Healing Second Order Theological Disagreements

Back on July 30, 2009, Eric Carpenter, of A Pilgrim’s Progress, asked, “How should Christians reconcile infant baptism and believer’s baptism?” In the course of the conversation that followed, I brought up Al Mohler’s article, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,” as a tool for diagnosing and prioritizing theological disagreements.  In this article, Mohler suggests three levels of theological disagreement: first-order (essential to Christian faith), second-order (disagreements that need not separate, but can create boundaries–he puts baptism here), and third-order (can disagree and remain in close fellowship).

For anyone (rightly) concerned about the unity of the church, second order disagreements pose a problem, for the very category seems to advocate separation.  Eric brings up this very issue in his post, “The Problem of ‘Second Order’ Doctrines.”  He raises a valid point: one with which we must wrestle, for unity is definitional of the church.

Now, Eric and I disagree on Mohler’s intent, but Mohler’s intent is not the biggest issue in my view.  A bigger issue is what to do with the second order disagreements we already have.  I would propose that unity, properly practiced, reduces most second order disagreements to third order disagreements.

Second order theological disagreements can be transformed into third order disagreements through the hard work of maintaining the unity of the Spirit.

As Church, we are necessarily connected with Jesus and one another. Our communal life is in him; we are the new humanity in him, our only Head.  By this necessary connection with Christ, we are connected with one another.  We see this connection in the NT images (one body, building, flock, bride, family, people, and more).  Our connection with one another is not a matter of affinity or tradition: it is real, “hard-wired” if you will.  Now, we may behave as if we are not so connected, but that does not change the fact of our connection.

Placing high value on our relational connection with Jesus and one another can re-prioritize other values. Our relational connection is not merely structure, but also involves volitional, loving engagement with the other.  How we value this connective engagement determines what we do with it.  In their book, Asking the Right Questions, Neil Browne and Stuart Keeley define “value” as “the unstated ideas that people see as worthwhile.  They provide standards for conduct by which we measure the quality of human behavior” (p. 12).  Since we are one Body in Christ, unity ought to be a very high value; it ought to be an important (though not sole) measure of our behavior and decision-making.  This does not mean we cast aside biblical truth, for in doing so would also cast aside unity.  There are valid first order doctrines and, as painful as it may be, they do separate Church from not-Church.

The interplay of persons in biblical and theological reflection exposes dissonance and enhances consonance. Reflection is a critical task of the church; we must consider together the meaning and significance of Scripture and the knowledge of God that is drawn from Scripture.  “Meaning” is the authorial intent as understood by the original readers and across time and culture.  It is not something we create; it is something we discover.  “Significance” is the importance of that meaning for our ways of being, thinking, and doing in the world.  We discover and determine significance, for it is modified across time and culture.  The meaning and significance understood through biblical and theological reflection exposes the dissonance created by clashing beliefs just as a musical performance exposes any clashing musical notes producing “a harsh, disagreeable combination of sound.”  Meaning and significance also enhance consonance, that harmonious unity that is akin to “a simultaneous combination of sounds…conventionally regarded as harmonious or pleasing.”  As in music, dissonance and consonance are only experienced when the instruments interact in the playing of a piece.  Similarly, we will discover our areas of theological dissonance and consonance in the context of communal reflection.

The full agreement at the heart of unity strengthens agreement and enervates disagreement. The generally agreed upon first order theological issues are the filter through which we must understand other theological issues.  In his article, Mohler defines first order theological issues as “the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself.”  These first order doctrines help us determine the relevance and importance of other issues.  Relevance refers to “pertinence to the matter at hand,” while importance refers to issues that “strongly affect the course of events or the nature of things.”  Recognizing and emphasizing our agreement on first order issues helps us see the second order issues more clearly, reclassifying them as issues that should not keep us separate or issues of deep importance that need correction in one, the other, or both of us.

Agreement on first order issues can enervate the boundaries created by theological disagreement.  First order issues define Christianity as different from all other faith systems; these issues enhance our identity as the one Body of Christ.  Knowing who we are and whose we are, and being committed to that, can weaken or destroy the boundaries that keep us apart in second order issues.  Boundaries are necessarily weakened when unity is prioritized and strengthened.

Honest, loving theological dialogue with fellow believers can expose the theological agreements underlying our disagreements.  There are reasons for the vehemence attached to many second order issues; I would suggest that underlying many of these are first order issues that must be revealed and clarified.  Honest dialogue gives us the opportunity to clarify our beliefs and, more importantly, to hear and understand others’ beliefs.  In the clarification, we may find an area of agreement we did not see before.  It is vital that we first hear each other and understand the theological perspective as the holder understands it; our perspective on the matter can come after.  We do all of this in love, not to be right.  Love acts for the sake of the Body, for the sake of Christ, and for the good of the other.  It is not selfish.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

Love, in this instance, occurs in dialogue, a face-to-face “exchange of ideas or opinions.”  The exchange is critical in dialogue and can be contrasted with discussion, which is defined as “consideration of a subject by a group; an earnest conversation,” and can include debate.  Debate can strengthen barriers: this is not our goal.  A loving dialogue can strengthen our first order agreements, weaken our disagreements, and re-prioritize our beliefs.

As J.P. Moreland says on Scriptorum, “Christianity claims to be a knowledge tradition and it places knowledge, not merely truth, at the center of proclamation and discipleship. The Old and New Testaments, including the teachings of Jesus, claim not merely that Christianity is true, but that a variety of its moral and religious assertions can be known to be true (Luke 1:4, John 10:4, Romans 1:19)” (ht: Shane Vander Hart).  Working through the various -ologies is not an option, for these are not lofty notions relegated to academia; these are the stuff of life in Christ.  Disagreement over theological issues should be taken seriously, not swept under the rug or left to languish in the “second order” category.  Certainly, some theological issues are currently categorized as second order, but categorization is not our goal.  Health and unity is our goal.  We may not be able to heal the whole church and remove the need for denominations, but we can surely act as healing agents in our own churches and with the Christians that we know and love.

Let us put our shoulders to the work.

  • Remember we are connected with Jesus and one another.
  • Place high value on our relational connection with Jesus and one another in order to re-prioritize other values.
  • Engage in biblical and theological reflection to expose dissonance and enhance consonance.
  • Work hard to discover the agreement at the heart of unity in order to strengthen unity.

All definitions are from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.  Copyright © 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Company.  Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved

About Laura

My name is Laura and I am on a journey, pondering the implications of God's glorious design of humanity and integrating every aspects of this design into a description of whole life health.
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