Levels of Doctrinal Importance: 4 Tiers

It is vital to the health of any church that its leaders and congregation are able to discern the relative importance of various doctrines.  In other words, if leaders and congregants don’t know which is more dangerous to the local church, a disagreement about alcohol and tattoos or a disagreement about the doctrine of sin, then they are likely to draw lines where they don’t need to be drawn and fail to draw lines when eternal life and death are on the line.  No two Christians believe the exact same thing about every theological and doctrinal issue.  How then can any church remain unified?

In order to have the proper type of unity in the local church, we must 1) acknowledge that there are different levels of doctrinal importance, and 2) know which doctrines fall into the various levels of importance.  Before exploring the various levels of importance, let me explain what I mean when I say that we are to have ‘the proper type of unity’.

Many churches today strive for an ungodly, unbiblical, dangerous, and sinful type of unity.  Those who emphasize conformity to the ethic of the community and tolerance for doctrinal differences in matters central to the faith have a perverted idea of unity.  This error is common among liberals and conservatives.  On the left, liberals emphasize unity around social action and tolerance for those with different beliefs while denying the uniqueness and exclusivity of Christ.  On the right, conservatives emphasize conformity to conservative morality while failing to rigorously hold the line on the doctrine of sin.  This conservative error almost always leads to a legalism that makes sub-cultural norms a standard of faithfulness and spirituality rather than gospel fidelity.

The opposite error of this improper type of unity is dividing at the wrong time over the wrong issues.  This error occurs not because people focus on doctrine too much but because they place too much emphasis on the wrong doctrines.  To avoid this error, we must understand the relative importance of different doctrines.

But how do we know which doctrines are most important?  Does Scripture teach these distinctions?  I believe that I Corinthians 15.1-11 teaches us that we are to see some doctrines as ‘doctrines of first importance’.

I Corinthians 15.1-11:

In this chapter, Paul seeks to correct the Corinthians in their errant doctrine and increasingly licentious living.  His concern is that the Corinthians, although they originally appeared to believe the Gospel he preached to them when he planted the church, do not have saving faith.  Allow me to make some observations in three stages:

First, Paul sought to remind them of the Gospel as a warning that they must hold fast to it if there is to be any benefit to their initial response.

1 Corinthians 15:1-2 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand,  2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you- unless you believed in vain.

Paul notes that believing the Gospel has two effects.  Those who believe the Gospel stand in salvation and are in the process of being saved.  I think this is shorthand for justification and sanctification.  Through faith in the Gospel, we are declared righteous before God and stand before him innocent and righteous because of Christ.  Through faith in the Gospel, we are in the process of being conformed to the image of Christ.

But, Paul makes clear that these conditions are only true of those who hold fast to the Gospel.  Those who do not hold fast to the Gospel believe in vain.  In other words, there is a type of believing and response to the preaching of the Gospel that does not bear ongoing fruit and thus withers and dies.  I think this is similar to what Jesus talked about in Mark 4 in the parable of the sower and the soils.

Now note that at this point, it is not entirely clear what Paul means by ‘hold fast to the word I preached to you’.  We have to keep reading to be sure we know what he means.  This is where this text begins to address the topic of this post.

Second, Paul argued that the Gospel and the doctrines essential to it are of first importance in the Christian life.

1 Corinthians 15:3a 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…

Paul explained that he had and was passing on to the Corinthians that which is of primary importance in the Christian faith.  The apostles passed on the “pattern of sound teaching” (2 Tim. 1:13-14), “sound doctrine” (I Tim. 1:10; Tit. 1:9), and “sound instruction” (I Tim. 6:3).  In I Cor. 15.3-8, Paul passes down a set of teachings that has a formulaic ring to it.  It is clearly a set of historical claims tied to a theological message that was held to and delivered to all the churches.  This is the tradition of the apostles: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Roman Catholic Church argues that there were two bodies of teaching in the early church: tradition and Scripture.  They argue that Scripture has been handed down to us containing many important teachings.  But, they assert additionally that the Roman Catholic Church consists of a succession of leaders who have passed on oral teachings (traditions) that are not covered in Scripture that are equal in authority to Scripture.  Protestants argue (rightly I believe) that the tradition/oral teaching of the apostles was eventually written down in Scripture such that there is now only one authoritative source of instruction.  My last post addressed this issue in more detail.

