Is Baptism a Secondary Doctrine?

Several years ago, Southern Seminary president Albert Mohler wrote an influential essay titled “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.” In that essay, Mohler argues that a key to spiritual maturity is being able to distinguish between primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines. According to Mohler, primary or first-order doctrines are those that are essential to the faith-you cannot reject these beliefs and still be Christian in the biblical sense of the term. Mohler’s examples include such matters as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus, justification by faith, and the full authority of Scripture.

Secondary or second-order doctrines are those that generate disagreement among authentic Christians and typically result in an inability to be a part of the same denomination or often even congregation. Mohler’s examples of second-order doctrines are gender roles and baptism.

Tertiary or third-order doctrines are those doctrines that engender disagreement, but do not normally prevent two Christians from being part of the same church or group of churches. Mohler’s cites disagreement about the finer details of eschatology, presumably the nature of the millennium and the timing of the rapture, as textbook tertiary doctrines.

Southern Baptists have responded in a variety of ways to Mohler’s paradigm. Some argue it is a helpful way to think about the nature of Christian cooperation. They claim we all do theological triage, even if subconsciously and without using the label. Others voice concerns that Mohler’s views, or at least some possible applications of his views, lead to a downplaying of important theological convictions. They claim that theological triage results in our picking and choosing which biblical commands we will obey and which we will fudge on for ecumenical purposes.

For my part, I am firmly in the camp that agrees that theological triage is a helpful term that describes what all Christians already do, even if they don’t know it. I reject the notion that in principle categorizing doctrines as either primary, secondary, or tertiary necessarily leads to some sort of inappropriate compromise. When I choose to work with others with whom I disagree on secondary or tertiary convictions, I am not endorsing their convictions-I’m simply recognizing that what I believe to be their error doesn’t preclude us from working together in certain matters.

I think one reason the idea of theological triage raises concerns for many Baptists is because ecclesiological distinctives, and particularly baptism, are almost always considered second-order doctrines. Mohler himself uses baptism as one of his examples as a secondary doctrine. How should Baptists, and particularly Southern Baptists, think of the doctrine of baptism (and ecclesiology in general)? Is baptism a second-order doctrine?

I think the answer is both yes and no. There is a sense in which baptism is most certainly a secondary doctrine because a certain form of baptism is not necessary for salvation. In other words, you can be really converted and really love Jesus and really be growing in your faith, yet hold to an erroneous view of baptism. It is a secondary doctrine.

But as Southern Baptists, it is important to recognize that a particular understanding of baptism-the full immersion of professed believers-is a core distinctive of our churches and our denomination. While every Southern Baptist I know would agree that baptism doesn’t contribute to our salvation, almost every Southern Baptist I know would argue that confessor’s baptism by immersion is the explicit teaching of the New Testament and that other Christians who sprinkle babies and call it baptism are in error, even if they don’t know it.

Baptism is a secondary doctrine, but one that Baptists honestly believe is taught in the New Testament and should be embraced by other believers. To argue baptism is a primary doctrine is sectarian and smacks of a bapto-centric spirit that values the sign of the new covenant over the realities of the new covenant, even if implicitly. But to argue that baptism is unimportant or a matter of adiaphora is to disregard a doctrine that Scripture ties to the gospel (Rom. 6), missions (Matt. 28), and the church (Acts 2). Baptism is very important, but it is not of first importance.

For the record, I think Mohler would likely agree with my argument (though he’d no doubt make it more eloquently were he writing this). I don’t see anything in his essay that hints at the idea that baptism-or any other secondary or even tertiary doctrine-is unimportant. In fact, he argues that disagreements about secondary doctrines help define denominations and churches. Baptists give special emphasis to the secondary doctrine of baptism, which necessarily helps distinguish us from other types of Christians.

Southern Baptists should not retreat one inch from our commitment to New Testament baptism. But neither should we act as if an erroneous view of baptism necessarily calls into question one’s regeneration and/or his gospel usefulness. We should speak prophetically to our brothers and sisters in Christ when it comes to baptism (and ecclesiology in general), but we should also humbly recognize that God is working among those who are wrong on baptism, sometimes to a much greater degree than he is working among Baptists. I hope we will work with them in every way we can without sacrificing our baptismal convictions.

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  1. Eric Carpenter   •  

    Dr. Finn,

    Thank you for writing this article.

    I have a question for you that relates directly to what Dr. Mohler has written. Since you have mentioned it here, I’d like to ask you about it. What is the biblical justification for what Dr. Mohler refers to as “secondary or second-order doctrines” that “typically result in an inability to be a part of the same denomination or often even congregation”?

