Dividing Truth Into Essentials and Non-Essentials
Republished July 21, 2010 (first published October 22, 2009)
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061

New Evangelicals have long divided doctrine into “cardinal” and “secondary” categories, and the “secondary,” we are told, can be overlooked for the sake of unity.

Grace Awaking, Chuck Swindoll says, “My encouragement for you today is that each one of us pursue what unites us with others rather than the few things that separate us. ... There was a time in my life when I had answers to questions no one was asking. I had a position that life was so rigid I would fight for every jot and tittle. I mean, I couldn’t list enough things that I’d die for. The older I get, the shorter that list gets, frankly” (Grace Awakening, p. 189).

Even the most conservative evangelicals, such as Iain Murray, fall into this trap. Condemning fundamentalism in America Murray stated, “In its tendency to add stipulations not foundational to Christian believing, fundamentalism was prone to make the boundaries of Christ’s kingdom too small” (Iain Murray,
Evangelicalism Divided, p. 298).

This is the working philosophy of Southern Baptists. Consider the book
Building Bridges (Convention Press, 2007). It was written by David Dockery and Timothy George and prefaced by Thom Rainer, three prominent Southern Baptist leaders.

“Though I may disagree with some on secondary and tertiary issues, I will not let those points of disagreement tear down bridges of relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ. ... We need a new spirit of mutual respect and humility to serve together with those with whom we have differences of conviction and opinion. It is possible to hold hands with brothers and sisters who disagree on secondary and tertiary matters of theology...” (pp. 11, 34).
This is even becoming the working philosophy of many Independent Baptists. In the book Thinking Outside the Box, Charles Keen says,

“I’m a slow learner, but I finally realized that not all truth is of equal value. Some truths I differ from others and divide over even die for (as least I should). With others, I might be uncomfortable with how they are handled by my brethren, but I can still fellowship with them either personally or in some cases, ecclesiastically. We need to develop some ‘ecumenicalism within the parameters of fundamentalism.’ ... Let’s decide who the enemies of the cross are and divide from them. Then let’s decide who the friends of grace are and tolerate them. We don’t have to unite but we do need unity” (p. 81).


First, this philosophy is refuted by Christ’s teaching.

It is refuted in Matthew 23:23, where Christ taught that while not everything in the Bible is of equal importance everything has some importance and nothing is to be despised or neglected. “
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”

It is also refuted in Matthew 28:20, where Christ taught that the churches are to teach the believers to observe ALL THINGS whatsoever He has commanded.

Second, this philosophy is refuted by Paul’s example and teaching.

He declared the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).

He taught Timothy to value all doctrine and not to allow ANY false doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3).

He further taught Timothy to keep the New Testament commandment “without spot” (1 Tim. 6:13-14). A spot refers to something that is small, seemingly insignificant. The context of Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy 6:14 is an epistle that has as its theme church truth (1 Tim. 3:15). In this epistle, we find instruction about such things as pastoral standards (1 Tim. 3), deacons (1 Tim. 3), the divine restriction upon the woman’s work in the church (1 Tim. 2); care for widows (1 Tim. 5), and discipline (1 Tim. 5). These are the very kinds of things that are typically considered of secondary importance today.

While we know that Bible doctrines are not equal in importance (e.g., John 3:16 is more important than 1 Corinthians 11:14-15), every teaching of Scripture has some importance and nowhere are we taught to despise anything God has said, not for the sake of an Independent Baptist unity or world missions or for any other reason.

I believe that Romans 12:2 (“be not conformed to this world”) and James 4:4 (“friendship with the world is enmity with God”) and 1 John 2:15-17 (“love not the world”) are very essential teachings, and this doctrine condemns the contemporary philosophy that is spreading quickly among Independent Baptist churches. The same is true for what God’s Word says about the sacred music or modest attire or ecclesiology or repentance or the preservation of Scripture or any other thing.

We should stand for all of the truth of God’s Word, and we should defend any truth that happens to be under attack in our day.

Third, we must understand that not all heresies are of equal weight as far as destructiveness, but all heresies are to be opposed.

A heresy is a doctrinal error. The word describes the self-will that characterizes such sin. A “heretic” is one who exercises his own will over the Word of God and chooses an error over the truth. The error can be as serious as denying the deity of Christ or as seemingly slight as allowing a woman to usurp authority over men.

