Though commonly attributed to Augustine, it was apparently first stated by the 17th-century Lutheran Rupertus Meldenius (a.k.a. Peter Meiderlin).
It became the rallying cry of the Moravians, who had a wonderful missionary zeal but retained such Romanist heresies as infant baptism and an ordained priesthood and who promoted unity above the absolute truth of God’s Word for the purpose of “revival.”
The “in non-essentials liberty” principle was adopted by the fundamentalist movement of the 20th century. Fundamentalism focused on a unity built around “the fundamentals of the faith” while downplaying “minor issues.” The pragmatic objective was to create the largest possible united front against theological modernism and for evangelism and world missions.
“Historic fundamentalism has always been characterized by a core of biblical, historic, orthodox doctrines. ... Most fundamentalists would be content with terms like ‘major doctrines’ or ‘cardinal doctrines’ to describe their consensus. ... [T]here are other doctrinal distinctives that some may claim for themselves as fundamentalists. But to make these beliefs articles of fundamentalist faith would cut the movement’s channel more narrowly than history will allow” (Rolland McCune, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, Fall 1996).
This has been a hallmark of the Southern Baptist Convention, as well. In describing why he is glad to be a Southern Baptist, Pastor Ben Simpson says, “I'm captivated by the commitment to unity in the essentials and mission of Christ while allowing diversity in the nonessentials and methodology” (“Two Divergent Views from Young Pastors,” Baptist Press, April 14, 2011).
SBC leaders David Dockery, Timothy George, and Thom Rainer express the prevailing philosophy in the following words:
“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...” (Building Bridges, 2007, pp. 11, 34).
This dictum has been an integral philosophy of New Evangelicalism. They might stand for ten or twenty or thirty “cardinals,” but they refuse to make an issue of the WHOLE counsel of God. Particularly when it comes to one’s associations, they believe that there are “non-essentials” that should not get in the way of unity.
Influential evangelical leaders such as Chuck Swindoll hold this philosophy. He writes:
“There was a time in my life when 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” (Grace Awakening, p. 189).
This reminds us that once you buy into the principle of “in non-essentials liberty,” your list of “non-essentials” tends to grow ever longer as your associations broaden.
The Promise Keepers movement promoted this philosophy as a basis of its broad unity. The Promise Keepers Ambassador booklet listed the following as examples of issues that must be ignored for the sake of unity: Eternal security, the gifts of the Spirit, baptism, Pretribulation or post-tribulation prophecy, sacraments or ordinances” (PK Ambassador booklet).
John R. Rice taught the heresy of “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty.” In The Sword of the Lord, Aug. 20 1976, he wrote, “The division of lesser and weightier doctrines, essentials for Christian fellowship, and those not so essential, is scriptural.” Rice taught that separation on the basis of “non-essentials” is “secondary separation,” which he rejected. He wrote, “The practice of Bible saints was never secondary separation” (Sword of the Lord, Apr. 13, 1979). In his 1974 book Come Out or Stay In, Rice said that there should be no separation for “minor differences in doctrine and methods.” He said we should work with those who disagree with us on baptism, tongues, prophecy, election, and association with SBC.
In the last few years many prominent fundamental Baptist preachers have espoused the “in essentials unity” principle.
In his book Thinking Outside the Box, Charles Keen said:
“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 or 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” (Thinking Outside the Box, 2003, p. 81).
Clayton Reed of Southlake Baptist Church, Southlake, Texas, and head of Global Church Planters,* in his paper on “Ecclesiastical Separation,” says we should not separate over non-fundamentals. He quotes John Rice in saying that we should work with those who disagree on baptism, tongues, prophecy, election, association with SBC. Reed concludes, “We ought to join every willing, warm-hearted Christian in advancing our Lord’s kingdom while it is day.” (* At the time he wrote this paper, Reed was the head of Global Church Planters, but it was subsequently turned over to Peachtree Road Baptist Church of Suwanee, Georgia.)
