What lines should Christians draw when it comes to their allegiances? How do we understand primary, secondary, and tertiary issues?
I wrote about this at length in my forthcoming book, Agents of Grace which drops May 9th but I wanted to present this here because the way we cooperate with each other is increasingly a topic of conversation among Christians.
First, I think we should be aware of a concept called “theological triage.” It’s a newish term, coined by Dr. Albert Mohler, that describes a not-new idea:
Today’s Christian faces the daunting task of strategizing which Christian doctrines and theological issues are to be given highest priority in terms of our contemporary context. This applies both to the public defense of Christianity in face of the secular challenge and the internal responsibility of dealing with doctrinal disagreements. Neither is an easy task, but theological seriousness and maturity demand that we consider doctrinal issues in terms of their relative importance. God’s truth is to be defended at every point and in every detail, but responsible Christians must determine which issues deserve first-rank attention in a time of theological crisis.
In simple terms, this is the discipline of prioritizing which Christian doctrines are of primary concern and which ones are important, but secondary, and even further, which ones are conventional but tertiary. The Christian church has done this work throughout the ages. Puritan Richard Baxter, for instance, urged folks to dwell on “the essentials” of Christianity:
I like to hear a man dwell much on the same essentials of Christianity . . .it is the essentials and common truths, as I have often said, that we daily live upon as our bread and drink.
John Stott said something similar:
we need a greater measure of discernment, so that we may distinguish between evangelical essentials which cannot be compromised and those adiaphora (matters indifferent) on which, being of secondary important, is not necessary for us to follow.”
The first order of business is to recognize that there are doctrines worth fighting for. I know sometimes Christians in this age can get queasy about theological conflict, but the New Testament urges us to contend for these things because this theology is how we properly know and understand and approach God.
Listen to what the Apostle Paul tells his young protégé Timothy, who was a young pastor of the church of Ephesus, “Fight the good fight of the faith, “Paul urges Timothy, “Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses (1 Timothy 6:12).” In his last letter, before he was to be executed by Rome for the crime of preaching the gospel, Paul declares that he had “fought the good fight of faith (2 Timothy 4:7-8).” Jude tells us to “earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3-4).”
So do we know which issues are worth going to the mat for and which issues are worth holding, but about which good Christians may disagree? Again, Dr. Mohler:
First-level theological issues would include those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith. Included among these most crucial doctrines would be doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture.
These are doctrines that the Christian church has affirmed and believed for 2,000 years, articulated mainly by the major creeds and councils of the church. I would also argue that anything that is central to the storyline of Scripture falls into this category, including contentious contemporary issues such as the Bible’s clear teaching on sexuality and gender.
These are issues about which the church cannot budge, issues that are part of the Apostolic witness, and issues that we have no authority to revise or reverse. To abandon these is to abandon Christian orthodoxy.
Then there are secondary issues, such as baptism, the role of women in leadership, and other such issues. Faithful Christians can disagree on these issues and still see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. However, these are issues around which denominations and church networks often coalesce, so within those spaces, they are primary issues. My denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, makes the mode of baptism and complementarianism a first-order issue. To be Southern Baptist, you have to adhere to these things, among other distinctives, such as our views on the role of the church and the state. Presbyterians are committed paedobaptists. They disagree with us and thus organize as a different denomination. This is right and good and healthy. I admire few people as much as I admire Tim Keller, but he couldn’t be a member of my SBC church and I couldn’t be a member of his PCA church. That’s healthy. Denominations have a duty to enforce their distinctives and churches have a duty to fellowship with folks who share their distinctives.
Then there are tertiary issues, third-order issues, about which some folks even within the same denomination might disagree, such as soteriology, sign gifts, eschatology, and other such matters. You might even put in here differences in approaches to cultural engagement or how to educate children. We might have deep convictions on these things—I certainly do—but we love and respect and fellowship with folks who come down in a different place.
Now these aren’t always straight lines. Some denominations and fellowships have tertiary issues that are distinctives around which they organize. I don’t think a Calvinist would be at home among Methodists, nor would an Arminian fit in the PCA. This is also healthy.
One thing to consider before we talk about what partnerships look like: I don’t view these divisions, on secondary and tertiary issues, to be unhealthy. I think we learn from the emphases of other traditions. You’ll have to get my book to read more about this, but I think evangelicalism is healthiest when it is made up of denominations catechizing their people in their traditions, yet being open-handed toward the Great Tradition.
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