The following is a guest post by Tyler Recker.
I do not believe that truth is relative. Let me get that out of the way. I believe truth is absolute.
It is a common thing in local churches for people to have their pet theological issue and become firmly and awkwardly convicted that this issue is of primary importance, even if it is over much lesser importance.
This inability to distinguish between primary doctrines (that are worth fighting over) and secondary/tertiary doctrines (which are less worth fighting over) is a source of a lot of division in the church.
Dr. Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary calls this “theological triage” referring to the medical concept of triage whereby those patients with the most life-threatening afflictions are cared for with the greatest urgency, while those with lesser afflictions are cared for at the proper time. Similarly, Mark Driscoll and the Acts 29 Network often speak of open-handed and close-handed issues. In the closed hand are foundational doctrines, which I will fight you over, and which we must agree upon in order to partner together. In the open hand, are doctrines which, though I might be firmly convicted about, are less foundational and therefore I can hold with greater charity for dissenting positions.
Some examples of primary doctrines include:
- the inspiration of Scripture (that God has inspired the Holy Scriptures)
- the penal substitutionary atonement of the Cross (that Jesus died as a penalty for OUR sins in OUR place appeasing the wrath of God)
- simultaneous divinity and humanity of Jesus (that Jesus was both fully God and fully human)
- the trinity (that God is three persons in one: God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit)
This is not an exhaustive list of primary doctrines.
What I am about to say is very uncool and intolerant: I would argue that if you don’t hold to these doctrines then, while you may be very “spiritual” or very “religious”, you are not of the same faith as me. The above doctrines are biblically clear and foundational, and have been agreed upon throughout the history of the Church.
Now, some doctrines are secondary. Among these are those doctrines which large portions of evangelicalism are divided on, but which require some degree of unity for participation in the same local church. Take baptism for example. There are large numbers of theologically conservative, converted, Bible-believing, Spirit-filled believers who hold to infant baptism (also called paedo baptism). However, we are firm in our conviction that Scripture teaches, demonstrates, and prescribes believer’s baptism (baptism after coming to faith in Jesus, also called credo baptism). If we disagree on this issue, you are still my brother, but we will probably have to be members of different local churches.
The doctrines that we hold to be central to our local church is up to the leadership of our church, and so I am not able to speak publicly on that any further, although as a staff member, I could make a solid guess at other doctrines we would hold as secondary.
Thirdly, there are those doctrines which many in the same local church can disagree upon charitably without questioning the reality of another brother or sister’s salvation. These doctrines can (and should) be discussed but there is no reason to divide under such nuanced issues. Chiefly among these issues are the fine points of end times theology. It’s clear that Jesus is coming back, however beyond that I would argue that you can hold to different positions and still be plugged into the same body. Also, I think there is room within one body for both the cessationist (that the sign gifts are no longer active today) and the charismatic (that the sign gifts are still active) position. Likewise, there are a ton of other issues which should be held with gracious charity.
In closing, I must also add that practices, methods, and ways of fleshing out our faith also fit into this grid of primary, secondary, and tertiary. It’s not only orthodoxy (right thinking) but also orthopraxy (right practice) that we must filter through the grid of closed hand/open hand issues.