Aspect 6(a): A Mission Centered on the Gospel (factionalism, non-fellowship, theological triage, liberalism, fundamentalism, Calvinism, contextualization)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

Paul warns the Corinthians about the danger of factional battles in the church. In our opinion, this also applies to seminary communities, agencies and institutions, and indeed to the whole of our convention. Sometimes, the battles we fight are necessary and we wage them in an appropriate manner. But sometimes the battles are unnecessary and/or they are waged inappropriately. Often, unnecessary battles are waged because a group of people are excited about a particular idea, movement, or tradition. They begin to condescend or castigate, and seek to exclude, anybody who doesn’t share their ideas, emphasis, jargon, or agenda. The idea, movement, or tradition becomes a virtual test of orthodoxy.[1]

Perhaps no person, church, network, or denomination is exempt from such a temptation, and Baptists are no exception. Sometimes we wage unnecessary wars and sometimes this stems from a doctrine of “separation” (sometimes known as the doctrine of non-fellowship). This doctrine is based upon such passages of Scripture as Amos 3:3: “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” For some, this doctrine means merely that we should separate ourselves from worldliness. For others, it means that we should separate ourselves from those who do not separate themselves from worldliness. Still others, however, would disallow fellowship (and sometimes friendship) with those who differ from them in any matter of theology (e.g. the particulars of one’s position on the rapture), physical life (e.g. preference in apparel or music), or social life (e.g. one’s friendship with a controversial person or preacher). The result is a flattening of all theological and practical categories as if they are of equal weight and importance. For a time, I (Bruce Ashford) walked in Independent Baptist circles where such “third degree separation” is practiced. Although I admire many of these men and am thankful for what I have learned from them, this doctrine is one of the primary reasons I left those circles.

Within the Southern Baptist Convention, there have been more than a few controversies since the Conservative Resurgence. There have been public disagreements over worship styles, contextualization, Calvinism, apparel, spiritual gifts, etc. These disagreements have sometimes become major battles. One thing that is needed is a way of determining which issues are worth fighting over and which are not, as well as how certain disagreements affect our ability to cooperate with one another at various levels.

Al Mohler has proposed that the hospital emergency room provides an apt analogy for how we might make such determinations.[2] We have applauded this model on numerous occasions. Those who are reading this blog might have had opportunity to see the goings-on of the “triage” unit of an emergency room. In triage, the doctors and nurses determine the priority of the diseases and injuries that will be treated. Shotgun wounds are treated before ankle sprains, and seizures before bunions. This is because certain diseases and injuries strike at the heart of one’s well being, while others are less life-threatening.

Pastors, theologians and missionaries would benefit from the same sort of triage. When deciding with whom we will partner and in what way, and when deciding which battles need to be fought and in what way, it is helpful to distinguish which doctrines are more primary and which are less so. Primary doctrines are those which are most essential to Christian faith. Without believing such doctrines as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and salvation by grace through faith alone, one’s belief is not Christian.

Secondary doctrines are those over which born-again believers may often disagree, but which do not strike as closely at the heart of the faith. Two examples are the meaning and mode of baptism, and gender roles in the church. Disagreement on these doctrines does significantly affect the way in which churches and believers relate to one another. For example, although Presbyterians and Baptists may evangelize together and form close friendships, a Baptist and a Presbyterian could not plant a church together precisely because of their differences on church government and on the meaning and mode of baptism. Some secondary doctrines bear more heavily on primary doctrines than others.

Apart from primary and secondary doctrines, there are those which we can call tertiary. These are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and yet keep the closest of fellowship between networks, between churches, and between individual Christians. An example of a tertiary doctrine would be the timing of the rapture during the period of tribulation.

This does not mean that we avoid controversy at all costs. As one theologian (in his better days) pointed out, lack of controversy is either a sign of theological death or theological maturity.[3] We hope to avoid the former and strive for the latter. Nor does this mean that we view secondary or tertiary doctrines as insignificant. “A structure of theological triage,” Mohler writes, “does not imply that Christians may take any biblical truth with less than full seriousness. We are charged to embrace and to teach the comprehensive truthfulness of the Christian faith as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. There are no insignificant doctrines revealed in the Bible, but there is an essential foundation of truth that undergirds the entire system of biblical truth.”[4] It does, however, mean that we can have close fellowship with those who differ from us on tertiary issues but decreasing levels of fellowship when we disagree on secondary issues. The upshot of this whole discussion is that we must avoid the liberal extreme of refusing to admit that there are such things as primary doctrines, as well as the fundamentalist extreme of elevating tertiary issues to the status of primary importance.

