In Essentials, Unity; In Non-Essentials, Liberty

by Randy Everist

The titular phrase is often invoked by Christians attempting to communicate that there are some battles over which we should not part company. Sometimes, however, the saying is attacked. Usually the idea is that all of biblical doctrine is important, so that there really are no non-essentials. Recently, I read a brief statement criticizing the saying, and I responded via e-mail. It is edited for identity purposes (for now), but is content-wise what I wrote:

Hello Mr. X,

I believe we ought to confront error lovingly within the realm of believers. I hope you feel the same way. Concerning your most recent . . . [post], you have a quoted passage from I.M. Haldeman concerning “non-essentials.” I believe it trades on an ambiguity in order to perpetuate a mistake in critical thinking.

First, some preliminary discussion on parts of the quote. “He is the great economist and never . . . does anything that is unnecessary.” Really? A consequence of this thinking is that God’s creation is therefore necessary. Not only that, but we are lead to the troubling

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conclusion that each individual God did in fact create is not only “helpful” but necessary as well. I see no reason God could not have chosen to create something else than that which He did create (or even to refrain from creating human persons at all). But since this is the premise on which the rest of the quote hinges, we can see his conclusions do not follow.

More than that, however, I think his conclusions are false. Whenever someone says something like “all doctrines are essential” in response to the oft-quoted “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty,” the first question that must be asked is this: essential for what? The people who quote the phrase tend to mean something very much like, essential for the Gospel and non-essential for the Gospel; the entire phrase means “One must believe X in order to be saved,” and “if one denies X, he is not saved.”

I suspect you will want to know if that is indeed what people mean when they say this. In any case, I can tell you that I certainly mean it. John Hammett writes of believers…


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