Paul Chappell, pastor of Lancaster Baptist Church, joined Reed as the co-author of Church Still Works. Note the following excerpt:
“On the other hand, one of the weaknesses of independent Baptists has been calling non-essentials, essential. ... Practically speaking--it will be impossible for our churches to be what God intended and to make the difference that ‘salt and light’ should make if we are debating minor issues” (Church Still Works, p. 215).
Pastor Chappell does not tell us what these “minor issues are.” He says we shouldn’t make “personal preferences” into major issues, but what are these “personal preferences”? He does say that eternal security and the reality of a literal hell and the doctrine of the local church are “essential truths,” but these aren’t at issue among most fundamental Baptists. What Chappell does not deal with are the doctrines that are real issues today among fundamental Baptists, such as repentance, modesty in dress, contemporary worship music, Bible texts and versions, election, and building bridges to Southern Baptists and evangelicals. Are these “minor issues”? Should independent Baptists be unified in spite of these issues? We don’t get clear answers, only vague statements about a unity that disregards “preferences.”
This reminds us that many men who are using the terms “essential” and “non-essential” refuse to tell us exactly what they mean and exactly where lines should be drawn.
Kevin Bauder, president of Central Baptist Seminary in Minnesota, praises “conservative evangelicals” in his blog and promotes the “non-essential” philosophy:
“Conservative evangelicalism encompasses a diverse spectrum of Christian leaders. John Piper, Mark Dever, John MacArthur, D. A. Carson, Al Mohler, R. C. Sproul ... These individuals and organizations exhibit a remarkable range of differences, but they can be classed together because of their vigorous commitment to and defense of the gospel” (In the Nick of Time, Bauder’s blog, March 2010).
In a mailing to its alumni announcing its February 2011 National Leadership Conference, Calvary Baptist Seminary of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, stated:
“We should grant each other the freedom to hold differing viewpoints and to refrain from caustic letter-writing campaigns to or about those with whom one might differ. ... in our zeal to earnestly contend for the faith, fundamentalism became more concerned about MINOR ISSUES and less concerned about what the Bible clearly presents as THE MAJORS.”
The “minor issues” are alleged to be such things as: which Greek text or English translation to use, dress standards, musical styles, election, and baptism. We are told that such things should not determine fellowship. The seminary used this philosophy to explain why they invited Ed Welsh, a Presbyterian, as a speaker to their annual National Leadership Conference in 2009 and New Evangelical Southern Baptist Mark Dever in 2010. (Dever’s church, Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington, D.C., is a member of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, which is partnered with the very liberal American Baptist Church, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and Baptist World Alliance.)
Clarence Sexton is promoting this principle through his Independent Baptist Friends International conferences. In 2012 he said:
“There is AN IRREDUCIBLE BODY OF TRUTH (e.g., who God is, what His Word is, what He says about salvation, the local New Testament church). There are a number of things that are in THIS IRREDUCIBLE BODY OF TRUTH. And I believe that all over the world that God will raise up circles of friends. They have the truth; people need the Lord; and they are going to work together” (Sexton, “On the High Road with a High Vision of God,” YouTube.com, April 9, 2012).
The “irreducible body of truth” refers to the “essentials” that are the alleged basis for unity and joint ministry.
For the sake of evangelism and world missions, Sexton considers such things as the Bible text issue, dress, music, Calvinism, modes and candidates of baptism, and separation from the SBC as “non-essentials” that should not hinder fellowship. He does not say this outright, but it is obvious since he has had men representing a wide variety of views on these issues as speakers at his church, school, and conferences.
Matt Olson, former president of Northland University, used the “in essentials unity” philosophy as the foundation for the changes that he introduced to the school. He said that issues such as “Bible translations, music, dress, methods of ministry, secondary associations” are non-essentials and such things should not be used as a basis for separation (“Pursuing Transparency with Change,” MatthewOlson.com, Apr. 18, 2013).
John Van Gelderen and James Hollandsworth are also promoting the “in essentials unity” philosophy. In a RevivalFocus Ministries blog, Hollandsworth says:
“Unity is one of the blessed effects of revival. Petty differences, and often denominational distinctions, tend to become of lesser importance when the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Love, comes down. Disunity, on the other hand, is one of the great hindrances to corporate revival” (“Seeking the Spirit of Love and Unity: Part 1,” revivalfocusblog.com, Dec. 13. 2012).
