Theological Triage (pt. 1): Rightly Dividing Truth from Error


It is not a word that we often associate with church life, or if we do, the connotation is probably not positive. However, I think the word has great potential for helping us understand and promote unity in the church—local and universal.

In its original context, triage “means the process of sorting victims to determine medical priority in order to increase the number of survivors.”  While the term is usually placed on the battlefield or in the wake of a natural disaster, it also has an important application in the church for knowing how to rightly hold the doctrines we believe.

Applied to biblical doctrines, the term has been labeled by Albert Mohler as “theological triage,” and it basically indicates that we should sort out three different kinds of biblical belief—(1) those that separate Christians from non-Christians, (2) those that separate different churches and denominations, and (3) those that individuals may disagree about but which are overcome by greater unity on more primary matters.

Today, I will consider the first level, and later this week days I will follow up with the second and third levels to help us think about our relationship with other faiths, other churches, and other individuals in our church.

Sound Doctrine Makes Distinctions

The first level of theological triage separates Christian beliefs from non-Christian. This is what separates churches from cults, and it usually relates to the orthodox doctrines established in the first five centuries of the church. They include the doctrine of the Trinity, the full deity and full humanity of Christ, and the deity of the Holy Spirit. These beliefs are fundamental to the faith, and they are consistently denied by groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Unitarian Universalists.  These doctrines also separate Christians from Islam, Eastern religions, and New Age spiritism.

At this level, we should include the belief that the Bible is inspired by God, inerrant in its original autographs, and authoritative for faith and practice. Likewise, orthodox Christianity believes that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Accordingly, the Creator is the sovereign judge of the universe. At this level, we must also include a belief in heaven and hell. All together, these are the truths that define “mere Christianity.” Failure to affirm these doctrines results in a denial of the faith.

To say it another way, our basic stance at this level is not unity with other religions, but separation. It means discerning and distinguishing truth from error. At this first level, Christianity competes with the idols and ideologies of the age, and says that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus is the only one true and living God. This is the posture Jude took as he encouraged his readers “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3), and in an increasingly secular age, true churches must not only affirm what they believe but clearly distinguish what they deny.

Knowing Where to Draw the Line

As with nearly all the New Testament letters, false doctrine threatened to undo the gospel, and so the apostles wrote strongly against teachers who added works to grace (Galatians), who questioned the humanity of Christ (1 John), and who denied the resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15). These are truths worth defending, and when individuals or groups deny these basic beliefs, we are called to expose their errors.

Yet, there is another side to this story. Such a push for defending the faith can sometimes provoke well-meaning Christians to mishandle their views and overstate their case. Here is the problem: Sometimes Christians assert first-level zeal for second or third-level issues. For instance, some charismatics have denied salvation to a sister because that woman has not spoken in tongues. Likewise, some “fundamentalists” have questioned a brother because he does not use the King James.

Something is amiss with this handling of doctrine. But what is it?

Essentially, in an effort to protect doctrine, fundamentalists (be it charismatics or King James only folks or those who demand a certain kind of worship service) have applied first-level separation to third-level matters. The action may be well-intended but the separation is unnecessary. Worse, it confuses what is essential for Christianity and what is secondary. Of course, defending the faith is right, but it is important to know where to draw the line. Having a well-understood “triage” of doctrines helps us rightly distinguish ourselves from unbelievers, while rejoicing in the fellowship with have with believers from other denominations and traditions.

Learning How to Hold Our Doctrine

Tying all this together, it is vital to insist upon the biblical orthodoxy (e.g., the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, the five solas of the Reformation, etc.). Without defining our doctrine, Christians and churches risk dissolving into the ocean of ecumenism. However, it is just as important that we learn how to hold our doctrine.

As one of my seminary professors once quipped, “The way we hold our doctrine is as important as the doctrine that we hold.” While God’s word instructs us to watch our life and doctrine carefully (1 Tim 4:16), it is wise to remember that we must hold different doctrines with different levels of certainty and persuasion. While affirming the clarity of Scripture, not every doctrine is equally clear. Therefore, it always is right to speak slowly, listen quickly, and to engage all discussions with Paul’s instruction to Timothy at the forefront of our minds: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:24–25).

That said, there are some secondary doctrines which are not necessary for personal salvation but that can and have skewed primary doctrines to the point where orthodoxy is eclipsed or denied. To say it differently, while secondary doctrines may not be “necessary” for salvation, an errant over-commitment to a secondary doctrine can lead to errors in a primary doctrine. Because doctrines are not independent silos of thought, it must be recognized that error in one place will by necessity produce error in another doctrine.

By God’s grace many who have erred in one place have not carried that error into other (more important) doctrines. Nevertheless, as a principle of thinking God’s thoughts after him, it must be recognized that the views we hold—whether we arrive at them through study or through superstition—do interpenetrate one another. Thus, it is vital to let the larger doctrines of Theology Proper and Christology inform the rest of our theology. Indeed, rightly understand God will preserve us from a world of lesser theological errors.

This, of course, does not minimize truth at lower levels, but it does remind us that we first and foremost stand united around God, Christ, his word, and the eternal realities of heaven and hell. As we distinguish these different levels of doctrine, we are better equipped to discuss differences with people and to share the gospel.

May God grant us wisdom to rightly divide his Word, and separate ourselves from those who abide in non-Christian error, even as we prayerfully and compassionately tell the Good News of Jesus Christ to all people regardless of their current doctrinal convictions.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss