separation over essentials – an analogy

The doctrine of separation insists that Christians must separate from professing Christians who deny essential doctrines. This is the fundamentalist position. Some have a problem with the notion of ‘essential doctrines’ because it suggests that other doctrines are ‘non-essential’. That really isn’t the case, as Dave helpfully explains here:

The problem is that the word essential is sometimes used as simply meaning important, and, thus, non-essential would mean unimportant. But that’s not what the word essential means in the statement above (or normally when people use it in contexts like this). If something is essential it relates to or constitutes the essence of something. As the dictionary states, “essential implies belonging to the very nature of a thing and therefore being incapable of removal without destroying the thing itself or its character.” So, to speak of the “essential doctrines of the faith” is to talk about those doctrines which cannot be removed without destroying the faith itself or its character.

This understanding of ‘essential’ is … essential!

It isn’t that any doctrines or teaching of God from the Bible is unimportant. But the thing that makes a doctrine essential is that if someone doesn’t believe it, he is not a Christian.

I thought I might offer an analogy as a further explanation.

If you were to have some kind of accident and have to remove a limb, you would still be a living human being. In fact, you could survive losing all your limbs and you could survive a good deal of disfigurement and still be a living human being – a severely handicapped human being, but a human being nonetheless. That is because your hands, arms, feet, and legs are not essential to life.

You would not survive the loss of vital organs. You have to have lungs, heart, liver, and the like. Try living for a day without them! They are essential.

When we think about the various doctrines that divide Christians into denominational and sectarian groups, it is quite obvious that the various groups think all their doctrines are important. They are important enough to define their fellowships and exclude believers of differing persuasions.

Note the word ‘believers’ in the preceding sentence. I believe the doctrine of baptism by immersion after conversion is vital to a Biblical local church. I believe that no outside ecclesiastical authority has any say in the affairs of a local church. I believe that the membership of the local church must be exclusively of regenerate believers who have the responsibility of governing their own body by congregational church government.

All of these strongly held beliefs make me a Baptist – but they don’t make me a Christian. There are Christians who differ with these points of view. They are believers, but they disagree with Baptists on important distinctive doctrines.

In my opinion, believers who don’t accept Baptist distinctives are spiritually handicapped. They are hobbling around minus a limb or two, to bring this back to my analogy. But they are believing Christians and that is the essential point.

When someone professes Christianity but denies essential doctrines, his profession is false. It isn’t that he is spiritually handicapped, it is that he is spiritually dead. He has no Christian heart.

Separation, in its primary application, is applied when essential Christian doctrines (the doctrines absolutely necessary for a credible Christian testimony) are denied.


P.S. I was going to make a joke wondering if the brain was essential. I was going to use the “C” word, observing that the brain might not be essential since we have living “C”s. But then I thought… Nah, I’d better not!


  1. Don,

    Simple. Show me a verse that says we separate over only what’s essential, even according to Dave’s definition. I can show you several that say we separate over much more than the essentials.

    I understand Dave’s definition of essential. Good dictionary look up on his part. However, I need a little more than protos means “first importance” to develop this huge doctrine and practice. It seems to me that it is just encouraging disobedience to Scripture.

    I know that last sentence sounds bad, but I mean it in the best spirit possible, which is why even I wrote “seems.”

    • Hi Kent, you are missing the point, I think. You do acknowledge that there are people who are real Christians who would not be in your circle of fellowship, right? But you would differentiate them from professing Christians who are not Christians at all, right? The point is not that the other doctrines are not important. But you can be a Christian and not believe in believer’s baptism. You would be a crippled Christian, but you would be a Christian, as long as you believed certain core doctrines of salvation.

      If you can’t agree with that, wouldn’t you be forced to say that ALL those from whom you separate are not Christians?

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. But Don, as I understand Dave, he is teaching that we separate over only doctrine that is the essence, that is, related to the gospel and salvation. We’re talking about separation, not about who we think are saved and who are not saved. I can think someone has a true gospel and still separate from them. That doesn’t mean that I’m judging them to have a false gospel or that they are even unsaved. We admonish brothers as brothers, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t separate from them.

    • Well, to defend Dave (!!!), he is saying this is the bare minimum over which separation occurs. His phrase is something like this: “This is the floor, not the ceiling.” Separation starts here, but there are other reasons to separate as well. And there are reasons why one might not separate as such but would limit or refuse fellowship.

      Dave seems uncomfortable with the term “essential” but hasn’t come up with a better term. The problem with the term is that its opposite can be understood to be “non-essential”, but he doesn’t accept that term to describe other aspects of biblical truth (or the ‘appendages’ according to my analogy). The point of the term is that if you deny an essential, you aren’t a Christian. If you deny believer’s baptism by immersion, you might still be a Christian, but in error. There might be a limitation of fellowship or even a refusal of fellowship for such a person. But we wouldn’t consider such a person a non-Christian … unless he denied an essential, like the deity of Christ, or the vicarious atonement, or some such essential point.

      The point that I am trying to make with the analogy is that there is such a thing as essential doctrines. I think I prefer the term ‘fundamentals’ myself, although I guess someone could still ask if all other doctrines are ‘non-fundamental’. The way the argument is being framed, and I think both Dave and I are in agreement on this (risky assumption??), is that ALL doctrine is important for the whole Christian man, while acknowledging it is possible for Christians to go through life halting because they don’t accept important doctrines. It is impossible for someone to live as a Christian if they don’t accept the fundamental/essential doctrines.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. I like foundational doctrines to describe something like the gospel.

    My understanding, since this was being written about separation, is that they believe that we are to separate over the essentials and not to separate over the non-essentials. If he were to agree with Bauder, those who don’t separate over the essentials are indifferentists, and those who separate on more than the essentials are everythingists.

    • Have you listened to Dave’s presentation? I don’t think you are understanding him at all. I think Bauder has another category in between indifferentist and everythingist as well. But I’d have to go back and listen to Bauder’s thing again… that would require a bit of an effort! It was long.

      Anyway, the bare minimum which calls for separation is Dave’s ‘essentials’, my ‘fundamentals’ and your ‘foundationals’. There are other reasons for separation as well, but these are the minimums. (See his post today for a start at other reasons.)

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3