One of the defining traits that Jesus said would be true of his followers was their love for one another (John 13:35). Unfortunately, that love is not always evident in the way Christians disagree with each other. It’s not that disagreement itself is bad. In fact, passionate debate about theological topics can be a wonderful thing. It means you care about your beliefs, after all. However, when we allow ourselves to get carried away in the midst of debate and lash out at other believers, we do damage to our reputation as ambassadors of Christ. This should not be so. Our unity as Christ’s church should always be apparent to the watching world, even when we differ.
The Forgotten Art of Theological Triage
My sense is that one of the primary contributing factors behind this issue is that many evangelical churches in America1 have done a poor job of teaching people how to do theological triage. Let me explain.
The word triage is used in medical contexts to refer to the process of evaluating the urgency of various injuries so that the greatest needs can be prioritized for immediate attention. Jumping straight into patient care without performing this critical step can have disastrous consequences. You shouldn’t start cleaning up minor bruises while your patient is bleeding out from a gunshot wound.
Likewise, “theological triage” refers to assessing the seriousness of various doctrinal themes so that the appropriate response can be made. There are no unimportant theological truths. We should strive accurately discern of all of God’s truth. However, there are certainly some topics that strike more at the heart of the Christian faith than others. Jesus referred to “weightier matters” and Paul to things of “first importance,” after all (Mt. 23:23, 1 Cor. 15:3). If we practice wisdom in sorting out our values, it will help us know what sort of response we should have when we are challenged.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time here evaluating the relative importance of every facet of Christian theology, but I do want to briefly sketch a useful framework that will hopefully help to guide your own exploration of this topic. Broadly speaking, I think it is helpful to conceive of doctrines as belonging to one of three tiers.
First Tier: Definitional Christian Convictions
First tier theological issues are those that are essential to the faith. Obvious candidates for doctrines that belong to this tier would be the existence of God and the physical death and resurrection of Jesus.2
I would argue that the list of first tier doctrines should actually be relatively short. God’s word says that if you repent of sin and have faith in Jesus, you will be saved. There are certainly a handful of beliefs that are necessary prerequisites for this kind of response to be genuine, but not every facet of Christian theology must be properly understood in order for a person to be saved. We aren’t required to be morally or doctrinally perfect in order to experience the saving grace of Christ. In fact, that’s kind of the whole point. We need God’s grace because we aren’t perfect. Jesus accomplished that on our behalf.
While the first tier should be a relatively short list, it is also the most critical. It involves matters of life and death. Getting it wrong is a grave error. When doing theological triage, we should keep first tier doctrines at the forefront. These hills are worth dying on. This doesn’t mean we get a free pass to treat people poorly when they express disagreement on a first-rank issue. On the contrary, Scripture implores us to tell others about the reasons for our hope gently and respectfully (1 Pet. 3:15). That being said, we should not gloss over these issues or pretend that we can just agree to disagree about them. There are times when we must stand firm for truth. The New Testament authors and Jesus himself employed strong language when it came to matters of vital importance. Yet they still did this with grace. We would do well to follow their example.
Second Tier: Persuasions About Faith and Practice
The second tier includes things which are not definitional of Christianity, but which are still significant matters of faith and practice that Christians might understandably divide over. Disagreements over these should not cause us to question one another’s salvation. However, it’s quite possible that divisions along these lines will lead to differences in how we organize ourselves into various denominations, churches, and ministries.
One of the most commonly cited examples of a second rank matter would be what a church believes about baptism. Will a church baptize infants, or only those who profess faith? Is baptism performed by sprinkling, immersion, or by some other means? Many churches are forced to divide over issues such as these just as a matter of practical concern. These are questions churches have to answer. Compared to first rank doctrines, which are relatively few, there will likely be many theological topics which land in this second tier.
If we exercise proper discernment in the art of theological triage, we will recognize that the way we disagree with others on second-order subjects will be categorically different from how we approach those of the first-order. We shouldn’t treat our fellow believers in Christ as though they are outside of the faith simply because they disagree with us on a second-rank doctrine. Still, we may find ourselves motivated to make our case with some level of passion given that these are still important matters that can have major consequences. After all, where we land on these questions often determines who we find ourselves partnering with in ministry. Still, the fact that these are second-tier issues should help us to feel comfortable with disagreeing about them charitably, knowing that we are ultimately disagreeing with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Third Tier: Peripheral Opinions
Third tier doctrines are those that should have little to no impact on either our assessment of a person’s salvation or our willingness to fellowship alongside them as co-laborers in ministry. The number of beliefs that fall into this category will far outnumber those in the other two. There are many things in Scripture that are not very clear and for which there are innumerable interpretations. An example of an issue of this nature would be certain ideas regarding end times (eschatology). Specifically, opinions about the timeline of events leading up to the return of Christ. These matters are notoriously difficult to unpack. This should lead us to have humility about our own opinions and grace towards others who disagree.
