RENEW Theology: What is Essential? What is Important? What is Personal?
Your theology is simply your “organized beliefs about God.” Everyone consciously or unconsciously has beliefs about God which they have organized one way or another. In this sense, everyone is a theologian.
But not every disciple of Jesus is a good theologian.
For example, it is possible to have beliefs about God that are not true. Or there could be important beliefs about God we might not yet know. Or we might not place our beliefs in the proper order (what is essential vs what is just opinion). Beyond that, we may believe things taught by the culture in which we live and mistakenly attribute these beliefs to God. In doing so, we end shrinking God into a marionette who mouths what our culture says. That’s not good.
At RENEW, we believe it is important to make theology accurate and, where possible, keep theology simple (without being simplistic).
And it is not just theology. Our lifestyles also matter. In the Bible God cares about what we believe and how we live (1 Timothy 4:16).
“We believe it is important to make theology accurate and keep theology simple (without being simplistic).”
We want you to know what we at RENEW believe and how we uphold it, so that you can join us and get easy access to the approach we teach that helps people to accurately and concretely hold to the teachings of Jesus.
We teach this material at an in-depth level in our systematic book for disciples, Real Life Theology: Fuel for Faithful and Effective Disciple Making.
Here, in short, is the RENEW theological model. We categorize the teachings of the Christian faith into three elements, including both beliefs and lifestyles:
- Essential elements
- Important elements
- Personal elements
This model is grounded and drawn from the encouragement and warnings we see throughout Scripture. Although framed by top notch biblical theologians, it is nonetheless a model that is easy to understand and apply.
Here’s the model we champion; let me briefly explain it to you.
What is the framework for the “three elements of the faith” we put forward as the RENEW theological model?
Think of concentric circles, with core elements in the middle. Moving outward, the elements become more personal or relative to the situation. This framework helps disciples of Jesus avoid an unfaithful progressivism in one ditch and fundamentalism/legalism in the other ditch. It focuses on Jesus, the gospel, as it emphasizes the things emphasized in Scripture.
- Essential – There are essential elements (or teachings) in the Bible that are essential to your eternal destiny and standing with God.
- Important – There are secondary elements in the Bible that are important for your ongoing faithfulness to God and for living as God intended.
- Personal – There are third-level elements that God leaves for us to decide as personal preferences or truths about which there is a lack of decisive evidence one way or the other.
This model and its three levels—understood as teachings and our faithfulness to these teachings—helps us make sense of the Bible, wherever we are in our journey. For those just starting out, this model can be especially helpful for learning to prioritize certain foundational teachings over less foundational ones. Let me explain each level a little deeper.
1. Essential Elements (written in “blood”)
The word “gospel” is the core essential of the Bible. The word simply means “the good news.” Jesus Christ himself, especially his death, resurrection, and enthronement as Saving King comprises the good news—the best and most important announcement that anyone could ever hear. To receive Jesus as Saving King, we must respond to him by faith. Salvation by grace through faith is our foundational message. There are two parts: God’s grace and human faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).
- Grace: The gospel. It is focused on Jesus Christ, on his person and teaching, his launching of the kingdom of God, his redemptive work on the cross, and his enthronement as Lord and King.
- Faith: The response to the gospel. Faith is a personal and deep-rooted commitment, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to the gospel.
Please note that true faith, according to Scripture, includes trust, allegiance, and faithfulness. It includes repentance from sinful lifestyles and a commitment to be a disciple of Jesus. It is not merely mental assent (i.e., believe the fact that Jesus died on the cross) or some sort of emotional warmth toward God (i.e., just trusting in God to take care of everything without following Jesus’ teachings). Faith means that we trust God through Jesus and surrender our wills and lives to be disciples of Jesus. Faith is relational. It’s the guiding element as the Spirit nurtures us into the likeness of Jesus.
2. Important Elements (written in “ink”)
When we are focused on the gospel and by faith adhere to the path of discipleship, we have a center point for our faith. This is the core teaching of the Bible. Other biblical truths, however, are also important to us because they come from God. These are the important elements. We seek to understand and live our lives in light of all God’s truth. But we must be clear: our eternal destiny is not dependent on these secondary, yet important truths. People who completely trust in Jesus and have committed themselves to the path of discipleship often misunderstand or disagree on some of these important biblical teachings.
Important elements can include how the local church should be structured (e.g., Should it have a pastor or multiple elders? Should they be male or female?). It can also include whether or not a church truly practices active discipleship and if they truly teach and help people to love and take care of one another. It could include how the church practices accountability (e.g., how people should be held accountable for the way they live their lives). Or it may concern our understanding of predestination and free will.
We know that on many of these matters sincere Christians divide into different churches. Also, as individuals, sometimes our convictions about biblical truth at this level means that we cannot “do church” with other Christians. We believe, as a general principle, that disagreement on these issues do not destroy our salvation or make us “lost.”
“Disagreement on these issues does not destroy our salvation or make us ‘lost.'”
