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When is it right to leave a church? | Theological Triage

Christian Living | Theology

Published on September 11, 2023
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These days we’ve been seeing quite a shift happen in many Evangelical churches. I’ve spoken with pastors and churchmen in my circles who all observe the same thing. Many people are leaving or switching churches over various issues, some of which are theological. Even for myself and my family, we recently left our former church in part due to theological differences and disagreements. So, I am no stranger to what’s happening and what has happened for some time now. However, in the wake of COVID and many of the cultural issues people were wrestling through, it has caused a lot of Christians to re-examine their beliefs in certain doctrines and pertinent areas of theology. This has led to issues arising (or rather being discovered) that previously did not have the same urgency or of which people were unaware.

It seems like all of a sudden, people are talking about things like Theonomy, Patriarchalism, Postmillennialism, Sphere Sovereignty, Christian Nationalism, how to live under tyranny, what is the proper ordering, structure and role of the church in society, religious freedom, conscience issues, the role of civil government, Cultural Marxism, Wokeness, and a whole host of other issues. These issues didn’t arise out of a vacuum but have been things that have been brewing for some time before they came to the boiling point they’re at today. The cultural slip has been going on for a while, and there have been those who were giving warnings well before our day. I’ve addressed some of these issues and factors in previous articles and podcasts, and we’ll be tackling some more of these controversial issues in future articles and podcasts as I seek to better resource Christians by sharing what I’ve learned.

The fact that there are so many of these issues coming up in churches shows that a lot of churches neglected to equip their people with the theological tools necessary to navigate these various issues and times of crisis. Now, to be fair to many pastors, I get that ministry life can often keep one so busy that you’re not able to keep up with every cultural trend—so there is grace that must be extended to these ministers. However, at the same time, many of these issues are simply a matter of applying the Biblical principle of “declaring the whole counsel of God” to every sphere of life—not just ecclesiastical life. 

Many modern Western churches have focused on things like personal piety, justification, sanctification, and other very important Biblical topics, yet neglecting to also address the various challenges and questions the culture was throwing at their people.

A lot of Christians were therefore ill-equipped to deal with these issues from a Biblical worldview and ended up adopting worldly ideologies, or simply having a gut feeling that something was wrong but they didn’t know how to express it. Thus, many Christians felt like they had to turn to resources outside of their local churches for aid in Biblically processing the issues they were struggling with. Now, while it is a good thing that many more Christians today are waking up to the need for a robust theology of all of life—a comprehensive Biblical world and life view that applies Scripture to more than just the ecclesiastical and family spheres—it is also important that we know how to rightly navigate the inevitable conflicts and disagreements which will arise amongst brothers and sisters in the Lord.

In this article/episode, we’ll be taking a look at a framework for Christians to think about these issues and determine their priority and whether or not it is something they should divide over, and how to do so in a spirit of grace and brotherly affection.

The Noetic Effect of Sin

On this side of glory, even for those who are regenerated, we still struggle with lingering sin. This was Paul’s struggle in Romans 7. However, we don’t just struggle with the moral aspects of our fallenness. We also struggle with the noetic effects of sin – that is, its effects on our intellect or mind. Because of sin’s corruption on our minds, we don’t think or reason perfectly all the time – no one does – not even the regenerated true believer. This means that at some point, we will err and differ in our understanding of the Bible’s theology and doctrine.

The Reason for Our Disagreements

The problem is that we all come to a perfect revelation from God—both in nature and Scripture—but as imperfect interpreters because of the corruption of sin in our lives. We have fallible, sinful human beings coming to an infallible, inerrant revelation in the Bible and utilizing their imperfect mental faculties to try to understand and systematize its truths. All true Christians should agree that God’s Word is the final arbiter of truth, however, on this side of glory, we will continue to struggle with disagreements even though we’re all approaching the same Bible. We each bring our own biases, traditions, weakness and insights that sometimes lead to different conclusions.

Now, this is not to say that we can’t come to a sure understanding of clear truths in the Bible – we are not taking a radical Postmodern approach to truth that thinks that truth is just the mere subjective opinions of people and all equally valid. No. The Bible can communicate clearly, and through regular means of interpretation, we can understand its main message clearly.

However, not all things contained in the Bible are equally clear to us. Even the Apostle Peter admits this in 2 Peter 3:16 where he says about some of Paul’s writings,

“There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”

If even the inspired Apostle Peter could admit that there are difficult parts of Scripture for him to understand, surely we can have some humility as well and recognize that there are some things in Scripture that aren’t as clear as others. Note also that Peter says that the ignorant and unstable end up twisting these things to their destruction. This is the story of many unorthodox sects and cults.

The 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, paragraph 7, puts it this way,

“Some things in Scripture are clearer than others, and some people understand the teachings more clearly than others. However, the things that must be known, believed, and obeyed for salvation are so clearly set forth and explained in one part of Scripture or another that both the educated and uneducated may achieve a sufficient understanding of them by properly using ordinary measures.”

