Let’s Get Our Theological Priorities Straight

Get your priorities straight. This is true in the realm of Christian doctrine, just as it is anywhere else in life. Doctrinal prioritization has a strong pedigree. Jesus himself placed priority on the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). The apostle Paul placed priority on the gospel proclamation of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection—the message he considered to be “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3). And so all theologians must prioritize. Certain doctrines have greater significance than others for the whole of Christian theology. The deity of Christ is more consequential for the Christian faith than the timing of the millennium. The latter is still important, but it is not “of first importance,” to borrow the apostle’s phrase.

But how do we get our doctrinal priorities straight? How do we know when to place special priority on a particular doctrine and when to avoid overstating the significance of another? Several years ago Albert Mohler proposed a helpful typology for sorting our doctrinal priorities. His “theological triage” suggests three levels of Christian doctrine we ought to distinguish. First-level issues are essential to the Christian faith—issues that separate Christians from non-Christians—such as the Trinity or the deity of Christ. Second-level issues may not define the Christian faith but have such significance for the organization and function of the church that they still separate Christians into distinct churches and denominations. The mode of baptism and the ordination of women might fall into this second category. Finally, Christians may disagree over third-level issues and yet still work peaceably with one another even in the same churches and denominations. Millennial debates would fall into this third level. Mohler’s theological triage helpfully provides the categories necessary for maintaining charitable relationships with like-minded believers (say, fellow evangelicals) without diminishing the importance of denominational distinctives, such as baptism or church polity.

Derivative Significance

In a different context, Jesuit theologian Edward T. Oakes has suggested another helpful way that we might go about the business of doctrinal prioritization. Speaking of the distinctions within Roman Catholic dogma, Oakes writes,

The church has long recognized that she speaks with different levels of authority and addresses issues of greater and lesser moment. Indeed the very truths she seeks both to propound and to defend are themselves arranged according to a certain hierarchy, with some doctrines of greater significance (among which would of course include Christology) and others not so much of lesser significance but ones that gain their force, so to speak, by their relation to the truths of greater moment. Of course, truths that are implications of “higher truths” are not less true; rather, they gain their truth-value from their relation (as implications) to more fundamental doctrines.

One need not embrace Oakes’s understanding of the Roman Catholic Magisterium in order to appreciate his point. Doctrinal truths of “greater moment” are integral—that is, non-derivative. Or, to switch from a mathematical to an artistic metaphor, certain doctrines are primary colors in the theological palette. Doctrines of “lesser moment” are not “less true” but derive their significance from their relation to the primary doctrines.

Cooperation with Integrity

This framework might prove useful as we consider how to engage in transdenominational ventures (like The Gospel Coalition) without surrendering the integrity of our denominational distinctives. This framework—call it the “derivative framework”—allows us, for instance, to affirm baptism as a gospel issue, without equating baptism with the gospel itself. Both Baptists and paedobaptists connect their understanding of baptism to their understanding of the gospel. Baptists believe their practice of believers’ baptism more faithfully preserves the necessity of regeneration and conversion in the life of every individual, including those reared by Christian parents. Paedobaptists, on the other hand, believe their practice of infant baptism more faithfully communicates God’s gracious initiative in the salvation of his covenant people. Both connect the ordinance to the gospel but from different angles and for different reasons. So both affirm the gospel-significance of baptism without equating it with the gospel itself. The gospel is integral to the Christian faith. Sacramental particulars are derivative—not unimportant, but derivative nonetheless.

We might also apply this derivative framework to issues within our own denominations. For example, Southern Baptist debates over Calvinism need not threaten the denomination’s missional cooperation. Calvinists and non-Calvinists can gladly join forces under the banner of their confessional document—the Baptist Faith and Message 2000—for the purpose of world evangelization. But this cooperation does not make their conflicting soteriological viewpoints unimportant or—and this is the important point—unrelated to the gospel. Calvinists believe that irresistible grace is a gospel issue; in their view, the gospel will have no success among the unreached peoples of the world without God’s effectual call. Likewise, non-Calvinists believe that resistible grace is a gospel issue; in their view, the gospel requires a (libertarianly) free choice of faith and repentance on the part of its hearers. Again, both connect their respective views to the gospel, but hopefully they do so without equating these soteriological particulars with the gospel itself. Oakes’s derivative framework might help them avoid such a misstep.

In the end, we all set priorities, including doctrinal priorities. Learning to distinguish between integral issues and derivative issues would go a long way in helping us to preserve our denominational and ecclesial integrity even as we gladly cooperate in certain ventures with fellow believers who may arrive at different conclusions.

  • Pingback: Let’s Get Our Theological Priorities Straight | Already Not Yet()

  • Chris L

    This is not the first time I have heard this; I also in recent months have used this teaching.

    My concern with the three levels is with the first two. Election and God’s sovereignty could fall into the second level. John Wesley, John Calvin. There is no doubt both men were Christians, but they both preached a different gospel.

    One is man centered with Jesus, the other is the Father, centered on the Son, to redeem man for the glory of God.

    Now if the first level is the core of what a Christian needs to believe to be saved, then yes by all means election is a secondary issue.

    With out trying to write a book, I will leave it at that and await further conversation.

    • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

      I wouldn’t say that Calvin and Wesley preached a “different” gospel. It’s just that one was consistent and the other wasn’t. Wesley didn’t see clearly what derived from the core issues of the gospels: mainly, that we’re saved by grace through what Christ did for us. Frankly, Wesley just wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

      • https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/ Joshua

        ‘Frankly, Wesley just wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.’

