Most things in life could be categorized into essential or nonessential, depending on the priorities at hand. The basic necessities of life are essential if we want to stay alive. Food is essential to life but ice cream may be a nonessential when your budget is on a shoe string. Many of the things that an affluent society feels are essential would be nonessential in a third world country ravished by poverty and starvation. There are many areas of life, however, where these designations are inadequate. Which areas of disciplining our children are nonessential? Which areas of loving God are nonessential? If we are never to tell a lie, which truths are essential to profess and which are nonessential?
Since there are only so many hours in the day, we may be forced to set some things aside due to limited time, and do the things we think are more important. Even in ministry we often have to choose between the thing that seems most important and the thing that can wait until later. It’s not so much that something is nonessential as it is non-urgent or of a lesser priority. Our busy lives have caused us to make these choices and to categorize things in this manner. In some areas, however, these kinds of choices are very detrimental.
The one area in which I think the term “nonessential” has not served us well is with the Scripture itself. In many ways we have unwittingly made parts of the Bible nonessential to us, and have therefore relegated them to non-use and non-interest. The Liberals of a century ago divided the Bible up into parts that were historically verifiable and parts that were not. The Neo-orthodox theologians divided the Bible up into areas that were God’s Word and parts that were not. New Evangelicals divided the Bible up into parts that were inspired and parts that were not inspired, and some Evangelicals have divided the Bible into parts that are inerrant and parts that are not. In all of these, the result was a pick-and-choose Bible. Those parts that were difficult, or seemed to lack integrity, or seemed culturally out of place, were easily set aside in favor of more important passages.
It seems that Fundamentalists and conservative Evangelicals now have their own terms of “essential and nonessential.” They do not at all say that some parts are uninspired or may contain error. They believe that the Bible is inspired in every part and in every word. But the growing tendency is to leave some parts alone when those parts may hinder our present objectives; objectives that men have deemed as “essential” above others which are “nonessential.” If the objective is unity among brethren, those doctrines that divide us are nonessential, at least for a while. If the objective is to please visitors in our churches, practicing those things that would make them uncomfortable become nonessential, at least until the objective is accomplished.
So-called “vision statements” have not helped. Many times these statements are the objectives of what certain people want, not what is the whole counsel of God. But if we can say that it comes from God, who is going to contradict us? If God gives every Christian leader his own separate vision of what he is supposed to be doing, it will take precedence over those Scriptures that seem to contradict it. After all, God wouldn’t tell us something contradictory would He?
In the end, though Fundamentalists and Evangelicals would shudder to think so, we have come to the same practical results as the Liberals, Neo-orthodox and New-Evangelicals: some parts of the Bible do not have to be obeyed, at least not for the time being. Conservatives, however, have done this not by maligning the Scripture itself but by constructing a hierarchy of priorities based on our own modern-day objectives. Everyone is searching for the irreducible minimum of doctrine with an unlimited diversity of ministry. We think we are retaining our belief in the Bible as God’s Word, but in practicality we are less bound to its tenets than ever before. This is a kind of biblical minimalism which leads to contradictory results.
Salvation as minimal. Reducing the biblical priority to the salvation of lost souls has been the common denominator of most ecumenicalism. Immediately the heart strings are tugged upon to think of the souls that would be saved if we would just drop those things that divide us and unite with those who could broaden our horizons (think of the audacity we have to say this about God’s Word!). The unspoken (and sometimes spoken!) rule is, “You may speak of salvation freely, but you may not speak of any other doctrine that would be offensive or objectionable to anyone in our midst.” The real question that is not being asked is whether, in the end, more souls would have been saved by doing it God’s way, even though at the time it seemed like the new methods were working better. But we cannot know what was on the road we chose not to take.
Theology as minimal. Obviously, as seen in the first point, doctrine and theology are set aside as divisive and territorial. If there is any disagreement over doctrine, surely we cannot be dogmatic about it! Who are we to insist on our interpretation? Therefore, it can be placed on the back burner while we get on with the important things of unity, vision, methodologies, and “real ministry.” The current argument is often heard that theology is too deductive anyway. Surely nothing that arrives at conclusions in this old fashioned manner is without bias. Systematic theology is just that, they say, a systematized list of proof texts that are to be crammed down the throat of unsuspecting students or congregants. Now, it seems to me that even inductive study has to, sometime, make deductive statements called conclusions. And if these conclusions from inductive Bible study can be verbally given in complete sentences, is this not “Systematic” Theology? And would it not be right to at least list those passages where the study was made? I would have a hard time believing that such pundits have done more inductive study of the Bible than Augustus Strong or Charles Hodge or even John Calvin, all of whom finalized their study in Systematic Theologies.