The key thing that I want to point out here though is that Paul himself thought that there were matters of first importance and matters that ranked below this.  After passing on the Gospel to them in verses 3-11, Paul argues in the rest of the chapter for the proper doctrine of the resurrection.  He fervently argued for the bodily resurrection of Christ and of believers on the last day because he feared that the Corinthians were denying it and thus in danger of ‘believing in vain’.  I will say more on this below.

Third, Paul delivers the plain and simple Gospel.

1 Corinthians 15:3b-11 that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,  4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,  5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Several important things could be mentioned here, but for our sake, one thing stands out:  The Gospel is the message of what Christ did.  The Gospel is not my response to Jesus.  The Gospel is not the effects of believing in Jesus.  The Gospel is the good news about the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Notice the key verbs: Christ died, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared.  So, what’s the point of all of this in relation to the original issue I raised?

The 4 Tiers of Doctrinal Importance:

This passage clearly shows us that the Gospel message and the doctrines essential to it are matters of first importance.  This is why Paul writes with such urgency on the issue of the resurrection.  This is why he warns them that they may not be saved if they don’t persevere in sound doctrine.  This is why he suggests to them later (15.33) that they should kick out those in the church who are denying the bodily resurrection.  It is a serious matter worth dividing the church over!

So, what are the 4 tiers?

  1. Matters of first importance, of heresy versus orthodoxy: The Gospel stands at the center.  Taking the formula that Paul gave, we can see that the doctrine of the Trinity, the person of Christ, the work of Christ (including the atonement and resurrection), and sin are matters of first importance.  These are matters worth defending.  It is appropriate to rebuke those who contradict sound doctrine in these areas.  It is right to remove those who deny these doctrines from fellowship.  It is necessary to leave the fellowship of those who embrace error in these areas.
  2. Matters that determine local church practice and ministry:  After the first tier, we have to begin looking at other passages to sort out the rest, but I think the rest are fairly clear.  The second level of doctrinal importance contains many doctrines that are worth arguing about but should not call us to question the salvation of those that disagree with us.  The doctrines concerning church governance, the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Table, Scripture, the role of women in leadership, ministry philosophy, conversion, and evangelism are doctrines which a local church needs to have general agreement on in order to minister effectively.  For example, it is impossible for a local church to get anything done if there is disagreement over the truthfulness of Scripture or if no one can agree who has leadership responsibility and final authority.  So, while differences in these areas should not lead us to question one another’s salvation, we might have to agree to exist as different churches.
  3. Matters that we can disagree on while still working together in a local church:  Once we have seen which matters divide Christians from non-Christians and matters which divide Christians necessarily into different churches and denominations, we find that there are many issues that we can disagree on in the local church.  I doubt I can name them all, so I will name a few.  The doctrines dealing with the end times (rapture, tribulation, and millennium) should never be matters of first importance.  We should not make a specific theology of the end times a requirement for membership in a local church.  Similarly, one’s stance on the continuance of the supernatural or miraculous spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecy should not determine whether or not one is included in fellowship in the local church.
  4. Matters of conscience, where Scripture does not bind all but some may need to live a certain way while others live differently:  The last category deals with matters similar to the ones that Paul deals with in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8-11.  When Scripture does not give us a command and we must use wisdom, there must be great charity and we must refuse to lay our convictions upon others in any way.  Issues that fall into this category include the consumption of alcohol, tattoos, what movies one is allowed to watch, what language one should use, and who Christians should vote for.

While this post has certainly not answered every question about which doctrines fall into what area, I hope that it has given us some easy guidelines and examples that will help Christians think about when and over what to divide.  Furthermore, the levels I have laid out here (and I am certainly not the first to highlight these distinctions) certainly expose some obvious problems that are prevalent today, namely turning these tiers upside down by attempting to impose our conscience on others and elevating eschatology to first importance while ignoring the central doctrines of the faith.

