I live in Waverly, NY, which sits right on the New York – Pennsylvania state border. Rarely a day goes by in which I don’t cross into Pennsylvania for one reason or another. I am also a Canadian citizen and with most of my family still living there, at least once or twice a year, passport in hand, I journey back to my homeland. Border crossing is nothing new for me – it’s just a regular part of life.
This got me to thinking about a famous quote. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Originally, I thought this quote came from the Puritan Richard Baxter, but I was wrong. It is actually from a German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century, Rupertus Meldenius. Having set the record straight, lets talk about its significance and how it connects with my opening illustration.
As Christians, there are things that separate us, just as borders separate states and countries and territories. I am part of a denomination (the Christian & Missionary Alliance) and just like every denomination, we have distinctives. While I love my Southern Baptist friends and have learned much from them, we hail from two different tribes. We share much in common, but there are some elements of emphasis and doctrine that separate us. The same could be said about other denominations too.
I also have some non-denominational blood in my background. The first church I pastored was an independent church in Ohio. When it comes to my theological training, I have attended three non-denominational schools – Briercrest College and Seminary, Regent College, and currently Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Each of these schools draw students from literally dozens of denominational and non-denominational backgrounds. I thank God for these experiences, which I believe have broadened by perspective.
As I said earlier, there are always going to be things that separate us. Take, for example, the first church I pastored. Even as an independent, non-denominational church, we still had distinctives. We had a doctrinal statement and a mission statement along with other elements that made us unique. This is true for every church. No two churches are the same, even those that hail from the same denomination or network. I think it would be fair to say that most churches and church leaders understand this and try not to let it hinder cooperation with other bible-believing, gospel-centered churches. We realize that even though we have distinctives and unique emphases, there is a place and a need to come together for the furtherance of the gospel.
With that being said, let me also say there is a place for separation. The Bible clearly teaches separation (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1) from the non-believing and the apostate. There are going to be times where it is unprofitable (and even damaging) to align ourselves with those who reject the gospel of Christ. So how do we know when to separate? When is it ok to extend the right hand of fellowship and when is it not? This takes us back to our opening quotation – In essentials unity, non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. We all long for unity, but what are the non-negotiables of the Christian faith that when violated would force separation?
Recently, I heard John MacArthur talk about what he calls “the drivetrain of the gospel.” By this he means the essentials of the Christian faith. MacArthur defines these as belief in “a Triune God, deity of Christ, deity of the Holy Spirit, deity of God the Father, the virgin birth, the sinless life of Christ, substitutionary atonement, literal resurrection, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.” These essentials, along with a belief in the Bible as the Word of God, have formed the core of historic Christian doctrine for centuries. And where there is a denial of these core doctrinal elements, there can be no cooperation and there must be separation. I would also add that these are the doctrinal issues we must unite around as Christians. If there is anything we should be rallying around, it is these foundational biblical truths.
What about non-essentials? What would be a doctrinal issue where two Christians (or Churches) may differ on but liberty should be granted? I would suggest things like eschatology (views on the last things) and ecclesiology (views on church governance/baptism) just to name a couple, are matters that would fit into this category. It would be unhelpful and unwise to separate from a brother in Christ just because he doesn’t share your particular view on the millennium, for example. As a footnote, I would also add differences in ministry methodology to this list of non-essentials.
What my experience has taught me is that we need to collaborate and work together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Surely we are better together than apart. I don’t think anyone wins when all our energies are being poured into non-essentials that separate instead of essentials that should unite us. Is there a place for standing for the truth? Absolutely! But let’s make sure we are fighting the right battles. Let’s make sure we are armed and prepared to stand against he enemy of our souls. And let’s do everything we can to unite and cooperate with our brothers and sisters in Christ for the cause of the gospel.