Boundaries between believers
We must practice theological triage and defend the church against error
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Years ago, Dr. R. Albert Mohler put out a call for “theological triage” as a means of determining a scale of urgency with which to respond to theological and cultural crises. First-order issues refer to doctrines essential for salvation (for example, the bodily resurrection of Christ). Second-order issues refer to areas of disagreement among Christians that are serious enough to create boundaries among believers but do not undermine someone’s profession of faith (for instance, views on baptism and church polity). Third-order issues refer to disagreements among Christians that do not prevent them from being part of the same church (where to send your kids to school or whether or not to imbibe alcoholic beverages).
Historically, Christians adopted confessional statements to clarify their doctrinal positions through theological triage. A clear confession does two things. It keeps the right people out through carefully marked boundaries and it forces the leadership to catechize their church on a particular issue that threatens to undermine the gospel.
The goal of a confession of faith is maximal clarity for shoring up the defenses of the church against error. As charged by Scripture the church is to protect the purity of the gospel through “giving instruction in sound doctrine” and by “rebuking those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). This necessitates the use of and adherence to confessional statements.
The problem is that while heresies are not static, our confessional statements often are. My church uses J. Newton Brown’s New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833). But J. Newtown Brown never dreamed of women’s ordination—much less so-called same-sex marriage or transgender ideology.
The challenge for confessionalism is that error and false doctrines are constantly permutating, necessitating our confessional statements to adapt accordingly. This is why the Southern Baptist Convention revised its statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, in the year 2000. New challenges to the faith had arisen, like the subversion of gender and confusion about several doctrines.
Theological triage cannot be a static endeavor. New errors require confessional responses, just as new wine requires new wineskins. So how does one, using theological triage, determine whether a particular issue properly belongs to the first, second, or third tier? Where for instance do you locate baptism, church polity, or egalitarianism?
My answer is this: A third-order doctrine becomes a second-order doctrine when it threatens to undermine a first-order doctrine over the long run.
Let me explain. There are threats to the gospel that may not in and of themselves constitute a denial of a first-order doctrine. Nevertheless, they may, in the long-run, so chip away at the bulwarks that sustain first-order doctrines that they become boundary-markers between Christians. These are the issues that need to be addressed in a church’s doctrinal statement.
This is in part because it takes time for the implications of novel theological doctrines to become apparent. As C.S. Lewis argued, new theological ideas have to be tested against the orthodox Christian faith, with their implications “brought to light.”
The full implications of Walter Rauschenbusch’s social gospel were not apparent to Rochester Theological Seminary president Augustus H. Strong when he hired him to teach. Strong realized his error too late. In the same way, the full hermeneutical implications of egalitarianism may not have been apparent, say, to evangelicals in the 1970s and 80s. But with the additional distance of 40 years, and the onslaught of cultural headwinds against the Bible’s teaching on gender and sexuality, the destabilizing effects of egalitarian theology are more evident than ever.
The question pastors and churches need to be asking today is not “Can someone believe x or y and still be a Christian?” but “can a church that does not teach on x or y preserve the gospel for the next generation?”
“No one puts new wine into old wineskins,” Jesus said. He was right. New wine requires new wineskins. And novel theological errors require confessional responses. Careful theological triage today means recognizing the tendency of egalitarianism—through its hermeneutical moves—to undermine the gospel over the long run. A confessional response, therefore, means recognizing complementarianism as a second-order doctrine, for the sake of shoring up the doctrinal defenses of the church and preserving the gospel for coming generations.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.