Ecumenical. Non-Denominational. In certain circles of evangelicalism, these are dirty words. (“Catholicity” is another.) Critics say these words represent a weak or thin theology—one whose core conviction is that convictions don’t much matter provided we can all get along. For some, they represent a potential threat to the mission of the church or even the gospel itself.
Other believers take a friendlier view of conciliatory language. Without compromising their core convictions, they want to build bridges with a range of churches and Christian organizations around the world, joining together in mission wherever possible. These principles are central to the work of groups like the Lausanne Movement, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, the Reforming Catholic Confession, and the Center for Baptist Renewal (where I serve as editorial director).
Yet even those of us who champion C. S. Lewis’s ideal of “mere Christianity” find it difficult to put into practice, especially in the face of entrenched theological and denominational divides.
Several years ago, Albert Mohler popularized the phrase “theological triage.” Although the basic concept shares a certain kinship with other “mere Christian” buzzwords, it sparked a renewed conversation about how and why Christians agree, disagree, or agree to disagree about various points of theology.
The term triage, of course, comes from the field of medical care. It refers to the choices medical professionals are compelled to make in the direst of circumstances, when a flood of patients (or a scarcity of resources) ensures that some cases must be prioritized. In the realm of theology, then, practicing triage means determining which beliefs are more urgent or foundational than others. More specifically, it has often meant sorting theological claims into three categories: the primary (what Christians must believe), the secondary (what denominations or groups can disagree about), and the tertiary (what individuals or local churches can disagree about within their denomination or group).
In his book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, pastor and theologian Gavin Ortlund addresses the basic questions raised by a triage mindset: When should doctrine divide, and when should unity prevail? Ortlund lays out both the blessings and dangers of theological convictions, while offering advice on weighing the relative importance of the doctrines we hold dear.
Sectarianism and Minimalism
Ortlund describes his own framework for theological triage like this: First-rank doctrines are essential to the gospel itself. Second-rank doctrines are urgent to the church’s healthy functioning at the local and denominational level. Third-rank doctrines are important—but not important enough to justify separation among Christians. And fourth-rank doctrines are those that, in the final analysis, aren’t essential for the sake of gospel ministry or collaboration among believers.
Yet before we can even begin talking about the particulars of theological triage, Ortlund argues, we need to take care of some essential ground-clearing. Specifically, we need to address the two major obstacles standing in the way: sectarianism and minimalism.
The danger of doctrinal sectarianism is that it creates unnecessary division among brothers and sisters in Christ. Rigid fundamentalists treat every Christian truth claim as of primary importance, so that there is scarcely any difference between affirming the bodily resurrection of Christ and affirming that the Bible condemns dancing as sinful. There is little to no room to disagree with the doctrinal sectarian. However, as Ortlund warns, theological triage is not as simple as sorting truth from error and giving no quarter to anyone who professes the latter. “The character of the gospel is complex,” he writes. “It contains both truth and grace, both conviction and comfort, both hard edges of logic and deep caverns of mystery. It is at one moment as bracing as a cold breeze and the next as nourishing as a warm meal.”
Indeed, as Ortlund argues, we see this tension at work in the example of Jesus. On the one hand, he was unafraid to cleanse the temple or denounce the Pharisees, often in language that seemed anything but meek and mild. Yet on the other hand, Jesus describes himself as “gentle and humble in heart” (Matt. 11:29), and Scripture records him breaking bread with sinners.
On the “complete opposite end of the spectrum” from sectarianism, as Ortlund puts it, is the danger of doctrinal minimalism. If we are not careful, he contends, this mindset quickly leads to doctrinal indifference or theology without a backbone. This is where triage comes into play: Although certain doctrines are less essential than others, Ortlund writes, “the fact that a particular doctrine is not important for salvation or partnership does not mean that it cannot be important in any sense.”
Ultimately, he argues, anything taught by Scripture is important, but the hard task of triage is determining the relative degrees of importance. Most people recognize, for instance, that affirming the deity of Christ is more important to Christian belief and practice than, say, determining the age of the earth or ordering the events of the last days. We’re still called to think deeply on third- and fourth-rank matters, but we also should recognize that faithful Christians can arrive at different opinions without jeopardizing unity on the things that really count.
Putting Triage into Practice
In the second section of his book, Ortlund gets practical, outlining what he calls “Theological Triage at Work.” The goal of triage is reconciling truth and love, he writes, and this “will require us to cultivate the skill of ranking the importance of different doctrines.”
In Chapter 4, “Why Primary Doctrines Are Worth Fighting For,” Ortlund says that first-rank doctrines are essential to Christian belief and practice because they either separate Christianity from other religions or represent a “material point of the gospel (as with justification).” He includes the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and justification by faith alone among these non-negotiable commitments. How do we know which doctrines are primary? Ortlund offers multiple criteria that boil down to biblical clarity and significance, relevance to God’s character, effect on other doctrines, and general consensus among Christians past and present. Instead of examining specific doctrines in a vacuum, we should ask about their cumulative effect on how one reads the Bible, understands the gospel, and grows in godliness. In the end, Ortlund argues, some doctrines are worth fighting for because if we ignore them, “we are not faithful servants of Christ, and will not be effective in advancing his kingdom.”
Secondary doctrines are the most complex category, Ortlund argues. They “make a noticeable difference in how we understand and articulate the gospel,” he writes, “though their denial does not generally constitute a denial of the gospel.” Among these secondary matters, he lists modes of baptism, the role of spiritual gifts, and the complementarian-egalitarian debate. Part of the reason secondary doctrines are so complex, Ortlund suggests, is that they can’t be considered in a vacuum. Their validity depends in large part on their relationship to the gospel itself and the context in which they are proclaimed or observed.
Finally, Ortlund explains why we should not divide over tertiary doctrines. Using the Millennium and age of the earth as examples of tertiary doctrines, he asserts, “Most of the battles you could fight, you shouldn’t.” With respect to the exact timing of the Millennium, he notes that the Bible doesn’t tell us much, and what it does tell us is notoriously difficult to interpret. If anything, he writes, persistent disagreement over the Millennium throughout the history of the church should “induce humility and carefulness in our judgments.” With respect to the age of the earth, Ortlund contends that differing views “are less practically relevant to the organization of a local church or its worship, evangelism, and witness to the gospel than a number of other doctrines are.” Invoking a number of prominent theologians who have differed on this issue, he shows that one cannot make it a litmus test for faithfulness or salvation.
A Compass, not a Checklist
Ortlund concludes with a plea for theological humility, reminding us that “disagreements over even relatively minor doctrines can cause untold destruction when approached in an attitude of entitlement and dismissiveness.” Instead, “Humility teaches us to navigate life with sensitivity to the distinction between what we don’t know and what we don’t know that we don’t know.” This posture of humility encourages us to listen carefully and be willing to learn from others.
Finding the Right Hills to Die On is a slim book, coming in at around 150 pages. Even so, Ortlund packs a punch, clearly and helpfully introducing the idea of theological triage and its importance for Christian life and practice. While some may wish to see Ortlund map out his own preferred doctrinal hierarchy more explicitly, he rightly points out that no system of categorization is without error. So, rather than offering a checklist, his book ultimately provides a type of compass. Readers navigating the dense forest of doctrinal diversity should find it a useful device for homing in on truth and love.
Brandon D. Smith is assistant professor of theology and New Testament at Cedarville University, editorial director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and host of the Church Grammar podcast.