When Should Doctrine Divide?

For various reasons I’ve been thinking lately about how Christians should relate to each other around secondary doctrines. What kinds of partnership and alliance are appropriate among Christians of different denominations, networks, and/or tribes? What kind of feelings and practices should characterize our attitude to those in the body of Christ with whom we have significant theological disagreements? What does it look like to handle with integrity and transparency personal differences of conviction that may arise with your church, boss, or institution?

These kinds of questions have been a significant part of my own denominational and theological journey over the last decade or so, and it is a practical issue that will always be with us, so I thought it might be helpful to share two convictions that have been brewing in me while I’ve struggled my way through it all.

My comments here are not a thorough treatment of this whole issue, and reflect my own context and story somewhat. But my own story may have similarities to others, and so may be useful to share.

At the broadest conceptual level, I see two opposite dangers: doctrinal minimalism and doctrinal separatism.

The Danger of Doctrinal Minimalism

The overall trajectory of our culture seems to tend towards doctrinal minimalism and doctrinal indifferentism (especially in my generation). 400 years ago if you took a different view on baptism, you may have gotten drowned. Today we rightly recoil at that, but we often go to the opposite extreme and say, in effect, “who cares?”

I can’t recall how many times, in discussing secondary doctrines, I have heard people say, “its not a gospel issue; its a secondary issue.” Now, of course, we should distinguish between the gospel and secondary issues—but if we fail to press any further than this basic distinction, this kind of statement can often function to obscure the significance of various secondary issues. I sometimes suspect that what people really mean when they make this distinction is something like: “its a secondary issue; therefore it doesn’t really matter.” Or, when we say, “lets not fight over this issue,” sometimes what we really mean is, “I’ve not studied this enough to know or care why it matters.”

But doctrines can be “non-essential” and yet still very important, and different doctrines have different kinds of importance. I often find it helpful, in my own thinking, to think in terms of three kinds of doctrines, with a subsequent category for issues on which no view is required or forbidden:

  1. primary doctrines
  2. secondary doctrines
  3. tertiary doctrines
  4. adiaphora (“things indifferent”)

Of course, a 4-fold schema like this is somewhat arbitrary, too (you could choose 3 or 5 or 10 instead). But this way of framing issues enables you to recognize a spectrum of importance to various non-gospel doctrines, while simultaneously remaining relatively simple (a 10-fold categorization would be unwieldy).

For instance, most of us would recognize that biblical authority is an important doctrine, without claiming it is a gospel issue in the sense that if you deny it you become a heretic. Thus, if the Trinity is in category 1, and the color of the carpet in the sanctuary is in category 4, having two distinct groupings between these two enables you not to collapse biblical authority and, say, the nature of the rapture into the same category.

There are several reasons why I believe we should not equate “secondary” with “indifferent,” lumping together everything in categories 2-4:

a) A high view of Scripture calls us to treasure all that God has said. Imagine you got a long letter from your long-lost love. You would treasure every word of that letter; there is nothing in it you could shrug at. So also if we hold to the inspiration and perspicuity of Scripture, we should not shrug at any of contents. Even if we do not personally see the immediate consequence of a certain passage, our love for the Lord who breathed it to us, and our reverence for it as His breathed Word, should compel diligent study and effort to understand. All of Scripture—from the obscure ceremonial laws in Leviticus to the strange images of Revelation, from the timing of the 70 weeks in Daniel 9 to the identity of the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2—should be precious food and drink to us.

b) A respect for church history should encourage us to respect what our predecessors fought over. When we visit a memorial or museum devoted to a historical event, we rightly pay respect for the sacrifices others have made. For instance, when we visit the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, we remember how costly some of our current freedoms have been.

