The False Practice of Ranking Doctrine into “Essentials” and “Non-Essentials” is Phariseeism
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
This slogan (or some version of it) is familiar to most; it is an old one. The complete statement, "In Essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love" comes from Augustine (354-430 AD) over 1500 years ago, the apostate father of Calvinism. As we look at Scripture, do we see God take this same attitude about all of his teachings? Do you even take the same attitude when the restaurant missed our special order? “I said no mustard on my burger!” Our position should reflect the will of God as revealed in His Word. We don’t have liberty to cobble together a new doctrine based upon our struggles to obey the Word of God or get along with one another.
Evangelicals like to label who is a Pharisee. Not them, of course. Usually it's someone who has different standards than they do. Apparently some truth is relative to evangelicals. Strict adherence to all of God's Word is considered legalism or phariseeism, which reveals deception and corruption of the application of these terms. They have an issue with obedience to all of God's Word and seeing all of Scripture as essential, like God does, but dialogue and ecumenism on the other hand is not discouraged over false beliefs. This is pure humanism and rebellion to the Word of God. Man’s feelings and opinions and philosophy is embraced in exchange for absolute truth and obedience to Scripture, but consider Col 2:8, "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ."Tradition and experience are accepted as legit avenues for truth. That is heresy. It’s Romanism. Truth is found in God’s Word alone (Pr 8:8-9; 22:20-21; Jn. 8:31-32; 17:17; 1 Jn 2:20-21) and all of Scripture is important and essential.
"Evangelicals" and Protestants (such as Reformed Calvinists) have messed up the meaning of Christian liberty and now they push it on others, mainly because they don't want to be judged by others. They only want to be judged by their own standards, which are far off from the Bible. When someone applies Scripture devotedly, strictly and dogmatically, they call that “legalism,” “divisive” or "phariseeism" or “that is your interpretation.” Legalism is me supposedly being dogmatic. Legalism itself is an extrascriptural term, which allows for much twisting and distortion by conflating one permitted belief and practice with something sinful and horrible. That is how twisted these people are, calling " evil good and good evil" (Is 5:20) upon whom God pronounces "Woe." They would call standards of modesty as legalistic, because there isn't a verse apparently that explains modesty, even though there actually are. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt 7:21). Christ ended the Sermon with the account on what material you’ve built your house upon, sand or rock, a contrast of the saved and lost. The ranking doctrine teaching encourages apostasy, is certainly not doing the will of the Father and flows from a house built upon sand. It comforts false profession, which is the rule and not the exception among Reformed Calvinist and Evangelical churches. It alleviates and muddies the distinction between true and false belief. It lends itself toward turning people into twice the children of hell they once were, all in the name of the gospel.
In Luke 11, Jesus was invited to lunch with a Pharisee. He sat himself down without the ceremonial hand-washing required by Pharisaical tradition. In his mind the Pharisee judged Jesus wrong, but the Lord could read the thought and rebuked it (vv. 39-44). He made several points, ending with three "woes," that is, three pronouncements of God's judgment upon this Pharisee and all the Pharisees in general. So Jesus was confronting Pharisaism for sure with this first of the woes in v. 42:
“But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”
If you read this whole section, you will find an example of Jesus' dealing with a religious person and exposing his evil and hypocritical nature. If this was a contemporary situation, and they didn't know it was Jesus, almost every evangelical and many fundamentalists would condemn Jesus' technique or strategy. They would hammer down on the messenger. It isn't seeker sensitive or "loving" or even smart. He was turning off His audience and losing an opportunity, according to a typical evaluation from those sources. As interesting as that observation might be, I am thinking about something different from that in consideration of a point evangelicals and many fundamentalists attempt to draw out from v. 42.
Evangelicals, including “conservative” ones, and fundamentalists, say, based upon this verse and others like it from other contexts, that Jesus is addressing a particular issue of the Pharisees. They say that the Pharisees emphasized secondary doctrines over primary ones, or minor doctrines over major ones. This specific issue is ironically a major one for both evangelicals and fundamentalists, so they "find it" here. And then evangelicals will point to certain fundamentalists and say that they are Pharisees because they make major doctrines out of minor ones or essentials out of non-essentials.
