In 2015 I left my home and headed to Bournemouth to Moorlands Bible College where I started a three-year degree in Applied Theology. I didn’t know what it would bring, I didn’t know that it would lead me back to Sussex pretty quickly! I did know, however, that God had called me, and I was going to learn a lot. Within the first week it became clear that this learning would not only be done in the classroom, but also by living in community with a group of men and women of a range of ages who had their own relationships with Jesus and His church! The great thing about Moorlands is that it is open to all denominations and pretty much all doctrinal leanings. The really difficult thing about Moorlands is that it is open to all denominations and pretty much all doctrinal leanings.
Having come from a charismatic background, I very quickly stood next to brothers and sisters in Christ who found my praying in tongues to be at best strange and at worst heretical, or considered artificial. I was stood next to those who were even ‘wackier’ than I was or had different expectations of using the gift of prophecy. Having come from a reformed background, I was in lectures with those who saw my understanding of election as heartless and unbiblical; and as a complementarian I was studying next to sisters in Christ who were elders in churches or planning to go onto ordination after finishing their degree. But we were all children in Christ. Some students saw these differences as more challenging than others, leading to conversations, debates and even arguments that had to be escalated pastorally to the staff team. In all of these areas were godly men and women who loved God, loved the Bible and wanted to honour their saviour Jesus Christ in their understanding of His commands. So, who was right? Did it matter? Did any of it matter?
- – Blood, Ink, Pencil;
- – Dogma, Doctrine, Opinion;
- – Primary, Secondary and Tertiary issues.
You may have at some point in your Christian walk come across one or more of these terms. You may have in fact used them, when speaking to someone about an area of doctrine that you disagree or fervently agree on. This is a principle that Albert Mohler coined “theological triage”.
Triage is a medical concept that was first brought to common practice during the Napoleonic conflicts. In its most simple form, it means dealing with the most life-threatening injuries first. It is all about prioritisation. Theological triage follows similar principles, categorising doctrine by its severity, which in this context means its effect on core Christian beliefs, such as the nature of God and His divinity, and salvation. Traditionally, this triaging has been into three groups:
- – Dogma: Something that is incontrovertibly true and the rejection of which would show the practitioner to not in fact be a Christian.
- – Doctrine: Principles and issues of belief that Christians can legitimately disagree over, without falling out of the grounds of biblical truth, but are still important enough that denominations may be formed around differing thought.
- – Opinion: Practices or beliefs that may be of importance on a personal level but are not issues to cause disunity over.
I recently read a book called ‘Finding the right hills to die on’ by Gavin Ortlund. It inspired me to write this blog, but by the time I had started and written two pages I was stuck. It had taken me two pages to explain my terms, it was long, probably not very interesting to read, and worst of all…Ortlund did it so much better!
So, with that in mind this is my suggestion: read his book! However, I think that this topic is of such importance I would like to spend a short time nailing down how this works in practice for us as a church.
As a church, we should be secure in the foundations set by the apostles on the truths of Christ. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…”. On the other hand, Philippians 3 tells us “Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” Furthermore, we’re told “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” (Romans 14:1). Where are these lines drawn? Which hills are right to die on? I am not saying that Ortlund understands everything or lands in the same camps that we all will. But the principles that he outlines are very useful. It has also led me to grapple with questions in my own walk. We often use the phrase ‘eat the meat, spit out the bones’, when it comes to hearing teaching or even singing songs that come from questionable sources. I have been reflecting of late a flaw in our use of this phrase. It is this same argument, taken to more extreme lengths, that more liberal pastors and teachers use to promote new age beliefs, subverting them to ‘Christian use’ and flouting the phrase “All truth it God’s truth”. When does the mouthful become too full of bone and gristle that we would rather just spit it out, so that we are not ourselves spat out on the day of judgement as John warns us will happen to the church in Laodicea.
“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
It is an interesting notion and one that is far too complex to get into within this article.
Ortlund’s triage covers four areas rather than three, which I think is a stronger method personally. One of the weaknesses, I have often thought, with theological triage as a concept is that in the ‘blood, ink, pencil’ some of the inks seem a lot darker and redder than others! By expanding them to the four stages of:
- Doctrines that are essential to the gospel itself.
- Doctrines that are urgent for the health and practice of the church such that they frequently cause Christians to separate at the level of local church, denomination, or ministry.
- Doctrines that are important to Christian theology but not enough to justify division or separation.
- Doctrines that are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaborations.
You may be asking however, Owen why does this matter? I believe that it matters because we already do this unconsciously – there may be some doctrines we hold with more weight than others, we may have certain topics that we think are of vital importance to the church and nobody else seems to get this…this is all because of our triaging of doctrine.
But what do these practically look like at ChristChurch? Where are these lines visible and possibly not visible enough? To look at this, let’s go through these 4 stages and give some examples.
