Chris Watson Lee wants to help us talk about our disagreements over ‘secondary issues.’ The nature of the disagreement should affect the way in which we deal with it.
Christians have disagreed with one another since the earliest days of the church (Philippians 1:27); this side of eternity, there are always going to be disagreements and differences. But how should we engage with theological differences? In the words of a Reformed scholastic like Francis Turretin, “we must distinguish” between different kinds of disagreement. The nature of the disagreement will (or at least should) affect the way in which we deal with it. This is not a new insight: you might be familiar with the old maxim, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” It reminds us that before rushing in to debate our disagreements, we must check ourselves – aiming for a humble attitude, dependence on the Lord, and love for others (Ephesians 4:1-16)
We evangelicals often talk about ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ issues; but this dichotomy – helpful in some ways – lacks the nuance with which earlier generations broached the topic. As I thought carefully and theologically about this topic in preparation for my final-year dissertation at theological college, I was led to the following understanding, best represented in the diagram above.
Gospel Integrals need guarding
The central category, which I call ‘gospel integrals’ contains the apostolic gospel summarised in, for instance, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Romans 1:1-5 and Acts 10:36-43: God’s good news message about Jesus Christ, his incarnate Son – the Saviour of God’s people, crucified in the place of sinners and resurrected to reign as Lord of all for all time; a message which calls people to repent of their sin and believe in Christ alone to enjoy eternal life.
This central category can be widened to include doctrines which directly undergird the gospel without technically being part of Paul’s summary: the Triune nature of God and the supreme authority of Scripture immediately suggest themselves. A denial of such things would irrevocably undermine the gospel.
This category of gospel integrals must be guarded (2 Timothy 1:8-14): such gospel integrals are the very basis of true Christian unity. Error here is deadly serious.
Biblical Convictions need growing
Biblical convictions comprise the rest of Scripture’s content and what the Westminster Confession calls its ‘good and necessary consequences.’ While every scriptural detail is equally important, Scripture strongly implies that some truths are more important than others.
Paul described the gospel he preached as of ‘first importance’ (1 Corinthians 15:3); Jesus identified ‘the weightier matters of the law’ (Matthew 23:23). Moreover, while some things are presented in Scripture more simply and frequently, other things the Bible acknowledges are harder to understand (2 Peter 3:16). Not least, therefore, due to our fallenness and finitude, godly, Bible-believing Christians may come to different convictions regarding the meaning of certain Scriptures without directly and immediately undermining the gospel.
In this area believers need to grow together in our love for Christ and others, and in our individual and corporate understanding of God’s word. We have to acknowledge, however, that while some differences of biblical conviction can be held within a church or denomination, others cannot – frequently, decisions and policies in these areas need to be made and respected (these fall on either side of the diagram’s ‘ecclesiological line’).
Principled Freedoms (may) need giving up
Finally principled freedoms are those matters either where Scripture permits freedom or is silent. Within certain limits, God delights to grants Christians great freedom. This freedom, however, should not be enjoyed at the expense of others (see, for instance, 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1). On these matters we must adopt a posture whereby we are willing to give up our freedoms – both our innovations and our traditions – for the good of others and glory of God.
Circumcision is an instructive biblical example of a Christian freedom (1 Corinthians 7:19a) treated in this way. While Paul happily circumcised Timothy for evangelistic reasons (Acts 16:3), he vehemently resisted the circumcising of believers when presented in Galatia as a Christian essential (Galatians 2:3-4; 5:2-6). His opponents in Galatia had made a ‘principled freedom’ into a ‘gospel integral,’ thereby fatally obscuring the latter. Circumcision shows that any one issue can be made to “shift” between the categories I have outlined – so any attempt to produce a watertight list of doctrinal issues under each category would not only be contentious, but prove imprudent, even impossible. Wise, theological discernment will always be required.
Nonetheless, this framework might help us begin to classify the nature of our disagreements – and therefore the appropriate response (guard, grow, give up). Jesus’ bodily resurrection, for instance, would be a gospel integral; complementarianism and paedobaptism biblical convictions; the preacher wearing a tie a principled freedom.
Even these brief examples, however, raise further questions: are complementarianism and paedobaptism (both ‘biblical convictions’) equally significant? A blunt dichotomy of primary/secondary seems to demand it; hopefully the more nuanced, subdivided tripartite system I have suggested allows us to talk about difference in degree even within categories. In the end, as Nick Duke so helpfully wrote on The Briefing website in 2008, ‘we need a graded approach, not a binary division.’ Next, of course, we are posed with the question of how to make judgements about the relative weight (or ‘grade’) of biblical convictions, and even principled freedoms. A few diagnostic questions (which I expand upon in my dissertation) I like to use include: (i) How germane is this issue to the gospel? (ii) How does Scripture weigh it? (iii) How have other Christians weighed it?
Of course, (with Paul in 2 Timothy 2:22-26 and 3:1-9) we must not just distinguish between theological differences but also between the people who hold them. Their love for Christ, submissiveness to Scripture and consistency of thought are all worth pondering as we consider how best to engage (but perhaps more on that anon!).
So, how then should we differ? We need to strive for a discerning approach and a humble, loving attitude as well as precision and wisdom as we distinguish between theological disagreements. To summarise, I might dare to refine the time-honoured maxim:
“In integrals, unity; in convictions, maturity; in freedoms, generosity; in all things, charity.”
Chris Watson Lee is a final-year Diocese of Ely ordinand at Oak Hill College.