If all of God’s word is true, and if we’re to obey all that Jesus has commanded, does that mean we are to hold all doctrines with equal weight? Jesus, after all, declared that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets (i.e., the Old Testament Scriptures). Not even one small letter (iota), nor even a dot of the Old Testament would pass away until heaven and earth passed away (Matthew 5:17-18). All God’s word, then, is important. And yet, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees because they observed the small matters of the Law (tithing on spices), but neglected the weightier matters of the Law (justice and mercy and faithfulness). Clearly, some doctrines are weightier than others.
Following Jesus’s example, then, we may distinguish between different levels of doctrines. Some beliefs are central or essential to the Christian faith because to deny any one of them is to deny Christianity. We would rather die than deny, for example, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Doctrines and Convictions
But there are other beliefs that, while not essential to Christianity, are important for gathering a particular fellowship of believers as a church, doctrines like baptism, who can be a member of a church (for example: Baptists – believers only can be members; Presbyterians – believers and their children can be members), and who can receive the Lord’s Supper (be it members only, baptized Christians, or anyone who professes Christ).
Additionally, the apostle Paul distinguished between doctrines and personal convictions, what we may call Christian freedoms (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8-9). Imagine how helpful this was for the sake of the unity of a church that was made up of new believers from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. Christians from Jewish backgrounds were free to continue observing the Sabbath, maintaining the old dietary restrictions, and celebrating the Jewish festivals. However, they were not free to impose those practices and observances on Gentile-background believers (Colossians 2:16-23).
As Christians, we believe all that the Bible teaches (doctrine) is important. But for the glory of Christ, the unity of the church, and advancement of our mission, we must learn to distinguish between those doctrines that are essential to Christianity, those that distinguish us as a particular church, and those that all Christians are free to differ on. At High Pointe Baptist Church, we distinguish doctrines into these three categories: core beliefs, characteristic beliefs, and charity beliefs.
These are those doctrines that represent historic and evangelical Christianity. They are those beliefs that are required for someone to be a Christian. At High Pointe, at our core, we are gospel Christians. We happily partner with other gospel Christians of different denominational traditions in a variety of ways. This July, we will host four different preachers from different backgrounds: Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, and non-denominational. We are happy to have these brothers preach in our pulpit because they all share the same gospel.
These are those doctrines that characterize a particular church. There are many true gospel churches filled with true Christians, but each church is characterized by certain doctrinal convictions that, while not essential Christian doctrines, are important. High Pointe, for example, is a Baptist church. Believing in regenerate church membership, then, we only baptize believers. As a Baptist church, we are also characterized by congregational government and elder leadership.
Whenever looking for a church home, it’s important to identify those particular beliefs that characterize the specific church you are visiting. Be sure you understand the beliefs that characterize that church. Look at a church’s statement of faith, and see what they require for membership. At High Pointe, our statement of faith is composed primarily of core beliefs, but we also expect our members to hold to certain characteristic beliefs like baptism and regenerate church membership.
These are those personal convictions that Christians are free to disagree over. In these beliefs, we will seek to be charitable with one another. Charity beliefs include the Christian’s use of alcohol, details on the timing of the second coming of Christ, the Sabbath vs. the Lord’s day, just to name a few.
The church is the display of God’s glory and witness in the world (Ephesians 3:10). And one of the primary ways we display God’s glory and share a true witness in this world is by our love for one another (John 13:35) and our unity with each other (John 17:20-23). By distinguishing between core, characteristic, and charity beliefs, we can eagerly maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. May the Lord grant us the grace to fight for such unity as we seek to display the manifold wisdom of God to the cosmic powers and the world around us.
Want to see more from Juan Sanchez? Check out his other LifeWay Voices posts.