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    by Brent Barnett

The Extremely Dangerous Fallacy of Partitioning the Bible Into "Essentials" and "Nonessentials"
Date Posted: August 23, 2006

There is a famous quote that floats around Christian circles and has untold influence upon church philosophy and practice. I dare say that many times we give this quote more credibility than the Bible in terms of shaping our approach to ministry and the proclamation of the Word. Let me explain. The quote reads, "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, diversity; in all things, charity." Though the original meaning is somewhat unclear, the quote has almost universally been taken to mean a partitioning of the Scripture into two distinct categories, "essentials" and "nonessentials." The "essentials" are the things that all Christians must agree upon. To disagree with an essential doctrine would be to imply that one is not saved or part of the Christian faith at all. The essential doctrines would include the inspiration of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the sacrificial death of Christ and atonement for sin, original sin, and salvation by grace alone through faith alone. The "nonessentials" are any doctrine that a Christian might hold outside of what is required for saving faith. Thus, anything that does not deal directly with the person and deity of Christ or with the gospel message can be considered a "nonessential" or peripheral issue, according to this philosophy. A "nonessential" doctrine, for example, might include things such as how one interprets the creation account, what position one takes on roles in marriage, where one stands on predestination and free will, what someone believes about speaking in tongues, and how one makes decisions in matters pertaining to Christian morality and conscience. There are many, many important truths contained in the Scriptures, yet according to this philosophy of partitioning, if they are not directly pertaining to salvation or the deity of Christ, we can label them as unnecessary. The "advantage" in this, according to this philosophy, is that it should keep Christians from experiencing conflict, division, and controversy over difficult matters of Christian doctrine. The goal, they say, is to keep it simple and make the gospel the major issue. If only we major on the major issues, in other words, then we can disregard, minimize, and just tolerate our differences when it comes to the minor, peripheral, and nonessential issues. Some go so far as to conclude that it really isn’t even worth discussing, analyzing, or working though these "minor" issues because they are just that, "minor." As long as we all believe in Jesus, they say, do the other things really matter?

Herein lies the danger of parceling the Scripture into essential and nonessential categories. If everything besides Jesus and the gospel is nonessential, then what motivates us to study the Scriptures to show ourselves approved unto God, workmen that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15)? If the vast majority of Scripture is really "up for grabs" and not absolutely important, then why did God bother to include it in the first place? Why would He make claims about cursing anyone who adds or subtracts even one word of it (Revelation 22:18-19)? Why would He say that He has inspired all of the Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16)? Why would Paul say that the things written in the Old Testament were for our learning (Romans 15:4)? We must understand that we have no right or authority to categorize the Scripture and to decide what is necessary and what is not. Sure, some things are necessary for salvation while some are not. But how dare we tell God that some part of His revelation to us is irrelevant and extraneous. One Christian college professor told me once in the course of making an argument about one of these "peripheral" issues that, when arriving at his position, he simply tossed out one of the key verses that would lend credibility to the opposing view. The danger of placing ourselves as those in authority and judgment over the Scripture is that we then tell God what part of His Word we will accept and what part we will ignore or reject. This denies God’s authority and perfection, and it opens the door to a wide variety of fallacies, deceptions, and worldly philosophies.

The point of salvation is not to continue as we are as babes in Christ forever. We are to grow up into Christian adults, attaining to maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:13-14) and a full assurance of our faith (Hebrews 10:22). If all we ever know are merely the "essentials," God is still merciful to let us into heaven if we put our faith in the right truths. Yet God’s intention was never to simply leave us in such a place as immature babies as we declare that the rest of Scripture is unknowable, irrelevant, boring, or doomed to a plurality of viewpoints no matter what. The reality is that Scripture does have an intended interpretation. Do we honestly think that God wasn’t sure what He was trying to say? He put into Scripture exactly what was supposed to be there, every word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, and grammatical subtlety. They are all there for a reason and for our learning. Some things He has kept secret, but what He has revealed to us in His Word, He has revealed that we might obey it (Deuteronomy 29:29). Thus, the entirety of Scripture is necessary and essential and ought to be believed, studied, understood, analyzed, discussed, and contended for. We need to have an appreciation for the whole counsel of God, and together we ought to humbly strive to attain to the unity of the faith, which is only possible as we take the Scripture to mean what God intended it to mean, a difficult and lifelong challenge and task. But it is well worth it, for the only other option is to minimize the importance of Scripture and to tolerate Biblical ignorance and erroneous viewpoints, mistakenly calling such worldly tolerance Christian love. In order to have charity in all things as Augustine suggests, we must not let go of truth in order to achieve the unity we all desire. Unity of doctrinal truth and Christian love must go hand in hand.

