If you are in touch with contemporary theology, then you know the emphasis today in theological circles on ranking doctrines. In case you don’t understand, let me explain. Evangelical teachers say that some doctrine and practice is worth separating or fighting over and some is not. They rank certain doctrines as primary or essential and others as secondary or non-essential. Ironically, there’s a lot of conflict among them about which doctrines are important and which ones are not. For instance, is mode of baptism worth separating over?
Who Is Talking About This?
I said that people are talking about it. Who?
Nick Duke, pastor of Campus Church at the The University of Canterbury in Christchurch, NZ, wrote a three part series outlining his thoughts on the ranking of doctrines (beginning here).
The GARBC published a pamphlet written by a pastor, David Nettleton, which was against the dividing of doctrine into essentials and non-essentials.
Miles J. Stanford writes that the separation of doctrine into these types of categories was a characteristic of new evangelicalism: “Concession has been the course of Neo-evangelicalism. Its interdenominational [and nondenominational] approach has caused it to divide the Bible into essentials, and non-essentials.”
Oh, and then me. I finished a series at my blog specifically on this subject (part one, two, three, four, five, and then here) [One young blogger commented]. My position, of course, contrasts with Johnson, MacArthur, Bauder, and Mohler. Kevin Bauder might call me an “everythingist,”or at least a modified everythingist, which he would look at with disrepute.
Overview of the Discussion
One side says that Scripture ranks doctrines according to importance and that this provides a basis for separation. Most of the truth rankers agree that the gospel is the one doctrine over which we are to separate as Christians. Everything else is tertiary or non-essential. A major phrase I’ve heard on this position is: Essentials unity, non-essentials liberty, all things charity. They say that some doctrines are more important than others—those are primary or fundamental—and those are the ones that are worth separating from another person or institution. This is the means by which we maintain unity between believers. In order to get along, we have to reduce the teachings or issues over which we will separate to a manageable number.
My position is that every doctrine in Scripture is essential. We don’t have one example in Scripture of something God said being dispensable. The non-essential doctrines are those that are non-scriptural. Non-biblical issues are not a basis of separation. Anything that God did say in His Word is primary and fundamental. We aren’t taught in the Bible anywhere this essential and non-essential, primary and secondary or tertiary doctrine. We are not given liberty in the Bible to disobey God or to believe differently than what Scripture says.
Phil Johnson gives five scriptural reasons in his online series on this subject, but he admits:
It seems to me that the distinction between primary and secondary doctrines is implicit rather than explicit in Scripture.
He says the teaching is implicit. And yet, it is a major teaching for evangelicals and many fundamentalists. These are the same men who often chafe at dogma arrived from implications. And this is major dogma with them. In my five part series linked above, I cover several of his arguments by implication.
I’ve found in person that the main arguments for the essential/non-essential teaching are experiential. The typical attack is rhetorical, something like this: “So you’re saying that baptism is as important as salvation in Scripture?” Or, “So you think that Jephthah’s daughter and the sons of god in Genesis 6 are as important as the doctrine of justification?” If you say yes to either of these questions, then they say something like: “That’s just crazy!” Or, “You gotta be kiddin me (laughter)!” The indifferentist crosses his arms with smug satisfaction. With those questions, he has just won this debate. If you won’t separate over every teaching of Scripture, then you may as well fellowship with everyone no matter what their beliefs.
Once I started looking into this issue again in preparation for this series, I read some that saw it like I did. Leland M. Haines, albeit a Mennonite, here writes an article that I believe reflects a biblical view. He concludes: “In Biblical issues, unity. In non-Biblical issues, liberty. In all things, love.”
As we look at Scripture, do we see God take the same attitude as us about all of his teachings? Do we take the same attitude when the restaurant missed our special order? “I said no onions on my Whopper!” Our position should reflect the will of God as revealed in His Word. We don’t have liberty to cobble together a new doctrine based upon our struggles to get along with one another.
You will find men discuss this topic in history. Herman Witsius, 17th century Puritan, discusses it from pp. 16-33 in his Sacred Dissertations: On What Is Commonly Called the Apostles Creed. He barely refers to Scripture to make His point, but this issue was being discussed. John MacArthur’s three part series (linked above) essentially uses the outline of Witsius from these pages, except MacArthur attaches verses to what Witsius wrote. This article says that Wesley took some type of this essential/non-essential position. Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, in volume 1 deals with what is fundamental and non-fundamental under his fourteenth question, which is “Are some theological topics fundamental, others not; and how can they be mutually distinguished?” Turretin uses 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 and Philippians 3:15 as his basis and that’s it. You will be hard-pressed to find any kind of ranking of doctrines in those two texts. Tell-tale is Turretin’s opinion of the Lutheran view of doctrinal taxonomy: “the more strict Lutherans who extend fundamentals more widely than is just.” In this we see the peril of taking scripture and reducing it to what we think is important—people who have a longer list of important doctrines than us are considered “too strict.”
