As I was trying to remember this yesterday during the sermon, I kind of botched the translation a bit. I had used this in Sunday school and as I was preaching the idea popped back into my head to use it and I was so excited about how well it fit, I almost forgot the quote. What it should have been was closer to, “unity in necessary things; freedom in doubtful things; love in all things.” This phrase has been attributed to any number of theologians through the years: St. Augustine, Philip Melanchthon, John Wesley, and others.
In truth, the writer was man named Marco Antonio de Dominis, a catholic priest and heretic of the early seventeenth century. De Dominis was known to be vain, greedy, and difficult to get along with, excommunicated from the Catholic Church and run out of England by King James I. He also had a keen theological and scientific mind and engaged with the field of optics. He even wrote a treatise on the refraction of light which creates rainbows that was held up as a work of genius by Isaac Newton himself. Nobody’s perfect and even heretics get things right sometimes.
His theological musing, however, has popped up many times through history, even finding its way into the UMC Book of Discipline where it says,
Beyond the essentials of vital religion, United Methodists respect the diversity of opinions held by conscientious persons of faith. Wesley followed a time-tested approach: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”
This phrase may well hold the key to how we might get along as both a church and a nation. The world around us is so often portrayed as a place of hostility and often the perpetrators are from inside the church as much as outside. So, what do we use this phrase to do that? How might we fit these eleven words into our theology and general practice in a world of contention and animosity?
I think we learn to take this kind of thinking to heart. There are somethings that make Christianity, well, Christian. These things are at the heart of what it means to be literally trying to be a little imitator of Christ. I would say these are things you find in the Sermon on the Mount, the Great Commandment, Matthew 25, and Luke 4. They are things Jesus used again and again and stressed in the gospels. There are other things which are non-essentials, and we should learn to see them that way. These are things like which version of the Bible you want to use or what kind of music you prefer to worship to. And finally, all things should be done in love (back to the Great Commandment with this one). If you can’t with love, you can’t call yourself or your actions Christian (see 1 John 2, 1 Corinthians 13).
And there you have it, a simple snapshot of how we might find a way to get along in a world that seems bent on being angry about something and at someone. Unity, liberty, and charity may well be the means by which we rebuild society’s trust in the church and mend a lot of broken fences within.
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