Monday, July 16, 2007

Essentials, Non-Essentials, and Christian Fellowship: What Are Non-Essentials?

The Apostle Paul spends Romans 12-13 calling the believers within this multi-ethnic church in Rome to a life of love - first to their neighbor, then to their enemies, and finally in the way that they life to fulfill the intent of the law rather than living to satisfy their fleshly appetites. But in Romans 14-15 he puts the demands of love under the microscope. Here is where we put true love to the test as the Apostle scrutinizes the relationships that professing believers have within one another while testing them against the most mundane things in life: diet and days. He takes the everyday issues of eating, drinking, and what day to worship and uses them as the litmus test to gauge how well the people of God love each other as they figure out how to express - or whether they should express - their Christian liberties to the glory of God.
Some people read Romans 14-15 and see a lot of room for what are commonly called "gray matters". Let me be clear: I don't believe there are gray matters in Scripture. The reason for this is that the word itself suggests that God is either: (a) completely silent on certain issues; or (b) He hasn't equipped us by His Spirit to discern how we should handle issues where Scripture lacks clarity. I think it is clear in Scripture that God has equipped us, by His power, in accordance with our knowledge of Jesus, to discern all that we need for life and godliness (2Pet 1:3). For this reason I don't believe there are any true gray matters in Scripture, only a lack of knowledge and discernment on our part.
It is better to understand the issues in this passage (diet and days) as non-essentials. Non-essentials are those issues which are not moral or serious theological offenses, but that Scripture has not either spoken explicitly about for our instruction and good or has left sufficient room for interpretation and disagreement. Non-essentials are the kind of issues that do not compromise or color the Gospel or character of Jesus on display in His children (though I am sure that some people might disagree with or qualify this statement on some non-essential issues. Non-essentials are issues that are largely dictated by culture and tradition. These issues are non-essentials, not because they aren't important, but because they should never be the test of Christian orthodoxy or standard for fellowship.
Some common non-essentials where there is not universal agreement in the church are: wearing make-up and jewelry; tattoos; the consumption of alcohol in moderation; profanity (who decides what is profane); modesty in dress; and smoking tobacco. Included in non-essentials are such theological issues such as: the mode of baptism; the gifts of the Spirit; eschatology; and the precise nature of heaven and hell. Believe it or not, a hotly contested isssue in the 17th century by the Puritans was whether or not a Christian couple should exchange wedding bands!
Paul makes it clear in this passage that matters of diet and days are non-essentials. They are not to be used to measure orthodoxy or used as conditions of fellowship.
Before we can move forward to present day application we must understand what was happening contextually. Paul is writing to a multi-ethnic church, a gathering of people with varied traditions, family backgrounds and cultural traditions, united under the banner of Jesus Christ by faith in His death and resurrection. He lumps the audience into two groups, counting them among the "strong" or the "weak". It is very likely that Paul considers the "weak" to be Jewish Christians who still held a conscientious commitment to Jewish regulations regarding diet and days. Many likely held to OT food laws, eating only clean items. They probably observed the Jewish Sabbath and festivals. Most of them probably were vegetarians, not because they didn’t desire to eat meat, but because eating vegetables only was the only way to ensure they didn’t eat non-Kosher meats!
Within this setting you also have Gentile converts who had no qualms about what to eat and probably thought very little about what day to worship. Observing the strict practices of the Jewish Christians would have been confusing and probably frustrating to some. This is the occasion for Paul's letter. Here we have a potentially disastrous mix of cultures that certainly presented opportunity for sharp disagreements, hurt feelings and divisive conduct.
Now that you understand the setting we will look at the specific dynamics unfolding in the next post...


At 5:23 PM , Blogger Drew said...

Hey Aaron, how did you get Tim to pose for that picture? I enjoy the conversation from Romans 14-15. I remember teaching that in Sunday school in the fall of last year, and it created great discussion. I remember one commentator gave a main theme of these chapters as "getting along for the glory of God." It was helpful for me to remember that as a theme.

I always had one question about essentials/ nonessentials. Are those things that we would call nonessentials not directly dealing with the gospel? I understand that all we do relates to the gospel, but I am talking doctrine wise. Maybe you will hit that in your future posts.

At 7:06 PM , Blogger Aaron said...


I should have been clearer because here, by Gospel, I mean that which we believe and embrace in faith that leads to our justification. However, I certainly believe the application of the Gospel that leads to our progressive sanctification and glorification applies here - which is how I hear you applying the word. Good clarification.

At 8:21 PM , Blogger Meredith said...

I like your list of non-essentials.


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