“In essentials, unity…” A view of the “Moravian motto”

Most institutions in modern society try to express their special characteristics in a logo or brief slogan.  In the Moravian Church, a phrase that comes closest to this, although never made official: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love.”

Variously attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo and more frequently to Peter Meiderlin, a 16th century Lutheran theologian, the phrase also appears in the last published work of the Moravian bishop John Amos Comenius entitled The One Thing Needful. 

After a lapse of a couple of centuries, the motto began to appear within the Moravian Church in the mid 1800s, and by 1900 had appeared in the Southern Provinces’ newspaper, The Wachovia Moravian.

So while it isn’t solely “ours,” the motto has been a comfort and rallying cry for Moravians around the world.  In this issue, we offer the description found in “Our Moravian Treasures: A Manual of Topics for Theological Education in the Unitas Fratrum,” edited by the Rev. Peter Vogt, to provide additional insight and serve as the introduction for work completed by the Rev. Ted Bowman (see accompanying article) on what the motto means to a group of long-time Moravians.

“The experiences of more than 500 years have taught us that, in order to remain true to the message of the Gospel, we have to keep working on how we express our faith. With changing historical circumstances and new theological insights, our statements of what we believe have developed over time, and even today this process is likely to continue. We have found that it is best to keep the statements about our doctrine relatively simple and allow people to have different views on things that are not clear in the Bible.

One important guideline for theological reflection in the Moravian Church is the maxim: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love.” While this principle is not uniquely Moravian, it reflects very well the character of our tradition. The Unity Synod of 2016 described it as a “fundamental notion” for dealing with differences within the Unity (COUF #414). It seems the principle was first used by Catholic and Lutheran theologians in the early seventeenth century. In the old Unity, it was quoted once by Bishop John Amos Comenius, and, in 1857, it was introduced to the renewed Moravian Church by Bishop Alexander de Schweinitz. Today, it is widely known across Moravian provinces and considered to be one of the “treasures” of our church.

The significance of this principle is obvious when we consider that the Unitas Fratrum, as an international church, is facing the growing challenge of cultural and theological diversity. At the Unity Synod and other international gatherings, Moravian leaders struggle to maintain the unity of our church as they disagree on important theological questions. Likewise, many provinces and congregations face the task of dealing with conflicts over matters of doctrine and belief that threaten to divide the community. How can we engage in controversial theological topics without putting at risk our connection as brothers and sisters in Christ?

The principle “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love” helps us to see that unity does not mean uniformity. Members of a church community do not need to agree on everything or always have the same opinion. While many people like the idea that others agree with them, our principle makes it clear that in the church there is room for diversity. Controversial opinions are often rooted in the fact that different people have different perspectives, due to their specific life-experience, cultural background, education, family situation, personal character, and so on. Because it is quite unrealistic to expect full agreement among people that come from diverse walks of life, there is great wisdom in the willingness to offer freedom for different views, especially in matters that clearly are of secondary importance. This makes it possible for people to “agree to disagree” and still be part of the same community.

At the same time, the principle “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love” expresses the wisdom that in those things that are truly important all members of a church community should be of the same mind. Unity means that people are connected to one another by something they all have in common. If this core of essentials is lost, the community falls apart.

What are the “essentials” for the unity of the Moravian Church? This question has often been asked and is difficult to answer because for much of our history Moravians have been reluctant to define church unity as agreement with precise doctrinal statements. Certainly, the beliefs and values expressed in the Ground of the Unity (see section 3.5.) and in COUF, Part II (“The Essential Features of the Unity”, #50-152) represent an important resource for approaching this question. Yet, it seems that the core of our spiritual identity is something different than simply a statement of doctrine, as it also concerns the way of how we do things and what kind of experiences are important to us. At the same time, we can expect that Moravians from around the world are likely to name very different things as being essential for the unity and identity of our church. This is obviously a matter that will require more discussion and thoughtful deliberation.

Our theological tradition offers an important insight that helps us to think about this question. Luke of Prague spoke of “essentials” when he employed in his theology the distinction between things that are essential, things that are ministerial, and things that are incidental. Of course, he did not know at that time the principle “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love,” and before we proceed any further it is very important to note that these two ways of talking about “essentials” are not the same. In the case of Luke, the “essentials” refer to what is essential for salvation. The principle “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love,” in contrast, speaks about the unity of the church. The “essentials,” here, are points of agreement that form the core of an organization’s shared identity. There are certain things in the life of the church, for example the regulations of our church order, where such agreement is indeed necessary for church unity, but which would not qualify as “essentials” for Luke. In turn, we find that many of the items that Luke defines as “ministerials,” such as Holy Scripture and the sacraments, seem to belong to the category of the “essentials” when looked at from the perspective of church unity. It would not be appropriate to place them in the category of “non-essentials,” which really corresponds more to the group of “incidental things” in Luke’s terminology. It is very important not to confuse these two ways of talking about “essentials.”

What we can learn from Luke is to look beyond shared traditions or agreement in doctrine when we think about the essentials of our unity. There is also the reality of God’s grace in creation, the redemptive work of Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, which call forth our response in faith, hope, and love (God Creates; God Redeems; God Sustains (Blesses). We respond in faith, love and hope.) This suggests that ultimately the unity of the church does not rest in agreement about statements of doctrine but in the reality of what God does. While it is very important to discuss doctrinal matters and work towards agreement, people should bear in mind that human words are limited in their ability to capture the full truth of our faith. As we seek “unity in essentials,” let us remember that being one in Christ is a gift far greater than what we can express in theological definitions. In the end, true Christianity, as well as the unity of our church, is not based on the words of certain creeds or doctrinal statements; it is grounded in the living experience of faith in Christ, active love for others, and joyful hope that looks to the time when all God’s promises are fulfilled.

Above all, the principle “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love” points us to the importance of love for the discussion of controversial theological topics. The spirit of love involves a movement in two directions: love creates community, as it draws connections between people; at the same time, love offers freedom for difference, as each person or group is respected and valued for their own unique contribution. The spirit of love facilitates “unity-in-difference”, as it creates a space where people of different opinion can come together to seek mutual understanding and cooperation. The spirit of love thus offers the wisdom to see those who hold a different view not as opponents but as partners on a shared journey.

The unity of the Moravian Church is a work in progress. It requires theological reflection on many important issues. The principle “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love” offers us precious guidance and encouragement for this task. We are invited to speak honestly and listen carefully to each other so that we may come to under- stand how we differ in our views and discern what we have in common. We can expect that, since the Moravian Church is a global denomination, disagreements on matters of doctrine and polity will continue to be a part of this process. They do not necessarily form a threat to our unity, but they can be an opportunity for dialogue and conversation, which may lead us to a better understanding and a deeper connection, as we continue our journey into the future that God has prepared for us.

Adapted from “Our Moravian Treasures: A Manual of Topics for Theological Education in the Unitas Fratrum,” edited by Peter Vogt.  “Our Moravian Treasures” is available from the Interprovincial Board of Communication at store.moravian.org.