Evangelicalism walks a very fine line between maintaining unity and contending for the faith. It is a joyous and treacherous position to be in. Stray too far to the one side and you fall off the cliff of heresy. Stray too far in the other direction and we find ourselves mixed up in the Colossian error… making genuine Christians feel like second class citizens. Strike a perfect balance, however, and you achieve a unity and diversity that is uniquely and authentically Christian.
To help navigate the way along this fine line, Evangelicals today tend to make a distinction between primary and secondary matters of doctrine.
What are primary and secondary doctrines?
Primary doctrines are those that are essential to the Christian faith, the matters of first importance, the doctrines that constitute “The Faith.” If you believe them you are a Christian. Equally, if you do not hold to these convictions then you cannot rightly call yourself a Christian in any historical or biblical sense. Doctrines in this category include the Scriptures, the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the work of Christ (penal substitution etc.), the Church, the Sacraments and the return of Christ.
Secondary matters, on the other hand, are those elements of Christian theology about which Christians disagree and yet, despite these disagreements, still consider each other to be genuinely Christian. Common examples of this include the mode of baptism, women in ministry, matters of church polity, the relationship between Israel and the Church, the continuity of spiritual gifts.
On the whole, I believe that making this distinction is biblical, good and necessary. We never want to fall into the position of disqualifying from the kingdom those whom God has qualified. Neither do we want to compromise the central tenets of the Christian faith. As helpful as this distinction can be it can also create a few major problems as well. It is these problems I wish to address over the next few posts.
Do you think this is a helpful way of thinking about doctrinal differences in the church today? What have been the difficulties you have experienced when trying to apply this? Is there a better alternative to promote unity?Let me know your thoughts and I’ll try to make sure I address/include/respond to them!