We cannot afford to separate what God has given us into important and unimportant compartments. God calls us to study, meditate upon, and love the whole counsel of God. In fact, if we do not teach people all that Christ has commanded us, we are leaving out a vital part of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). Some people may want to merely toss all of the doctrinal frustration and debate aside, fearing division and conflict. Thus, they minimize the gospel, focus only on the "essentials," and leave any true convert to be only a babe in Christ. How tragic is this philosophy! This belief has created an entire generation of baby Christians who are so dependent upon commentaries, study Bibles, pastors, and their favorite Christian author to be able to give them an answer when they need it. There is nothing wrong with using the resources God has given us, but at some point we are to be able to dig through the Word of God by ourselves according to the work of the Spirit within us so that we can become teachers of others. If we remain dependent upon others to give us all the answers, then we are still babes in Christ and not maturing as we ought to be. We will be unable to instruct and encourage others in their time of need. We have got to return to an emphasis on full and complete teaching of the Bible cover to cover. God wrote a book, and we can’t stand in judgment over it, picking and choosing what we want to believe, accept, preach, and apply. He stands in judgment over us. His Word stands in judgment over us. We must learn it, heed it, and bow before it, even trembling before it (Isaiah 66:2).

If anyone still has some doubts about the importance of teaching the full counsel of God, here is the clincher. At the end of Hebrews 5, the writer rebukes his readership for needing to receive the milk of the word again rather than being able to move on to more advanced truths and knowledge, which he refers to as eating solid food. He says, beginning in verse 10 and continuing to verse 14,

"Concerning him [an Old Testament priest named Melchizedek who was a foreshadowing of Christ] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil."

The author wants to give these readers some real solid food to establish them in their faith. They have been saved long enough that they, rather than being dependent upon others for truth, should be able to be teachers of others. Yet they have remained such infants in Christ that they lack discernment, being even more vulnerable than they were before coming to Christ in that now they think that they are knowledgeable when they really are not. Thus, they are even harder to teach and easier to deceive. Notice this: the elementary principles of the word of God are referred to as milk! In other words, what we have been calling the "essentials," namely the basics about Jesus and the gospel, are nothing more than milk. What we have been calling the "nonessentials," the writer of Hebrews calls solid food. So if we discard the nonessentials as being less important or not important at all then we have relegated ourselves to being infants in Christ forever because we are only taking in milk! We need to understand that truths about Christ and the gospel are only the introductory elementary principles about Christ and the Christian life. We have to move beyond that.

The writer of Hebrews continues his argument in chapter 6, emphasizing the danger of this perpetual infancy because of a failure to teach the whole counsel of God. He continues in verses 1 through 8 which say:

"Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. And this we will do, if God permits. For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned."

Now, by the way, this passage is traditionally one of the most controversial passages in the Scripture. The easy way out when approaching this passage would be to label it "nonessential" and go on to something more basic, comfortable, and entertaining. Yet it is of extreme importance to us. That we have a right view of this passage, and an opinion on it at all for that matter, will greatly impact how we live and lead our churches. This is why God calls all of Scripture essential in that it is all inspired by the Holy Spirit of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Let’s start at the end of this passage and work backwards. It says that some Christians end up being nearly cursed, which Biblically would mean damnation. They are not damned but they are close to it because they have not been a fruitful field of good works for the Lord. In other words, they make it into heaven virtually empty-handed, devoid of any significant eternal rewards. Other Christians do bring forth a fruitful harvest and will be rewarded accordingly. So how does a person get to the point where his life becomes a barren wasteland of Christian callousness and immaturity, making him like this cursed field of thorns and thistles? The writer says that he falls away from the truth that he knew. He received the basics, being enlightened by God, having received the gift of salvation. Yet being vulnerable because of his ignorance and having taken in no solid food from the Scriptures, he gets led astray into deception and/or rebellion, putting Christ to open shame. Although saved, he may be so far deluded into falsehood that his life actually is a danger to other believers and to the truth. He may still go to church and be a "nice" Christian. But his mind is not submitted to the truth of God’s Word, and he is no longer an effective instrument in God’s hands, capable of bearing fruit for the kingdom. This is an extremely dangerous place to be in because it is nearly impossible for a person who thinks he is mature when he is not to come to realize that he is eating poison and not true solid food.