Ministry as minimal. This is the great essential that is ruling out all the nonessentials. If we can justify our methodology by showing some results to some objectives, then all objections are cast aside. I thought we were done with the nickels and noses routines of a generation ago, but we are more involved in it today than ever. If bringing the world’s music, manners, decorum, pluralisms, soliloquies, etc. (rather than give-aways, buses, circuses, rodeos, etc., of a generation ago) to the platform of our meeting houses brings in large crowds, then the validity of those things may not be questioned. If in addition, many individuals pray prayers that they are asked to pray, then who can question the use of such “essentials” and how dare anyone object by bringing up contradictory “nonessentials?”
So what is our alternative? Are churches to continue in relative anonymity with small crowds and methodologies that are of no interest to this generation? Maybe! That is, if we have done all that the Word of God asks, and yet results are not evident, then rejoice for your reward is great in heaven! Would we be the only people in the age of grace to experience such results? On the other hand, perhaps our local churches have become unnecessarily discouraged due to the often malignant accusations of the “successful” churches. Perhaps our singing of good songs has become unnecessarily heavy-hearted and we have wrongly hung our harps on the willows! Perhaps we have become unnecessarily weary of contending for all the counsel of God when so many seem to fare better contending for just some. No! Let us rather rejoice for the grace, mercy and peace that come only from God. Let us continue to practice a biblical “maximalism” of all of God’s truths, and let us do it with joy and rejoicing! Our songs will be better, our sermons will be more inspiring, our children will be more challenged to godly living and service. Let us be doing these things:
Preaching all the details of our doctrine. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine (2 Tim. 3:16); Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled (Matt. 5:18); Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him, and did let none of his words fall to the ground (1 Sam. 3:19); Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). We could continue the Biblical admonitions for paragraphs. It is clear, however, that no portion of God’s Word is more or less important than another. That is why Jude’s desire is so crucial, that we contend for THE faith which was once delivered unto the saints (Jude 3).
If we are grown men and have put away childish things, we will be able to sit and listen to one another even with our disagreements. The best conversations among friends are the ones where iron sharpens iron. Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men (1 Cor. 14:20). Only with children should we have to limit conversations to predigested and easily palatable subjects. We sell ourselves and our people far short if we think we must do that!
Practicing all the details of our faith. Let us put to rest the timid and shy stealth tactics of practicing only what we think the world wants to see and hear. It is time that we quit being ashamed of who we are in Christ and display our faith to a lost world. That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus (Phle. 6); But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth, commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor. 4:4); Sound speech, that cannot be condemned; that he that is of a contrary part may be ashamed, having no evil thing to say of you (Tit. 2:8).
We are either going to be shamed by the world or ashamed of our faith. But we cannot have it both ways. The best thing that can happen to a lost person is to see God’s dedicated saints doing what only saints can do—worshiping God in reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:28-20). Lost people must first come to repentance, to the place of utter helplessness before a holy God, to the place of death to self, before they can be ready to receive the gift of life from the Son of God. Who are we to hinder that process by soothing their consciences?
Pursuing all the blessings that are ours in Christ Jesus. If we have seemed languid and dreary in our services, and have been sometimes negligent in our evangelism, and have been afraid and ashamed of the very faith which we possess, it is our own fault, not the fault of our faith. We are the ones that need to turn back around to our faith and stop trying to turn the faith around to where we have gone. We need to wean ourselves away from the world’s applause, and again desire to be pleasing to the Holy Spirit; to be people who are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil (Heb. 5:14). How long has it been since our churches would have rejoiced to hear the apostle write to us: We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith growth exceedingly, and the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth (2 Thes. 1:3)? When was the last time our people rejoiced in heart and song to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ; in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:2-3)?
The power has not gone out of the gospel, nor left the congregations of God’s people. We still have the Holy Spirit in our hearts and the Word of God in our hands and we can be filled with the Spirit and cleansed by the Word. It is not in seeking for the things that please men, but in joying and reveling again in the things of God.
How firm a foundation ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word;
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
You who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
“I will not, I will not, desert to its foes;”
That soul though all hell should endeavor to shake
“I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!”