Doctrinal Essentials and Non-Essentials: Part 2

Greg Strand – June 11, 2014 3 Comments

To build on the general principles previously considered, we look at the helpful work of Joe Rigney, assistant professor of theology and Christian worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary, who has provided some excellent guidelines that help us to understand these issues (he gives thanks to Daniel Wallace for initially introducing these guidelines/categories to him): How to Weigh Doctrines for Christian Unity

First, Rigney notes, we must distinguish the various kinds of doctrinal essentials and that for which they are necessary. He lists four:

  1. Essential for the life of the church. These doctrines are necessary for salvation; without them, there is no true church.
  2. Essential for the health of the church. These are necessary for Christian growth; getting these doctrines wrong doesn’t put people outside the kingdom, but it may make them sick and unable to thrive. This category is best regarded as a spectrum—the closer you get to Category 1, the sicker you get.
  3. Essential for the practice of the church. These doctrines are necessary for functional unity. While you may not regard Christians who differ with you as sick or unhealthy, the practical considerations necessary to get along may prove too burdensome.
  4. Non-essential doctrines or adiaphora (things indifferent). These doctrines should never divide Christians, meaning that those who differ could be members and even elders at the same church with no division at all.

He then moves from the doctrine itself to the person who embraces the doctrine, and to discern the personal belief and why.

  1. A person may affirm the doctrine to be true.
  2. A person may fail to affirm the doctrine because he’s never heard of it.
  3. A person may deny the doctrine out of ignorance or misunderstanding.
  4. A person may deny the doctrine with a true and accurate knowledge of it.

It is critical to discern the differences in response. A person may fail to affirm out of ignorance, not active defiance. Furthermore, denial due to ignorance is not the same as denial with one’s eyes wide open.

The different reasons for embracing the position will determine whether or not one approaches this as discipleship (Acts 18:24-28) or as a rebuke (Tit. 1:9), or more seriously yet, handing over to Satan (1 Tim. 1:20). This relates to whether one is a learner who needs to be taught a more excellent way, or a false teacher who has settled convictions he/she is espousing and leading others astray.

It is also important to note that a doctrine can be affirmed with one’s lips and denied with one’s life (Tit. 1:16; 2 Pet. 2:1). The latter also needs to be confronted (Gal. 2:11-14)

The process is not yet complete. There are a couple of additional matters of importance. Distinctions need to be made between the following:

  1. churches and individuals
  2. leaders and congregants
  3. confused sheep and ravenous wolves

Finally, Rigney states  one must evaluate critically and discerningly

  1. the manner with which a person holds a doctrine. Does he make mountains out of molehills? Or molehills out of mountains?
  2. the way that doctrines hang together. While there is a slippery slope fallacy, sometimes slopes really do get slippery.
  3. the possibility of doctrinal inconsistency. I regularly encounter believers whose hearts are smarter than their heads.

Added to this is the importance of understanding church history and the history of Christian doctrine. Though not absolute truth, it does provide important guardrails as one thinks through doctrine in the present day.

Rigney concludes

True unity demands that we grow up in our thinking about doctrine and truth and fellowship. It demands Christian maturity, the kind that can speak the truth in love so that together we can all “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16).

Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

3 responses to Doctrinal Essentials and Non-Essentials: Part 2

  1. Thanks again for the helpful post. Where does the “doctrinal essential” kind #3 fit in to the EFCA with it’s congregational/church autonomy stance? Would this “essential” be more flexible than other denoms like Anglican?

    • I am grateful to hear you found this post helpful, Bill. Every association or denomination need some form/structure/polity of organizing and governing themselves. Being a part of a denomination means one agrees to abide by the structure within which that denomination functions. For that reason, I would say that we are no more or less flexible than Anglicanism. It is required for a local church to commit to and abide by congregationalism if they are to remain a local EFC church that is a part of the EFCA.

      In the EFCA it is congregational which consists of both local church autonomy and interdependency (if a local church is only autonomous, it is independent). That we are congregational and what that means is spelled out in our EFCA Articles of Incorporation. Furthermore, it is spelled out in our Statement of Faith, but as a preamble, not as an article. That was done purposefully. Though we affirm strongly congregationalism and believe it is the best understanding of the biblical text on nature, function and authority in a local church, we also acknowledge it is not the only view of church polity that has biblical support. Though polity is an essential in determining how local churches will live and minister together, it is not considered an essential on par with what is stated about the church in Article 7 of the SOF.

  2. Interestingly, “Christ the Center” podcast of the Reformed Forum has a recent discussion of Confessional Subscription and the Animus Imponentis. Although it tends to get into the Presbyterian “weeds”, some of your readers might find the discussion interesting.

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