This is a huge problem and actually plain perversion of Scripture. Nowhere is Jesus talking about primary versus secondary doctrines. That isn't His point at all. Nowhere does the Bible say something like 'feel free to disobey the minor teachings as long as you keep those major ones.' It doesn't. It teaches just the opposite over and over. What the Pharisees were doing, these true legalists by definition (someone attempting to earn their way to heaven), was obeying the easier requirements of the law, while disregarding the difficult or even impossible ones. It was easy for them to tithe of the little herbs and vegetables and spices that they harvested from your garden, and quite external. It could be very impressive. Someone might say, "Wow, those Pharisees sure do pay attention to details! They even tithe of the smallest bits of produce!" This could be done, and continues to be done, by people in the flesh, by the natural man. On the other hand, right judgment of others and the love of God were impossible in the flesh. And they didn't fit into the Pharisees' agenda. The Pharisees weren't about God or others—they were about themselves.
What Jesus was teaching here was that they were in fact unsaved because they passed over what was required for salvation (cf. Lk 10:25-28). Rather than admit that they were failures at keeping God's law and repent, they did what Pharisees do, that is, reduce or minimize the law to something they could keep. That's why one of the Pharisees favourite questions was: what is the greatest of God's commandments? If they could reduce the law to a few they could keep, then they could be righteous through their own ability or in their own strength.
A natural reduction was for the Pharisees to opt out of the hard, weighty, or difficult parts of God's law and then emphasize the parts that they could keep on their own, the aspects of the law that were convenient for them. So instead of being the major versus the minor, this was the difficult or impossible versus the easy or convenient. If a Pharisee could get maximum credit for minimum effort, that would be the ideal choice. Jesus didn't tell the Pharisees to stop tithing. However, don't tithe and then leave judgment and love undone. Why would they do something they were supposed to do, tithe of their miniature garden produce, and then not do other laws they were also supposed to do, do judgment and love God? The latter were more difficult, really impossible. The former were easy and convenient. The former would give them credit for obeying the law while they were busy disregarding other parts of the law, the ones that they didn't want to do. The latter were only possible by the grace of God, which the Pharisees did not have.
Evangelicals and even fundamentalists read into, that is, eisegete Lk 11:42 by saying that it regards essentials versus non-essentials. That way they can choose what essentials and non-essentials are. And what I've noticed that they happen to choose as non-essentials are the ones that they don't like to do, because they are more difficult or more embarrassing in the world. They don't want to clash with the world. That hurts church growth. That doesn't feel good. And so those activities become the non-essentials.
What it actually does it reveal an unregenerate person. It reveals a false faith, one that keeps Bible teaching in the flesh and rejects that which it cannot keep. People that are truly born again, do not divide Scripture, because the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, doesn’t divide His Word.
This fictional essential/ non-essential, major/ minor, primary/ secondary heresy is also a major factor in keeping the fake unity that allows evangelicalism and fundamentalism to be big. Small again is embarrassing and unsuccessful. Big gets attention. Big looks like a winner. Big is popular. Big can even look like "God's hand is upon you." A coalition can be cobbled together when doctrine is reduced to a lower common denominator. And so evangelicalism and fundamentalism chooses what the essentials of unity are going to be, and that list is getting smaller and smaller. Not based upon biblical exegesis, but based upon some popular evangelical or fundamentalist norm. And then this is called unity. This is also what you will hear evangelicals and fundamentalists arguing about, debating, what things that the Bible teaches that someone should expect, since it isn't going to be everything that Scripture says.
For instance, pastor Mike Hovland of Grace Bible Fellowship claims it’s only the “gospel of Jesus Christ that true believers should be united on,” because it is essential alone, but the Bible doesn’t actually say that, at least not in mine which is a King James Bible, God’s Word for English speaking folks. The Bible doesn’t actually even hint at such a heretical idea, an idea that conveys a denial of God's Word. The gospel is not the only doctrine essential for fellowship or unity or of importance.
The non-essential doctrine philosophy that plays like its centering on the gospel actually contradicts the gospel. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel to include people in a false gospel that doesn't save and keeps lost people unsaved. Jesus said in Jn 8:31, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed.” This is a pivotal gospel statement in the entire teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the means by which Jesus says that true belief is distinguished from false belief. Who are Jesus' true disciples? Who actually believes in Him? They are those who continue in His Word, that is, keeping and obeying the words in His Word, not what your favourite teachers or preacher says.
