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Why Theological Triage?

Muddied Waters:

When I was a young boy, I was watching a Jesus movie and the scene was the baptism of Jesus. I watched intently as Jesus approached John in the Jordan and as he knelt in the water, John scooped up water with his hand and poured it over Christ. Immediately from behind me I heard my father say, “That is not right! Jesus was submerged not sprinkled.” As a young boy you believe everything your parents say, so I was convinced that the filmmakers had got it wrong. I remember feeling a sense of pride; surely, they did not know Scripture like we did. However, it would not be long until I had questions. Why is it that we disagree with other Christians on baptism? Is it okay for Christians to disagree? Navigating through the waters of doctrinal disagreement is no easy task, but a look at what theological triage is, how it works, and why we should consider this practice will help us sort through our divisions with wisdom and charity.


Theological Triage: What is it?


I first heard of the word triage in high school in Biology, when we watched a scene from Saving Private Ryan. It was during the assault on Normandy beach and the medics had laid out wounded soldiers shoulder to shoulder. They systematically looked at each wounded man and prioritized which one they were to care for first. They based their order on the severity of the injury and their ability to save that man. Dr. R. Albert Mohler borrowed this medical term used on the battlefield and in the emergency room to help Christians determine a “scale of theological urgency.”[1] He suggests for believers to organize doctrines into tiers from first, second, and third. By doing so, this can help us determine certain doctrines worth rushing to defend and at the same time extend charity on other doctrines that are significant (in which we may disagree on) but should not hinder Christians from standing together for the gospel.


How it Works:


The first order doctrines are the ones that are essential to the gospel and represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith and a rejection of these truths would be a departure from Christianity.[2] This includes doctrines such as the Trinity, Jesus being truly man and truly God, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture. Second order doctrines are ones that are urgent and crucial for the health and practice of the church. [3] Christians can disagree on these particular doctrines and still call each other brothers and sisters. We begin to see a division in these doctrines when believers gather and organize into congregations and denominations. Examples of secondary doctrines include meaning and mode of baptism and church government. Third order doctrines are important to Christian theology but are not significant enough to warrant separation among Christians even within churches and denominations. [4] Christians can agree to disagree on such doctrines and continue to remain in close fellowship with one another; an example of a third order doctrine is the millennium.


Why is this helpful? Well, if we are not careful then we can fall into two temptations when faced with doctrinal divisions. We can either veer towards doctrinal sectarianism or doctrinal minimalism.[5] Either or is not healthy. If we want to take Christ’s call to unity seriously and his call to obey his teachings, then we must proceed with wisdom as we navigate between these two dispositions. And the reality is we each tend to lean towards one or the other.


Pitfalls to Avoid:


Doctrinal Sectarianism. If one is not careful, then the believer can fall into the pitfall of measuring every doctrine as a primary concern. Such individuals can be very difficult to have conversations with, let alone fellowship with, unless someone checks off all the right boxes. Why is it important to make doctrinal distinctions? It is for the sake of Christian unity, and equating all doctrines leads to unnecessary divisions within the body of Christ.[6] Unity is significant for it is essential to the mission of the church, for the groom does not have multiple brides but one. This is not some false sense of unity or peace either. This is a unity grounded and tethered to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Claiming Christ as Lord means we were baptized into one Spirit and into one body (1 Cor. 12:13). All believers of Christ are one, therefore we want to take our unity seriously. This does not mean that one should downplay theology, rather this brings into question whether or not we value our theology over our brother and sisters.


It does not take a historian to know that the children of God have fallen short of charitable disagreements. Sadly, in our own experiences, it is not surprising to hear of awful church splits and generations of bitterness among believers. There is no simple answer and the case for theological triage will not solve the hurt from such experiences. But an understanding of the theological triage can provide the believer with categories to navigate through disagreements with wisdom while being united under the same banner of Christ. A denominational affiliation does not mean that we are no longer brothers and sisters with those who belong to a different denomination yet affirm first order doctrines. The Lord has made known to us all that we need to know in order to be saved, therefore if they uphold these essentials, we should see these believers as brothers and sisters. Reflect carefully on one’s own attitude. Consider the words of Charles Spurgeon:

Now I hate High Churchsim as my soul hates Satan; but I love George Herbert, although George Herbert is a desperately High Churchman. I hate his High Churchism, but I love George Herbert from my very soul, and I have a warm corner in my heart for every man who is like him.[7]

A warm corner in our heart for every brother and sister in Christ. Can we say the same about ourselves?


Doctrinal Minimalism. On the contrary there is doctrinal minimalism. These are the cries that “doctrine divides but ministry unities” or “lets us not worry about doctrine and preach the gospel of Jesus.” While a focus on the gospel and loving like Jesus is an endeavor I sympathize with, there are doctrinal battles that have been won for us to make such statements. Claiming to preach the message of Christ presupposes that we know the message of Christ. Paul was very clear on his high Christology in Colossians 1:15-20. His high Christology was the basis so that “no one may delude you with plausible arguments” (Col. 2:4, ESV). And “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8, ESV). He wanted them to understand the divinity of Christ and the salvation they have received to prevent and correct them from any false teachings. It would be foolish to think that one should simply preach Christ without it being grounded in Biblical truth.


As one looks upon the field of doctrinal divisions it can be easy to have a knee jerk reaction that minimizes secondary or tertiary doctrines in order to avoid difficult conversations. To echo the statement earlier; God has clearly given us everything we need to know in order to be saved, but that does not mean we forego everything else discussed in Scripture. Believers have the responsibility of teaching the full council of Scripture. Thus, secondary and third order doctrines are significant to Scripture, the Christian life, and the gospel. Therefore, we should not see those doctrines as insignificant or unworthy of our study. Rather in a day of vast doctrinal denial and confusion it would serve us well to study Scripture and sort through these doctrines.


In Closing:


It is my hope that these categories can help us contend for our faith against assaults upon central Christian truths. At the same time may this provide categories for us to be able to swim through internal disagreements. May the thoughts of Samuel Renihan be the posture of our hearts and our prayer as we navigate through doctrinal disagreements:

Who can sail such a vast sea and not go off course? Who can climb such a tall mountain and never slip? Who can explore such a deep forest and not forget some of its paths? Who can know the mind of God and explain the mystery of His will, the mystery of Christ? Whatever success the believer has, it is only by God’s assisting grace illuminating and enabling such a one to sail straight, climb high, and learn the limits of the forest. [8]
 

***footnotes***

[1]“A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity” Albert Mohler, https://albertmohler.com/2005/07/12/a-call-for-theological-triage-and-christian-maturity.

[2]“A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity” Albert Mohler, https://albertmohler.com/2005/07/12/a-call-for-theological-triage-and-christian-maturity. [3]Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 17. [4] Ibid., 17. [5]Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, 27-45. [6] Ibid., 28.

[7] Charles Spurgeon, sermon 668, “Unity in Christ,” in The Complete Works of C. H. Spurgeon, vol. 12, Sermons 668 to 727 (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2013).

[8] Samuel, Renihan, The Mystery of Christ His Covenant & His Kingdom (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2020), 25.

 

Jeffrey Her (BS, Toccoa Falls College) is a husband to Heaven, a Senior Pastor at Hmong Hope Church in Indianapolis, IN, and a new dad. He has faithfully served the Hmong District of the C&MA for nearly five years and is currently an MDiv student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO.

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