Within Christianity there are many doctrines which are absolutely fundamental to the faith; the Virgin Birth, the Deity of Christ, Justification by Faith to name but three. Across denominational lines all believers will hold to these truths, they are essential doctrines. One cannot truly profess to be a Christian and deny such things. Yet there are also many matters which are of lesser importance such as the issues of head covering, our view on the millennium or the form of church government. Our salvation is not dependent on us having the correct view on these issues, so how then are we to approach them? Are we to be indifferent towards them and consider anything beyond the fundamental doctrines of the faith to be of no importance? How essential are the non-essentials?
1. We need to differentiate between essentials and non-essentials
It is first of all important to know what doctrines are of the greatest importance, what are the essential beliefs for a Christian? Whilst it is not our intention to list and categorise all of the varying beliefs held by believers, and many issues will not fit simply into any category, it can help us to differentiate between the more important or less important matters by considering the following categories:
Essential for salvation: This will be those matters which every Christian must believe if they are truly saved, they are absolutely essential. Although it is true that at the time of our salvation we will all have varying degrees of knowledge concerning biblical truth, no-one can be truly saved and deny certain matters such as Christ's deity, His vicarious atonement or resurrection. These matters are absolutely essential and to deny them is heresy and a denial of the very essence of Christianity.
Essential for historic biblical orthodoxy: This also will include those matters which are essential for salvation, but will be broader than that, taking in areas such as the inspiration of scripture and the biblical account of Creation. It generally speaks of those beliefs which the church as a whole has always held. To be wrong on areas within this category may not necessarily cast doubt on a persons salvation (depending on the issue at hand) however it could be justifiably be described as heresy in many instances. In these first two categories it is scriptural for the Christian to separate themselves from those who hold erroneous views.
Of denominational importance: Subjects within this category will be peculiar to the particular denomination or church concerned. Calvinist churches will hold strongly to the total depravity of man, it is therefore important for that denomination that all their ministers and office bearers hold to that belief. There may however still be liberty for working alongside those who differ in their views, depending on how strongly the denomination feels on the particular issue in question.
Of minimal importance: There are finally those views that we hold which could be considered of minimal importance, those minor points of theology on which good men have always disagreed down through the ages. We will likely never find another Christian with whom we agree on everything, yet so long as those disagreements are on matters of minimal importance then there should be no cause for strife within a fellowship where conflicting views are held.
2. It is vital to recognise that all of God's Word is important
In the last category we took care to describe the least important matters as being of minimal important, NOT being unimportant. Nothing in scripture should be considered unimportant for it is God's inspired word. If our faith means anything to us, then any matter touching on it must be considered to be of some value. 2nd Timothy 3:16 says that 'All scripture is given by inspiration, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness'. As all of scripture is inspired, so too must it all be considered valuable for doctrine, reproof etc, although in varying degrees depending on the passage. The attitude must never be taken that 'these things don't matter' where considering spiritual things. Some things may matter less, they may be less important, but they matter all the same. Where the attitude of 'its not important' is taken with smaller matters, it will soon be the case also with the truly essential matters.
3. It is right for a church to maintain doctrinal distinctives
Every denomination will have it's own distinctives, perhaps on issues which others consider to be relatively unimportant. Any member of that church will be expected to adhere to those beliefs and standards. Is this right for a church to enforce a view on a matter which is not essential to our salvation? Hebrews 13:17 says that we are to 'Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account'. As we submit to the rule of the government in temporal matters (so far as it is in accordance with God's word) so too are we to submit ourselves in spiritual matters to the leadership of the church. The church does not enforce its standards on visitors to the services, but those who take up membership of that particular fellowship will do so willingly, having knowledge of, and accepting what the church teaches. For a church's position to mean anything it must be made binding on its members - rules and laws are meaningless if they are not implemented. The acknowledgement that other biblically sound churches hold different views to their own on certain matters does not allow for a lax attitude by a denomination on their own distinctives.
4. We should know what we believe on 'minor' issues
If all of God's Word is important and we are to avoid the attitude of 'it doesn't matter' when dealing with a minor issue, then it is surely important that we know where we stand on those things. Our knowledge of spiritual matters will never be complete, some areas will attract a greater attention, other Christians will have a more in depth knowledge than we do of particular matters yet we should always strive to know more of God today than we did yesterday. We should be 'ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you'. As relatively minor issues come to our attention we should give them thought and consider what the bible has to say on them. These things are not to take up the majority of our time, the fundamentals of the faith are to do that, yet minor issues are not to be disregarded as unimportant or irrelevant. Too often today Christians only have a superficial knowledge of what the bible teaches, they are unable to declare what they believe with any great depth or detail. (On many occasions this will have been the result of sitting under a preacher who himself has had a poor knowledge of scripture.) Where we take time to study God's word and are taught from it in a structured manner we will acquire a greater knowledge of what God has revealed to us, including a knowledge of those topics of lesser importance.
5. We ought to hold our views on minor issues with humility.
It is perfectly acceptable for believers to debate and discuss less important issues, yet they should never allow them to become a cause of division in the church. In debating a Romanist or apostate Protestant we have no such concerns for we are up against gross error, yet with fellow believers our desire is not to cause strife. On matters which Christians have long been divided we should seek to hold our views sincerely, but with humility, rejoicing in the common faith which we hold. On essential matters however we seek to find no common ground with those who are in error, but should obey the command of 2 Corinthians 6:17 to separate from them.
This is but a simple attempt to give some guidance on the issue of essentials and non-essentials within Christianity. It has not sought to list and categorise every doctrine for such an effort would be futile and very often it will be difficult for Christians to agree on how important a subject is. We have simply attempted to guide, and to cause believers to think, and it is our hope that it would do so to the glory of God.