You serious church attenders, is your church the best around? I’m not asking if your church is perfect, but would you trade your overall church package (doctrine, liturgy, organization, etc.) for some other church’s nearby? Is there something, perhaps unspoken, or hidden deep inside you that says, “We actually have put together the Christian thing better than most churches”? I realized, one day, that although I was friendly to other churches, I still secretly felt slightly superior to those Methodists, Episcopalians, and Lutherans down the street. They had my sympathy. They were doing their best. But if my church shut down tomorrow, I’m not sure I could join another outside of my denomination. Too many differences and even compromises would have to be made.
Can any of you identify what I’m saying? This is especially on my mind as my twenty-something children, young adults, are independently making their own church choices. I want them to choose a “good” one, even if it’s not in our denomination; which means that I hope it will reflect at least most of our denomination’s values. This raises a serious question: what is essential for a believer and their church to be solid and pleasing to God?
The Bible tells us, in Ephesians 4:4-6: “4 There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” That repetition of “one” feels a bit disturbing in light of what I’ve just admitted.
My main concern for myself, for my children, and for you and yours, fellow-believers, is not that we find one uniform model of Christianity to follow. That won’t happen and, anyway, isn’t necessary. My concern is that we hang tightly onto the spiritually invaluable essentials while holding more loosely to the extras. This leads to our first question:
Why is it important that I learn to discern the essentials from the extras?
1. It’s important to discern the essentials from the extras because the essentials matter far more
What is most important – the style of worship or that the gospel is clearly taught? Obviously, the latter is far more crucial. People with a variety of worship preferences will end up in heaven, but no one ends up in heaven if they’ve never been saved. Some beliefs and practices are foundation-stones while others are more ornamentations or preferences,
2. It’s important to discern the essentials from the extras because the essentials are more worth contending for
This follows from the last point. While it’s often necessary to discuss and even debate extras (should we bring drums into the sanctuary?), it’s crucial to choose our battles. Much of what causes dissension in a church isn’t that important in the long run. It doesn’t change our main mission. On the other hand, sometimes, for the sake of peace, we may buckle and yield on essential doctrines and practices. That’s cowardly and damages the integrity of the church.
3. It’s important to discern the essentials from the extras because it gives us a more humble spirit toward other churches and believers
I’ve come to realize that, despite our differences, many who differ from me are also are saved, and love Jesus just as much, if not more, than I do. We have the crucial factors in common. Who cares if your preacher wears a robe and mine doesn’t or if our music is more traditional? Jesus uses many styles and approaches to draw people to him.
4. It’s important to discern the essentials from the extras because, over time, every church changes
You may think that your church represents the “good old-time” church of the apostles, but it doesn’t. Not even close. While the essentials should stay constant (and, by the way, those essentials took time for the early church to figure out), the extras are constantly evolving. I remember my father once telling me: “The words “Christian” and “rock and roll” don’t belong in the same sentence” (shows you how old I am, doesn’t it?). Today it’s a forgotten issue (and should be). If we can’t let go of some extras, “the way our church has always done it”, we’ll lose touch with our culture and the current generation of younger believers. Paul himself, while rock-solid about the basic gospel, still said, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some”(1 Cor. 9:22).
5. It’s important to discern the essentials from the extras because we need to work together with believers from other denominations
Our world is in a vicious spiritual war. The stakes are enormous. We cannot afford the luxury of just serving out of our little denominational ghettos. We must come together as the universal church more often if we’re to accomplish what has to be done. We need each other. If we keep too much to “our own” we lose the advantage of combined strength and a united front. In fact, too often, the enemy uses us against each other and we go down under “friendly fire”
6. It’s important to discern the essentials from the extras because the essentials are what keep me growing
It’s possible to be very religiously active without being spiritually vital. The issue here is that we can, like the Pharisees, be “straining at gnats”, all caught up in peripheral issues of spirituality, without gaining the life they’re intended to give us. So the extras become empty rituals, which not only lack much value, but which may actually lead us away from God. Our spiritual life becomes a series of external observances which fail to transform our hearts. They may, in fact, become a source of pride, or, at the very least a cause for empty satisfaction that we’re faithful Christians. Isaiah said, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. . . “ (Is. 29:131a). We have gained the “letter” of the law, but lost its “spirit’.
7. It’s important to discern the essentials from the extras so that we invest our time and concern where it counts the most
I’ll discuss some particular essentials more in the next installment. Today I want to focus my energy on what matters most to God. What will He be most concerned about when we have that final talk together on judgment day? Will He care how many times a week I went to church? How many Bible verses I memorized? If others saw me as a “good Christian”? If I followed a certain branch of theology? All of these can certainly contribute to my spiritual life, but they only matter if, in the end, they enhance my walk with God. I may be a brilliant Bible scholar and yet still be a lousy Christian if I lose sight of the essentials. Or I may be outwardly unimpressive to others and yet still have grown deep in the Lord.
Knowing the difference between essentials and extras is the key to pleasing God and accomplishing His work. Tune in next time for a consideration of how to discern this.