Most Christians that I know would agree on “the fundamentals of the faith,” the sine que non of true, historic, Christian orthodoxy. After that, we begin to differ, both in our functional distinctives and in our personal convictions. And while everything we believe is important, not everything is equally important.
Functional distinctives are beliefs and practices that are necessary for a local church to operate in a healthy way. These might include, but not be limited to; mode of baptism, church polity, eschatology, spiritual gifts, view of soteriology (reformed or not), and basic philosophy of ministry (doxological or soteriological). The temptation might be to add everything we believe to this list, but I am not convinced that “everything we believe” fits here. Not every belief is a fundamental of the faith, and not every belief is necessary for a church to have healthy life. Some of our beliefs should remain as our personal convictions. We need to strive for unity—not unanimity.
The church, as well as the para-church organization, will need to decide upon the functional distinctives as well as the degree of compliance necessary for organizational participants: administrators, representatives, faculty, staff, accepted students, candidates for graduation, members of the alumni association, etc. I think these distinctions should be drawn very thoughtfully and carefully.
If everything we believe is important, but not equally so, it might even be a good idea to develop at least a two-tier doctrinal statement:
- A statement of faith that would clearly delineate an orthodox position.
- A statement of functional distinctives that would give necessary clarity and guidance for the healthy operation of a church or organization.
Both of these doctrinal statements should include what is necessary, but not more than what is necessary. After that, freedom should be allowed for different views as long as they do not violate Scripture, prove to be divisive, or hinder the work of the church.
I believe it was Augustine who said it first, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”