R. Albert Mohler, Jr. writes, “theological seriousness and maturity demand that we consider doctrinal issues in terms of their relative importance. God’s truth is to be defended at every point and in every detail, but responsible Christians must determine which issues deserve first-rank attention in a time of theological crisis.” We can understand this claim to refer to different areas of doctrine. For example, Mohler writes, “Third-order issues are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations. I would put most of the debates over eschatology, for example, in this category.” But if someone claims Jesus already returned, physically, shouldn’t that eschatological issue be categorized as a first-level theological issue? Alternatively, Mohler allows room for disagreement over something he would categorize as a first-level theological issue, like the doctrine of the Trinity, at least with respect to, for example, the affirmation or denial of the eternal functional subordination of the Son.
We need to tease out Mohler’s implicit claim that “we consider doctrine issues in terms of their relative importance.” The relative importance of doctrinal issues is, in fact, relative. Which is to say, when Christians, “determine which issues deserve first-rank attention in a time of theological crisis,” this determination is not made relative to a conceptual scheme like the one provided by Mohler, but relative to those doctrines which have come to the forefront of discussion, for whatever reason. Even so-called third tier or tertiary matters of doctrine can function as though they are first-tier issues, at least in terms of relative importance given a particular theological crisis. So for example, if the doctrines associated with complementarian beliefs definitively constitute an organization like the Southern Baptist Convention, and those beliefs rise to the forefront of discussion (particularly in a hostile environment), then the aforementioned complementarian doctrines are, at that point, of primary doctrinal importance relative to the SBC. This state of affairs appears to undermine the schematic provided by Mohler in his piece, but also demonstrates one reason why different groups of Christians divide over where the lines are to be drawn.
Mohler’s piece nevertheless provides a helpful practical guide to dealing with doctrinal disagreement in particular. We do not want to be like the ‘fundamentalists,’ in this sense, dividing over every tertiary issue. But we also should be careful about using Mohler’s argument for theological triage in order to try and justify theological liberalism, thinking that since theological disagreement over so-called ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary’ issues like complementarianism, social engagement, and derivatives of Side B ‘gay Christianity’ are not ‘primary,’ they must not be important. They are extremely important, especially when it comes to the future of the SBC, and we think Mohler would agree. So let’s not misuse his call for theological triage and Christian maturity as an excuse for giving up doctrinal distinctives of the Southern Baptist Convention.