This week, I would like to share a few thoughts about how I believe Jesus wants his people to relate to one another on matters that are important, but that are also non-essential.
Unlike the essentials which are best summarized in ancient consensus statements like the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, and which also include those things about which Scripture speaks unambiguously (i.e., “You shall not commit adultery”), non-essentials are matters about which Christians may disagree freely while enjoying unbroken fellowship and holding each other in high esteem.
Wherever the Bible does not speak with certainty on a particular matter, wherever the Bible leaves room for varying perspectives, such matters should be treated as a non-essential.
I am told that the theologian R.C. Sproul once gave a talk at our church on the nature of how God brings people into a saving relationship with himself. On this particular issue, Dr. Sproul is well known for emphasizing the sovereign, electing grace of God. Others like Billy Graham are known for emphasizing human free will. While Dr. Sproul would say we chose God only because God first chose us, Dr. Graham might say that God chose us based on his prior knowledge that we would one day choose him. This is an intramural debate between believers. It’s an important one, but on whichever side a person lands, it will not determine his or her eternal destiny.
During the question and answer time after Dr. Sproul’s talk, someone asked him if he thought he would see Billy Graham in heaven, to which he replied, “No, I don’t believe I will see Billy Graham in heaven.” Of course, there was a collective gasp! But then he continued, “Billy Graham will be so close to the throne of God, and I will be so far away from the throne of God, that I will be lucky even to get a glimpse of him!”
What R.C. Sproul demonstrated is that sincere believers can disagree on certain matters, sometimes quite strongly, and still maintain great respect and affection for one another.
It is no coincidence that the longest recorded prayer we have from Jesus is his famous High Priestly Prayer, in which he asks that his wildly diverse band of followers be united as one. It is no coincidence that the Apostle Paul would begin his letters with the two-part salutation, “grace to you” (the standard Greek greeting) and “peace to you” (the standard Jewish greeting).
It is significant that he would insist that Jews and Greeks, slaves and free people, men and women, are as one through Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:28). All three pairings represented the deepest forms of relational hostility to the first century reader. Jews looked down their noses at Greeks, and Greeks despised Jews. Men were dismissive and demeaning toward women, and women were injured by men. Free people saw slaves as sub-human, and slaves were injured by free people.
Paul would put an end to such divisions because Christians are in many ways a band of opposites, who over time grow to love one another through the centering, unifying love of Jesus.
But there is more to unity than the cooling down of hostility. There is also much that Christians from differing perspectives can learn from one another. I treasure the fact that some of my closest “pastor friends” are from traditions other than my own. Besides being excellent company, these friendships are meaningful and necessary for my own development as a minister and as a believer.
What’s more, I don’t know where I would be without the influence of others who see certain non-essentials differently than I do. I need the wisdom, reasoning, and apologetics of C.S. Lewis, though his take on some of the finer points of theology are different than mine. I need the preaching and charisma of Charles Spurgeon, though his view of baptism is different than mine. I need the Kingdom vision of NT Wright and the theology of Jonathan Edwards, though their views on church government are different than mine. I need the passion and prophetic courage of Martin Luther King, Jr., the cultural intelligence of Soong Chan Rah, and the Confessions of Saint Augustine, although their races are different than mine. I need the reconciliation spirit of Miroslav Volf, though his nationality is different than mine. I need the spiritual thirst and love impulse of Brennan Manning and the prophetic wit of G.K. Chesterton, though both were Roman Catholics and I am a Protestant. I need the hymns and personal holiness of John and Charles Wesley, though some of our doctrinal distinctives are different. I need the glorious weakness of Joni Eareckson Tada, the spirituality of Marva Dawn, the trusting perseverance of Elisabeth Elliott, the longsuffering of Amy Carmichael, the transparency and thankfulness of Anne Voskamp, the theological precision of Kathy Keller, and the integrity of Patti Sauls, though their gender is different than mine.
In non-essentials liberty. And to this we might add an open-minded receptivity. We must allow ourselves to be shaped by our “other” brothers and sisters for Jesus’ sake.
We will be the richer for it.