[1] We owe this point to John Frame. See his booklet published by Reformed Theological Seminary: Studying Theology as a Servant of Jesus, p.18.

[2] See R. Albert Mohler Jr., “Has Theology a Future in the Southern Baptist Convention? Toward a Renewed Theological Framework,” in Beyond the Impasse? Ed. Robison B. James and David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 91-117, and R. Albert Mohler Jr., “The Pastor as Theologian,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H, 2007), 930-32.

[3] Clark Pinnock, “A New Reformation: A Challenge to Southern Baptists,” (New Orleans: NOBTS, 1968), 3.

[4] Mohler, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,”

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  1. Andrew   •  

    In his convocation message, Dr. Nelson mentioned several issues such as the age of the earth, supralapsarianism, and tongues. I am trying to get my theology into the right categories, and so I would like to know if you would put these things into the secondary category or the tertiary category. Thanks!

  2. Tim Rogers   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    While the doctrine of baptism is not a doctrine that any would advocate as a salvific issue, it would seem that one is placing a command of Christ on a level of secondary importance. We believe the importance of this doctrine is of such a significant nature we began a convention of churches around it. It seems that a few missionaries set out as Brethren and met a Baptist by the name of William Carey. After being convinced from Scripture that Baptism was an essential step in one’s walk of faith, they were baptized. Adoniram Judson went on to the mission field in India while Luther Rice returned to sever ties with the Brethren and raise support for Judson. If my history serves me well, I believe it was Luther Rice that was influential in beginning “The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in United States of America, for Foreign Missions”. This venture is more popularly known as the Triennial Convention mainly because they met every third year. This convention is also the convention from which the SBC was formed.

    What is my point? I agree that we should “triage” our theological doctrines, though a triage system is not found in scripture, in so doing I believe we should be careful when when a man-made system places a command of Christ as a “secondary” or even “tertiary” doctrine. Also, would the authors of this post be advocating such a triage system in order to form partnerships with other groups outside of the SBC? Or, is the purpose of the system for maintaining cooperative ventures within the SBC?


  3. Matt   •  

    By what objective means does one determine primary, secondary, and tertiary? Is it not this very question that causes the discord? Even the most committed fundamentalist who raises many issues to be of primary importance, does not list *everything* as having primary importance, he will have his secondary and tertiary issues as well, but will have more primary issues than others.
    In an emergency room, the objective standard is clear: what is the most life (or limb)threatening injury? What will kill my patient the fastest if unattended?
    But, what is the objective guiding principle in theology that will categorize primary/secondary/tertiary?
    It is true that if we had consensus over where issues fell on the spectrum, the church could experience more “close-fellowship,” but it seems that it is the disagreement over the placement of issues that causes the factionalism to begin with.

  4. Jason   •  

    This is great and I whole heartily agree with the categorical divisions presented here; however, the system presented, while helpful, really doesn’t resolve the issues of separation at hand.

    You stated, “One thing that is needed is a way of determining which issues are worth fighting over and which are not.” So, then, who determines which issues are of most importance and which are not? One may say, “I cannot plant a church with a Calvinist.” Or others may say, “I cannot plant a church with a Premillennialist.” ect.

    So then, seeing as how these doctrines are not readily categorized for us, how do we place doctrines into these categories, and to which categories should they belong? If we are to leave these issues to the individual, then we have solved nothing. If we are give them to a oligarchy to decide, then we have ceased to be Baptist, and perhaps even Protestant all together.

