Theological Triage: A Call to Thoughtful Christianity

Theological Triage is a phrase coined by Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The phrase joins two concepts: one, diagnosing a medical emergency, and the other, the field of theology. Theological Triage is the art of categorizing theological questions or topics in such a way so as to give priority to some doctrines over others.

In short, all doctrine is important because it is God’s truth articulated, but not all doctrine is equally important.

Some doctrines are essential to the Christian faith, some are essential to doing life together among a local church family, and some are not worth dividing over at all. Furthermore, some doctrines are worth dying for, but not all doctrines should kill or divide us.

I would like to offer 4 categories or “levels” for us to use in our Theological Triage, and my hope is that we will be able to discuss theology without either leaving our convictions or our friendships behind.

First-Level Doctrines

These doctrines divide Christians from non-Christians. Some First-Level doctrines are the Triunity of God (Is God one or three or both?), the true divinity and true humanity of Christ (How do we understand Christ as the unique God-man?), the substitutionary atonement of Christ upon the cross (How did Christ substitute Himself under God’s penalty for sinners?), and the exclusivity of Christ as Savior (Is there any way for someone to be saved apart from personal trust in Jesus Christ?). Many of these First-Level doctrines are contained in the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicaean Creed.

These First-Level doctrines build a fence for us around things like cooperative evangelistic efforts (Will we participate in an “evangelistic” event with this other group or church? Will we endorse/recommend a parachurch ministry? Will we be associated with a person, group, or activity?). These doctrines also include or exclude certain guest preachers (Will we welcome this or that guest preacher on a Sunday? Will this or that preacher be affirmed as an officiant of a wedding or funeral service in our church building?).

Again, these First-Level doctrines divide Christians from non-Christians… These are the doctrines for which Christians must be willing to die.

Second-Level Doctrines

These doctrines divide one local church from another. Some Second-Level doctrines include the authority of Scripture (Are the Scriptures the final court of arbitration when we have a difference of opinion?), believer’s baptism (What does baptism mean and who should be baptized?), church membership (What does membership mean and how is membership to be practiced?), and the Lord’s Supper (What does the Lord’s Supper mean and who should participate?).

These Second-Level doctrines build a fence for us around things like our local church pastors (Whose pastoral leadership will you follow?), our local church membership (What church will you join? And, who will you welcome into your church membership?), and our church planting partnerships (Will we offer our local church support for a denomination, or association, or particular church planting effort?).

Again, these Second-Level doctrines divide one local church from another… These are the doctrines over which Christians may join or leave a church.

Third-Level Doctrines

These doctrines vary among Christians (especially in their application) without necessarily dividing Christians or local churches. Some Third-Level doctrines include the details of our eschatology (When will Jesus return? What is the millennium? Who is the anti-Christ?), the intermediate state of the soul (What exactly is existence like between death and final resurrection?), and eternal rewards and punishments (Will there be any difference in the degree to which Christians are rewarded in glory and the lost are punished in judgment?).

These Third-Level doctrines do not have to build any fences or divide any Christian brotherhood, but they may provide areas of fruitful discussion and sanctifying application for Christians in fellowship together. If Christian brothers and sisters are willing and able to discuss these Third-Level doctrines in a loving and patient manner, then these discussions may produce spiritual growth and provide a marvelous occasion for exercising biblical exegesis, faithful living, and humble wisdom.

Again, these doctrines vary among Christians… and I (for one) welcome the kind of spiritual growth and sharpening that careful theological dialogue produces among Christian brothers and sisters. I also pray that Christians will become better able to benefit from dialogues over Third-Level doctrines and the applications thereof.

Fourth-Level Doctrines

These things have no clear imperative from Scripture; they are matters of Christian conscience. These matters are sometimes called “adiaphora,” which literally means “indifferent things” or spiritually neutral things. These Fourth-Level doctrines are the wise, biblically principled grounds from which we make decisions about where to go to school, what job we should take, what party we should attend, what coffee we should drink, or how long we should let our hair grow.

These Fourth-Level doctrines must not build fences, otherwise, we will be attempting to bind the consciences of fellow Christians on matters in which God has left freedom. In fact, dogmatic Fourth-Level doctrines are the very definition of legalism. We ought to give one another grace and charity where God gives us liberty.

I am convinced that we must learn the sensible art of theological triage.

A Call to Thoughtful Christianity

For the sake of our personal spiritual development and for the sake of our church families, we must learn to distinguish those things (those doctrines) that are essential from the non-essential. We must distinguish those vitally important doctrines from the essential ones and the lesser important ones.

