Ever have trouble thinking through how important certain doctrines are in relation to others? As Christians, we understand that all truth is important, but we also know it’s not all equally important. Believing God is Triune is far more important than believing the earth is young or old. Right? So how are we supposed to properly weigh the importance of the various beliefs that surround around us?

Theological Triage

The concept of triage is helpful here. Triage is what doctors do to determine the significance of someone’s sickness/wound in order to know what needs to be treated first and what can wait. This helps doctors decide that the guy with the broken toe can wait and the fella with the gunshot wound to the chest cannot. Both ailments are important to tend to, but not equally important.

As it’s necessary for doctors to be skilled in medical triage so also Christians need to learn the skill of theological triage. It is vital for believers in Jesus to know the difference between theological stubbed toes and theological cancer. In a world filled with false ideas about God, Christians must know what they may flex on and what they must fight for.

Three Levels of Theological Importance

A chart from pastor Timothy Brister.

So what should be fought for and what could be flexed on? To answer, I find Albert Mohler’s three-level organization of theological truths helpful. All theological truths can be organized as first, second, or third level.

First Level Issues – Definitional

These are doctrines that have to do with things that are definitional to Christianity as taught by Jesus and His Apostles. These are truths that make or break Christianity. Non-negotiable absolutes. Examples of these truths are the Trinity, justification by faith in Christ alone, the incarnation, etc. In order to be a Christian in any meaningful or historical way, one must believe these truths.

Second Level Issues – Divisional

These are doctrines that genuine Christians can believe, but they will most likely divide fellowships. These are the doctrines that will most likely determine the church you attend. If you believe baptism should only be administered to those who have repented of their sin and trusted in Christ as their Savior, then you’d go to a church that thought so too. You would most likely be uncomfortable in a church that sprinkled or dunked babies (yes, this happens). Other second level doctrines could be views on communion and gender roles (especially within the church). These truths don’t define Christianity, but they are significant enough to divide Christian fellowships.

Third Level Issues – Disagreeable

These are doctrines that Christians can disagree with one another about yet could remain together in the same local church. Some examples would be one’s views about the millennium or the age of the earth. Every church is filled with people who disagree on various third level doctrines without affecting their unity or fellowship.

How Do I Determine the Level of a Given Doctrine?

Once the levels are established in our minds, it’s important to then ask, “How do I determine what level a particular doctrine falls into?” How can I know if something is first, second, or third level?

To answer that, I commend following seven questions taken from Dr. Erik Thoennes’ excellent little theology book, Life’s Biggest Questions. The cumulative answers to these questions will help determine which level a truth would belong to.

  1. How clear is the Bible on this subject?
  2. Is this closely connected to the character of God?
  3. Is this closely connected to the essence of the gospel?
  4. How often does the Bible speak about this doctrine?
  5. What significance or weight does the Bible put onto it?
  6. What is the effect this may have on other doctrines?
  7. What has the church thought about this doctrine historically and what do faithful church leaders think today?
  8. What effect does this have on personal and church life. 

Taken together, the answers to these questions provide helpful direction to make a choice about how important a particular teaching is. Knowing how important a teaching is then helps you understand how to handle it in private conversation or public teaching.

In a world of such diverse beliefs it is crucial that all parents, pastors, and Christians develop minds ready to discern the teachings that come their way. If we fight over everything, there’s a good chance of debilitating friendly fire. If we flex on everything, then wolves will be let in to roam among the sheep. To protect both the Christian gospel from error and Christian unity from disintegration, it’s crucial we learn the life saving skill of theological triage.

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