    When I look in scripture, I never find any “secondary doctrine” that is supposed to divide Christians. Writers of scripture emphasize the unity of Christians. They do not tell or even imply that Christians should divide over issues such as baptism.

    Despite this, Baptists divide from some other Christians over, at least, baptism. What’s the biblical justification for this?

    When I ask this question to others, the responses I get are almost always pragmatic ones as opposed to biblical ones.

    So let me respectfully ask, why do Baptists divide from other Christians over a secondary doctrine like baptism? How can this be justified biblically?

  2. Robert   •  

    That is a good point to consider. I’m Baptist, and yes divided with other brothers, but the division doesn’t necessarily mean it is a division in spirit. There is one faith, one baptism, one Lord. Most would agree with that, so we are not saying we are divided in the sense that we are different religions, or in spirit, but rather our division is a practical one. There will always be pragmatic divisions. Even in my own church there are divisions where some bible study classes are designed for women, while others are for men. Some are for kindergardners while others are for elderly. In our worship together we see this. We have some that come to an early service, while others to a later service. There are times when our divided church comes together as a whole to do minstry that is condusive to the whole, but there are other times when our church is very divided in ministry because it is the practical and pragmatic thing to do. Division isn’t necessarily a mocking of the unity in Christ.

  3. David R. Brumbelow   •  

    I grew up hearing these doctrines explained in a little different way.

    First were Basic Christian Doctrines. Or they could be called Foundational or Fundamental Doctrines. Those like the Divine Inspiration of the Bible, Trinity, Virgin Birth, Sacrificial Death and Literal Resurrection of Jesus, Literal Second Coming, Resurrection, Judgment, Heaven, Hell, Salvation through personal faith in Christ alone.

    Next were Baptist Distinctives. Doctrines that distinguished us from other groups of believers. Doctrines like Believer’s Baptism by Immersion, Eternal Security, Symbolism of the elements of the Lord’s Supper, etc. You can be a Christian and not believe these doctrines. But if you don’t believe them you are out of step with the majority of Baptists.

    Third were Secondary Doctrines like Premillennial, Amillennial, Postmillennial, etc. not that these doctrines are unimportant, but conservative, Bible believing folks, including Baptists, will disagree on them.

    Anyway, both views are substantially the same, just different ways of looking at them. They form an easy way of understanding the different faiths and churches.
    David R. Brumbelow

  4. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    Thanks for your question. I do not think dividing over baptism is a purely pragmatic decision, though there are some pragmatic considerations involved. I think the primary reason for division is theological, more specifically, ecclesiological. Simply put, Baptist Christians and pedobaptist Christians have a different understandings of what it means to be a local church.

    Baptists follow the NT example of all church members being (presumably) regenerate individuals who have been immersed following conversion. For a variety of different reasons, various types of pedobaptists argue that there are other “modes” of baptism besides that found in the NT. Based upon this presumption, they argue that a local church includes both believers and non-believing children, as well as individuals who have been immersed as believers and sprinkled as babies.

    In short, Baptists refuse to unite with pedobaptists at the level of local church membership because Baptists refuse to define local church membership in a way that differs from the NT. We believe our pedobaptist friends are rebelling against NT church order, though we recognize they do not believe this to be the case. Nevertheless, we will not compromise what seems to be explicit NT example and teaching in favor of a superficial unity that glosses over different understandings of baptism and church membership.

    For the record, Baptists also believe (correctly, I think) that both the Bible and church history are with us on this. Infant “baptism” is the innovation that was introduced sometime in the latter half of the second century. Pedobaptism is a human tradition rather than NT prescription. Until pedobaptists embrace a NT understanding of the church, while there are many ways we can cooperate together for the sake of the gospel, we cannot be members of the same local church because of different understandings of what that entails.


  5. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    I think different Christians (and Baptists) frame this in differnt ways, but they end up doing similar things. The paradigm I use in class is that Baptists are catholic, reformational, and radical. There are doctrines we share with Christians in general (catholic), doctrines we share with evangelical Protestants(reformational), and doctrines that distinguish us from most other believers (radical). The “Baptist distinctives” are found in the third category. This is not the same as Mohler’s categories, but it is another way to do more or less the same thing–distinguish doctrines for the purpose of understanding and, when applicable, cooperation.


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  7. Eric Carpenter   •  

    Dr. Finn,

    Thanks for your answer and for this discussion.