The Spirit of God is indeed the Spirit of love, but He is also called the Spirit of Truth multiple times in Scripture. He would never downplay any part of the inspired Scripture for any objective, including “revival.”
Again, these men do not define “petty differences” or “denominational distinctions,” purposefully leaving the subject vague. If the “petty differences” amount to things that are not clearly taught in Scripture, such as the time of church services and whether or not to have a Sunday School, that is one thing, but if they are referring to things that are clearly taught in Scripture, they aren’t “petty.”
That they are referring to Scriptural issues is plain from the fact that Hollandsworth uses the Moravians as an example of true Christian unity, ignoring the fact that they were infant baptizers and sacramentalists and contemplative mystics. Would Van Gelderen and Hollandsworth, et al, accept infant baptism as a “non-essential”? Apparently they would if they could get away with it in the eyes of their brethren.
“If I were living in the days before the rise of the fundamentalist movement, I could unite in prayer for revival with some men of a different denominational label, men such as Jonathan Goforth, D.L. Moody, George Whitefield, and John Wesley” (“Seeking the Spirit of Love and Unity: Part 2,” revivalfocusblog.com, Dec. 13. 2012).
Whitefield and Wesley, of course, practiced infant baptism, while Moody was a ground-breaking ecumenist who yoked together with theological modernists. Yet Hollandsworth says, “I have a spirit of unity with these men, because they were fundamental in doctrine and passionate for revival.”
These men, as well as the Moravians, had a zeal for the cause of Christ, insofar as they understood it but that does not excuse their heresies, and it does not mean that we should follow in their doctrinally confused footsteps, and it does not mean that we should yoke together with men who practice the same heresies today.
We are told that the Moravians did well to treat “Calvinist soteriology and sanctification issues--including personal standards” as non-essentials for the sake of unity and that “fundamentalists” today should imitate their example (revivalfocusblog.com, Dec. 13. 2012).
We are told that Count Zinzendorf was led by the Spirit of God when he drew up a covenant that urged the people “to seek and emphasize the points in which they agreed rather than to stress their differences.” We are told that God was so pleased with this that He “sent a great outpouring of His Spirit.”
This is presumptuous. Nowhere does the Bible even hint that God would be pleased when a group of Christians downplay the clear teaching of any part of His Word for the sake of unity.
A foundational error in this thinking is that it seeks to preserve “the fundamentalist movement.” The fundamentalist movement has always been willing to compromise God’s Word for the sake of unity. The fundamentalist philosophy of unity wasn’t right in the 1920s and it is not right today.
In Part 2 of his blog “Seeking the Spirit of Love and Unity,” Hollandsworth says that he isn’t calling for unity with “broader evangelicalism,” but that is exactly what is happening on every hand among “fundamentalists.” Look at Northland, Liberty, Tennessee Temple, Calvary Baptist Lansdale, Central Baptist Seminary. Look at Trinity Baptist, Jacksonville, Florida. Look at the way that Paul Chappell and his friends are recommending the writings of men in the “broader evangelicalism” on his blog. (For documentation see “Review of Church Still Works” at www.wayoflife.org.)
Why would Hollandsworth’s principle stop at the door of fundamental Baptists? Why doesn’t it include “conservative evangelicals” like Al Mohler and Ed Stetzer and John MacArthur? The answer is that his principle does and will lead “fundamentalists” to join hands with “conservative evangelicals,” if it is applied consistently, and this in turn most definitely will lead to the “broader evangelicalism” because evangelicalism today is a broad house with many rooms and there are pathways between all of the rooms, even from the most conservative to the most liberal. We have documented this in many reports. (See, for example, the free eBook The Emerging Church Is Coming and the free Video The Foreign Spirit of Contemporary Worship Music, available at www.wayoflife.org.)
Matt Olsen, former president of Northland University, said conservative evangelicals are “in the spirit of historic fundamentalism” (“Pursuing Transparency with Change,” MatthewOlson.com, Apr. 18, 2013).
