EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of excerpts from the new MBC resource, “The Last Apologist: A Commentary on Jude for Defenders of the Christian Faith,” available at mobaptist.org/apologetics.
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With an estimated 2.2 billion Christians in the world, worshiping in more than 41,000 denominations, one may legitimately wonder how we can possibly fulfill the prayer of Jesus that we all be as one (John 17:22).
But diversity does not necessarily mean division. The differences among the world’s Christian denominations generally have more to do with location, culture, worship styles, missionary efforts, and forms of church government than they do with major doctrinal differences.
Even so, it’s good to ask: What are the non-negotiable doctrines of the Christian faith?
Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, refers to the process of discerning biblical truth as “theological triage.” On the battlefield and elsewhere, triage is the process by which medical personnel evaluate and prioritize the urgency of patient needs. A scraped knee can wait; a severed artery cannot.
Mohler suggests that a similar method be used in our churches to determine a scale of theological urgency – what some theologians call primary, secondary, and tertiary issues.
Primary theological issues focus on beliefs most essential to preserving the Christian faith. These doctrines include, but are not limited to:
The Trinity. There is one living and true God, who exists and reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.
The full deity and full humanity of Jesus. Jesus is the eternal Son of God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Some 2,000 years ago He set aside His privileged position in heaven and came to earth, adding sinless humanity to His deity via the miracle of the virgin birth. Thus, Jesus rightly may be described as the God-Man, fully divine and fully human.
This so-called “hypostatic union” describes how God the Son took on human nature yet remained fully God.
Justification by faith. This is God’s gracious and full acquittal of all sinners who repent and believe in Jesus. It is based on the finished work of Christ on the cross and is received by grace alone, through faith alone, in Him alone. To be justified is to be declared righteous before God and thus to be freed from the penalty of sin. God ensures that all those who are justified by faith are glorified one day, completing God’s redemptive work (Rom. 8:29-30).
Authority of Scripture. Scripture is the sole and final authority for Christians in all matters of faith and practice. The Bible is authoritative because it is God’s Word, which He breathed out through human authors, and by whom He reveals His sovereignty over all things.
These are non-negotiable doctrines for any believer and any church that truly claims to be Christian. Those who deny these essential truths are, by definition, not Christians.
The earliest creeds and councils of the church – Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon – were, in essence, emergency measures to protect the core doctrines of the faith. As doctrinal lines in the sand, they separated orthodoxy from heresy.
Secondary theological doctrines may be distinguished from primary issues in that Christians may disagree on secondary issues without accusing one another of heresy. Nevertheless, disagreement on second-order doctrines leads to significant boundaries between believers.
When Christians organize themselves into local congregations, and these congregations form into denominations, conventions, associations, or networks, the boundaries become clear.
Examples of secondary issues include, but are not limited to, the meaning and mode of baptism; the role of women as pastors and/or deacons in the church; the understanding of baptism in the Holy Spirit and its impact on devotional life and corporate worship; elder-led vs. elder-ruled forms of church government; and the doctrine of divine election.
Tertiary theological doctrines are beliefs over which Christians may disagree while remaining in close fellowship, even within local congregations. Unfortunately, third-order issues can and do split churches, but they shouldn’t.
Examples of tertiary issues include: eschatology; types of worship formats; days and hours of worship services; frequency of observing the Lord’s Supper; how the local church engages the community; discipleship strategies; and how missions are supported financially.
Jude’s desire to write about our “common salvation” (Jude 3) may have been a longing to affirm the core doctrines of the Christian faith, while urging his fellow believers not to fight over secondary and tertiary issues.
Next: What does it mean to contend for the faith?