Puritan pastor Richard Baxter took an old Latin phrase and popularized it in his day, in English. It is simple, but profound: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Why was Baxter so concerned to see Christians publicly, charitably, doctrinally unified? Baxter, writing in 17th century England about the evil effects of division in the church, made this observation:
“The public takes notice of all this and not only derides us, but becomes hardened against all [Christian] religion. When we try to persuade them, they see so many factions that they do not know which to join—and think it better not to join any of them. Thus thousands grow in contempt of all religion by our divisions.”
How many people are turned off by Christianity today, not because of the true claims of the Christian gospel, but because of the messy and public brawls between Christians themselves in front of an unbelieving world? Jesus said, in Luke 17:1, that “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!”
It is a serious thing to cause others to stumble at the gospel by the way that we contend for the gospel.
If the gospel is beautiful, then our behavior ought to reflect that beauty.
When we consider both church history and the plethora of petty divisions that continue to take place in our day, it is evident that Baxter’s concern should be ours as well.
Our demeanor and behavior, toward other Christians or unbelievers, ought to adorn the very gospel that we are proclaiming. If the gospel is beautiful, then our behavior ought to reflect that beauty in the way we share it, or defend it, with others.
In doctrines that are essential to the Christian faith, we must have unity as Christians. In doctrines that are not essential to the Christian faith (do not distinguish Christians from non-Christians), we must grant liberty. And in every conversation we have about the Christian faith, we must display charity.