The “As Long as You Believe in the Essentials” Delusion

There is a popular quote attributed to Augustine that goes: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  There are some who say that say this quote did not originate with Augustine (and I think it probably didn’t), but regardless of who it came from, it is a favorite saying that compromised denominations and compromising professing Christians often resort to when their compromises are called out and/or resort to so they can justify their ecumenical spirit (which doesn’t rebuke sin and error in others and rather indiscriminately labels as acceptable Christianity most of what is called Christianity).  

Augustine was a Roman Catholic who believed that there is no salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church.  If this quote did originate from him, then submission to the Roman Catholic Church was implicit in his definition of what he considered essential.  Nevertheless many, even many who are not Roman Catholic, employ this quote, believing that it indeed came from Augustine (whether it actually did or not).  The very fact that they use this quote, while believing that it came from Augustine, proves their own lack of critical analysis regarding what they accept and promote.  It is also evidence which serves to prove their readiness to accept anything which tickles their ears.  

Many believe that a Christian can be defined as someone who believes the Nicene Creed.  It’s important to understand that there are indeed insightful, key statements in the Nicene Creed regarding how God is essentially one, defending the divinity of Christ, and offering key insights into the distinction of persons within the Trinity and their respective roles.  This creed was made to defend against the threat of Arianism, a heretical theology which had sprung up that denies the divinity of Christ.  It was also important to emphasize that Christianity teaches that there is one God and is not polytheistic like the pagan Roman society believed in many gods (and obviously it’s always important to emphasize that Christianity is Monotheistic).  

To this extent, the Nicene creed is valuable- because it reflects and defends some truths which are definitely set forth in the Bible.  I’m not going to quote the creed here because you can find it easily online or find it otherwise if you don’t know it.  If you were to define the term “Catholic” therein as the scope of those whom God deems to be authentic believers Jesus Christ throughout the world who are actually following His Apostles (the word “Catholic” can mean something along the lines of general and worldwide) and not define it as the entity that is called the Roman Catholic Church, then even the phrase “one holy catholic and apostolic church” would not be improper.  Likewise, if Christian baptism were to be understood as submission to the authority of Jesus Christ which is delineated in the Bible and the act of water baptism which testifies of that, and not understood as the entrance into an unbiblical sacramental system or to otherwise being baptized in water without being turned to the Lord and separated from sin at heart, then the phrase “we affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” also reflects Biblical statements and thus even that would echo Biblical truth.  

However, the Nicene Creed was made in context of the Roman Catholic Church- at least that entity in its developing stages.  Even at that point, corruption had very much set in and extra-biblical tradition had come to be regarded over the teachings of Scripture itself in many ways.  The excellent insights of the Nicene Creed in relation to the concept of the Trinity, and the operation of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit do not change the truth that the group which made the creed was overall representing and calling people into its system which was generally becoming more and more Paganized and further from Biblical.  

Arius, the man whom Arianism is named for, was truly wicked and heretical for tampering with the deity of Jesus Christ, teaching that He is not to be worshiped and honored as the true God.  On the other hand, just because the established church which Arius had been part of (and Arius had been a Roman Catholic and was excommunicated for his truly heretical teaching) saw his error, excommunicated him, and listened to certain within it who refuted and corrected Arius’ particular errors well, that does not justify that church’s disregard of Biblical truth in many other ways.  That disregard is so severe that it even invented a system of justification and redemption which, though you wouldn’t know it from the very general things contained in the Nicene Creed, is at odds with and opposed to the Biblical system of justification and redemption in Jesus Christ.  

I know a man who was a new Christian at the time that was in a church with several people who had been Atheists or Agnostics before.  He suspected that some of these were not really born again with a heart to follow Jesus and keep His Word.  He said at first that it was at least a really good thing that these people were in a church which (at least on the surface in a very general way) professed the right things about the Bible and Jesus Christ.   He defended their presence in the church as members.  Yet pretty soon a heated controversy broke out within that church.  He soon admitted that, after seeing the way those people handled that controversy and behaved like heathens during that time, that their confession of “the essentials of Christianity” didn’t significantly matter.  They were still unconverted heathens at heart.  He knew that before, yet he thought that being in the church and saying many right things was at least some hopeful halfway point to them genuinely bowing to Jesus Christ.  After seeing their lawless behavior demonstrated so blatantly in a time of trial, he knew he had vastly overestimated the value of people coming to confess “the essentials of Christianity” who had not made a clean break from heathen values and fully turned to the Lord at heart.  He was honest enough to admit his error.  He came to leave that church not too long afterwards.

Look at what the Apostle Paul measured the success of his Gospel witness by.

1 Thessalonians 1:5-10: “For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake.  And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost.  So that ye were examples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia.  For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward (toward God) is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing.  For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.”

Turning from idols to serve the living and true God will of course also result in a proper confession of Biblical truths with the lips.  It will certainly at least cause one to absorb Biblical truth when it is brought to them; and that will lead to a proper confession from the lips concerning Christian theology and doctrine (especially in a very general way).  One can still, and many do, serve idols in their heart despite saying good words.  This is especially true when one makes things as general as the Nicene Creed.  Yet this can even be true when someone assents to a lengthy, very precise, totally Biblically accurate statement concerning Christian theology and doctrine.  

