September 19, 2020

A Most Biblical Practice, Largely Forgotten (2)

Christ's Appearance on the Mountain, Buoninsegna

By Chaplain Mike

>For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

• 1Corinthians 15:3-8 (NIV)

If the Gospel that Paul “passed on” to the Corinthians was “of FIRST importance,” then this implies that not every teaching the church passes on is of the same significance. Jesus, likewise, spoke of “weightier matters” of the law (Matt. 23:23). Such a perspective on the relative weight of various Christian doctrines and teachings was well summarized by 17th century Lutheran theologian, Rupertus Meldenius (also known as Peter Meiderlin):

In essentials, unity.
In non-essentials, liberty.
In all things, charity.

This concept of “essentials” and “less-essentials” is clearly set forth in one of the best chapters in the book, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, by J.I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett. They call this part of their book, in which they urge a renewed ministry of catechesis in the evangelical church, “Drawing Lines and Choosing Sides.”

By drawing lines, we mean, first, that good catechesis helps believers distinguish primary doctrines from those that may be considered secondary or tertiary. Not all things that the church teaches are equally important. Simply making this point is, in and of itself, a potent act of teaching. A second sort of line drawing that catechists engage in is pointing out that what we believe at each level of importance—primary, secondary, and tertiary—needs to be distinguished from what others have taught. We believe this as opposed to that. Hence, our line drawing also involves choosing sides.

They offer a wise and irenic way of teaching believers that can help us pursue unity with all believers while at the same time recognizing that our unity is a harmonious oneness that includes a great amount of diversity.

Drawing Lines
Packer and Parrett suggest that the teaching ministry of the church (its catechesis) should be recognized as having four layers:

  1. Christian Consensus: This the Faith, that which others have called, “Mere Christianity” or the “Great Tradition”—the Good News of the Story of our redemption and the basic contours of the Christian way.
  2. Evangelical Essentials: The authors, as evangelical Protestants, define this second level as those distinctives which set us apart from the other historic Christian traditions (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, etc.). An example of this would be the so-called Five Solas of the Reformation.
  3. Denominational Distinctives: These are the doctrines and practices that distinguish various Protestant groups from one another.
  4. Congregational Commitments: Even within a specific tradition or denomination, particular congregations will have a “vision, values, and practices” specifically shaped by their own unique callings, giftings, and cultural settings.

In our teaching ministry, these four layers must be appropriately “weighted” so that believers can learn to discern the relative importance of each level of commitment. To that end, the authors recommend having at least a two-level structure of teaching in the church: (1) an “Essentials” curriculum, (2) an “Electives” curriculum.

Grandfather and Child Learning Torah, Hidur

Choosing Sides
Catechesis on each of these four levels must not only be presented positively, but also must be distinguished from the teachings of those who differ with us. There is a “You have heard it said…but I say to you” aspect to wise pedagogy.

The authors stress that the focus of initial catechesis—for the young and for new believers—should be primarily concerned with the first level—Christian Consensus—supplemented by some attention to Evangelical Essentials (level two), with far less attention to levels three and four. When it comes to “choosing sides” and distinguishing what Christians believe from others, the focus will be on what sets the Christian way apart from the competing philosophies, values, and lifestyles of the surrounding culture, the “ways” promoted outside the Christian consensus.

There is certainly a time and place for drawing lines and choosing sides relative to other Christian communities. Such work, however, should not be the focus of our primary, foundational catechesis. In the first place, or layer, of catechesis we identify the most basic realities of the Christian worldview. We outline the Gospel, expand on the redemptive Story, and articulate the basic elements of the Truth, the Life, and the Way. (p.164)

When it comes to instructing believers about where we differ from other Christian traditions, the authors are irenic and helpful. Gary Parrett tells about an occasion when he and his wife attended a Lenten service at a family member’s Roman Catholic church. He notes how, during the Eucharist (in which they could not participate), he opened the pages of the Missal (the liturgical guide), and found instructions under four headings: (1) For Catholics, (2) For Other Christians, (3) For Those Not Receiving Communion, (4) For Non-Christians.

