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.

What are you Reading?

It may surprise some who know me to learn that I don’t like to read. In fact, I often fantasize about a day in which technological advances will make us able to download information directly to our brains (think Neo in the Matrix). Until then, however, I must read because I love to learn.

I love learning new information, hearing new arguments, testing current positions, going deeper into thoughtful implications, and finding and repairing my own inconsistencies. I love discovering how geniuses have already thought through what I am struggling to understand. And, above all other things I read, I love hearing the voice of God throughout the pages of holy Scripture.

My love for learning, my vocational role as a pastor and teacher, and my intentional approach to relationships with others has got me reading quite a range of books right now. Here is what I am reading now (and a few things I’ve read in the last couple of months), along with my own respective recommendations.


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Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem

This is a great place to begin for any Christian who wants to move from “Sure, I’m a Christian…” to “I believe and follow Christ, and I’d be glad to talk with you about it.” This book systematically covers most topics of the Christian faith. If you want to know what Christians believe and why they believe it, then read this. I’m reading this book with a friend for mutual discipleship and growth.


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Prayer by Timothy Keller

Every Christian knows he or she should be praying well and regularly, but many Christians feel a sense of confusion and shame regarding their current prayer-life. This book will be a great help for the new Christian and the long-time disciple. Offering deeply biblical, historically grounded, and readily applicable insights, this book will simply help you pray better. I am glad to have read this book last month as an assignment in a seminary course.


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The Deliberate Church by Mark Dever and Paul Alexander

Church pastors and leaders, this book is for you! As a pastor, I read a lot about church. Several books have been a great help to me, and this is among them. Thoroughly biblical (you’ll be amazed at how many biblical citations there are) and highly practical, this book provides a fantastic blueprint for being and doing church. I am reading this book with a handful of other leaders among my congregation.


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The Church by Mark Dever

A true churchman, Mark Dever is the one to whom I turn for ecclesiological theory and practice. This book is the direct and biblical argument for what the local church is and does. While some books are for practical application, this one is for solid grounding and thoughtful understanding. As a pastor or church leader, you must either align yourself with these truths or give your own reasons for rejecting them. I am reading this book right now with my staff.


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The Gospel According to John (PNTC) by D.A. Carson

As a general rule, I consult between 2 and 4 commentaries as part of my preparation for preaching. I am currently preaching through the Gospel of John, and I have been thoroughly impressed by D.A. Carson’s commentary. Carson’s content is a good compilation of a wide range of scholarship in an accessible format, and it is well-presented. I highly recommend this book as a resource for preachers, theologians, and Bible students of all levels.


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The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

I must confess that I am not greatly interested in speculative works like this. However, Lewis does a masterful job of creatively reminding Christians that we are certainly at war. Whether there is a specifically assigned devil to each person or not, the sinful obstacles to Christian growth are enumerated well here. Every Christian would benefit much from thinking through the challenge this book inevitably raises. I listened to this as an audiobook, and I finished it in three visits to the gym (it is quite short).


 

If you are like me, then your “to read” stack of books is probably already pretty tall. That said, I’d be glad to know if there are other books you’ve found helpful on related topics.

 

Christians Don’t Need the Bible?

Yesterday, I overheard a conversation between a handful of friends. A table full of ladies (in their late 20s and early 30s) were talking loud enough for the whole room to hear, so I was not eavesdropping. As a matter of fact, I would have preferred to avoid hearing the dialogue altogether. The interaction centered on their relationships with one another and at least a couple of other ladies who were not there to contribute.

As a Christian (and particularly a pastor), I was interested in the strong spiritual nature of their banter. Their vocabulary sounded Christian, but the apparent meanings of the phrases and words they used were much more pagan and mystical than biblical. Most concerning to me was the fact that they never once cited a passage of Scripture or even alluded to the Bible.

Not one Bible story or example was offered for consideration. No quote from Jesus was mentioned. No biblical principle was called upon to undergird any personal application. The whole conversation was devoid of the objective authority of the Bible, and yet there were many authoritative statements and claims made.

Once they finished and departed, I resisted the urge to apologize to everyone else in the room for the eccentric display of pseudo-Christianity. The reason I felt compelled then (and feel the same now) to distance myself from this version of Christianity is because I believe it is often silly, usually lazy, and frequently dangerous.