This thinking most recently led Northland into the arms of the Southern Baptist Convention. (See “Northland Officially a Southern Baptist Institution,” Friday Church News Notes, Oct. 24, 2014).
NON-ESSENTIALS VS. THE BIBLE
I challenge anyone to provide a solid Bible foundation for the “in essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty” doctrine.
I don’t want a lesson in church history. What Moravians or old-time fundamentalists did or did not do is interesting and educational but it has zero authority unless it lines up correctly with Scripture.
I also don’t want a lesson in pragmatism. Whether or not “unity in essentials” would further “revival” or “evangelism” or “bringing America back to God” or “creation science” or any number of other worthy objectives is neither here nor there, because pragmatism has no authority.
The sole authority for faith and practice is the Bible, and there is no support for “in essentials unity” in Scripture. It is a man-made principle created to further a pragmatic agenda.
The Bible position is the ALL THINGS principle.
Consider the Old Testament law. Its requirement was summarized in Deuteronomy 27:26, which Paul cited as follows:
“Cursed is every one that continueth not in ALL THINGS which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Galatians 3:10).
The Psalmist preached the all things principle.
“Therefore I love thy commandments above gold; yea, above fine gold. Therefore I esteem ALL THY PRECEPTS concerning ALL THINGS to be right; and I hate EVERY FALSE WAY” (Psalms 119:127-128).
Observe that the reason that the Psalmist esteemed all of God’s precepts was that he had a passionate relationship with and high view of God’s Word, loving it above gold.
Observe that the Psalmist did not merely hate those things that were contrary to the “essential” doctrines of God’s Word. He hated every false way.
There is no “non-essential” principle in the New Testament either.
The Lord Jesus Christ commanded His disciples to teach their converts “to observe ALL THINGS whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mat. 28:20).
The apostle Paul reminded the elders at Ephesus that the reason he was free from the blood of all men was that he had preached the WHOLE COUNSEL of God (Acts 20:27).
The more plainly and fervently you preach the whole counsel of God, the less likely it will be that you will join hands in ministry with those who hold different doctrines.
In 1 Corinthians 11:2 Paul said to the church at Corinth, “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in ALL THINGS, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.”
This passage deals with hair length and the Lord’s Supper, which are widely considered to be “non-essentials,” yet Paul praised the church for remembering him in ALL things.
In light of this clear Bible teaching, I reject the philosophy that rebukes those who make an issue of hair length rather than rebuking those who flaunt their “liberty” in this matter. When God’s Word speaks, our liberty ends. When God’s Word speaks on any matter, our liberty ends. When the Word of God says it is a shame for a man to have long hair and that long hair is the woman’s covering and glory, that is the end of the matter and it is our part to honor God by obeying His Word.
Paul instructed Timothy to “keep this commandment WITHOUT SPOT, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 6:14). A spot is a small, seemingly insignificant thing.
This particular epistle contains commandments about such things as the woman’s role in ministry (1 Tim. 2:12), which is widely considered a “non-essential” today. Paul taught Timothy to have an entirely different approach toward such teachings.
I challenge anyone to show me where the Scripture encourages the believer to treat some doctrine as “non-essential” for any reason whatsoever. I have been issuing this challenge for years and I’m still waiting for a response.
We know there are “essentials” in the sense of salvation, but this is a different issue.
Some heresies are called “damnable heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). This refers to heresies that damn one’s soul, heresies a true believer cannot hold. They are heresies pertaining to such things as the virgin birth, deity, humanity, resurrection, and atonement of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, a sound gospel, and the divine inspiration of Scripture.
We know that not all doctrine has the same significance and weight, but none of it is “non-essential.”
Consider the following issues that are widely treated as “non-essentials” today, even by those who call themselves fundamental Baptists.
Modesty is considered a non-essential, but in reality it is a fundamental doctrine, because the Bible has a lot to say about it. (In the book Dressing for the Lord, we exegete 25 key Bible passages on this topic that contain principles that can be applied to any time or culture.) The Bible has spoken on the issue of modesty and we will not treat this as some sort of “non-essential.” Those who honor God’s Word might draw clothing lines in slightly different ways, but they will not treat this matter as a “non-essential.”
Sacred music, another so-called non-essential, is actually a fundamental doctrine (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Hundreds of Scriptures deal directly with music and many others contain principles that are applicable to music. Music is one of most powerful forces in modern society. Music is at the heart and soul of worldliness and compromise and apostasy today. It is a major element in the building of a one-world church. To treat music as some sort of non-essential is spiritual folly.
Unconformity to the world is a fundamental doctrine. Many Scriptures directly and plainly teach the doctrine of separation from the world (e.g., Romans 12:22; Ephesians 5:11; Titus 2:12; James 1:27; 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17; 5:19; Proverbs 4:14-15).
Worship in spirit and truth is a fundamental doctrine (John 4:23), so the contemporary worship issue CANNOT be a non-essential.
Preservation of Scripture is a fundamental doctrine (1 Pet. 1:25).
“Whosoever will” election is a fundamental doctrine (as opposed to “sovereign” election). “Whosoever believeth” is repeated seven times in five books. The Bible clearly teaches that everyone is invited to be saved and everyone can be saved.
Repentance and proper soul winning is a fundamental doctrine. (I am convinced that “quick prayerism” is damnable and I refuse to associate closely with and minister together with those who practice it.)
Baptism is a fundamental doctrine, and the Bible’s teaching on the method of baptism is as clear as its teaching on the purpose of baptism. This is why I declined an invitation a few years ago to preach at a Bible Presbyterian seminary. I cannot treat election or baptism as “non-essentials.”
Pastoral humility is a fundamental doctrine (1 Peter 5:1-3).
Church discipline is a fundamental doctrine (1 Corinthians 5).
Separation from compromising brethren is a fundamental doctrine (e.g., 2 Thess. 3:6).
Reproving compromising preachers is a fundamental doctrine (Galatians 2:11-15).
WHAT ABOUT ROMANS 14?
Some try to use Romans 14 to support the philosophy of “in non-essentials liberty,” but Romans 14 does not say that some Bible doctrine is non-essential. It says that we are to allow one another liberty in matters in which the Bible is silent! The examples that Paul gives to illustrate his teaching are diet and the keeping of holy days. Those are things about which the New Testament faith is silent. There is no doctrine of diet in the New Testament, so it is strictly a matter of Christian liberty.
The “non-essential doctrine” is a doctrine not taught in Scripture or a doctrine that is not clear in Scripture. When we are dealing with such things as diet or holy days or the order of service or the time and the day of prayer meetings or the number of deacons or to use or not use musical instruments or whether or not to get involved in politics or to have or not have a Sunday School or formal youth ministry or the time and frequency of the Lord’s Supper or to have or not have a bus ministry or how much to support missionaries or what the preacher should wear when preaching or is it right to sell books or other things in church services and a thousand other such things, we are dealing with opinion and tradition and practicality rather than the clear teaching of God’s Word, and each church must make up its own mind in these matters.
These are the types of things that are “non-essentials.”
And if something is not exactly clear in Scripture, it should not be an issue of division. There are many things like this, such as the following: Who are the “sons of God” in Genesis 6? Who is the 12th apostle (Matthias or Paul)? When did the church start? Does 1 Timothy 2:12 mean that a woman cannot lead a mixed choir? Who are the two witnesses of Revelation 11? What is the head covering of 1 Corinthians 11? Does the Bible teach closed communion or close communion?
There are differences of opinions on such things for the very reason that the Scripture does not speak with a clear voice on these particular issues. It is not completely silent, but it is also not completely clear. Since the Lord knows how to speak clearly, this must be for a reason, and I conclude that in such matters we should allow differences of opinion.
Each church can make its own decision in such things, but decisions in such matters don’t rise to the level of law and dogmatic doctrine.
WHAT ABOUT CHRISTIAN UNITY?
What about Christian unity? Aren’t we supposed to strive for unity? Indeed, but we must interpret this according to the Bible and not according to “fundamentalist” thinking.
