Is every doctrine worth dividing over?
Maybe you’ve heard the saying: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” The idea is that Christian unity shouldn’t depend on unanimity. That is, we don’t have to agree on everything to live and grow together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Some doctrines aren’t worth fighting over, let alone dividing over.
Is that right? Is it true that some teachings are non-essential compared to the greater importance of unity?
The Biblical answer might surprise you.
Consider this test case.
In Mark 7, we read how one day the Pharisees criticized Jesus because His disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating like they were supposed to. They were ceremonially unclean. In response, Jesus criticized the Pharisees for getting their priorities wrong and abandoning the weightier demands of the Torah for their traditions. Their motivations were also wrong, with their hearts far from God. Jesus turned to the crowd and told everyone that you can’t be defiled from the outside, but only from what comes from the inside. Later, the disciples wanted clarification about what He meant:
When he went into the house away from the crowd, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a person from the outside can defile him? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated” (thus he declared all foods clean)” (Mark 7:17-19).
Simply put, Jesus taught that eating unclean food with unwashed hands cannot defile you. What matters is your heart. That’s what makes you clean or unclean.
And in case the reader missed an important implication of what Jesus said, Mark explicitly added that the Lord declared all foods clean with this teaching.
So, there you have a doctrine that is repeated twice: all foods are clean.
Now, if you believe that all teachings are essential and none are non-essential, then this doctrine about all foods being clean will be another litmus test of fellowship for you. But should it be?
The apostle Paul gives us a different perspective when he confronted a debate about food that had arisen among the Christians in Rome. You will remember that the early Christians met in homes to eat, and with Jews and Gentiles joining the churches, disagreements arose about what foods could be eaten in good conscience. Disagreeing over food could lead to house churches being split, and Paul didn’t want that.
Interestingly, Paul knew the Lord had declared all foods to be clean:
I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself (Rom 14:14).
But not every believer found that easy to accept. Paul recognized that some believers had a strong faith in the sense that they understood their liberty in Christ to mean they could eat what they wanted. But others had a weak faith and were still learning about their Christian liberty. Their scrupulous consciences wouldn’t let them eat certain foods. Instead of agreeing to disagree, the believers decided to quarrel. The strong looked down at the weak. The weak judged the strong. What should they do?
Even though, as a matter of doctrine, all foods were clean, being right about food was less important to Paul than making sure the Romans didn’t fight over that issue:
Welcome anyone who is weak in faith, but don’t argue about disputed matters. One person believes he may eat anything, while one who is weak eats only vegetables. One who eats must not look down on one who does not eat, and one who does not eat must not judge one who does, because God has accepted him (Rom 14:1-3).
Maintaining good relationships within churches was more important to Paul than getting that doctrine right. Instead of agreeing that the Christians could only be united if they came to an agreement on that topic, Paul urged the Romans to give individuals the liberty to be persuaded in their own minds—i.e., they should agree to disagree. But just as important, Paul urged them to focus on the good motivations that lay behind everyone’s choices:
One person judges one day to be more important than another day. Someone else judges every day to be the same. Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honor of the Lord. Whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat it, and he gives thanks to God (Rom 14:5-6, emphasis added).
This common desire to honor the Lord with your life was something to be celebrated. After all, Paul wanted every believer to grow and to mature spiritually. If someone is seeking to please the Lord, he should be encouraged in the important goal, and not discouraged or caused to stumble in their faith due to arguing over a secondary matter. Making a fuss about such secondary doctrines was an example of misplaced priorities. The weightier obligation was not over what kind of foods to eat, but to love each other instead of hurting each other:
Therefore, let us no longer judge one another. Instead decide never to put a stumbling block or pitfall in the way of your brother or sister…For if your brother or sister is hurt by what you eat, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy, by what you eat, someone for whom Christ died (Rom 14:13, 15).
Walking in love required the Romans to change their focus away from insisting on unanimity on every little point of doctrine and focus on building each other up:
So then, let us pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another. Do not tear down God’s work because of food. Everything is clean, but it is wrong to make someone fall by what he eats…
Maturing in the faith takes time, and fighting over non-essentials doesn’t grow anyone. In fact, it hurts them. It could split a church. It could even cause someone to fall away from the faith.
Frankly, if a non-essential doctrine was going to lead to a fight, Paul thought it was better to keep quiet about it:
Whatever you believe about these things, keep between yourself and God (Rom 14:22a).
That doesn’t mean the doctrine isn’t true, or that there isn’t a correct answer to the question. But if it will cause a fight in the church, it is better to be quiet about it.
So, coming back to the original question, is the old adage about liberty in non-essentials true? In Romans 14, I think you find that principle in action. Even some of the Lord Jesus’s teachings can be considered non-essential compared to the weightier obligations to love your fellow believers and build unity in the church rather than tear it down.
But please be persuaded in your own mind.
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.