Last week, a Preacher’s Conference convened at Nazarene Theological Seminary. Though I was unable to attend, I caught my mind wandering back through the halls of NTS. Hanging on a wall in one of those hallways is a pencil sketch of Phineas F. Bresse, next to a framed quotation. Bresee, a key force behind the union of holiness groups in 1908 to form the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene, cautioned:
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; but in all things, love.”
I’m not sure why the administration chose to hang those wise words where everyone could see them. Maybe it was to prevent lively theological discussions from morphing into something toxic? Whatever the motivation, there is something I’ve since discovered: The words aren’t original with Bresee. In fact, a quick internet search shows lots of people past and present quoting them.
The original quotation was from Peter Meiderlin (1582-1651 CE), also known as Rupertus Meldenius, an obscure Germain theologian. Discussing whether the late divine Johann Arndt had been orthodox in his thinking, Meiderlin cautioned:
“In a word, were we to observe unity in essentials, liberty in incidentals, and in all things charity, our affairs would be certainly in a most happy situation.”
Apart from the origin of the phrase, it may be asked: Does it help?
As some have noted, it depends what parties to a conversation consider “essential” vs. “non-essential.” For example, some seem willing to fight to the death over whether God created the universe in 6 twenty-four hour days. Others are more flexible, allowing God whatever time frame necessary, even billions of years, as long as we affirm that God is the Creator. So, group 1 sees so-called “youth earth creationism” as essential to the whole structure of Christian faith, while group 2 decidedly does not.
Some light can be had when we look back through history to see what a group has judged to be “essential” vs. “non-essential.” In the Church of the Nazarene, we have never had a statement committing us one way or another on the timing of the return of Christ. Instead, we have always merely insisted that he will one day return. We’ve left the particulars up to individual conscience. On that issue, we have always embraced “wiggle room.” The onus then is on the group that wants to jettison history and change direction.
Though it makes the phrase less catchy, we might amend it to say:
“In what we’ve always thought essential, unity; in what we’ve always believed non-essential, liberty…”
When all is said and done, the best way to read Meiderlin’s phrase may be in reverse and with some modification: “In all things remember love, even as we discuss things some consider essential but others think are non-essential.” Our starting point is always love. Otherwise, tempers may flare and we may forget our first duty, to love our neighbor as ourselves. May love always be our watchword and song!
Photo credit: Nazarene.org