This article appeared in The Baptist Preacher, Mar/Apr, 1997.

My Missouri grandmother used to say, “There’s not a pot so crooked but what there’s a lid to fit it.”  She had a way of making all things find their proper place.  The wisest man who ever lived warned, “A false balance is not good” (Proverbs 20:23).  In a day of degenerating values and confused standards, it is becoming increasingly difficult to fit the right pot with the right lid.   What is important to one will not be important to another.  What one cannot do another may.

A.W. Tozer wrote, “For the church, wherever she appears in human society, the constantly recurring question must be: What shall we unite with and from what shall we separate? The question of coexistence does not enter here, but the question of union and fellowship does.  The wheat grows in the same field with the tares, but shall the two cross-pollinate?  The sheep graze near the goats, but shall they seek to interbreed?  The unjust and the just enjoy the same rain and sunshine, but shall they forget their deep moral differences and intermarry?”1 This article is a step toward answering Tozer’s question.

Unity, liberty and charity

An appropriate quotation often used today is, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things charity.”  Although we can use it as we see fit, the quote seems to have originated with Richard Baxter in the seventeenth century and was originally written, “In necessary things, unity; in disputed things [some have ‘doubtful’] things, liberty; in all things, charity.”2

Richard Baxter was an English Nonconformist who urged moderation among those who would leave the Church of England.  Eventually, however, he himself could not remain in the Church because of the Uniformity Act of 1662.  He refused a bishopric offered to him by Charles II and was later imprisoned by James II.3 Baxter wanted religious liberty for those who disputed the church’s dogmas but did not find it in his lifetime.  His appeal to liberty for “disputed things” fell on deaf ears in the Church of England.

What things are essential:  Early voices

Baxter’s word “disputed” and today’s word “nonessentials” may or may not carry the same connotations.  The word “nonessential,” however, has a religious history older than Baxter.  It goes back a hundred years in the Reformation era to a dispute called the “adiaphora.”4 This word literally means “things indifferent” or “nonessential.”  In 1548, two years after Luther’s death, Charles V attempted to unite Catholic and Protestant Germany with a law called the Augsburg Interim.   Due to its failure to please Protestants, a compromise measure was reached in Leipzig the same year by consulting Melanchthon, who was the Reformation leader at the time.

Melanchthon agreed that many differences in doctrine were adiaphora or nonessential and need not be disputed by the Lutheran churches.  Among these were confirmation, veneration of saints, the Latin mass, Corpus Christi Day, extreme unction.   He also “adopted a modified and vague doctrine of justification by faith.”5 Conservative Lutherans, who more closely followed Luther, could not abide by what Melanchthon deemed adiaphora.  Their spokesman, Matthias Flacius, opposed him, “objecting to his compromising with the Catholic Church on nonessentials.”6 It is “widely conceded that Flacius saved the Reformation.”7 It was not until 1580 and the Book of Concord, that the Lutheran faith was again a clear voice of the gospel.

Believer’s baptism an essential

I don’t know if Baxter had the adiaphorists in mind when, a hundred years after, he pleaded for the unity of the Church of England.  Both he and Melanchthon failed in unifying divergent churches by appealing to so-called nonessentials.   They both failed to realize there are just some things that cannot be relegated to the status of nonessential.  Flacius could see that even the great Melanchthon could not.  J. Gresham Machen, who, early in this century, sacrificed his position in the Presbyterian Church, USA, over what the Church considered nonessential, wrote, “Indifferentism about doctrine makes no heroes of the faith.”8

Interestingly, during Melanchthon’s time in Germany, each state could choose to be Catholic or Lutheran.  Toleration was given to Catholics in Lutheran states and Lutherans in Catholic states.  But as Jacobs says, “Calvinism and Anabaptism were excluded from toleration.”9 The great Anabaptist, Balthasar Hubmaier, had earlier debated Zwingli over infant baptism.   Zwingli argued that though the New Testament doesn’t mention infant baptism, neither does it forbid it.  Therefore, he claimed, it is a nonessential and can be allowed.10 Of course, the candidate and the mode of baptism were essential to Baptist belief.  And even though Zwingli argued for infant baptism on its nonessential basis, it was essential enough for him to drown dissenters to keep them from disrupting the state church.

Baptism battles still being waged

In the 1963 Fundamental Baptist Congress of North America held at the Temple Baptist Church, Detroit, Michigan, Baptists from various fundamental groups showed historic unity against regarding infant baptism as a nonessential.  Noel Smith, preaching on the separation of church and state said, “This is why Baptists were persecuted, imprisoned, and murdered for so many centuries.  Their believer’s baptism was decisive blow against the church state.”11 In the same congress, Richard Clearwaters spoke of the Reformers, “All of these in turn became persecutors themselves! These Reformers, after so heroically freeing their churches from the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, fastened a State Church upon their churches because they all refused to cut the cord of infant baptism.”12

There is effort being made today to again bring Catholics and non-Catholics together in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document urged by Charles Colson and Richard Neuhaus.  The issue is whether coming to Christ by “faith alone” is essential to becoming a believer.  In the shadow of this last year, Promise Keepers celebrated communion with both Evangelicals and Catholics in the Clergy Conference held in the Georgia Dome.13 Though the objections are increasingly fewer, many Baptists (this author included) think the meaning of the Lord’s Table must not be relegated to a nonessential for the sake of ecumenicity.

