Get your priorities straight. This is true in the realm of Christian doctrine, just as it is anywhere else in life. Doctrinal prioritization has a strong pedigree. Jesus himself placed priority on the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). The apostle Paul placed priority on the gospel proclamation of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection—the message he considered to be “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3). And so all theologians must prioritize. Certain doctrines have greater significance than others for the whole of Christian theology. The deity of Christ is more consequential for the Christian faith than the timing of the millennium. The latter is still important, but it is not “of first importance,” to borrow the apostle’s phrase.
But how do we get our doctrinal priorities straight? How do we know when to place special priority on a particular doctrine and when to avoid overstating the significance of another? Several years ago Albert Mohler proposed a helpful typology for sorting our doctrinal priorities. His “theological triage” suggests three levels of Christian doctrine we ought to distinguish. First-level issues are essential to the Christian faith—issues that separate Christians from non-Christians—such as the Trinity or the deity of Christ. Second-level issues may not define the Christian faith but have such significance for the organization and function of the church that they still separate Christians into distinct churches and denominations. The mode of baptism and the ordination of women might fall into this second category. Finally, Christians may disagree over third-level issues and yet still work peaceably with one another even in the same churches and denominations. Millennial debates would fall into this third level. Mohler’s theological triage helpfully provides the categories necessary for maintaining charitable relationships with like-minded believers (say, fellow evangelicals) without diminishing the importance of denominational distinctives, such as baptism or church polity.
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