Doctrinal Essentials and Non-Essentials: Part 2

To build on the general principles previously considered, we look at the helpful work of Joe Rigney, assistant professor of theology and Christian worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary, who has provided some excellent guidelines that help us to understand these issues (he gives thanks to Daniel Wallace for initially introducing these guidelines/categories to him): How to Weigh Doctrines for Christian Unity

First, Rigney notes, we must distinguish the various kinds of doctrinal essentials and that for which they are necessary. He lists four:

  1. Essential for the life of the church. These doctrines are necessary for salvation; without them, there is no true church.
  2. Essential for the health of the church. These are necessary for Christian growth; getting these doctrines wrong doesn’t put people outside the kingdom, but it may make them sick and unable to thrive. This category is best regarded as a spectrum—the closer you get to Category 1, the sicker you get.
  3. Essential for the practice of the church. These doctrines are necessary for functional unity. While you may not regard Christians who differ with you as sick or unhealthy, the practical considerations necessary to get along may prove too burdensome.
  4. Non-essential doctrines or adiaphora (things indifferent). These doctrines should never divide Christians, meaning that those who differ could be members and even elders at the same church with no division at all.

He then moves from the doctrine itself to the person who embraces the doctrine, and to discern the personal belief and why.

  1. A person may affirm the doctrine to be true.
  2. A person may fail to affirm the doctrine because he's never heard of it.
  3. A person may deny the doctrine out of ignorance or misunderstanding.
  4. A person may deny the doctrine with a true and accurate knowledge of it.

It is critical to discern the differences in response. A person may fail to affirm out of ignorance, not active defiance. Furthermore, denial due to ignorance is not the same as denial with one’s eyes wide open.

The different reasons for embracing the position will determine whether or not one approaches this as discipleship (Acts 18:24-28) or as a rebuke (Tit. 1:9), or more seriously yet, handing over to Satan (1 Tim. 1:20). This relates to whether one is a learner who needs to be taught a more excellent way, or a false teacher who has settled convictions he/she is espousing and leading others astray.

It is also important to note that a doctrine can be affirmed with one’s lips and denied with one’s life (Tit. 1:16; 2 Pet. 2:1). The latter also needs to be confronted (Gal. 2:11-14)

The process is not yet complete. There are a couple of additional matters of importance. Distinctions need to be made between the following:

  1. churches and individuals
  2. leaders and congregants
  3. confused sheep and ravenous wolves

Finally, Rigney states  one must evaluate critically and discerningly

  1. the manner with which a person holds a doctrine. Does he make mountains out of molehills? Or molehills out of mountains?
  2. the way that doctrines hang together. While there is a slippery slope fallacy, sometimes slopes really do get slippery.
  3. the possibility of doctrinal inconsistency. I regularly encounter believers whose hearts are smarter than their heads.

Added to this is the importance of understanding church history and the history of Christian doctrine. Though not absolute truth, it does provide important guardrails as one thinks through doctrine in the present day.

Rigney concludes

True unity demands that we grow up in our thinking about doctrine and truth and fellowship. It demands Christian maturity, the kind that can speak the truth in love so that together we can all “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16).

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