Under the section “For Other Christians,” he read these words:

We welcome our fellow Christians to this celebration of the Eucharist as our brothers and sisters. We pray that our common baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit in this Eucharist will draw us closer to one another and begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us. We pray that these will lessen and finally disappear, in keeping with Christ’s prayer for us “that they may all be one” (John 17:21).

In the midst of many thoughts about this statement, Parrett felt his heart warmed by its conciliatory language. He was being addressed as a fellow Christian, a brother by common baptism. The church recognized that the divisions which separate us are “sad,” and they envisioned a process by which they may “lessen and finally disappear.” Ultimately, the text moves to Christ as the Source and Mediator of our unity. Parrett wondered why our evangelical churches find it so hard to take the same view and express the same grace toward their Roman Catholic brethren.

The authors sense that this mood shows signs of changing, and that many evangelicals are more open to accepting their brothers and sisters in other historic traditions, even as they continue to recognize their disagreements. They mention, for example, the involvement and leadership of one of the authors, J.I. Packer, in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together group that is directly tackling areas of dispute. In similar fashion, on this blog we have commended the work of John H. Armstrong and others who are promoting a new spirit and practice of “missional-ecumenism” among Christian traditions and denominations.

A well-structured and executed practice of catechesis can aid believers in all traditions to recognize the relative importance of the various levels of Christian teaching, not only grounding them in the Gospel of faith in Jesus Christ and incorporating them into the community of faith, but also in the full Biblical mandate to love God, love our neighbors, and love one another as Christ loved us.


  1. A key thing, espeically when talking about agreement across “lines’ is that we are not using the same words but we each have different meanings attached to them. We have to be very specific when we begin to, in our eager and sincer efforts, to reach accord with others that we are not just agreeing on a word or series of words but not their meaning.

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      Very good point. I’d submit that this has always been a need, but often has not been met. Indeed, I’ve read some speculation that some of the early divisions in the Church (e.g. the Monophysites branching off, the schism between East and West in 1054, etc) owe a lot to misunderstandings of terminology.

  2. I’ve heard Packer speak on this topic before, but he seemed to have no interest in actually developing a catechism. Are those of us in the Evangelical church tasked with reinventing the wheel, or will some one unite us in this effort?

    • Packer did a book called Growing in Christ, which followed the 3-fold pattern of 10 C’s, creed, and Lord’s Prayer that was designed for some level of catechetical teaching.

      • How long ago was that? I saw his presentation about a year ago and he made no mention of it. As matter if fact he kept insisting that “someone” must redevelop a catechism. How useful do you think his version is?

        • If I remember, it’s more designed like a study guide. One of the big hang-ups in developing an evangelical catechism would be with regard to the sacraments.

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      I first read about Packer’s ideas on reviving catechesis in an article Packer wrote for the Spring 2009 edition of The North American Anglican titled “Called to Catechize.” In this article he gives two detailed outlines of a catechetical model. The first is from his book The Mission of an Evangelist. The headings for his first model are as follows:

      1. The Truth about God
      2. The Truth about Ourselves
      3. The Story of God’s Kingdom
      4. The Way of Salvation
      5. The Life of Fellowship
      6. Walking Home to Heaven.

      The second model he introduces by saying “the syllabus of fundamentals could be formulated like this;”

      1. The Authority of Scripture
      2. The Sovereignty of God
      3. The Truth of the Trinity
      4. The Sinfulness of Sin
      5. The Centrality of Jesus Christ
      6. The Graciousness of Salvation
      7. The Power of the Holy Spirit
      8. The Circuitry of Communion
      9. The Truth about the Church
      10. The Glory of God.

