Greg Garrett: What Is Essential?

In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty. In all things, love.

In sequel to my developing argument of the past few weeks on theological touchstones and angry partisanship, this week I offer a conclusion from my book [Faithful Citizenship](

We are divided as nation and Church over partisan questions that are not worth coming to blows over-at least not in terms of Christian theology.

I don't in any way wish to diminish any of these issues, which are important, and often affect real human lives. I have sat with a pregnant student who felt she had no choice but abortion, and felt the grief of a woman who felt she could not have a child-but must. I have heard the anger of gay friends who wanted to be married in their own church and faith, and the passion of Christians who argued that homosexuality is simply wrong.

These issues are worth our deliberation, and affect real human beings, but I want to be clear about one theological issue. In terms of Christian understanding, almost all of them are secondary moral questions, however they may exercise us.

They are not what we would describe theologically as "essential" to salvation.

Brian McLaren talks about how people outside the Church are often most turned off by-or people inside the Church most often become people outside the Church because of-issues that a particular congregation or denomination has made into an essential part of Christian faith when really it is nothing of the kind. While particular churches and denominations may define themselves by certain political stands, nothing in the historic Creeds requires us, for example, to oppose abortion or promote traditional marriage; nothing requires us to decry capital punishment or support Christian pacifism.

The Bible and Christian tradition may and do have things to say about these issues, and all of them, without doubt, deserve our thoughtful enquiry and active engagement so that we can choose how we live our lives in conformity with Christian teachings. But they do not, themselves, constitute beliefs essential to salvation, such as the belief in one God, belief in Jesus as the Son of God, or belief that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus constitute, in some way, our redemption (and even these essentials have been argued-hence the existence of the historic Creeds!).

There is an old saying about how we deal with controversy within the Church (sometimes attributed to John Wesley, it is the motto of the Moravian Church): "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty. In all things, love."

We don't-and can't-agree on everything. And yet, we must live and work together.

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels-who disappointed many Republicans (and some Democrats) when he chose not to run for president in 2012, articulated this hope that we could set aside the culture wars and focus on more substantive matters. He told a British interviewer that "the next president, whoever he is, 'would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We're going to just have to agree to get along for a little while.'" Similarly, Barack Obama first rose to public notice for speeches saying that America is not Republican or Democrat, Catholic or Protestant, Red State or Blue, but that all of us will have to work together to accomplish what must be done, a statement he reiterated in his 2012 State of the Union speech.

In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty. In all things, love.

Still, we will have to address the fact that some of us have decided that our own important issues are essentials of the faith. We've mentioned Glenn Beck's argument that an attention to social justice marks a church or parish as un-Christian; pastors Gregory Boyd and Mike Slaughter have each written about how they lost members from their large churches for suggesting from the pulpit that God's take on a partisan political issue may or may not be the same as their parishioners. The Rev. Slaughter says that some of his congregants actually came to him and said "You are not preaching the Gospel!" whereupon he told them that he has been preaching the same gospel-the Trinitarian God, the lordship of Christ, the gospel as good news to all, especially the poor and disenfranchised-since 1979.

Most of the candidates in this year's Republican primary have argued that their defense of traditional marriage and opposition to abortion are essential to the preservation of our nation and of the Christian faith. Liberals, for their part, are sometimes guilty of similar demagoguery from their end, and were there a Democratic primary in 2012, we would doubtless hear candidates trying to elevate some of their issues to "essential" status-and attacking anyone who failed to live up to their standards of orthodoxy.

But in this book, we have continuously tried to step back from binary and partisan understandings and back to the Christian tradition itself. If we are seeking to follow the Two-Fold Commandment, we have to agree to remain in conversation with each other even when we fundamentally disagree about the issues. That is where "liberty" comes in; God has made us, as we said earlier, free to disagree, and so that must somehow be a part of God's plan, as inconvenient as it may seem to us.

We also have to agree to love each other no matter what we ourselves conclude about the questions. All of us are seeking to live out our call from God as faithfully as we can, and we are all seeking to live in accordance with our understanding of faith and doctrine. My Republican or evangelical friends do not espouse differing views just to make me mad; they do it because they sincerely think they, their candidates, or their beliefs have something to offer.

It took me some time to learn this; perhaps you are still working on the concept. I was badly hurt by the church of my youth, and for many years I was filled with anger and resentment toward them and toward God. It took some decades for me to realize that those good Southern Baptists had acted in a certain way and asked me to believe certain things not because they wished me harm, but because they were trying to transmit the most valuable thing they had, their understanding of the way to eternal life with God. That epiphany rocked my world and left me chastened and more willing to listen to others without judgment. In these places of disagreement and misunderstanding, it is here that we have to behave with love. We are all making our way toward the light as best we can with imperfect knowledge of God, and only love-as the Captain and Tennille once sang-will keep us together.

All the same we do-and must-determine what we ourselves believe to be right so that we can act, pray, organize, and vote. Moral issues must be lived out in the public arena, since our lives are lived there as well.

Do these issues require us to take political action? Some may. America remains one of the few nations in which criminals are still legally executed (a distinction we share with Iran, China, North Korea, and a few other close friends). If my faith tells me that all life is sacred and only God may give or take it, I may choose to rally against capital punishment at the state capitol, or lobby my state and federal lawmakers. Since my home state, Texas, prides itself on how often we execute criminals, the ballot box will not avail me; my fellow citizens have reached other conclusions. I will have to go to court, file challenges, and seek legal help. All of these will be very political approaches to a moral problem.

Other issues may not require this sort of political action. If we profess that absolute ethic of life we just spoke of (an ethic that we would also, incidentally, have to apply to war and poverty, among other issues) we could explore political avenues to change the laws in America so that abortion is no longer legally available. But as ethicist Richard Hays notes, although Christians may respectfully disagree about an absolute ban on abortions, we can all agree that it would be ideal if the Church (local and universal) acted in such a way that fewer abortions were needed, all children were welcomed and provided for, and fathers were called to be responsible for their children. "A church that seriously attempted to live out such a commitment," says Professor Hays, "would quickly find itself extended to the limits of its resources, and its members would be called upon to make serious personal sacrifices. In other words, it would find itself living as the Church envisioned by the New Testament." . . .

Ultimately the Kingdom way-the Way of the Cross-Jesus' Way-is about transformation through love. It doesn't mean avoiding the issues or telling anything less than the truth-think of all those times that Jesus took the religious leaders of his people to task for their attention to unessential details when love, justice, and mercy were being trampled, or Jesus accusing Peter of doing the work of Satan for tempting him with inessentials when he knew his way forward. But it does mean that instead of seeking to dominate, the Christian way seeks personal transformation. A changed heart will lead us in the direction of what is right.

Taken with permission from Greg's column on

Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.