Book commentary by Drew Brown
If you’ve ever been to an emergency room, you know that the first room you enter is the triage. You aren’t actually treated in the triage; you are assessed for how urgent your condition is so that those with more severe symptoms – chest pain, trouble breathing – receive more prompt treatment than those with bad sinus infections. The reasoning here is pretty simple: there isn’t enough time or resources to treat all cases alike, so a system of prioritization must be implemented. The sinus infections will be treated, and it will have to wait behind the heart irregularities and asthma.
In theology and doctrine, not all doctrines can be treated as equal. The reasoning here is likewise simple: our time on earth is short, the lost are perishing, and our resources as pastors, global workers, and teachers are limited. We must be selective in choosing the hills we die on.
- Will we spend our time and resources defending a particular view of the millennium or the authority of the Scriptures?
- Will we fight red-faced for a view of the Sabbath or for justification by faith?
- What will I do if I meet a fellow Christian worker in my church or ministry who believes in the core essentials of the faith but has different views from me regarding baptism or the gifts of the Holy Spirit?
- Do I press them to change their views so that I can work with them?
- Do I minimize my own views?
- Do I look for someone else to work with?
- How do I honor the dual Biblical ideals of sound doctrine and Christian unity without violating my conscience?
I have encountered this problem many times in many contexts, countries, and cultures. I’ve met and worked with godly Christians across the evangelical spectrum who hold different views of the millennium, different views of spiritual gifts, and different theories of the atonement, to name just a few. My default response has been to keep the peace, owing mainly to my personality. I have an embarrassingly large list of unpleasant things I would instead do than voluntarily enter into conflict. Yet there are times when I must speak up for the truth, and conflict is the inevitable occupational hazard of my calling. So when should I speak up, and when should I keep the peace? Are the only choices here extremes: either demand identical beliefs as a requirement for Christian cooperation or else separate; or flatten all points of divergence so that we can hold hands in a doctrinally-starved ecumenism? I’ve never been comfortable with either, which has sometimes left me feeling out of place.
I suspect that I’m not the only one engaged in Christian ministry worldwide with other Christ followers cut from a different denominational or confessional cloth. Gavin Ortlund’s book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On (Crossway, 2020, 167 pages), has confirmed this for me. He offers an excellent path forward for navigating disagreement and division while staying pointed to the true north of Christian truth and unity. He amplifies a concept coined by Al Mohler called “Theological Triage.”  The book is divided into two simple parts: a justification for theological triage (chapters 1-3) and how the process works itself out in primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines (chapters 4-6).
The New Testament teaches Christian unity (John 17:11, 20-23; Ephesians 4:1-6). This is the case against doctrinal sectarianism (chapter 1) – an overly suspicious tribalism in the name of doctrinal purity that is usually expressed in utter disdain for any Christian who holds different views from their own on any type of doctrine. The New Testament also teaches the importance of truth and doctrine (John 17:17; Ephesians 4:11-16). This is the case against doctrinal minimalism (chapter 2) – an undiscerning acceptance of any kind of belief or teaching in the name of Christian unity. I suspect that most of us have a natural bent either towards sectarianism or minimalism, to varying degrees.
After describing his own theological journey (chapter 3), the book’s second half shows theological triage in action, as if we are observing an emergency room “theology” nurse evaluate specific cases. Ortlund, drawing upon the work of Wayne Grudem and Erik Thoennes, synthesizes the method for prioritizing different doctrines by the following criteria (emphasis is his):
- How clear is the Bible on this doctrine?
- What is the doctrine’s importance to the gospel?
- What is the testimony of the historical church concerning this doctrine?
- What is this doctrine’s effect upon the church today?
He discusses the inherent difficulties in evaluating primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines. He follows them up by “triaging” doctrines on each level: the doctrines of the Virgin Birth and justification by faith alone (chapter 4, primary doctrines – the hills worth dying on), baptism, spiritual gifts, leadership in the church (chapter 5 – secondary doctrines), the millennium and days of creation (chapter 6 – tertiary doctrines). Ortlund isn’t deluding himself into thinking that everyone will agree with his choices (even I don’t), but seeing his process in prioritizing doctrine is fascinating and practical.
The value of this book to me as a cross-cultural worker, seminary professor, and churchman is immense. Now I have a procedure for evaluating doctrinal and convictional differences as I interact with local Christians, my students and colleagues, and my fellow church members. I have much more confidence in speaking up and correcting, what are the appropriate contexts to do so, and which hills are genuinely worth dying on. My conscience is also much more at ease in working with other godly Christians with whom I disagree on secondary issues. Best of all, I’m honoring the Scriptural imperatives to uphold the truth and the unity of the global church.
 Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 82.
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