All theology is important,
but not all theology is of the same importance.
Words to live by! I’m not sure who originally said them in that exact form. But when I search on the phrase, two of the first three hits on Google are: 1) an excerpt from the classic Mere Christianity by CS Lewis and 3) an article from the Gospel Coalition. It’s not surprising that these would all be bound up together, given my love of all three: this guiding principle for theological study, CS Lewis (my hero!), and the TGC, which is closely linked in my mind with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where I’ve been hanging out these last few years getting an M.Div. But wherever it came from, I’ve been itching to write about it since the earliest days in my seminary career. The time has finally come.
Failure to study theologian with discernment has created more problems than anyone could enumerate. And although correcting that bad trend can’t possibly be in the scope of a single blog post, I want to at least talk about one of the critical ingredients in doing theology well. For lack of a coherent, disciplined, repeatable system for classifying theological topics and discerning their importance and meaning, a great many have ended up defaulting to unhealthy and unhelpful extremes in their views of God. In this post, I hope (summarizing the work of giants who came before me) to describe a better way.
A Tale of Two Theologians
First, the world is full of lazy and lawless theologians, who treat all theology as somewhat unimportant. Typically, this is because they don’t want to do the hard work of thinking through difficult concepts and their implications. Or, it’s because they are desperate to protect a favorite and familiar sin that would be threatened by a serious study of Scripture that might lead to conviction and the call of God to obedience.
This position leads to a church that ceases to be a church, because anyone can wander in and flop down on the couch believing whatever suits their fancy or proclivities. This allows people to subscribe to a “choose your own adventure” kind of religion, that doesn’t take Jesus seriously at all. Tragically, many fool themselves into thinking that somehow they are part of God’s Kingdom even though they do not actually attempt to know God for who He really is or take seriously the need to obey His word (Rom 1:21-25; Jas 2:14-26).
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the legalistic theologian, who attempts to treat all theology as maximally important. Of course, it’s impossible to live like this in a logically-consistent way. So, this person invariably ends up treating as very important the theological concepts they feel they’ve mastered or that make them look superior, and relegate areas in which they struggle to be far less important. In other words, they emphasize their strengths and others’ weaknesses. This lets them — justifiably in their own minds — stand in judgment over everyone around them. This person is invariably ready to do battle about things that Jesus would likely find unimportant (the kind of music on Sunday morning, the way children’s ministry is organized, the color of the new paint in the sanctuary, etc.) while ignoring the things nearest to Jesus’ heart (unity in His church, caring for the poor, sharing the gospel with our neighbors, etc).
This position leads to disunity and the “foolish and useless arguments” against which Paul passionately warns us (2 Tim 2:22-26; Titus 3:1-11). It leads to a church full of Pharisees, who can end up believing they are right on every issue that matters and that the only way others can be real Christians is to come around to their views on their favorite issues. And it results in the fracturing of churches that is absolutely antithetical to the unity to which we have been called (Eph 4:1-6; 1 Cor 12:12-27) and which Jesus desires for His church (John 17:20-23). Oddly enough, this too is a kind of “choose your own adventure” religion.
If we accept the premise that these are ends of a spectrum, and if both these paths end up in the same place of personal-preference-as-ruling-authority, then I think it’s safe to re-affirmed that extremes are unhelpful and unhealthy and we need to forge a middle way.
A System of Dogmatic Rank
In order to do that, we must put some kind of system in place to discern differences between the really important stuff and the concepts and positions which are debatable or even optional. We need a method “to correctly teach the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). To this end, theologians have long preferred a hierarchical categorization scheme that labels issues by their “dogmatic rank.” Though there are many nuanced variations of this system, I subscribe to a very simple three-tiered version, as follows…
Rank 1: Essentials
First, there are issues — such as the identify of Jesus of Nazareth or the nature of the Trinity or the reality of sin — that separate Christians from non-Christians. To believe certain things about these issues either makes you a Christian, or not. If you give someone a test about these things, there’s one right answer and a ton of wrong ones. These are issues of 1st dogmatic rank.
Rank 2: Convictions
Then, there are beliefs which are less important and do not determine whether or not a person belongs to Jesus. These may include one’s approach to baptism, for example, or models of church government, or some of the details around how the Holy Spirit works in our lives, etc. Having agreed that these are not issues that categorically separate Christians from non-Christians, every Christian must decide for herself the relative importance of these issues in her own life. If a Christian develops a strong enough conviction about a given issue, then he might only want to be a part of a church with others who are of like mind.
For example, many disagree on whether or not women have a biblical warrant to serve as pastors or elders in the Church. Some feel they do (a position called “egalitarianism“), and others feel the Scriptures expressly forbid women from serving as pastors and elders (called “complementarianism“). Churches tend to take one or the other of these two positions, and those of like mind gather in one church or the other. One who feels that disagreement on such an issue is important enough to divide fellowship in this way has determined that issue to be of 2nd dogmatic rank in her own theological matrix.
Remember those who disagree here are all still saved, all still love the Lord, and are all still family (brothers and sisters in Christ). But there is a separation between them.
Rank 3: Preferences
If it doesn’t define what it means to be a Christian and it’s not important enough to break fellowship over, then the issue is 3rd rank. This is the “everything else” category. These are personal preferences on which we may disagree, but we still go to church together and do ministry side-by-side. We just see something differently … and are totally okay with that. Some, picking up on Paul’s language in Romans 14:1, call these lesser issues “disputable matters.” I like this term.
