What is essential?

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?


@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.

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.


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?

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

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@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.

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.


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.

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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.

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

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.


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.


“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.


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

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

The true ground of unity is Jesus. I loved your story about the bible study. Perhaps its not so much what we believe but the spirit in which we hold to it that affects unity.

Maybe it’s me, but I’m really not following you and the exchange, at least as I’m reading it, feels circular. Can you give examples of what you’re talking about and how it would violate the unity of the body?

The ‘unified existence’ you refer to that we must not violate, MUST be the BEING of God. He is the truth. Any belief or doctrine violating the truth is a lie. Any unity violating truth and the unity of God, is a lie. Unity must be founded in truth, His Word is truth.

Example: if Christians no longer believe Jesus is God the Word made flesh to dwell among us, as in John 1, then those people are not Christians since they worship a Jesus that is not God. What fellowship has light with darkness?

Also remember what Jesus said about not coming to bring peace but a sword…meaning division…since HE would be the basis of that division when people even persecute their own Christian family members when they follow Jesus instead of the world system.


Great question. However, I think to address any of these particular issues, we have to answer the bigger question, namely: what are the essentials of the Christian faith?

I’ve made some posts in other places on trying to get a handle on essentials:

Also, regarding essentials, let me quote Alister McGrath at length from his Introduction to Christian Theology (4th edition). In this section of his book, McGrath points to some theological distinctions made by F.D.E Schleiermacher, an 18th century theologian not necessarily known for conservative or traditional views about the Bible or historical Christian faith, yet who made some incisive points about what counts as the essence of Christianity, the sine qua non of Christian faith if you will:

“Schleiermacher argues that the central and distinctive idea of Christianity is that God has redeemed us through Jesus Christ, and through no one else and in no other way…To give some obvious application points [of that claim]” 1) The Christian understanding of the nature of God must be such that God can effect the redemption of humanity through Christ; 2) The Christian understanding of the identity of Christ must be such that God can bring about our redemption through him, and him alone; 3) The Christian understanding of humanity must be such that redemption is both possible and genuine. In other words, it is essential that the Christian understanding of God, Christ, and humanity is consistent with the principle of redemption through Christ alone. According to Schleiermacher, to deny that God has redeemed us through Jesus Christ is to deny the most fundamental truth claim of the Christian faith [i.e. Unbelief]. The distinction between what is Christian and what is not lies in whether this principle is accepted. The distinction between what is orthodox and what is heretical , however, lies in how this principle, once conceded and accepted, is understood. In other words, heresy is not a form of unbelief; it is a faulty or inadequate understanding of core Christian beliefs that arises within the context of faith itself.” (McGrath, 4th ed. 115-116).

So, I think the first distinction to make is what would count as “non-belief” versus what would count as “heretical” or “deficient” belief. Once we are in the realm of heretical belief, then we can start talking about what is “biblical” or “unbilical” and “traditional” or “non-traditional” belief. That said, I think Old Earthers and Young Earthers, LGBT affirmers and LGBT non-affirmers, Complementarians and Egalitarians, Prosperity Gospel folks and the rest of us, should all be seen as believers, since they are not rejecting Christ as the only means to salvation, which also should entail that God is actually real, and that Christ is actually God who takes away our sins.

Now, once we have all of these good folks in the realm of “believer” then we can assess whether or not heretical beliefs are present, ones that need correction or reproof from either Scripture (2 Tim 3:16) or the early traditions of the Church (e.g. the early Creeds, or the early conciliar proclamations). Richard Hays, the preeminent New Testament scholar, gives us a good method for discerning how Evangelicals can discern the essentials:

First, Hays reminds us that the task is hard, since we all approach the Scriptures with an interpretive lens that entails our cultural and private pre-understandings:

“No matter how seriously the church may take the authority of the Bible, the slogan of sola Scriptura is both conceptually and practically untenable, because the interpretation of Scripture can never occur in a vacuum. The New Testament is always read by interpreters under the formative influence of some particular tradition, using the light of reason and experience and attempting to relate the Bible to a particular historical situation. Thus, the hermeneutical task in New Testament ethics requires an attempt to specify as clearly as possible the relationship between Scripture and other sources of authority. These other sources are often characterized under the rubrics of tradition, reason, and experience.” (Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, E-book, pg. 647 [bold words mine])

Hays continues, showing what he means by tradition as our first constraining mechanism on heretical or deficient beliefs:

“When we speak of tradition as an authority for theology, we refer not to general cultural customs but specifically to the church’s time-honored practices of worship, service, and critical reflection . Included under this heading are first of all the ancient ecumenical creeds and dogmatic definitions; tradition also includes, however, the writings of individual theologians, particularly those who have been widely read and revered in the church over long periods of time (e.g., Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley).” (Hays, 647 bold mine)

Finally, he points out that if tradition seems to conflict with what seems plainly to be in the Scriptures themselves, then it is time to make a hard, but necessary existential choice:

“In Christian theology, tradition can never be treated as sacrosanct ; we must bear in mind Jesus’ warning against those who “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7:8 and parallels). The classic formula remains serviceable: Scripture is norma normans (“the norming norm”), while tradition is norma normata (“the normed norm”). Still, tradition gives us a place to start in our interpretation of Scripture ; it teaches us how to read with imaginative sympathy and an obedient spirit.” (Hays, 637)

