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Ranking Doctrines

February 4, 2009

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?

Among well-known evangelicals, Phil Johnson has written much about this (here, here, here, here, and here).  His boss, John MacArthur, has covered it as well (here, here, and  here)

Kevin Bauder is a fundamentalist who has talked about this topic (here and here), except he divides the categories with the terms “indifferentism” and “everythingism.”

Evangelical M. James Sawyer  sorts through this subject and calls it doctrinal taxonomy.  He begins discussing it on p. 165 of his book, A Survivor’s Guide to Theology.

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).

Albert Mohler, an evangelical Southern Baptist, president of a SBC seminary, is often referenced here (and here) for his “theological triage” concept.  Here Kevin Bauder comments on Mohler’s triage.

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.”

Brent Barnett at Relevant Bible Teaching is death on ranking doctrines.  Jack Hughes doesn’t like it either.

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.

  1. February 4, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    “In Biblical issues, unity. In non-Biblical issues, liberty. In all things, love.”

  2. February 5, 2009 at 6:51 am

    I appreciated the article Brother Brandenburg.

    I have written on this at various levels a number of times in the past.

    You can read these articles at the links below (PDF):

    Dealing with the issue of Barthian Inspiration & what I call “Jot & Tittle Fundamentalism”

    Dealing with the issue of the Hegelian Dialectic & Theological Centrism

    This is really theological Utilitarianism seeking for a false unity where there really is no unity and allowing for an ever increasing theological diversity while still being allowed to call one’s self a “fundamentalist” (whatever that means any more).

    Utilitarianism:The ethical theory proposed by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill that all action should be directed toward achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

  3. February 5, 2009 at 9:54 am

    Bro. Ketchum,

    Thanks for the links. I will be interested in reading what you have to write there. I’m glad we’re on the same page on this. Thanks!!

    Bro. Jack,

    I agree, a good way of saying that particular phrase.

  4. February 5, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    The issue of Barthian Inspiration, that is the “doorway” to both Neo-orthodoxy and Neo-ebangelicalism, is critical here. Therefore, professing Fundamentalists who use these terms (major & minor Doctrines; essentials & non-essentials) have ALREADY moved into some degree of either Neo-orthodoxy or Neo-evangelicalism. They will not love us for saying that, but I believe it is true.

  5. Anvil
    February 5, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    So from what you write in this article, you must consider differences in areas like close/closed communion or betrothal to be non-biblical (hence an area of liberty) vs. doctrinal, as you obviously do have unity/fellowship with those who differ with you on these and other positions (as noted by your disagreement with men here on those issues).

    If you see every teaching as doctrinal, and hence a difference with that teaching resulting in separation, then to be perfectly consistent, you could not fellowship with anyone if a disagreement is expressed that is not followed by complete agreement between you and the other party. Separation would be the inevitable result. In other words, you couldn’t fellowship with a leader of any other church, because there will always be a disagreement in one area or another. If you can fellowship in spite of a disagreement on a biblical teaching, then you are in fact “ranking doctrine” the same way as those you point out as doing so in this article.

    This would apply even inside a local church. I agree that how one sees the church (local-only vs. local/universal) will affect how one sees and interprets the passages on unity. The problem, though, is that even inside a local church, if people are reading and studying their Bibles on their own, rather than just listening to and agreeing with what is handed down from the one teaching or preaching, there will be difference and disagreement on some teaching. If there appears to be perfect unity in a church, one of two things is happening — 1. people are remaining silent rather than expressing any disagreement, or 2. they are believing what is taught rather than measuring every word by the Word itself. (By the very fact that all men are sinners, it is obvious that even with a godly, spirit-filled preacher, what he preaches will not be 100% equivalent to scripture. It should be obvious that since the closure of the canon, no preaching is inspired as scripture is.) Don’t get me wrong, I believe that submission to what is preached can be a good thing, but it is not at all equivalent to agreement in the heart, and it is only apparent unity if there is not agreement beneath the surface.

    It’s easy to see that you believe that fundamentalism is allowing too much difference in the name of unity. If, however, there can be no disagreements on any teaching for unity to occur, then it is hard (if not impossible) to see that unity on that basis could ever exist until all Christians are sinless, which will not happen until death or Christ’s return.

  6. February 5, 2009 at 3:08 pm


    Kent can answer this his own way. But, I haven’t typed a comment in quite some time, and I’m itchin’ to get back.

    Some thoughts on what you said…

    1) You said, “If you see every teaching as doctrinal, and hence a difference with that teaching resulting in separation, then to be perfectly consistent, you could not fellowship with anyone… (and etc.)” But I think that you are missing the point. Since your examples of disagreement involve me, I’ll say that neither one of us ever in the course of our debating said that these were “secondary” or “tertiariy” issues, or that they didn’t matter. In fact, judging by the rigor of our debates, we treated them as if they were essentials.

    2) In previous discussions of this issue, the standard that has been established is that our approach to separation should be as follows: first, define the Biblical position; and secondly, define the line at which separation must occur. In other words, the Bible defines when it is a separating issue, not our feelings about the “importance” or “unimportance” or “degree” of the doctrine.

    3) There is a difference to be made between agreement about a doctrine and the importance of a doctrine. As I understand it, Kent is arguing that we can’t rank doctrines. He is not arguing for 100% agreement.

    4) I’m not sure what fundamentalism is allowing, because I have never seen a board of regulators for what is allowed in fundamentalism. But my recent experiences with the Sword apologists does show that many are placing unity above doctrinal purity. And whenever that happens, doctrine will be watered down.

    5) Can there be unity in the face of disagreement? I think that you believe so. I certainly do. Inasmuch as two brothers in Christ can have unity outside of a local church setting, I think that Kent and I have unity. Tension within that unity, but unity nonetheless. How is that so? “In Biblical issues, unity. In non-Biblical issues, liberty. In all things, love.”

  7. February 5, 2009 at 5:43 pm


    I don’t mind you calling me on this. It is one of the most difficult subjects, but the answer isn’t dividing everything south of the gospels or the five fundamentals as non-essential. Look at what Lance has written about it too. He shows some historical basis for this new emphasis. It wasn’t something that was taught by evangelicals that I can find between the 17th and 19th century and there is a recent explosion of this teaching.

    Unity is found in the church. Regarding separation then, our church chooses the basis for it. When we talked about separation, we brought this up. Rom 16:17-18 talks about separating those who will cause a problem (“divisions and offenses”) in the area. It doesn’t say separate from those who believe something different. We don’t divide issues into non-essentials and essentials for the basis of separation. Every doctrine is important and every doctrine is potentially worth separating over based upon the terms of Romans 16:17-18.

    We have this topic the whole month, so we’ll cover more basis than this. Thanks though.

  8. February 10, 2009 at 5:11 am

    This is definitely a sticky issue for the universal church crowd. Church discipline and doctrinal purity are much harder to apply in the context of a universal church. It’s easier to come up with a list of five doctrinal points than to apply broad doctrinal separation in an ethereal conglomerate of unrelated people.

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