We see the basis of true Christian unity in passages such as the following:
“Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that YE ALL SPEAK THE SAME THING, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in THE SAME MIND and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
“Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, WITH ONE MIND striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).
This is genuine Christian unity. It is not unity in diversity. It is not a unity based on shared compromise; it is based on shared truth. It is a unity among those who believe the same thing.
Many will argue that this type of unity would be very narrow, and that is certainly true, but it is exactly what the Bible requires. Anything else is a man-made unity based on human thinking and pragmatism rather than God’s Word.
THE CENTRALITY OF THE CHURCH
It is important to note that both of the previous verses (1 Cor. 1:10; Phil. 1:27) are found in the context of epistles written to local churches: the church at Corinth and the church at Philippi.
It is the church that is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and in the context this is the “church” that has pastors and deacons (1 Tim. 3:1-14).
One of the major reasons why men have compromised the Bible’s teaching on unity and have broadened the basis of unity is because they aren’t content with the church. They want to build schools and associations and denominations and missions and movements that operate beyond the bounds of the New Testament church, regardless of how formal or informal.
Within a local church, we can practice true biblical Christian unity by having, and indeed enforcing, one mind in doctrine and practice. Our church, for example, has a lengthy statement of faith and covenant, and no one is allowed to be a member who is not likeminded. We enforce this “one mind” position on the authority of God’s Word.
Beyond the church, we can fellowship with, associate with, minister with other Christians insofar as we share “one mind” in the truth.
If I am content with the local church and am not trying to build something beyond that, I am not tempted nearly so much to compromise the truth for the sake of a “broader unity” and a “bigger tent.”
It is individuals and families and churches that fulfill the Lord’s Great Commission.
1. We must reject the “in essentials unity” principle as the heresy it is.
We must draw the lines pertaining to unity and separation at the place taught by God’s Word, not the place taught by any other “authority.”
2. How do we stand for “all doctrine”?
Having seen that all doctrine has some importance from a biblical perspective, how do we take a stand for all doctrine?
First, we teach all doctrine. This is what we are commanded to do by Christ (“teach them all things,” Matthew 28:19) and this is the example that Paul left us (“I declare unto you all the counsel of God,” Acts 20:27).
Second, we refuse to limit our message for any reason, because we have no biblical authority to do so. In 1955 Pastor David Nettleton warned about the “in essentials unity” principle in his message “A Limited Message or a Limited Fellowship.” He gave his own experience of how as a young preacher he participated in interdenominational youth ministries and that he was encouraged to avoid certain doctrines because they were controversial within the churches that were pooling together for these ministries. Things such as baptism and eternal security. Nettleton said that God spoke to him through Acts 20:27 and he saw that Paul refused to be drawn into anything that would limit his message. He then warned about the “in essentials unity” principle:
“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” (David Nettleton, “A Limited Message,” Baptist Bulletin, December 1955).
The aforementioned independent Baptist leaders aren’t calling for inter-denominationalism or out-and-out ecumenicalism, but they are buying into the same unscriptural principle that will lead to the same great compromise eventually.
Third, we stand for any doctrine that happens to be under attack. Times change and issues change. This is not the 17th century or the 18th or the 19th or even the 20th. This is the 21st century, and the issues facing fundamental Baptists are not the same today as they were when I came to Christ 40 years ago.
Consider Jude 3, where we are instructed to “earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). As Jude did not delineate what part of the faith is to be defended, the obvious meaning is that we should defend whatever aspect of the faith is under attack at a particular time.
Today among fundamental Baptists many doctrines are under attack that weren’t very widely under attack even 25 years ago, including the doctrines of sacred music, biblical repentance, biblical preservation, and “whosoever will” salvation. It is not time to downplay these things as “non-essentials.” It is time to re-double our stand for them and to reprove those who are compromising them!
3. The “in essentials unity” principle is a slippery slope.
The list of “non-essentials” tends to grow as time passes and as one’s associations broaden.
Consider again the statement by Chuck Swindoll we cited at the beginning of this report:
“There was a time in my life when 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” (Grace Awakening, p. 189).