Whatever one believes about specific applications of biblical truth, the very minimum standard of Christianity is a submission to Christ as Lord; and Jesus Christ cannot be separated from His words. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments [or instructions]” (Jn. 14:15). Jesus also said that the way a Christian grows in unity with Christ is through the word of God (Jn. 17:17).

There is a foolish notion afoot today. Many think that some kind of Christianity can be experienced and cultivated apart from the Bible. Of course, Christians will not usually say this; but their utter neglect of the Bible speaks loud and clear. Many Christians do not have even a general ability to reference biblical grounds for what they say or why they believe the way they do.

Sentimental spirituality is not admirable, and it is a poor substitute for genuine (biblical) Christianity. Only a familiarity with Jesus’ words will cause a person to grow in real intimacy with Jesus Himself.

Has God not made the effort to reveal Himself on the pages of Scripture? Do we believe the Bible is God’s word? Have we any ability to know about Jesus Christ (and, therefore, truly know Him) without the biblical record?

Of all the people in the world, Christians should be the most biblically literate. In times gone by, Christians spoke with a vocabulary that came directly from the Bible. Words, themes, and illustrations in everyday language were directly drawn from the Scriptures.

May God rid us of our laziness, and may we hunger and thirst for the words of our God. And since the Bible is more accessible today than ever, may we be diligent in our use of this marvelous gift of God – His Word.

Goodbye Buddy…

This morning, likely for the last time, I prayed with a six-year-old boy who became my son… at least for a while. My mind is searching for terms and concepts at the moment to accurately convey the relationship and connection, but I am not sure exactly how to describe it. I am not his father; I only met him about a year ago. He is not my son; he sporadically called me “daddy,” and I never once gave him the benefit of the loving physical discipline I give to my other sons.

And yet, he is not just any boy… In a real sense, he is (or at least was) my son.

My wife and I have been foster parents (off and on) for a combined total of about three and a half years. One of our foster boys went back home to his biological mother today, and this is the cause of my introspective post.

In these first moments, after he has gone, I am celebrating the good things we both enjoyed. I enjoyed another playful personality at the dinner table and another eager-but-clumsy body to throw around on the living room floor. Boys are quite simple in their desires and expectations you know. A full belly and some rough-housing will go a very long way.

He enjoyed the imperfect and genuine love of a father. This took the form of quick-witted responses to his naive attempts to assert his dominance. It was expressed in many intervening interrogations when situations demanded them, questioning each boy to learn just how much truth was left untold. It was also demonstrated in regular Bible-reading, interesting stories of past Christians who lived and died for Christ, and gathering nightly for prayer as a family in one room or another.

Oh yes, as I now think of it. This boy is my son. Who else gets such investments from me? There is no other relationship like it… father and son.

We will miss him, and (in his own way) he will miss us too. And yet, we will also treasure him, as we have treasured him thus far. He was a welcome addition to our family while he was near, and he shall not lose his place in our hearts just because he is now far.

As I have prayed so many times before, may God grant him grace and draw him near. May he come to know, to understand, and to believe the Gospel of Christ. Only in a deeper understanding of the Gospel will my son ever know why I willingly became his father, and then let him go.

What has the Beast to do with The Shack?

What does The Shack have to do with Beauty and the Beast?  Well, they are quite different narratives, but there is something you should know about their similarities.

For as long as I can remember, I have had a bit of an allergy for alarm-sounding fuddy-duddies. “If you read that… your eyes will melt!” “If you watch that… your mind will turn to jelly!” “If you go there… you’ll never be able to come back again!”

Come on… I would think to myself. These warnings are for the weak-minded people who need someone else to do their thinking for them. And, to a large degree, this is still my natural and immediate reaction.

That said, I want to sound an alarm… But, please hear me out.

I will not urge you to avoid any books, movies, or activities here. Instead, my alarm is a warning to be aware as you go… as you see… as you read… and as you choose how you will proceed in all of this.

I recently wrote a post about the movie The Shack (God doesn’t live in The Shack), in which I warned of the error and danger of indulging in such a thing. There, like here, my warning is less about what you peruse and more about inviting you to examine things more deeply.

