What Theological Hills Should We Be Willing to Die On?

For pastors, there are two types of members who can be particularly onerous.

The first is the theological pugilist. For this person, every issue is a hill on which to die. There are no secondary issues—everything is a test of orthodoxy and fellowship. From church music to the deity of Christ, he never met a theological debate he didn’t relish.

The second is the theological minimalist. This person doesn’t particularly care for theology; that’s the domain of seminary students and academic theologians. From Jesus’s miracles to the virgin birth, he never met a doctrine so important as to warrant serious debate. He’s too practical for theology.

How can pastors and other church leaders shepherd these two difficult souls? And how do we distinguish between primary and secondary issues—and why does that even matter? In his new book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (Crossway/TGC), Gavin Ortlund helps us separate the issues that are urgent and require stringent debate from issues that are important but shouldn’t be a test for orthodoxy. In this interview, we discuss the two members listed above as well as how a new pastor should approach change in the church.

In the book you discuss both sectarianism and doctrinal minimalism—opposite but equally dangerous errors. Do you think modern evangelicals tend to fall into one camp or the other?

Unfortunately, it seems both errors are alive and well. On the one side, for example, there are people who seem to think that caring about social justice means you have a liberal agenda. The bandwidth of acceptability is narrowed so unreasonably that, were Charles Spurgeon or J. Gresham Machen preaching today, they might be accused of being social justice warriors in a leftist conspiracy. At the same time, there’s a lot of confusion and apathy about basic doctrinal beliefs like the Trinity, or the atonement. I find that even the doctrine of repentance cannot be assumed, even among lifelong church attenders. In my sermons I often feel the need to give an apologetic for repentance, for both Christians and non-Christians.

It could be that social media amplifies the sense of division. But even so, I worry that evangelicalism is polarizing in a way analogous to our broader culture’s polarization. A big part of our witness to the gospel these days should be practicing loving, respectful disagreement during a time in which it is becoming so rare. Practically, I think that means we need to talk more with our ideological opponents (sometimes we don’t even talk to people we disagree with), and then, when we do, to practice listening, patience, humility, and graciousness.

Some people worry that humble dialogue of this kind compromises truth. But among those truths of the gospel we are called to uphold are (1) our unity in Christ, and (2) the call to forbearance and love toward other Christians. There is no compromise in listening, and in practicing kindness. The way I put in this book is this: if our speech toward non-Christians is supposed to be “gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6), surely our speech to those of a different denomination or tribe should be, too. It seems to me that this is probably needed among both those who incline toward sectarianism and also those who incline toward minimalism.

As pastors, how can we help people to see that theology is important, that it’s not just something seminarians think about?

I think there are various ways to do this. One is signaled by the observation I’ve heard Tim Keller make many times, namely that “the claim that doctrine is not important is itself a doctrine.” A slightly different way I’ve found of getting at the same issue is to speak of doctrinal culture and ethos, not just doctrinal positions. This makes it harder to function as though only the “smart guys” care about theology, because we all have a general attitude to theology, and sometimes the general attitude is where the problem lies. As someone once said, “Liberalism began with a mood.”

To claim that doctrine is not important is itself a doctrine.

An alternate route of helping people feel the importance of doctrine is to highlight the practical implications that doctrinal differences have—church splits, denominational drifts, pastors fired, and so on. No one can deny that doctrinal decisions and priorities often play out in this way. Theology is important, among other reasons, so that we are prepared to address such situations when they come. I think it was C. S. Lewis who said that “good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

Another way, perhaps the best way, is to draw attention to how edifying and enthralling doctrine actually is. I find digging into historical texts—for instance, having a reading group that works through various Puritan Paperbacks or Popular Patristics texts—is a great way to spread this among the congregation. Once people experience how spiritually formative good theology is, as well as how interesting it is, it’s harder to relegate it to seminary students.

Let’s say a person in my church is utterly fixated on a third-tier issue, and thinks everyone in the church who doesn’t agree with him is headed off the orthodox rails. How do I help that guy?

Sometimes there is nothing that can be done, so it’s helpful to know up front that success doesn’t always look like changing someone’s mind. There’s a time, for example, to practice Titus 3:10, particularly if the disagreement stems from a moral issue such as divisiveness or slander.

