A church member once asked, “I listen to a lot of radio Bible teachers, and I don’t believe in some doctrines that they hold. Sometimes I wonder if I should listen to them at all? What do I do?” That’s a great question! How do you decide when to turn off the radio, change the channel, or delete the podcast? Are there times to agree to disagree or is everything in Scripture a fight-to-the-death?
If you put a gun to my head and told me to change my view on the end times, I could become a postmillennialist real fast. But if you put a gun to my head and tell me to deny the bodily resurrection of Christ, you’re going to need to a mop to clean up the mess you’re about to make. Both the end times and the resurrection are in Scripture. How can I confidently make this distinction? The answer is found in triage.
In 2013, Al Mohler wrote a massively important article entitled, “A Call for Theological Triage.” (If you don’t know, triage is how hospitals prioritize patients who walk through the door. They don’t simply examine them in order but in order of severity or importance.) In the article, he argued, “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 our time of theological crisis.”
Let’s dive deeper.
The Triage Triangle
This next sentence sounds controversial, but I stand by it: “All the Bible is important but not equally so.” Every verse is equally inspired, authoritative, and infallible – but they are not all equally significant. John 3:16 deserves more attention and more sermons than Exodus 23:19 (“Do not boil a goat in its mother’s milk.”) Why?
Certain teachings in the Bible are given more prominence through emphasis or repetition. God does not stutter. If He repeats Himself, it’s on purpose. As Alistair Begg says, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.”
Jesus urged us to make such distinctions. He scolded the Pharisees because they would “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” He also spoke of the “weightier matters of the law.” We need to distinguish between the heavier, camel-sized doctrines and the tiny, gnat-sized ones.
Theological triage helps us do just that. By ranking doctrines, it establishes those that are primary (First Tier), secondary (Second Tier), and tertiary (Third Tier). Even within our Statement of Faith (“The Baptist Faith & Message”), some sections are more critical than others. I think that Article 2 (“God”) is more significant than Article 14 (“Cooperation”). What we believe about cooperation is important, but not nearly as important as what we believe about God.
Let’s examine each tier more closely.
The first tier is what distinguishes Christians from other religions. These are the essentials or fundamentals of the faith. Paul wrote, in 1 Cor 15 about the gospel as a matter of “first importance” to the church. This tier also includes such doctrines as God (Trinity), Christ, and Scripture. You can find out more by reading the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. A rejection of first-tier issues is heresy (see Romans 16:17). These are the core doctrines, worth fighting over and splitting over.
The second tier is what distinguishes denominations. These are the convictions of a Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, etc. In Acts 15, we see the church putting the gospel first while also making considerations for Jewish and Gentile practices. Today, these include such doctrines as the ordinances, church structure, and gender roles. This tier is why John MacArthur and Ligon Duncan can speak at the same conference (1st tier agreement) but not be elders in the same church (2nd tier disagreement). You can find out more by reading statements of faith like the BF&M or the Westminster Confession (Presbyterian).
The third tier is what distinguishes sub-tribes. I label these as preferences. In Romans 14 and 1 Cor 8-9, we see Paul urging fellow church members to respect each other’s differing approaches to gray areas. Today, these include such things as the end times, cultural engagement, conscience issues (i.e., COVID vaccination), and difficult texts. Folks in the same Sunday School class can disagree on these matters – and yet not let it divide the church. Find out more by comparing study Bible notes, commentaries, or just talking to a church member. I promise, nobody agrees with you on EVERYTHING (and that’s probably a good thing.)
Every road has a ditch on both sides. We should avoid the extremes of being too open-minded theologically as well as being too narrow-minded. As JC Ryle said, “Most error is truth out of proportion.”
The narrow-minded man (i.e., “fundamentalist”) has too many beliefs in their first tier. This person is often combative making too many issues a test of fellowship.
The open-minded man (i.e., “liberal”) has too many beliefs in their third tier. This person is often compromising, making too few issues a test of fellowship. Don’t veer off into either ditch.
In short, this three-tiered approach helps us know when to draw a line in the sand or build a wall in cement. (I could add a fourth tier: the stuff where I disagree with myself. Ha!) In the end, I urge all of us to remember Augustine’s plea, “In the essentials unity. In non-essentials diversity. In all things, charity (love).”