In Non-Essentials Liberty?

“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” (In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas). That statement has often been attributed to St. Augustine who almost certainly did not say it. It seems to have its origins in the 17th century either from Roman Catholic or moderate Lutherans in Germany. Whatever the case, the saying stuck. It has found its way into the common vernacular of many churches and denominations. I once served in a non-denominational church where it was repeated copiously. But I could never get anyone to actually define the terms.

Since this year’s historic General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America I have seen the famous statement repeated by some of my fellow PCA pastors as a way to suggest that the passage of Overtures 23 and 37 are unnecessarily divisive. They seem to believe that the overtures will place too strict a standard upon our denomination and make targets of elders who identify as gay in sexual orientation.

“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

It’s a good saying as far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn’t go very far. Certainly, we hope to show charity in all things. Let’s be on board with that one. How about the essentials? Is unity called for? Absolutely. But what exactly are the essentials of the Christian faith? I’ve always considered the essentials to be those doctrines that we cannot deny if we are to be considered a Christian in any meaningful sense. In that case perhaps the essentials are those doctrines affirmed in the Apostles Creed. If that is the standard, then I can get behind that.

But it’s not the calls to unity in essentials and charity in all things that present the problem. It is the middle clause that presents a problem: “In non-essentials, liberty.” I take liberty here to mean what it typically means: freedom. If we define the essentials of our faith as those things which must be affirmed if one is to be a Christian, then I take the non-essentials to mean those doctrines and practices over which Christians may disagree. The idea is that in those doctrines and practices deemed non-essential for the salvation of one’s soul we should grant freedom to believe and practice whatever we think best represents the teaching of Scripture. And there is a sense in which I agree with this. I don’t hassle the local Methodist or Mennonite churches in my community. I don’t give dirty looks to the charismatic pastor who lives down the street from me. We believe different things about matters that are important to us, so we attend different churches. None of the Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Brethren, PC(USA) or Mennonite churches in my community say, “As long as it does not have a direct bearing upon your eternal destiny, you may believe, teach, and practice whatever you like in our church, because we believe that in non-essentials we have liberty.”

I’m genuinely curious why any of us repeat “In non-essentials liberty,” when none of us actually practice it. Are our beliefs about election, the scope of the atonement, the nature of heaven and hell, the first chapters of Genesis, last things, biblical inerrancy, assurance of salvation, and sanctification open to the wide plains of liberty in our churches? Do our practices of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church government; our understanding of worship, ordination, the gifts of the Spirit, and gender all fall under the banner of “in non-essentials liberty”?

I cannot think of a single church or denomination which actually practices liberty in all non-essentials. What Baptist church will allow me to teach a class on baptism? What Wesleyan church will allow me to preach Romans 9? What charismatic church will allow me to design their liturgy? And what Brethren church will allow me to order their polity? You get the picture. I’ve named non-essentials. But none of us practice “liberty” in those matter—and it’s a good thing, because we don’t believe that they are so unimportant that we approach them with an attitude of agnosticism. It is because of the non-essentials that we have denominations in the first place.

Incidentally, for those who believe denominations are divisive, how is a non-denominational church, connected and accountable to no broader body of churches, actually less divisive than a body of churches accountable to one another? Non-denominational churches are simply denominations of one. We won’t have denominations in the new creation, but I’m pretty sure we need them in a fallen world. But I digress…

In stating that we do not actually have “liberty” in non-essentials, I am not suggesting that we ought not welcome to our churches as many as the Lord may grant to our care. In the church I serve we grant membership to those who demonstrate an understanding of the gospel, have a credible profession of faith, and are willing to take our denomination’s vows of church membership. But as one travels up the ladder of responsibility within our church, options narrow. If you are clearly qualified to teach but do not accept our understanding of baptism, you may teach in our church so long as you do not teach anything contrary to our church’s doctrine and practice. I suppose it’s like that in most PCA churches. If you are to serve in church office, the options narrow further. Church officers must be in agreement with the Westminster Standards and the Book of Church Order. So the door to church membership is quite wide. But even then we do not grant “liberty” to church members to teach and practice whatever they like in “non-essentials.” Otherwise we ought to get rid of our Confession, Catechisms, and Book of Church Order and adopt a modest and very broad statement of faith.

The ethos of the PCA is decidedly not “in non-essentials liberty.” And I cannot think of a single denomination where that is actually the practice. As I stated earlier, I have seen this statement bandied about by those who have publicly stated their disagreement and disgust with the overwhelming decision of the General Assembly to approve Overtures 23 and 37. It seems that they consider certain matters of human identity and sanctification and the use of terms like “gay Christian” to be non-essentials. And certainly it is true that those matters are not addressed in the Apostles Creed. But they most certainly are addressed in the Scriptures and our Confession as our recent Study Committee Report on Human Sexuality proves. Any attempt to affirm both the Study Committee report and Revoice is entirely incongruous.

When it comes to ordained clergy in the PCA identifying themselves as gay in “orientation,” let us not pretend as though we really believe that liberty is called for. I can think of churches in the PCA that would not allow me within 100 yards of their pulpit to preach on the subject of homosexuality and human identity precisely because they know I would refute the category of “sexual orientation,” the theology of Revoice, and Side-B homosexuality. And I can think of ministers in the PCA who I would not allow to address those subjects in the church I serve. None of us truly embrace liberty in the matters addressed in Overtures 23 and 37. Nor should we.