Note: This article has been excerpted from The Good and Beautiful Community, by James Bryan Smith.
Augustine is given credit for the quote: "In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity." If in fact it came from Augustine, it was his way of dealing with the difficult matter of disagreement in the church. It is a helpful principle that offers us a way to think about how we can stay unified even when we disagree.
John Wesley liked this aphorism and modified it slightly in his preaching to the early Methodists.
Essentials and Nonessentials
The early Methodist societies consisted of people from different classes and backgrounds. Wesley quickly saw the problem of division on the basis of class, and he solved it (somewhat) by asking those who were wealthy not to dress in clothing that would set them apart from those who were poor.
In the matter of division on the basis of doctrine, Wesley found a solution, as explained in his famous sermon "The Catholic Spirit." (The word catholic here does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church, but rather means "universal.")
Wesley believed that the only way for the church to be unified was to learn how to distinguish between essentials and nonessentials, discover how to accept our differences in the nonessentials, and then decide not to let the differences overshadow our common faith. He believed love and commitment to Jesus were essential. Everything else was simply nonessential. He did not mean unimportant; he meant that those things should not divide us.
Wesley allowed differences of opinion, but he, like Paul, appealed to the Methodists not to let their differences prevent them from loving each other. In two sections of "The Catholic Spirit" Wesley states the matter clearly: "But although a difference of opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we can't think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt we may"
Later in the sermon, Wesley gets more specific:
I ask not therefore of him with whom I would unite in love, "Are you of my Church? Of my congregation?" …I inquire not, "Do you receive the Supper of the Lord in the same posture and manner that I do?" ...Nay, I ask not of you…whether you allow baptism and the Lord's Supper at all. Let all these things stand by: we will talk of them, if need be, at a more convenient season. My only question at present is this: "Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?"
We can, and will, differ in how we think, which style of worship we prefer, which method of baptism we affirm—but these are not essential. The only thing that matters is that our hearts beat in love for Jesus. If we have that, we are united. Then we can say once again, Jesus is Lord!
If your heart beats in love for Jesus, then take my hand and we will walk together in fellowship.
How to Practice Love
John Wesley not only gave us a helpful way to stay unified even if we disagree, but in that same sermon he also offered five ways we can show love to those with whom we differ or disagree in the non-essentials:
- Treat them as companions.
- Do not think or speak evil of them.
- Pray for them.
- Encourage them to do good.
- Collaborate with them in ministry
These excellent suggestions will go a long way toward helping us not only to get along, but also to love fellow Christians we have differences with.