Around the year 1627 a German Lutheran theologian named Rupertus Meldenius wrote a small tract on the subject of Christian unity. The tract was written, according to an article by Dr. Mark Ross, “during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a bloody time in European history in which religious tensions played a significant role.” From that tract written by a theologian otherwise unknown to most of us came a phrase I have heard many times in my life: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” It is a wise bit of advice we would do well to remember today, and not just in the context of religious beliefs and practice.
To break the phrase down a bit just to make sure we understand, the first part – “in essentials unity” – assumes that there are some things on which we must agree and around which we must be unified. In the original context, this contains the most basic elements of the Christian faith. This is no small task to define, even for Christians who find themselves divided from other expressions of the Christian faith around the world to varying degrees. The challenge, then, is to define what those non-negotiable essentials are and to hold firm to them regardless of what nonbelievers and others may say. The unity sought is not unity for the sake of unity, but unity around a common core belief and experience.
The second part of the phrase is “in non-essentials liberty.” This means that we must willingly admit that there are some beliefs and practices of lesser importance about which we can legitimately disagree but still get along with one another and not feel compelled to condemn or force others into our way of thinking and behaving. We might call it agreeing to disagree. It is important to note that this is not a replacement for the first phrase above; there is still that core component on which we should agree, but there are many gray areas where people of equal faith and motive should be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to practice as they deem best.
The final part of the phrase is “in all things charity.” In this case, charity means love and comes from the Latin word for love, caritas. Bottom line: whether we agree or disagree with others in matters of faith or practice, we are to demonstrate love in our attitudes and in our actions. We do not have the biblical option of being unloving.
As I consider the wisdom of “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” my thoughts first go to application of that wisdom in the Christian context originally intended by Meldenius. For a brief but good discussion from that angle, I refer you to the article by Mark Ross. It seems to me, though, that there is great value in the phrase today apart from a religious context as well.
For example, we just witnessed the failure of both major political parties in the U. S. House and Senate (and White House) as they spent weeks calling each other names and acting like immature children rather than doing the job they are elected and are paid very generously to do. Unity? Not in this political theater. Liberty? No way. The prevailing attitude is “it’s my way or the highway.” Charity (love)? Nothing about political life hints of that. We ought to have the right to expect of our politicians that some core, basic beliefs as Americans unite us. We ought to expect them to be civil as they agree to disagree. They ought to have the decency we try to teach preschoolers to treat others along the way with basic goodness and kindness, if not heart-felt love. Is that too much to ask? I realize that I shouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it to happen, but is it too much to ask? I think not.
My encouragement to you today is to consider those groups, affiliations, memberships, etc. that you share with others and then consider the wisdom of “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” How might your attitude and behavior be positively shaped by following that advice? What would happen if we determined to treat others around us with kindness – even love – in the midst of our differences?
Our world would be a better place.