How do I know when a doctrinal issue is important enough to break fellowship?

Al Mohler has helpfully encouraged us all to consider theological triage. Mohler distinguishes between first, second and third order doctrines. First-order doctrines are those things that ultimately represent a denial of Christianity itself. Second-order doctrines are things which Bible-believing Christians may disagree over, but which create significant boundaries between believers. We may still affirm the faith of one who disagrees on the issue but it would be difficult to remain in congregational fellowship with them. Third-order doctrines (or adiaphora) are things which Christians may disagree over whilst remaining in close fellowship even within local congregations.

When considering whether an issue is worthy of leaving a church, it is helpful to undertake some doctrinal triage. Is this is a first-order issue? Then we are forced to leave. Is this a second-order issue? We may feel the need to leave. Is this a third-order issue? We probably shouldn’t leave.

As Mohler comments:

This structure of theological triage may also help to explain how confusion can often occur in the midst of doctrinal debate. If the relative urgency of these truths is not taken into account, the debate can quickly become unhelpful. The error of theological liberalism is evident in a basic disrespect for biblical authority and the church’s treasury of truth. The mark of true liberalism is the refusal to admit that first-order theological issues even exist. Liberals treat first-order doctrines as if they were merely third-order in importance, and doctrinal ambiguity is the inevitable result.

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, tends toward the opposite error. The misjudgment of true fundamentalism is the belief that all disagreements concern first-order doctrines. Thus, third-order issues are raised to a first-order importance, and Christians are wrongly and harmfully divided.

Before persisting with serious error, or jumping ship over a matter of tertiary importance, we would do well to engage in some genuine theological triage.

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