By Walter Fenton
June 11, 2021
The succinct quote, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity,” is an aphorism variously attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), John Wesley (1703 – 1791), and to a number of theologians in between them. It is often cited as Christians attempt to reach consensus regarding their core theological and ethical convictions and how they will live them out in church and society. The quote is full of wise counsel, and yet it also begs two important questions: “What are the essentials? And who determines what they are?”
As theological conservatives prepare for the formation of the Global Methodist Church we must confront these questions, which is a good thing. Answering them invites us into a time of discernment, and at its best, discernment involves communal engagement with Scripture, the received teachings of the church universal, and the world as we find it.
Fortunately, we are standing on the shoulders of ancestors who have bequeathed to us a treasury of essential faith statements. We find these biblically rooted confessions in the great creeds of the church (e.g., the Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian, and Chalcedonian Creeds). To be sure, we continue to explore and even debate the meaning of these great confessions, but we do not call them into question. We believe they are so essential to what it means to call one’s self a Christian that we accept them by faith, give thanks for them, and trust that God will continue to illuminate their meaning for us even we when find ourselves lost in the mystery, wonder, and love of them. In these profound theological essentials we find unity.
We also are called to put our faith into practice as we live it out each day. Christians have always maintained there are ethical and moral essentials that are marks of the Christian life, covering everything from the healthy ordering of family life to the just ordering of church and society. To discern what these ethical and moral essentials are, Christians have turned to Scripture where we find the Mosaic law, the teachings of the prophets, and of course the exemplary life and teachings of Jesus and the Apostles and disciples who followed in his footsteps. We also look to the church universal, to what it has taught and practiced in all times and all places, as it has sought to live according to God’s ways down through the ages. In doing so, Christians have come to adhere to ethical and moral practices they believe are essentials for Christ followers. We confess our struggles to routinely practice them, but we do not question them or attempt to justify our refusal to live by them. Rather, we call on our merciful savior to forgive us our sins and enable us to become his joyful and obedient disciples.
So we have, at least in large part, answers to our two questions: What are the essentials? And who determines what they are? The essentials are derived from the holy interplay of Scripture, creeds, and confessions lived out in the practices of the church universal. The power of the Holy Spirit working through them is the rightful determinant of the essentials that unite us. And so, like very fortunate heirs, our task is to receive and steward them in humility, to live by them daily, and to teach and share them widely.
However, there are other matters where what the essentials are and who determines them are less clear cut. These matters will require the discernment of the Global Methodist Church’s convening General Conference, and then the consent and cooperation of the people who align with the church. Many of these matters are what we might call the denomination’s internal essentials: e.g., Will its governing structure be episcopal or congregationalist in form, or perhaps a blend of the two? How will it hold its clergy, laity, and church leaders accountable to essential teachings and practices? What will be its authoritative teachings on a range of social, cultural, and international issues that its people will expect it to address?
Theological conservatives are not naïve regarding the challenges ahead of us. As frail and fallible human beings, we anticipate passionate disagreements and robust debates. But like any healthy and vibrant church we will work together to identify and affirm those essentials that will unite us, allow for liberty in non-essentials, and charity in all things.
For now, we take heart in all that already unites us: those great and essential teachings and practice of the Christian faith that have been handed down through the centuries. In joyful obedience we will go forth to proclaim the Gospel in both word and deed. We will invite people to know the rich love and grace of God that comes through Jesus Christ, our Lord and our Savior. And since experience has taught us how important it is to the unity of the church that we hold one another accountable, we will guard the faith and look over one another in charity.
We give God thanks for the prophets, the Apostles, the great saints of old, and on down to the dear saints who patiently taught us the faith in Sunday School classes, Bible studies, and small accountability groups. It is a marvelous and humbling work that has been going on for centuries and we believe will go on to the end of the age.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.