What is essential?

(Dean Schmucker) #1


No, not a quote from the Bible, but this is the topic that’s been on my mind. Just what is essential to our theology? The message, as John Eldridge has put it, is really a story, one that we are very much a part of. God created a perfect universe and put man in the Garden of Eden. We messed it up, Jesus came to set things straight, and He is coming again to rule and reign “with a rod of iron”. Certainly most evangelicals would accept that narrative. What then do we do with the hot-button issues that divide us? I will list a few.

  1. The age of the Earth. The core problem here is the authority of Scripture. If science says we’re four billion years old, and the Bible says it’s 6000 years, there’s a problem. But is is in a correct understanding of science, or of the Scripture?
  2. Homosexual behavior. If the LGBT crowd really is “born that way”, it seems cruel to tell them they must repent. But the Bible no where affirms it, and where it is mentioned, it is always condemned. How do we answer?
  3. Women. In the larger context, no religion has ever done for women what the gospel has done. In the time of Christ, women were simply a possession of their husbands. The gospel changed all that. Today, women have achieved much, and the Christian movement is largely responsible. Yet at the same time, the Scripture has called the husband the head of the wife, even as Christ is head of the man. And when Paul is writing to Timothy that she is not to have authority in the church, he goes back to Genesis 3, pointing out that Eve was deceived, thus she should not have a chance to lead the church. But what do you do with Kay Arthur and other women who so obviously have a teaching gift?
  4. The prosperity message. Certainly the Scripture does say that if we give, we will get much more back than we put in. But it also cautions us about proper motives. Not only that, “if ye then with Christ be risen, seek the things that are above”. Is this simply a matter of perspective?

So we don’t want to disfellowship over something that is trivial. On the other hand, we can scarcely ignore an assault on something essential. Is it any of my business what “Pastor X” is teaching? Or is it our duty to call out those who are corrupting the message, as Paul had to do so many times?

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #2

I would add the debate between the Sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man to your list. This is something that has really conflicted me lately. There is a lot on it in the scriptures and in the church. People are very opinionated on this controversial topic.

(Dean Schmucker) #3

Indeed, another conundrum! If anything, at all, can happen outside of His will, the sovereignty of God means nothing. But if man does not have free will, how could God possibly hold him accountable for his actions?

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #5

This the essence of the whole Calvinism vs Arminianism that has given many a theologian a mighty sized headache. There are a great deal of big name theologians on either side:

Calvinism: J.I Packer, John Piper, Tim Keller, James White, Greg Koukl, etc

Arminianism: Josh McDowell, John Wesley, Frank Turak, Michael Brown, William lane Craig, etc

(Dean Schmucker) #6

Somehow, they must both be wrong. Job thought he had God all figured out. So did Isaiah. And then they met Him face to face. Oops, not so much guys. When considering the character of God, there is only so much we can understand. We can’t comprehend three, yet one - but because God says it is so, we believe. We can’t get the idea of free will and sovereignty, but again, God says it, so we believe. We understand what He wants us to understand. The rest must remain a mystery. We don’t have to figure everything out. Just trust His proven character.

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #7

I don’t believe any of the theologians think they have God figured out at all. Theologians on both sides of the issue both believe what they believe on God’s Sovereignty and man’s free will because they believe that is where the evidence in the Bible points. Of course both sides acknowledge that they probably are both right in some areas but wrong in others. With God, it’s always grey area. The point is that we try as we might to come as close as we can to a limited human understanding of God just to temporarily satisfy our curiosity and to appease our questions for the time being.

We will wait until the New Jerusalem, but by then I suspect our primitive questions will have no value to God. Why should they?

(Timothy Loraditch) #8

I am confused here. You ask what is essential, but it seems this conversation has only got more complex. If you want essential Jesus said the greatest commandments are to love God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself. Why complicate it if you are looking for the essence?

(SeanO) #9

@manbooks I think whether or not we seek to call out someone who is straying from the faith depends upon our level of influence with that individual, our position in the community and whether or not their false teaching is impacting the people over whom we have influence. If we are shepherding a Church and they are being led astray by an individual’s teaching, we should help the sheep separate truth from error. However, we should still avoid ad hominem attacks against the individual whose teaching is wrong. We should focus on why their teaching is wrong rather than attacking them as individuals. If we know the person who is teaching false doctrine and they would be open to our advice, then we should seek to meet with them personally as Jesus exhorted us.

If, on the other hand, we neither know the person nor have influence in the community / responsibility as a shepherd, then there may be little use in focusing on this person or their false teaching. Rather, we may simply focus on sound doctrine and the Scriptures.

Below are some thoughts I have found extremely helpful in terms of seeking to organize which doctrines fall into which categories and what categories might be helpful when thinking through such issues.

Levels of Doctrine

Not all doctrine is equally important. Some beliefs are at the very center of our Christian faith and to deny them is to deny Christ. Other beliefs are important to how we practice our faith and are therefore the cause of disagreement between many denominations, but these beliefs do not place us outside of Christ. Still other doctrines, such as eschatology, are difficult even for very learned and godly people to understand clearly and are therefore a matter of opinion.

The below article offers a fuller explanation of levels of doctrine and gives a helpful summary list of 4 levels of doctrine.

  1. absolutes define the core beliefs of the Christian faith;
  2. convictions , while not core beliefs, may have significant impact on the health and effectiveness of the church;
  3. opinions are less-clear issues that generally are not worth dividing over; and
  4. questions are currently unsettled issues.

