In part 1, I suggested genuine Christians stand united in mere Christianity against those who deny the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and justification by faith. At the same time, I explained in part 2 how churches and individuals must pursue unity in the gospel, even when we differ on matters of church government, church ordinances, or charismatic gifts. This gospel unity that overlooks ecclesial differences does not deny the importance of these secondary matters, but it keeps in mind that some doctrines are more essential than others. Some doctrines separate Christians from non-Christians (first-level), some separate genuine believers into different congregations (second-level), and others remain points of disagreement even in the same local church (third-level). This tripartite division has been labeled “theological triage,” and it is this third section we consider today.
The Doctrinal Core
Members of any orthodox church must share the core convictions delineated in the first level (e.g., the Trinity, the Incarnation, the resurrection of Christ, salvation by grace alone, and so on). Likewise, every church must also come to biblical conviction about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church polity, etc. In most churches, these doctrines (first and second level) are found in their statement of faith.
The practical function of such a confession (or statement of faith) is that when the church gathers there is no need to debate why the Bible is central, why men lead, and why babies are not “baptized.” The confession functions as a general consensus—a doctrinal core if you will—of what the church believes the Bible to teach about the most important tenets of the faith. Still under the banner of a church’s confession (which derive it’s ministerial authority from the Scriptures themselves), there are other doctrines that are not defined. Wisely, confessional statements are abbreviated statements of faith that do not attend to every doctrine. Accordingly, there are other views, beliefs, or questions that members may hold differently.
Some of these doctrines include the doctrines of grace, the way spiritual gifts continue in the church today, and the timing of the millennium. The point of this post is not to address these doctrines, nor to suggest what to include or exclude in the confession. The point to be made here concerns how to handle these third-level doctrinal disagreements in the local church.
It’s All In How You Hold Your Doctrine
In every church, there comes a postural decision to major on the Messiah and his message of grace and truth, or to major on the minors (if only some minors). In practice, while two churches can have the same doctrinal statement, they can be radically different because of the way they hold their doctrine. If a church chooses to major on third-level doctrines—be it the order of the decrees or the timing of the rapture—that church will stifle maturity and develop disciples who are easily suspicious of people not like themselves.
By contrast, when a church declares the whole counsel of God in the proportion and tone of the Bible itself, it creates a community of faith that is skilled in the word of righteousness and mature in their powers of discernment (Heb 5:13–14). Moreover, by paying attention to the way Scripture presents doctrine (instead of the way certain teacher or school presents them), pastors teach their people how to read the Bible and ward off narrow-minded uniformity. In what is perhaps overlooked in some churches that major on doctrine, it is not just the content of the confession that is important. It is also the posture with which a person holds their beliefs.
Christ’s church, like God’s cosmos, is filled with diversity. Accordingly, we will find that most people are not like us. If this is true in personality, it’s also true in doctrine. And once we have established unity in the first and second levels of doctrinal, the main focus of doctrinal unity—the differences we find in our own church—should be met with forbearance, understanding, and sympathetic love. Once again, this does not mean we can’t have fruitful debate (and disagreement) in the local church, but it does mean that the majority of our conversations should revolve around what unifies us in the message and mission of the church.
In the church, when we express gentleness and patience towards those with whom we disagree, we demonstrate the love of Christ. By contrast, when we wield the Bible as a Billy Club perpetually convincing others to believe as we do, we rarely seek to ground people deeper in the faith. More often and more likely, we are working against the Spirit to make people more like ourselves. In such situations, we reveal in our actions that we desire personal uniformity more than spiritual unity.
Love Covers a Multitude of Differences
In every church, there are non-negotiable doctrines that must be declared and defended without apology. Nevertheless, viligance must be taken to uphold the first and second-level doctrines (the ones explicated in the church confession), allowance must be made for diversity on views that do not contradict the statement of faith. How else will young (untaught) believers have room to grow into the doctrines of grace? How else will hard-charging disciples learn to be gentle and patient in their speech and actions (2 Tim 2:24–25)?
In fact, I believe one of the reasons why God permits longstanding differences to exist in the church is that these theological differences (along with racial, ethnicity, socio-economic differences) serve as a backdrop for the unifying work of the Spirit. When matters of personal preference are set aside for the sake of loving one another, the power of the Spirit is visibly demonstrated. In other words, the unity of the church is not uniformity built on age-related, teacher-produced populism. No, the unity of the church says to the world, “We would not be united in, but for Christ!”
So, the goal of unity is not to “resolve” all differences, but to learn how to love one another in Ephesians 4:1–6 truths, as “we grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4:15). To do that, faith working itself out in love (Gal 5:6) is essential, and not surprisingly, that’s exactly what Jesus said would reveal his disciples to the world (John 13:34–35).
The Necessity of Learning Theological Triage
Anyone who has been in church knows such love is not as easy as it sounds. Like sheep, we are easily-frightened, easily-flustered, easily-separated. And thus, it requires the Spirit’s work to bring unity to us. And part of that process is teaching God’s children that not every doctrine weighs the same. Indeed, until local churches learn how to “triage” their doctrines, they will constantly divide when they don’t need to and unite when they shouldn’t.
At the same time, failure to rightly divide truth from error, unify around the main features of the gospel, and overlook tertiary differences will result in a pernicious anti-evangelism. Indeed, the church that is most evangelistic will also be most theological, for attention biblical theology is never a hindrance to the gospel. Spirit-fueled theology always leads to evangelistic passion.
May God be pleased to lead us into all truth and to give us grace to walk together in that Truth.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds