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At Grace Bible Church, we have a statement of faith that all members must affirm. It’s a fine statement of faith (though a little long if you ask me). And it provides a nice summary of basic Christian belief. That said, not all doctrines are created equal. Some doctrines are absolutely essential while others are less important. How, then, should Christians “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) without contending for too much or too little?

In other words, how do we know which doctrines are worth fighting for and which ones are not? To help with these matters, we have adopted what Al Mohler once dubbed a “Theological Triage.”

Theological Triage

The word “triage” comes from a French word which means “to sort.” And if you’ve ever been to an emergency room, you’re familiar with the sorting process that takes place. If someone shows up with the sniffles, they’re most likely put at the back of the line. If someone shows up holding their decapitated leg, they’re put up front.

Doing theological triage follows a similar principle. As Christians, we must think through doctrine and decide which doctrines get sorted to the front (first-order issues) and which ones get pushed to the back (third-order issues).

At every membership class, I explain this concept and teach newcomers which doctrines are essential and which ones we can agree to disagree on. Let’s consider the three categories in turn.

First-Order Doctrines

First-order doctrines are the absolute essential doctrines to the Christian faith. These are doctrines that every true believer should affirm without hesitation. These doctrines include:

  • God is a Trinity
  • God is the creator of all things
  • Jesus Christ is the Son of God
  • Jesus is both God and man
  • Humans are made in God’s image
  • All humans are sinners and they must repent of their sin
  • Jesus died on a cross for our sins and rose again from the dead
  • People are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone
  • The Bible is God’s inspired word
  • Jesus is coming back to judge the living and the dead

You get the idea. These beliefs are so fundamental to the faith that if someone were to deny them, we would say that person belongs to a different faith system altogether.

Second-Order Doctrines

Second-order doctrines are not essential doctrines of the Christian faith, but they are essential for church membership. That is to say, even though people may disagree with us on these issues, we would not call into question their standing with God. We may think they’re wrong and think they should reconsider their views. But we would not question their faith altogether. That said, if people are going to be part of the same church, they need to agree on these second-order issues:

  • The recipients of baptism
  • Women Pastors
  • Revelatory gifts (speaking in tongues or prophecy)

Our statement of faith is clear on the first two points. We baptize believers and believe God has ordained for qualified men to serve as pastors. Our statement of faith doesn’t speak to revelatory gifts in the same way. So one could technically classify it as a third-order doctrine. But I suspect if someone felt strongly about publicly prophesying or speaking in tongues before the church, they would feel compelled to go to a different church where those types of practices were more accepted.

Third-Order Doctrines

Third-order doctrines are not essential to the Christian faith, nor are they essential for church membership. That is to say, church members are free to disagree on these matters. This does not mean, however, that these doctrines are unimportant (we can think of less important beliefs). It does not mean that we should not study the Scriptures to try and make sense of them as best as we can. What it does mean is that we are not going to divide over these issues.

Now sadly, it’s these third-order issues that have led to more church splits than anything else. But at Grace Bible Church, we are committed to remaining unified around the main things while allowing charitable disagreement around the not-so-main things. These third-tier doctrines include:

  • Calvinism vs. Arminianism
  • Age of the Earth
  • Millennial or tribulation views

Our statement of faith does not take a hard stand on any of these issues. Therefore, one does not need to affirm Calvinism or Arminianism in order to be a member in good standing at Grace Bible Church. In fact, our church leadership has disagreements on these matters! The same goes for one’s understanding of the age of the earth and the millennium. Good faithful Christians throughout history have disagreed on these matters which leads us to believe the issues aren’t as clear as the first and second-order doctrines.

What we encourage, then, is for each member to act charitably towards others with whom they disagree. We should never ridicule someone or call their faith into question because they land in a different place on one of these third-tier issues. We can agree to disagree or even study the topic together with the hopes of learning from one another. Let’s remember, though we’re all trying to get it right, none of us are infallible.

Dividing Over Doctrine

Placing doctrines in their proper tiers allows the church “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). It protects the church from contending too much or too little.

Liberals have historically contended for too little. They have tended to press first-tier doctrines down to the third tier. They’ve adopted an “agree to disagree” mentality when it comes to important matters such as Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead! On the flip side, fundamentalists have historically contended for too much. They have pushed third-tier issues up to the first tier and have divided over less-than-critical matters.

Doing theological triage protects us from both of these errors.

Recommended resources related to the topic:

Legislating Morality (mp4 download),  (DVD Set), (MP3 Set), (PowerPoint download), and (PowerPoint CD) by Frank Turek

Legislating Morality: Is it Wise? Is it Legal? Is it Possible? by Frank Turek (Book)


Ryan Leasure holds a Master of Arts from Furman University and a Masters of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Currently, he’s a Doctor of Ministry candidate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Moore, SC.


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