    Please let me say that I agree with believer’s baptism.

    My concern is the following: scripture commands us to be united with other believers. Additionally, I can find no where in scripture that even hints that we should divide (such as not meeting together as local churches) over secondary doctrines, including our understanding of the nature of the church.

    Certainly we are divided from unbelievers. Paul makes this abundantly clear in Galatians 1:8-9.

    I again respectfully ask for the biblical justification for dividing from other Christians over secondary doctrines. Where does scripture even grant us permission to divide over our understanding of the church?

    Our divide with Roman Catholicism is one of salvation. I think we can find plenty of biblical support for not gathering together with those who are unregenerate. However, when Baptists divide from, for example, Presbyterians (PCA) and vice-versa, what is the biblical justification? Where does the bible say this should happen?

    I’m not trying to win any sort of debate here or anything of that sort. Rather, I just really want to know.

    If the scriptures justify division from other Christians over secondary doctrines such as the church, then I want to support that. If, on the other hand, scripture does not support these divisions, then I’m rejecting them.

  8. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    Scripture also commands us to be baptized. So we have two commands: be united and be baptized. If we are obedient to both of these, no problem. But someone is not being obedient to the latter, and because of that, the former is impossible.

    I’m sorry I cannot chapter-and-verse dividing over baptism. But there is a very important reason I cannot do this–unlike a Judaized false gospel, baptism and membership was not an issue in the NT. Every Christian was baptized and every church was comprised only of baptized believers. This particular sin had not entered the camp yet, as it were.

    The fact is Baptists and pedobaptists have DIFFERENT AND IRRECONCILABLE UNDERSTANDINGS of the nature of baptism and church membership. We cannot get together on this when there is a fundamental disagreement about what the “this” is. Somebody is dead wrong, and that error makes same-church unity impossible unless we agree that baptism is adiaphora–something I’m unwilling to do (as are my pedobaptist friends).

    Saying “we shouldn’t divide” sounds very NT, but simply put, it regrettably isn’t feasible because of the very issue being debated. Now granted, I will be the first one to admit that this is an unfortunate and anti-NT situation–no doubt about it. But the fault does not lie with Baptists because we are the ones who continue to embrace the NT practice. Unity at the local church level will only come when the Spirit leads us to a common understanding of what it means to be a member of a local church.

    I long for the same unity they enjoyed in the NT on this very matter. But it will only come by the type of Spirit-led renewal that leads folks to recognize error, correct it, and seek a unity based on NT principles. Primary doctrines are more important because of what they address, but we have an obligation to conform ourselves to the Bible on all doctrines.


  9. Robin Foster   •  


    Even though I have some issues with Dr. Mohler’s Theological Triage, I agree with you that Baptism is a distinctive that separates baptists from other denominations.

    My question for you deals with your article concerning a new Baptist Confession that would remove the statement concerning baptism being a requirement for the Lord’s Supper. I know that you affirm this, but your argument was that it needed to be removed since many SBC churches practice open communion. Would you then consider this a tertiary issue? If so, would you consider our baptist forefathers in error in including this on so many confessions of faith?
    The issue I have is that this Theological Triage could be taken further to categorizing the commands of Christ based on the whim of people who may be in error, such as baptism or the Lord’s supper. Ultimately it could lead to a loss of distinctiveness depending on who calls the shots concerning on what level certain doctrines and commands fall.


  10. Roger Simpson   •  

    I agree with Dr. Mohler that baptism is a secondary doctrine.

    There are a number of aspects of baptism that various “denominations” might implement differently

    a. purpose of baptism — whether it is part of salvation or the result of salvation (i.e. the difference between SBC and Church of Christ)

    b. modality of baptism — sprinkling vs. pouring vs. immersion

    c. “informed consent” by candidate — infant vs. young children vs. person that understands his salvation

    I think some of these choices are more foundational than others. For example, if the practice of baptism is correct for topics a and c then I think topic b is less important.

    The thief on the cross wasn’t worried about either topic a, b, or c. He was going to heaven in any case.

  11. Nathan Finn   •  


    What I have suggested is that it *might* be best to adopt a policy of confessional neutrality when it comes to the terms of communion. The reason is not because of my personal close communion convictions, but rather because of the recognition that this is at least possibly an area where our confession no longer represents a theological consensus. I would strongly oppose a confessional affirmation of open communion–I couldn’t in good conscience affirm it. But if we adopted a policy of neutrality (in the tradition of the Philadelphia Confession), then we would still be free to try and persuade each other, but we’d recognize the reality that Southern Baptists simply do not enjoy the consensus on this matter we once did.