  5. Bryan Rabon   •  

    Tim, Matt and Jason,
    I maybe be a simpleton but it seems to me that you are, if I may use the term, over thinking this issue. Dr. Ashford wrote, “Primary doctrines are those which are most essential to Christian faith. Without believing such doctrines as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and salvation by grace through faith alone, one’s belief is not Christian.” That seems fairly straight forward to me. If what I believe or don’t believe causes me to fall outside of the definition of a biblical Christian then I am not in fact a Christian. Is baptism one of those make or brake issues? No. Is it a command given by the Lord Jesus? Yes. Does that automatically make it a primary doctrine? No. If we say yes then we have fallen into the same error as those denominations that hold to baptismal regeneration and we would essentially be saying that salvation is Christ plus baptism. That seems pretty simple to me, but as I said, I may be a simpleton.
    As to the ordering of the issues that also seems fairly straight forward to me. Granted, there is some wiggle room as to whether a doctrine is second or third order but if we use a little theological common sense and not try to nit pick everything to death as we pastors are wont to do then I think our lists are going to be very similar in appearance. Why is the timing of the rapture not a second order doctrine? Simply because it falls well outside of the range of defining what true Christianity is and it does not even have direct bearing on any of the primary doctrines, which if it did, would make it a secondary doctrine. Most of the time we have a habit of elevating personal opinion and personal conviction to the level of doctrine and this is where most of the conflict takes place in denominational life. But again, what do I know? I may well be nothing more than a back woods simpleton who knows nothing at all.

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Andrew, I would not list any of those doctrines as primary.

  7. Gary Fowler   •  

    Thoughtful and helpful article. Thank you. “Triage” is an excellent tool and label to think that through.
    Perhaps similar, a well-known quote from Rupertus Meldenius, probably written about 1627, and usually translated as follows: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity [or love].”
    Of course, to apply triage, and decide which things are essential, well, “there’s the rub” (Shakespeare, of course).
    Blessings, brothers and sisters!

  8. Bruce Ashford   •     Author


    I place doctrines such as Trinity, Incarnation, and salvation by grace/faith/Christ in the category of “primary” b/c w/out those one does not have true Christianity. I place Scripture in the primary category also b/c once we lose that doctrine we will soon lose all others.

    Therefore, if somebody denied baptism he would be denying the commands of Christ, which would be tantamount to denying Scripture. That would me a disagreement over a primary doctrine. If a person baptizes improperly, he is not denying the doctrine of Scripture, but rather misinterpreting the Bible’s teaching on Baptism.

    The point is: I can have a type of fellowship and camaraderie with somebody who misinterprets baptism (e.g. Francis Schaeffer) that I cannot have with somebody who denies the Bible as ipsissima verba Dei (e.g. Schleiermacher) or who denies the Trinity, or Incarnation, or salvation by grace/faith/Christ (e.g. Mormons, JWs, etc.). This is why SBC presidents and theologians spend time at ETS but not at the Mormon convention. This is why they read Schaeffer’s books approvingly, but not Joseph Smith’s.

    This is pretty basic stuff, Tim. I’m surprised that you asked such a question.

  9. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Matt and Jason, you are correct that “theological triage” as a model doesn’t solve anything. It is a concept that hopefully provide a way for constructive debate and discussion. Until Jesus comes, there will always be doctrinal and methodological controversy. Our job is to discuss and debate in a way that is faithful to the Scriptures and to the church’s mission.

  10. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Bryan, you’re not a simpleton. :-)

  11. Tim Rogers   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    Thanks for the reply. I am honored that you think so much of my intellectual prowess that you would think I am asking something so basic that it may be beneath me. However, I am very disheartened in the fact that we have taken a man made system to interpret scripture. For example, your semantics concerning the denying of scriptural baptism is very interesting. It seems that the Historical/Critical method did much of the same. The theological triage system, if we are not careful, will place us outside of scriptural authority just like the Historical/Critical method did.

    Thus, I ask again, “would the authors of this post be advocating such a triage system in order to form partnerships with other groups outside of the SBC? Or, is the purpose of the system for maintaining cooperative ventures within the SBC?”


  12. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Tim, nobody questioned your intellectual prowess. What I do question is whether or not you actually read our posts for authorial intent, b/c your questions make it seem that you don’t. Your first comment, and your follow-up comment seem to be accusing me and Dr. Akin of either stupidity or duplicity.

    Triage is not a man-made system for interpreting Scripture, Tim. It is a conceptual framework to help us sort out what we divide over and what we don’t, etc. The framework itself is intended to drive us back to Scripture.

    As for your question about whether we would recommend triage for partnerships outside of the SBC: No. The SBC is a network of churches who cooperate for mission, theological ed, etc. Churches can cooperate with other networks and have done so in the past (mega-metro, saddleback, etc.)

