Monday, August 3, 2009

The Problem of "Second-Order" Doctrines

We probably all have our modern-day heroes. One of mine is Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I find myself agreeing with almost all Mohler says.

However, I disagree with him on the issue of what many refer to as "second-order" doctrines. Simply put, President Mohler believes they exist, while I do not (to be specific, I no longer believe they exist).

Mohler wrote about this in a blog post entitled A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity. In this post, Mohler writes, "First-level theological issues would include those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith. Included among these most crucial doctrines would be doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture."

Mohler continues (and this is key to this blog post), "The set of second-order doctrines is distinguished from the first-order set by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominational forms, these boundaries become evident." (emphasis mine)

Mohler further says, "Second-order issues would include the meaning and mode of baptism. Baptists and Presbyterians, for example, fervently disagree over the most basic understanding of Christian baptism. The practice of infant baptism is inconceivable to the Baptist mind, while Presbyterians trace infant baptism to their most basic understanding of the covenant. Standing together on the first-order doctrines, Baptists and Presbyterians eagerly recognize each other as believing Christians, but recognize that disagreement on issues of this importance will prevent fellowship within the same congregation or denomination." (emphasis mine)

Finally, he 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. Christians who affirm the bodily, historical, and victorious return of the Lord Jesus Christ may differ over timetable and sequence without rupturing the fellowship of the church. Christians may find themselves in disagreement over any number of issues related to the interpretation of difficult texts or the understanding of matters of common disagreement. Nevertheless, standing together on issues of more urgent importance, believers are able to accept one another without compromise when third-order issues are in question."

I fully agree with Dr. Mohler that there are certain doctrines that a person must adhere to in order to be considered a biblical Christian. These issues are worth separating over; they are gospel-centered. Paul says as much in Galatians 1:6-9.

I also agree with Dr. Mohler that there are doctrines (third-order) where Christians may disagree but not separate. The numerous admonitions for the church to be united apply directly to third-order doctrines.

Now to the issue of second-order doctrines. What I would ask Dr. Mohler (if I had the chance) is this, "What biblical evidence is there for the existence of second-order doctrines?" In other words, where in the bible are Christians ever told to separate from each other over issues that are not first-order doctrines?

Mohler clearly advocates separation among believers (see the above sections of his quotes that I placed in bold type). Where in the scriptures does he find anything that suggests this?

I argue that the existence of second-order doctrines is completely a man-made concept to justify separating over issues in which we disagree. Instead of sitting down together and figuring out how we are going to live together as Christians, we separate into all of our little denominations where we can feel comfortable and good about our perfect doctrine.

Did anyone ever bother to ask Christ if He wanted His church to be this splintered? He clearly told us to be united. He told us to separate over core gospel issues, but nothing more.

Therefore, I outright reject the idea of second-order doctrines. When we look in the bible, we see first-order doctrines and third-order doctrines.

We are to be united as followers of Jesus.

11 comments:

Joe Blackmon said...

I'm not sure whether I agree or disagree with you exactly. I mean, generally, yes we should be willing to agree to disagree on issues which are not salvific. However, if a church had women teaching or preaching, I am going to seperate from that church and those Christians. Does the fact that they have a woman preaching or teaching prove that they are not saved? No. However, I feel like it violates Scripture and would never attend a church where this happened. If this means I believe in second order doctrines then I guess I do. That, however, is just me. Other's mileage may vary.

Eric said...

Joe,

I would also struggle with a woman being a pastor. However, let me ask where the bible says to separate over such issues. I just can't find it in the scriptures.

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

I agree completely. I'm glad you had the courage to point out that we do not find believers separating over "second order doctrines" in Scripture. In fact, 1 Corinthians seems to warn AGAINST separating over "second order doctrines".

-Alan

Eric said...

Alan,

My hope is that we Christians will be willing to pray about, discuss, and follow the Holy Spirit's leading in how we can live and serve together even while disagreeing on issues that formerly divided us. As an example, baptism is a beautiful thing which ought to unite instead of divide. Now we just have to figure out how to make it happen. When unity is seen as a must, it forces us to live in a different way - and I think a better way.

By the way, I still haven't heard one scriptural support for "second-order" doctrines.