If anyone was unsure about Mr. Young’s beliefs, which are the instructive basis of his fiction novel (The Shack), then his new non-fiction work leaves all uncertainty behind. Tim Challies recently wrote a fairly detailed article addressing some of the specific theological beliefs Mr. Young holds (see Tim Challies’ article HERE). There is no doubt that Mr. Young’s theological beliefs come through in The Shack, and we are fools to think this is not by design.

But wait… I don’t mean to say the Mr. Young is nefariously attempting to do something to those who read his book or watch the movie it has inspired.

Rather, I am pointing out the inescapable reality that authors, producers, and scriptwriters cannot not be motivated and instructed by their own beliefs. Furthermore, these beliefs are going to be the instructive content of anything they create.

In a recent New York Times article, the principles and methodology of Disney’s creations were on clear display (see that article HERE). Noting several intentional characters and the systematic approach of Disney’s executives, the article (just one of many) openly discusses the plan and belief system driving what is produced.

The live-action Beauty and the Beast (Disney’s latest movie) is set to release on March 17 in the USA. We are told by the director, Bill Condon, that there is a “nice, exclusively gay moment” in store for those who watch the movie (see that article HERE). Of course, it should come as no surprise that Disney is a proponent of the LGBT and sexual revolution.

Here too, I am not saying that Disney executives are inherently wicked because they produce material that reflects their beliefs. They are not “out to get your kids” in some deceptive and evil sense.

However, The Shack and Beauty and the Beast are both works of literary and cinematic art that are packed full of educational material coming from a systematic belief structure. In this sense, these movies (like everything you watch or read) intend to shape your mind and perspective.

No matter what you believe about them, you should know that these movies believe something about you (and everything else). These movies intend to influence and teach, and those who think otherwise are also the most easily influenced by their teaching.

There is no such thing as “mindless” entertainment. Entertainment teaches, and those lessons that are most memorable are usually the ones that come by way of personal experience and a gripping storyline.

The alarm I am sounding is intended to rouse your awareness and strengthen your resolve to live mindfully in the world.

Watch, read, and take in whatever you will; but please do not be surprised when you begin to think, speak, and live like the stuff you take in.

Local Church Community & Individualism

Individualism seems to be an essential aspect or feature of being an American. Americans are independent if they are anything, or at least they want to feel that way. However, individualism is something that causes Christian Americans to be conflicted. One could certainly argue the merits of acting with personal responsibility, but I would like to take a closer look at the idea of Christian community as it opposes a purely individualistic posture.

The Bible commands Christians to have a perspective of community and not individualism. This command is directly focused on the relationships enjoyed among Christians connected with one another in a local church family.

*For a discussion about what a local church is, please see my article “Do Christians Need the Local Church?” 

The command towards a communal attitude is clearly stated in 1 Corinthians 11, when the Apostle Paul says, “when you come together as a church, wait for one another” (v18, cf. v33). There is much to be considered here, but let’s consider 3 things regarding “come together” and “wait for one another.

1. Christians are Communal

The “coming together” in this passage makes note of the universal example we have in the Old Testament and New Testament of the people of God. God’s people are never encouraged to be isolated from the larger community or family of God. Just think about the first example we have of someone separating himself from the community of faith… Lot left Abram/Abraham (Gen. 13). Immediately Lot ran into trouble (Gen. 14), and things never got better for him (Gen. 19).

The simple and far-reaching point is: there is no such thing as a ‘lone-ranger’ Christian who is not also in direct defiance of God’s clear design. While many in our culture today are rightly noticing problems with the structure and direction of American Evangelicalism, the solution is not isolation. Christians “come together,” and that union should be defined by Scripture and not personal preference.

2. Christians are Servants

Paul assumes that when Christians “come together” it should be for mutual good (v17). This way of thinking shines a light on what has become a consumeristic perspective of the local church. Often, when guests attend a church service, the overarching question they are asking is “What am I getting out of this?”

In my opinion, guests are not to blame for thinking this way. Why would anyone expect anything other than a consumeristic perspective from an unchurched non-Christian? The blame for perpetuating this way of thinking lies directly on the shoulders of many in the so-called “church growth” movement.