Let this be a loud warning to fundamental Baptists who are promoting the “in essentials unity” principle, and for those who are tempted to listen to these prominent voices.
4. The “in essentials unity” principle tends to push separation out.
Those who preach “in essentials unity” tend to speak less and less about separation. They might give lip service to separation, especially at first, but in practice they say little about it and think little about it and act little on it. The emphasis of their lives and ministries is not on separation from error but on unity. The emphasis becomes “positive.” They don’t write much about separation in their blogs. They don’t preach much on separation from their pulpits.
I don’t know of any Bible Colleges that push “in essentials unity” that also have a strong emphasis on separation. They don’t have conferences on separation. They don’t tend to inform the students of the compromise and error in their own “groups.” They don’t bring informed men in to warn the students. They don’t have a lot of clear warning material in their bookstores.
The churches and schools that still emphasize separation are those who reject the “in essentials unity” principle.
When “in essentials unity” is accepted, separation tends to take a backseat, then it is placed in the trunk (or boot for you British), finally it gets thrown out of the vehicle entirely, particularly by the second generation.
And eventually the “in essentials unity” heresy will lead its proponents into the arms of the end-time one-world “church.”
5. The Bible warns that a LITTLE leaven leaveneth the whole lump. When it comes to spiritual compromise, little is big.
If error is not stopped early, it cannot be stopped at all. This is why I warn independent Baptists that are getting soft on separation and are messing around with contemporary worship music and recommending the writings of “conservative” evangelicals. Those who are doing this are building bridges to very dangerous things, and this compromise will bring unintended changes.
I would rather err on the side of being too strict than not strict enough, too separated than not separated enough. We don’t live in the 17th century or the 18th century or the 19th century. We live in the 21st century, and if you can’t discern that this is the most spiritually dangerous, most apostate, most compromising era in church history, you are blind.
6. We must think about the next generation.
Someone like Paul Chappell might be able to dabble around with contemporary worship music as he is doing and keep tight reins on the changes that come as a result, at least on the surface, but what will happen to the next generation?
One preacher likened this to playing with a cobra in a basket. Sooner or later the cobra will get out of the basket and the poison of compromising with the dangerous world of contemporary worship music will spread widely and the changes will be dramatic. In that day, some observers will say, “My, how things have changed at Lancaster Baptist Church and West Coast Baptist College! Too bad Bro. Chappell is still not at the helm.” But the seeds of downfall are being sown on Chappell’s watch by spiritual carelessness and the refusal to heed godly reproof. (See “The Foreign Spirit of Contemporary Worship Music” and “The Transformative Power of Contemporary Worship Music,” which are available on DVD from Way of Life Literature and as free video downloads at www.wayoflife.org.)
7. Separation is a matter of spiritual protection.
When it comes to associations, we must think of our own people and the effect that our associations will have on them. For example, I was invited to teach at an independent Baptist Bible college that was a joint project supported by a wide variety of IFB missionaries. Declining that, I was later invited to preach at one of the graduate services at that school. Some teachers used CCM and some didn’t. Some cared about modest dress and others didn’t want to be “strict” or “legalistic” on that issue. One of the teachers was a recent graduate of a rock & roll Southern Baptist college. One of the prominent churches involved in the venture operates a Christian bookstore that sells CCM and charismatic junk. If I were to accept such an invitation I would be sending a loud message to the people in our own church plants that this school is OK and the men who operate it are safe, but I don’t believe this and I don’t want to send this message. I know some of these men personally and like them at a personal level and appreciate many things about them, but I believe they are compromisers and that the school is built on compromise and that within one generation their churches (and their children) will be out-and-out New Evangelical or worse. Thus, I don’t want our people to be influenced by them insofar as I can help it.
8. We are living in the end time of the end times.
We are witnessing the greatest explosion of apostasy and compromise the church age has ever witnessed. If ever there were a time to strengthen the walls of separation, it is today. As we have said, we don’t live in the 17th or 18th or 19th or even the 20th century.
We live in the 21st century, and it is time to raise the walls of separation even higher, because separation is spiritual protection.
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