As I said earlier, there are no unimportant doctrines. However, it should be self-evidently true that disagreements on third rank issues ought to be far less provoking. There should be a great deal of freedom for believers to disagree on third rank topics. If you find yourself holding onto your opinions on third rank matters with an iron grip and frequently getting heated when you talk about them with others, it might be time for an adjustment.
This is what theological triage does for us. It enables to properly assess the significance of our disagreements and determine which are the right battles to fight.
Before we move on, I’d like to commend one more way of framing things. As I’ve already suggested, as we move from the first tier to the third, we should find our lists of doctrines growing broader in scope. Likewise, as we move from the third rung up to the first, we should find doctrines coming into sharper focus and bearing greater weight. Keeping these things in mind, let me share another illustration that I have found helpful.3
Use your imagination with me and visualize the Christian theology as a great spiderweb. First tier doctrines which are more central to the faith are represented by strands that are in the very center of the web, while those strands that are around the edges of the web represent more peripheral third tier opinions. If you were to snip off one of the strands around the edge of the web, not much would change. The structure of the web would largely stay intact. However, punching right through the center of the web would do irreparable harm.
This is why theological triage is so crucial. It is in our best interest to focus our efforts on maintaining and preserving the structural strands of the web that hold it all together. If you spend all your energy repairing every little nick around the edges of your theological system, all the while ignoring the center, don’t be surprised when it all comes crashing down.
The Right Questions to Ask
As with everything we do as Christians, we should allow God’s word to guide us in this. Let me suggest two questions that we should be asking as we look to Scripture to inform us as we examine our convictions.
First, how clear is the doctrine in Scripture? I’ll give you a hint. The existence of God is vastly more clear in God’s word than what Paul meant when he told Timothy that women would be “saved through childbearing” (1 Tim. 2:15, ESV). I’ll give you another hint. When you look out at the broader Christian world, ask yourself where you find the most agreement and where you find the most disagreement? This definitely isn’t a perfect rule. You’ll always be able to find people who will disagree with you on anything, but generally speaking, I believe you will find greater agreement on first rank doctrines than you will on the second rank, and likewise for the third. Evaluating the level of consistency among Christians throughout history is also helpful in this regard. For instance, despite our many other differences, all major Christian traditions accept the Nicene Creed as definitional of the faith.4
Second, what level of importance does God’s Word place on the doctrine? Jesus told his hearers in John 8:24 that if they didn’t believe in him, they would die in their sins. Strong words. The Bible clearly places belief in Jesus right up at the top of the totem pole. By way of contrast, Paul told his readers “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Col. 2:16, ESV).
How We Get This Wrong
Rank-ordering our beliefs is an unavoidable task for us as Christians and as churches. Getting it wrong can lead to some pretty nasty consequences, and ignoring it entirely doesn’t help either. There are a few different ways this can go, but the biggest problem I see is that when we don’t actively work at this, we tend to drift into one of two extremes.
Minoring on the Majors
One extreme that people tend to drift towards is minoring on the majors. This is what happens when we take certain first and second rank issues and push them down into third rank status, treating them like they’re of little to no consequence. When we downplay the necessity of the things that the Bible presents as necessities, we do no favors to anyone. We might think that we are being inclusive, friendly, and loving, but the truth is that we are leading people down a garden path to condemnation.
To give one example of this, consider the doctrine of the nature of Christ. Since the earliest days of church history, Christians have believed that the atoning work of Christ is necessarily tied to his deity and his humanity. If Jesus were not truly God, his would not be a sufficient sacrifice for all the world. If he were not truly man, he would not be a proper substitute for human sinners.5 Both the New Testament authors and many early Christian leaders affirmed these doctrines and had stern warnings for those who rejected them.
Despite this, people still attempt to open the door to those who deny the biblical teaching about the nature of Christ, undermining the doctrine of the atonement and distorting the message of the gospel. Turning a blind eye to this does damage to the church and to the gospel. A false gospel is no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6-9).
Majoring on the Minors
The opposite problem that people drift towards is majoring on the minors: elevating second and even third rank beliefs (such as the age of the earth or end times issues) to positions of primary importance, imagining them to be definitional elements of the faith on par with doctrines such as the deity of Jesus. Sometimes, believers who disagree on these subjects are even cast as suspicious and untrustworthy, if not downright heretics.
One of the biggest problems with this approach is that it splinters the church into tiny little groups that claim almost nothing in common. If every little thing we believe about Christianity and the Bible becomes a definitional element of the faith that we are unwilling to disagree on, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to find common ground with others. Fragmenting ourselves to this degree leaves almost no room for unity.
