Non-negotiable? really?

I've recently had trouble with the concept of "non-negotiable" doctrine. This is a doctrine that simply cannot be negotiated or abandoned if one wishes to call themselves a Christian, they are the essentials to the Christian faith. It seems to me that this gives the Christian thinker, the theologian, very little freedom or grounds for responsible theological critical thought. To think critically and theologically one must bring the doctrines and interpretations and, practically, every belief held by anyone into question (or at least be open to this task since it is practically impossible) regarding spirituality, the study of God, or the articulation of faith.

Therefore, if there are non-negotiable doctrines and beliefs, how must the responsible theologian do his task? Must we really treat certain things as non-negotiable? And if we must is it possible to do theology?

What strikes me immediately in discussing this topic is the question of who decided these so-called non-negotiables anyway? How could they have decided they were non-negotiable without first carrying out their theological responsibility of calling them into question? It would be impossible.

The real question we must ask if we wish to think theologically and yet still adhere to the non-negotiables of the Christian faith is, am I able to question without truly negotiating? Now, I realize that these two words initially seem to mean the same thing, and they may, but we will examine them as having two different meanings.

To question something is not to allow falling between the cracks, it is not to toss it to the dogs, rather, it is to examine responsibly. We are obligated to examine something in which we have put our faith. After all, theology’s task is not to damage our faith; rather, it is to preserve it. Theology is not around to harm the community of God, rather, to serve it. We theologize in order to articulate our faith and, ultimately to live it out.

To negotiate a doctrine is to drop it, sometimes with the intention of picking it back up again when the point is proven. Therefore, it is possible to question something and hold the belief, whereas, it is impossible to believe something which is under negotiation. By this definition non-negotiables can be questioned without being negotiated. If something is truly a non-negotiable we must never put it down while it is in question lest we detach ourselves from orthodoxy, or correct thinking. Instead, we must abide by it until, through critical analysis, we are convinced that it should not be regarded so highly or that it is indeed false. For fear of disassociating, completely, a word from its definition perhaps it may be more proper for us to say that “non-negotiable” is an inadequate word to describe this sort of doctrine. They are essential to the faith, at least we consider them so, but non-negotiable? This word might be deceptive, leading us to think that we cannot question it. If we say that something is essential, on the other hand, we understand its' importance without believing that it shouldn't be questioned.

In our consciousness not to abandon a non-negotiable, or any doctrine for that matter, while questioning it we must never become so cautious that we never truly allow ourselves to question. Many people approach a subject as if to question it but in reality they are simply trying to prove it. They never really view it objectively enough to criticize it. We cannot fall into this sort of arrogance, the kind which concerns itself with proving a point rather than question a point.

For generations, believers have been abandoning things that they once thought were so important and picking up new things to take their place. Micah 6:6-8 is one of the clearest demonstrations of this dropping of things that were once thought to be important.

“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the
LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin
of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD
require of you but to do justice, and to love. kindness, and to walk humbly with
your God?”[1]

The prophet, here, is questioning a non-negotiable. The things that were once regarded as the way to peace with God, the things that were so important; burnt offerings, “rivers of oil,” etc. are abandoned for things that he just realized were more important; justice and mercy. The Apostle Paul acknowledge his experience with sharing in this tradition when he said, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”[2] If you are a protestant your roots lie with people who decided that the non-negotiable of the papacy (the pope’s divine authority) wasn’t a non-negotiable anymore. We share in this tradition. We are in the tradition of changing the non-negotiables for us and for our children but we do not do so lightly, rather, we hold on to them, we abide by them until we are truly convinced and we never do so outside the context of community. If what we will actually discover that if we drop a non-negotiable then it was never essential to begin with.

We are obligated, as is every generation, to call into question the things which guide our understanding. Some of the things which have been passed down to us are good and healthy for us to accept but others of us have been passed some beliefs and perceptions which have or will eventually damage us and we mustn’t make the mistake of passing them to our children. So, we must never treat the non-negotiables as “non-questionables.” The non-negotiable doctrines must be brought into question as much if mot more so than other doctrines. The very fact that we consider them important enough to be called essential makes them all the more subject to responsible criticism so that we may not make the mistake of holding any doctrine too high. We must go through the process of letting go of the things which were once so important to us and affirming the things of greater truth to which we were not introduced until now.

end notes
[1] Micah 6:6-8, NRSV
[2] Philippians 3:7, NRSV


Matt Wilson said…
Saw your blog on a comment you made on Adam Ellis' site. I have enjoyed many of your entries.


This could very well open a rather large can of worms.
Is the opposite of Non-negotiable Non-essential?
The selfproclaimed experts seem to indicate that no doctrine is non-essential, yet any thinking human being can see that there are a lot of "teachings" in the Bible which are largely igonored by most Christians.
Some would say that the stuff in the Old Testament is non-essential to salvation because Jesus negated the law by grace. But what about all Paul's teaching about the role of women in the church...or about the qualifications for decon and elder? I do think that as Christians we do have a few Non-negotiables...who do we say Jesus is/was? Virgin Birth, Death on the Cross, Resurection - non-negotiable. I will be interested in seeing where your readers go with this one.
wellis68 said…
thanks for stopping by, matt. I hope tosee around more. Has anyone ever told you that you kinda look like Bart Millard from Mercyme?
wellis68 said…
I don't mean to say that there are no non-negotiables, but I wan to ask; what are they? I want to question them.

If we question responsebly then the real non-negotiables will never be left behind. So I guess a non-negotiable for the process of questioning is faith. We cannot properly question the doctrines without faith. We must have faith to believe and question at the same time. I hope that clairifies some of my thoughts.
Unknown said…
How do "Non-negotiables" relate to "absolutes"? I don't know myself yet. I am just thinking out loud. There is that famous quote "In essentials unity, in non-essentials freedom, and in all things charity". This has been attributed to one of the popes, Augustine and John Wesley. I am not sure if it ever was actually said by anyone as an original quotation.

But, I beleive that there ought to be some things (and here is where the theological discussion is important)that are essential or non-negotiable. For instance, God is Sovereign. -- Non-Negotiable and Non-Theological. Periaod. Full Stop.


What does God's Sovereignty mean in the context of my humanity and intellectual and emotional acceptance of God's Will for my life? That's is where the theological work takes place.

ANd that is where the rubber is meeting the road in terms of how I follow Jesus.

Great post!

wellis68 said…
How did you figure out that God is sovereign? did you not have to question it? Hopefully we don't just believe things without working it out in our heads first. You had yo have questioned the concept of sovereignty in order to decide that it was a non-negotiable. If we neglect the task of questioning we beilieve blindly and then are unprepared to deal with any oposition to the thought.