Where an issue falls within these categories should be determined by weighing the cumulative force of at least seven considerations:

  1. biblical clarity;
  2. relevance to the character of God;
  3. relevance to the essence of the gospel;
  4. biblical frequency and significance (how often in Scripture it is taught, and what weight Scripture places upon it);
  5. effect on other doctrines;
  6. consensus among Christians (past and present); and
  7. effect on personal and church life.

(Dean Schmucker) #10

Thanks. Of course what is clear Bible teaching to one brother might be dubious to another. I.e. six literal days of creation. For me, I stay away from any teaching that denies the Diety of Christ. I am YEC, but won’t place that doctrine as high.

(LaTricia J.) #11

For clarity, are we discussing what is essential doctrine as in what is necessary for salvation (closed handed) as opposed to what my pastor refers to as something good God fearing Christians can disagree about? For example, is it necessary for salvation that one believes that God created the universe in six 24 hour days and rested on the seventh or is this something that is considered an open handed matter that believers can disagree on?

(Dean Schmucker) #12

On the surface, YEC would not seem essential, but if OEC undermines the authority of Scripture, there’s a problem

(LaTricia J.) #13

@manbooks, are you responding to my question asking for clarity? If so, I’m not any more clear on what is meant by how you’re saying is essential and what isn’t essential. As I understand, and agree with, what is essential is a close-handed matter and what is close-handed is essential for salvation. So, is a person’s salvation impacted or not determines what is essential and what isn’t essential. But if you can help me understand more of what you’re aiming for, I would appreciate it.

(LaTricia J.) #14

Also to, I make a distinction between holding teachers accountable for what they teach and making sure teachers remain biblical in their teaching and discussing what is essential for salvation and dealing with “hot-button topics”. Areas that Christians may disagree on can still be handled by teachers in biblical ways and in ways that are compassionate yet firm. Not to toot my pastor’s horn, but he’s been doing that from what I’ve witnessed in my short time at the church I currently attend, and I’m loving it! It’s challenging and enlightening all at the same time. Also too, he doesn’t depict himself as having all of the answers (or all the correct answers) but he invites us all to engage in hashing out where we stand on both the essentials and non-essentials.

(Jimmy Sellers) #15

Here is an article that might shed some light on the origin of the quote:

Not Augustine but a German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century, Rupertus Meldenius. Surprised me.

As to the essentials of the faith for me it is Christ crucified and Christ glorified. Everything else is up for grabs.

(Steven Chapman) #16

I would like to offer a story that has helped me in distinguishing what I see as “essential doctrine”. It may seem like oversimplification to some, but complexity does not help me in instances when Biblical issues are in question. In regard to the several areas of conflicting views that have been mentioned so far, I have experienced several of those debates in men’s Bible studies over the years and have had a lot of time to think about not just what the differences have been but also why they are given such weight.

One of the first mentioned areas of contention in this discussion is “Calvinism vs. Armenianism, in which God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are put in tension. During a weekly Bible study an argument (in the apologetic sense) arose over the Biblical support of each position. During the following weeks in emails and at the weekly meetings, the debate continued, each side bringing sermons, essays and books supporting their respective positions. Over a short time it became so heated that one party accused another of being a heretic. Doesn’t sound like an informed Bible study, does it?

Well, Jesus was not absent from this group in spite of the rhetoric. When I got home on the evening of the “heretic” comment, I felt compelled to send a group email out summarizing what I saw as our collective accomplishments of the afternoon. I suggested to the group that the crowded coffee shop had surly been affected by the witness displayed that day. Without going into further detail of the email (it was not accusatory to any one individual) I can attest that they knew exactly what was being referenced. That evening and the next morning I received emails from everyone humbly confessing their role in the embarrassing display either by commission or omission.

The relevant point of all this is that the “essential doctrine” is not in the theology informing us, it is in Jesus who informs us. We (man) are the source of the theology revealed to us by Jesus, lived by Jesus for which he died.

If position violates the unity of the body, it must be wrong. We are called to be the body of Christ and whatever theology one may prefer, it needs to support and reflect a unified existence. If one cannot hold their theological positions gently, preferring

to suppress them rather than violate a relationship; then I would question just how “essential” that position might be.

(Dean Schmucker) #17

Not sure what I was trying to say.
For me, though, don’t get Christology wrong.
And the Word is our anchor.

(Steve Kell) #18

I was going to write this as I scrolled through. Thanks for saying it! I think the revitalizing message of Jesus is of compassion, and also being full of grace and truth. He asks us to have character, a certain character that would be demonstrated by someone that loves God and then loves a neighbor. The good Samaritan was the neighbor, though his beliefs were not perfect. Jesus often speaks to those who “know it all” with much more harsh terms than the sick, sinful people looking for answers. Love the truth, dole out the grace! Full of both, love God in order to love our neighbor. I think Jesus Gospel can be made quite simple.

(Dean Schmucker) #19

Amen. The religious crowd in Jesus’s day were well trained in doctrine. But when the Word became flesh, they didn’t recognize Him. Its one thing to know about God, and quite another to meet Him face to face. Ask Job. Or Isaiah. Or Paul.

(Isaiah J. Armstrong) #20

“If position violates the unity of the body, it must be wrong. We are called to be the body of Christ and whatever theology one may prefer, it needs to support and reflect a unified existence.”

@Steven_Chapman I don’t know if this quote here is exactly what you really meant. Do you mean to say that a unified Body of believers is more important than the essentials of our Christian faith? That we are to adopt any theological position as long as it ‘unified the body,’ as you put it? Please correct me if I misunderstand what you mean by this quote.

(LaTricia J.) #21

@manbooks if you’re not sure what you were trying to say, then I can’t be sure either. :laughing: