We hear two voices in the Christian world today. One voice tells us to be faithful to our doctrine, to our denominational distinctives, to the sound teachings of the Word of God. It is a voice we cannot easily dismiss. God’s Word is given as a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. It steers us toward the path God wants us to walk and away from sin. No Christian should easily sacrifice sound doctrine.
The other voice tells us that God wants us to walk in unity with others in the Body of Christ, even those who do not agree with everything we believe. And that voice should not be ignored either. I have actually heard preachers question the validity of the faith of those who disagree with them about eschatology. Is eschatology important? Yes. But does it rise to the level that those who disagree on the issue should be labeled heretics? I think not.
All of us see the need for what Dr. Mohler calls theological triage. Instinctively, we know that all doctrines are not created equal in importance. Does the doctrine of baptism carry the same import as the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ? Does the deity of Christ matter theologically more than questions about gender roles? I think that we all know instinctively that there are doctrines that matter more than others.
The Heart of the Matter: The “Unity Response”
But some have criticized the theological triage principle for implying that some doctrines just are not important. That is not the purpose of this exercise. I believe that all doctrine is important. The key is not how important doctrine is, but what we need to do when someone disagrees with our position. The key is not the importance of doctrine, but the response to disagreements over that doctrine. Would you put someone out of your church if they advocated that there was salvation found outside of Jesus Christ? I certainly hope so. Would you put them out for believing differently about the second coming? Probably not. We respond differently to disagreements over different doctrines.
The focus of this discussion is not which doctrines matter and which do not. Everything the Bible teaches is important. The question is how we are to respond to those who disagree with us on various doctrines.
As I identify each of the four levels of doctrine I will suggest here, I will also give a corresponding “unity response” for each. If we disagree at level 1, here is the unity response. If we disagree at level 2, here is a different unity response, and so on with levels 3 and 4.
The Proposal: Speaking the Truth in Love
It seems to me that there has to be a middle ground between the harsh condemnation that some theologically astute people display and the extreme ecumenism that has taken hold in so many parts of the Christian world. There has to be a way for someone to love the Word of God without disrupting the unity in the body of Christ. Paul told the Ephesians, in Ephesians 4:15, to “speak the truth in love.” Every word they said was supposed to be governed by these two ideals – truth and love. These ideals are often in conflict – truth can be harsh and love can be blind to truth. The church needs to find a way to speak the truth without sacrificing love – maintaining both pure doctrine and sweet fellowship. We do not have to be “blown about by every wind of doctrine” nor do we have to blow up the church with our divisiveness. We can look to God’s Word to find a template for maintaining sound doctrine and essential oneness in Christ’s body.
The answer is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3. Paul, in this passage, is confronting those who denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. In verse 3, he identified the facts of the gospel (the death and resurrection of Christ) as “of first importance.” If these doctrines are of first importance, does not that imply that there are other doctrines that are of secondary importance? They are important, but not as important as the doctrine of salvation. Is my view of baptism, or the second coming, or of church polity, as important as whether I hold a biblical view of salvation? Of course not. It is by recognizing the different levels of importance that certain doctrines have and responding appropriately to them that we can maintain doctrinal purity without fracturing the unity of the body Christ died for.
Four Levels of Doctrine
In this study, we will picture the Christian world as a community, a place where all true Christians dwell. Each home in that community is a local church. Denominations might be seen as neighborhoods in the larger community. Our goal is to develop a plan by which we can live together in the community of the redeemed in obedience to the Word of our Lord and in fellowship and cooperation with one another. We will use this metaphor to understand each level of truth.
I am proposing that there are four levels of doctrinal truth. Level One is the highest level, Level Four the lowest. As I said above, for each level there is an appropriate “unity response.” If someone disagrees with you at this level, this is how you respond. If we will understand these different levels of truth, properly assign doctrines to each level, then respond appropriately to one another when we disagree at each level, we can balance the competing values of doctrinal soundness and unity of Christ’s body. In subsequent chapters we will look at each of the four levels, starting with the highest, and define the appropriate response at each level.
Brick Wall Doctrine
Around some doctrine, we must erect a brick wall of separation. There are truths that are absolutely essential to the faith we proclaim. We will designate such truth as “Brick Wall” Doctrine. At this first level of truth, we must erect that brick wall to protect the church from doctrines that would undermine and destroy the community of faith. Great damage is done when we compromise on these truths, or when we cooperate with those who advance these truths. These are primarily the truths that are essential to the proclamation of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Around Level 1 truth we must erect a brick wall of separation to protect the church from false doctrine that would destroy it.
If we do not stand on these doctrines, we give away our faith. Some things cannot be compromised.
Picket Fence Doctrine
Some doctrines do not require a brick wall. For them, a friendly picket fence will do. That is Level 2 in this rubric, “Picket Fence” Doctrine. There are some doctrines that do not touch the core of the doctrine of salvation, but do affect the way that we fellowship together as believers. They affect our fellowship so decisively that it is better to worship separately according to our own convictions than to try to hammer out every point of doctrine or to compromise those truths. A picket fence is a friendly divider between neighbors that defines boundaries.
