I recently heard about a guy named Simon, who attends an Anglican church, who liked a girl named Jess, who attended a Baptist church. Simon finally plucked up the courage to ask Jess out, but her reaction wasn’t what he expected: “I really like you, but I can’t. Not unless you’re prepared to become a Baptist.”
Simon was taken aback. He really liked Jess and she liked him, but she was too confronted by the idea of dating someone who believed in infant baptism. He suggested they go out to dinner and chat, but Jess refused until she could figure this out.
Moral dilemma ensued. Four months later, Jess has only just agreed to go out to dinner with Simon.
Some details there are changed to protect the guilty, but this is a true story. Apparently, Jess was so convicted of her church’s correct interpretation of theology that dating a non-Baptist seemed sacrilegious. It’s a more hilarious example, but it’s all too real how deep divisions can go between Christians, even ones with very similar beliefs.
Many of us might read in creeds or scriptures about the ‘holy universal Church’ (the idea of Christians past and present being part of a spiritual Church, not just a physical one), but what we see in practice is quite different.
Because we all have the same Bible, Christians end up flabbergasted when we differ in our interpretation. We wonder why others don’t preach the way we do, or hold services that have one type of music instead of another. We prioritise one verse against another to justify our views. We can get particular about the theological implications of how we do communion and why marriages should be complementarian. We don’t understand why anyone would baptise a baby instead of an adult.
The result is that we don’t have just Christians, but Baptists, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Churches of Christ, Pentecostals, Uniting Churches, Salvation Armies and many more. The lines between us may not exactly be battle lines, but they do separate us.
Is this really what the ‘holy universal Church’ is meant to be like?
Truths are triaged
More than ten years ago, Albert Mohler wrote an influential article on how this type of splintering between Christians happens. He called his concept ‘theological triage’, riffing on the idea of ‘triage’ in hospitals – the process where doctors rank patients in the order of medical urgency. Your most urgent case would be (let’s go extreme) a gunshot wound, ranked down in urgency to your broken legs and sprained ankles.
Mohler did similar with theological truths, identifying which ones are the most ‘urgent’, or most critical, for Christians to believe in. This model isn’t supposed to minimise any truths – instead, it’s the idea that some truths are more important than others (just as a heart attack is more serious than a sprained ankle, but both need attention).
The first type of truths were ones that are central tenets of faith – the absolute brass tacks of what Christians believe. This includes things like the resurrection of Jesus, the idea that we’re justified through our faith in Christ, and that doctrine of the Trinity. Jesus himself highlighted two commandments as ‘the most important’: love God and love your neighbour (Matthew chapter 22 verses 36-40).
The second type of truths are issues that Christians disagree on and tend to cause major conflicts. You might have a denominational split over these – like infant baptism, predestination, the place of ‘speaking in tongues’ in Christian life, and ordination of women
Finally, there are the third type of truths – things that Christians disagree on but make very little difference, and you probably disagree with someone across the pew from you. This category can include things like the rapture, types of church music, use of liturgy, and many others.
What I notice is that Christians are terrible at making the second type or third type into the first type. Reflecting on his model, Mohler said:
“If we take first order doctrines and make them third order doctrines–disaster will ensue and we will end up abandoning the faith. If we take third order doctrines and make them first order issues and say ‘People have to believe this to be a Christian,’ then we do violence to the New Testament.”
If two people from different denominations agree on the first type of truths, they are united in the most significant sense.
Why is this important?
This truth triage model is helpful for us to discern where our priorities are. It’s also helpful for reminding us of grace and humility.
Church divisions can be necessary – it’s tricky to run a church service with people bickering over whether a woman should be in the pulpit or not. On the other hand, just because we may follow different traditions, that doesn’t mean we’re no longer part of the same Church family, with the same central beliefs.
We can use ‘first type, second type, third type’ as a shorthand for getting perspective on where our disagreement might land. We may be passionate about a topic, and rightly so – many important reforms can be made by disagreement. But recognising the essentials is a helpful reminder to show grace and to avoid suspicion, unlike the church in Romans who were holding each other in contempt for different eating habits (Romans chapter 14).
Truth triage also reminds us to be humble. We could be wrong! Just because God is the ultimate authority doesn’t mean we understand all the answers; we may have his Word and do our best to understand it, but we also see as in a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians chapter 13 verse 12). Even if we continue to disagree, we can learn from each other.
I really hope that Simon and Jess can figure things out. I also hope that the Church can get better at seeing what unites us, instead of what divides us. I hope we can build bridges and get over the denominational in-clubs that we’ve created for ourselves, because ultimately what unites us has great value. If we’re building walls, we’re not conversing and learning from each other.
A quote attributed to Augustine really sums it up: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” This sounds a lot more like a grace-filled holy universal Church that we should aim for.
Cheryl McGrath is a communications and editing professional at the Christian mission organisation CMS Victoria. She is interested in theology and new ideas, and lives in Melbourne.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html