On the night before he died, as Jesus looked at his twelve men and, beyond them, the billions who one day would follow him, he prayed for a oneness that would make the world take notice: “[I ask] that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” (John 17:21). Father, take Jews and Gentiles, men and women, old and young, and make them one. Heaven-sent unity was his great prayer for us.
And yet, just moments earlier, he voiced another request that gives Christian unity a tension and a tang: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Father, take these disciples, and bind them by your word. Spirit-given truth was also his great prayer for us.
Jesus wants his church to be one, and to be wise. He wants us to love all his people, and to treasure all his word. He wants us to offer an earthly illustration of Trinitarian unity, and an earthly witness to Trinitarian truth.
Few Christians and churches naturally maintain a balanced grasp on both prayers; on our own, we tend to drift toward a “unity” that erodes truth, or a “truth” that destroys unity. And so, we often need recalibrating: our inner ecumenist needs more backbone; our inner watchdog needs less bite.
To that end, one ancient tool, rearticulated and clarified in recent decades, may help: theological triage.
Theological triage — a term coined by Albert Mohler in 2005 — seeks to organize Christian truth on different tiers, ranging from essential doctrines to more peripheral teachings. In a helpful recent book, for example, Gavin Ortlund offers the following fourfold model:
- First-rank doctrines are essential to the gospel itself.
- Second-rank doctrines are urgent for the health and practice of the church such that they frequently cause Christians to separate at the level of local church, denomination, and/or ministry.
- Third-rank doctrines are important to Christian theology but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians.
- Fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration. (Finding the Right Hills to Die On, 19)
Rightly handled, theological triage does not justify indifference to doctrines below the first tier. All Scripture carries God’s breath (2 Timothy 3:16), and so, when Jesus prayed that we would be sanctified “in the truth,” he meant all of it — every iota (Matthew 5:18).
Nevertheless, Scripture itself treats some doctrines as more foundational than others, and theological triage seeks to follow suit. As Jesus spoke of “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23), and as Paul spoke of the gospel as “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3), so theological triage seeks to differentiate the weightiest, most important doctrines from those with less urgency. (Hence Mohler’s triage image: ER doctors treat gunshot wounds differently from sprained ankles.)
The main benefit, as we’ll see, is balance and wisdom in our pursuit of unity. We don’t minimize mountains, and we don’t magnify molehills.
As in a medical context, the process of triage is often complex. We will not always discern immediately whether a doctrine fits on the first tier (dividing Christians from non-Christians), the second tier (dividing local churches, denominations, or ministries), or the third tier (dividing nothing). Triage is both science and art; it requires both intellectual perception and spiritual wisdom; it runs on both careful judgment and godly instinct.
“Triage is both science and art; it runs on both careful judgment and godly instinct.”
The same doctrine, for example, may fit into a different category depending on the situation. As Ortlund observes, the issue of spiritual gifts sometimes fits on the second tier — but not always. Currently, a convinced cessationist gladly worships in the continuationist church where I serve.
Cultural or missiological contexts also influence the practice of triage. New churches on unreached frontiers, along with some missionary teams, may lower some typical second-tier doctrines to the third tier. In America, a church’s elders might limit membership to those who have been baptized as believers; in Afghanistan, the elders might not, or might not yet (and wisely so).
At times, even evaluating first-tier disagreements calls for wisdom. One person may reject justification by faith because he doesn’t understand it; another may reject the doctrine because he understands and hates it. The first situation calls for careful teaching and further evaluation, while the second does not.
More complexities could be mentioned (see Joe Rigney’s article “How to Weigh Doctrines for Christian Unity”), but these suffice to show the need for humility, patience, and collective wisdom rather than individual reflex. We read of a plurality of local-church elders in the New Testament, and for good reason. Theological triage happens best in a group of spiritually discerning pastors, men who have their eyes on the flock and are wise to the needs, dangers, and opportunities of their local context.
Just as ER doctors need more than medical knowledge to practice triage well, a church’s elders need more than scriptural knowledge to do the same. They need to know not only the canon of Scripture, but also the case before them and the context around them. They need to ask, “All things considered, is this doctrine worth dividing over now?”
In his book When Doctrine Divides the People of God, Rhyne Putman offers three tests to aid the discernment process (220–39):
- The hermeneutical test: the clearer the Bible teaches a doctrine, the more likely it belongs on a higher tier.