For the sake of the gospel, Christians must be able to know the basis of their distinct relationships with other Christians generally, with fellow church members specifically, and with their non-Christian neighbors in the world around them.

Furthermore, we should remember that intellectual and spiritual growth is a process, and where we are now is not where we may always be. By God’s grace, we shall all grow in time.

Author: marcminter

Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.

6 thoughts on “Theological Triage: A Call to Thoughtful Christianity”

    1. Thanks for the note, Lisa. And thanks for reading.

      The thesis you linked is simply sidestepping the whole issue and demanding a uniformity that the thesis itself does not articulate. Everyone agrees that ALL biblical doctrine is true and right. The question is, “What is a Christian to do if he/she disagrees with another Christian about what the Bible says on baptism or the millennium or women wearing head-coverings?”

      For example, the author says, “it is not sin for an overseer to lead their congregation in a particular view of the millennium if it is the correct view.” Again, this is not the issue at hand. Of course, a pastor/elder/overseer should lead and teach the correct view of Scripture! But what if a church member is convinced that the pastor/elder/overseer has a wrong view of Scripture on a certain doctrinal point?

      Should the pastor excommunicate the church member? Should the church member move to fire the pastor? I think the first question should be, “What exactly are we disagreeing about?” And then we should ask these questions: “Is this a doctrine that should divide Christians and non-Christians? Or Baptists and Presbyterians? Or should we probably not divide at all over this doctrinal disagreement?”

      It seems to me that the inevitable alternative to theological or doctrinal triage is perfect uniformity on every point of doctrine. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that perfect uniformity is not something I’ve ever experienced with anyone.

      For what it’s worth…

      Thanks again for reading.

      1. Hey Marc, thank you for reading the thesis. I have no idea what “sidestepping” means. I wrote a critical response to the novel concept called Theological Triage and examined it by the Word of God. I have respectfully and academically addressed the topic. My major concern is that folks are using Theological Triage as a hermeneutical principle when there is no biblical warrant to do so. I have personally given a copy to Dr. Mohler and will continue to communicate the truth in love. Your specific questions concerning fellowship are thought provoking in our current evangelical climate. These questions I have also faced. I believe many thoughtful professing Christians have trouble with them. My conscience before the Lord is clear in my treatment of the issue. I merely want the truth. I hope honest minds will include my thesis in the discussion. Thank you. May Christ be honored in all we do. When it comes to unity Ephesians 4:13-16 is the standard.

      2. Thanks for the note, Eric. I’m sorry that you and I seem to be talking right past each other.

        I appreciate your desire to assert the value of all doctrine, and I also appreciate your efforts to argue your case. However, I continue to be disappointed by your lack of effort to give an answer to the burning question at hand. This is what I meant by saying that you are “sidestepping” the issue.

        The question you haven’t answered is: “What is a Christian to do when he/she disagrees with another Christian?”

        Until you answer this question, I don’t think any further interaction between us will be productive.

  1. Marc, God has already answered your question before you were born. The answer is found in Ephesians 4:13-16, real unity based on sound doctrine, the standard of true unity. The problem is you don’t like it. If you are not convinced by the testimony of Scripture now- when you stand before God you will be completely convinced of it. I am not talking past you. I am writing directly to you. I have addressed the issue. You need to repent and stop looking outside the Bible to what man says to find a solution to your problems. There is no biblical warrant for theological triage. It is in love that I write this. Please do not present to others the pretense that because I am firm in my stance that I do not want to have a dialogue about the issue. Also please do not project on me terms like, “side-stepping” and “talking past.” Read the thesis and offer your rebuttal without exaggerations and irrelevant adverse information of someone you disagree with where you present them to your audience with the intention of discrediting or ridiculing the person arguing their position. There is no biblical warrant for doctrinal triage.

    1. Eric,

      Your most recent comment is merely continuing the unproductive conversation… You’ve still not answered the question: “What is a Christian to do when he/she disagrees with another Christian?”

      Does every doctrinal disagreement require excommunication or the charge of heresy? For example, can Christians remain committed to mutual love and fellowship with one another if one is a Premillennial Dispensationalist and the other is an Amillennial? And is there any difference between this kind of eschatological disagreement and a dispute over the deity of Christ?

      Until you answer this basic and begging question, I will not approve of your future comments on my blog site nor will I respond to anything else you post.

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