      He then says that he’s used both of these models and find them both to be very helpful. In the article he discusses the history of catechesis, various methods of instruction, and cites the Alpha Course and Christianity Explored as unwitting “first steps in the reestablishing of adult catechesis as a regular part of church life.”

  3. David Cornwell says

    “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty.In all things, charity.” This was often quoted by John Wesley also.

  4. I went through this process in my own spiritual journey. When I got to layers 3-4, I switched denominations.

  5. Steve Newell says

    First, want is the “essentials” of the Christian Faith? For me, they are defined in the Book of Concord. What are the “non-essentials”?

    For many “conservative” and “evangelical” Christians, the “essentials” are defined by moral/social issues and the doctrine of the faith. The “non-essentials” are for many, the doctrine of the faith. For example, I see Holy Baptism as an essential of the faith but school prayer as non-essential.

    • The authors would define the essentials as the creedal foundations of the church, the Christian consensus that all believers everywhere believe. I think you pinpoint one area where this will get sticky in discussions among various traditions–the sacraments.

      • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

        Yep. Baseline orthodoxy: the stuff in the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds. On the list above, Sacramental Theology probably would fall into #3, but that’s probably because the list is directed specifically at evangelicals. If we were doing a list for all of Christianity, #2 would probably be a subset of #3.

    • Agreed Steve-
      My father (free evangelical) told me that me as a Lutheran that baptism/communion as a means of grace where non-essential differences between us. Its a hard pill to swallow.

  6. Luther’s small and large Catechims are excellent.

    Austin’s point about Christians using the same vocabulary words, but with different meanings, is spot on.

    Even the Roman Catholic Church will say they “we are saved by grace”.

    In the last post I read a comment that described the word “sacrament”. And it was totally different from the definition that I know.

    • Steve, that would have been me who spoke about “sacrament” in the previous post. I decided to read further about how we Catholics define “sacrament” and I came across which is easier to read than the Catholic Encyclopdia and I see that what I was taught as a 6 year old is still being taught today, although there is certainly more to say about sacraments than the one sentence definition that I gave. I just zipped through that webpage, but I think I am going to spend more time reading it more closely myself.

      • Joanie,

        Thanks for the clarification.

        The Lutheran view of the Sacrament is one of free gift. From God to us.

        It is not what we do in the Sacrament that counts, but rather what God does for us. That’s why Lutherans are so big on the Sacraments. They are pure gospel.

        • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

          Per the Anglican catechism (1662 Book of Common Prayer), we’d define a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means wehereby we receive the same [i.e. grace], and a pledge to assure us thereof [again, grace].”

          Now here’s the real irony: all of our classic texts make a point of joining with other Protestant groups in identifying the Sacraments as being limited to Baptism and the Eucharist, but many Anglicans would agree with the Roman classification of seven. The 1979 Episcopal BCP calls Baptism and Eucharist “the great sacraments of the gospels” and the other five “other sacramental rites [that] evolved in the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” I think that’s a good call, especially since the BCP has always included the other five in some form or another as rites or services, even if it didn’t call them sacraments.

    • “Even” the Catholic church…

      That’s obviously a loaded statement!

      Anyhow, I think it’s good to keep in mind that the most basic creed, the Apostle’s creed, says nothing about faith vs works, sacraments, or most of the things we end up arguing about. Tertullian offered this basic statement as the fundamental test of orthodoxy both for those churches founded by the apostles and those which might have sprung up independently…so long as they followed that creed, they were part of the one universal church.

      • Even the Evangelicals say that “we are saved by grace”…but then there are all the add on’s to that, ie., ‘your decision for Christ’, ‘your serious efforts towards obedience and faithfilness’, etc.

        In Catholicism you have to have a Pope, and cardinals and bishops and priests all ordained in apolostolic succession…in addition to God’s grace. In fact, they are needed to mediate God’s grace here on earth.