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

Yes. The Lord's Supper is another great example. The Lord's Supper is intended (among other things) to unite believers around a common table. Instead, we use it to divide from one another.

-Alan

Eric said...

Alan,

I agree. It's amazing how much division there is over the ordinances. We as evangelicals can't even agree what to call them - ordinances or sacraments.

Even foot washing causes division. Arrgh.

witwaw said...

Eric,

You say, "Now to the issue of second-order doctrines. What I would ask Dr. Mohler (if I had the chance) is this, "What biblical evidence is there for the existence of second-order doctrines?" "

From my reading of Mohler's article, he is not advocating division over second order issues; rather he is describing what occurs and suggesting that we prioritize our issues. If disaster is to happen and a body splits, it should be over a foundational theological issue. I think that if you were to ask Dr. Mohler, he would say there is no biblical basis for the category, for the tenor of his article leans toward unity, not division.

You say, "Mohler clearly advocates separation among believers."

I disagree. Mohler clearly describes separation, but I do not see where he advocates it.

I fully agree that unity is basic, for all those in Christ are Church. The fact of and yearning for unity ought to prompt us to clarify what lies beneath the second order theological divisions and heal those divisions when possible (giving our greatest effort to that healing, Eph 4:3).

Let us remember, the purpose of triage is the effective allocation of healing efforts. This means first order and second order issues deserve our greatest efforts for healing.

Eric said...

Laura,

Thanks for commenting.

I agree with you that triage is important. I also appreciate that you said, "the purpose of triage is the effective allocation of healing efforts." Very well put.

Where I respectfully disagree is that I do think Dr. Mohler is advocating division along denominational lines according to at least some "second-order doctrines." Since he is Southern Baptist, I have no doubt that he would not fellowship in a local congregation with Presbyterians. In his article, Mohler says, "Standing together on the first-order doctrines, Baptists and Presbyterians eagerly recognize each other as believing Christians, but recognize that disagreement on issues of this importance will prevent fellowship within the same congregation or denomination." I believe this is more than simply description. If he did not believe this, then I wonder why he would be Southern Baptist.

I know Dr. Mohler loves and respects many Presbyterians. I saw this in action at the Ligonier Conference this past March. He will clearly fellowship in this sort of setting, but I'm certain that if R.C. Sproul wanted to join the church Mohler attends, he would first have to be baptized as a believer by immersion.

I still would like to ask him about the biblical basis for separation from other Christians.

witwaw said...

Eric,

I guess what you see as advocacy, I see as recognition that sometimes we must choose that which will do the least damage. I think there are times when what ought to be a third order disagreement has a POSSIBLE first order disagreement beneath it and that very possibility makes consensus extremely difficult and passions easily inflamed. In such cases, it may be healthier for the body to escape the temptations of infighting than to remain together; sometimes by separating, may we not preserve some form of unity?

I fully recognize this is not God's intent and it is not his best. It is, in fact, a compromise.

As for Sproul joining Mohler's church, you are probably correct (I know my baptist church would require baptism for membership, though not for participation). But I dare say, Sproul's church would likely place requirements on Mohler as well. This is not good, but it is where we are.

The question is, how do we go about healing these unbiblical second order separations?

- Laura

Eric said...

Laura,

You wrote, "I think there are times when what ought to be a third order disagreement has a POSSIBLE first order disagreement beneath it and that very possibility makes consensus extremely difficult and passions easily inflamed."

This is interesting. I'll have to think on it some more. Thank you for bringing it up.

As for Mohler, I'm sure he would like to see more unity within the church as a whole. What I continue to struggle with, however, is the very existence of second order doctrines. I've never had anyone show me how they are biblical.

I agree that we should work toward healing. I think one way to do this is to reject second order doctrines, and then determine which doctrines are first order and which are third. After that, we must figure out how in practice we are to live together as a church even while we may disagree over some of the third order doctrines.

witwaw said...

Eric,

I don't think second order doctrines are biblical, so I shan't be looking for evidence. I think they are a description of the way things are in the world, a category to help us name where we stand. I agree that we should reject their appropriateness, but they remain a useful tool for diagnosis.

Doctrines are either true or false; in reality, there is no middle ground. The problem is, here on earth, we have uncertainty and uncertainty can be messy.