    Since this is not the topic of this post, I’d be happy to dialog about this further if you shoot me an email. I know you disagree with my proposal, but I’d be interested in hearing more from you on this. I don’t claim to necessarily have the confessional question figured out–I simply want to start a real dialog about an important issue.


  12. Nathan Finn   •  


    The thief on the cross is irrelevant to this discussion. The question is not what to do with the few who are converted on their deathbed and do not have the chance to be baptized, but rather is what to do with the vast majority from whom this is not the case. What is a baptism, and what relationship does it have to the membership? Baptism according to the NT includes all three of your elements–remove one, and what you have is not baptism, no matter what you call the practice.


  13. Greg Welty   •  

    Eric Carpenter wrote:

    “I again respectfully ask for the biblical justification for dividing from other Christians over secondary doctrines. Where does scripture even grant us permission to divide over our understanding of the church?”


    Baptists and paedobaptists have different definitions of New Covenant membership, and local church membership. Baptists believe that New Covenant membership is restricted to those who possess saving faith, and that local church membership is restricted to those who have a credible profession of faith, and who have been baptized by immersion following that credible profession of faith. Paedobaptists believe that New Covenant membership is additionally open to infants who have been sprinkled as infants (quite apart from any personal profession of faith on their part), and that local church membership is open to the same. Baptists reject this latter point of view.

    Given this, the question is not: “Since baptists and paedobaptists have differing convictions on church membership, should they go on and decide to divide because of this?” In virtue of their differing convictions, *they are already divided*, in doctrine and in practice, and it couldn’t be otherwise given those convictions. The real question is whether we are going to honestly and openly acknowledge that division, and then seek ways of cooperation that nevertheless respect that pre-existing division at the level of local church membership. That is what Mohler’s triage model seeks to do.

    The fact of the matter is that the paedobaptist says, “Infants of believers are already in the covenant and should be considered church members,” whereas the Baptist denies this. It is therefore impossible to have a single local church that respects and implements *both* convictions, since the convictions contradict each other. Therefore, as long as the convictions remain as they are, *there will be division* at the level of local church membership, whether we like it or not. What Mohler’s triage model is saying is that this division, though real, does not preclude acknowledging (with joy and gratefulness) that paedobaptists are nevertheless our brothers in Christ, and that we can cooperate with them in various ministry endeavors, as long as such cooperation does not require us to give up our convictions about baptism and church membership. Thus, the division is real, but it does not preclude cooperation in every sense. Christians do not need to be members of the same local church in order to cooperate in various ways for ministry purposes.

    Therefore, there is no need to look to Scripture to “grant us permission to divide over our understanding of the church.” Rather, we look to Scripture to find out what is the true doctrine of the church, and once we faithfully implement that ecclesiology, the division is inescapable.

    As a test of this understanding, try to come up with a definition of local church membership that will allow both baptists and paedobaptists to faithfully implement their convictions in a single local church. It can’t happen, because you will be asking baptists to regard as church members people whom they do not believe are church members, and you will be asking paedobaptists to exclude as church members people whom they do believe are church members. In addition, you will be asking the baptists to accept as baptized those whom they do not believe are baptized. Thus, the only way to avoid division is to ask both camps to either pretend that what they believe is true isn’t really true, or to ask both camps to refrain from implementing as true what they believe is true. The former is bad faith, and the latter is sin, and surely either outcome is too high a price to pay to avoid division. You would be asking Christians to reject what they regard as biblical faith and practice, in the name of avoiding ‘division’. But far from avoiding division, you would be *introducing* an even more insidious form of division: dividing believers from their own convictions, and from integrity in carrying out those convictions.

  14. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr Finn:

    I think article VII in the BF&M 2000 is OK as is. As far as I can tell it covers all of the Baptist distinctives without going overboard.

    An example of going overboard: requiring that the baptismal waters be fresh water — not salt water. As far as I know, all examples of baptism in the NT are in creeks, rivers, ponds, pools, etc. that were not salt water. I am not aware of any examples in the NT where people were baptized in the ocean or in the Dead Sea. But this does not mean that “salt water” baptisms are not biblical in my opinion. It is only the case that we don’t have those specific examples in the NT.

    All the examples we have in the NT of baptism are “immersion”. So I think we can infer that immersion is the proper mode (or at least one of the proper modes) of baptism.