But wait. At the same time, these doctrinal differences are important, and we need to strive to be faithful in our understanding and practice of each one. Yes, we must strive to believe and follow all of God’s truth. Yes, these matters have a big impact on the health of the local church and the health of our faith over the long term. And yes, we need to listen to one another and exhort one another to make sure that we are being faithful to God’s truth in all things.
But our salvation hinges on the essential elements. It’s these that are the bullseye of our faith.
We notice something that is occurring more and more. Those attracted to a more progressive Christianity often reason like this: “There are essentials and nonessentials. If it’s not an essential, then everybody’s interpretation is equally valid, and we should just agree to disagree. It is not a big deal.” This type of reasoning forgets that there are numerous important elements of Christianity which we must take seriously to honor God and so that we can pursue faithfulness to Jesus, even if our salvation isn’t directly tied to getting them right.
“There are numerous important elements of Christianity which we need to take seriously so that we can pursue faithfulness to Jesus.”
It’s true that when when we read 1 Corinthians, we see examples of the three elements: We’ve got a summary of the gospel (“of first importance”) in the opening verses of chapter 15 (essential), and we see the importance of faithfulness to the way God wants the assembly to function in 1 Corinthians 11-14 (important). And then in 1 Corinthians 8, we learn about not judging people on personal elements such as the eating of food sacrificed to idols.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul is writing to saved Christians, and throughout the book he writes on mostly important issues (e.g., their in-house quarrels, lack of church discipline, rowdiness during the Lord’s Supper, etc.). Their salvation is not at stake; yet these are important, even urgent, issues. No, these all weren’t “essentials,” but to make little of them (e.g., when progressives say that, if something isn’t essential, then anybody’s interpretation is equally valid) is not at all biblical.
A careful reading of 1 Corinthians makes it clear that important elements are, in fact, very important.
3. Personal Elements (written in “pencil”)
There is a third level of Christian faith that Scripture teaches about (e.g., Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8). These items are explicitly identified as disputable matters (Romans 14:1). At this third level, we have different personal opinions. We can almost always stay together in the same local church. We function together because we agree on the gospel and on the important, but secondary, elements of the faith.
But on this third level of personal matters, where issues are less clear, God does not have a set path that we all must follow. We have freedom because God does not tell us what we are to do or his direction is not clear. We are able to agree to disagree. These elements compel us to adopt a stance where we respect honest, personal differences, while still being in close fellowship in the same church.
Here are some examples of what we mean.
Different Christians had different convictions concerning eating meat or special days in Romans 14. And while Paul taught they had freedom, these Christians, he noted, would still have to give an accounting of themselves to God (Rom. 14:10-12). Paul mentions the drinking of wine in this context (Rom. 14:21).
Alcohol has been a big topic for many Christians. Some Christians’ conscience allows them to drink alcohol, while other Christians’ conscience won’t allow them to. The Bible teaches that it is wrong to get drunk (Eph. 5:18), but that’s the only clear line that can be drawn. So, whether someone drinks alcohol in a way that doesn’t cause drunkenness belongs in the category of “personal element.” Even still, these personal elements are never a green light to be unwise; in fact, when something isn’t black or white in Scripture, it’s a call to exercise wisdom in line with what Scripture does teach and with what your conscience will allow.
“Some doctrines fall into the category of personal elements.”
Some doctrines fall into the category of personal elements. Take the interpretation of many parts in the book of Revelation. Some Christians believe that the book of Revelation must be taken literally in most aspects, while others take a more figurative, symbolic approach. Even still, we can witness a unity-in-diversity type of mentality, as godly, Jesus-focused people can have different interpretations, and even try to convince each other of their own position, but remain in close fellowship even in the same church.
Where Scriptures reflect a lack of clarity, we want to be cautious. They may be reflecting matters that should be taken as personal or disputable elements.
At this third level, we give each other freedom in the local church without feeling the urgency to persuade them to our way of thinking. These third-level elements are matters that call for more flexibility because they are grey—not black and white.
We uphold freedom of conscience to believe and practice what individuals personally think is God’s best.
One more thing …
We not only believe that this threefold model is important for us in being able to accurately uphold the teachings of Jesus, but we also believe that the concrete framework of this model is crucial in disciple making. When everyday disciples of Jesus are clear-minded about what it means to uphold good theology, they think and act in way that honors Jesus.
Want to read a brief, but more substantive introduction to RENEW’s theological model? I encourage you to check out Chad Ragsdale’s book Christian Convictions: Discerning the Essential, Important, and Personal Elements.
 The RENEW model was developed in the early 1990s, but similar frameworks have also been created independently by others, such as Albert Mohler, president of Southern Theological Seminary. Mohler arrived at a similar proposal to the one we advocate (the primary difference regarding the middle category). For Mohler’s model, see Albert Mohler, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,” May 20, 2004, http://www.albertmohler.com/2004/05/20/a-call-for-theological-triage-and-christian-maturity-2/, accessed December 2014.