(2 Peter 3:16; Psalm 19:7; Psalm 119:130)

This is something that Reformed and Protestant churches have recognized for a long time now—that for the things that are of utmost importance concerning a person’s salvation, the Scripture speaks with crystal clarity so that people are without excuse. No one can say that they didn’t know God’s way to salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone not of any of our good works, but by God’s mercy. So the doctrines that pertain to a person’s salvation are not what we’re primarily concerned with here. Those are so clearly laid out that even the uneducated can understand them, and those who deny them are rightly called apostates and heretics.

What we are concerned with here though are the doctrines and beliefs which do not necessarily impact a person’s eternal salvation—which genuine Christians can and do disagree on.

Theological Triage

Triage is what happens at a hospital. With many sick people coming into an emergency room, hospitals need a way to prioritize patients. It would be bad if someone with a splinter in their finger got seen and treated more urgently than someone who is bleeding out from a gunshot wound. A triage nurse usually helps to assess the various people coming in and gives priority according to the level of severity of their ailment. Theological triage is similar. We try to rightly prioritize certain doctrines based on their level of “severity”. Now, this is not to discount the fact that all of God’s Word is important and we are to teach the whole counsel of God. So, at some level, every doctrine matters. However, not every doctrine has the same implications—both temporally and eternally. Thus, doctrines will fall into different levels of “severity”.

Generally speaking, Christians have recognized a certain priority of doctrines. There are primary, secondary and tertiary doctrines. I’m adapting a lot of helpful wisdom on this from the book “Finding the Right Hills to Die on: The Case for Theological Triage” by Gavin Ortland. This categorization is helpful for us to keep in mind as we navigate the differences between genuine believers in important theological debates and also lesser weighty issues. Let’s briefly explore these 3 categories.

Primary Doctrines

The marker of a primary doctrine is that getting it wrong will affect your salvation—that is, if you willingly reject these doctrines, you cannot be saved. These are also called issues of heresy, meaning that a person who denies these central doctrines is a heretic and can no longer be considered Christian. While being saved is not just a matter of correct head knowledge, there must also be a transformation of the total person—mind, body, affections, etc—true salvation must also include true belief since faith is a core requirement of salvation.

Some examples of primary doctrines are:

  • Justification by faith alone – This is a classical Protestant distinctive from Roman Catholicism and other Christian cults. We affirm that people are not saved by good works or trying to keep the law as a means of earning a right standing before God. No one can earn their salvation, it is a gracious gift of God to be received through faith.
  • The Trinity – This is the belief that the God of the Bible is Triune, eternally existing in 3 subsistences (or Persons) of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who all share the one Divine essence (or Being). It is a historically orthodox formulation of Triune theology that has been affirmed throughout the centuries of the Christian church and well attested in Scripture. One way of thinking about it is that God is one “what” (referring to His oneness in His being) but three “whos” referring to the three persons of the Trinity which share the one Divine Nature equally, each one true God.
  • The Sinfulness of Humanity and their Need for Redemption – This is the affirmation that all people are born with a sinful nature inherited from Adam, our Federal Head, such that we are born sinners—inclined towards sinful rebellion of God and His Law. Apart from the redemption of Christ, we are enemies of God, children of wrath, in rebellion against Him, and lawbreakers. Denial of this truth leads to a denial of the need for salvation itself since Man would not be enslaved to sin and thus, not need redemption and rescue.

There are more examples we could go through, but as you can see, they all relate to having implications on a person’s eternal salvation.

One important caveat is necessary here. There are some primary doctrines that a true Christian may be ignorant of (such as a precise formulation of the Trinity) and yet still be saved. The danger is moreso in the overt denial of these core doctrines.

Secondary Doctrines

These are doctrines that you could differ on, yet still be a true Christian. However, these are doctrines which would significantly affect your fellowship within the local church. Christians can disagree on these doctrines and still legitimately consider each other as brothers or sisters in the Lord. However, this may mean that they cannot fellowship in the same local church together without serious complications and tension. Therefore, it may be best, where possible, for them to find another local church where they can submit joyfully to their elders and fellowship with other like-minded believers.

Secondary doctrines are the reason why, on this side of glory, there exist so many different church denominations, each with their own particular distinctiveness about how they best understand Christian life and doctrines by their interpretation of God’s Word.

Many people point to the existence of different denominations as a bad thing for the unity of the Universal Church and as a mark against Christianity. However, in God’s sovereign providence, this has served to expand the reach of the church—sometimes forcing new churches to be planted—and give opportunity for believers to show Christian charity to one another. The existence of different denominations is simply a necessary outworking of the logical implications of what we covered previously—that we have fallible human beings approaching an infallible text of Scripture and doing their best to interpret it faithfully. Each servant will ultimately answer to His Master on how faithful they are. What we should remember is dogmatic unity in the essentials and liberty and charity in the non-essentials.