        We (many of us Lutheran types – but not all Lutheran types) just believe that Jesus saves us by His grace and mercy…’alone’.

        • Steve, I can understand that it is what God does for us in the Sacraments that is the important thing. But there are still people involved in the sacrament, correct? So the various groups within Christianity determine who “administers” the sacraments, what they say, etc. The grace is all from God.

          • For us, anyone can administer the Sacraments, and preside over the Sacrament because it is the Word of God that does the work in the Sacrament. We are free to do that. Usually our pastor presides over Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but it does not have to be that way for us, as long as good order is maintained.

            This is certainly not true for the Anglican Church, Episcopalian Church, the Roman Catholic Church, or the Orthodox Church, where properly ordained priests MUST preside or the Sacrament is not valid.

          • With repect to the Lord’s Supper, what I said above is true, but it may not apply in each of those denominations with respect to Baptism. On that I am not sure.

        • Steve,

          Evangelicals would say that we are saved by grace, through faith. Nothing more, nothing less.

          • Michael Bell, would an evangelical say it was mandatory to be baptized in order to be saved by grace, through faith? I am thinking not, but I am not sure.

          • Right, and Roman Catholics say the same thing.

            BUT…then the ‘yeah buts’ start to come out.

            I have heard many an Evangelical sermon where there was no gospel, but marching orders.

            Why? Because they need assurance of their salvation and without the Sacraments (they believe that they are symbols – God is not really present and active in them) then they turn everything back onto themselves.

          • And don’t Evangelicals believe that person needs to “accept Jesus” ?

            To “make a decision for Jesus”?

            That might only be one work…but it is one work too many, and adds something to the grace of God.

          • Joanie D – Most evangelicals would call baptism the “public profession” of your faith. It is not part of the of the process of salvation, but is an important step that follows from it.

            Steve – No yeah buts. I have been involved in many different evangelical churches over the years, and quite frankly I haven’t heard it. Now, do evangelical churches have other issues… absolutely including what you would call marching orders. P.S. There is a wide ranging view of the sacraments among evangelicals. Most I know would not call them “just a symbol”.

          • “Most I know would not call them “just a symbol”.”

            That is great news!

            In the very recent past I have heard several Evangelicals (pastors of very large non-denominational churches here in Southern California) say, on their radio programs, that Baptism is not necessary, even though Jesus commanded that we do it, and that the bread and the wine of communion, is just that…bread and wine (totally discounting that Jesus said it was his body and blood.

            The proof that Evangelicals place the human decision over the action of a merciful God in Baptism, is the fact that they do NOT baptize infants.

            They will say that God can be present in their hearts, but they will deny that God can be present in a bowl of water accompanied by His Word of promise…or in the bread and the wine accompanied by His Word of promise.

            Now, I certainly may be mistaken about Evangelicals in general, but down in these parts Evangelicals are wrapped up in their decision, and then their performance (their seriousness) afterwards.

            Thanks, Mike.


          • And don’t Evangelicals believe that person needs to “accept Jesus” ?

            To “make a decision for Jesus”?

            That might only be one work…but it is one work too many, and adds something to the grace of God.

            Yes, but we call that faith, and not a work.

            God’s grace, received through faith. A gift of God, and not of works.

          • There’s that ‘different vocabulary’ thing, again.

            We see ‘faith’ as trust in Someone, and that trust is a gift of God. Rather than having to DO anything…like sizing up Jesus and making a decision for Him.

            If faith truly is a gift of God, as the Bible says, then nothing on our part would be necessary.

            Jesus told us that “all men are liars”, so to know one’s profession of faith is not to know whether or not he has faith.

            I know I said I was going to bed (and I did) ..I’ll try it again.

            Keep the cheering to a minimum!

          • Can’t say that I agree here Steve. Grace is the gift. Faith is the means by which it is received. I guess we will have to agree to disagree. 🙂

          • Correction… Salvation is the gift. Grace is the means by which it is given. Faith is the means by which it is received.