So, in summary:
- Essentials: You must believe this to be a Christian (e.g. Jesus is fully God and fully man and the only way to the Father). These differences separate Christians from non-Christians.
- Convictions: We’re both Christians, but this issue is so important to me that I’m only willing attend a church where we all agree on it. These differences separate us within the body of Christ.
- Preferences: We’re both Christians and we might disagree, but we get along great, enjoy fellowship together and serve the Lord side-by-side. These differences don’t really separate us.
So, now we can categorize ideas; so what?!
From my perspective, there is a defined set of 1st rank issues on which all Christians, by definition, must agree in order to in fact be Christ-followers. These are defined by the proper interpretation of Scripture and summarized well in the historic creeds of the Church (e.g. the Nicene Creed or 1 Cor 15:3-8). I also think the EFCA statement of faith does a particularly good job focusing on issues of first importance.
Beyond these essentials, I content that the children of God should strive to identify as few issues to be “rank 2” as possible. If it’s not an essential, then the mature, gracious, unity-minded Christ-follower should endeavor to relegate as many issues as possible to the status of personal preferences … which do not divide churches, cause arguments, or birth new denominations. In my opinion, Christians should be able to amicably disagree on a ton of lesser issues while remaining united on as many fronts as possible.
This is not to say that convictions are somehow bad or unimportant. In fact, they’re vital. And there are times when division is necessary. Every Christian should know what they believe and why and on which hills they’re prepared to take a stand. But we live in a culture that has elevated personal preference to godhood, and therefore either tries to ignore theology all together (the lazy and lawless theologian) or makes everything but the brand of the kitchen sink a matter of deep, intractable conviction (the legalistic theologian). Too many Americans live our lives like we configure our Facebook profiles: demanding that every interaction, news feed, political view, friend group, etc meet an increasingly-exacting definition of “right for me.” Despite all the talk about “tolerance,” many seem anything but tolerant with those who don’t share their perspectives. We seem to have lost our ability, as a society, to disagree respectfully, let alone lovingly. Many of us seem to prefer to scream at each other on social media. This is fundamentally antithetical to the mature Christian life, which should value love and unity and self-denial and cross bearing over rights, preferences and comfort (see Mark 8:34, 1 Cor 6:1-11 and 1 Pet 2:21-25 just to get started). Christians must espouse and live out counter-cultural lives with regard to these things, if we intend to honor Christ with our theological convictions.
It doesn’t help you grow to surround yourself only with people exactly like you or listen only to those who reenforce your pre-existing opinions.
It doesn’t reflect Christian maturity to demand that everyone in your church see every theological issue the same way you do.
On the essentials, yes, be exacting. Demand clarity and consensus. Accept no compromise or substitutes. But on everything else, let’s work harder — against the tide of our culture — to develop habits of compassion, empathy and love. Who knows, we might even learn something from one another.
How do I discern which issues are essentials?
It takes a lot of humility and grace to lay down our pet issues and agree to disagree on the non-essentials as friends and ministry partners. But we also can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We need a way to identify the essentials on which we will not compromise, so that we don’t end up making too many things a matter of considered (or not) opinion.
It won’t surprise you that I have a few suggestions.
Study the Scriptures
First, read How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, and then apply the timeless principles it teaches to study the daylights out of the Scriptures. Learn what it really says. Become an expert at biblical interpretation. You don’t need a fancy degree; you need time and intentionality — and there’s nothing more important to give time and intentionality to than the study of the word of God.
Adopt a Formal Method of Discernment
Second, develop a plan. Use the same approach or method every time you try to answer the “What dogmatic rank should I assign to this topic?” question. I commend to you the EFCA’s six principles / questions for evaluating theological significance. You don’t have to use them, but you need to use something. And they’re really good. Perhaps at least take this a starting point.
Consider, concerning any given issue, its…
- Relevance to our understanding of the nature and character of God: To what extent does this doctrine or practice reveal the person and nature of God?
- Connection to the gospel and the overarching narrative of the Bible: How directly is this doctrine or practice connected to the gospel and to the storyline of the whole Bible?
- Exegetical clarity: To what extent does Scripture unambiguously affirm this doctrine or practice?
- Biblical prominence: How prominent is this doctrine or practice in Scripture?
- Historical consensus: How widespread is the consensus on this doctrine or practice in the Church of both the past and present?
- Application to the church and the believer: How relevant is this doctrine or practice to us today?
Put Accountability Structures in Place
Lastly, I recommend a simple three-prong model for discernment in general that I think every Christian should use to hear and understand God’s voice well. It focuses on accountability, attempting to minimize “hearing from God” by any one means in isolation.
What we learn in God’s word we test in prayer and with the people of God throughout history to make sure that we are interpreting it rightly. What we hear from God’s people, we test by God’s word and in prayer. And what we hear in prayer, we test by God’s word and with God’s people . And over all this, we trust the Spirit to reveal and illuminate truth to us, to be our Teacher and our Guide (John 14:26).
I hope this was a helpful (if perhaps long-winded) excursion into the principle of dogmatic rank.
A.W. Tozer said that what we think about God is the most important thing about us. Don’t be lazy or lawless or legalistic when you think about God. Major on the majors. Focus on what’s essential, and learn to love radically in the face of everything that isn’t. In this way, we obey Jesus and glorify Him.
 Relying on God’s people means three things that every Christian should rush to do:
- Join a church that is deeply committed Biblical authority and taking Jesus seriously
- Get in a small group where you are transparent and speak truth in love to each other
- Read dead guys, who loved the Lord in their day and can speak into your life