“Be contentious and zealous, brothers, but about the things that relate to salvation.” So says the ancient Christian letter known as 1 Clement (I read this earlier today as part of day three in a “read through the church fathers in 7 years” program at this site).
1 Clement may be the earliest non-canonical Christian work that is not found in the New Testament (the Didache is another possibility). A likely date for 1 Clement is right at the end of the first century, A.D. In the letter the church at Rome encourages the Corinthian church to support its church leaders rather than resist those leaders, who had not gone astray in any doctrinal or moral area. The problem was that a handful of influential younger people in the church wanted to push aside the older leaders and do things their own way.
It is in this context that 1 Clement challenges the Corinthians to avoid misplaced zeal. In other words, the Corinthian church members shouldn’t stir up disunity and rebellion based on relatively minor issues of theology or practice. They should be passionate and unyielding only about things “that relate to salvation” (1 Clement 45:1).
The New Testament supports the similar perspective of fighting for the essentials of the Christian faith but showing humility in the non-essentials. Jesus and the writers of the New Testament are never shy about condemning false teaching in central areas (Jesus denounces the teaching of the Pharisees as well as those who denied that he was sent from the Father; Paul confronts false teaching in Galatians, 2 Corinthians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus; 2 Peter and Jude speak strongly against false teaching; and 1, 2, 3 John and Revelation use sharp language against promoters of false doctrine). At the same time, Jesus prays for the peace and unity of believers in John 17, and Paul shows that unity is a high priority in places such as Romans 15:5-6; all throughout 1 Corinthians; Ephesians 4:3-6; Philippians 1:27-2:4, and Colossians 3:15.
The real question is, “How do you determine what are the essentials, and what is secondary?” 1 Clement says that things connected to salvation are the things worth defending. The New Testament connects salvation (and true doctrine) to the person and work of Jesus (his identity as Son of God and Messiah, and his ministry culminating in his death, resurrection, and return). Other thinkers in early Christianity identified a biblically-rooted “rule of faith” (regula fide) that ought to guide all Christians. This “rule” was not a fixed formula (like the later creeds), but was a series of judgments about God the Father, Son, and Spirit, along with an understanding about how God has intervened in this world to carry out his saving purposes. For early Christians, these were the defining elements of Christianity (along with a common Christian ethic of love, holiness, and service).
It is good to be zealous about the right things. But we should guard against the temptation to divide over smaller matters. 1 Clement offers words of wisdom for our churches today. Along with the central truths of our faith, unity and peace are worth fighting for as well.
For a related post, see “Lessons learned from Church History.”