. “But the path of the just is like a shining sun, that shines ever brighter unto the perfect day” (Proverbs 4:18).
A necessary but unfortunate qualification…
This qualification is necessary even though I’m loathe to write it. In case you have misunderstood me, I am not advocating we compromise the essentials of Christ in any way. I’m not giving into the relativity of our age and I don’t believe “anything goes”.
I do believe that we’re divided on non-essential issues and that allowing these “doubtful things” to separate us grieves the heart of God; they actively oppose the High Priestly prayer of Jesus. And I do believe that encountering the life-giving substance of Christ through freshly engaging with the essentials will both ignite the fires of revival and draw us closer to the fulfilment of Jesus’ prayer.
I am not advocating unity at any cost. Those who gathered at Babel were powerfully united but in complete contradiction to God’s heart and will (Genesis 11:1-9). What is the point of unity if it’s not centred on Christ and Him alone?
The unity God desires—“to a perfect Man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13)—comes at a heavy cost; that is, to our ego and selfishness. And I remind myself in the fear of the Lord that God’s Word teaches the importance of biblical discipline to both those who give into relativism, denying that there are absolute essentials, and those who turn non-essentials into back-breaking, soul-crushing laws of men.
“Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12)
1 The Nicene Creed was originally adopted in A.D. 325 and then revised in A.D. 381. The version used above is the 1975 International Consultation on English Texts (ICET) version. Today several versions exist and while they differ slightly in the words they use to translate the original creed, they do not differ substantially in any way. The reader can do a Google search to read the various versions available.
2 One and only one clarifying comment: the word “catholic” here does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church, rather the word means, “universal”.