    The issue of “church membership”, as referenced in BFM2K article 7 must, at least partially, refer to the universal church — not a given local congregation.
    [I don’t know of any congregations that require you to be baptized a second time if you were properly baptized before]

  15. Greg Welty   •  

    Robin Foster wrote:

    “The issue I have is that this Theological Triage could be taken further to categorizing the commands of Christ based on the whim of people who may be in error, such as baptism or the Lord’s supper. Ultimately it could lead to a loss of distinctiveness depending on who calls the shots concerning on what level certain doctrines and commands fall.”

    But the idea that a ‘loss of distinctiveness’ could happen ‘depending on who calls the shots’ applies to just *any* situation in which someone ‘calls the shots’. This is no special problem for Mohler’s proposal, but is rather a more general consequence of the law of cause and effect. For example, if the messengers from the churches of the SBC seek to revise the BFM in the future, then that ‘could lead’ to a loss of distinctiveness as well, depending on what they do. But it doesn’t follow from *that*, that they shouldn’t ‘call the shots’ here :-) So we need to give this slippery slope argument a bit more content if it’s going to have any bite against the triage model in particular. As a matter of fact, we need to interact with the specifics of Mohler’s proposal. Here are two points:

    [1] It is sometimes asserted that the very notion of theological triage, and its corollary of secondary doctrines, is a way of regarding these doctrines as somehow insignificant, or at least an invitation to do so. (cf. But Mohler’s original exposition of triage explicitly expresses the *opposite* point of view:

    “A structure of theological triage 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.”

    [2] In addition, Mohler is also sometimes charged with wanting to downplay second-order doctrines because they are seen as obstacles to unity among Christians and cooperation among local churches. (Again, cf. But Mohler’s article says the exact opposite. He explicitly labels second-order doctrines as those doctrines which *quite properly* divide local churches:

    “The set of second-order doctrines is distinguished from the first-order set by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominational forms, these boundaries become evident.” (ibid.)

    Far from triage proponents putting doctrines in the ‘second-order’ category so that they *won’t* divide churches, Mohler says second-order doctrines *divide* local churches from other local churches, and denominations from other denominations, and rightly so.

  16. Robin Foster   •  


    I will email you at some point. Between church responsibilities and trying to get my dissertation off the ground, I am swamped. As you have probably realized, I ahve backed away from a lot of blogging. Your post did peek my interest, so I thought it might be a worthy subject to address. I also apologize if I took the comments to an area outside of the subject of the post. My intent was to discuss TT and give an example (Lord Supper) where I believe a loss of distinctiveness may possibly happen. I know your point on LS. In fact, I have your white paper posted in the foyer of our church. I will get back though.


    I hope things are going well for you at SEBTS. I missed being able to drop by to see you at SWBTS when I was there for various reasons.

    I realize Dr. Mohler stated that TT should not divide churches, but with this model, he left it open to where doctrines and commands fall in the scheme of things. Is the BF&M first and second tier for cooperating in our convention or is there some third tier issues in the document? Also, consider this, I can state that I have the fastest motorcycle in the world. I may honestly believe that, like I believe Dr. Mohler believes TT will not lead to any “slippery slope” (your language). But in reality, like my bike is not the fastest in the world and TT could have a great potential to minimize certain doctrines and lead the SBC to further doctrinal apathy.

    David Mills thought this out in his book, “The Courage to be Protestant,” where he surmised that the desire of evangelicals to minimize doctrines of cooperation ultimately lead to the doctrinal and evangelistic apathy in the evangelical church.

    While I don’t doubt that the SBC in some fashion practices some sort of TT (BF&M?), I think to further a reduction in doctrines (which is possible for TT) for the sake of cooperation could lead us away from what makes us distinctively baptist.

    One final note and this brings in some of what I discussed before. Any neutrality on the Lord’s Supper can have the impact for a diminishing the importance of baptism. At a minimum, the BF&M states that baptism is a requirement for participation in the LS. It also states that baptism is the immersion of a believer in water. To make it neutral is to ultimately diminish our view of baptism, and the scriptural witness of only baptized believers participating in the LS. What this will mean for the local church is that those who were sprinkled whether as an adult or infant will be accepted for their sprinkling at the Lord’s Table. What we believe the Bible teaches on what truly is baptism will be rejected. In other words, a false baptism will be endorsed through open communion. Therefore, unless for matters of membership (which some are already stating that baptism is not a requirement for membership) we allow those who are rejecting the biblical understanding of baptism, to participate in the LS. I know these may seem to be harsh words (as Mark Dever had a bit of a controversy over this), but it is not my intent to be harsh, but to remain true to the biblical witness.

