Theological Triage or Which Hill Will You Die On
I recently listened to a message given by Dan Dumas entitled "Hills to Die On". The message was a seminar session at the 2005 Shepherd's Conference (a PDF of this and other messages from the conference can be found here). The message reminded me of a message Dr. Albert Mohler delivered at Union University on Baptist Identity: Is There a Future. Coming from somewhat different perspectives (in terms of the aims of the messages) there was overlap in what was discussed.
Pastor Dumas was focused on encouraging Pastors to determine ahead of time the things for which they would be willing to die (figuratively speaking). Specifically, what are non-negotiables that would cause them to risk losing their pastorate and/or splitting the church. Pastor Dumas starts with an example from history, that of Jonathan Edwards and his opposition to the half-way covenant which led to him losing his pastorate.
Dr. Mohler, as the title of his message suggests, was looking at issues facing Baptists which much be addressed if the conservative resurgence is to be more than a blip on the slide into obscurity. One key is what Dr. Mohler referred to as "theological triage." By this he means that like a triage nurse in the emergency room, we have to be able to recognize what issues demand immediate attention, and what issues can be shelved, at least for a time. Or, to borrow Pastor Dumas' language, we must be able to determine on which hills we would be willing to die.
Dr. Mohler described three levels of theological issues. First order issues are those doctrines that define whether a church is a Christian Church or not. In older times, we would have called these the fundementals - doctrines which the church cannot compromise if it wishes to remain the church. Second order issues are issues which do not divide us as Christians, but divide us as local bodies. One example that has tended to divide local congregations is that of church government. Third order issues are issues that believers in a local congregation can and do disagree on without breaking fellowship.
[Side note: Dr. Mohler notes that the besetting sin of Fundementalism is to confuse third order issues for first order issues and the besetting sin of Liberalism is to confuse first order issues for third order issues.]
Why This Is Important
While Pastor Dumas was primarily speaking to other Pastors, I think much of what he said is applicable to everyone. Especially that exhortation that we must carefully consider which doctrines are non-negotiables. One of my first Sunday School teachers (a seminary student) quoted one of his teachers as saying that the time to determine what the Bible says about a doctrine is before it becomes an issue for you. Emotions can tend to cloud our judgment, so we need to think about areas of controversy before we find ourselves in the middle of the storm.
In his message Pastor Dumas noted two key guidelines. One, that there are some things that are worth losing your job (or worth being kicked out of church if you are simply a member) or splitting the church. Two, that before we cause that to happen we need to make sure the issue isn't just about personal preference. I agree with Pastor Dumas that much of the conflict in the church today is over preferences and an unwillingness on the part of anyone to defer to another.
So What Does This Mean to Me?
Whether we are talking about how we relate to fellow members of our local congregation, or how we relate to other believers in the church universal, we must determine what issues are hills on which we will die. On the theological landscape there are many discussions. Some of them are issues that will determine whether the church in America goes the way of the church in Europe, which is to say that it nearly vanishes, or becomes a light shining forth the gospel of Jesus Christ. The former will surely be the case if we spend all our time fighting the wrong battles.
What are some of these issues? A brief scan of the internet and/or the bookstore will the following among the major issues currently being discussed:
- A "new perspective" on what Paul means by justification
- A proclamation that the Reformation is over and/or Evangelicals and Catholics Together
- A resolution that calls for "total opposition to the manufacturing, advertising, distributing, and consuming of alcoholic beverages"
- Whether it is appropriate for Baptists to allow those who are convinced of paedo baptism to be admitted into membership without having been baptized as a believer.
- The use of labyrinths and other rituals from outside of Christianity
- An emphasis on engaging the culture and being "missional"
- Whether the "charismatic" gifts continue
- The order of events around the Second Coming (do you want to be left behind?)
- Which version of the Bible should we use?
- What form of church government should we have?
- What style of music should we use in worship?
- Egalitarian vs Complementarian view of men and women
- Is there objective truth?
- What does it mean to affirm the Scriptures in light of textual criticism (should we preach/teach John 7:53-8:11?)?
- Does God infallibly know the future or is He merely the universe's best prognosticator?
- Is God one God in Three Persons or should we embrace a modalistic view of God?
- Is the substition theory of the atonement divine child abuse?
- Should we live a purpose driven life?
Deciding the Level of Engagement
The question is how do I determine which battles to fight? The following basics are a good start.
First, bath yourself in the Scriptures. I whole-heartedly endorse studying church history and being familiar with the historic creeds and confessions, but nothing substitutes for a first hand understanding of the Bible.
Second, bath your decision making and action (preaching, teaching, rebuking, etc.) in prayer. Pray for wisdom; pray for humility; pray for discernment; pray for those who are on the other side; pray that God is glorified by your activity. This should actually be done in concert with spending time in the Scriptures.
Third, do not be hasty. Pastor Dumas notes that Edwards studied a long time before bringing up the issue of the half-way covenant. Don't rush to the battle until your sure what the fighting is about and which side you should be on, or if you should be a peacemaker because it is something about which believers shouldn't be fighting. That is, be sure that the issue is not a preference issue. Ask yourself if your involvement will bring glory to God. Temper this with the realization that some issues will demand that you deal with them immediately. In either case, be sure you are continuing to pray and study.
Fourth, be humble and peaceable. Rember Paul's exhortation from Romans 12:18: If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (ESV) Temper this with the realization that there are errors which we must confront. Be sure you are continuing to pray and study.
Fifth, realize that how you handle yourself will have an impact (Titus 2:7-8). Different people respond differently, but if you are calm and focused the discussion will tend to go a lot smoother. Remember to continue to pray and study.
Sixth, if you are in leadership, recognize that some people must be silenced (Titus 1:11), that some discussions are not worth having (Titus 3:9); and that those who cause division must be dealt with promptly (Titus 3:10-11). Also be sure you are continuing in prayer and study.
None of this is to say that we cannot have discussions about non-essentials. But they should be discussions among people who hold another in higher esteem than we hold ourselves. Nor is it to say that there are not important issues for the health of the church about which we disagree without separating.
The important take away is that we have to be more thoughtful about distinguishing non-essentials from the hills on which we should die. I am not going to die on the hill of whether you should wear a suit (or dress) to church or not. I am going to die on the hill of substitionary atonement (along with 1, 2, 5, 12, 13, 15, 16, and 17; I have strong reservations about some of the others, e.g. 14 - I do plan to teach through John 7:53-8:11 next Sunday in Sunday School, but if someone was convinced it should not be the Bible . . . I'm just not sure yet). What hills will you die on?