Why We Need to Rethink "In Essentials, Unity; In Nonessentials, Liberty"

Rupertus Meldenius famously said, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” The great strength of evangelicalism has been to unite Christians from diverse theological traditions around the central articles of the creed. But it’s often the case that strength comes with a corresponding weakness. There have been recent debates on whether or not certain biblical concepts such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church government are “gospel issues.”

It’s true that not everything in the Bible is of equal weight. But I am worried that we have drawn too stark a line between “essentials” and “nonessentials;” in fact, I am convinced that this maxim leads logically to the idea of a canon-within-a-canon, where it is no longer Scripture that is our normative authority and the confession of faith that summarizes its main teachings. Rather, each of us determines which bits of Scripture and its confessional summary we regard as authoritative and necessary.

So how should we respond?

Our conservative circles should avoid the temptation to lose a sense of proper proportionality. Evangelicals tend to have a reductionistic view of what they consider “gospel issues.” For example, the church and sacraments are in fact gospel issues, but this does not mean that every matter pertaining to the church and sacraments is of equal weight and clarity in Scripture. Denying the reality of the visible church as Christ’s institution is a heresy; differences over church government are not.

It is a departure from the faith to reject baptism or the Lord’s Supper, but Christians equally committed to Scripture disagree over a variety of matters related to the sacraments. These are not questions of heresy, but neither are they indifferent such that they constitute no real obstacle to unity.

My Baptist brothers and sisters should not think I am at liberty to have my children baptized—if Scripture teaches that baptism is to be administered only upon profession of faith, then it is a sin to administer it to children of believers. The contrary is true as well, which is why the Westminster Confession calls it “a great sin” to neglect or withhold it from those entitled to the sacrament (28.5).

Even matters that are not “gospel issues” are nevertheless essential. Meldenius’s axiom assumes that if a doctrine is not fundamental, then it is a matter of Christian freedom. But this category of things over which we may disagree doesn’t include things the Bible actually addresses; rather, liberty is allowed precisely where Scripture is silent.

Everything that Scripture proposes to be believed and practiced is essential—not equally essential but essential nonetheless. Christ is king, and we are not in any position to choose which of his decrees we consider binding. Let us then have the humility to submit our consciences to God’s word together, to remain open to the mutual correction of each other by that word, in dependence on the Spirit of truth, so that we might in truth show “in all things, charity.”

Photo of Michael Horton

Michael Horton

Michael Horton (@MichaelHorton_) is the Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. The author of many books, including Core Christianity, he is also the host of the new Core Christianity radio show, a daily Bible question-and-answer show broadcasting nationwide. He lives with his wife Lisa and four children in Escondido, California. 

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