Some examples of secondary doctrines are:

  • Gender roles – God has laid out various duties in His design of male and female. These distinctions matter practically in the life of the church, family and society. There are three main “camps” within the issues relating to gender roles, which we won’t get into details here but leave for a later article or podcast episode. There are Egalitarians, who believe that there are no role differences between the genders and they are totally equal in what they can do within the church, family and society. There are Complementarians, who generally fall into “soft” and “hard” Complementarians. The softer kind recognizes the differences between the genders and their roles. However, they limit these differences to just the church and family. There is also some variety over what roles they see as being open to women in the church – such as deacons or female teachers. Then there are “hard” Complementarians and Biblical Patriarchalists, who see the gender distinctions as necessarily linked to the creational differences in the natures of men and women. Thus, the distinctions in duties are not limited to only the church and family, but also in society since we take our “maleness” and “femaleness” with us everywhere we go. Again, there are a lot of nuances and variety in this position which we’ll flesh out in a later article or podcast.
  • Timing and Mode of Baptism – This has been a classical debate within Protestantism. Do we baptize our babies or not? The two major positions are Paedobaptists (who believe that we should give children of believers the covenant sign of baptism), and Credobaptists (who believe that baptism should only be given to believers with a credible profession of faith). There is also debate over the proper mode—sprinkling versus full immersion.
  • Church Governance Structure – This has to do with how churches are Biblically required to organize and structure themselves in terms of a hierarchy of authority. Do churches see different offices such as bishops, pastors, priests, elders, presbyters, etc? Are they congregational – where the congregation gets to vote on matters of church life – or are they more top-down led by elders? Are churches independent or do they submit to a presbytery or synod? Are there confessional standards they are required to hold to by their denomination? There are many different church traditions with their own nuances on how they think churches should be governed.

As you can see, many secondary doctrines give rise to different denominations because they significantly impact the local life of a church. Differing on these doctrines would often cause serious tensions and affect the ability of a member to submit joyfully to their eldership. Also, while secondary doctrines may not affect a person’s eternal salvation, some are directly connected to the Gospel because they derive from it or picture it (e.g., marriage and gender roles).

Tertiary Doctrines

These are doctrines which you could differ on, and still be a true Christian and do not necessarily have to affect your fellowship in the local church over them. These are issues of preference or of minor consequence to the normal functioning of a church or even of individual Christians. Sometimes these issues can become something that many Christians may divide over, however, they do not necessitate breaking fellowship as Christians can choose to compromise on them without going against their conscience.

Some examples of tertiary doctrines are:

  • Supralapsarianism vs Infralapsarianism – yeah, you’ve probably never heard of it, far less had to pronounce it. But that’s kind of the point and why it’s a tertiary doctrine. The terms refer to the logical order of God’s decrees of salvation, not the temporal order of the decrees as they work themselves out in space and time. That is, in the mind of God before creation, what was the logical order of His decrees concerning the elect? Did he first decree the Fall, then decree who He would elect for salvation (Infralapsarianism)? Or did He decree who would be His elect and then decree the Fall (Supralapsarianism)? As you can tell, while this is an interesting point to ponder, it’s more so the type of thing that you’ll find ivory tower theologians or first-year seminary students debating. However, though there is some importance to the thought experiment, it is not the type of doctrine that should divide believers within a local church.
  • The form of worship and music – this can be simply a stylistic choice, or sometimes a Scriptural conviction (such as exclusive Psalmody churches – which may become a secondary doctrinal issue depending on the tenacity that it is held with). This could also include whether or not instrumentation is used and what types of instruments. Does a church use a formal liturgy or an informal, unwritten one? While there may be strong convictions on these issues, and they aren’t unimportant, they don’t necessitate that a believer must leave a church that differs from them on these issues.
  • The dating of certain books of the Bible – sometimes this can have little to no impact on one’s understanding of Scripture. However, sometimes it can have a big impact – such as how one dates the book of Revelation. Yet this should not be an issue to divide a church.

So, with these doctrines, it is possible for Christians to fellowship in the same local church and not feel like they are sinning against their conscience because others or the leaders disagree. They are issues that we can give deference to others, debate passionately, yet be OK with each other landing in different spots.

There is a last category called adiaphora issues. Adiaphora comes from a Greek term which means “not different or differentiable”. These are indifferent issues that one can hold dispassionate opinions on, such as what brand of coffee the church should serve or what colour the carpets should be. These are often simple to spot and therefore we won’t be spending time on this since these are usually not the issues that Christians move churches over (or at least shouldn’t be!).

Next, let’s consider how this categorization of primary, secondary and tertiary doctrines can help us navigate differences and whether dividing over them is legitimate.