Consider here Diotrophes in the Book of 3 John.  Diottrophes opposed the Apostles and their co-workers because he evidently loved the preeminence in the church.  Yet we are given no evidence to believe that this affected Diotrophes’ general theology and doctrine.  He could have kept his statements along those lines Biblically accurate and still opposed the Apostle John by simply falsely accusing him of false teaching and/or falsely accusing him of sin in other ways (read the Book of 3 John- it is very, very short).  From the little that is said about Diotrophes in the Bible, that is the impression which we are given.  Diotrophes didn’t walk in truth like Gaius and Demetrius (3 John is addressed to Gaius and therein John commends Gaius and Demetrius for walking in truth).

2 Timothy 3:5: “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.”

The context proves that this is a reference to the wicked deeds of professing Christians and their wicked character, reflecting their actual improper attitude towards God’s authority and sin.  When such remains, consenting to even the best creeds and assenting to even the statements will not help someone.

Luke 6:46-49: “And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?  Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will shew you to whom he is like: He is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock.  But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great.”

Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.  But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.  And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.  The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.  Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.  For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.”

No matter what good words and good statements they assent to.

Ephesians 5:3-6: “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.  For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.  Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.”

Along the same lines, Satan did not need to persuade Adam and Eve to have a heretical view of the Trinity to get them to fall and come under his dominion.  He just had to get them to take what God had forbidden.  In doing that, they died spiritually and came under Satan’s dominion (and they might have had a better understanding of the Trinity than we do by what they had known of God in the Garden). 

By reading Revelation chapters two and three, it is plain to see that Jesus had great controversy with churches and people within them which didn’t necessarily have anything to do with their not assenting to (what many call) “the essentials of Christianity.”

Don’t misunderstand: No one can walk in truth who has a twisted view of God, of Jesus Christ, and of His redemptive work.  And by the way: That is also why views of redemption must be opposed which negate man’s need to submit to Jesus’ authority and walk in truth in the light of His Word in order to have a saving interest in Him (along with their virtually inevitable accompanying lie of Once Saved Always Saved/unconditional eternal security).

It is notable that during Jesus’ earthly ministry the two main groups of Jews which He dealt were the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  The Pharisees were the ones who were orthodox in their beliefs, at least in a very general sense.  The Sadducees were not orthodox in their beliefs, even in their general worldview, even denying belief in the resurrection of the dead.  Though the Pharisees were generally orthodox in their profession, believing what many would consider “the essentials”, they nevertheless commonly made allowances for sin and exalted tradition over the Word of God in practical ways.  That is why they contended with Jesus often.  The Sadducees also contended with Jesus often.  The Sadducees were also more instrumental in plotting against Jesus in terms of taking counsel to put Him to death and delivering Him to the Romans to be crucified (Israel’s ruling Priest class was then dominated by Sadducees).  

The Sadducees’ general beliefs (alone, in themselves) made the Sadducees wicked.  Any Sadducee who truly repented towards God and came to worship Him acceptably in spirit and in truth was going to change their beliefs and basically be in agreement with the Pharisees in the areas where the two groups had been at odds theologically.  That same principle applies with those who have errant beliefs in matters which challenge the general shape and worldview of Christianity.

At the same time, also note the timeless principle in relation to how the Pharisees’ generally orthodox theological beliefs did not put them in God’s favor when they had sin in their lives and regarded extra-biblical tradition to the level of Scripture (as we see from the Gospels that many did- hence even many generally theologically orthodox Pharisees had controversy with Jesus and did not receive His doctrine in terms of how it home practically).  

The authority of God’s Word deals with man practically in his everyday choices and overall conduct.  The authority of God’s Word does indeed also get into details and specifics in several ways.  Details and specifics matter then to the extent that God’s Word says that they matter.  

Deuteronomy 4:2: “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought (any) from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.”

Revelation 22:13-14: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.  Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.”

Simply reading passages like Matthew chapters 5 to 7, Matthew 15:1-20, and Matthew chapter 23 (many more, that’s just a sample) shows how it is possible to generally be right on “the essentials” in one’s creed and still be Jesus’ enemy under the wrath of God.  Many then, as well as now and throughout history, have come to improperly reconcile sin in their own lives, and improperly reconcile several forms of improper worship, with a theological knowledge of God and a general worldview which are basically correct.  

To resort to the “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” quote to justify spiritual fellowship which is not under the authority of the Word of God is unrighteous as well as absurd.  Yet that is what many do (and many are even compromising when it comes to that, since they even fellowship with those who don’t hold a Biblical worldview in very general things).  This does much to sum up the common ecumenical spirit of compromise that runs through denominations to this very day.  And this is also why you can find the “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” quote on the websites of churches in a multitude of denominations. 

Details matter, and a life consistent with the details matters, as much as the authority of the Bible deals with them.  For man then to take a list of general truths, label these as “essential truths”, say that everyone who assents to them is a true Christian and/or is immune to scrutiny and rebuke, and then label every other issue, even issues which the Bible is utterly clear and definitive on, as “non-essential” is making light of the Word of God and opposing its authority.  

And doing that is actually being wrong on the most essential matter.

Aaron’s email is: [email protected]