  13. Nathan Finn   •  

    Theological triage is a lot like hermeneutics and systematic theology: everyone does it all the time. There may be reasons that somebody disagrees with Dr. Mohler’s approach–his opinions are open to critique, as is anyone’s–but all he has done is give a name (and his opinion about boundaries) to a practice in which all Christians engage. Any pastor who has ever sent money to a multi-denominational Religious Right organization, given money to Wycliff or WorldVision, participated in a community prayer service, or accepted a transfer member from a non-SBC church has engaged in some form of theological triage, whether they call such or not.


  14. John   •  

    It’s about time someone realized the real problem faced by the SBC. This sounds like a possible yet long overdue answer to the plague of factionalism so rampant in our Convention, an almost instinctive trait I believe has harmed us far more even than the racism for which we apologized in 1995. Unfortunately, a lifetime in the Convention doesn’t leave me with an uplifting sense of optimism that we’ll change any time soon.

    I really wish the people so obsessed with the separatism of Amos and Corinthians would take the time to read John 17. Jesus’ longest prayer recorded in Scripture calls for the visible unity of His people. After praying for the unity of the disciples with Him, Our Lord clearly stated the importance of unity in our generations: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

    For far too long, far too many in the SBC have lived with the anticipation of separating from other believers at the least hint of theological disagreement. This sordid tendency really killed our missions momentum with the so-called “Conservative Resurgence” of the 1970’s-1980’s. I’m not saying we didn’t need correcting at the time, but the bloodletting that followed was blatantly unChristian.

    Some may say, “We needed to get rid of the ‘liberals.'” I remember a Presbyterian pastor (a former SBC pastor, BTW) who once told me, “Most Baptists have never met a liberal. A true liberal is someone who denies the Virgin Birth.” Sure, we have another group of Baptists, the CBF, so both groups should reach twice as many people, right? However, the warfare of the 1980’s destroyed any hope of success for the Bold Mission Thrust begun in the 1970’s. Someone once told me, “When the Fundamentalists finish purging the moderates, they’ll turn on each other.” The accuracy of this prophecy is almost maddening, nearly as much as our arrogance in withdrawing from the BWA when that organization recognized the CBF.

    Following our warfare of the preceding decades, it amazes me that the separatists stand aghast when the world refuses to hear the gospel proclaimed by the Church at large. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, “When He said ‘That they may be one,’ He meant it.” We’ve blatantly disobeyed Jesus’ clear teaching regarding the importance of our unity and then wonder why our membership has dropped and our witness goes unheeded.

  15. Tim Rogers   •  

    Dr. Ashford,

    I am not accusing you or Dr. Akin of stupidity or duplicity. I am not smart enough to tell if you are stupid or duplicitous but I ain’t dumb enough to state such either. :) Please, do not place words out there that have not been stated. I asked a simple question concerning your perspective of theological triage. I merely presented that it was a man-made system that moved the commands of Christ into secondary and even some would say tertiary positions. Your response was baptism was something that was primary but how someone interpreted it would place in as secondary. It seems the command of Christ was not baptism but believers baptism. In all due respect, that is where I disagree with you and anyone else that uses theological triage in order to get around partnering with others that forsake believers baptism. If the great commission does not include the commands of Christ how then is it a great commission? In your theological triage position you are stopping the great commission after “go”. Thus, you are saying (I am not saying you have stated this, merely by your argument you seem to be advocating this) “In order to fulfill the great commission with others we must stop after “go” and leave the discipleship and decision for or against baptism to the new believer.

    Dr. Finn,

    As you so aptly point out, individual churches are free to partner with whomever, whenever, and wherever they choose. Within the convention structure, entities do not have that luxury. Remember, the church is king and entities answer to the churches through the trustee system. Thus, theological triage should be used by entities in order to partner with others outside the convention structure and in so doing the primary level of doctrine changes drastically. Why? If we believe leading someone to Christ only involves getting them to say a prayer then we can partner with anyone as long as we get to the prayer. But, I thought we understood that leading someone to Christ involved more than just a prayer, it also involves the discipleship of one within the context of a local church. Since we as baptist understand the local church to be an assembly of born again baptized believers then it seems that believers baptism should be a primary concern during the triage assessment, when partnering with others outside of the convention.


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