Spurgeon, on the other hand, with his vast library and encyclopedic knowledge of theology did not approve of dividing doctrines into essentials and non-essentials. He talked about this on many different occasions and showed a severe dislike for this practice. Alexander Young wrote against this doctrinal division in 1852, James Carlile in 1823, and J. S. Thompson in 1890. In 1887 Thomas Armitage in The History of the Baptists wrote (p. 680): “But their folly is more apparent still when we find them drawing a distinction between essential and non-essential Christian doctrines.” In 1878 The True Covenanter did an article against the division of doctrine as such.
The Bible is historical and I believe that ranking doctrines did start in Bible times. We read about it in Scripture. It began with the unconverted religious leaders of Jesus’ day—the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the scribes. It was normal for them to reduce the commands of God to a number they could keep on their own. They wanted to involve Jesus in this practice when they asked Him in Matthew 22:36, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Like Jesus would do many times, He played along with this little game when He answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” Of course Jesus wasn’t saying that ranking God’s commands was acceptable. He knew that all of the other commandments could be wrapped up into this one. He also recognized that this was one that the religious leaders were violating.
The religious leaders in Israel didn’t have a supernatural religion. In their sinful flesh, they were powerless to keep the many commands that God had given. This weighed upon them a heavy burden. Since they couldn’t keep them all, they chose to minimize them to a manageable number. They even started reducing the number to just the one really important one. That’s what we see happening today with ranking doctrines as well. We choose what we think is important and then we fellowship based on that smaller number of divine instructions based on our own convenience. Then we call it unity.
Why a New Popularity?
Ranking doctrines occurs for two reasons: a perversion of the nature of the church and a misunderstanding of the doctrine of unity. The latter is related to the former. Since men think that the church is all believers, they assume they must unify with all believers based on what the Bible teaches about unity. They have found that there is no way that they can get along with everyone else if every teaching of Scripture is the basis of fellowship. There is too much doctrinal disagreement, so they choose to get along based upon what they call the “essentials.” If someone violates one of the essentials, then they have a reason for separation. Until then, they’ve got to maintain a unity that is based upon a few doctrines or just one.
This practice has been around for years in Roman Catholicism. Men may not have believed Roman Catholic doctrine, but the belief in Catholicism itself trumped all other doctrines. Remaining in the Catholic “Church” was necessary for eternal life. Excommunication from the denomination meant condemnation. Roman Catholicism was held together by a few basic teachings that all Catholics agreed upon in order to stay together and to remain in the church.
I believe the new popularity of ranking doctrines comes mainly as a response to the mainstream culture. We live in a new era of tolerance. Not getting along is not acceptable and those most at fault are the ones with the higher and more plenteous standards. The church has mirrored that trend. It doesn’t look good squabbling over doctrinal differences. The new unifying doctrine is unity itself.
Another factor is the world’s view of success. To be successful you need to be in a large group. It brings credibility and safety. When you are outside of the group, you lose the comfort of social status. God said that it wasn’t good that man was alone. God created us with the desire for relationships. Like anything good that He created, the ruination of the curse twists it into something perverse. You won’t be considered a success unless you have a lot of friends. The new facebook craze is testimony to the seduction of popularity. The only criteria for friendship is the click on one internet link. You’re now friends…because you want to be. Doctrine and practice doesn’t have to mess that up at all. It’s nice to feel wanted.
Monetary factors exist. You can’t sell books without a more universal acceptance. You won’t have the pool of speaking invitations unless those opportunities are kept open. You might not get a job at a parachurch organization that is more broad than what you are. Being narrow is the deal-breaker. If you have your own conference, you won’t have people coming if you are so narrow that few will feel comfortable. The threat of shunning exists. The way to alleviate that is to have very little worthy of ejection from the group. If they come, they’ll help pay for your conference.
If you are dispensational and premillennial like I am, then you believe a one world church is in the future. How is that going to happen? Religious people will forego their doctrines and scruples to get together based on one common belief. I would expect a trend toward that as we get closer to the end. It’s Satanic influence headed toward what we see prophecied in Revelation. Before the all out unity in the tribulation period, the world will be rid of all those that have been causing division—the people that believe and practice the Bible.
But Does Ranking Doctrines Please God?
When you rank doctrines, you are going to let a few teachings go like so many loose tomatoes in the back of a pick-up truck. The God of the Bible doesn’t approve of any disobedience of Him. In essence, God is left out of this discussion. It centers on man. Ironically, ranking doctrines doesn’t love God. God is loved by keeping His commandments, words, and sayings (John 14:15, 21, 23). We have doctrinal and practical light and then doctrinal and practical darkness with no shades of grey in between. If everything that He says is true, then all of it is important. All of it needs to be followed. We don’t have liberty to sin (Romans 6:1). Faith keeps God’s Word and faith pleases Him.