There are “damnable heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1), which are heresies that affect eternal salvation. To accept a damnable heresy is to bring upon oneself eternal damnation. The damnable heresy described by Peter was that of denying the Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle John also described the doctrine of Christ as a crucial doctrine (2 John 9). We see in other passages that damnable heresies are particularly related to the person of Christ, to the gospel, and to the Holy Spirit and thus to the person and nature of God, including such doctrines as the Trinity (2 Cor. 11:4).

There are also less destructive heresies. “
For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you. When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper. For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken” (1 Cor. 11:19-21). In this passage Paul was referring to errors in the church at Corinth, and in the immediate context, he describes errors relating to the Lord’s Supper.

That not all heresies have the same consequence does not mean that some heresies are to be ignored. Every wind of false doctrine is to be refused (Eph. 4:14).

David Nettleton refuted the New Evangelical philosophy in “A Limited Message or a Limited Fellowship,” which describes his experiences in an interdenominational youth ministry in the 1950s. Consider an excerpt from this message:

This message, like many, is born out of an experience. It may be some others are going through similar experiences. Therefore, let me recount the one which brought this message to light. I was brought up as a Presbyterian. I was saved at a college which was interdenominational in student body, but was managed by the Church of the Brethren. From there I went to a seminary which was not a denominational school, and from there to another seminary which was United Presbyterian. I entered the Baptist pastorate with no Baptist training except that which came from reading of the Scriptures.

A few years later I was drawn into an interdenominational youth movement and was given the leadership of a local Saturday night rally. I cooperated with any who were evangelical, regardless of their associations. I was advised by top leaders in the movement to seek the names of outstanding modernists for my advisory committee. I didn't do that. But I did follow advice which led me to send to all converts back to the churches of their choice, churches I knew to be liberal in some cases. This greatly troubled my conscience and I prayed and thought about it.

Another problem connected with this work was the failure on my part to instruct any converts on the matter of Christian baptism, which in the Scriptures is the first test of obedience. I felt that I should do this inasmuch as Peter and Paul did it. But how could it be done when on the committee of the work there were close friends who did not believe it? By such an association I had definitely stripped my message and my ministry of important Bible truths which many called ‘nonessentials.’

In the follow-up work it was not convenient to speak of eternal security in the presence of Christian workers who hated the name of the doctrine. Thus the ministry was pared down to the gospel, just as if there was nothing in the Great Commission about baptizing converts and indoctrinating them. I had found the least common denominator and I was staying by it. But my conscience had no rest.

Then it was that Acts 20:27 came to mean something to me. The great apostle had never allowed himself to be drawn into anything which would limit his message. He could say with a clean conscience, ‘I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.’ Why cannot many say that today? In my case, and in many other cases, it was due to a desire to teach a larger audience and to work with a larger group of Christians.

Many have been carried away from full obedience by a noble-sounding motto which has been applied to Christian work. ‘In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity.’ Some things are not essential to salvation but they are essential to full obedience, and the Christian has no liberty under God to sort out the Scriptures into essentials and nonessentials! It is our duty to declare the whole counsel of God, and to do it wherever we are.

Today we are choosing between two alternatives. A LIMITED MESSAGE OR A LIMITED FELLOWSHIP. If we preach all of the Bible truths, there are many places where we will never be invited. If we join hands with the crowds, there will be limiting of the message of the Bible. Bear this in mind--it is the Baptist who lays aside the most! It is the fundamental Baptist who makes the concessions! Think this through and you will find it to be true. We believe in believer's baptism. We believe in separation. We preach eternal security. We believe in the imminent coming of Christ. We consider it an act of obedience to reprove unbelief in religious circles. The Sadducee and the Pharisee are to be labeled. But according to a present philosophy we must lay these things aside for the sake of a larger sphere of service.

Which is more important, full obedience or a larger sphere of service? And yet I do not fully believe these are the only two alternatives. It is our first duty to be fully obedient to God in all things, and then to wait upon Him for the places of service. It may be that we will be limited, and it may be that we will not. Charles Haddon Spurgeon did not travel as widely as some men of his day, but his sermons have traveled as far as the sermons of most men (David Nettleton, “A Limited Message or a Limited Fellowship,” GARBC).

The necessity of discipling and pastoring God’s people requires that we protect them from “small” compromises and “non-essential” errors.

“Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Colossians 1:28).

I would rather err on the side of being too strict and too separated from Independent Baptist compromise than to be soft and not separated enough.

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