    Again, I know this article is not about communion and I again apologize for bringing it up again, but I believe this example has merit to what TT could lead our convention. What say you?

  17. Greg Welty   •  

    Robin, you start off your reply to me by saying:

    “I realize Dr. Mohler stated that TT should not divide churches…”

    This is the exact opposite of what Mohler says, and is the opposite of the point I made. Mohler explicitly (and repeatedly!) defines second-order doctrines as those which divide local churches from each other.

    It’s as if you didn’t read the last three paragraphs of my previous comment. Can you clear this up for me? I gave you quotes! :-)

    “… but with this model, he left it open to where doctrines and commands fall in the scheme of things.”

    Would you have preferred he give us a list?

    Well, actually, he did provide a pretty specific list in the article in question:

    First-order doctrines: “the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture.”

    Second-order doctrines: “the meaning and mode of baptism… the practice of infant baptism… women serving as pastors.”

    Third-order doctrines: “most of the debates over eschatology… any number of issues related to the interpretation of difficult texts or the understanding of matters of common disagreement.”

    So is your problem that he gave us a list, but it isn’t an exhaustive list? How is that a problem, exactly? In expounding the model, he’s being illustrative, not exhaustive, probably because he’s leaving it up to local churches to make these kinds of decisions pertaining to cooperation.

    Mohler is clear that second-order issues quite properly *divide* churches and denominations from each other. (For instance, some second-order doctrines prevent Baptists and Presbyterians from cooperating as members of the same local church.) If we place the Lord’s Supper into the second-order category, how exactly does that “minimize doctrines of cooperation” and “ultimately lead to the doctrinal and evangelistic apathy in the evangelical church”? One would think that dividing over these issues, by organizing as a separate denomination, is a testimony that one thinks these doctrines are *important*.

    “Is the BF&M first and second tier for cooperating in our convention or is there some third tier issues in the document?”

    What do you mean by ‘cooperating’? Giving to the CP? Acknowledging someone as a Christian? Receiving someone as a member in your local church? The whole point of the triage model is that different kinds of cooperation are envisioned. So you may have to clarify what you mean by ‘cooperating’.

    Unless I’ve badly misread him, the theological triage model is not an attempt to analyze the set of doctrines in the BF&M, and then prioritize them for the sake of inter-church cooperation. As far as I can tell, it’s not an attempt to analyze the BF&M at all. Consistent with the affirmation of local church autonomy, I think he leaves that one up to the churches (cf. the five numbered points in the Preamble to the BF&M). (BTW, does the *BF&M* itself address your specific question? Is there a paragraph that lays out grounds for cooperation between SBC churches, and then between SBC churches and non-SBC churches? And if not, is the BF&M by that omission an inherently unstable and overly permissive confession of faith?)

    For the record, I hold to closed communion, and believe that baptism by immersion is a prerequisite to both church membership and the Lord’s Supper. I am thankful that doctrine is in the BF&M.

    As for the rest of your comment, I can’t really respond to charges of ‘potential’ and ‘possibilities’. It’s possible that the doctrine of local church autonomy will lead us to become narcissistic individualists. That’s no argument against local church autonomy. It’s possible that the doctrine of believer’s baptism by immersion will lead us to declare some Christians as non-Christians. That’s no argument against believer’s baptism. It’s possible that excessive typing on a keyboard could lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. That’s no argument against internet communication. I believe I could give at least a hundred further examples in this vein.

    I need an actual argument here. Preferably, one that engages the specifics of the theological triage model, and makes a case for likelihood rather than bare possibility. The problem with slippery slope arguments is that any truth can be abused, in any direction. Any position ‘can lead’ to another position. That’s no reason not to take a position. The doctrine of closed communion ‘can lead’ to declaring Christians to be non-Christians. (I’ve seen it.) The doctrine of open communion ‘can lead’ to declaring non-Christians to be Christians. (I’ve seen that as well.) Neither of these ill consequences tells me which doctrine to believe, and which to avoid. That comes down to the *biblical case* for one or the other, not possible consequences (real, imagined, or otherwise).

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  19. Roger Simpson   •  

    I think there are two discussions going on at once.

    One, raised by Dr Finn, regards Baptism. I think that Dr. Finn is arguing that Baptism is a special case that requires a unique place in the theological triage spectrum. Should Baptism be placed in tier 1.5; because it is neither a 1st order doctrine or a 2nd order doctrine based upon Dr. Mohler’s criterion?

