Do you know how to diagnose theological controversy, and treat it well? Author Gavin Ortlund helps us to figure this out.
Wearing masks in church? Vaccinations? What about critical race theory? Racism? QAnon? The Election!! I try to be optimistic, but it seems like Christians have had a lot of opportunities to divide over many different issues in 2021, many of them with theological underpinnings (The challenges of trying to do “online church” for over a year has not helped matters). Finding the right hill(s) to die on is not easy. I have my own story to tell about theological controversy, but it goes back a few years.
However, before I jump into that, I need to issue a disclaimer: It is very tempting, in the face of intractable theological disputes (or political disputes among Christians) to either run off into a corner, and cut yourself off from other people, and double-down on your viewpoint. It is also tempting to try to “church hop,” in order to find another expression of Christian faith that suits you better…. only to find that your new church has a lot of the same problems as your old church did, just framed in a different way.
Yet perhaps the most difficult temptation is to become cynical, and simply get disgusted when theological controversy arises, over a matter that you find to be somewhat trivial, over-hyped, or perhaps destructive, or even downright stupid, but that someone else considers to be super-important. Of course, there is the other side to this: someone ELSE might strongly disagree with YOU, because they think the issue is really super-important, and they find it frustrating that you do not seem to understand the gravity of the issue! After all, the same Jesus who loves the whole world is also the same Jesus who threw the money-changers out of the Temple, challenging the complacent! So, maybe you SHOULD be more concerned about the issue being discussed!!
An extreme example of the temptation to become cynical can be found in Abraham Piper’s recent TikTok videos. Abraham Piper is a son of John Piper, one of evangelicalism’s most well-known pastors. At age 19, Abraham was excommunicated from his church, then tried to return later, only eventually to walk away from the faith. In the meantime, Abraham Piper has since become a multi-millionaire making jigsaw puzzles. He also has a TikTok page, with over 900 thousand followers, (compare that to his famous pastor/father, who has a 1 million Twitter followers) where a number of Abraham’s videos flesh out how he has deconstructed his faith on subjects ranging from “Almost nobody believes in a literal hell,” “If you’ve ever quit a religion, did you become something else?”, “If you still live with evangelical parents,” and “Three times Jesus stole stuff from people.”
Provocative stuff, for sure. But pretty sad in the end.
By the grace of God, I have not gone to such major extremes, with any of these temptations, and I certainly would not encourage them in others. When Christians double-down on their beliefs, or church-hop to get away from other Christians who do not see things exactly the same way, or who walk away completely and give into cynicism, the result is usually bitterness and resentment towards others, and that is never healthy. However, I can see how a lack of honest conversation, preventing people from expressing their questions and doubts in a non-confrontational way, can drive people to go to certain extremes. Finding the right hills to die on is not a very easy thing to figure out. Raising questions and doubts can sound scary when theological controversy surfaces, but they need not prompt conversation partners to automatically go into “freak out” mode when controversy arises. I would like to share my own brief story, and offer a positive resource I have found for working through such difficulties.
Why Splits in Churches and/or Other Christian Fellowships Can Be Nerve-Racking
Perhaps this will sound like a rant, but it is a pet peeve of mine: There are certainly times where Christians do need to separate from church bodies and/or other Christian fellowships, when they have lost their way spiritually or morally, drifting into theological error. However, there are other times when Christians can divide over matters that during the time of crisis seemed all-important and ultra-critical. However, looking back on the controversies months or years later, we realize that such controversies were far too overblown, doing more harm than good.
Here is my story: It was the 1980s and I was a campus leader in my small college Christian fellowship group. The charismatic movement swept through my group and I was caught right in the middle. Two of my dearest friends, who both helped to disciple me, took opposing perspectives in the controversy.
One of them, who later married a wonderful gal I had dated in college, had taken me to a charismatic prayer meeting. For a guy like me, growing up in a liberal mainstream Protestant background, I was dumbfounded when people started to speak in tongues all around me. My friend helped to establish me in having a regular “quiet time” with the Lord, using the Dake Annotated Bible, a popular Pentecostal study Bible in those days (Though I must confess I found myself buried more often in reading Finis Jennings Dake’s notes, as opposed to just focusing on the text of Scripture itself… but that is another topic for another time).
