An awkward freshman year experience: After just picking up lunch at the Knorr Family Dining Room, you encounter an intense debate at the circular table where you plan to sit down. The topic: religious doctrine.
Veteran cafeteria-eaters know to turn the other cheek to such fruitless bouts of emotion, even to the point of having “religion-free” tables to stop the discord from taking over every meal, but everyone has probably gotten stuck in it at one time or another.
Such fierce debates are not over the resurrection or deity of Christ, however. No, it’s usually about less vital matters: predestination, transubstantiation, and the like.
While some of the conversations admittedly end up with some insight or change of heart, most feature individuals who are unwilling to waver from their points of view and only participate because they enjoy the activity of debate.
Witnessing such dreadful conflict between friends leads one to wonder: how important are these religious differences? For Christians, isn’t it enough that they are united under Christ?
This brings up the conversation of non-essential versus essential doctrine. Should we split over some things but not others?
Equip Ministries sought to address these questions at their Pastors’ Forum on Thursday, Feb. 18. Pastor Scott Cress of First Presbyterian Church, Father Adam Rick of Holy Trinity Parish, and Pastor Bob Snyder of Countryside Bible Church were the representatives who took questions on the subject.
Snyder started out by describing the positive aspects of differences.
“Essential doctrines create a center for unity,” Snyder said.
Snyder also said that the adiaphora, or matters of indifference, are natural in the church. Snyder said we need to keep this in mind as we interact with others.
“Beyond the Gospel and the moral law, let things be done in faith and love,” Snyder said. “These things are matters in which Christians are going to do things differently.”
Cress supported this diversity in form of worship.
“I think we are too worried about institutional unity sometimes,” Cress said. “If you know the person in the church down the street is a Christian, and you don’t question it, and they are doing their thing and you are doing your thing, have you really disobeyed Christ?”
C.S. Lewis, for example, has the analogy of different denominations as rooms, Cress said. We can still have unity in Christ but in different gatherings.
Rick noted that pastors from different denominations can get along.
“We partner over a lot of things,” Rick said. “We can support what other pastors are doing down the street even if we don’t attend the same services.”
Indeed, it’s the freedom of a Christian to do things differently. Like Paul and Silas in Acts 15:39, who separated from Mark and Barnabas after a “sharp disagreement,” Christians can go their separate ways while still loving and supporting one another. They can still be brothers and sisters even if they have different convictions. Paul made it clear that he did not consider Mark as a lost brother when he later wrote in 2 Timothy 4:11, “Mark…is helpful to me in the ministry.”
In addition, Snyder said that churches can even unite in certain ministries, even if they do not worship on Sundays in the same way.
“Churches can end up doing things together, even if they might be able to be under the same house because they practice such things differently, they can still recognize each other as Christian and cooperate together in various endeavors,” Snyder said.
Nevertheless, this unity does not mean that our convictions and minor doctrines are not important.
“Non-essential does not mean unimportant,” Cress said.
Furthermore, a person should not make an unessential doctrine a requirement for the faith, as the early church tried to do concerning circumcision.
“If someone does not give that up after warning, they are to be rejected according to Titus 3:10,” Snyder said. “Not because we differ with them on those particulars, but because they are being divisive and facetious.”
So next time you sit down to have a theological debate about a non-essential doctrine, remember that you are not speaking to a lost brother or sister, but to another of the same fold. Go into the conversation with the goal of learning, not converting, and try to keep things civilized.
As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:11, “Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”
Josh Newhook is a sophomore studying English and German. He is an assistant editor for the Collegian..