If a man with a broken arm and a woman having a heart attack both walk into the emergency room at the same time which one get’s treated first? Obviously, the person with the life threatening emergency gets preferential treatment. You’d be foolish to admit the broken arm while someone is dying in the lobby. This method for assigning urgency to patients based on their conditions is called triage, and it’s a helpful concept to apply to theology.
All doctrine matters, but not all doctrines matter equally. Each generation of Christians is responsible to defend sound doctrine.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (1 Timothy 4:1-4, ESV)
You should know which doctrines are of first importance and those which aren’t. A three tiered theological triage can help you clarify which doctrines we must be most urgent to know and defend.
Primary Doctrines: Doctrines Essential to the Faith
Primary doctrines are those which cannot be denied without eventually jettisoning Christianity altogether. The full deity and humanity of Christ, the Trinity, and the authority of Scripture all occupy the primary tier. To deny any of these is to take away the foundation from the house of the faith leaving the structure unsupported. They are the doctrines that have been defended at church councils and borne out over two millennia.
Secondary Doctrines: Doctrines that Create Space Between Christians
While Christians can disagree about the meaning and mode of baptism and remain faithfully Christian, they likely can’t be apart of the same church. Secondary doctrines create space between believers, typically because they affect the practice of the church. Baptism and communion are the two that I frequently use to illustrate secondary doctrines. Presbyterians believe baptism partly symbolizes God’s claim on individuals before they respond in faith. Baptists argue that baptism is reserved only for professing believers. For this reason, Presbyterians baptize infants and Baptists do not. Both are Christians, yet their different interpretations of baptism causes not just theological space, but denominational and methodological space. Other examples would be views on women in the roles of elder/deacon, or views on the miraculous gifts of the Spirit .
Tertiary Doctrines: Doctrinal Differences within the Congregation
In close to 10 years of pastoral ministry I’ve served at two churches with over ten other pastors. We’ve preached alongside one another. We’ve baptized people together. We’ve buried friends and family together. And, among those ten or so pastors we almost all disagreed on the finer points of the Last Days. Some believed Christ would rapture his church while others didn’t. A few held a pre-trib, pre-mil pre-anything view, others trumpeted amillennial readings of the Bible. Never once did our differences on these doctrines hinder our fellowship in Christ or our service of his church. We all believed in the physical return of Christ to the earth, the judgement, and the final states heaven and hell. I couldn’t serve with a pastor who denied those doctrines.
Albert Mohler first introduced me to this idea in an article he wrote years ago. Read it here. Also, I’d love to hear which doctrines you think belong in which categories in the comments. Are their doctrines you’d like for me to talk about?