"In Essentials, Unity. In Non-essentials, Liberty."

by Leland M. Haines

This slogan (or versions of it) is familiar to most; it is an old one. The complete statement, "In Essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love" comes from Augustine (354-430 AD) over 1500 years ago. Such slogans should be avoided, or at best used very carefully, because they can be misleading. This statement has mislead many in the past and is still doing it today. The Scriptures do not speak of some Bible truth as being essentials and others as non-essentials.

Before examining this slogan in the light of the Bible, let us first look at the background of Augustine and the church during the period he made this statement. The early church had a strong emphasis on spiritual transformation and moral living of individual Christians, resulting in rigorous standards for church membership and Christian ethics. They took Jesus' call to discipleship serious. After Constantine the nature of Christianity underwent a drastic change. Persecutions no longer kept the church pure. Since the way came easier, there was a sudden influx of people in the church who hardly knew what repentance, the new birth, discipleship, living a life-style non-conformed to the world, etc. meant. This resulted in many half-way Christians (lukewarm and antinomianial "Christians") coming into the Church with little interest beyond getting "a ticket to heaven." These had little or no interest in living a life in conformity to Biblical teachings. This created conflict in the church that, although they were living in a time of peace from persecution, greatly disturbed the peace among Christians. Before Augustine times two groups, the Novatians and the Donatists, came into existence. Both groups emphasized high ethical requirement for Christians and seriousness of sin after being baptized. To try to bring peace to the Church, Augustine taught that anything close to perfection in Christian living was impossible, and caved into the world views. To make such a view acceptable, he emphasized, "In Essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love."

There are a couple of things wrong with Augustine's slogan. First, it fosters an approach that boils down Bible truths to the bare minimum "essentials." For instance, Jesus Christ's statement "this is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent" (John 6:27, 29) becomes the essential truth of Christianity. But we must remember saving belief is not just an intellectual assent of the mind that has no place for repentance, or for grace that produces a new birth, for sanctification, for holiness and obedience, etc. In essence "believe only" eliminated the fact that, "My [Jesus'] sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (John 10:27), and "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. . . . He who has my commandments, and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him" (John 14:15. 21). It eliminates the need for Christ to be both Savior and Lord.

Secondly, it makes distinctions in Bible teachings that results in a pick-and-choose attitude. It does not follow Jesus' attitude that "scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:25). Or does it follow the apostle's view that, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: The man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Tim. 3:16, 17). It is "a fine way of rejecting the commandments of God, in order to keep your tradition. . . . Thus making void the word of God" (Mk. 7:9, 13). Lest there be doubt about the need to teach all Biblical truth, remember Jesus' Great Commission to "make disciples . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded" (Matt. 28:19, 20). And Paul showed the importance of keeping "all things' when he wrote, "I commend you, because you remember me in everything, and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you" (1 Cor. 11:2), and "Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you have been taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter" (2 Thess. 2:15).

The third part of Augustine's statement, "In all things, love," is very good because it has a strong Biblical basis: "you shall love the Lord your God . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets" (See Matt. 23:36-40).

In conclusion, we need to be careful about slogans, realizing that these may not express scriptural truths and thus can cause great harm to individuals and the Church. A better slogan would be "In Biblical issues, unity. In non-Biblical issues, liberty. In all things, love."

By Leland M Haines, July 11, 1997 -- © copyright 1997 by Leland M. Haines, Goshen, IN. USA

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June 22, 2000