Local churches determine essentials, nonessentials

I said in the beginning that I thought Baxter’s quotation, even the way it is used today with the words “essential” and “nonessential,” is appropriate.  Somewhere Christians do give and take on things regarding their faith.   It figures that if there are things that are essential, there must also be things that are nonessential.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t strive to bring every thought into captivity to Christ, but that we live in a broken world, and we are not going to be able to change everything.  This is true within the individual, between husband and wife, among local church members and in larger Christian efforts.

The Articles of Faith of my church are designed to be both broad enough to include many Baptist families who differ on some things, and yet narrow enough to say something definite and to distinguish us from other kinds of churches.  Still, what is essential to the operation of a particular local church may not be to the cooperation of many local churches.  To Baptists, independence is the key that allows each church to decide when the nonessential has crossed over the line into essential.

In the last issue of The Baptist Preacher, a message by Art Wilson from 1960 was reprinted concerning a difficulty among the churches of the Baptist Bible Fellowship that year.  In resolving the problem, Wilson wrote that they “were all prayerfully concerned, that in this dreadful hour of world history we would not come up with something which would, upon presentation here, divide our forces, split our larger interests and defeat the very cause for which we believe God raised up the Fellowship.”14 That did not mean that the details of everyone’s doctrine were not important.  But it did mean that Baptist churches of like faith and practice could count smaller differences as nonessential to fellowship and cooperation.

An example from Baptist history

In his History of the Baptists, Thomas Armitage spends considerable space describing the ribald Munster Movement of the sixteenth century, a parallel to real Anabaptists of the time.  Munsterite congregations practiced such things as polygamy, public flagellations and followed a pagan practice (Armitage lists Catholic and Protestant practitioners also) of baptizing converts completely undressed.15

This practice of indecency was confronted by the true Baptists of the day who said the Munsterites had gone beyond the line of nonessentials in fellowship.   Baptists were accused of enough things in that day without adding nakedness to the list.  Baptists since then have striven to distance themselves from the fanatics at Munster.  Armitage then adds a description of what Baptists did to combat this error.   “In Augsburg, in three gardens attached to houses there used to assemble more than eleven hundred men and women, rich, mediocre and poor, all of whom were rebaptized.   The women, when they were rebaptized, put on trousers.  In the houses where a baptistry was these trousers were always kept.”16 The reader may draw his or her own conclusions.

A New Testament example

The Corinthian church could not make the proper distinctions between things essential and nonessential.  They had taken Paul’s teaching on liberty and turned it into license.  “All things are lawful,” they would say, and Paul answered, “But all things are not expedient” and “I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor 6:12).  It was true, that “Meats were for the belly, and the belly for meats” (vs 13).  Eating various kinds of meat was nonessential.  But the Corinthians went further and equated the use of the body for fornication with the use of the body for meat.  “No!”, Paul said, God will destroy the belly and meat because they are nonessential, but He will raise up the body in resurrection because it is essential.

Interestingly, Lenski (a Lutheran) says, “In this instance, the principle that ‘all things are allowed’ cannot be applied.  God himself regulates the sex relation.  He limits it to two distinct spheres, the one that is stamped with His approval, the other with His severe disapproval; both are thus entirely removed from the territory of the adiaphora.”17 The Corinthians had the same problem when they had smugly accepted the man practicing fornication (chapter 5) as if they were being loving and generous.  They could not see the essentials involved.  Then in the second letter, Paul had to teach them to forgive and accept the same man once he truly repented (2 Corinthians 2).

The power of wisdom

We all have a tendency, like the Corinthians or Melanchthon, to relegate essentails to nonessentials with a slogan.  We say, “Oh, that’s just being legalistic and judgmental.”  We also have the ability to turn myths into essentials, much like Zwingli’s infant baptism.  Or we imitate the Munsterites by combining an essential like immersion with something nonbiblical and then call that historic Baptist doctrine.  A.W. Tozer wisely wrote, “Power lies in the union of things similar and the division of things dissimilar.”18 May the Lord help us to know the difference in our generation.

Notes:
1. A.W. Tozer, The Best Of Tozer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978) 72.
2. Frank S. Mead, 12,000 Religious Quotations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989) 43.
3. Mayo Hazeltine, Ed., Orations From Homer To McKinley, Vol 4 (New York: Collier, 1902) 1548.
4. History and definition of the adiaphora can be found in Bible dictionaries as well as church history books.  Eerdman’s Handbook of Christianity has a helpful article on p. 374.
5. A. Renwick, Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978) 24.
6. “Flacius Illyricus, Matthias,” Columbia Encyclopedia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964) 725.
7. A. Renwick, Ibid.
8. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity And Liberalsim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977) 51.
9. Charles Jacobs, The Story Of The Church (Philadelphia:  Muhlenberg Press, 1947) 231.
10. Thomas Armitage, The History Of The Baptists, Vol. 1 (Watertown: Maranatha Press, 1976) 197.
11. Noel Smith, “The Separation of Church and State,” The Biblical Faith of Baptists (Detroit:   Fundamental Baptist Congress, 1963) 197.
12. Richard Clearwaters, “The Heritage of Baptists,” The Biblical Faith of Baptists, 215.
13. See an excellent article by Dr. Myron Houghton in the January 1997 issue of the Faith Pulpit (Faith Baptist Theological Seminary, Ankeny, IA) entitled “Promise Keepers: A Fundamental Evaluation.”
14. Art Wilson, “The Decision To Remain A Fellowship,” The Baptist Preacher, Vol 6, No.1, p. 11.
15. Armitage, 378.
16. Ibid, 389.
17. R.C.H. Lenski, First Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1963) 259.
18. Tozer, 73.