Last week we began to think about the Evangelical tendency to categorise doctrines into matters of primary and secondary importance. “Primary” refers to those doctrines that are essential to all Christians everywhere and “secondary” referring those doctrines that are non-essential. In this article, we begin to consider some of the problems arising out of this distinction.
Who decides what is primary and secondary?
If we are saying that true Christian unity hinges on the ability to make distinctions between primary and secondary matters of doctrine, then who gets to decide what belongs to each category? This is the first problem.
Although this may seem like a complicated question to answer, in practice it hasn’t been as complicated as you might think. For example, if you compare the doctrinal statements of the FIEC, Affinity and the Evangelical Alliance (all UK-based evangelical networks), you begin to realise that there is virtually no difference between them. Clearly, a large portion of Evangelicals are able to come to a collective understanding of the essentials. Praise God.
Outside of Evangelicalism, however, the waters become considerably muddier.
Broader associations of churches need to have an even less specific basis of faith. For instance, Churches Together has a statement that is vague by design and could, therefore, be accepted by just about any religious organisation or charity that calls itself a church. Noticeably absent, for example, from its doctrinal basis is any attempt to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity. Also missing is any attempt to define what is the gospel. Laughably, they have included a clause to state that even those who will not accept any creeds can still join Churches Together…thereby making their doctrinal basis more or less redundant.
It’s a bad joke. The only way to have a statement of faith that can satisfy Liberal, Evangelical, Reformed, Catholic, Orthodox, Wesleyan Holiness, Baptist, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Other churches is to find a way of saying “Christian” without saying anything at all. We cannot pretend the differences don’t exist.
The Ultimate Responsibility
Nevertheless, it is not ultimately the task of denominations and para-church affiliations to decide these things. It is the task of every local church led by its elders. Elders are essentially theologians for the church. Their chief responsibility is to feed, protect and guide the church through consistent provision of biblical teaching and leadership. After all, it is the ministry of your elders, and not some online evangelical fellowship, to whom you are going to submit yourself week after week.
But how do you know if a local church’s statement of faith contains the essentials?
How to Discern Essentials and Non-Essentials?
It is clear to me that Evangelicals have a much greater shot at maintaining unity without compromising conviction. So what is it about Evangelicalism that aids unity?
a) Study the Bible carefully
Evangelicals are much more likely to take the Bible seriously. Therefore they are much more likely to gain an understanding of what biblical teachings are essential. It’s not magic. The Bible tells us what to believe and the more we know the Bible, the better we will be able to discern essentials from non-essentials.
b) Learn from the creeds
Although all denominations have their creeds, it is obvious that all within those denominations do not take their creeds seriously. How many Church of England clergy actually believe in the 39 articles they have sworn to uphold? Not all of them that’s for sure.
Evangelicalism tends to take doctrine seriously and therefore tends to take creeds seriously. I am concerned that this is waning, especially in the Independent churches, but that is a topic for another day. For now, it remains true that Evangelicals generally carry a greater concern to uphold the doctrinal formulations of the past than non-Evangelicals.
Although many of the creeds cover both essentials and non-essentials, we can begin to see what is of primary importance by looking at what is covered in all of them. We can also begin to see where certain traditions have taken heterodox or even heretical paths.
c) Know the Lord
Another reason that Evangelicals succeed in unity is that a higher portion of Evangelicals are born-again than non-Evangelicals.
It is important to remember that Christianity is not only about a subscription to a set of beliefs (important as that is).
Christianity is about knowing Christ. It is supernatural not merely rational. If we know Christ, we have the Spirit of God to guide us. Therefore knowing Christ and trusting in his Spirit to empower you with wisdom and discernment is very important…and a great relief. It doesn’t mean that we can stop testing the spirits but it does mean that we can depend on God to guide us.