    Well, there is the Roman Catholic Church catechism. The Table of Contents is long, so I won’t cut and paste that, but the categories include: The Profession of Faith, The Celebration of the Christian Mystery, Life in Christ and Christian Prayer. I have read much, if not most, of this catechism and think that for the most part, it is very good. I have some issues with a few parts of it.

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      Heh.. the RCC Catechism is one of the most… comprehensive… catechism’s around. It’s almost as long as the Bible itself! BUT, you have readily available authoritative answer questions about what Catholics believe.

  8. In essentials, unity.
    In non-essentials, liberty.
    In all things, charity.

    This is the “creed” of the Moravian Church.

  9. I hope and pray that this kind of teaching will take hold and spread. I grew up with careful teaching like this prior to my confirmation, though I don’t know if it was based on a particular formal catechism other than some influence from the Westminster (we were presbyterian but the church was multidenominational of necessity as it was composed of foreign missionaries). It really does help one sort of the essentials from the nonessentials.

    There is a real lack of catechesis the US, particularly in the nondenominational evangelical churches and those with a more fundamentalist bent. One of the results of this is a functional failure to distinguish the essentials and nonessentials. Hence the ripping debates and division over things like creation/evolution, complementarianism/egalitarianism, and most of the culture war issues, etc, etc. It detracts from the essentials, derails the teaching of them, and damages the witness of the church as a whole. I pray for change.

  10. as a Roman Catholic, i was ‘indoctrinated’ into the teachings of the Church. was a devout altar boy. attended parochial school.

    i want to stress the indoctrination vs. being encouraged as a disciple. it wasn’t until i was 20-years old & had my personal encounter with Jesus that i began to follow Him deliberately as a disciple.

    yet even then i was not treated as a disciple. i was simply indoctrinated into another set of Chrisitan religious traditions with its own subset of doctrines & things emphasized…

    i have had no issues with the core tenets of orthodox Christianity. how the faith traditions are expressed is where i’ve encountered the larger dysfunctional relational dynamic called “church”. that churchy environment where wounded/broken people are suddenly in fellowship with other wounded/broken people creates another relational mess. it is certain people in leadership that i have had the greatest displeasure dealing with. personality conflicts & theological differences usually the thing getting in the way of misguided attempts at church discipline+correction…


    after 36+ years of a challenging faith journey, the non-essentials quibbling efforts one thing i have no patience for. maybe someone has to do it, but i am not that person. it is not even a matter of ‘agreeing to disagree agreeably’. i simply do not wish to engage at any level on such things. my tolerance factor for certain self-appointed apologists of contrary perspectives is, well, slim to none. maybe there is a special unction for such encounters, but i have yet to believe that it is possible…

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      Though you would not have seen those early years in the Catholic Church as genuine discipleship, would you see them as contributing to the journey that led up to that personal encounter with Jesus? I’d bet that it did. God didn’t put you where he did for no reason, I’d bet.

      • i had a sensitivity to the presence of God before my parochial school catechism experience. right in between kindergarten & 1st grade. once the training started, there was no problem with believing in God or the stories in the bible or the historical setting of the gospels.

        i do not remember ever not believing in God. however, the traditions that were built up around Him made it seem harder to get to know Him as He wanted to be known. then there was the proper manner which He was to be approached. church participation was a regular exercise, yet i felt unfulfilled at times with a sense of going thru the motions, but not connecting with God…

        I think my process of church detox & letting go of the accumulated baggage of the faith expressions i participated in has been the healthiest element of this faith journey. however, what i count as a streamlined Christian experience is not one i am going to peddle or insist that others must emulate. i have no desire to be the new standard of disciple nor claim that my perspectives are the better vantage point along the narrow way…

    • I’m all for sound teaching/catechesis as a fundamental part of discipleship, but it’s not all of discipleship. A disciple follows the master, not simply intellectually or propositionally or by identification, but actively. Jesus told his disciples to believe in him and to develop his character within their lives. Paul told believers to follow his example as well as his teachings. I know many, many Christians, including leaders, who have absolutely no idea how to work with someone with whom they disagree, what love looks like when dealing with a parishioner undergoing a complicated long-term trial, how to reach out to the wavering soul, how to truly live Christ’s life corporately and individually rather than simply checking off the accepted doctrinal boxes. While many of those boxes may indeed be vital, I think real discipleship and spiritual formation was designed to take place in a relational context that we’ve let go somewhere along the way.