But just because we do not live in the same house does not mean that we can’t be friends. We can be good neighbors and even share some time together, while maintaining our separate homes. It has often been said as a truism that denominations are divisive. I will argue that if we have the right attitude, the opposite is actually true. At Southern Hills Baptist Church, we can worship as we believe is best and proclaim our understanding of truth. Across the street, our friends at the Morningside Assembly of God can follow their convictions. We can maintain fellowship and even partner together on some ministries, but we keep our separate homes. Separate churches and separate denominations allow us to maintain our convictions while also maintaining friendly relationships.
Picket fences do not divide, they simply define.
Dinner Table Doctrine
Has your family ever sat around the dinner table and had an animated discussion. “I liked this movie.” “I didn’t.” You disagree about politics or other preferences. You talk and argue, but the relationship is not affected. Some doctrine is “Dinner Table” doctrine. I believe there are many doctrines that, while important, affect neither the gospel of salvation or the fellowship and functioning of the church. On those doctrines, we discuss, disagree, but continue our fellowship unhindered and uninterrupted. To divide over these issues, to break fellowship or change churches because of disagreements over Dinner Table doctrine is silly. This is what Dr. Mohler labeled as “tertiary” (third-level) truth.
Again, I am not saying that this doctrine is unimportant. I am just saying that we can disagree on this doctrine without building any fence at all. We can live together in the same church family and walk in unity in spite of these kinds of disagreements. We study God’s Word, discuss it, and try to hammer out truth in these areas. But we do not divide.
Personal Space Truth
There are some truths that Paul defines as subject to our personal conscience, what I am calling “Personal Space” truth. Paul gives specific instructions on this in Romans 14 and 15, and in 1 Corinthians 8-10. The church had to make decisions about things like whether to eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. There were other decisions related to the Jewish law, like should Christians observe the Sabbath and what dietary laws should be followed. Paul told us to follow our own conscience on these matters, permit others to do the same and not to attempt to force our brothers and sisters to conform to our views on these matters.
There is a subtle difference here between Dinner Table doctrine and Personal Space truth. This level does not concern doctrine so much as it does specific lifestyle choices. At the Dinner Table doctrine, you are discussing interpretations of scripture. At that level we still seek truth and try to convince others that our view is correct. We just do not separate when we disagree. But at the Personal Space level, we are specifically told by Paul not to attempt to make others conform to our views on these issues. If I choose to observe the Sabbath, fine. I am just not allowed to condemn those that do. If I choose not to observe it, just as fine. I am not allowed to disdain those who have the conviction that they should.
It is amazing how often our fights and disagreements are actually over issues that Paul specifically tells us are issues of personal conscience – Personal Space truth. On these issues, we do not have to agree.
So, we have four levels of truth, each with an appropriate unity response. On Brick Wall doctrine, we stand strong and refuse to compromise, even if it causes division. Some doctrine is worth fighting over. At the Picket Fence level, we maintain our own homes, but we also seek to maintain friendly relationships with others in the community of faith. Some doctrine we just talk about over the Dinner Table and do not separate at all. On other issues, we maintain our own Personal Space and allow others to do the same.
Tearing Down the Castle to Build the Wall
At one of the Southen Baptist Conventions during the height of the Conservative Resurgence, Joel Gregory preached a powerful message. In the midst of that nasty (and I think necessary fight) he gave us a warning that I would like to give today. He told the story that I am about to tell you and that principle stuck with me.
In England, a wealthy man bought an old stone castle. The wall around the estate, made of the same stone as the castle, had fallen into disrepair. He hired men to rebuild the castle walls and told them to use stone identical to that in the castle. He left on a long trip while the men carried out the work. He received a message from them that they were having trouble finding the stone they needed to fix the wall. He sent back word that the wall had to be rebuilt, and they should do whatever they had to do to find the stone and complete the work, regardless of cost or consequence.
Some time later, the man received word that the wall was done, and returned from far away to see the results. As he rode up, he was thrilled to see the wall of the castle fully restored. But when he rode through the gate, his joy turned to horror. To fix the wall, the men had taken stones out of the house. The wall was repaired, but the castle had been destroyed.
I will tell you what the preacher told us that day. Yes, we need a wall of doctrinal protection around the church. But let us not, by our actions or attitudes, tear down the castle to build the wall. We have lived as if there are only two options. Some say the wall does not matter. Who needs a wall of theological protection? Who needs discernment and truth? Others are willing to tear down the castle to build a wall of orthodoxy and doctrinal purity.
Friends, there has to be a better way. We need to repair the wall. We must stand for fundamental truth in an uncompromising way. But we must not tear down the house to build it. Can we not believe that the God who built the house will provide stone so that we can build a wall of protection without tearing down the castle of unity?
That is my prayer.