- The gospel test: the more central a doctrine is to the gospel, the more likely it belongs on a higher tier.
- The praxis test: the more a doctrine affects the practice of a church, the more likely it belongs on a higher tier.
These three tests won’t answer every question, but they do offer a start. Consider where some common doctrines fall after running them through hermeneutics, gospel, and praxis:
- Doctrines like the deity of Christ and the Trinity (clear hermeneutically and central to the gospel) belong on the first tier.
- Doctrines related to baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the callings of men and women (less clear hermeneutically, but still near the gospel and shaping a church’s praxis) typically belong on the second tier.
- Doctrines like the age of the earth or the nature and timing of Christ’s millennial reign (less clear hermeneutically, less connected to the gospel, and less important for a church’s praxis) typically belong on the third tier.
Again, however, each category admits of complexity, requiring churches to practice triage in light of individual cases and their broader context.
If theological triage involves such complexity, why practice it? Because, in all likelihood, only a habit like this one will keep our heartbeats in rhythm with Jesus’s John 17 prayer. Only as we distinguish doctrines will we learn to avoid the dangers of theological maximalism, theological minimalism, and what we might call unconscious triage.
Theological maximalists, or theological sectarians, may differentiate doctrine to a degree — they may not equate Christ’s deity and a church’s form of government, for example. But they tend to raise third-tier doctrines to the second tier, and second-tier doctrines to the first tier. And in so doing, they often separate when they should tolerate, divide when they should bear with. Afraid of wolves, they attack other sheep.
Maximalists rightly sense that protecting sound doctrine sometimes calls for strong words; like Jude, they “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” But as Ortlund points out, they do not necessarily share Jude’s eagerness to celebrate “our common salvation” (Jude 3). And so, failing to distinguish the weightiest from the less weighty, they can end up cutting at the limbs of Christ’s body.
Theological minimalists also struggle to speak of “weightier matters” — not, however, because they raise so many doctrines to the higher tiers, but because they raise so few there. If pressed, they may agree that an anti-Trinitarian cannot be a Christian, but only if pressed. On their own, minimalists tend to lower first-tier doctrines to the second tier, and second-tier doctrines to the third tier. And in so doing, they often say, “Unity! Unity!” when there is no unity (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11).
“True unity requires an immovable core of conviction; otherwise, what are we even uniting around?”
Minimalists seek to embody the seventh beatitude — “Blessed are the peacemakers” — but they rarely or never take stands strong enough to embody the eighth: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:10–11). They struggle to see that true peace, true unity, requires an immovable (and sometimes offensive) core of conviction; otherwise, what are we even uniting around?
Perhaps the best reason to practice theological triage, however, is because we already functionally do. We can’t help but treat some doctrines as weightier than others. And unless we have carefully considered which doctrines really are weightier, our approach to triage likely will be shaped less by Scripture and more by a mixture of personality, background, and whim.
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (Matthew 23:24), and many of us, though less hypocritical, need to hear the same warning. Naturally, we are peculiarly attuned to some gnats and strangely dense to some camels: some vehemently contend for a young or old earth but breeze past justification; some attack complementarians or egalitarians as Athanasius attacked Arius, but dismiss Trinitarian controversies with a wave. We cannot abide the gnat in our stew, but we can stomach the camel in our meatloaf.
Theological triage, then, helps us weigh not only doctrines, but ourselves. It exposes our own besetting tendencies, and it invites us to recalibrate our unconscious models according to Scripture’s own example.
How will we know if we are growing to weigh doctrines as God himself does?
Those who tend toward theological maximalism will find themselves enduring disagreements when they would have broken fellowship beforehand; those who tend toward theological minimalism will find themselves ruffling more feathers than none. Maximalists will not treat second- and third-tier doctrines as unimportant, but they will learn to lower their voice when they talk about them; minimalists, meanwhile, will not roll their eyes when they see a brother or sister contending for precious truth. Minimalists will learn to fight more; maximalists will learn to fight themselves more.
And all of us, wherever we naturally tend, will hear ourselves praying more often, “Father, make us one” — then, in the next breath, “and bind us by your truth.”Scott Hubbard is an editor for Desiring God, a pastor at All Peoples Church, and a graduate of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Bethany, live with their two sons in Minneapolis.