The Line between Belief and Unbelief

In the last post in this series, I listed three statements that I consider to be the irreducible minimum of separatist commitment. By describing them that way, it should be clear that there is more to the separatist position than this, but it doesn’t seem, to me, that one can reasonably claim to be a separatist if you deny any of these statements. The first two statements are closely related, with the second growing out of the first, and the third addresses a separate, but important aspect of separation that is rooted in the gospel. The very idea of reducing biblical separatism to a few brief summary statements has drawbacks, no doubt. In the face of a changing ecclesiastical landscape, though, it seems more profitable to focus attention on the belief and practice rather than an outdated label system.

The first statement attempts to mark the boundary line between belief and unbelief—“For the sake of the purity of the gospel, believers and churches must separate from those who deny essential doctrines of the faith (Jude 3; 2 John 9-11; Rom 16:17).” I’ve already attempted to show the connection in my thinking between the gospel and the faith once delivered to the saints. We’re talking about a body of biblical truth which includes not only the message which must be believed in order to be saved, but includes those doctrines which cannot be denied without tearing the very fabric of genuine Christianity.

The phrase “essential doctrines” is a less than perfect way to express the point, but it seems that quibbles are made about any attempt to distinguish the core of Christianity from the totality of its teachings. The most obvious objection is that identifying “essentials” suggests there are “non-essentials.” That’s why I’ve tried to avoid this terminology in the past, but eventually adopted it simply because there isn’t any better way to state what I consider to be a significant point.

The problem is that the word essential is sometimes used as simply meaning important, and, thus, non-essential would mean unimportant. But that’s not what the word essential means in the statement above (or normally when people use it in contexts like this). If something is essential it relates to or constitutes the essence of something. As the dictionary states, “essential implies belonging to the very nature of a thing and therefore being incapable of removal without destroying the thing itself or its character.” So, to speak of the “essential doctrines of the faith” is to talk about those doctrines which cannot be removed without destroying the faith itself or its character.

The issue is not important versus unimportant doctrines. It is about the doctrines which form the essence of Christianity—if you remove them then you no longer have the Christian faith. I hold very firm convictions about what I believe the Bible teaches regarding the return of Jesus Christ. These matters are very important to me because I believe they are important doctrines. A person can be wrong on the details of these matters, though, and not have removed something that destroys the faith or its character. If a person denies that Jesus Christ is coming again, that does cut to the essential doctrines of the faith (cf. 1 Ths 1:10), but being wrong about the timing of Christ’s return does not.

We are talking about the fault line between gospel churches and false churches, not about the relative importance of our more narrow doctrinal distinctives. Every truth in Scripture is important, but not every truth in Scripture belongs to the essential nature of the Christian faith.

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