Firstly, doctrines that are essential to the gospel itself. These are those beliefs that the Christian faith requires to be incontrovertibly true. These are especially clear when we work within cross-cultural environments of inter-faith work. Examples of this would be the deity of Christ, the resurrection, God’s sovereign authority, the forgiveness of sins through salvation. All of these have been, through Christian history, debated and confirmed to be biblically true. At ChristChurch our current example for debating key primary beliefs such as these is through evangelism. You may be in conversations with friends, co-workers, family who do not believe in God’s existence, let alone his sovereignty. These beliefs mean that you have key differences in how you view the world, interact with it, and cannot be reconciled. In our most recent Alpha, we are speaking to many Muslim men. Postmodernism would state that truths are not universal and both us and them can hold to our own truth and be ‘right’. But this is plainly not correct. Islam teaches the prophethood and humanity of Christ but cannot accept his deity; for the Christian the deity of Christ is paramount. These are primary issues that we cannot give ground on but must show to be true and affirm.
The most debated and painful issues, however, do not sit in that camp. Neither do they sit in the bottom camp. The most painful issues often sit within the middle two. Doctrines that are urgent for the health of the church and so must be protected, leading to separation; and those that are important but should not justify division, however, are made to be divisive when dealt with poorly. ChristChurch was based on the foundation that some doctrines were to be fought for, this belief was held so strongly that four families left their church congregations to form one new church that sought after the gifts of the Spirit. The issue of spiritual gifts is a ‘second tier issue’, most of the time (see footnote). It is highly unlikely that those who hold to a cessationist doctrine will be comfortable in a charismatic church and vice-versa. In fact, it was this very point that called my parents from the Anglican church that they were in, to Kings Church Uckfield after meeting with the Holy Spirit. This move was accompanied with poor theological triage from some in that church, who viewed the gifts of the Holy Spirit as demonic and signs of a lack of understanding in salvation. They made them first tier issues. Taking this to the other extreme is also dangerous, however, this is present in many modern-day Pentecostal churches where mis-categorisation of the gift of tongues means that some leaders will teach that it is the sign of salvation, and without it you cannot be assured of your salvation.
Evaluating disagreements around key doctrinal issues must be done with wisdom. When listening to a panel at a conference from a number of years ago I came across an interesting dichotomy that they struck – lack of affirmation is not the same as rejection. An example of this would be coming across someone who rejects the doctrine of justification by faith because they do not understand it and have grown up within a legalistic Christian or maybe Islamic background which taught works will guarantee salvation; this is highly different to speaking to someone who rejects the doctrine because they understand it and hate it. The first situation is a pastoral issue that requires careful teaching and discipleship, walking alongside the person; the second should be handled in a different way which may not require such pastoral input. Likewise, we see the same principle in play when we baptise believers of a younger age. It may be unlikely that such a person could explicitly affirm their belief in doctrine of intercession, not because they reject this key ‘first tier doctrine’, but because they have yet to fully understand it. This is not a salvation issue.
Finally, doctrinal disagreement should be walked through in the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience…(Galatians 5:22-23). Jesus says:
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”
Natalie Williams said in a meeting recently, the importance of Jesus’ saying is recognising that there will be issues that will require a love that goes beyond ‘spending time with people who look, walk, talk and think like you’. I think this is true when it comes to issues of disagreement. In a world where differing thought leads to cancellation and demonising; we as the Church must be people who debate and disagree well. Unity does not mean uniformity, but love in diversity. Families are made up of diverse people, but they all share something in common, each other. The church is made up of diverse people, but we all share one person in common – Jesus. This means we need to know which ‘hills are worth dying on’. Tom spoke on this the other Sunday, we are supposed to live in the tension of ‘holy living’ which hates evil (Psalm 97:10) whilst also not being quarrelsome and enduring evil, correcting with gentleness (2 Timothy 2:24-25). Life Groups and Discipleship groups are a great place to have table discussions about these issues. Are there any ongoing disagreements that you keep having between you about doctrines? Where do you think they fall on the scale that Gavin Ortlund gives? Do you have different opinions about this? Are they hills that you think are worth dying on?
I have been reflecting on this final question. I’m not saying that this is the ultimate test, but I think it is a good one – if Jesus returned while you were arguing about it, would He think that was worthwhile? Does the doctrinal difference affect how people see Jesus and how they may reveal Him more as Saviour? Will it help the mission of the church, or is it about being ‘right’?
 R. Albert Mohler Jr. The Disappearance of God: Dangerous Beliefs in the New Spiritual Openness (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2009), 1-8.
 The phrase “all truth it God’s truth” though on the surface may seem wholly unproblematic, starts to have problems when it is used to mean all that is created by humans is good and godly. It is within this context I have heard it used and refer to it here.
 Ortlund, Gavin. Finding the Right Hills to Die on: The Case for Theological Triage, (United States: Crossway, 2020) 19.
 It is worth noting that when we go beyond the cessationist/charismatic arguments into the ‘nitty gritty’ of debate over spiritual gifts, for example whether a tongue can only be a prayer of praise; or ‘how does prophecy work practically in the local church’, these will often fall into ‘third tier’ issues. This goes to show that the method of theological triage is both an art and a science!