      • sg, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. The catechism was the tool, but the methods for Luther were a renewed vision for pastoral care and the place of the home in discipleship.

        • I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive either – sorry if not clear. My point is that each is incomplete without the other. My experience has been that we have tended to separate the two and do neither very well.

  11. Catechesis is one form of religious education, but not the only one, and certainly not the kindest or most intellectually honest. The idea of selecting, or creating, an authoritative source whose acceptance is the price of group identity, only works where wide agreement exists on the authority in question, and even then it tends to conflict with family and social bonds (which in healthy societies are unconditional, not predicated on accepting certain controversial beliefs).

    Category (1) hardly exists, unless you are willing to exclude millions of self-identified “Christians” from your conception of Christianity.

    Categories (2) and (3) are basically the same, unless perhaps one belongs to this subculture.

    Often there is more diversity within churches than among them. Throughout Christian history, creedal statements (upon which catechisms are based) have been designed to exclude political / doctrinal enemies from within the same church.

    • PS. Think about it. If a “consensus” really existed, then there would be no point in proclaiming it.

      • The point is raising every generation within this consensus and strengthening the practice of every Christian at every stage of life by renewing their faith in this consensus. See my post on Tuesday for what Luther said about how he needs this foundation every day of his life.

    • Not true of the Reformation catechisms, Werner. They did not “create an authority” but pointed to the Bible and the consensus of the early church. Their stress on the Ten Commandments, the Apostles Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer is a simple, non-controversial representation of a “mere Christianity” representing all traditions.

      Now, when we get to the “fourth pillar”—the Sacraments—that’s another story.

    • Category (1) hardly exists, unless you are willing to exclude millions of self-identified “Christians” from your conception of Christianity.

      Werner, I have recited the apostles creed or the Nicene creed is many, many different traditions and denominations. There is a general consensus among churches that this is what we have in common.

      • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

        Yep… they are the baseline. Indeed, that’s what they were designed to be and have functioned in that capacity for much more than 1500 years. Among orthodox Christians, I’ve yet to meet anyone who disagrees with the Creeds (with the exception of misunderstandings about what “one holy catholic and apostolic church” means). There certainly are (and always have been) heterodox elements within Christianity that deny the Creeds. Historically, they would have been dismissed from the table (so to speak). That these days some are not dismissed is really due to several decades of poor or non-existent catechesis. All people groups have boundaries. Historically, the Creeds have been the boundaries for orthodox Christians.

        • I love the Nicene and Apostles Creed and love that they really are a brief but powerful outline of what we believe as Chrisitians. Like Chaplain Mike said, it’s when we get to the administering of the sacraments that we get so many divisions.

        • I’d say there’s also lack of understanding what historically “one baptism for the remission of sins” actually meant and some disagreement about the meaning of “communion of saints.” But those are from the Nicene—the Apostle’s is simpler and more likely to be the most basic source of unity, in my view.

      • That’s exactly the sort of thinking I mean! Not every self-identified Christian (or church) accepts these creeds, or the beliefs expressed in them. Is formally excluding them from your official definition of Christianity really the best way to educate your members in religion?

  12. huh, I had seen that quote attributed to Augustine. I’m not sure where though.

    I have

    “in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas” (In necessary things unity, in uncertain things liberty, in all things charity.)

    on my facebook quote list though.