The Importance of Being Important
Christianity consists of beliefs and practices. There are certain ways one must view God, himself, and the world at large, and there are certain ways one must think, feel, and act as a result of those views. Throughout church history, Christians have debated what beliefs and practices are proper for the believer. That debate continues today.
Another debate has also occurred throughout church history—what should be done with those who disagree on the proper beliefs and practices for a believer? While it is not possible to answer either of those questions in this post, I would like to address three errors relevant to this debate that are common in conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism today and see two ways in which they manifest themselves.
Over time, it became clear to the church that some beliefs and practices were so central to Christianity that denying them meant denying Christianity itself. The items on this list have expanded as controversies have necessitated Christians to clarify their doctrine, but it includes things like the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the bodily resurrection, and the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.
However, some act as if these essential truths are less important than other truths. Though one might be wrong on a fundamental doctrine, if he agrees with someone on other issues, then the fundamental error will be overlooked. Thus, lesser truths and matters are treated as more important than essential truths and matters.
Those in this category do not minimize the central truths per se. Rather, they maximize every truth. It is not enough to agree on a host of issues—including all essential truths. One must agree on every matter of doctrine and practice. Disagreement on essential truths are treated the same as disagreement on lesser truths. Everything is fundamental, which ultimately means nothing is truly fundamental.
In response to both of the errors above, many today have fallen into a kind of “onlyism.” They recoil at the error of the inversionists and insist that certain matters are essential and must be defended. They reject the everythingists and point out that some matters are central and others are not. Where they fail, however, is in dealing with those non-essential matters. Their emphasis on the central issues and the minimal unity they provide for believers is commendable, but it often leads to treating everything else as inconsequential. Thus, baptism, church polity, eschatology, philosophy and approach to culture, creation, role of women in ministry, covenant theology/dispensationalism, continuationism/cessationism, and other matters practically have no bearing on anything.
The Missing Category of Important
What is missing in the above three errors is a proper understanding of importance. The inversionists fail because they raise matters of less importance above matters of greater importance. The everythingists fail because they deny that there are levels of importance and, thus, make nothing truly important. The onlyists fail because they act as if less important means not important.
It is crucial to keep the main thing the main thing. But other matters, though not vital, are still important. Jesus rightly condemns the Pharisees for neglecting the “weightier matters of the law” but also affirms their need to do all of the law (Matt 23:23). The non-essential matters may have varying levels of importance, but they are still important and, therefore, consequential.
Manifestations of these Errors
These three errors are evident in discussions of evangelism and social work, and in discussions of ministry evaluation and cooperation. (NOTE: those who fall into a particular category in one instance may not fall into it in the other).
Evangelism and Social Work
The relationship between evangelism and “doing good” has been controversial for the last several decades. (NOTE: I’m not going to defend the priority of evangelism over doing good here. You can see a bit of my defense here). Inversionists elevate social work above the gospel, leading them to partner with deniers of the gospel in supposedly “Christian” work. This partnership may be evidenced through “Christian” political organizations and manifestos, rescue missions, disaster relief, etc., but it inverts the importance of the gospel and social work. Everythingists make social work equal with evangelism. They see the role of the church as equally concerned with making disciples and doing good. They fear that giving evangelism priority will mean neglecting social work. Onlyists fulfill that fear by acting as if evangelism is all that matters for the believer since it is central.
What is missing is a proper understanding of importance. Since the gospel is central, believers cannot work with unbelievers in supposedly Christian venues in order to accomplish a goal in society, even if that goal is important. However, the importance of that goal means believers should work towards it, while maintaining the priority of evangelism.
Ministry Evaluation and Cooperation
Properly evaluating a ministry to determine what kind of cooperation is valid is where these errors are displayed most prominently. Inversionists excuse central error by highlighting lesser things. One can be at best unclear on the matter of the Trinity but can still be utilized as a Christian leader if he can discuss having a large church or provide entertaining music. One can be at best confused on the issue of inspiration but can still be held up as a teacher of the Word if he agrees on cultural matters.
Everythingists find little to commend in other ministries and have almost no cooperation with them. Since they alone have the truth, almost every other believer is wrong. Further, since all truths are equal, the error of others nearly always amounts to heresy and apostasy.