Navigating Differences

For issues which pertain to primary doctrines, they should be dealt with with the utmost seriousness. Persons who persist in denying fundamental doctrines such as salvation by grace through faith in Christ, or orthodox beliefs about Christ’s true humanity and deity or the Trinity should be dealt with as heretics and false teachers. They are in jeopardy of their eternal damnation and for anyone else who follows them into their errors. This is a Biblical concept. Paul in Galatians 1:8–9 says,

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”

For Paul, even if a heavenly being or he were to swerve from the Gospel, it was serious enough to pronounce an anathema on them. The Apostle Peter likewise warns,

“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” (2 Peter 2:1)

Throughout the ages, the Church has always battled heresies, and it is no different today. We must be on guard and properly equipped to understand the primary doctrines of the faith. This is one of the core tasks of church leaders and individual Christians to ensure that they have a sure foundation to “contend for the faith, once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)

Scripture tells us that

“If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.” (2 John 1:10–11)

To many modern sensibilities, this may seem extreme or unkind. However, Scripture tells us to not fellowship with false teachers and heretics because of the danger of their teachings and the temptation to partake in their evil deeds. One thing that you will notice as you survey Scripture’s teachings on false teachers and heretics is that they always are accompanied by immoral lifestyles—ultimately because Christ is not their Master, they have Satan as their master. Sexual perversion, greed, slander, malice, and a whole host of other sins often accompany heretical teachers and Scripture is clear that “bad company corrupts good character.” (1 Cor. 15:33)

“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.” (Rom. 16:17)

Now, the issues that I have in mind in this episode, the majority of them do not fall into this category. However, there are some issues today which may stray into primary doctrine territory. Take for example the issues of wokeness, LBGTQ ideology, social justice, and cultural Marxist cult. That’s a primary issue because, in its extreme forms, it is a distortion and denial of the Gospel. It denies the universal sinfulness of Man by instead assigning guilt due to group identity, it denies true reconciliation and redemption by instead fixating on endless cycles of blame, reparations, and penance for those deemed “oppressors”, it denies God’s creational norms for men and women and it derives from an ideology that explicitly denies the God of the Bible. I’ve written extensively on this topic in other articles. While some inadvertently believe some of the woke ideology in ignorance, the ‘true believers’ and those who peddle and preach this “other gospel” are under the anathema of God. Christians should not fellowship with them and they should be sharply rebuked and called to repentance and faith in Christ and the true Gospel that sets people free.

So, for people who find themselves in churches that have fully and knowingly embraced woke ideology, I think that the only option would be to break fellowship and find a faithful church.

This is also why I have spoken so forcefully about these issues and the major concerns I have that some popular Evangelical teachers have been spreading some of the ideology mixed into their preaching. Now, this doesn’t automatically mean that they are to be condemned as heretics since some of it may be in ignorance or naivete. But it does mean that these leaders have been guilty of gross error for which they must be called to repentance and removed from ministry. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, they have introduced heresy into Christ’s Bride, which is no small issue. There is grace for those who are repentant and even hope for restoration, but I don’t think that we should minimize the seriousness of such issues.

Secondary Issues

For dealing with secondary issues, firstly we should take the time to properly discern if an issue is secondary or not. There are dangers on both sides of either downplaying or exaggerating issues. To go back to our original definition, remember that these are doctrines which you could differ on, yet still be a true Christian, however, it would significantly affect your fellowship within the local church. So, ultimately if an agreement cannot be met, these issues would also lead a person to change churches—yet still, consider the other party as a brother/sister in the Lord. This parting of ways should be as amicable and brotherly as possible, since after all, neither party is kicking the other out of the Kingdom!

The classical examples of this are where a person changes positions on what they believe about baptism or gender roles. These doctrines are important and have very serious implications for the local life of the church and ministry together. So, oftentimes, it would be best if the person finds a new church fellowship since it would be unlikely that a church would change its stance for their sake. However, even with doing this, there should be ongoing discussions and time taken by the elders to patiently go through the issues with the members and help them see from Scripture their viewpoint. This is why elders are supposed to be capable of instructing in sound doctrine and correcting those who contradict it (Titus 1:9)—they must be skillful handlers of God’s Word. Also on the member’s responsibility, Scripture commands them to submit to their local church pastors who are tasked by God to shepherd their souls (Heb. 13:17). Before they make their final decision, they should involve their local pastors who know and love them to help them navigate this theological issue. 

Many today bypass this and go off on their own, or follow after internet and YouTube teachers who have no personal connection to them. This is wrong, and foolish and subverts God’s design for the local church which is meant to guard the sheep.

This process should not be done hastily and adequate time for understanding the arguments of both sides properly, reflecting and praying on it, and maturity in the faith must be considered.

Also, it should be noted, that while primary doctrines necessitate a move in churches—someone could theoretically choose to stay in a church where they disagree about a secondary issue depending on the circumstances. For example, I know of many Presbyterian churches that allow Baptists within their fellowship. I know of many Baptists who attend Presbyterian churches because in their area there are no solid Baptist options. This is permissible and a glorious display of unity in the essentials and grace in the non-essentials. The person choosing to stay in that church though, must be at peace with not continuing to make it an issue with their elders and submitting to their authority in the church. So, a Presbyterian fellowshipping in a Baptist church should not expect to ask the pastor to baptize his baby. And he should not sneakily invite him to a pool party and throw the baby at him while he’s in the pool either.