So with church history: if we have a respect for the great Christian leaders of the past, from the church fathers all the way up to the modern era, we should listen carefully to why they fought so passionately over certain secondary doctrines. For instance, those who want to downplay Catholic-Protestant differences today may be somewhat jolted out of this mindset by considering the example of Anglican bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, who were willing to be burned at the stake because of their convictions on issues like transubstantiation and the nature of the mass.

c) Many secondary doctrines have a vital relation to the gospel. Some picture it. Some protect it. Some logically flow out of it (or into it). Rare is a doctrine that can be hermetically sealed off from the rest of the Christian faith. Thus, downplaying secondary doctrines sometimes leaves the primary ones blander, quieter, and/or more vulnerable. I have written about this elsewhere, so I will say no more here.

d) All truth shapes how we think and live in subtle but important ways. I don’t believe that my understanding of divine sovereignty, for instance, is a “gospel issue” in all its nuance, and I gladly welcome as my brothers in sisters in Christ those who hold to an Arminian/Wesleyan view. At the same time, my understanding of God’s sovereignty has massive implications for everyday practical Christianity. It affects my prayer life profoundly, for instance. So it is very problematic to shrug off issues like this as “non-essential” and therefore basically insignificant. One could study the dispute between Calvinists and Arminians diligently for 50 years and not waste an instant in so doing.

The Danger of Doctrinal Separatism

There is, however, a danger opposite to doctrinal minimalism. To raise this let me share some of my own story. The last 10 years have been very lonely for me denominationally. I have felt like a denominational nomad. I grew up in the PCA, and am greatly indebted to that wonderful denomination for the formative experience I had in it. But I landed in favor of credobaptism after intensive study on that issue, and thus became non-ordainable in the PCA. Subsequently I came to discover that I was also not an ideal fit in some capital “B” Baptist circles because while I affirm credobaptism, I don’t believe we should require it for church membership or participation in the Lord’s Supper. (I believe church membership and the Lord’s Supper are expressions of unity in the gospel, not expressions of unity in baptism.) Thus I became unacceptable in many Baptist circles as well.

Having effectively isolated myself from 98%+ of Christendom, I then further distanced myself from the majority of remaining Free and non-denominational churches by landing outside of the premillennial camp (I’m amillennial, though I don’t particularly emphasize it). Meanwhile, I resonate with the ethos and liturgy of many more historically oriented worship services—for instance, within some Anglican churches I have visited.

All this has left me rather isolated and out of place. Now, of course, that is my own fault, in a way. But none of these issues were particularly emotional changes for me; its not as though I had any desire to leave, for instance, Presbyterianism. I simply landed somewhere at the intellectual, theological level.

And I believe it is important to be transparent about where our convictions land, even when it leads to missed job or funding opportunities, sad relational partings, or inconvenient transitions. Some people seem to be able to “adjust” their convictions in order to fit into their current or prospective context; but I don’t understand how that doesn’t transgress the 9th commandment. I sympathize with the struggle and pain of it; and I understand the need for tact and carefulness, particularly when one is not fully decided yet. But at the end of the day, we must be honest.

I am grateful to have landed in the CCCC, which is a smaller, conservative group of Congregational churches (Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena and Park Street Church in Boston are probably the two best-known CCCC churches). CCCC has been a good fit for me: they are solidly evangelical but allow for different views on issues like the millennium or creation days or dispensationalism; and I like being being a part of a specific, recognizable, Protestant denomination whose roots can be traced back throughout church history (Harold John Ockenga, Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, Savoy Declaration, etc.).

Looking back at my denominational migration, I recognize some of the partings of ways have been unavoidable. For instance, I can understand why I am not be ordainable in a Presbyterian context, given my position on baptism. But sometimes lines of division are drawn in places that do not seem to me to be necessary.

For instance, as the mounting challenges associated with our secularizing culture rise around us, it seems to me unhelpful to continue to divide from one another in the church over millennial views. Godly Christians can and do disagree on this issue; it is not directly related, so far as I can tell, to much of daily Christian living or church life; and it concerns (primarily) one much-disputed and highly symbolic passage at the end of the Bible. I know there are concerns about the “hermeneutical trajectory” of alternative interpretations of Revelation 20, but why not draw the lines of partnership around those trajectories themselves, rather than their application in this text? Slippery slope arguments are themselves always a bit slippery: you start using them, when do you stop? I feel similarly about the view of church membership and the Lord’s Supper among the so-called “strict Baptists,” but that is probably too big of an issue to tackle here (for a defense of the open view, see Bill Kyne’s helpful article).