    The assignment of Baptism as a special case is independent of the argument as to whether or not the BF&M and/or application of Theological Triage could lead to some type of “slippery slope”.

    One way to get to the nub of this issue is to take each of the 18 sections in the BF&M 2K and assign the subject matter in that section as either first, second, or third order in terms of the theological triage spectrum. Alternatively, extending Dr. Finn’s idea, we would have first, halfway between first and second, second, and third order items — where BAPTISM is the item unique to “halfway between first and second”.

    My understanding is that Dr. Finn is pointing in the direction of some type of written confession. Since we already have a fairly exhaustive BF&M I think Dr. Finn’s goal of more confessional fidelity across the SBC could be more easily realized by annotating the BF&M sections in terms of their doctrinal tiers.

    Article VII would have to be split into two new articles.

    The first part of Article VII (on Baptism) which reads “Christian Baptism . . . of the dead” would become Article VIIa and be assigned to level 1.5

    The second part of Article VII (on the Lord’s supper) which reads “Being a church ordinance . . . anticipate His second coming” would become Article VIIb. It would probably not be possible to assign VIIb to any triage level because across the SBC there is no agreement on this section.

  20. Calvin   •  

    Good article on believer’s baptism as a primary distinctive of Southern Baptists. I have seen many articles lately telling us Reformed Baptists that being Reformed soteriologically does not a Reformed Christian make. While I am amillenial and am confessional (thanks to my wonderful Church History class…) and covenantal, I am NOT, nor will ever be, paedobaptist. You are right, to label it as baptism is irresponsible to the text of Scripture. Every reformed bone in my body wants to lash back against this but an honest look at Scripture has to warrant believer’s baptism through immersion. Thank you for this and for your guidance through the years. I also like you “adiaphora” reference (did you read Tabletalk???).

  21. Robin Foster   •  


    Thanks for your response. I appreciate the dialog as it helps me and I hope others think through this important matter.

    Concerning your question about what I meant about cooperating, I meant churches like mine that pool resources with other churches to support different endeavors like missions, seminaries, etc. In other words, how we cooperate as Southern Baptists.

    Second, your need to move to reality instead of using hypothetical models is not valid because as pastor, I deal with issues all the time and I measure the impact those issues will possibly have on the congregation through prayer and the study of God’s Word. Are we not told to test the spirits (1 John 4:1)? If Southern Baptists were more cautious about the idea of individual freedom that Mullins promoted in the first half of the last century and realized its unbiblical downfalls, they may have stopped the hyper-individualism that formed the liberal movement in our convention and kept a proper perspective on the Priesthood of all Believers. I don’t think Mullins envisioned some Southern Baptists denying the virgin birth or declaring there were errors in the Bible. Yet, that is what happened in the second half of the twentieth century. We have to deal with what may happen. Dr. Mohler may not want to see TT used as a grid for our confessional statement, but that doesn’t mean that it is not capable of happening. Even Nathan’s idea of what he considers “might” help in making our denomination a confessional organization by creating a neutral statement on the Lord’s supper is rooted in a triage of sorts. The idea is to narrow down areas of agreement to further cooperation and confessionalism on a local church level. Again, David Wells successfully argues that this type of reductionism only leads to doctrinal apathy and a failure to be obedient to the Great Commission.

    Third, TT is not biblical. In fact, in Dr. Mohler’s argument from the article to which you pointed me, Dr. Mohler does not use any scripture as either a starting point or evidence for the concept of TT. At best his argument is for pragmatic reasons. Scripture on the other hand always points us to embracing “all” of what Christ has commanded and “to draw near” and “hold fast to our confession of hope without wavering.” TT leads us to draw near to pragmatism rather than biblical commands and doctrines.

    Fourth, who really has the authority to decide what doctrine or command is of the first order, second order, or tertiary? If it is a person, who would that be? We would be faced with a papacy if that were the case. If it an ecclesiastical organization outside of the local church, then autonomy would be rejected? If it is a church, then where does Christ give his bride the authority to disregard commands or doctrines because they are considered tertiary? A system like this is subjective at best and without a clear foundation upon which to start, it can lead to many interpretations and systems.