Tradition, Doctrine, and Practice

In my experience, I have met many Christians, even pastors, who separate doctrine and piety, the mind and “the heart”.  I have also encountered many Christians who reject “tradition” without realizing that their lives and ministries are driven by their cultural heritage more than Scripture.

While studying for my lesson on I Corinthians 15 this week, I ran across a wonderful section (pgs. 102-103) of David Wells’ book No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? in which he touches on the relationships between tradition (in a different sense), doctrine (theology), and practice (piety).

That the apostolic churches were confessional and that they confessed the apostolic teaching about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ may be disputed, but only on the most radical redactional reading of the New Testament…The apostles “delivered” the facts about Christ (I Cor. 11:23, 15:3), and interpreted those facts, and then developed the consequences for Christian life from this…All this became part of the “tradition” that was committed to faithful people to transmit to succeeding generations.  In this sense, there is undoubtedly a central place given to tradition in the New Testament.

In time, as the New Testament letters were completed and the canon was eventually closed, there seems little doubt that the whole apostolic exposition of the disclosure of God, of his character, acts, and will (especially as these were revealed in Christ), became the substance of what was confessed.  To be a believer, then as later, meant believing in what the apostles taught.  It is in this sense that apostolic succession is a New Testament truth.  Believers succeed the apostles as they accept what the apostles taught.  It is a succession not of ecclesiastical power as the Church of Rome teaches but of doctrine.

This is why the apostles not only framed the Christian faith in doctrinal terms but called for its preservation and protection in this form.  There is no Christian faith in the absence of “sound doctrine” (I Tim. 1:10; Tit. 1:9), “sound instruction” (I Tim. 6:3), or the “pattern of sound teaching” (2 Tim. 1:13-14).  It is this doctrine, or, more precisely, the truth it contains and expresses, that was “taught” by the apostles and “delivered” to the Church.  It is this message that is our only ground for hope (Tit.1:9) and salvation (I Cor. 15:2; I Pet. 1:23-25).   Without it, we have neither the Father nor the Son (2 John 9).  Indeed, Paul says that we can grow in Christ only if we stay within this doctrinal framework, for its truth provides the means of our growth (Col. 2:6).  It is no wonder that Christians are urged not to depart from the apostolic teaching they received “in the beginning” (John 2:7, 24, 26; 3:11) or from what they had heard (Heb. 2:1), for it is the “faith once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).  Nor should we be amazed to read of Paul’s admonition to Timothy that it is only by adhering to this “good teaching” that he will become a “good minister of Jesus Christ” (I Tim. 4:6).  For all of these reasons, the apostles instructed believers to “guard” this faith (2 Tim. 1:13-14; 4:3; cf. Tit. 1:9; Gal. 1:9), defend it (Jude 3), “stand firm” in it, not to “drift” from it, to become “established” in it, and to transmit it intact to succeeding generations.

No one who is familiar with apostolic teaching and practice could imagine that bare, creedal orthodoxy alone is being advocated in these passages.  It is clear, for example, both from the structure of many of Paul’s letters and from many of his specific statements, that he saw belief and practice as inextricably related to each other, the former being the foundation of the latter and the latter being the evidence of the working of the former.

I found this passage to be helpful in outlining the New Testament teaching that doctrine and practice are integrally linked.  Furthermore, Wells is very helpful in highlighting the responsibility of all Christians, but especially pastors, to guard sound doctrine.  This ought to teach us several things:

  1. Doctrine must be studied deeply and carefully.  It is a mistake to argue that we should focusing on loving Jesus, being obedient, and avoid discussing and arguing rigorously about doctrine.  The neglect of doctrine will unwittingly lead to devotion to self or culture.
  2. Pastors must be diligent to guard their church from separating what we believe from our love and devotion to God.  Those who argue that we should all just get along while ignoring real doctrinal controversy in their church are foolishly setting the church on a course for destruction into error.
  3. Pastors must be people who can teach sound doctrine and refute those who contradict it.  There is an unhealthy tendency to make pastors out of those who are charismatic leaders loved by many when the pastorate often calls for the unpopular: firm, rigorous, and zealous debate.

While Wells’ book can be difficult, he has some very excellent insight, and I recommend his books to those interested in studying theology, ecclesiology, and culture.