Much has been written about what Al Mohler has called theological triage. I guess that Mohler first used the term in print in a 2005 article at albertmohler.com. At least that’s the earliest reference that my quick Google search turned up. In his article, Mohler identifies what he calls “three different levels of theological urgency.” He argues that there are first-level, second-level, and third-level theological issues.
Mohler defines first-level theological issues as those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith. Examples include doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture. He makes very clear the importance of these first-level theological issues when he writes, “These first-order doctrines represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself.”
Second-level theological issues are those doctrines where believing Christians may disagree, but where the disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. Examples include the meaning and mode of baptism and whether the Bible permits women to serve as pastors. Disagreement on second-level issues impacts fellowship and cooperation within churches and denominations.
Third-order doctrines are those over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations. Eschatology is an example of a third-level theological issue. Christians within a local church or denomination can stand together on the most important issues while realizing that they may not agree on every single doctrinal position.
You need not know the terminology of theological triage to know that there are some doctrinal issues that are absolutely essential, others that are very important to our cooperation together, and still other issues where Christians can disagree and still cooperate together in serious and meaningful ways.
As Southern Baptists, we have an agreed upon statement of faith called the Baptist Faith & Message. It was last updated in 2000 at the tail end of the Conservative Resurgence. Within that statement you will find both first-level and second-level doctrines. There are doctrinal positions outlined within the Baptist Faith and Message that are essential to Christian belief like what we believe about God and the Scriptures. There are also doctrinal positions that are important for church life and partnership together that do not rise to the level of first importance such as the mode of baptism. Third-level issues have been intentionally left out of the BF&M.
I believe the principles behind Mohler’s theological triage can help us in the most recent SBC social media dust up over whether the Bible permits women to preach when the church gathers together on the Lord’s Day. I am intentionally framing the disagreement that way because I believe that words matter, and people matter even more. Much of the way this conversation has taken place in recent days has been demeaning to women. We should be able to have a legitimate discussion about what the Bible says, and do it in a way that honors our sisters in Christ as co-laborers in the gospel even when we come to different interpretations of the relevant Scripture passages.
Let me begin by putting my cards on the table. I agree with the Baptist Faith and Message that the office of pastor is reserved for men. I will go a step further and say that I do not believe the Bible permits churches to have a woman preach when the church gathers together for corporate worship. That includes Mother’s Day. However, I do not believe the Bible prohibits women from speaking or even leading in some ways in corporate worship. At the church I pastor, we have women read Scripture, pray, and lead the congregation in worship through music. On Sunday for Mother’s Day, one of our ladies gave a brief exhortation to the mothers from Proverbs 31. I believe all of those things are well within the boundaries of the biblical teaching regarding gender roles and corporate worship.
With that being said, I am not the least bit concerned that some SBC churches decided to have a woman deliver the Sunday morning sermon this past Sunday. I do not think they should have done it. I wish they would not. But I am happy to allow those churches to order their corporate worship services the way that they see fit according to what they believe the Bible teaches on this subject. Furthermore, I am happy to continue cooperating with such churches for missions and theological education under the big tent of the Baptist Faith and Message.
What I am saying is that while I do think the question of women serving as pastors is a second-level issue that does impact our ability to cooperate together, I do not think the question of whether a woman can deliver the Sunday morning sermon under the authority of the church’s pastors/elders rises to the same level of importance.
Here’s the way I think about it. I am not willing to partner together to plant churches that will have a woman serving as their pastor. This is not because I judge women incapable of pastoring. Rather, I believe the Bible is clear on this issue. I am, however, willing to partner together to plant a church that may, because of its own autonomy, decide to have a woman deliver the Sunday morning sermon one Sunday under the authority of the church’s pastors. I would not agree with their decision to do so, but I do not demand total agreement for partnership. Ultimately, I judge a church’s decision to have a woman preach to be a lesser eccelesiological error than a church’s decision to have a woman serve as a pastor.
I realize that this position puts me just about in the middle of the two sides of this discussion. Some will judge me to be a compromiser who is unwilling to stand up for what the Bible says on this particular subject. Others will judge my view to be more based on tradition than sound biblical exegesis. However, as long as they each will have me, I am eager to cooperate together with both sides within our convention for the advancement of the gospel here in North America and to the ends of the earth. While we have determined in our statement of faith that we are a complementarian convention of churches, we have chosen not to narrowly define complementarianism in a way that would exclude people on either side of this present discussion. It is my hope that we will continue in that direction.