One of my favorite Christian jokes goes something like this:
A guy dies and immediately is brought before St. Peter, who, after checking the guy in, gives him a walking tour of heaven. They pass a group of people singing and dancing and shaking tambourines, and St. Peter explains that they’re Pentecostals. Presently, they pass another group of people solemnly reading Psalms in unison from little books; St. Peter explains that these are Lutherans. As they approach a third group – this one sitting in a large circle and praying in turns – St. Peter whispers to the new arrival, “Ssh, those are the Baptists. They think they’re the only ones here.”
Here’s the funny thing (Baptists, stay with me here): this sense of superiority is hardly limited to one denomination. Born to parents from the Free Methodist church, raised in a Presbyterian church, currently attending a Baptist church, and sister to members of Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, I’ve had a fair amount of exposure to different denominations. While I’m far from being an expert on the doctrinal minutiae of each one, I do feel qualified to make some sweeping gross generalizations — specifically as pertaining to how members of various denominations regard the others. Here’s how it breaks down, as I see it:
- Baptists: “We have obeyed the Lord by following Him in believer’s baptism. Anybody who believes in infant baptism clearly doesn’t love Jesus and is probably not a Christian.”
- Presbyterians: “We have captured the essence of Scripture in our creeds and in the Five Points of Calvinism, and we know what we believe and why. Nobody else has a proper reverence for God.”
- Lutherans: “Our services are immersed in Scripture, and our prayers consist of carefully-considered words instead of the chance ramblings of the flawed human leading the congregation. Those other people don’t really take the Bible or worship very seriously.”
- Free Methodists: “We believe that salvation is evident from the fruit in a person’s life, and a lack of fruit means you should probably get saved again. Most denominations believe in cheap grace.”
On one hand, I get it. After all, the various denominations wouldn’t exist in the first place if their founders — and adherents — didn’t feel strongly about certain interpretations of the Bible. On the other hand…I get a bit tired of the lack of grace extended across denominational lines. Okay: very tired of it.
It was over three hundred years ago that German theologian Rupertus Meldenius proposed the following principle:
In essentials unity;
In non-essentials liberty;
In all things charity.
Frankly, I don’t see that last phrase applied very often…and I suspect it’s due to confusion over the first two phrases. What are the essentials? From what I’ve seen, it seems that certain devout members of varying denominations consider everything to be essential. It reminds me of this cartoon:
We live in the era of “progressive Christianity.” Its adherents are legion; they talk at length — especially in political contexts — about what Jesus would do and what He taught. However, as Dwight Longenecker explains in the article linked above, “their religion is a historical accident of circumstances and people…Jesus Christ is, at best, a divinely inspired teacher…the Scriptures are flawed human documents influenced by paganism [and] the church is a body of spiritually minded people who wish to bring peace and justice to all and make the world a better place.”
With Christianity becoming widely understood as consisting of the nebulous characteristics described above, I believe it’s crucial that members of various denominations acknowledge that they do, in fact, agree on the essentials. While a treatise on the exact nature of divine inspiration, the basis for our biblical canon, and the development of the theology of historical Christianity is WAY beyond the scope of one blog post, I will posit the major points here (and welcome further discussion if you are interested in learning more). In her book Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side, Natasha Crain delineates the following five biblically-based essential Christian doctrines:
- One God: “To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides Him” (Deut. 4:35; see also 6:4; Ex. 20:3; Is. 43:10; 44:6).
- The Deity of Jesus: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58; see also Ex. 3:14; John 10:30; 20:28; Phil. 2:5-8; Col. 2:9).
- The Resurrection: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14, see also 15:17; John 2:19-21).
- Salvation by Grace: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9; see also Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:21; 5:4).
- The Gospel: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4; see also Gal. 1:8-9).
Each of these doctrines, of course, can be espoused only if one accepts as truth the words of II Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
Although some churches within every denomination have chosen to downplay Scripture and consequently minimize or deny one or more of the aforementioned doctrines, plenty of churches — within various denominations — are still committed to faithfully interpreting and proclaiming God’s revealed Word. Given the tumultuous nature of our times, I find it just plain silly (at best) to look askance at brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with us on what we must acknowledge to be non-essentials. We are one body (Rom. 12:3-5, I Cor. 12), and we should behave as such.
Here’s the truth: I know and love quite a few people who are not Baptists, yet DO love Jesus and ARE Christians. I know and love quite a few non-Presbyterians who revere God and know what they believe. I know and love plenty of non-Lutherans who take worship seriously. And scads of non-Free Methodists who understand that true salvation will produce fruit in a believer’s life.
It’s fine to draw conclusions — based on prayer, study, and the desire to honor God — about what set of non-essential doctrines seems to make the most sense. After all, if we go to any church, it will be one that falls in line with a certain denomination (even if it shies away from saying so). But it’s NOT fine to then look out the window at everybody else and look down on them because they’ve landed somewhere else.
Friends, remember the essentials. Proclaim them fervently. And if we admit that the other things are non-essentials, then we truly will be displaying the unity that should characterize the body of Christ.