But I think it’s important to do everything we can to win someone over, if at all possible. A few steps I have found helpful include:

  • Speak directly with the person (not over email) and genuinely try to understand their view. Listen for the nuances. You want to be sure you understand their views accurately so that you’re not contributing to the problem. It’s easy to fail to exhibit patience and careful listening in a situation like this, where you may be understandably frustrated.
  • Share your heart person, not just your view. Explain your motives as transparently as possible. The other person may feel threatened by the discussion, and a human touch can often go a long way to help them really hear you.
  • Patiently, calmly, explain the biblical rationale for alternative views on the issue in question. It’s wise not to assume that the person even knows there are other views. This may not be enough in itself, but in connection with other steps it can be helpful.
  • Sometimes, depending on the situation and your relationship with the person, it can be helpful to remind them of the need for hermeneutical humility. People often forget that an infallible Bible is not the same as an infallible interpretation. As basic as this point is, it is wonderfully helpful to continually bear in mind (for all of us).
  • Draw attention to what other Christians have thought about the issue. Most third-tier issues have a diverse representation of supporters throughout church history. Are there theologians valued by the person you are speaking to, to whom you can point as holding to a different view? We humans are politically and sociologically oriented. If there is someone we trust—someone who is “safe”—who holds to the alternative view, that in itself is often enough to help de-escalate the situation. I’ve found this wonderfully effective with the two third-tier issues I treat in the book, creation days and the millennium, because the “conservative” view today was not the “conservative” view 100 years ago. It’s helpful to know that.

What about a similar scenario, except it’s a member who chides me for preaching doctrine. She keeps telling me, “Pastor, doctrine divides. We don’t need you to preach any of that. We need practical wisdom.” How do I help this person?

In all honesty, if a person says that, my expectation is that the preacher is probably not doing as effective a job as he should at explaining, illustrating, and applying doctrines in his sermons. If we are preaching well, our sermons won’t feel “doctrinal” in the sense of having big words, technicalities, or abstractions. Too many people say, “These people need to value doctrine more!” when the reality is they need to get better at explaining it clearly, illustrating it concretely, and applying it meaningfully and sensitively.

I think our sermons, generally speaking, should be as theological as the text we preach—which means, full of wonderful doctrinal truth but expressed in vivid, personal, relatable ways. It won’t feel abstract and technical in the way that many theology books do. My own goal is to preach in such a way that doctrinal minimalists are won over, or at least given pause, because of what they experience in the sermon.

I think our sermons, generally speaking, should be as theological as the text we preach.

Having said that, there are times when people really don’t want doctrine, no matter how you’re preaching it. Honestly, when I hear this pushback, it usually has to do with the issue in question. For instance, if you preach on racism and someone says, “We shouldn’t get that specific on social issues in a sermon,” there are probably other social issues that they’d be cheering you on if you addressed. Similarly, if you preach on a husband’s role of servant leadership in marriage and someone says, “We shouldn’t get that specific in a sermon on controversial issues,” they may well have not have thought twice about it if you’d preached an egalitarian view. So in many cases, you will need to help someone understand why the specific topic being preached on is important to address. One possible way to do this is simply to explain, “I am not at liberty to avoid topics addressed in the Bible.”

If the issue is genuinely that the person just needs to understand that doctrine matters, I think the three points of advice I gave above are how I would approach it.

What should we be telling future pastors still baking in the seminary oven about how to bring change to a church that desperately needs it? How does theological triage help with that?

My main advice is, “Go slow.” Generally, in your first year, don’t change anything substantive. Don’t even change that much that isn’t substantive. Just love the people and do your best to humbly serve them while you build your vision over time. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes you come to a church in crisis that needs immediate leadership, or there are outstanding issues, whether doctrinal or moral or practical, that simply must be engaged right away.

But generally, I think there are several reasons why it is wise to move slowly. One is that you yourself are already a change for them. You need time to build their trust so they’ll follow your leadership, and the changes will be healthy and organic, rather than forced and conflictual. Another reason to move slowly is that you probably need time to really understand the people, the history, the issues—what the church really needs to have changed. It’s wise to assume that you won’t see this with perfect clarity right away, or even after six months. There are almost always factors deeply at play in your church that you won’t be aware of until you’ve been there a few years. It’s best to move forward only once you have as clear a vision as possible of how to do so.

Another point I would make is, don’t assume at the outset that your church will need to change more than you need to change. Obviously, we want our ministry to have an effect. But it is probably prideful when we start to think of the church as the problem, and our ministry as the solution. So as you lead people toward change, see yourself—your sanctification, your leadership, your wisdom—as a work-in-progress as well, and the Lord as the true agent of change.

When it comes to addressing doctrinal issues, I’d say that in general, the more issues are toward- third and fourth-rank doctrines, the more slowly you should move in addressing them. Be careful not to make changes just based on your preferences. You are called to lay down your preferences and rights no less than anyone else in the church. The fact that you’re the pastor doesn’t mean you can avoid this sacrifice. Unless you are regularly submitting to others and laying down preferences, you should not expect others in the church to do that. This is one of the ways you lead, through your example.

Above all, the gospel should define your priorities for what needs to be changed. So as you build for the long-term, you want to ask, “How can our church make the biggest possible impact over the decades for the sake of the kingdom of God? And what steps should I be taking now to move in that direction?” I find that taking this long-term perspective is more realistic and more enjoyable, as well as more effective. When the gospel is our focus, it’s easier to enjoy our ministry, and we will feel less pressure to produce results.


First published 12.05.20: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/what-theological-hills-willing-die-on/

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