Essentials vs. Non Essentials Revisited

A number of years ago, I wrote a couple of posts (here & here) in response to a discussion we had at our SEATS School of Missions regarding the quote from Rupertus Meldenius, “in essential matters, unity; in non-essential matters, liberty; in all other matters, charity.” The post went on to basically dissect the various meanings of “non-essential” after merely brushing along the surface of “essential.” I stated, “Other than certain foundational theological truths that we can’t mess with, we are surrounded by a vast amount of stuff that can be classified as personal preferences.”

Of course, the kind of stuff that was in my mind for this section was stuff like who Jesus is, who God is, the importance of the Bible, etc. Stuff that is really non-negotiable; stuff that Christians must agree on. 

But what if those very theological foundations of my faith were not so much foundations as they were constructs of my culture and mind? 

Enter Andrew Walls. I had the privilege of attending a couple of seminars by this great church historian from Scotland. To be honest, I had never heard of him until two days before the event, when I received an invitation to attend two days of lectures on Christianity and culture hosted by the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture and Asian Theological Seminary. What I heard and experienced during those two days shook some of my fundamental theological understandings to the core!

According to Walls, the early Jerusalem Christians[1] were in fact Jews through and through. They worshipped in the temple, they offered sacrifices, and they followed Moses’ law to the letter. They even didn’t engage in missions to Gentiles! It wasn’t until persecution scattered those early followers of the Way that the message jumped from being something Jewish to being something also understood and accepted by Gentiles. It is here where my mind was blown. In Acts 15 we read the account of the first Council of Jerusalem, which was convened to discuss this new situation that had arisen – how do Gentiles fit into the whole scheme of things? The answer is surprising. The Jewish church leaders in Jerusalem basically said to the Gentiles, “You don’t have to follow Jewish customs.”

What struck me was that the Jerusalem followers of the Way still followed these Jewish customs. Their whole faith was built around Jesus fulfilling a specific set of prophecies, completing a complex legal systems, and being a part of the chosen people. The council in Jerusalem didn’t throw that out, they merely said that there are other valid ways of expressing the centrality of Christ. It was the first “Essentials vs Non-Essentials” debate and what is surprising is that the entire Jewish system is declared to be a non-essential! Note that this isn’t just a discussion of what kind of music to use in worship or what language to use when preaching – this is a complete overturning of the basic fundamental theological and social system of God’s people.

The Jews who followed the Way discovered that their Way was not the only way and that the Others’ Ways were sometimes polar opposites to what they knew and believed to be true in their hearts!

Of course the exciting thing is that God allows such diversity among his followers without being threatened.[2] How can we do the same thing without being threatened ourselves?

The key for Walls is the role of the Holy Spirit in the process. We often focus on the power aspect of the Holy Spirit. Could it be that the “counsellor” role of the Holy Spirit is counselling us on how to do church in relevant and understandable ways?


[1] In fact, according to Acts, followers of Jesus were not called Christians until a group formed and became known in Antioch. “The Way” was the term used to describe those who followed Jesus. 

[2] A discussion of Walls assertion that the church has never ever been unified – and that’s ok – will have to wait for another time 🙂


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Image by engin akyurt on Unsplash.

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