There has been some discussion of late concerning doctrinal taxonomies and the divisions that can occur (and have occurred) as a result. Much of the discussion has centered on whether or not it is biblical to separate over doctrinal disagreements. Another bit of the discussion is about the taxonomies themselves: whether the categories are valid. A third, relatively minor issue, is the fact that the taxonomies use similar language with different meanings. In this pondering, I hope to shed a bit of light on two taxonomies and offer a redirection of the discussion.
Mohler’s Triage Taxonomy
One such taxonomy is Albert Mohler’s doctrinal triage taxonomy (offered as a way to diagnose the strength of disagreement/agreement). In this taxonomy, primary doctrines are definitional of Christianity and those who reject the doctrines are considered non-Christian. Secondary doctrines are of sufficient importance, whether theologically or otherwise, that disagreement results in division into denomination(-like) groupings; all involved still affirm the Christianity of the others. Tertiary doctrines are of lesser importance and differences result in disagreements, but not division. Mohler’s taxonomy mainly functions as a diagnostic tool: what sort of disagreement is this and how much effort should we apply in solving it? Mohler concludes his post,
Living in an age of widespread doctrinal denial and intense theological confusion, thinking Christians must rise to the challenge of Christian maturity, even in the midst of a theological emergency. We must sort the issues with a trained mind and a humble heart, in order to protect what the Apostle Paul called the “treasure” that has been entrusted to us. Given the urgency of this challenge, a lesson from the Emergency Room just might help.
An Essentials/Non-Essentials Taxonomy
Another taxonomy, described by John Samson in the post, Primary and Secondary Doctrines, categorizes doctrines into two groupings. Primary doctrines are the same as in Mohler’s triage taxonomy, but in this taxonomy, secondary doctrines include all doctrines except primary. The main purpose of this taxonomy, in contrast to Mohler, appears to be classification and prioritization rather than diagnosis and prioritization. Samson concludes his post,
As an apostle, Paul could simply have handed down a ruling that would have settled the controversy. In fact, elsewhere he did give clear instructions that speaks to the very doctrine under debate in Romans 14 (cf. Col. 2:16-17). Yet in writing to the Romans, he was more interested in teaching them the principle of tolerance for differing views on matters of less-then-fundamental importance. Surely this is something we should weigh very heavily before we make any point of truth a matter over which we break fellowship.
Is it time to redirect the discussion of doctrinal differences?
Both taxonomies (and others that likely exist) raise issues of unity versus division and the biblical acceptability of denominations. These are valid issues with which the church ought to struggle (though most often these issue are dismissed and theological care is sacrificed on the twin altars of convenience and culture). Dividing over non-primary doctrines must always be questioned; such decisions should be difficult, if not impossible, for division is detrimental to the mission and does not reflect God.
But there is another issue that deserves discussion, yet is neglected or cast aside in many discussions of doctrinal taxonomy and denominationalism: Is it biblical and right for Christians of like biblical and theological belief to cluster into local churches?
Using the popular “baptism” issue as an example, is it biblical and right for paedo-baptists to cluster in one local church and credo-baptists to cluster in another? Or must these two groups be part of the same congregation in order to be biblical? What makes the difference between acceptable and unacceptable groupings? How should the idea of neighborhood church (local congregation) and city church (all the neighborhood churches in a city) inform our understanding of unity and division?
Much heat has radiated in these discussions. Shall we now radiate more light?
Related post: Healing Second Order Theological Disagreements