Navigation Menu

Theological Triage

I am currently in an online discussion that is very interesting.  I am thinking about posting the link to the conversation soon, but have not yet decided when.  The discussion I am in is somewhat complicated as there is much background behind this conversation, but what is most interesting to me about it, is how some people can call themselves Christians and yet clearly deny core and basic tenets of the faith.  The “pastor” (and I use that word loosely here) that I am dialoguing with genuinely believes he is a Christian, yet he clearly denies core doctrines of the faith: doctrines such as original sin, substitutionary atonement, repentance and several other core doctrines.  In our discussion, I have tried to get this “pastor” to explain to me what he believes to be the core or non-negotiable doctrines of the faith.  My efforts to get him to answer that question have failed thus far.

As I have continued in this discussion, I was reminded of a helpful chapter I read in Dr. R. Albert Mohler’s book, He is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World.  In chapter 7 of this book, entitled, The Pastor as Theologian: Preaching and Doctrine, he mentions what he calls the “process of theological triage” (p. 109).  Like a triage nurse, who has the duty of evaluating which patients need care first, so he contends that pastors must learn the art of being able to discern the different levels of theological importance.  Some doctrines should not be questioned and some doctrines should be debated in healthy way; some doctrines are worth dividing over and some are not.  In chapter 7 of Dr. Mohler’s book he says that he has identified three distinct orders of doctrines in terms of importance:

(1)   First-order doctrines (or as I like to call them, primary doctrines):
-These are doctrines that are fundamental and essential to the Christian faith.  Examples of these doctrines would be the Trinity, the doctrine of atonement, the doctrine of original sin, justification by faith alone, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, etc.  First-order doctrines are essential to the Gospel and must be believed in order to be genuinely Christian.  Those who reject these doctrines, as the pastor does who I am currently dialoguing with, cannot be classified as truly born again believers.

(2)   Second-order doctrines (secondary doctrines):
-These are doctrines that are essential to church life and necessary for the ordering of the local church, but that, in themselves, they do not define the Gospel.  In other words, disagreement can be had over these type of doctrines, but those on differing sides can still both genuinely be Christians.  As Dr. Mohler says,

  • “Doctrines at this level include those most closely related to ecclesiology and the architecture of theological systems.  Evangelical baptists and paedobaptists, for example, disagree concerning a number of vital and urgently important doctrines – most crucially whether the Bible teaches that the infants of believers should be baptized.  Yet, both can acknowledge each other as genuine Christians, even though these differences have such immediate practical implications that it would make it impossible to function together in a single local congregation” (p. 110).

(3)   Third-order doctrines (tertiary doctrines):
-These are doctrines that can be open for discussion and debate, but do not compromise the Gospel or weaken/threaten the fellowship of the local congregation or denomination.  Examples of this would be matters relating to the sequence and timing of events related to the return of Christ, number and use of spiritual gifts, etc.

What is most important is that we do not allow anything to add to or take from the Gospel!  We must also use great discernment when people, groups or denominations try and make second-order and third-order doctrines first-order!  As Christians, we simply have the great responsibility of being faithful to the Word of God.  We should handle the Word with care and accuracy, and should make it a priority to test everything to the Word.  It is hard to not let personal bias or preference be in the theological driver’s seat; instead we must rise about those things and simply let the Word be the Word!  After all, as Jesus said, “Then you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free!”

Jeremy Freeman

Author: Jeremy Freeman

View more articles by Jeremy Freeman.

Share This Post On
  • Jay Sampson

    Though I have not read Dr. Mohler’s book, I do love the imagery of “Spiritual Triage” as I feel that is one of the great works of pastors and teachers. To discern quickly the spiritual needs of the people and address the most potentially-fatal issues first and to do so with precision and decision. Meanwhile, there are less threatening diseases for which treatment can be less evasive and more addressed in smaller doses – all with the goal of bringing about true health. Thanks for writing.

More in Messenger Insight (256 of 283 articles)


I can't begin to imagine the amount of written content Charles Haddon Spurgeon would have produced in our day. For ...