The sad truth about many of the heated arguments that take place between Christians is that they are often over third rank issues. These are the matters that we should feel the most free to disagree about. More than that, we should enjoy talking with one another about what we think about third rank issues. Stifling questions about third rank doctrines just shuts off that healthy spiritual imagination, and I think this dishonors God. Theological disagreement is healthy and good. Not only does it help us evaluate our beliefs so that we can be corrected, it also honors God.
I think God loves it when we grapple with how to understand his word. I truly believe that one of the reasons he left so many things unclear in Scripture is so that people would have to spend time and effort unraveling his revelation. What human societies have deemed as the best literary works from ages past are ones that academics have spent lifetimes poring over and interpreting. We instinctively appreciate books with great depth that take effort to unpack, but then for some reason we expect God’s word to be as straightforward as a recipe book. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe God didn’t intend for us all to agree on every bit of theology. Maybe what matters to him most is that we hold the main things in common and exercise charity towards one another on everything else.
Avoidance Doesn’t Help
Artificially inflating or deflating the seriousness of certain aspects of theology can be considerably harmful. But even in churches where these imbalances are not as obvious, there is still the potential for harm to be done to the congregants by the failure of the leadership to teach people how to do theological triage. People still need to know which things are the main things, and they also need to know what sorts of things it’s okay for Christians to disagree about. Because of this, it’s my view that churches should make it part of their practice to teach people how to do theological triage.
Our churches should put proper focus on first rank doctrines in our teaching and preaching. We should also teach our people what they are and how to defend them from Scripture. On the other hand, we should spend time demonstrating the range of ways in which fellow believers can disagree about tertiary matters. Don’t assume that your silence is enough. Make it explicit. I believe this part of the equation is equally necessary.
Given how loud those voices around us can be that are constantly crying out for attention on their pet theories and casting suspicion and doubt on everyone else, people need to be told that it’s okay to disagree. This is especially true for our young people. They need to feel free to ask questions and critically evaluate things. If we won’t let them do it at church, they’ll do it elsewhere, and you can bet they’ll get answers. We do a disservice to the next generation if they grow up believing that one particular interpretation of a third rank doctrine is so foundational to Christianity that they would sooner abandon the faith than change their minds on that issue.
When churches fall into these three pitfalls, everyone suffers. Becoming hyper-focused on tertiary issues to the point that we no longer strive for unity presents a distorted message to those looking in from the outside. If we are supposed to demonstrate the love of Christ, what does it say to the world when we treat one another poorly? On the other hand, when churches downplay core doctrines it endangers souls. We can’t just sing “Kumbaya” with everyone who claims the name of Christ or we may unwittingly let wolves in among the flock. Ignoring it all just confuses people and leaves them unequipped to deal with the challenges they will face.
Framing Things Properly
Framing things properly by the use of theological triage can only make things better. Far from being scary or confusing, having a good grasp of which issues are more central and which are more peripheral is freeing and empowering. Appropriately ranking doctrines enables us to know in what ways we are able to stand in unity with other believers, even when they come from differing traditions. It also helps us choose our battles wisely and recognize false teachers when they do confront us.
C.S. Lewis’s book “Mere Christianity” contains a beautiful illustration of the the unity and diversity of the various Christian traditions. He describes the Christian faith as a large building consisting of a hallway with many rooms. People who come to believe in Jesus enter the hallway and then eventually make their way into one of the rooms, which represent the various Christian traditions. Despite the fact that we may end up in different rooms, we can still celebrate our unity with those from other traditions who have nevertheless repented from their sins and trusted in Christ. I’ll share a great admonition from Lewis about this idea:6
I’d like to encourage you to spend some time on this topic. Search the Scriptures. Search your heart. Seek wise counsel. If you haven’t explored the concept of theological triage before, you may find that you need some internal evaluation. Maybe you’ve been shortchanging some core doctrines. Or perhaps you’ve improperly elevated a secondary or tertiary matter to core status. If so, it’s time to recalibrate.
- I focus on this particular group of churches not because I think they are necessarily worse than any other group but simply because it is the context with which I am the most familiar as an American evangelical pastor myself.
- As I said before, I won’t be ranking every single doctrine of the faith here, so these examples are just a representative sampling of the first tier, not an exhaustive list.
- I originally heard this illustration presented by Dr. William Lane Craig in his “Defenders” class in a lesson on the doctrine of Revelation. You can view that lesson here.
- You can view an English translation of the Nicene Creed here.
- For more on this topic, view my series on “The God-Man.” Part 1 can be found here.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), XIV.