Professor Joseph M. Pierre describes the results of a 2017 Pew Research poll examining political polarization:
[The poll] of 5000 US adults reported that partisan divide over political issues related to racial discrimination, immigration, international diplomacy, and government aid to the needy has indeed widened significantly since the early 1990s.1 There was an average 36% difference of opinion on these issues (up from just 15% in 1994) across party lines — based on those identifying as or “leaning” to either Democrats or Republicans. This gap dwarfed divisions across differences in age, gender, race, education, and church attendance. These results indicate that for those who affiliate with a political party, polarization over “the issues” does seem to have increased over the past 20-30 years.
It seems that we humans are inclined towards finding people we agree with, consuming news we agree with, and agreeing with what we agree with. Increasingly, our society has also developed stronger feelings of aversion for people with whom they disagree. Specifically, we see more and more people dismissing the dignity of those who wear the wrong “label.”
Sadly, this kind of thinking can infect the church and corrupt our witness to the world. In such a context, I am reminded of a motto that I think should be tattooed the heart of every Christian: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” This motto, properly understood, helps press us closer together in mission rather than fracturing further apart. It also helps us operate with a humility and love that will stand out in our time. Let’s break it down.
“In essentials, unity”
True belief determines the difference between life and death, strength and weakness, heaven and hell. There are certain Scriptural truths that must be believed to inherit eternal life. This is because those truths are what unite us to Christ in salvation.
The heart of Christianity beats with fundamental claims about Jesus’ identity and work in human history. Believing these truths is what makes a Christian a Christian. Rejecting them separates us from Christ. The reason we as Christians are united together has nothing to do with race, gender, politics, or socio-economics. We are bound to one another because we are bound to Jesus Christ by our shared faith that he is our risen Lord.
Christians have summarized these fundamental claims in creeds since the very beginning. The Apostles’ Creed is a great place to start. Within this creed, we see the essential beliefs that make a Christian.
“In non-essentials, liberty”
God’s Word, the Bible, is a big book. While inspired by the Holy Spirit and clear in its teaching about the most important beliefs that lead us to heaven, we must remember that it requires interpretation. We believe that the Holy Spirit helps us with this, but here’s the truth: We are fallen human beings. We are imperfect. God is making us holy, but all of us are on that journey. None of us has arrived yet.
Such awareness should cause us all to approach the task of interpretation with a spirit of humility. While we must hang tightly to those essential beliefs that bring us into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, we must never confuse those essentials with non-essentials. This is not to say that non-essentials are unimportant. It means that they are not essential to being united to Christ.
In fact, we all must do our best to seek after truth in fellowship with other believers and in continuity with the generations of believers who have gone before us. We are not allowed to approach questions of truth as if truth does not matter! If we love God’s Word, then we want to conform our thinking and living to its truth.
The non-essentials matter, but so does unity. If we disagree with other believers on non-essentials, we can discuss. We can dialogue. We should never demagogue. Instead, we should honor the liberty they have in Christ. This posture of humility does not deny truth, it simply admits that in this fallen world, we approach God’s Word from different vantage points and with different levels of clarity.
“In all things, charity”
The global church just celebrated the central truth of our faith: Jesus Christ died and rose again from the grave so we could be forgiven! This forgiveness was given for a purpose bigger than our individual salvation. It was granted so that we could be part of Christ’s Body, the church.
Just before he went to that cross, the Lord commanded his disciples to love one another. This love would produce a unity that testifies to the truth of the Gospel:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:20-23, NIV).
In our divided days, may the love we have for each other be a living witness that even our doctrinal differences can be bridged when we are united in love and on mission in the world!
Adam T. Barr (MDiv, ThM) serves as senior pastor at Peace Church near Grand Rapids Michigan. In addition to his work in the local church, Adam speaks and writes on Christianity and culture, helping followers of Jesus understand and apply God’s Word in an increasingly post-Christian society. His most recent book, Compassion Without Compromise, is available through Bethany House. Adam is also a contributing writer and adjunct teacher on the Organic Outreach International team, serving as the Director of Cultural Apologetics and hosting our Organic Outreach Podcast.