Now stay with me here. This seals the argument. How did they find Christ in the first place? Somebody laid a foundation of repentance from dead, selfish works. They trusted in Christ, repented of their sin, and believed the essentials of the Christian gospel. The issue however, is that this foundation was laid over and over and over again. They were not being taught the meat of the word, but they were given shallow evangelistic teaching over and over again. They were, in essence, grown adults, who week after week and Sunday after Sunday climbed into their high chair or booster seat and let their pastor bottle feed them the gospel and Christian basics.

Yet the writer of Hebrews seeks to convict us even more deeply still. What we define as the basics and "essentials" of Scripture are even more minimized than how the writer of Hebrews defines "essentials." He says that the basics and essentials are not just Jesus and the gospel but also things such as the resurrection of the dead, which would include topics like the rapture, the second coming, the resurrection body, and so on. Other basic doctrines that he refers to include the following: the meaning and purpose of the laying on of hands, the purpose of ceremonial cleansing now that we are under the New Covenant, and the truths surrounding the judgment of God such as eternal rewards, eternal punishment, and the judgment seat of Christ. These are not what most Christians would have labeled basic issues from which we need to move on to maturity. In other words, even what we have called the bare essentials is a smaller category than what the writer of Hebrews calls essential. Things that we might push aside because of their doctrinal difficulty are called mere milk that is appropriate for new converts in Christ. The irony is that these Christians are rebuked for their lack of maturity even though they know more than many Christians know today while Christians today think they are eating solids when they are still babies in Christ. The truth we must face is that we are doing a poor job at even bottle feeding in the church, and yet the reality is that we think that we are doing good to overlook and minimize the "nonessential" issues of Scripture that are necessary for spiritual growth to maturity in Christ and for completing the Great Commission. Our pride is actually are shame. What we are doing is blatantly wrong and extremely dangerous, making converts vulnerable to falling away to such an extent that it is impossible to renew them to repentance and fruit-bearing because they are so arrogant and deceived. The reality is that babies need supervision; they are dependent upon adults. We are not to remain babies in Christ, but we are to become adults who can pass on the whole counsel of God to other believers.

I hope that this exhortation from Hebrews demonstrate of Scripture is. There are many more important passages like this. In fact, the Scripture is filled with them. That is what makes the Scripture the Scripture; that is why it is unlike any other book. Every word in it has proceeded from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4), and it does not go forth void. Whenever it is read, spoken, or thought about, it always accomplishes something. Oh, that we would long for the pure milk of the Word like we did when we first came to Christ. Remember how wonderful, refreshing, satisfying, and pure the truth of the gospel was when it first took root in our hearts? We are to continue to approach the Scripture that way, just like a new Christian longs for the pure milk of the word. 1 Peter 2:2 says, "Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation." What Peter is saying is that we need to eat our solids with the same passion and faith with which we drank our milk. If we do not, we will never grow in respect to salvation. We must treasure the Scriptures from cover to cover, not changing it, ignoring it, or glossing over it. We need to dig into it, study it, love it, memorize it, meditate upon it, and obey it. It is our food upon which we live. If we don’t take it in regularly and move to solid food, we might appear to be living on the outside but we are dying on the inside. How tragic that this inward perishing happens in the church and even because of how a church chooses to do its teaching and ministry! I beg you and challenge you to approach the Scriptures anew with a fresh desire to know the God Who bothered to write them, preserve them, and give them to you. It was God’s Word which spoke the world into existence, Jesus was the Word made flesh, and God promises that His Word will endure forever, whether we receive it and believe it or not. Will you today open up God’s letter, read it, believe it, and receive it in totality? Indeed, it is time that we "grow up" and help others to do the same.

You might also be interested in Brent's book on revival called Catch Fire: A Call to Spiritual Awakening. You can preview some sample chapters at http://www.needrevival.com. More Bible teaching from Brent is available, as is his book, at http://www.relevantbibleteaching.com.

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Biography Information:
Brent Barnett is founder and author of the Bible teaching ministry, Relevant Bible Teaching, found on the web at www.relevantbibleteaching.com. He has authored Catch Fire: A Call for Revival and Times of Refreshing: 100 Devotions to Enrich Your Walk with God. Brent's greatest joys in life are his wife Sarah, his daughter Anneke, and his son Kyler.  
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