Essential and Nonessential things in Conversion
We were taught that there are "essential" and "nonessential" things to be concerned about when discussing conversion. For example, it is essential that everyone who professes to be a converted person believes in the Trinity, believes the Ten Commandments, believes he is a miserable sinner before a holy and righteous God, etc. Nonessential things include the "petty" things we argue about--whether you can do this or that on Sunday, whether women must have long hair or not, etc.
My question is, how do you know exactly what is included under the "nonessential" things? You can't use the Bible, because for ANYthing, there will be a text somewhere--at least that someone will pull up--to prove it. For example: the Sunday thing. My in-laws (now you see the source of my questions!) do not allow certain things on Sunday that most other people do. I call that a "nonessential". But they will say very strongly, that anyone who is truly converted will NOT do such and such a thing on the Sabbath, that he will feel it in his heart that it is not right. (Things like using a curling iron, taking a bath, etc.) They will be very sure about it.
Or: the Lord's Supper. In our church, women will go who wear things or style their hair in a way that we were brought up to think was wrong. Or the pants issue: This girl/woman cannot be a true child of God, because she wears pants. I agree. Yet, I wonder--are these only nonessentials? You can prove (somewhat) from the Bible that pants for females are wrong, just as you can prove almost anything from the Bible.
So the question is: How do we know the difference between a "nonessential" and an "essential" thing?
Thanks for your amazing patience. Your questions are related to Paul's teaching in Rom 14 and part of 15. Clearly he teaches that believers don't always think or live alike on issues not clearly defined in the Scripture. On the major doctrines of the Bible regarding salvation there has to be absolute unity. But even on some doctrinal issues there can be disagreement. Those known with the writing of Rev. J. C. Philpot love his experiential knowledge and teaching of God's precious truths but within our Reformed circles we reject his view of infant baptism of the children of the church. But on the doctrines of man's total sinfulness and lost condition, God's sovereignty in salvation, the way of salvation through Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, the Deity of the Lord Jesus and of the Holy Spirit, etc. are all subjects on which we cannot disagree. But on the matters not defined in Scripture as 'black or white' and that therefore have no immediate bearing on salvation, there can be disagreement. Popularly said, we are to agree on the majors but may disagree on the undefined minors.
However, the matters of 'things indifferent' aren't a matter of indifference to the Lord. Isn't it remarkable that the Holy Spirit has given more attention to this issue which divides and strains relationships between believers that to the very creation of the universe? Besides these chapters in Romans, 1 Cor. 8-10 and Gal 5 deal with this subject as it were subjects that brought great division in the first NT churches. Now many interesting and worthwhile things can be said about these chapters but I will limit myself to your question. If you are interested in this subject, you can always listen to the three sermons I have devoted once to these chapters. They may still be available on Sermonaudio.com.
What are now the matters of indifference and how do we go about to determine that? It is all those issues relating to our daily life which are not clearly prohibited or commanded in God's Holy Word. What is 'black and white' in the Bible is beyond discussion. It simply is the will of our God and since He has spoken about it, we have no other choice but to obey Him. So the 'head covering of a woman in the public service' is not just a habit in Corinth or an old-fashioned custom of our forefathers! It is written in God's Word as a legislative portion of Scripture. But whether I need to wear a curly wig (as our venerable forefathers did) is (gladly) not written in the Scripture as God's will but was a social-status thing in those days as much a suit and tie are today a display of respect. Other 'black and white' issues of God’s will in our daily life are pre-marital or extra-marital sexual activity, the keeping of the Lord's Day holy, the attendance of congregational worship. These matters can all be backed up from Scripture.
But what are not always defined are the precise details. For example, what you can or cannot do on the Lord's Day? Here is where difference exists depending on your culture. Am I allowed to use my car to go church on Sunday? If you recently grew up in the USA or NZ, you might react quite surprised! What is wrong with that? Yet I know serious-minded and sincere people who consider it is a sin to use the car on the Lord's Day and they will walk to church. Who is right or wrong? In cases like this, they are wrong who violate their own convictions and conscience and don't act in faith before God. That's what Paul taught in Romans 14:23. I was raised not to go for lunch at another family’s house on the Lord’s Day. At least, it never happened in our home. For many years I felt very disinclined to do that until I noticed that the Lord Jesus honored an invitation to eat at the Pharisee’s house on the Sabbath Day. That all of a sudden really challenged my thinking and actually violated my conscience-code. Obviously, the Lord Jesus wasn’t wrong in what He did. My conscience was ‘weak’ while His was ‘strong.’
Other matters in which sincere Christians who would agree on all the major doctrines and show evidences of a genuine life of faith may differ are in the use of alcohol, jewelry, insurance, vaccination, whether to celebrate Christmas or Good Friday, clothing styles and colors. God has provided in His Word His principles on all these issues and these principles are to guide us in the choices we make in these areas. For the one that choice may be influenced by a different cultural upbringing or by a personal experience. For example, playing a game of soccer with a group of friends will be judged entirely different by one who has been delivered from the idolatry of sports than by another who has always been hopeless in kicking a ball around. The 'idolatry' is wrong and the one who has been living in that sin, even a friendly game of soccer will feel like a huge temptation and so he has drawn his lines completely different. We need to be very careful not to judge carelessly and thoughtlessly when others draw their lines different than us. There is usually a history before such a decision that we aren’t aware of.
It is therefore impossible and unwise to issue my judgment on the questions you raised whether 'Is this allowed and that allowed?' If God hasn't said anything about it in His Word, we can't categorically condemn it as wrong or immediately approve of it as right. Each of these cases needs to be judged individually as we bear in mind the personal uniqueness or cultural setting around you.
I often admire the Lord’s wisdom in this aspect of His Word. As the same Word is His Word to all the different cultures in our vastly different world, the Lord has written it so that it will be a sure and steadfast guide in all those different settings in history and nations.
May the Lord bless us with the wisdom and grace that Paul concluded with, “Let every one us please his neighbor for his good to edification. For even Christ pleased not Himself.” (Rom. 15:2-3a)