My other friend, who helped to answer a lot of my spiritual questions while I did my laundry, was one of the most passionate defenders of biblical inerrancy… a real stickler for clinging to the text of the Bible. He had been kicked out of a charismatic Bible study, for asking too many questions, and was told never to come back. To say that he “disliked” the “charismatic movement” would be an understatement. He firmly believed that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased to operate after the last of the first century apostles had died. Once the New Testament was completed, the church had no more need for such miraculous gifts. In his mind, speaking in tongues in our modern era has continued to be all about promoting deception in the church.
Both of my friends truly sought to love Jesus, but they had a difficult time getting along with one another. Trying to find common ground between my two friends was like trying to get my dog to get along with another neighbor’s dog. It was exceedingly difficult. And the rancor disturbed our whole fellowship group. Most people simply tried to stay on the sidelines, adopting more of a “stick-your-head-in-the-sand” approach, but that did not go over very well either.
After my friends both graduated from my school, the controversy erupted among the followers my two friends left behind. As a campus Christian leader, I was simultaneously accused of “quenching the Spirit” by one party and of “smuggling charismatic deception” into the group, by another party. Weeks of meeting with people who had gotten their perspectives out of joint eventually produced some good fruit, and many relationships were eventually restored. We got through the crisis, but this was not terribly unlike the “pro-mask” versus “anti-mask” parties that have divided churches in the era of the coronavirus pandemic.
I really hated being in the middle of this theological controversy, which was also a controversy of different personalities. Nevertheless, theological controversy is just something that Christians, particularly Protestant evangelicals, simply do and have from time to time. The question is how do we navigate such treacherous waters. Trying to figure out which battles to fight and which battles to lay aside requires gaining a lot of wisdom, a process that I must honestly (and personally) admit can be pretty hard to discern.
Gavin Ortlund’s Helpful Resource for Doing Theological Triage
That is why I took a great interest in Gavin Ortlund’s Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, put out by the Gospel Coalition and Crossway books. It is a pretty short yet powerfully succinct book, that elaborates on Al Mohler’s theological triage model, discussed in a previous Veracity blog post. Another helpful resource in this category is Andy Naselli’s and J.D. Crowley’s book on the Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, also reviewed here on Veracity.
Gavin Ortlund outlines, as I would frame it, basically four orders of theological issues, faced by Christians:
- First rank issues: These would be theological issues that are “essential to the gospel.” For example, if someone denies the authority of Scripture, the divinity of Jesus, or the necessity of believing that Jesus died for our sins, then these would be issues serious enough for a Christian to leave a church and seek a new fellowship.
- Second rank issues: These would be doctrines that are “urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).“
- Third rank issues: These would be doctrines that are “important for Christian doctrine (but not essential to the gospel or necessarily urgent for the church.”
- Fourth rank issues: These would be teachings that are “indifferent (they are theologically unimportant).“
The ranking system that Ortlund uses is reasonable enough. The problem comes in trying to figure out what doctrines fit in which ranking. This is where the “triage” part comes in, where being able to diagnose which issues belong in which category requires some wisdom and forethought.
Starting from the bottom up is easiest for me to process. A good example of a fourth rank issue is about where the Apostle Paul wrote his letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians from. My lead pastor holds the view that Paul wrote these letters while in a prison in Rome. This is the predominant view among many scholars as well. But I disagree with my pastor on this one, as I find the case for Paul having been in an Ephesian jail, when writing these letters, as more convincing. But is this dispute weighty enough for me to leave the church? No, of course not. The average Christian probably might yawn, and say, “Who cares?“, and for the most part, they would be right. The theological ramifications involved are in the category of indifferent.
However, there are other issues that are important, but neither essential to the gospel, nor urgent for the church. Like Gavin Ortlund believes, issues such as the age of the earth, and the timing sequence of events surrounding the Second Coming of Jesus, including the nature of millennium, are surely important, but they are neither essential to the gospel, nor urgent for the church.
It is the second rank category that most troubles me. Yes, there are issues that are “urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).” But I find that the category of urgent is far more elusive and slippery than what counts as essential and non-essential. For example, Gavin Ortlund is a credo-baptist, believing that believer’s baptism for adults should be a doctrinal standard for the church, while generally accepting previous receivers of infant baptism as members in his church; that is, infant baptism is “improper, yet valid.”
Ortlund therefore places the nature of baptism in the category of a second rank issue. It is urgent for the church, and it has an impact on how a local church governs itself.
But as someone in an interdenominational church, who values the diversity of different church backgrounds, I am not convinced that baptism necessarily belongs in that second rank category. As I experienced in my college years, I found it valuable to look for common ground, and cling to that, for the sake of the unity of the fellowship, while honoring that a subset of the group, or particular individuals, might hold to one particular perspective rather strongly. To that end, I find it worth it to try to keep the category of second rank issues as small as possible, and move as many issues as possible down into the third rank category. Ideally, I would hope that the second rank category can be squeezed down to basically nothing….However, that is not always practical.
The issue of baptism, to me, can fit within a third rank category, as long as there is a genuine commitment to find common ground. For example, both proponents of credo-baptism (adult believers baptism) and paedo-baptism (infant baptism) can agree that adults can be baptized. So, it surely makes sense that you can have adult, believer’s baptisms in a Sunday morning worship service.
But it is also reasonable NOT to have infant baptism performed during a Sunday morning worship service, lest you disturb the consciences of those credo-baptists, who do not find paedo-baptism to be legitimate. Instead, if someone wants to have their infant child baptized, then why not have a private, at-home service, or part of a small group experience, as long as a pastor is willing to perform such a baptism?
Such a solution sounds acceptable to me, but this may not satisfy the need for clarity that a pastor like Gavin Ortlund would have for a local congregation. Being content with having a “common-ground” solution, with allowances for practices that fit an individual’s or a small group’s consciences, may not satisfy a local church’s desire for consistent doctrine and practice across the entire church fellowship. There are those for whom a “common-ground” solution would not be good enough, coming across to some as being too restrictive and over-emphasizing conformity, while others would protest that not enough uniformity in church doctrine and practice can lead to other problems in the life of the local church.
The two areas that stick out for me, where this would be most problematic, is in the charismatic movement controversy, as exemplified by the introductory anecdote from my years in college; and in the complementarian/egalitarian controversy, particularly regarding whether or not women should serve as elders in a local church, in terms of governance of the church.
Some local churches do have a commitment to look for “common-ground,” while honoring issues of conscience, whereas other churches will find certain conflicting applications of conscience to be unworkable, in a local church. For example, speaking in tongues in a corporate worship service, in an interdenominational church, is not a workable solution, as that would not be pursuing a “common-ground” approach, though it might be very permissible to allow speaking in tongues in a small group Bible study, in the same church.
The various complexities surrounding the “pro-mask” versus “anti-mask” debates have taught me over the last year that the quest for unity can often be elusive when dealing with “urgent” matters, where the coronavirus controversies do fit within that second-rank category. Compound all of this with seemingly endless controversies regarding critical race theory and racism on the left, and nutty QAnon conspiracy theorizing on the right, have left many churches struggling for maintaining bonds of fellowship and unity. The craziness of 2020 led apologist Natasha Crain to call this “disagreement fatigue,” and I think that is a good way to put it. Finding “common-ground” is not always easily found.
For example, I know of Christians who refuse to wear masks and/or refuse to get vaccinated, based on some moral principle. They will cite their “freedom in Christ” as a reason why they should follow their conscience on this matter. But if someone is in church leadership, and they hold to this position, they also need to realize that their exercise of freedom is not beneficial to those other believers, whom for whatever reason, are unable to take the vaccine. Such vulnerable persons will likely not feel safe to stay in such a church. If the exercise of someone’s “freedom in Christ,” particularly in leadership, causes another fellow believer in Jesus to feel like the only path they can reasonably take is out the exit of the church door, then that tells me that such a church needs to rethink what it means to truly follow one’s conscience. If there is one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has taught me, is that I have a greater appreciation now for why some churches implement theological triage that includes the value of second-rank categories of controversy.
I just wish we did not have to be so distracted by such second-rank category issues, as I believe they keep us from focusing on fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission, to make disciples of all of the nations. But alas, that is just the nature of things, in our social media driven world today.
Gavin Ortlund has a helpful YouTube channel, where he tries put of lot his theological triage philosophy into practice, by in particular inviting Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox persons into conversations, in an attempt to find common ground with his own Protestant evangelical tradition, and the other major historic Christian faith movements. It is worth taking a look at the Truth Unites channel to see how he does it.
In the following video, Gavin Ortlund applies some of the insights from Finding the Right Hills to Die On to the discussion of the millennium, making the case that the millennium is a third-rank doctrine, and not a first or second-rank doctrine. So, I appreciate Gavin’s graciousness towards others, even in areas of disagreement, which is a big reason I consider Finding the Right Hills to Die On to be an excellent resource for working through issues of Christian conscience, within the context of a local church.