    Finally, where would the doctrine of inerrancy fall into a system of TT. I know that Dr. Mohler only addresses the “authority of scripture” in his article, but inerrancy was the battle cry for the conservative resurgence and needs to be dealt with here. If it is first tier, then those who deny inerrancy could not be considered a Christian. It then becomes a test of salvation. I don’t believe even Carl Henry, who was the foundational architect of our understanding of inerrancy, would have used it as a test for salvation. Of course, I could be wrong concerning Henry. If it is second tier, then it would deny its place as “an essential foundation of truth that undergirds the entire system of biblical truth.” If it is tertiary, then the second tier argument is more so relevant and we as Southern Baptists owe a huge apology to the liberals and moderates who left the convention. Where would you place inerrancy under a TT that would not add it to the simple condition of grace by faith for salvation or take away its foundational status that all other doctrines are formed?

    Anyways, I pray you have a blessed Lord’s Day. Your response has caused me to think more deeply and I appreciate that. Also, I did goof on the Mohler and division thing. No excuse by my lack of focus. I apologize for that. Thank you for your graciousness in that matter.


  22. Roger Simpson   •  


    The idea of Theological Triage was not launched by Dr. Mohler. Back in the early 1990s, Dr Jim Sawyer, at Western Seminary, wrote a paper called “Heirarchy of Doctrines”.

    I think it is “obvious” that some doctrines are more foundational than others. The realization of this fact is not unique to Dr. Mohler.

    For example, the substitutional atonement of Christ is more important than adhering to either a pre-millennial or post-millennial eschatology. This is true regardless of how may “tiers” any given “triage” or “heirarchy” system incorporates.

    The problem is not the systematic organization of doctrines into tiers but the fact that different people have different understandings. For example, most Church of Christ congregations hold that baptism is necessary for salvation — thus it is a 1st tier item. Baptists generally hold that baptism is an ordanance that happens after salvation making it 2nd tier. The problem is not with the TT, but with the fact that people have a disagreement on doctrine. This disagreement still remains even if everyone stipulated to do away with TT entirely.

    Of course any man-made theological system is going to be imperfect and also subject to debate. Artifices such as TT serve as a framework for debate.

    As am engineer I like to put things into boxes in order to organize knowledge. So for me at least, TT is helpful. If nothing else, TT is a mechanism which enables one to focus of the key parameters of Christianity rather than getting bogged down on conflicts over second-order stuff.

    I’ve seen organizations get so hung up on non-essentials that they don’t pay proper attention to the essence of why they exist.

  23. Bob Cleveland   •  

    I’m not going to read all the comments as I’m old enough already. But I will state an opinion anyway.

    When Jesus made the mud with His spit, and put it in the guy’s eyes, He told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. Would we think the man would have gotten his sight if he had simply said “Hey .. take me to the nearest water and I’ll wash it out there. No need to go all the way to Siloam”?

    I’d be a little reluctant to think that.

    At pentecost, the very first time ever that salvation now came by a crucified, resurrected and ascended Christ, via the present and indwelling Holy Spirit, and the people asked what they had to do to be saved, they were told “Repent and be baptized….”. Why would we now want to think that they didn’t REALLY have to be baptized, and neither do we?

    It’d scare me to think someone I love might believe that. And baptism is immersion; I don’t buy sprinkling anybody, and didn’t when I was a presbyterian, either.

    Ah well. I’ll put the soap box away now.

  24. wlh   •  

    Great post and great discussion. I know I am getting in very late on this discussion. Please forgive my tardiness.

    Is baptism merely an ecclesiological doctrine? Or merely a item up for debate in theological triage?


    In one of your responses above, you state that baptism is tied to the gospel (Rom 6 being text you refer to). I agree. Eric has been challenging the idea that believers should separate over baptism if its merely a secondary theological issue. Baptism is no less than theological in nature, but it is also a visible presentation of the gospel to the church, as well as to the individual believer (Col. 2; Heb 10).

    For instance, I don’t distinguish myself from pedobaptists just because I don’t think washing babies is unbiblical, but because pedobaptism communicates something very contrary to the gospel. I don’t think believers can partner on intimate levels when there is something fundamentally different between the gospel that is being proclaimed in either word or deed. It doesn’t mean we can’t be cordial and loving towards one another or that we can’t challenge one another towards the truth, but Paul had some very strong language regarding those preaching another gospel (Gal 1).

    Ultimately, the gospel cannot be reduced to a set of propositions that merely requires mental assent. The gospel is lived out in radical, Spiritual, messianic community (called the church), in daily life, in teaching, and in ritual. [Note: unity is also important, not just because we are commanded to be seek in the time-space continuum the true reality that we are united in one Spirit, but also because unity preaches the gospel as well.] Baptism is one (very important) way of living the gospel!

    Okay; I’m off my soapbox


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