This philosophy actually opposes the true gospel which involves separation (2 Cor 6:14-18) and produces separation. To unify over just the gospel is advocating for a false unity by reducing the teachings or issues over which you will separate to a manageable number, which is really just one. Though this may be very popular among Calvinist reformed churches and “evangelical” ones, it is contrary to Scripture and “Scripture cannot be broken.” (Jn 10:35). It also cheapens the grace of God (Ti 2:11-14). Actually, it isn't even the grace of God, because God’s grace teaches someone to live righteously, to obey Scripture and to separate, all of which contradicts the erroneous association. Scripture on the other hand explicitly says every doctrine is essential. We don’t have even one example in Scripture of something God said being dispensable or something we can discard for “unity” sake or some “noble” cause. We are not given liberty in the Bible to disobey God (uniting with any sort of error, or with compromisers, heretics, apostates, cults, etc) or to believe differently than what Scripture says. Anything that God did say in His Word is primary and fundamental and is what “true believers should be united on.”
Righteousness isn't reducing the teachings of scripture to essentials and uniting under those. The Bible explicitly says every doctrine is essential and our unity is to be based around that. Rom 16:17 for example says those who wilfully teach false or unsound doctrine are to be marked and avoided. 2 Th 3:6 is very clear that any violation of Scripture by disobedience results in separation from the unrepentant professing believer. Even something that would be deemed a “minor” issue of a man not working is presented as reasonable grounds for separation (2 Th 3:10-15). We don’t have even one example in Scripture of something God said being dispensable or something we can discard or ignore for “unity” sake.
Even a “minor” issue of not working is presented as reasonable grounds for separation (2 Th 3:10-15). By picking and choosing how you unite, they are saying scripture can be broken, but Jesus says, “Scripture cannot be broken.” (Jn 10:35). This unBiblical philosophy is also the product of Calvinism, which it should be considering Calvin’s mentor Augustine invented this heresy. The Biblical version however is: “In Biblical issues, unity. In non-Biblical issues, liberty. In all things, love.” If you won’t separate over every teaching of Scripture, then you may as well fellowship with everyone no matter what their beliefs.
When you rank doctrines, you are going to let teachings go like tomatoes falling off the back of a produce truck. The God of the Bible doesn’t approve of any disobedience of Him. In essence, God is left out of this discussion. It’s man-centred “theology.” Ironically, ranking doctrines doesn’t love God. God is loved by keeping all His commandments, words, and sayings (Jn 14:15, 21, 23; 1 Jn 2:3-5). You may claim to love your neighbour or “brother,” but you don’t actually love him or God (1 Jn 5:1-3). We have doctrinal and practical light and then doctrinal and practical darkness with no shades of grey in between. If everything that He says is true, then all of it is important. All of it needs to be followed.
We don’t have liberty to sin (Rom 6:1) including believing or practicing error (1 Tim 6:3-5) which then means we don’t have liberty to fellowship with anyone (e.g. 2 Cor 6:14-18; Eph 5:5-11; 2 Jn 1:9-11). Faith keeps God’s Word and faith pleases Him. This also ties into the gospel, corrupting the true gospel. The non-essential doctrine that plays like its centring on the gospel actually contradicts the gospel. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel to include people in a false gospel that doesn't save. Jesus said in Jn 8:31, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed.” This is a pivotal gospel statement in the entire teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the means by which Jesus says that true belief is distinguished from false belief. Who are Jesus' true disciples? Who actually believes in Him? They are those who continue in His Word. He is their Lord, they are His servants. They deny themselves to follow Him and that occurred when they repented and desired to be saved. How is it someone follows Jesus? He does that by continuing in Jesus' Word. He obeys His commandments (Jn 14:15-24; 1 Jn 2:3-5). Jesus always did those things that pleased the Father (Jn 8:29), so anyone who was following Jesus would be doing always those things that pleased the Father.
What the false and unscriptural and ungodly unity is advocating for is displeasing to the Father and completely contradicts very many passages all over the Bible including throughout John, but never is it more apparent than in the upper room in Jn 14, such as vv. 15, 21, 24 where Jesus said: “If ye love me, keep my commandments. . . . He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. . . . He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father's which sent me.”
The sort of teaching above isn't incidental or some kind of side teaching. It's all over the gospels and in the epistles. John repeats this type of teaching in his epistles again and again. A test of faith is whether someone will do everything that the Word of God teaches and it will not be burdensome to the one who is born of God (1 Jn 5:1-3). He will love it. Why? Because he loves the Lord Jesus Christ. Those that don’t obey, don’t love Him, and “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha.” (1 Cor 16:22). “Anathema” means “cursed.” “Cursed” means you are not saved. “Maranatha” means, “when He comes.” If someone doesn’t love Christ, he’s not saved when He comes back.
