In Parts 1 and 2 we noted that a church focused on the Gospel will be a place of grace. Grace will lead to inclusion, which will lead to diversity, and diversity to varied opinions regarding preferences and ultimately, conflict. Critical to the leadership of any great church is a radical commitment to the core- the Gospel. As the Gospel is defined, examined, scrutinized, lived out, and shared, the Church finds herself on mission with Jesus. By definition then, the non-core is exposed as such because it is not at the core of the Church’s message and activity.
The challenge comes when there are differences of opinion regarding what’s really core. How do you determine what is core? It’s actually much easier than most Christians realize. There was a little-known reformer (born in 1854), Rupertus (Peter) Meldenius who is famous for one quote (that has been wrongly attributed to others like Martin Luther):
“In Essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”
A not-so-well-known pastor would say it like this: “In core issues, unity; non-core, freedom. In all things, grace.” These words have, for a long time, formed somewhat of an Evangelical credo. Evangelicals (like Baptists) have traditionally believed that there are certain doctrines that form the core of the Christian faith. They are called “cardinal (essential, core) doctrines.” They are what we might call the sine quo non- the “without which, not”-of the Christian faith. In other words there are certain doctrines that when denied, by definition, give evidence that a person does not have the basic core beliefs that must be present in the truly regenerate person. Included in this credo is the belief that there are certain doctrines that are “non-essential” or “non-cardinal”. What I’ve always called, “non-core”.
3 tests that reformers, evangelicals, and Baptists have used through the ages:
1. Historicity: Does the doctrine have universal historical representation?
2. Clarity (Perspicuity): Is the doctrine represented clearly in Scripture? One of the principles that the reformers sought to communicate is what they called “perspicuity”- the (clarity) of Scripture.
3. Explicity: Does the passage of Scripture explicitly teach that a certain doctrine is essential? The Scriptures speak about a great many things but the Bible is often explicit with regards to that which is of essential importance. For example, Paul says to the Corinthians, “For 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; emphasis mine). The “of first importance” tells us that Christ’s death and resurrection “for our sins,” from Paul’s perspective, is an essential component of Christianity. Without such, according to Paul, there is no Christianity (1 Cor. 15:12ff). The Gospel of John also speaks about the importance of faith. “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18).
All three of these three criteria must be present. If one or more is lacking concerning a particular doctrine, it is not possible for us to legitimately argue for its core essentiality. As well, all three feed off each other and are somewhat self-regulating. In other words, if someone doubts whether something is clear in Scripture, all he or she has to do is look to history. If something is not clear in the Scripture, it will not find that it passes the test of history. This is why it is of vital importance that Christians not only be good exegetes, but also good historians.
Christians have always argued over what’s core and what’s not. In fact, it has been the ruin of many great Christian movements. There will always be those who want to bring focus, energy, and time to non-core preferences, forms, and issues- believing them to be something worth such time and effort. It is critical for any church, ministry, or denomination to stay focused on the Great Truth of the Gospel, the Great Commandment, and the Great Commission. In the end, the center of all focus, attention, and energy is brought to the Great Person of the Gospel, Christ Jesus our Lord. As we bring our full devotion to Him the Core becomes very narrow and self-evident. Let us unite around Him (Matthew 6:33) and all else will follow.