Tertiary Issues

It should be clear by now that these issues should not cause division in the local church. Fellow church members and congregants can feel free to debate the issues and even hold strong convictions on them, but they should not divide the body over it or form factions within a local body. These are issues that should have minor consequences within the life of a church, and thus the level of urgency and seriousness should match that. Causing divisions over these issues is directly spoken against in Scripture.

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarrelling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:10–13)

Paul was dealing with factions forming in the Corinthian church. Some were following after their favourite teachers—Paul, Apollos or Cephas. Yet the unity we have is in Christ and that should be kept forefront.

The issue of causing divisions is a serious one. In fact, serious enough that it could lead to a break of fellowship with the offending person.

“But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Titus 3:9–11)

Stirring up a division in the local church over issues of tertiary importance is sinful. But also note, that these must truly be tertiary issues. Paul gives examples of foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions and quarrels about the law—most likely about the Judiazing tendencies within the Early Church. He says that they are unprofitable and worthless because, at the end of the day, they don’t accomplish anything useful. These are the types of issues in mind here, not issues of substance.

Where it gets Difficult

So, all of this sounds pretty straightforward, right? Three neat categories to help us triage issues. A nice little package and we’re good to go.

If only life were that simple!

Changing Priorities

The fact is that although there are three clear categories of doctrines, figuring out the categorization of doctrines can sometimes be a little tricky. Furthermore, regarding some of the issues that we may have thought were tertiary in the past, the present cultural moment has made it clear that they are secondary issues because we realized how much more important they were to a local fellowship.

For example, in the not-too-distant past, almost no one would have been talking about a church’s stance on the right interpretation of Romans 13, the ideal form and proper role of civil government would be an issue that would determine where they should fellowship. It was not even on most people’s radar. Then lo and behold, along comes the Scamdemic with the most blatant government overreach the Western Church has seen in recent times and now everyone is talking about it and offering their exegesis of Romans 13. You can’t be a Christian blogger or Podcaster these days without having written an article or two or done an episode on whether or not the civil government can close churches indefinitely. 

Now, what happened here? Was it that the issue got upgraded from tertiary to secondary? Or was it that the situation helped us to more clearly see the impact of this issue on the local church? I think it was the latter. Furthermore, in the past, differing on this issue would have had little to no practical ramifications as overreaching totalitarianism was less of a concern to Western church-goers. However, now, post-Plandemic, it’s on the minds of many believers as they consider where to fellowship. They’re asking questions like, “If the government were to lock everything down again for the next ‘emergency’, how would my church respond? Would they comply or resist?” These are fair questions, and depending on where a person’s convictions lay, it will determine significantly where they could joyfully submit to the local elders of a church.

Other Recent Issues

Other issues have come to the forefront in recent times as well, such as Theonomy, Biblical Patriarchy, Postmillennialism, Christian Nationalism, Radical Two Kingdoms Theory (R2K) and Christian Reconstructionism—to name a few. Now, we have to note that none of these are actually “new” issues. The conversation surrounding a few of them has been going on for a few decades. However, similar to the issues surrounding government lockdowns, they’ve now come to the forefront of people’s minds and have an elevated urgency because of the circumstances of our times.

People are talking about Theonomy, Christian Nationalism, and Christian Reconstructionism because they’re looking around at our crumbling Western Societies and seeking Biblical answers as to how to set things right again. As the pillars of the former Christendom are being eroded and knocked out, the structure of the free societies it built is starting to crumble and collapse. Thus, these conversations about Theonomy, Christian Nationalism and Reconstructionism all have in common the fact that they’re different systems wrestling with the question of how the Bible equips us to think about rightly ordering society and its civil government and laws. It’s an important conversation for Christians to have and it must happen if we are to have any hope for the future of Western Civilization. Each position takes a slightly different approach, but they all are looking to God’s Word to try to make compelling arguments and it often comes down to a matter of hermeneutics and presuppositions. As such, they can often be complicated matters to navigate—yet astonishingly, we have a lot of Christians (young men in particular) who are now interested in having these debates! (Although, sometimes with more heat than light) 

This should encourage pastors to see such an appetite for understanding and applying God’s Word to an area of practical living. Yet sadly, some have not responded favourably and instead sought to shut down the conversation or frame it as divisive (which it can be, but it does not necessarily have to be so).

Some are caught unprepared to have the conversation, and so avoid it. In terms of our topic here, how are we then to rightly categorize these issues? Should they be primary, secondary or tertiary?