Onlyists always point the conversation back to gospel issues. When someone begins evaluating a ministry based on other matters, the onlyists sound the cry of factionalism and judgmentalism. A ministry cannot be critiqued as long as they get the gospel right. Nothing else matters.
Again, the concept of importance is helpful. Inversionists are wrong in what they do because they overlook the most important issues while emphasizing lesser ones. The everythingists are wrong because they treat every error as equally important. The onlyists are wrong because they treat non-essential matters as unimportant.
It is certainly right to begin an evaluation of a ministry or Christian leader on the proper understanding of the gospel. Being right on other truths does not excuse endorsing or cooperating with those who are wrong on essential matters. Acting as if all matters are equally important wrongly impugns the ministry of others and hinders proper Christian fellowship. But stopping at gospel truth also fails to allow a proper evaluation. Though not essential, many truths are important. And whether or not a ministry or leader gets those important truths right should affect our evaluation of them and our cooperation with them. We must keep the main thing the main thing, but we must also keep important things important.
Thank you for the article, Ben. The categories are particularly helpful for thinking through specifics. Anothe reminder of why I’m thankful to be in local church ministry, certainly. Thank you also for exercising restraint throughout–saying less in this case (especially in terms of specific examples) allowed you to say much more. Keep it up!
Thank you for the article. I am in basic agreement with you and think that your categories are helpful. One issue, however, that always comes up in this type of conversation is the basis or criteria by which “essentials” are defined. People often choose criteria that seems to be a bit arbitrary to me. Can we, on the basis of scripture, evaluate what should be prioritized as essential? Can we see why it is that some matters of the law are weightier? If so, how?
I agree that these distinctions are important in guarding against everythingism. I am curious what you would point to as useful for making these distinctions in a biblical way.
You bring up the question I was hoping not to address 🙂
I agree that it is a challenge to determine what constitutes an essential of the faith, or what makes something weightier. Occasionally we have explicit help from Scripture. Some things are stated to be of great importance (e.g., Matt 22:36-40; 1 Cor 15:3). Other things are noted as gross errors (e.g., Gal 5:2; 1 Jn 2:22-23).
Unfortunately, I don’t know of a comprehensive way of determining what is and what is not essential right now (I’m continue to think through this and would eventually like to offer something). Fortunately, it seems that Bible-believers have been able to come to a large amount of agreement throughout history on what is essential and what is not, so I trust God’s Spirit to continue to lead in this matter.
So, in short, I don’t have a real answer to your question right now. Sorry.
Thanks for the reply.
I have thought about this issue for a long time and it is a very difficult question to answer. I have also not been able to come up with anything that I find completely satisfactory. I agree with your general point and also that there are certain things that are explicitly essential. Your explanation is both helpful and practical even if we cannot achieve the kind of rigorous precision that we may desire.
1 corinthians 15 comes to mind in determinig what is of first importance. 😉
Yes Peter, but the issue involved here is not what is of first importance. The complication arises precisely when the issues are not clearly of primary importance. 1 Corinthians 15 is enormously helpful but it does not provide an objective standard with which to evaluate what is essential or not in every case. For example, how would you apply 1 Cor. 15 to issues such as the mode of baptism or the suggestion that there are distinct categories of elders? These are clearly important issues but are disagreements here an adequate basis for breaking fellowship in light of the primary concerns of 1 Cor. 15?
I’ve linked to a lot of places on this subject or teaching, including my own exegesis and other work on it. The Bible has something to say on it, and I did a series of blog posts that explored that. The Bible provides the perfect “balance,” since God is One.
I believe this subject is popular because of whatever view of unity one has. If you start with unity between all believers, you have to diminish doctrines. Therefore, there must be a ranking of doctrines. In the Bible, I see only the Pharisees do this, because it was necessary for them to keep the law on their own. They made the law of no effect through their teachings.
If you believe that unity is based on truth, then everything God said is important. Is some truth more foundational than other truths? Of course. You have to be saved or you can’t keep what God said, and even if you could, which you can’t, you wouldn’t be saved by those deeds.
One more thing. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think Kevin Bauder coined “everythingism.”