Some say lovefeasts are essential; other say that a particular doctrine, like the atonement is essential. Could it be that our cherished motto is not as helpful as it appears? Perhaps we can find guidance for a better understanding by looking to the wisdom of Moravians in years past.
The 550th anniversary of the founding of the Moravian Church in 2007 rekindled interest in the history and theology of the original Moravian Church, which we sometimes call the Ancient Unity. When our church was founded in 1457 it was illegal for anyone to separate from the established church, and so the original Brethren (and Sisters) did not take this step lightly. They did a lot of thinking about why they had to form a new community of faith, and sometimes they even had to defend their views before government officials or the Inquisition.
The Brethren argued that they had to break away from the churches of their day because those churches had lost the real spirit and goal of Christianity. Those churches were either focusing on things that were not important or worse were using sacred things to harm people rather than to save them. Our spiritual ancestors wanted to get back to the basics of following the way of Christ as presented in the New Testament.
The leader of the Brethren was a tailor by the name of Gregory, and he insisted that the New Testament tells us clearly what is essential: faith, love, and hope. Everything the church does should be for the purpose of building people up in faith, in love, and in hope. If the church does not do this, it is not really the church. More importantly, if a person has faith, love, and hope, he or she is a Christian regardless of what the institutional church says.
Gregory and his companions argued that Christians should distinguish between the essential things and things that minister to what is essential. There are also things that may be helpful but are really incidental to the Christian life, such as whether someone wears a robe when preaching.
From the beginning of the Moravian Church we have distinguished between Essentials, Ministerials, and Incidentals. Gregory and his followers insisted that churches should not confuse what is incidental (such as wearing robes or singing modern songs) with what is ministerial. Most importantly, the church needs to be clear about what is truly essential rather than ministerial.
One way to understand the Essentials is to think about what it was like be a member of the Unitas Fratrum five centuries ago. If the Inquisition imprisoned your bishop, burned your Bibles, closed your church building and prevented you from having baptism or Holy Communion, could you still be Christian? If you were a missionary and shipwrecked in the Caribbean and had no Bible or Communion set, could you still preach the Good News of Christ? If so, then none of those things are essential. However, if the members of a church do not demonstrate faith, love, and hope, can you call that a Christian church? For the Moravians, true Christianity is not based on a certain creed or doctrine; it is grounded in the living experience of faith in Christ, active love for others and joyful hope.
Many of the things that people think are most important in the Christian faith are not really essential. They are helpful and valuable, but not essential. Gregory and his followers called them Ministerial things. These are tools given by Christ and the Holy Spirit to help the church. In other words, they “minister” to what is essential.
The Ministerials include things like the clergy, sacraments, sacred rites and creeds. They are not “incidental” or “non-essential.” These things lead people to God; they build people up in faith, love and hope. They are sacred gifts of God, but they are sacred only when they lead people to what is essential. They are not sacred in themselves. If the ministerial things ever get in the way of what is essential, then the church needs to change its practices and teachings.
This is what the first Moravians did when they decided to ordain their own priests and choose their own bishops rather than having Catholic priests and bishops serve them. This is what the Brethren did when they consecrated Communion on simple wooden tables rather than on altars. This is what our spiritual ancestors did when they rejected the official version of the Bible (the Latin Vulgate) and dared to translate the Scriptures into the language spoken by the people. They changed the Ministerials so they could better communicate what is Essential. As you can imagine, this was very controversial and dangerous.
The established church accused the old Moravians of blasphemy and sacrilege when they changed the way they worshiped and served God. The king and emperor sent soldiers to arrest them and burn their Bibles. Our ancestors sometimes worshiped in the woods because it was not safe to worship in town. Such violence in the name of Christ was proof enough to our spiritual ancestors that the churches of their day had lost what was essential.
The old Moravians believed that the Bible is a sacred book that leads us to faith, love and hope, but whenever the Inquisition or anyone else used the Bible to justify cruelty, abuse, enslavement, oppression, torture and killing, it was no longer sacred. The sacrilege was using the Bible to hurt people rather than to lead them to faith. Holy Communion and baptism are sacred because they lead us to have faith, love and hope, but they cease to be sacred when we use them to harm or devalue people.
