by Matt Looloian
This week, we’re considering the concept of unity amongst diversity in the church. We’ve talked about the background, preserving the gospel, and perceiving the grace. Now let’s ask the essential question: What now?
We need gospel preservation and grace perception. But some of us are, by default, gospel preservers. Some of us are grace perceivers.
And if you’re not sure which one you lean toward, here’s how to find out:
- If you’re more concerned I’m about to say something heretical, then you’re probably a gospel preserver.
- If you’re more concerned I’m going to be divisive, you’re probably a grace perceiver.
Even if you disagree with me, let me urge you to see that for the gospel to run, both of these things are needed. Bicycles don’t work with one wheel. The early church would have imploded without both of these things.
So the phrase that I would love to characterize my own life and our churches is this: “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty. All things Charity.”
This is not a new phrase. It’s sometimes wrongly attributed to the church father Augustine. But best we can tell is actually surfaced sometime in the late 1500s or early 1600s. It really captures these ideas from Galatians 2. Here’s the quick summary:
In Essentials Unity: There are things we have to believe in order to experience salvation. Differences or divergences in these things mean we are outside the saving grace of God. So in these things there must be unity. Unbelief in these essentials indicates that, like everyone apart from the intervening mercy of Jesus, you would carry the weight of God’s judgment against your sin.
In Non-Essentials Liberty. These would be things that don’t compromise salvation. Non-essentials doesn’t mean these things are unimportant. This is a bigger category than the “essentials” category. The idea here is that among those who have unity in the essentials, there is room for freedom in the non-essentials.
In All Things Charity. This speaks more to the tone and approach we take. The Latin word in the original phrase is “caritas,” which connotes we’re seeking to model the love God has for all people. Talk to people about these things as if they really are image-bearers of the One True God who desires that they experience the fullness of his redemption in Jesus.
This phrase is a fantastic paradigm for thinking about the differences between Christians in our world. But, inevitably, we have to ask next, “What’s an essential and what’s a non-essential?”
It’s a complicated, necessary question. If you make the essentials too small, you fail to preserve the gospel. If you make the essentials too broad, you fail to perceive the grace God’s given to others.
There’s an author named Michael Patton who’s written some helpful guidance on this: “There are some things I believe which I would die for; there are some things I believe which I would lose an arm for; there are some things I believe which I would lose a finger for; and then there are some things I believe which I would not even get a manicure for.”
There’s something so right about that – holding certain beliefs with greater passion and conviction than others. When I was assessed to be a pastor and elder, I was asked to write out six convictions on which I would never give in or even bend. It’s a really difficult, yet fantastic question. But not everything should be in that category.
In conclusion, let me just encourage everyone to think deeply about this subject, especially if you never have before. What are those convictions about Jesus and his gospel for which you’re willing to die? Lose an arm? Lose a finger? What disagreements aren’t even worth getting a manicure over?
And if you’re like “Matt, I’d rather lose an arm than think about things like this,” let me say this. If this were merely an intellectual exercise to see how smart we were, I’d be right there with you. Why is this important?
It’s important because as someone who has and is experiencing the freedom and cleansing purchased for me by Jesus Christ, I want as many people as possible to experience the same thing. If you are a Christian, I hope we share that longing together: we want as many people as possible to be saved by Jesus.
That’s what drives the Apostles. If Paul and Peter are sitting around smoking pipes in a library for the sake of intellectual debate, let’s call it a day and go home. But that’s not what they’re doing. Paul is saying this is my friend Titus; I want him to enter Jesus’s kingdom just like I have and just like you have.
And it’s that driving motivation of people meeting Jesus – that very thing – which requires these two vital pursuits:
- Preserve the Gospel. Preserve that body of truth that is essential to experience salvation. Care about it all, but care about essential things with a zeal and passion unmatched in anything else.
- Perceive the grace of God. God is at work in traditions, churches, and people who think and do things differently than you in the non-essentials. It’s that driving motivation that cause us to rejoice in the advancing Gospel. Even, and especially, when it’s not just through you and your tribe.
So because we want our families, our neighbors, our co-workers, the people of our region, the people of this nation, and people to the ends of the earth to experience the blood-bought salvation of Jesus, may we both preserve the gospel and perceive the grace of God.
Matt Looloian serves as a pastor at Liberti Church in Harrisburg, PA. He and his wife, Shea, have three daughters.