So this has been written on quite a bit online, but I wanted to present this idea just so people who might not have heard it will have an understanding of importance of theological issues. Dr. Al Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, originally presented this in A Theology for the Church (edited by Dr. Daniel Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC). In the conclusion, he wrote a chapter entitled The Pastor As Theologian where he presented the concept of Theological Triage. Many have heard the term triage in relation to a hospital’s emergency room. This is the process through which they determine the severity of injuries as they enter the ER and assign them accordingly (e.g. gunshots wounds are seen before sprained ankles). This same process can be brought to bear on theological issues. For example, disagreements on the freedom to drink alcohol is not as severe as disagreements on the deity of Christ.
To get a better feeling of what Mohler means by this, I’ve included a short excerpt from page 930-931 of the previously mentioned book:
First-order doctrines are those that are fundamental and essential to the Christian faith. The pastor’s theological instincts should seize upon any compromise on doctrines such as the full deity and humanity of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of atonement, and essentials such as justification by faith alone. Where such doctrines are compromised, the Christian faith falls. When a pastor hears an assertion that Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead is not a necessary doctrine, he must respond with a theological instinct that is based in the fact that such a denial is tantamount to a rejection of the gospel itself.
Second-order doctrines are those that are essential to church life and necessary for the ordering of the local church but that, in themselves, do not define the gospel. That is to say, one may detect an error in a doctrine at this level and still acknowledge that the person in error remains a believing Christian. Nevertheless, such doctrines are directly related to how the church is organized and its ministry is fulfilled. Doctrines found at this level include those most closely related to ecclesiology (the study of the church) and the architecture of theological systems. Calvinists and Arminians may disagree concerning a number of vital and urgently important doctrines – or, at the very least, the best way to understand and express these doctrines. Yet both can acknowledge each other as genuine Christians. At the same time these differences can become so acute that is difficult to function together in the local congregation over such an expansive theological difference.
Third-order doctrines are those that may be the ground for fruitful theological discussion and debate but that do not threaten the fellowship of the local congregation or the denomination. Christians who agree on an entire rage of theological issues and doctrines may disagree over matters related to the timing and sequence of events related to Christ’s return. Yet such ecclesiastical debates, while understood to be deeply important because of their biblical nature and connection to the gospel, do not constitute a ground for separation among believing Christians.
From this explanation, we see that first-order doctrines are issues that define Christianity. Failure to agree on these will place someone outside of orthodox Christianity. While these can be debated, the Bible is quite clear on them as well as their importance to the faith. Second-order doctrines will often define a congregation’s stances. You won’t often see a congregation with some that hold to believer’s baptism and others that hold to infant baptism. Third-order doctrines are things that can be discussed within congregation, like Premillennialism or the longer ending of Mark (I recently discussed this with a fellow believer myself).
Hopefully, this theological triage will be helpful as you encounter different issues in today’s culture. “New” gospels (first-order), Reformed theology (second-order), and alcohol (third-order) are just a few that you may encounter (or already have). Below are some further readings on this if you feel so inclined:
9 Marks Article by Al Mohler:
SBC Voices Article by Ed Goodman:
Provocations and Pantings Article by Timmy Brister:
Southern Seminary Magazine’s Summer 2011 Edition (article on page 16):
(I acquired the included chart from here)