Having thought about the difficulty of discerning the difference between primary and secondary doctrines, we now turn to consider another related problem… that the distinction between primary and secondary doctrines often gets interpreted as “important” and “non-important” doctrines. At this point, we begin to spiral fairly quickly into the theological abyss.
Just because something isn’t essential doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
Secondary matters of theology are important too!
a) What we believe has an impact on our spiritual maturity.
Saying that Arminians and Calvinists are all Christians, is not the same as saying that these theological systems do not matter. The same applies to infant baptism, spiritual gifts, the relationship between the covenants, church governance and membership. Secondary matters can have a dramatic effect on the health of the Christian life.
b) Theology is like a jigsaw puzzle, if one piece is out of place it affects the whole picture.
If I believe that salvation is synergistic (part me and part God) as do the Roman Catholics (and to a lesser extent Arminians) then it will follow that I can also lose my salvation. This, in turn, will have an impact on my assurance and my evangelism. And so it goes. The separation of primary and secondary matters is not as clean cut as we would sometimes like to believe.
c) Practically speaking, church leaders (especially) need to make decisions about doctrinal matters that affect church practice.
Do we baptise infants or don’t we? Do we allow someone to prophecy in church on Sunday or don’t we? Will we allow women to preach or won’t we? You could think of a hundred examples like this. Church life, the Christian life, is deeply theological.
In reality, we need more options. I think there should be at least four categories of theological discernment…
Level 1 – essential to Christianity eg. the Trinity and Salvation. Don’t be in fellowship with Christians or churches who mess around with this stuff.
Level 2 – not essential but vitally important for healthy local churches eg. Calvinist soteriology and covenant theology. In my opinion, these issues don’t deny someones claim to be a Christian but they do affect whether or not I would be a member of those churches.
Level 3 – not vitally important but still significant for church life eg. church government and mode of baptism. These are matters that are still worthy of serious consideration but over which I would happily agree to disagree.
Level 4 – matters of conscience eg. drinking alcohol, tattoos and wearing a tie to church and having a Christmas tree. Each Christian should act according to conscience without imposing these views on others (no matter how right we think we are).
Honestly, I’m not sure if this is helpful beyond reminding us that “non-essential” does not mean “not important”. That for me is the main thing. Churches and church leaderships need to take all doctrine seriously or risk a seriously impoverished faith.