This division of doctrine into “essentials” and “non-essentials” by “evangelical churches” and Reformed Calvinist churches cheapens the grace of God, while supposedly they have the monopoly on the “doctrines of Gods grace.” They call it grace. They call this reduction and minimization grace. They say they have a superior kind of freedom that is God's grace. However, we don't have grace to disobey Scripture. It really isn't grace at all. It is a container of bondage with a grace label on it. People suck up what's in the container and think they have grace. They are fooled all over evangelicalism and fundamentalism into this kind of thinking just like Israel was by the Pharisees. Actually, it isn't even the grace of God, because the grace of God teaches someone to live righteously, to obey Scripture and to separate. Righteousness isn't reducing the teachings of scripture to essentials and keeping those. That is actually a form of legalism which ties into the rest of the false evangelical “doctrines” and Calvinist TULIP gospel. When someone in the flesh cannot keep everything God says, he ranks the commands based upon his ability to keep them.
He can't keep them all, so he must reduce them to what he says is important, so he triages. And because he is still following his corrupt flesh, he does what he wants when it comes to unity and is unable to discern truth from error. Jesus isn't Lord in that system, even though that system may claim Jesus as Lord. Though they might argue against what I am saying they are doing because it sounds horrible, it doesn’t change the fact of what they’re doing though. This is not the gospel. It is a false gospel that attempts to hold together coalitions and crowds by diminishing the gospel to something ordered by men and not God.
The Pharisees practiced their legalism by reducing doctrine and practice. Evangelicals and fundamentalists do the same. And they twist or pervert verses in order to get it done. And in so doing evangelicals and fundamentalists pervert the grace of God. God's grace enables us to practice the convenient and the difficult of God's Word. It's all by God's grace. If it is by grace, it is possible. If it is by your flesh, then you must reduce and minimize, and that's exactly what almost all evangelicals and most fundamentalists call upon you to do.
So evangelicals and fundamentalists create a non-existent “essential” and “non-essential” doctrine. This is a Pharisaic type of practice—man-made doctrines equated as those of God. They corrupt God's grace, by making it a garbage can into which you can pour all of your disobedience to the inconvenient requirements of God. They twist biblical unity. And they encourage disobedience to God's Word. Beware of the leaven of today's “evangelical” and fundamentalist Pharisees. And beware of the false salvation that it stems from.
Leaven knows no boundaries. The hours speak to the years and decades and centuries. But also to the present. When you rank doctrines, you will eventually let teachings go like tomatoes falling off the back of a produce truck. The God of the Bible doesn’t approve of any disobedience of Him. The essential and non-essential teaching of uniting only over the gospel encourages apostasy. It comforts false profession. It alleviates the distinction between true and false belief. It lends itself toward turning people into twice the children of hell they once were, and all in the name of the gospel. All of it fits precisely into “evangelicalism” and Calvinism and reformed theology which is loaded with false professors. In essence, God is left out of this discussion on uniting. Ironically, ranking doctrines doesn’t love God. God is loved by keeping all His commandments, words, and sayings (Jn 14:15, 21, 23; 1 Jn 2:3-5). We have doctrinal and practical light and then doctrinal and practical darkness with no shades of grey in between. If everything that He says is true, then all of it is important. All of it needs to be followed. Faith keeps God’s Word and faith pleases Him. Jesus said in Matt 7:21:
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”
What people advocate for under this false doctrine is displeasing to the Father and completely contradicts many passages all over the Bible including throughout John, but never is it more apparent than in the upper room in Jn 14, such as vv. 15, 21, 24 where Jesus said:
“If ye love me, keep my commandments. . . . He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. . . . He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father's which sent me.”
The sort of teaching above isn't incidental or some kind of side teaching. It's all over the gospels and in the epistles. John repeats this type of teaching in his epistles again and again. A test of faith is whether someone will do everything that the Word of God teaches and it will not be burdensome to the one who is born of God (1 Jn 5:1-3). He will love it.
If you are guilty of this heresy, you should give heed to what Scripture says about you, and earnestly examine yourself whether ye be in the faith (2 Cor 13:5).