If you’ve ever experienced disunity in a church, you know how upsetting it can be. Not many of us enjoy conflict in general, so the thought of conflict within the body of believers is particularly uncomfortable. But conflict happens, just as it does in any committed relationship. Christians are exhorted to be known by their unity even in their diversity, but does that mean we never raise a concern? How can we know if an issue is worth fighting for? Is there ever a time to break unity for the sake of integrity?
Every member of the body of believers possesses a set of beliefs that can be divided into three categories: essentials, convictions and preferences. Understanding how these relate to unity can help us know whether to speak up or to remain silent, whether to break fellowship or to stay put.
Essentials, Convictions and Preferences
An essential is any truth which, if denied or misrepresented, nullifies the gospel. Examples of essentials would be belief in the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the virgin birth or the inspiration and authority of the Bible. Essentials do not require a seminary degree to understand. They are plainly revealed in Scripture and accessible to believers of all maturity levels. Essentials are what you find in the historic creeds of the church. They define orthodox belief.
A conviction is any deeply held belief which, if believed in error will not nullify the gospel, but can harm spiritual growth. Examples of convictions would be views on baptism, the role of women in the church, eschatology, or the functioning of the charismatic gifts. Some convictions are more deeply held than others, depending on the church, and unlike essentials, not all convictions must carry the same weight. Some convictions, if held in error, have greater potential to harm than others. Disagreements surrounding convictions usually have to do with how we interpret Scripture.
A preference is something I care about, but that is a matter of personal choice. I can readily acknowledge that there is more than one possible right answer while still feeling strongly that my answer is the best one. Examples of preferences would be whether I prefer contemporary worship or traditional worship, casual dress or dressy clothes, smoke machines or stained glass. Disagreements surrounding preferences usually have to do with how we apply Scripture.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
So, how can we judge whether an issue merits division? Think in these terms:
- Essentials are worth dying for.
- Convictions are worth debating.
- Preferences are worth discussing.
Unity must be broken if an essential is compromised or denied. If your church suddenly decides that Jesus is merely a man and not also God, you need to pack your bags.
Unity may be broken if a conviction is violated but must not necessarily be. It could be possible, for example, to remain a faithful member of a congregation that affirms believer’s baptism while still holding to belief in infant baptism.
Unity should not be broken if a preference is not shared. To leave your church because you dislike the worship style (assuming the worship style is not anything sacrilegious) or disagree with its ministry model is to hold in light esteem the beauty of having shared essentials and convictions. This doesn’t mean that preferences are unimportant. They are. And we should be able to dialogue about them with charity. They just aren’t deal-breakers.
Stay If at All Possible
Unfortunately, we often sacrifice unity on the slipshod altar of our preferences. Many a church split has happened over whether God loves the organ more than the electric guitar.
The book of Acts celebrates unity, and it stands as an exhortation to the Church throughout the ages to work hard to prize it. Never has such a diverse assembly of believers been reconciled to one another as in the days of the early church. Acts records the uniting of Jew and Gentile under one God, and the debates and discussions necessary to join these two groups as members of one body. It details the differences in ministry philosophy between Peter and Paul, two men united in the goal of spreading the gospel but divided as to how it should be done. Acts shows us that the tension of the interplay of essentials, convictions and preferences is a natural part of church life, and that unity is worth fighting for. But unity does not mean unanimity.
To be a member of a body of believers who affirm every essential and many of my convictions is a rare gift. I need not require that every conviction be held in unity, and I need not require that any preference be held in unity. A marriage is more likely to be easy and enjoyable when a couple shares the same convictions and preferences. So is church membership. It isn’t wrong to long for that kind of harmony, but it is wrong to break or withhold relationship over the lack of it. As with all relationships, our list of preferences should receive due consideration before we commit but far less consideration after.
The way we express our concerns matters, too. Just as no spouse benefits from being nagged or attacked about a conviction or preference by the other spouse, no church benefits from a nagging or attacking member. Far better for the member to hold a respectful debate or dialogue with someone in leadership than to complain publicly or privately to other members of the body. One approach demonstrates a love of unity. The other does not.
As we each soberly evaluate our essentials, convictions and preferences, we are well served to remember the watchword of the Lutheran theologian Meledenius: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” May we meditate on the beauty of a church seeking unity in diversity, whose crowning virtue is love.
Essentials and Non-Essentials in a Nutshell – C. Michael Patton
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