Then we have the somewhat related issue of Postmillennialism and Eschatology. Broadly speaking—and there is a lot of controversy to this statement, I know—eschatological systems can be divided up into optimistic and pessimistic views of the unfolding of history leading up to the End. I’ve sometimes jokingly called it Pessimillennialism vs Optimillennialism. Notice I said that they are focused on the unfolding of history—meaning how life in the here and now before the eternal state (the eschaton) has been consummated. This is because all orthodox Eschatological positions would be optimistic about the ultimate victory of Christ in the End. Christ will ultimately win. That’s not where the debate is. Instead, the issue is on what the lead-up to that ultimate victory looks like. It is focused on whether or not we can rightly hope for things to get better in the long run here during Earth’s history, or expect that it will instead eventually lead to a great decline before Christ’s glorious return.

Now, this was also another issue that many would have firmly put into the tertiary doctrines category. Many used to think that Eschatology has little practical implications for their faith and practice–so why divide over it? However, recent events have exposed just how closely tied one’s Eschatological position is to other areas of life and ministry—such as the importance of public engagement on social issues. This has led many to rethink this categorization. For example, some who are on the more radical side of pessimistic eschatologies would discourage people from engaging in social issues since “there’s no use polishing brass on a sinking ship.” If history is fated to get worse and worse until Christ’s return, then the Christian’s role is basically to hunker down and try to save as many souls as they can before the whole thing falls apart. Similarly, R2K advocates would argue for a dualistic separation of sacred and secular spheres—and never the two shall meet, nor should they. These are the logical implications of a person’s eschatology. These positions will significantly affect a church’s emphasis in ministry, and whether or not they exhort and equip their people toward public engagement on cultural and political issues. So then, is Eschatology a tertiary doctrine, or should it be considered secondary?

Then there’s the issue of Complementarianism and Biblical Patriarchy. This issue can seem out of place here, but it is connected (as all of theology is) because the Christian worldview is an all-encompassing, intricately linked, comprehensive and total view of every area of life. It used to be that the only questions Evangelicals were asking were “Is your church Complementarian or Egalitarian?” and “Do you ordain female pastors?” Then came the radical feminists and the LBGTQ+ movements. Now, everything about gender and sexuality is being questioned and under attack from the culture—causing many people to rethink the basis for their understanding of gender and sex, and also having to wrestle with real-life implications of their beliefs in their jobs and schools as they undergo mandatory DEI training or Pride celebrations. As our culture moves more and more towards androgyny, all of a sudden the distinctions between sexes and understandings of gender became much more intense and had practical implications on people’s lives. So, again, as with the prior issues, Christians began to more intensely struggle for a coherent, systematic, Biblical answer to the questions they were facing. And, as you go down that bunny trail long enough, you realize that it has implications for your whole theology of gender roles and design.

Now, because of the confusion over gender and sexuality in our culture, it matters more urgently to many Evangelicals that a church is not just Complementarian in affirming the Bible’s gender roles in the church and family, but also that it be consistently Complementarian—seeing that these roles are inextricably linked to our created nature and design as male and female. That is, we take our “maleness” and “femaleness” everywhere we go, so it must therefore have implications for other spheres of life outside just church and family. So with this issue, we have Christians wrestling again with a further distinction within a secondary doctrine.

All of this has made things a lot more complicated to triage. I’ll be attempting to address many of these issues in later articles and episodes this next season, so I’m not going to try to solve all of them here. However, I’ll offer some advice on how Christians who want to honour the LORD, His Word and His Body, should act in navigating these things.

Help! I disagree with my church/pastor on an issue… What do we do?

Firstly, the most important thing you should do is take a breath and pray. Chill and sit on it a little—it’s OK to not have every single point of doctrine neatly figured out and squared away, and that internet debate you had on Facebook does not count for being well-settled in a new position. The mistake that a lot of eager and zealous young Christians make can be to passionately rush headlong after every implication of a new conviction that they’ve arrived at—acting as if everyone else is dumber than them and in sin for not having come to those same convictions that they didn’t hold 12 minutes ago.

These verses have been on repeat for me for the last 3 years now:

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19–20)

 We must be careful not to get sucked into the call-out and outrage culture of our present day. Especially when we think we’ve arrived at a new conviction or position, we should take time to listen to others and thoroughly test it from different angles to see if it holds up. Sometimes something that seems compelling in the beginning may not be as compelling after dispassionate analysis and scrutiny. Being “quick to hear” objections and counter-points, and not being quick to get flustered when your position is challenged will help in this process.

Some other Proverbs come to mind:

“When words are many, sin is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” (Proverbs 10:19)

I’ve seen this happen especially on social media which makes the multiplication of words exponentially increase—and proportionally the propensity and peril of falling into sins. Our lips and fingertips must be bridled. It’s a sign of wisdom to know when to talk and when to refrain.

“A man of knowledge restrains his words, and a man of understanding maintains a calm spirit.”(Proverbs 17:27)

“Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Proverbs 29:20)

If these issues are new convictions, it is wise to take some time, hold your tongue, read a few more books and articles, and have a few discussions with spiritual mentors and your pastors before you make any drastic life changes. Sometimes having a face-to-face conversation with someone who disagrees on the issue is enough to help you properly settle where to triage the issue. When we sit down and have amicable conversations with brothers/sisters who disagree on a secondary or tertiary issue, we often realize that there is more that binds us together than separates us.

