Triage. It is not a word that we often associate with church life, or if we do, the connotation is probably not positive. However, I think the word has great potential for helping us understand and promote unity in the church—local and universal.
In its original context, triage “means the process of sorting victims to determine medical priority in order to increase the number of survivors.” While the term is usually placed on the battlefield or in the wake of a natural disaster, it also has an important application in the church for knowing how to rightly hold the doctrines we believe.
Applied to biblical doctrines, the term has been labeled “theological triage,” and it basically indicates that we should sort out three different kinds of biblical belief—(1) those that separate Christians from non-Christians, (2) those that separate different churches and denominations, and (3) those that individuals may disagree about but which are overcome by greater unity on more primary matters.
This month, I will consider the first level, and in the following two months I will follow up with the second and third levels to help us think about our relationship with other faiths, other churches, and one another.
So, the first level of theological triage separates Christian beliefs from non-Christians beliefs. This is what separates churches from cults, and it usually relates to the orthodox Christian beliefs established in the first five centuries of the church. They include the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the deity of the Holy Spirit. These beliefs are fundamental to the faith, and they are consistently denied by groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Unitarian Universalists. These doctrines also separate us from Islam, Eastern religions, and New Age spiritism.
At this level, we should also include the belief that the Bible is inspired by God, inerrant in its original autographs, and authoritative for faith and practice. Likewise, orthodox Christianity believes that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent and that as Creator he is sovereign judge of the universe. At this level, we would also include a belief in heaven and hell. All together, these are the truths that define mere Christianity, and failure to affirm these doctrines results in a denial of the faith.
To say it another way, our basic stance at this level is not unity with other religions, but separation. It means discerning and distinguishing truth from error. At this first level, Christianity competes with the idols and ideologies of the age, and says that God is one and that Jesus alone is the Way to the Father. This is the posture Jude took as he encouraged his readers “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3).
As with nearly all the New Testament letters, false doctrine threatened to undo the gospel, and so the apostles wrote strongly against teachers who added works to grace (Galatians), who questioned the humanity of Christ (1 John), and who denied the resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor 15). These are truths worth defending, and when individuals or groups deny these basic beliefs, we are called to stand for the truth and to call these false teachers to repent.
Yet, there is another side to this story, such a push for defending the faith can sometimes provoke well-meaning Christians to mishandle their views and overstate their case. Here is the problem: Sometimes Christians assert first-level zeal for second or third-level issues. For instance, some charismatics have denied salvation to a brother because that man has not spoken in tongues. Or, some fundamentalists have questioned the faithfulness of a brother because he did not use the King James. Essentially, they have applied first-level separation to third-level matters. The action is usually well-intended but the separation is unnecessary.
Defending the faith is right, but it is important to know at what level the disagreement lies. So, it always is right to be slow to speak, quick to listen, and to engage all discussions with gentleness and respect. This is how Paul instructed Timothy, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:24-25).
Tying all this together, we learn that the way we hold our doctrine is as important as the doctrine that we hold. While God’s word instructs us to watch our life and doctrine carefully (1 Tim 4:16), it is helpful to think wisely about which doctrine we are holding, and to realize that some doctrines are more central than others. This does not minimize truth at lower levels, but it does remind us that we first and foremost stand united around God, Christ, his word, and the eternal realities of heaven and hell. As we distinguish these different levels of doctrine, we are better equipped to discuss differences with people and to share the gospel.
May God grant us wisdom to rightly divide his word, and passion to tell the Good News of Jesus Christ to all who will listen.
For His Glory and Your Joy,
[For more on this subject, see Albert Mohler's helpful article, "A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity" that originated the term "theological triage."]