Further refinement of essentials
In the 1490s the great Moravian theologian Luke of Prague further refined the church’s teaching on the essential things. He said that there were two types of essentials. First are the essential works of God, which are creation, redemption, and sanctification (or blessing). Second are the ways we respond to God’s work, namely, with faith, love, and hope. God’s work comes before our response, but the work of God and our response are both essential.
According to Moravian teaching six things are essential: God creates (and God’s creation is good), God redeems, God blesses; and we respond by having faith in what God has done and is doing; by loving God, loving ourselves, loving our neighbors and loving our enemies; and by looking to the future with hope because we know we will be with God. Luke of Prague disagreed with Martin Luther who said that we are justified by faith alone. Our church taught that faith cannot be separated from love and hope. If you claim to have faith in Christ but do not love others, Luke told Luther, then you do not really have faith.
Even though there are six essentials, they all work together. Faith is more than simply believing something. It means placing something at the center of your life and relying on it. When we say that we have faith in God, it means that we place our trust in God and God’s work in the world.
Faith means that we really truly believe that God is the creator of all that is and that all God has made is good. It means that we truly believe that the whole world and everyone in it belongs to God. If we have love for God the creator, it means that we also love all that God has made and treat everything God has made with reverence. If we have faith that all things are made by God and that all things God made are good, and if we love God and God’s work, then we will naturally have hope that God’s good work will continue.
When we say that we have faith that God redeems, this means more than simply saying that Jesus is our Savior. It means that we truly believe that it is God who redeems and saves humankind. This is God’s work, not our work. It means that we believe that Christ lived and died for the sake of all people, not just people like us or just for people in our church. It means that we believe deep in our hearts that we are redeemed, which means that we are not slaves to sin. If we truly believe this, then we will love God with our whole selves because we belong to God.
If we truly believe this then we will love others with the kind of love that God has shown in redemption. We will even love strangers and enemies. And if we live in love and seek to do good for those Christ redeemed, then we will look to the future with hope.
Perfect love casts out fear, and we have nothing to fear because we know that we are loved with an infinite love. We know that we will be welcomed home by our Savior—along with all those whom Christ has redeemed. This world can become a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom if we live in faith and love.
When we say that we have faith that it is God who sanctifies, we are saying more than simply that we believe in the Holy Spirit. It means that we have confidence that our holiness rests in God, not in our own efforts. It means that we truly believe that we have been blessed by God and that God is at work within us to make us better people. More importantly, it means that we have faith that God also blesses others and makes them holy. If we have faith that God blesses people and makes them holy, then we can respond in love to our families, our friends, our neighbors, strangers, and even our enemies because we know that God blesses others as he blesses us. We can have a deep and abiding hope for a better future because we see the Spirit of God at work in the world.
These are the essential things: God creates; God redeems; God blesses. And we respond in faith, in love and in hope. Everything else in the church, whether it is the study of Scripture or the waters of baptism; whether it is the music of angels or the gurgling praise of God on the lips of babies; whether it is profound sermons or a quiet prayer for someone in pain, should be grounded in these essentials.
For over 500 years we Moravians have judged ourselves not by how beautiful our architecture is or how lovely our choirs sing or how eloquent our preachers are or how brilliant our theologians are. We have judged ourselves by how deep our faith is, how expansive our love is, and how life affirming our hope is.
Ed. Note: For further study of the “essentials,” we recommend Jesus Still Lead On, an intro to Moravian belief based on Craig’s studies of the Moravian Covenant for Christian Living and The Ground of the Unity. Perfect for small-group and study group use to understand more fully the foundation of the Moravian Church. This spiral bound guide provides a solid basis for understanding Moravian Belief.
We also recommend Craig’s book, The Theology of the Czech Brethren from Hus to Comenius, published by Penn State Press. Craig’s work studies the theology and culture of the early Unity of the Brethren that grew out of the Czech Reformation. It’s available on Amazon.com and from Penn State Press.
Craig also spoke at the 2014 Synod of the Moravian Church, Northern Province. Watch the video here:
The Rev. Dr. Craig D. Atwood is director of the Center For Moravian Studies and a professor at Moravian Theological Seminary.