So how do we decide when to partner with other Christians? I know this whole area is too complicated to tackle in one post, but here are a couple initial guiding questions that may be helpful to consider:

a) what kind of partnership or unity is in view? There are different kinds of partnership: church membership is not the same as ordination, which is not the same as the speaking at a conference together. It is obviously problematic to expect the same level of theological agreement for these different kinds of partnership/unity in the gospel. And of course there are other expressions of partnership or unity as well—to partner together in social efforts like forming an anti-trafficking organization, I don’t think we need to require any kind of Christian commitment at all.

b) what kind of partnership or unity will most serve to advance the gospel? Of course, answering that question is not easy, and I know “strict Baptists” and “premillennial only” folks believe that their views protect the gospel. But at the very least, lets keep asking this question, and be open to where we may be erring in one direction or the other. At times it feels like some Christians view minimizing doctrine as the only error, so we don’t give sufficient attention to the damage that results from unnecessary separating. Separatism is not in principle inferior to minimalism in either its culpability or consequence, so far as I can see.

c) Even when I must formally divide from other Christians, is the attitude of my heart gracious, humble, and inviting toward them? The dangers associated with doctrinal separatism, in my view, are not first and foremost formal separations, but attitudes of the heart. It is easy for feelings of self-justification to come in with our secondary distinctives. We know this is happening when we feel superior to Christians of other tribes and groups.

Thus, when we must formally separate from other Christians, we should take special care that there is nothing in our hearts of contempt, condescension, or undue suspicion toward them. If they are God’s people, they have his favor and affection, and thus should have ours as well. “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mathew 18:10).

10 Comments

  1. Well said. All this without the charity phrase. Thanks for taking it all to the heart of membership, leadership, communion, and even conference speaking. This was very helpful. Glad you are still with the CCCC.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So thankful for this thoughtful treatment and concluding exhortation. Most of my experience in seminary is spent wrestling with the relationship, and often times the outflow, of those two dangers. Really appreciate the appeal for open honesty and a proper attitude toward God’s people.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This was really good. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Paul Douglass

    The issue of consistent hermeneutics should not be by-passed when addressing this subject. Dispensationalists and amillenialists alike tend to view Biblical interpretation as a consistent and cohesive system. Because you don’t agree with me in every area, I presume you have a deficiency that affects your understanding and approach in other areas. Therefore I view you with suspicion, and limit my cooperation with you, because absolute confidence is lacking. This is the fatal “fly in the ointment” of appeals to Christian unity – the foundation of denominationalism and separation that will never go away.

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  5. […] When Should Doctrine Divide? […]

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  6. […] When Should Doctrine Divide? […]

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  7. wrestling with similar “where do I fit in” questions….will be at the CCCC conference in Pitts to have some much-needed space to ask these questions.

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  8. […] When Should Doctrine Divide? […]

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  9. Very level headed! I too am in a 4C Church, doctrine does divide without question, there seems to be no way around it, at least in the American context. As a paedo-baptist, though in a Church that allows for both views, I do see one or the other view of baptism emphasized, or if not, something worse, the lack of depth that one would get in a Church where a particular view of baptism is taught. I miss some of the reformed Churches(non baptist) depth of teaching, but don’t miss the rigidity that also can be found in them. I have never been to an Anglican Church, but at least from the outside, they don’t divide at the drop of a hat. Maybe that is good, maybe bad, but in view of the many divisions within Protestantism, it seems to be a Church that would draw me in more, for there maybe a greater depth to its history theologically speaking. Maybe it is the reason why so many are returning to mother Rome! Catholicism is a denomination that Christians must divide over, for I grew up Catholic, and have studied it’s teaching, and I find it to be very dangerous to ones spiritual health, and to the health of the body. It is good to have the Catholic Church, just so Christians can see why doctrine does matter, and what happens when a Church teaches a doctrine that is so biblically messed up.

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