I was recently reminded of an article Dr. Al Mohler posted almost 9 years ago, entitled “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity” (click here to read in full). In his post, Mohler makes a case for a first, second, and third order classification of Christian doctrine. Just as the medical community uses triage to assess the urgency of a situation they must address, theologians, preachers, and churches can make use of a method to determine what issues matter the most and deal with them accordingly.
A broken arm and a heart attack are two different things, and both need addressing. However, a broken arm is not necessarily life threatening in the way that a heart attack is. Yet, you would not want to let a broken arm go without treatment, despite the fact that it is not the first order of importance.
In a similar manner, the three levels of doctrine proposed by Mohler do not imply that any of those doctrines is unimportant. So, what are those three levels?
1. First-order doctrines “include those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith . . . such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture,” as well Jesus’ virgin birth, perfect life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and future bodily return to earth. These are “the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself.”
2. Second-order doctrines differ from first-order ones “by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominational forms, these boundaries become evident.” Among second-order matters are the meaning and mode of baptism, the structure of church government, and qualifications for leadership (which would define one’s view on whether women can serve as pastors).
3. Third-order doctrines include issues on which believers “may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations” and would include the interpretation and timing of biblical eschatology (end-times) and certain matters of Christian liberty (matters about which the Scriptures do not directly say what is or isn’t permissible for Christians to do).
How Theological Triage Should Shape Pulpit Supply Ministry
I find Mohler’s three-tier categorization of doctrine helpful. He doesn’t argue that any doctrine is unimportant. But he does provide a helpful distinction so we can know which are of the greatest urgency to get right, and as a gauge for what constitutes proper fellowship. If you preach outside the bounds of your local church and denomination, there are several implications for filling the pulpit as a guest preacher. (If you are uncomfortable in settings outside of those where you find agreement on all three levels, this article will have little significance for you.)
As a general rule, we should limit ourselves to explaining and applying first-order doctrines in our preaching. This does not preclude mentioning various interpretations related to second or third-level issues when preaching. But if we deal with these, we should be fair by representing the major diversity of viewpoints briefly, identifying them as important but secondary, and moving on, not seeking to push any of them in this particular setting.
One of the reasons we should limit ourselves to preaching first-order doctrines is that the basic level of fellowship as fellow believers, for many of us, may be the very basis on which we are legitimately invited to that church in the first place. I am not ashamed to reveal that my view on second-order issues includes a belief in congregational church government, credo-baptism (baptism by immersion for believers only) and complementarianism (which understands the Scriptures to only qualify godly men as pastors), and that my third-order views include premillennialism and that I personally abstain from all alcoholic beverages. Yet, I have found myself invited to speak in churches with real believers in our Lord Jesus Christ who have a different type of church government, different understanding of baptism, pastoral ministry, the millennium, or Christian liberty. Frankly, some of these churches are ones I can preach in but could not join as member! Nonetheless, we share a commitment to Scripture and the Gospel of Christ, and there is no lack of preaching to be done as relates to the first-order doctrines, matters of which many in our pews and chairs have a deficient understanding.
There could certainly be exceptions. If a Baptist is supplying in a Baptist church or a Presbyterian in a Presbyterian church, it may be suitable to get more specific on baptism or church government. A church may even invite you to speak on a second-order or third-order doctrine precisely because they want more instruction on the specifics of a particular interpretation. But to go into a church with a different view of a second- or third-order doctrine and seek to change them in one sermon could be seen as uncharitable, unwise, and the waste of a good opportunity to speak of what is most urgent. (And probably a good way to not be invited back.)
This discussion may also raise another question: should I preach in a setting where I know the church is in error on first-level doctrines?
I would say YES – BUT.
Yes, but don’t pretend to agree with a church that denies a first-level doctrine in order to get such an opportunity.
Yes, but in this situation you are positively obligated to speak on first-level doctrines. Whereas you want to generally avoid second- and third-level doctrines in many churches, you never want to avoid first-level doctrines.
Yes, but make clear what is so important about first-level doctrines. And make it clear that you cannot deny these teachings of the Bible and still be a Christian.
Yes, but make it clear that you disagree with them and show them from the Scriptures, not just your opinion, why they are wrong and what is correct.
Yes, but don’t do it with a hatred or malice toward the people. Patiently, clearly instruct, as Paul says to Timothy, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Yes, but don’t expect to be invited back. It may be the only time you have to bear witness to the truth in such a circumstance. And there may even be believers there who have been waiting for someone to tell them the truth.
All this emphasis on first-order doctrines should not discourage us from knowing what we believe about the secondary doctrines. It should not make us shy away from joining a church based on agreement with first- and second-level doctrines. And if you are a pastor, it shouldn’t make you second-guess whether you should preach in your church doctrines that are not first-level.
Theological triage should help us deal with the most urgent issues when we serve as guest preachers, and leave those matters of important, but lesser urgency, to our own churches and the personal conversations we have. After all, why should we try to fix a broken arm if the person needs treatment for a heart attack first?