        ‘Wesley didn’t see clearly what derived from the core issues of the gospels: mainly, that we’re saved by grace through what Christ did for us.’


        • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

          Yes, seriously. I read an article by Wesley on sanctification and I thought that if that article had been handed into me by a student, I would give it a C if I was feeling charitable. He confuses terms and simply doesn’t think straight.

        • https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/ Joshua

          Haha – alrighty

          • http://www.michaelspotts.org Michael Spotts

            I will not shy to speculate that had Wesley never mounted a pulpit outdoors, and all we had to go by were his writings, he might have passed into relative obscurity. Celebrity and zeal go a long way, especially in the industrialized West which values pragmatism and theatrics. But what do they matter if joined to a man that so patently distorted the hope of the gospel and the glory of Christ?

            • https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/ Joshua


  • http://Www.Marcushoneysett@squarespace.com Marcus Honeysett

    Good. Not comprehensive but a very helpful short article on a major theme. For the way that believers work out our differences in love is a primary issue. To know when to stand firm – and how to do so with grace not enmity – and when to flex – for principled rather than merely expedient reasons – is critical to genuine gospel unity. Often I find those involved in cross-cultural mission, thereby obliged to stick their heads out of thi own silos, have a keener sense of how to do this than those who only discuss within a single constituency with whose assumptions they are already in broad agreement

  • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

    Since the essential issues have already been defined in the history of the church, I don’t see any reason to start over and re-invent the wheel. I’d define the essentials as the truths of the Nicene Creed plus the Reformation Solas. George Whitefield, the great evangelists who worked with Christians of many denominations, noted that “imputation” is essential; I’d think it is implied under Soli Christi.

  • Pingback: Let’s Get Our Theological Priorities Straight « Savouring the Gospel()

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    I appreciate the distinction between strictly theological significance and… I guess “organizational” significance (such as ordination of women, baptism, etc)? I think many people overlook the organizational differences and try to treat them as irrelevant or inconsequential, and then they wonder why they get such a heated response from people who believe they’re actually very important indeed. You’re right, however, in putting them in a position of secondary importance.

    The trick, as always, is knowing what is essential and what is not. In this age, the pressure is to dilute the essentials and broaden them, with the net result of achieving unity of doctrine by making doctrine meaningless.

  • Lisa Howard

    Thank you so much for your loving and grace filled approach to a very difficult issue. There has been much divisive and heated debate especially within the SBC of late and it is good to see a clear biblical approach to these issues. I am so thankful for the Gospel Coalition and their approach to gospel unity.

  • Pingback: Let’s Get Our Theological Priorities Straight « CO Rivera.com()

  • Jesse

    In my experience, a lot of unneccesary conflict in church is caused by people who confuse levels 2 & 3. i.e. those who take doctrines that believers can hold different opinions on and turn them into conditions of belonging to a particular church or church group.

    • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

      I don’t think you understand what levels 2 & 3 are about. There are some things, such as the mode of baptism or polity, which are in levels 2 or 3, but which are necessary for agreeing on to work together in the same church. That is, I recognize that someone who “baptizes” babies or has a bishop maybe a true “brother in Christ” and we maybe able to work together in some area but we likely couldn’t be in the same church together because we have to have an agreement on how we’re to do these things.

      • Jesse

        And I would agree with your example. The problem lies in when issues such as should you tithe 10% or give according to what the Lord leads you to or whether Baptism in the Spirit takes place at conversion or is a distinct event after conversion become Level 2. Usually the boundaries between levels 2 & 3 are drawn by those who have power who can’t understand why people get so worked up about issues they think belong in level 3 but then impose certain beliefs at level 2 which are of individual conscience. It also raises the issue of whether you disagree with a Level 2 doctrine, do you stay silent and look as if you agree for the appearance of unity? Does that not force many believers in a church to become hypocrites? If we think through the consequences of imposing certain beliefs as Level 2, we would see that actually many of those beliefs are more often than not Level 3.

  • Pingback: Links I Like | Blogging Theologically | Jesus, Books, Culture, & Theology()

  • Ben Thorp

    Not sure if I’m allowed to quote Mark Driscoll here ;) but he has a similar framework outlined in Vintage Church, albeit with 4 “levels”: to “die” for, to “divide” for, to “debate” for and to “decide” for.

    (See http://pastorpeterko.wordpress.com/2009/05/29/decide-debate-divide-or-die-for/ for the quotes)

  • Dawn Wilson

    Thanks you. I love the study of apologetics, and was wondering where to focus my time this year. Your article gives me some valuable input.

  • Pingback: Let’s Get Our Theological Priorities Straight, by Luke Stamps « Grace, Glory, and Gospel Endeavor()

  • Pingback: Links of the Week « etcinmotion()

  • Pingback: Theology Around the Blogosphere — June Edition « Cheese-Wearing Theology()

  • David

    My goodness! I almost fell off my chair when I read this article just now (yes I know I’m late to the party).

    Luke wrote, “The mode of baptism and the ordination of women might fall into this second category.”

    I never thought I’d see such a thing on TGC – the suggestion that women’s ordination is similar to baptism – a second-tier issue over which Christians can disagree and still have fellowship.

    But I’m sure the power-brokers in TGC feel differently, which makes me very sad.