Many people inside of the Christian subculture in America have come to define success by numbers (attendance, financial budgets, square feet, etc.). This is a mistake. This is how for-profit businesses measure success, not the Church. But when Christians emphasize the same measurements of success as the local shopping center, it is no wonder that the local churches start to adopt the same consumeristic perspective as well.

The local church is not a shopping center. It is not for consumers. The local church is a body of believers who are meant to give themselves to one another. Rather than thinking like a consumer, each church member should have the mind of a servant. The question is not “What am I getting out of this?” it is “How has God gifted me to serve my Christian brothers and sisters?”

3. Christians Patiently Wait

Paul commands Christians (in the context of a local church) to “wait for one another.” The word translated “wait” connotes patient expectation, and there is no small amount of meaning here. Christians are to patiently expect to participate in a community of believers, to lay down an individual agenda, and to set aside personal preferences.

Additionally, the command to “wait for one another” is merely one of about fifty of these kinds of commands in the New Testament. Often called “one anothers,” these commands collectively detail the things Christians in a local church family ought to be doing and saying with regard for one another.

Church members are to “care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25), “comfort one another” (2 Cor. 13:11), “live in harmony with one another” (Rom. 12:16), “serve one another” (Gal. 5:13), “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), and “forgive one another” (Eph. 4:2). There is much more, but you get the idea.

What is your posture or perspective of the local church? Does it align with the biblical instruction?

May God grant us the wisdom to know His design and the courage to live accordingly.

5 Reasons You Need a Pastor

It has amazed me to recently discover how many Christians consider podcasting, television preachers, and radio sermons to be just as beneficial (sometimes more beneficial) than participating in a local church. As a local church pastor, this kind of foolish thinking is enough to deserve a poke in the eye. However, as a local church pastor, I cannot always allow my desired response to be my actual one.

So, for the benefit of anyone who will consider them, allow me to present five reasons why you need a real-life pastor.

1. You need a pastor to remind you that preaching is not just presenting a good message (1 Tim. 4:11-12). 

Your favorite podcast preacher will never speak to you with the same loving care for your soul that you pastor has. While your pastor may never speak as well as the other guy, your pastor will preach with a heart full of love for you – personally. Your pastor will pray for you by name, and he will have your spiritual health in mind as he shepherds you through preaching.

2. You need a pastor to remind you that Christians are real people (1 Tim. 4:12, 15).

That TV preacher isn’t real… at least you don’t see who he really is. Of course, I’m not saying that all TV preachers are lying fakers. What I am saying is that you will never get to see that TV preacher hurt, apologize, play with his kids, or decide between adding one more church responsibility or guarding his family time. You need to see a real man live an imperfect and godly life in front of you. Your pastor will both encourage and challenge you through his exemplary life.

3. You need a pastor to look you in the eyes (1 Tim. 4:15).

When have you ever run into that radio preacher at the grocery store, after having neglected to listen to his latest message? Ah, but you will have to look your pastor in the eye after you’ve neglected to participate in the last couple of Sunday morning worship services. That eye-to-eye encounter is more meaningful than you are likely to understand, and you are likely much less grateful than you should be for it. Your pastor will be an encouragement and motivation to you as you seek to live a more consistent Christian life.

4. You need a pastor to teach you stuff you don’t want to learn (Titus 2:1).

Even your favorite preacher or teacher is going to talk about stuff that you don’t really care for, or stuff you think you already know, or stuff you disagree with. But when he does it, you can just turn him off. You need to revisit things you think you already know. You need to think longer about some things than you already have. You need to read and consider passages of the Bible that challenge your existing beliefs. And all of this only happens when you have a pastor who loves you and who loves God’s word enough to pastor (shepherd) you well.

5. You need a pastor to say “no” to your face (Titus 2:15).

No TV preacher is going to tell you anything to your face, but he will certainly never be near enough to challenge you when you are playing with sin. Sin is devastating; it crushes hope, destroys harmony, and numbs your conscience. When you sin, you easily justify it. You need a pastor who loves you, who will demonstrate that love by forcing you to call your sin what it is, and who will help you go about putting it to death.

There are many more, but only a fool would say that these are insufficient to demonstrate your need (Prov. 1:7).

My pastoral advice: Find a solid, Bible-saturated, Christ-loving, God-fearing pastor; then love him, pray for him, encourage him, and thank God for him every day.