The Point and Presumptuousness of Ranking Doctrines
Where does Scripture tell us that only a limited number of its teachings are worth separating over? Answer: Nowhere. You can’t find that anywhere in the Bible. Phil Johnson says it’s just common sense for us to rank doctrines and bemoans the loss of common sense since post-modernism. C. H. Spurgeon came along before post-modernism and perhaps even modernism, so based on Johnson’s standard for common sense, I wonder where Spurgeon’s is, when I read this quote from his 1856 sermon, Zion’s Prosperity:
I believe that we ought not to say that any truth is non-essential; it may be non-essential to salvation, but it is essential for something else. Why! you might as well take one of the jewels out of the Queen’s crown, and say it is non-essential, but she will be Queen all the same! Will anyone dare to tell God that any doctrine is non-essential?
He lacked the “common sense” that Johnson claims in many other sermons he preached as well. Johnson must retreat to the 17th century to find anyone expounding on essentials and non-essentials and really to only two volumes, one of which was Herman Witsius’ Sacred Dissertations on the Apostle’s Creed. Witsius argues that essential doctrines are only those necessary to salvation. One of Witsius’ life goals was reconciliation between the reigning orthodoxy of his time with the new covenant theology. His doctrinal taxonomy would help bridge the gap between those two. We must consider that objective when we read Witsius’ arguments as well as to understand that he’s unpacking the Apostle’s Creed, which on its own is a monumental contraction of doctrine that among the few things that it states as essential, it includes: “I believe in the . . . holy catholic church; the communion of saints. . . .”
The Point of Ranking Doctrines
Witsius revealed his point of ranking doctrines—the holy catholic church and the communion of saints. He believed that all believers made up the true church, the holy catholic one, and that unity was required, the communion of the saints. I agree with total church unity. Paul admonishes the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 12:25 “that there should be no schism in the body.” Of course, two verses later (v. 27) he also calls the Corinthian church the body of Christ.
Scripture doesn’t teach the communion of the saints. 1 Corinthians 10:16 teaches “the communion of the body of Christ,” but the “body of Christ” and “the saints” are two different terms and two different concepts. “Saints” is a soteriological term. It means “saved people” in essence. “Body of Christ” is an ecclesiological term. It is speaking of the church, local only, which is why Paul said to the church at Corinth, excluding himself, in 1 Corinthians 12:27, “Ye are the body of Christ.”
You can clearly see “saints” and “church” are different in 1 Corinthians 14:33, where Paul mentions “all the churches of the saints.” “Saints” and “churches” are differentiated from one another in their usage. The church is an assembly of saints in a particular location, and it is in the church where unity can be found, because a church has the means provided by the Lord Jesus Christ to maintain unity: church discipline, the Lord’s Supper, and the church officers, among other tools not given to all the saints in general. The church, local only, is the “pillar and ground of the truth.” God gave churches the capacity to protect and propagate the truth and nothing more than churches. A church can keep factions out of itself (Titus 3:10-11). It can do that by means of church discipline.
It is no wonder that Phil Johnson says that ranking doctrines is common sense. It’s the only way that he sees that all believers could get along. There’s way too much diversity even on a plain subject like baptism for “the communion of the saints.” Yet, how far do they reduce the doctrines to get down to the essentials? Ironically, almost everyone disagrees on what is essential, so that they even divide over what to divide over.
Even if these evangelicals make the gospel the one non-negotiable, they do not consistently separate over that either. There is a huge divergence in the gospel understanding of Billy Graham and Albert Mohler, but that did not stop them from coming together in a “gospel” endeavor in 2001. Graham preaches universalism. John MacArthur understands very clearly what Graham told Robert Schuller in 1997. But then Mohler and MacArthur are in very close fellowship. Mohler’s doctrinal triage is the means that he wants to bring the Southern Baptist Convention together, he and Graham both being Southern Baptists. As a part of Together for the Gospel, MacArthur and Mohler also both join with the Charismatic C. J. Mahaney. MacArthur has written scathing material against Charismatic doctrine, but that doesn’t keep him from fellowship with Mahaney. In other words, these men who believe that the true church is all believers use ranking doctrines as a means to unify everyone. What we can see by their practice is that they unify whether they believe the same gospel or not. Instead of calling themselves “Together for the Gospel” (T4G), they should label themselves “Together for the sake of Getting Together.”
Johnson and MacArthur and their evangelical guys aren’t the only one who believe this. We also have the fundamentalists as represented by Kevin Bauder and his indifferentism and everythingism teaching, and as exemplified by the 2009 Bible Conference at Bob Jones University. Of course, they’re a lot less diverse than the evangelicals, but the diversity that’s there comes because of a kind of theological triage they also possess. I’m sure that Paisley is a Calvinist. I’m sure that Ollila is not, especially in light of the reported statement that he is a “no-point Calvinist,” that is, “there’s no point in discussing it.” In Paisley and Sexton we have King James Only. Among some of the other speakers are multiple versionists. Sexton markets himself as with Spurgeon in most of his publications, but on the Crown College campus he has a building named after Curtis Hutson, one of the fathers of the modern no-repentance-for-salvation doctrine, and has the image of Jack Hyles hanging in his preachers hall of fame.
Scripture must be consistent because God cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13). God can’t tell us to have no schism in the body on one hand (1 Corinthians 12:25) and then to separate from believers on the other hand (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15) if the body of Christ is all believers. Those two teachings would contradict one another. The unity must be based upon doctrine and found only in the church, which is local only. If churches choose to fellowship, they will do so based upon doctrine and practice. However, we are together for more than just the gospel.
Ranking doctrines was invented for the point of a fake unity that is based upon degrading the teachings of God’s Word. Unity trumps all other doctrines in this scheme. Earlier Baptists were tortured and died over mode and recipient of baptism, but now baptism is a doctrine to overlook in order to get together and to get along. With so much doctrinal disagreement, instead of separating, men unify based upon a lower common denominator, reducing the teachings of the Bible into essentials and non-essentials. It encourages disobedience to Scripture.
The Presumptuousness of Ranking Doctrines
Jesus told the religious leaders that they left the weightier matters of the law undone. He also said that there was a greatest commandment. Paul said that certain doctrines were foundational. From those teachings, one is presumptuous to think that he can choose certain doctrines to deemphasize in order to stay in fellowship with another professing believer. Those verses don’t say anything about that. The ones who do the ranking are guilty of the Pharisaic practice that Jesus confronted in Matthew 15:6:
Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.
Ranking doctrines is tradition. It isn’t taught in the Bible. This tradition, however, has led to the fall of many a man by making the commandment of God of none effect. Sure, they might recognize the commandment of God—so did the Pharisees—but it isn’t necessary to practice, because they’ll suffer no loss of fellowship for disobeying it.
Uzzah presumed on God and touched the ark of the covenant. God killed him. Nadab and Abihu presumed on God in the matter of the recipe for the incense to burn at the altar of incense. They offered strange fire unto the Lord. God killed them. Ananias and Sapphira presumed upon God in holding back certain money they had promised from the sale of their land. God killed them. Adam and Eve presumed about one piece of fruit on one tree in the Garden. They died the day they ate thereof.
In the form of a serpent in the garden of Eden, Satan tempted Adam and Eve to presume upon God. Certain things that God said weren’t essential. They just weren’t as important as other things. Jesus, however, never presumed upon the Father. He always did the will of the Father, who sent Him. And he said that the greatest in His kingdom is the one who does the least of His commandments.