Yesterday I wrote about judgmentalism. Some of us find it hard to accept that not everything falls into clear categories of right and wrong and it’s easy to adopt a role as a mini spiritual traffic warden.
Paul knew how to draw lines in both behaviour and doctrine, but he recognised that in the emerging world of the New Testament church, as people came together from their different backgrounds, there were things that had to be held in an open hand.
Not everything is up for grabs; but how can you tell an issue where a firm line needs to be held and an issue where differences can be respected with grace?
Here are three suggestions that I think provide some possible guidance for distinguishing between what have been called essentials and non-essentials. Someone might argue that these are random – and someone may be able to drive a truck through one or other of them with a decisive example – but this is a blog and not an academic article! If you take a different view, let me know what and why.
- Have various skilful scholars, united in their godliness and their respect for the authority of Scripture, reached different conclusions? The characteristics of godliness, skill and reverence are all important. While no commentator is infallible, I think we can expect most of the best of them to get it right on most of the essential issues.
- How close is this issue to the nature of Christ’s person and his work? For example, there is a difference between denying the divinity of Christ and holding one particular millennial position over against another. There is a difference between denying Christ’s resurrection and arguing one way or another over the authorship of Hebrews!
- Does the issue run in a clear line throughout Scripture or is it confined to an isolated passage somewhere? For example, the Bible holds a clear line from start to finish on the value of marriage. Of course there were various aberrations in the OT, but when Jesus teaches on divorce, he refers back to Genesis and God’s original intent. On the other hand an issue like whether a woman ought to cover her head when she prays only appears once.
I realise that even this discussion may make some people uncomfortable. To some, it looks like we are giving permission to cut passages out of the Bible here and there! Of course it needs to be said that if God said it at all – even once – we need to pay attention to it.
However a proper humility ought to remind us that while Scripture is authoritative, our interpretations of it may not be. That being the case, we need to know when to draw lines and when we may differ, with grace.
As one Rupert Meldenius said,
In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.