Unity, Liberty and Charity
There’s a catch-phrase that’s been around “Meck” (Mecklenburg Community Church, which I pastor) for a long time: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
It’s not original with us. Though the origin is debated, it is most commonly attributed to Augustine.
The idea is simple: the beliefs, convictions and doctrines that are central to the Christian faith are hills we must die on. No matter what it might cost us in terms of attendance, media coverage… Christianity is what it is. There are certain things involved in being a Christian church, certain beliefs and convictions and doctrines. If you cease to hold to those beliefs, you cease to be Christian.
If you want a precis, start with the Nicene Creed.
But in non-essentials, we want to be advocates for liberty. In other words, there are some things that thinking, devoted followers of Christ have disagreed on for 2,000 years.
For example, consider the various views surrounding the unfolding of the end times. At Meck we have folks who are pre-millennial, amillennial, post-millennial, and those who don't know how many "L's" are even in the word millennial!
Another area of liberty has to do with the charismatic movement. While Meck would not be considered a charismatic church, we have people attending from that background, and people who would be catapulted into speaking in tongues if they were ever exposed to that background. Yet all get along without pursuing a particular agenda for redefining the church into a particular type.
It’s the same with many other honest debates, such as Calvinism vs. Arminianism, or Steelers vs. Packers. (Actually, that last one isn’t a real debate. It’s the Carolina Panthers all the way. Any other view is subject to church discipline).
You can also put some lifestyle issues in with this. For example, the Bible states that giving ourselves over to the state of intense drunkenness is never plan “A,” but how we live our lives in order to honor that command differs widely. Some believe that it is best to abstain completely; others feel free to have wine with every meal and a cold beer watching their favorite team.
All should be done with discretion and discipline, but there is true freedom. Though there’s not space to parse it here, this is the central thrust of Romans 14.
So in the essentials, we have unity.
In the non-essentials, we have liberty.
But in all things we have charity – which is just another word for love. As we put it, we have made the decision to “agree to disagree, agreeably.”
Seems easy enough.
And to be sure, it’s created a sweet spirit at Meck. But it’s not easy for most churches. And as a result, the spirit is not sweet.
As I have reflected on this over the years, the breakdown comes in two ways: those who want to make essentials non-essentials, and those who want to make non-essentials, essential.
And then, want to fight about it.
In other words, they violate all three of Augustine’s dictates.
Enter the apostle Paul in a most overlooked comment:
Now regarding your question about [fill in the blank]…Yes, we know that “we all have knowledge” about this issue. But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much. But the person who loves God is the one whom God recognizes. (I Cor. 8:1-3. NLT)
The heart of the disruption of “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” is the heart of all sin: pride, coupled with the lack of love.
So how do you combat this pride?
By acknowledging, humbly, that there is an “essentials” bucket, and we must submit to that biblically and historically, instead of making our personal lifestyle choices and desires the guiding compass.
By acknowledging, humbly, that while there is an “essentials” bucket, more falls into the “non-essentials” bucket than our prideful sense of knowledge may want to admit – and its contents may be larger than what we have decided to put there.
By acknowledging, humbly, that no matter what we may believe, there is no excuse for lovelessness toward another.
I often get asked by other pastors how Meck has gone nearly a quarter of a century without a split, without a parade of pastors, without anything but a unanimous vote on every issue (yep, it’s true).
Because with all those “withouts” there’s been one big “with”:
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.