If there is one thing Protestants are great at, it’s dividing. I mean, we were literally born from division and we only exist as long as division within Christendom remains an unfortunate reality, we should all long for the day when there is nothing left to protest. Clearly, as I remain a committed Protestant, I am convinced that there are good reasons that make division necessary, but I believe this impulse can, and unfortunately has, become too deeply ingrained within the evangelical psyche. While there is certainly a counter impulse that follows the late-modern flow of unity at all costs, it is certain that churches have split and fellowships have been broken over trivial matters.
Scripture has no problem calling some doctrines more important than others (I Cor. 15:3-4). As I work in the emergency medical field, I recognize the practical and real need to make necessary judgements as to what needs are more critical than others. Building off the work of others, theologian Gavin Ortlund sets out to apply this medical practice to theology in his book: Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage. In emergency care we utilize four categories to determine which patient’s will get priority care when we are short on resources, those are: Minor, Delayed, Immediate, and Deceased. Obviously, while recognizing the needs of minor or delayed patients, it is the immediate that gets the heart of our focus, and rightly so. Ortlund similarly arranges a set of triage categories for doctrines as he states:
- 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.1
Simply put, there are some doctrines that separate Christians from non-Christians or cults, and there are others that require more thought and nuance to consider thier implications and the potential for needed division. Although Ortlund argues against both sides, doctrinal minimalism and sectarianism, I want to take a closer look at certain aspects that might lead to unnecessary, and indeed, potentially sinful, division within the Church.
Christians must realize that, “Unnecessary division is often a heart issue… Much doctrinal separatism stems from finding our identity in our theological distinctives when we should be finding it in the gospel.”2 Although we can be quick to justify our actions that lead us to divide as simply “defending the faith” or “fearing no one but God alone,” we ought to be more skeptical of our virtue. What is really driving our urge to declare someone outside the bounds of Christian fellowship? What Ortlund draws our attention to is the fact that often we love our favorite doctrines more than the gospel. Not all issues within the Church are “gospel issues,” despite the very creative efforts of many to affirm their pet-peeve beliefs as such. First and second level doctrines will require division due to necessity and practicality. Yet, if our identity as Christians becomes more entangled with our particular views on the millennium or the age of the earth (to use Ortlund’s examples), then we are ripe to be the cause of a sinful division within Christ’s kingdom.
Yes, I believe, along with Gavin, that dividing the Church over differing, yet still broadly orthodox, positions on these and like matters is sinful. Indeed, ”Some Christians are eager to defend sound doctrine. Well and good. But is the unity of the body of Christ one of those doctrines we jealously guard?”3 If we are ever about to remove a Christian from our fellowship boundaries (and there is a time for this), then some practical advise would be to pray and mediate on John 17 several times before pulling that itchy trigger finger. Jesus literally prays that believers “may all be one” and “be perfected in unity,” specifically “so that the world may know that You sent Me.” If that doesn’t make our heart ache for unity, we absolutely need to spend more time with Jesus.
It takes wisdom to know where and when to draw lines, and some lines should be more broad than others. For instance, I (a Presbyterian) can fellowship and learn from my Baptist brothers and sisters (like Ortlund), yet it makes no sense, and will only lead to confusion, for us to be in the same local church (for a variety of reasons which Ortlund touches on). Having these triage categories is a very helpful tool for understanding how to divide for the right reasons and what that division is implying. If I divide from a Baptist, it is not to say that they are not faithful Christians. If I divide from a Mormon, it is to say that I do not believe they are true followers of Christ.
Ortlund does not lay out a complete ranking system for various doctrines, but he does offer us a compass to guide our decisions.4 Yet, there is one place where that compass is probably going to go haywire. Doctrines that are deeply personal to us, those we may have unwittingly made a part of our core Christian identity, are very likely to be overinflated by us due to their relationship with us. Whether they are doctrines we converted from or to, or just teachings that we spend more time with, our relationship with them may not allow us to see clearly. As Ortlund says, “It’s easy to exaggerate the importance of a doctrine that has a particular history with you.”5
I know this feeling well, as there is one aspect of Christianity that I have studied far more than others, and that is my particular views on creation. I get very defensive around this doctrine, and in some places that’s fully justified (historical Adam, creation ex-nihilo, etc.), but I know that I don’t always think clearly when someone is disagreeing with me regarding matters of the age of the earth or the potential fluidity of earth’s species through divine intervention. Now, as the Old Earth Creationist, I’m usually the one thought to be smelling like a burnable heretic, but my feelings around this doctrine are touchy even when handled charitably by others, and I know it. I know I have the potential, and probably have, come off too strong on my beliefs with creation and Genesis, it’s something this book was very helpful in reminding of. My identity cannot be focused around my views on creation, but on the gospel, and found in Christ. Gavin, who has also “agonized” over his views on creation, offers wisdom that is desperately needed for all sides on these types of debates that take place within the faith, and even within our own hearts.
Finally, with the wisdom of a much older theologian than he is, Ortlund reminds us of how these kinds of recognitions should function: “Now, it’s easy to admit in principle that you have blind spots. But humility will cause this recognition to make a noticeable difference in your actual interactions with people. It will lead to more clarifying questions, more pursuit of common ground, more appreciation of rival concerns, more delay in arriving at judgments… This encourages us to engage in theological disagreement with careful listening, a willingness to learn, and openness to receiving new information or adjusting our perspective. Pride makes us stagnant; humility makes us nimble.”6
Amen. Finding the Right Hills to Die On cannot be read widely enough, such wisdom is a gift to the far too divided, and heated, body of Christ.
- Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 19
- Ibid. 42
- Ibid. 148
- I believe I picked up this “compass” analogy from Brandon Smith on his review of Ortlund’s book at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/april-web-only/gavin-ortlund-theological-triage-finding-right-hills-die.html
- Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On, 79
- Ibid. 147