“When tradition comes into conflict with the New Testament’s portrayal of the life and vocation of the Christian community, the time is at hand for judgment, repentance, and reformation.” (Hays, 903)

So, with this method in mind: 1) approach Scripture knowing you have presuppositions, 2) look at the ancient teachings and traditions of the church, 3) look at the historical understanding of the Scriptures especially through the church’s practice, liturgy, and worship, 4) use your reason in light of all these, and 5) then take your own experience and bring it back into the mix to see if a) the words of Scripture, b) the early traditions of the church, c) the theological traditions of your own particular confession, e.g. Reformed, Lutheran, etc., d) and the best scientific and philosophical thinking on a particular problem, either confirm or disconfirm your experience. If they confirm your experience then most likely you are firmly grounded in a biblical Christianity. If they disconfirm your experience, then you probably have to alter your belief structure and frame of reference to fit what it most likely the biblical teaching on an issue.

That said, as far as I have considered each of these particular issues here, I would say the following:

  1. It seems that both Old Earth and Young Earth creation models are compatible with Scripture and Tradition, but Old Earth is more likely based on scientific evidence. But, neither position seems to measure up to anything like a heretical belief, since both assume God as creator of all things.

  2. On homosexual behavior, it seems that all sources of knowledge, Scripture, Church Tradition, theological traditions, and reason, weigh in favor of homosexual behavior being unbiblical and even unhealthy. It seems that primarily lived experience is what compels us to want to accept it as morally justifiable. Unfortunately, then, I think we have to alter our experiences to fit the preponderance of the evidence that lies in these other, more authoritative, sources of knowledge (as hard as that may be for many).

  3. This one is hard. And honestly, while I think it is no where near anything that approaches what might be a heretical belief, I just have not studied the issue enough to make a decision for either Complementarian positions or Egalitarian. Here, I think, the Bible is quite under-determinative with regard to the data needed to go this way or that. It seems like one can in good conscience go either way.

  4. Same here for me. I don’t think it warrants the claim of heresy with regard to the essentials that the Bible, Church Tradition, etc., give us, but it is a question of whether it is sufficiently biblical, or problematic to a true and healthy life of faith.

In sum, I don’t think any of these positions warrant the label heresy, at least not according to the criterial that Schleiermacher laid out, but many could be seen as problematic with regard to the various sources of theological knowledge available to us. The most problematic, or so it seems, would be the acceptance of homosexual behavior as compatible with a full life in Christ. As hard as that is to accept, I do have good friends who are trying to walk out that life in spite of their same-sex attraction.

Hope this helps,


Hello. I do not have much time but wish to add some brief thoughts:

Consider what Paul thought essential. Anytime Paul was presenting a defense, it was usually in defense of the gospel message itself–who Jesus is and what he has done. Anything distorting who Jesus is and presenting a different message that would change the gospel (for example, anything saying or presenting in any way, shape, or form that works+grace=salvation) is considered to pertain to the essential things–those things which affect people’s salvation/position with God (Cain’s sacrifice vs. Abel’s: the former’s was an offering of works which God would not accept, and the latter’s was an offering of faith which God accepted–so it is with what we believe about Christ and what he did). The rest of it has to do with how we walk out and practice our faith. Obviously, there are absolutes (i.e., murder is wrong, assault is wrong, lying is wrong), and then there are practices that are not so much absolutes, as they seem to be cultural (in other words, when women are going to a Muslim nation to live and witness to the gospel, they need to wear the head scarf and accept a more subordinate position. Is that universally what women should do? No. It’s what at the time and place is what people think is right, and since it in no way affects the woman’s salvation in any way to accept those cultural and social policies, then she should accept it for the sake of the gospel).
Furthermore, consider that the letters, the epistles, were not written with the purpose of forming doctrine in mind. There was much said in the epistles that was supported with one biblical reason or another and yet there were also things said by the same writers that seem to contradict those things they seemed to so strongly say and support. The material needs to be handled and investigated responsibly and properly, along with the translation of the Greek which has been shown recently to have been in error in places (even then, sometimes it is difficult or ambiguous, and yet people tend to ignore some verses in favor of others in order to support their traditions or biases–on either side of things).

Some of my thoughts I will submit. Great discussion topic, though.

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There appears to be different conversations taking place in this thread so in order to clarify the comments here, I am referencing the beginning of the original post “IN ESSENTIALS UNITY”.

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.

emphasized text @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.

Isaiah, my reference to “Unity of the Body” is meant to specifically identify followers of Jesus Christ who believe the gospel message. That ‘unity” precedes theology in my view for, without its inclusion, the theology would be incomplete. In the particular story from my post two believing brothers could not reconcile their theological beliefs because they were held with much greater conviction than they held for the unity of the body.

In the Core Module, Michelle Tepper summarizes the lesson on the Trinity and Humanity as follows:

“It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to enter into the Trinity-Unity from which we were created. And by entering into the Trinity-Unity, we are empowered to understand and finally fulfill the reason for our existence: to love and be loved.”

I think any theological position to be subservient to the unity contemplated here. It would serve us well to at least ponder the importance and essential quality of unity of the body. Please keep in mind that any call for unity is contingent on the unifying cause, that being Jesus Christ. I still find it difficult to articulate its power. Thanks for the conversation.

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