Escalation and Passivity

So, having sat on the issue or issues for a bit and had some conversations with your spiritual mentors and pastors. What should happen if there doesn’t seem to be any progress towards finding an agreement or compromise that both parties are willing to charitably tolerate? What about if the issue is more urgent than a tertiary doctrine?

Sometimes we hit impasses when we’re navigating theological differences. This is unavoidable. However, there can sometimes be 2 unhealthy responses to this. One is inordinate escalation—where one party takes the issue(s) as a reason to disfellowship and defame or slander the other. This is sinful and should be repented of if done. Even when we disagree on important secondary issues, we should keep in mind that we’re going to have to spend eternity with the person we are at odds with now, so best not to say or do things you’ll have to apologize for later. You can stick to your guns—you just have to know that they’re not pointed at enemies.

The second unhealthy response is passivity. If you’ve been convicted about an issue that you’ve come to realize is a secondary issue that affects your fellowship in a local congregation in practical ways, you should not then passively avoid the confrontation or possibly consider that a change of churches might be what’s best.

The reason for this is that staying in a church under elders whom you constantly disagree with on an issue or issues that have practical implications for your life at the church is a sure way to breed grumbling and discontent and foster a critical spirit. It can become a festering sore that will likely infest the rest of the body. If the issue is important and urgent enough to you that you find yourself constantly critiquing or doubting the leadership of your church, you should have that difficult discussion with them about whether or not it is time for you to seek another fellowship. And note, I said to have that discussion WITH THEM. Not with your broskis, not with Dennis from Facebook or Twitter who likes all your posts, not with that YouTuber who has all the answers or podcaster who has a way with words, not with the imaginary scenarios you concoct in your head. Sometimes these conversations may take months and require multiple meetings. But your local pastors are appointed by God, for as long as you are in their fold, to shepherd your soul. Both they and you will be held accountable by God for that.

Parting of Ways

Sometimes, Christians can go through this process and decide to compromise or tolerate each other’s differences and stay in fellowship within the local church. Depending on the issue, that can be quite difficult and would require some effort to not make it a constant issue of conflict. I know of Christians who are Baptists who choose to fellowship in Presbyterian churches, Egalitarians who fellowship in a Complementarian church, Continuationists who fellowship in a Cessationist church, or Postmillennials who fellowship in Premillennial or Amillennial churches. There are a whole host of secondary issues which we can live and serve together. This is good and pleasing when it can be done healthily.

Also, one must factor in other issues as well—such as whether or not there is another church option that is better aligned within their geographical location. Sometimes, there just isn’t another option apart from moving, so a Christian may decide to stay in a non-ideal church for that type of practical reason. This is not a sin, again, once they commit to living at peace and not making the issues a source of division and contention.

However, sometimes, parting ways may be the wisest course of action. If there are other solid church options within your geographical location, and you have gone through the appropriate discourses with your elders, then a Christian is free to explore other churches that may be better aligned with their convictions. Sometimes, it is not just one issue, but a compound effect of multiple secondary and tertiary issues which together make remaining in the same local fellowship difficult and unfruitful. In such a case, the Christian should also bear in mind that there are no perfect churches, and it is unlikely to land in a church where you agree on 100% of all topics. So, one must be realistic with their expectations.

Furthermore, the Christian should factor in the other costs to moving churches—such as disruption of their community and friendships, distance, family, accountability, having people who have known you for a long enough time to be confidants, etc. Your local church is your covenant community, and we should not be hasty to break the covenant as God’s covenant people. It is a serious thing to be undertaken soberly.

Misdiagnosed Issues

I’ll close off with one last word on what I think are sometimes misdiagnosed issues. Sometimes, there can be a downplaying of the importance of some of these issues by saying that they are not “Gospel issues”. By this, what is often meant is moreso that they are not issues which affect a person’s justification before God. While this is one important aspect of the Gospel, it is not all of it—and I’ll be covering this topic more in-depth in a future article/podcast. The Gospel or Good News, is about the redemption of all things (see Col. 1:19–20 & Rom. 8:20–22), not just getting “souls” to heaven. Therefore, it is vitally connected with a whole host of other doctrines apart from justification.

One such issue is that surrounding Wokeness and Cultural Marxism. While someone may be a true Christian who has bought into Critical Race Theory and Wokeness, it has major Gospel implications. We’ve covered those issues in depth here before, so I won’t rehearse them again. Instead, let’s take the issue of churches’ response to lockdowns and government tyranny since it is another recent and pertinent example. 

Ben Inglis of Dominion Press wrote in an important Open Letter to Churches in Canada that,

“The claim is often made that only a narrow set of doctrines (the trinity, the atonement) qualify as “Gospel-centered” and are therefore, apparently, the only ones we should refuse to relinquish. Yet all Scripture is breathed out by God and is “profitable for doctrine” (2 Tim. 3:16). All doctrine has implications for the Christian life. The difference is that training in healthy doctrine produces healthy Christians (2 Tim. 4:3) whereas unstable doctrine produces fearful, worldly Christians.”

