Here it is in a nutshell. We believe in distinguishing essentials from non-essentials when it comes to the Christian faith.
The seed thought for this statement comes from a ideas penned almost four hundred years ago. Germany was being devastated by religious conflict – wars of swords as well as words. During what would later be called the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), an otherwise obscure theologian, Peter Meiderlinus (1582-1651) wrote a small tract under the pseudonym Rupertus Meldinius. He urged moderation and love and concluded with a now-famous motto often incorrectly attributed to others: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity."
At Corinth Reformed Church, we are part of a denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC), that embodies an inclusiveness almost as broad as the Church universal. We emerged from the German Reformed tradition, and that heritage has particular emphases. We are also Corinth, distinct from every other UCC or Reformed church. With the autonomy that comes from being part of the UCC, we have to decide what is essential and non-essential and how that plays out in our church life.
Four concentric circles
(right) help to illustrate essentials and non-essentials. The two inner
circles (core and confessions) represent essentials, while the two outer
circles (convictions and conscience) represent non-essentials.
The core represents the center of our faith. What are the commonalities that define and bind Christians? When the United Church of Christ was formed in the 1950s, the founders believed that what binds Christians together should prevail over what divides them. There is a mystical element about the core. We should hesitate to judge the validity of another person's relationship to God through Christ. God is sovereign and we answer to ultimately to him alone. We, however, can and must possess and proclaim the witness of the New Testament: the good news that Jesus Christ, Son of God, died and rose again for our salvation. When one turns from an old way of life, believes in Jesus Christ, accepts him as Savior, and confesses him as Lord, that person receives the gift of salvation. That is the core of the Christian faith.
Faith in Jesus Christ is essential.
Confessions: What are the central points of the historic Christian faith?
The next concentric circle is labeled "confessions." Confessions the basic truths of our faith that the church has embraced and proclaimed throughout the twenty centuries of Christian history. Some writers call the confessions the “ancient Christian consensus.”
The Apostles' Creed summarizes the confessions: God the Father, created everything that is. Jesus Christ God’s unique and eternal Son, was born of a virgin, suffered, died, was buried, rose again, ascended into heaven, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Holy Trinity, who binds together believers into the universal Christian church. We believe in the coming resurrection of the body and in eternal life.
Embracing all these confessions may not be necessary for salvation. God only knows. These affirmations are still essentials, however, because they lie so close to the core that we jeopardize the integrity of the core when we compromise the confessions.
At the heart of these confessions lies another confession often left unspoken in church history because it was assumed: that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the final authority for faith and practice.
Confessions are the teachings of the Bible that the universal church from its apostolic origin has found to be consistent with the witness of Scripture. We might, then, add other issues of faith and ethics to the list of essentials if they represent the broad consensus of the church across the years and around the world.
A commitment to the gospel (Core) and a commitment to the Scriptures (Confessions) are both essentials, but they are not equally essential. The core is more essential than the confessions, because faith in Jesus Christ is the way to eternal life.
Convictions: Where does the Bible speak directly?
The third and fourth circles represent differences among Christians equally committed to the authority of the Bible and the historic Christian faith. These differences often divide one believer or group of believers from others. We believe that division is not only unnecessary; it is harmful to the mission and witness of the church of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself prayed in John 17 that his followers would be united so that the world would know we belong to him.
The circle marked “convictions” is designated “non-essential,” but it is more important than the circle marked “conscience.”
The fact that Scripture is our final authority is essential. But as Christians from various backgrounds and perspectives seek to understand the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they do come to different conclusions about its meaning and application.
Christians disagree, for example, about how baptism should be applied (sprinkling, pouring, or immersion). We disagree about the leadership roles of women, and about divorce and remarriage. We differ over the details surrounding the second coming of Jesus. In each of these areas, Christians make an argument based on the teaching of the Bible. These are “convictions.”
As a Reformed church, we have some distinctive emphases and teachings shared with other Christians strongly influenced by a stream of the church that traces its roots to the 16th century Swiss reformers Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. These ideas are based on the Bible, but “Reformed” Christians often give greater emphasis than other traditions.
Not all members of Corinth would affirm these “Reformed” convictions, nor are they required to. These are examples of faith statements that are “non-essential” but still biblically based and important to our particular heritage.
Conscience: What other opinions are important?
The final circle, the outermost one, is "conscience." These are matters on which Christians express personal opinions without a strong biblical reason. Most Christians would argue that their opinions in this circle are compatible with the Bible, but the Bible does not give a clear, consistent answer on these questions.
Here are some issues of "conscience"--
"Convictions" and "conscience" are both "non-essentials," but they are unequal in importance. The question of divorce and remarriage is more significant than whether I mow my lawn on Sunday.
In all things, Charity
At Corinth Reformed Church, we invite others to join us in seeking God in Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. As far as attendance and participation in all the services and activities of our church fellowship, we must be unconditionally inclusive. We do not even exclude avowed non-Christians from attendance and participation, do we?
Neither can we hang a sign outside our church, literally or symbolically, that says "No fundamentalists" or "No liberals" or "No Doubters" or "Only Those Who Have It All Together" or "Pro-life Only" or "Pro-choice Only" or "No Blacks" or "No Beards."
Our attitude must be a sign that invites all to gather here, to seek God, to join in worship, and to share in our small group ministries. We should deliberately invite honest seekers and candid strugglers, including those who may think, act, or look differently than we do. We invite all to consider with us who Jesus Christ is and what he has done, and to study the Scriptures with us as our primary and ultimate authority for faith and life.
Membership in the church raises the discussion to a different level. We exercise limited exclusiveness as a prerequisite for membership. All members of Corinth profess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and promise to live the Christian life and share in the responsibilities and privileges of the community – worship, giving, and serving.
Church leaders (lay and clergy) must affirm the core and the confessions so that the church will a clear witness to the gospel and pass the deposit of the historic faith to the next generation.
In non-essentials, however, we are inclusive. We lovingly include in our circles of fellowship and cooperation those who may differ in matters of conviction and conscience. Diversity is not an unfortunate by-product of what it means to be the church. Diversity is at the heart of the church's identity.
Our attitude toward the viewpoints of others should reflect Oliver Cromwell's plea to the rigid Scots of his day: "I beseech you by the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken."
Actions must back up attitudes. C. S. Lewis wrote, " Do not waste your time bothering whether you "love" your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him."
Our ultimate goal is to attract people to Jesus Christ. We certainly do not love perfectly, but we pray that our words and actions will increasingly reflect the character and priorities of Christ. Whether the issue is essential or non-essential, we need to live in love.
That’s what we believe at Corinth.