By David Timms
If you want to stir up a hornet’s nest, simply ask people what is essential to the Christian faith.
The early nineteenth century Restoration Movement borrowed and regularly used a slogan from earlier times. “In essentials unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.” The slogan seems simple and helpful, until people start debating what constitutes the essentials. Then the arguments begin. Everyone wants to expand the list.
Some years ago, I pastored a small church in Tennessee. The board decided to review and revise its constitution and bylaws, and one generous soul took upon himself the task of writing the main draft.
He gathered examples of constitutions from other congregations and wrote with gusto. He found a number of documents that addressed the members and those “of like precious faith,” and he warmed to his task. When he presented his final draft to the board for our review, we scratched our heads at a typo that popped up repeatedly. Our proposed new constitution consistently addressed our members and those “of like precise faith.” Therein lies the problem. When everyone must share the same precise set of convictions, nobody will see eye to eye for very long. It’s a recipe for division, diluted witness, and diminished effectiveness.
The Restoration Movement arose from a basic conviction that the essentials should be minimal. In fact, they number just three: 1) The authority of Scripture, 2) the lordship of Christ, and 3) the unity of the church. These three essentials form large categories and have generous freedoms, but they do provide important boundaries. When we hold fast to these—and none others—as our essentials, we honor Christ and discover the pathway to stronger families, friendships, communities, and congregations.
Essentials are those beliefs or convictions that become tests of fellowship for us. They help us determine who is in the family and who is not. That moves them well beyond personal preferences, though we may feel deeply and passionately about our preferences.
The Restoration Movement took seriously the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers’ appeal to sola Scriptura—Scripture alone is the authority in matters of doctrine and practice. Importantly, our unity is not based on agreement about every specific doctrine or practice but a common affirmation of Scripture as our highest authority.
Many believers—equally sincere followers of Christ—read the same biblical texts and draw different conclusions. Some believe that women should always come under the authority of men; others do not. Some believe that the Lord’s Supper should be observed every week; others do not. Some believe that God predestines who will be saved and who will be lost; others do not. Some believe in the use of instruments in worship; others do not. Some believe in speaking in tongues; others do not. And so it continues.
If the unity of the church depends on unity of all doctrine, we face an impossibility. Unanimity is a fantasy that becomes a cancer among us.
If, however, a larger category—the authority of Scripture—forms the basis for our unity, then we can engage in more serious dialogue about truth, without accusing others of being heretics or outsiders to the faith.
The 2013 Strange Fire Conference in southern California declared that charismatic believers are, for the most part, not true believers at all. Views on the work of the Holy Spirit have become a test of fellowship with those folk.
Similarly some of us grew up in an age when Catholics and Protestants saw each other as targets for the gospel, in need of conversion. As a Protestant, I assumed that anyone who prayed to Mary and did not understand the priesthood of all believers could not possibly be a fellow Christian. I had created narrower tests of fellowship than the “big three” of the Restoration Movement. I have since discovered that some of the most devout, sincere, and intelligent followers of Jesus I’ve met live in Catholic or Orthodox circles.
Perhaps the more we grow certain of our rightness, the less we reflect Christ’s righteousness—on secondary matters and matters of opinion.
Lord of All
The lordship of Christ stands as the second essential—second not in importance but in order, since Scripture points us to Christ. Once again, it’s a broad category that allows for considerable diversity. It does not require that we all agree on every interpretation of Jesus’ teaching. Nor must we hold to a common view of his second coming. The key is the term lordship.
As I heard many times growing up, “If he is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.” That cliché helpfully reinforced that the term Lord is an exclusive term. He whom we call Lord cannot be one of many but must truly stand apart and alone.
If we are serious about the lordship of Christ, then it calls us to surrender and submission. It demands that we embrace humility and servanthood. It assumes that we follow his lead and refuse to usurp his authority. It implies that what he says, we do. The implications are enormous, because lordship is enormous. And anyone who declares honestly, earnestly, and intelligently “Jesus is my Lord” is a brother or sister in Christ, despite the denominational stripe they may bear.
Alexander Campbell addressed this in his reply to a letter from Lunenburg, Virginia, in 1837. The writer asked if there might be Christians among the various denominational groups, to which Campbell replied:
“Everyone that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will [is a Christian].”
In every arena of life we will function differently if Jesus is Lord. And when we find others who share this basic commitment and conviction—this essential—we find common ground and a kindred spirit.
Unity of the Church
The final essential is our mutual commitment to the unity of the church.
We need not all agree on the particulars of discipleship to call each other brother and sister. Should we sell all that we have and live communally, as in Acts 4:32-37? Must we all read the same version of Scripture at the same time of the day? Is prayer necessary in the same style and the same quantity for us to be “spiritual family”? When we take it upon ourselves to judge and dismiss the spiritual heritage or practices of others who proclaim sincerely the authority of Scripture and the lordship of Christ, we hurt the church for which Christ died.
Even in a marriage and family, these umbrella statements provide an important foundation. Husbands and wives, out of step with these essentials, struggle. It’s not whether we believe in the millennial reign of Christ that truly unifies a wife and her husband. It’s whether both are living lives surrendered to the lordship of Christ as best they know how. It’s not our view of the church that will unify parents and their children, but a willingness to submit to the authority of Scripture as best we all know how.
Some will argue that these categories are too broad, that they need tightening up, that they become meaningless without more specifics. It’s false to think so. The boundaries are not nearly as fuzzy as some might think.
Unity is not the product of unanimity. Instead, unity arises from the heart more than the head. It emerges from grace and inclusion, not law and exclusion.
A. W. Tozer wrote: “Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which one must individually bow.” Similarly, we “keep the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3) in our churches, our marriages, our businesses, and our families by looking to the one common standard—Scripture and Christ.
As soon as we start adding to the essentials, we isolate ourselves from the larger body of Christ and undermine the prayer of Jesus in John 17:21: May “all of them be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
This is not a plea for tolerance but an appeal for unity on the basis of a thoughtful and prayerful return to this cornerstone of the Restoration Movement.
David Timms serves as a professor of New Testament at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California (@growingdeeper).