The unity of the church is essential. Jesus prayed for it. Paul and the other apostles taught about it frequently. Our Christian witness and usefulness depend on it. A unified church is a force to be reckoned with. All of hell fears a unified church. This article aims at helping the church handle differences in doctrine and remain unified on the essentials while agreeing to disagree on the non-essentials.
“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” – A.W. Tozer
Everyone is a theologian. Everyone has thoughts about God, but not everyone agrees. How do we handle disagreements? Is every disagreement worth arguing about? What defines a heretic? These and many questions like it are constantly pressing on the church. With the internet, Christians can learn ten sides of an argument or get lost in an echo chamber of their own beliefs. These ideas then come into the church, and questions are raised in Bible studies. Ideas are promoted as the “gospel truth.” People are called heretics.
How should the church handle all these different doctrines? How do we know when to contend for the faith or let sleeping dogs lie? In an article written several years ago, Al Mohler suggested a helpful tool called “theological triage” to help us discern and handle all of the doctrines coming at us. He said, “Living in an age of widespread doctrinal denial and intense theological confusion, thinking Christians must rise to the challenge of Christian maturity, even in the midst of a theological emergency. We must sort the issues with a trained mind and a humble heart, in order to protect what the Apostle Paul called the "treasure" that has been entrusted to us. Given the urgency of this challenge, a lesson from the Emergency Room just might help."
Enter theological triage. In an emergency room, people come in with varying degrees of medical problems. Some are more serious than others, ranging from general discomfort to life-threatening injuries. For this reason, an emergency room cannot operate on a first-come-first-serve basis. They must use a method called triage in which they gauge the severity level of an issue and treat the most severe problems first and then go down the line to the least severe.
This model is helpful when thinking about theological issues. While all theological truths are important and not to be taken lightly, some are more critical than others.
Mohler suggests three levels or tiers of theological triage. First-tier issues distinguish heresy from gospel truth. Second-tier issues distinguish denominations and churches. Third-tier issues distinguish people but can be maintained within a single congregation.
First Tier Issues
First-tier issues deal with the core doctrines of the faith. Doctrines that contradict first-tier doctrines would be heresy—these are teachings that deny the gospel. Heretical teachings fall outside the Christian faith and usually designate a false religion. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus was created in heaven and is not a member of the Trinity. This denies the eternal and Trinitarian nature of Jesus. If true, it would mean Jesus is not God; therefore, he would be unable to save us.
Not all heresies form a new religion, but they do need to be eradicated from the Church. In Galatians, the apostle Paul warned against denying the gospel by accepting circumcision as a way of salvation. Adding circumcision to faith adds works, and salvation is through grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone. Paul said, “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). Adding works to salvation is a first-tier issue because it denies the gospel, and those who believe such false teaching will not be saved. First-tier issues are a matter of eternal life and death.
First-tier issues would include the following doctrines:
The Doctrine of the Trinity
The full humanity and deity of Christ
Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone
The Authority of Scripture
The doctrines outlined in the Nicene Creed
The physical return and judgment of Jesus Christ
All Christian churches must agree on these issues to call themselves Christian. These issues distinguish between Christianity and heresy and false religions.
Second Tier Issues
Second-tier issues deal with doctrines that are of great importance but do not deny the gospel. These issues do not distinguish between religions, but they do differentiate between denominations. Differences on second-tier matters would not be considered heretical. For example, baptism is a second-tier issue. While all Christian denominations agree on the first-tier issues, many disagree on baptism, which is why there are separate denominations. We can often work with these other denominations, but it would be difficult for a Baptist to do church with a Presbyterian because they practice infant baptism.
Other issues in this category include views on church government and the Lord’s Supper. In terms of triage, these issues are urgent. They must be handled biblically, carefully, and thoroughly. They matter for the life and health of the local church, and the members of a local church must agree on second-tier issues. Nevertheless, these issues do not determine eternal destinies.
Al Mohler says, “Christians across a vast denominational range can stand together on the first-order doctrines and recognize each other as authentic Christians, while understanding that the existence of second-order disagreements prevents the closeness of fellowship we would otherwise enjoy. A church either will recognize infant baptism, or it will not. That choice immediately creates a second-order conflict with those who take the other position by conviction.”
Third Tier Issues
Third-tier issues deal with doctrines Christians in the same congregation can disagree on and still enjoy fellowship. These doctrines do not separate religions. They do not separate denominations, but they often become the most controversial in the local church. These doctrines rub up against other believers in the same community. It takes true humility and maturity to maintain unity when it comes to our strong opinions and beliefs on these issues.
Third-tier issues include end-times views, matters of Christian liberty, how the Old Testament is to be understood in light of the New Testament, and certain difficult texts.
Third-tier issues are important, and the key is keeping them in their proper place. Problems with division and discord in the church occur when we raise third-tier matters to the second and first levels. Paul says it like this:
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” – Romans 14:1-3
Here’s why this is important. If a person raises a third-tier issue to the first-tier, they have suddenly made that issue into a gospel issue. For example, if a person thinks, “I homeschool my kids, and this is the only right course of action. I wonder if people who don’t homeschool are even Christians?” They have just made homeschooling a test of faith. This is flat wrong. This is what Paul preached against in Galatians. They made circumcision a test of faith. They said, “If you’re not circumcised, you aren’t saved.” Both examples add works to the gospel. We must not do this.
We can have different views on third-tier issues. We can even have strong views, but we cannot impose our third-tier views on others.
Keeping a Good Balance
When considering the level of urgency a doctrine should receive, it is easy to become unbalanced. Christians must avoid the ditches. One ditch is theological liberalism. In this approach, very few doctrines, if any, are in the first and second tier, and all or most are in the third tier. Liberalism allows for a broad range of views. It seems the only thing one must not do in theological liberalism is take the Bible seriously. This approach makes Christianity meaningless.
The other ditch would be theological fundamentalism or legalism. In this approach, all the doctrines are in the first tier, and very few, if any, are in the second or third tier. This results in unnecessary conflict and division in the church.
Behind both extremes is the error of pride. One says the Bible is optional. The other claims their view is the only option. As stated above, it takes humility and maturity to agree to disagree on matters of lesser urgency. It also takes wisdom to correctly distinguish which issues are more urgent or less urgent.
This doesn’t mean we can be careless about doctrine. Mohler says, “A structure of theological triage does not imply that Christians may take any biblical truth with less than full seriousness. We are charged to embrace and to teach the comprehensive truthfulness of the Christian faith as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. There are no insignificant doctrines revealed in the Bible, but there is an essential foundation of truth that undergirds the entire system of biblical truth.”
How, then, should we approach doctrinal disagreements? With humility, patience, grace, and maturity, using wisdom to determine the level of urgency and to place the doctrine in its proper context in relation to the gospel.