Depending on how a church and its elders got there, the blind acquiescence to State authoritarianism can be a sign of latent and undiagnosed idolatry and compromise.

“Christ is LORD” is the fundamental affirmation of Christians throughout history who have sealed this confession with their blood many times.

And this was not just a Lordship of their hearts and private lives. Rome understood that when Christians made that profession, it had political ramifications—and that’s why they tortured and executed them for it! Yet this is the profession which we must not waver on—it is of first importance. Christ is the LORD of the Church, LORD of our families, and LORD of the State and every other human institution. Jesus himself delimits the authority and sphere of the State and Paul and Peter lay out its responsibilities as God’s deacon. The State is not absolute, Christ is. The Lordship of Christ is a primary doctrine, and we can deny it (as with other doctrines) either in word or deed.

So, what happened during the lockdowns with many churches and pastors was a bowing of the knee to Caesar and not Christ when blind deference was given to the State to wield power over every sphere of life as if it were God. That’s what I mean by compromise and idolatry. To set up anyone or anything else in the place of God is idolatry—and the State claiming power over all spheres of life is idolatrous, and pastors who explicitly or implicitly affirmed that with their words and actions should repent of that. Blind trust in the government also brings into question a Christian’s understanding of the doctrine of human depravity. Governments are made up of sinful people who will intentionally and unintentionally lead in evil and mistaken ways. So, it is even more surprising when such blind trust was given by pastors who would be considered “reformed” and should have a working understanding of the Total Depravity of mankind.

Furthermore, the lockdowns and mandates oppressed many people leading to unemployment, poverty, stress, mental anxiety and depression, loneliness, sociological impacts, and countless other collateral damages. Many who were not part of the laptop class or had job security because they weren’t being forced to take an experimental drug simply did not act with compassion for the oppressed. Many pastors and clergy enjoyed job security while their congregants battled with facing much loss if they stood up—sometimes feeling like no one had their backs and being forced to violate their consciences. Broadly speaking, the Church and many pastors missed a huge opportunity to stand up for and with the oppressed. Lastly, blindly following lockdowns and mandates denied the central importance of the corporate gathering. It denied the necessity of our physicality in worship—as ZOOM church is not the church.

These are not periphery issues. These are first-order issues. They are Gospel issues (in the Big G Gospel sort of way). Pastors and churches do mess up, and even mess up big time—and there’s grace and forgiveness for that. However, biblically, forgiveness requires repentance. That’s basic to the Gospel—we must repent to receive Christ’s forgiveness. Trust requires it too. So, for churches that compromised on these issues—it is no small thing. For Christians who find themselves in churches that got it wrong and have not repented, they would face a very difficult situation and decision—but I think it is right to see the importance and urgency of it and not just try to dismiss it as a periphery issue, because it’s not. Many Christians these days have been switching churches because of this issue, and it is not uncommon for pastors to comment on how there’s been a great reshuffle in congregations since COVID.

Even with this issue though, it should be pursued with a spirit of Christian charity and endeavouring to win the other brother.

Some pastors acted in ignorance, not intentionally wanting to compromise the Lordship of Christ or perhaps not even realizing how they did. In those cases of genuine ignorance, we should graciously try to help them see their error and pray that they would have soft hearts to receive it and repent. We’ll explore this particular issue more in-depth in another article/episode, but for now, hopefully, that helps to illustrate how an issue that may not be commonly categorized as a “primary” issue because it doesn’t affect a person’s justification, can still be of high importance and urgency because of the connectedness of it to a Christian system of belief and practice. But again, to reiterate it, even on issues this serious—conversations should be pursued in a spirit of humility and graciousness, seeking to win our brothers and sisters, not shame them, while also being uncompromising on truth because real reconciliation requires truth.

Recap

So, to recap how we can approach navigating theological differences:

  1. Try to categorize the doctrine properly – is it a primary, secondary or tertiary issue? Does it affect a person’s salvation? Does it affect a person’s local church fellowship? Does it affect not much other than Facebook debates?
  2. Assess the circumstances that brought it to the forefront. Are they temporary or ongoing circumstances? Will you feel this urgently about it in 5 years?
  3. Study the issue, consider counter-arguments, pray, and have conversations with spiritual mentors.
  4. Consider the practical ramifications of the issue to daily fellowship and life together in the local church. Are they significant? Are they ongoing? Are you able to tolerate and not make it an issue?
  5. Consider the alternative options. Are there any practical alternatives in your area?
  6. Pursue brotherly dialogue with your elders and see if you can come to an agreement, alignment, or amicable compromise.
  7. If you’ve followed all of this prayerfully and soberly, and cannot in good conscience be content to tolerate the disagreement without grumbling against your leaders, then you are free to pursue exploring other church options.

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