Essentials vs. Non-Essentials

By Justin Johnson
“In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things love.”

Most Christians have heard this variation of the historical Christian motto. It is a favorite of those that emphasize ecumenical love over doctrinal agreement.

I have never heard it used by someone while making a stand for Bible truth, but always from those who would have us overlook doctrinal differences, and give up pursuing doctrinal unity in the church.

Why is this?

On its own, the motto fails to tell us what is essential or what is non-essential. How do we know what is essential or not? How do we tell whether we should go along to get along, or make something essential?

Essential Differences

What makes something essential depends on what thing you are describing. There are different essentials for different things.

If we are talking hamburgers, then we must define what a hamburger is. In hamburgers, beef is essential. We can cook the beef in different ways or in different shapes, but if you replace the beef with soy, it is no longer a hamburger, and I will no longer eat it.

If we are talking about the essentials of a salad, then beef is not required, it is non-essential.

This is exactly why there are so many disagreements on what is and is not essential. Everyone is working from a different recipe to make a different thing.

The essentials to become a Christian, to be saved, are different than the essentials to perform ministry together in the church.

Essential for Salvation

The essentials of salvation are those things necessary to save a soul. The gospel is simple, but there are required elements.

There can be no salvation without the fullness of the Godhead in Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection provided freely by grace through faith.

Salvation does not come by the name of Allah, Buddha, Joseph Smith, Moses, or Pope Francis. You are not saved by trusting the church, your confession, prayers, or tithing. Faith is required. Faith in nothing is unbelief. Faith in the wrong thing is vanity.

There are essentials to salvation. You cannot be truly Christian without them.

However, knowing the mind of Christ, life in the Spirit, or where to find our pattern for ministry are not essential for salvation. They follow after.

Essential for Ministry

Concerning doing ministry work together, or what is called in Christianese “fellowshipping together”, there are many more essentials than salvation.

Anyone who is saved is a fellow member of the Body of Christ and we have an eternal fellowship in Him for eternity. However, there is a particular function and purpose Christ gave the church and its ministry that requires essential things over and above salvation.

This is where many people stumble, because they confuse essentials for salvation with essentials for ministry in the church. They believe there should be very few essentials in church in order to keep the door wide open for as many people as possible.

If essentials for working together in the church were limited to those essentials of salvation then there would be no need to separate from anyone as long as they are saved, but common sense tells us this will not work.

There must be important truths held in agreement for there ever to be growth and maturation together in the Body according to the scripture.

The Body could not grow up speaking the truth in love if there is no truth spoken apart from the basics of salvation.

Limiting the many essentials of church ministry to the bare minimum needed for salvation would revert church meetings to nothing more than social gatherings. This explains a lot about churchianity where doctrine is non-essential.

So, what is essential for growing together and working together in a local church?

Church Ministry Functions

Church ministry is not merely a reunion of saved people, where we may disagree on doctrine, but we meet because we are family.

A church ministry should desire to do God’s will together (1 Tim 2:4). This requires an essential agreement by the leaders on what God’s will is (Eph 5:17).

How can a local church do God’s will if those in it disagree on what they are doing? God’s will is essential for church’s that claim to do it.

Church ministry has the function of edifying believers in the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). It is essential that a church know how to communicate the mind of Christ, life in the Spirit, and how to rightly divide Paul’s instructions from those found to Israel in the Hebrew epistles.

How can a local church grow together in the Lord, if they disagree on what that looks like? There is nothing non-essential about the doctrines of edification in a church.

Yes, there are more important doctrines than others, but nothing the Lord has revealed clearly in scripture can be said to be non-essential in the church because the recipe for church ministry is…

…the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim 3:15; 1 Tim 2:4). This requires God’s words of truth not be changed, and that they be held as the final authority perfect and preserved.

Why ought they be perfect? The scripture is inspired by an infallible God and is profitable to make the man of God throughly furnished (2 Tim 3:17). Without a perfect Bible, how can we present every man perfect(Col 1:29)? Surely not by following the deacons.

There are many more essentials in church ministry than there are in salvation. This is simply because church ministry is a life long ministry working to grow many believers together into Christ by the truth of scripture.

To grow up in the truth requires agreement concerning the truth. Working together in ministry requires working from the same blue prints with a common goal. Building the house of God takes far more work than salvation.

Can two walk together except they be agreed (Amos 3:3)? Is agreement no longer a requirement for 25, 100, or 200 in a church?

Non-Essentials Liberty

There would seem to be no room for disagreement in such a ministry. Where are the non-essentials when it comes to church ministry? Where is the liberty?

Liberty comes first in the mind of the believer to be fully persuaded in his own mind not being under the law or power of any (Rom 6:14; Gal 5:1; 1 Cor 6:12). The believer has the liberty to disagree, leave, and serve the Lord according to his conscience.

Liberty is also found in the many things in which God, in this dispensation, leaves to the conscience choice of the believer. Who you will marry, what job you will take, where you live, what you wear, how you give, even how often you attend church, pray, and study.

All things regarding your behavior are lawful, but not all things are edifying or expedient (1 Cor 6:12; 1 Cor 10:23). You have liberty to do right, not to do wrong.

Churches that make these non-essential personal choices and make them essential for fellowship fit the term legalistic. Requiring doctrinal agreement is not legalistic, but evangelistic.

Finally, non-essential liberty abounds in the multitude of things outside of Scripture. Your vote, your favorite sports team, your friends, the size of your television set, and how many cats you have are all non-essential matters of liberty.

In fact, the only essential thing in church ministry is right doctrine, everything else is non-essential. Sound doctrine in all things is essential for continual church growth (2 Tim 2:7).

In All Things Charity

In the beginning of this article I said the popular saying was a variation of the original.

The original did not say “love” but rather “charity”. The difference is significant in that Biblical charity rejoices in truth (1 Cor 13:6) as opposed to the modern idea that love does not care about doctrinal agreement or speaking the truth.

Charity is a desire to grow in the truth, and to see the truth benefit one another. Being silent, acquiescing, pretending to agree, or agreeing to disagree on doctrine in a church is not charitable. We ought to speak the truth in love, because we are members of each other (Eph 4:25).

Not everyone who goes to church has everything right. No pastor or leader has every doctrine right, but neither does this mean we should ignore the differences and not pursue doctrinal agreement. This is why Bible study and questions should be an important part of church ministry.

Church ministry is where iron sharpens iron from the word of truth to straighten out our doctrinal differences endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in truth.

When right doctrine becomes non-essential in church, the church ceases to function properly.

“They tell me that by my stubbornness in this doctrine of the Sacrament I am destroying the harmony of the church. They say it would be better if we would make some slight concession rather than cause such commotion and controversy in the Church regarding an article which is not even one of the fundamental doctrines. My reply is, cursed be any love or harmony which demands for its preservation that we place the Word of God in jeopardy!” – Martin Luther

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Published: April 2, 2016
Last Modified: April 25, 2020
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