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“In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”
Sounds nice, but which are which? Everyone wants to be unified in what really matters, to agree to disagree on what isn’t as important, and to exercise love in all things. But no one seems to agree on what really matters a lot, a little, or not at all. As hard as it can be determining the content of our faith, it can be even harder figuring out where to put up our fences.
This business of deciding where and how to draw doctrinal lines is incredibly complex. I can’t begin to do all the necessary biblical, theological, historical, and practical exploration in this article. But perhaps I can sketch an outline of some important considerations.
In that vein, here are seven steps we ought to pursue in establishing doctrinal boundaries. The explanations of the points will get shorter as we move through the list.
1. Establish the essentials of the faith.
This is the most critical step. We need to know what constitutes the irreducible core of the Apostolic gospel. One way to determine the essentials is to look at the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus). In these letters, Paul talks a lot about the importance of right doctrine. We can get a good indication of what doctrines matter most by looking at several categories of passages in the Pastorals.
First, we have the “trustworthy sayings” (1 Tim. 1:15; 3:1; 4:9–10; 2 Tim. 2:11–13; Titus 3:4–8). With the possible exception of the saying in 1 Timothy 3, each “trustworthy saying” deals with salvation. We see several interlocking truths: Jesus Christ is a Savior who came to save sinners. Salvation comes not by works but through faith and Spirit wrought regeneration. Those who truly believe will devote themselves to good works and persevere to the end.
Second, we can look at the various creedal formulas (1 Tim. 1:17; 2:5; 3:16; 6:15–16; Titus 2:11–15). With these verses, we get an even better sense of what constitutes the good deposit of the gospel. There is one God, and He is unspeakably glorious. There is one Mediator, Jesus Christ, who gave His life for ours. Jesus is a great God and Savior who appeared in the flesh and ascended into heaven. He is coming again. We have been saved by the grace of God that we might live holy lives.
Third, Paul opposes certain doctrines associated with false teaching (1 Tim. 1:8–11; 4:1–3; 2 Tim. 2:18; Titus 1:16). These errors boil down to two mistakes: legalism and license. Some false teachers were leading people to perdition by calling darkness light and insisting that a life of sin was consistent with the gospel. On the other hand, others were pushing an unhealthy asceticism and imposing man-made rules. Both mistakes threaten the gospel.
Fourth, we get a glimpse of the essentials of the faith by noting what beliefs are explicitly linked to the gospel and sound doctrine (1 Tim. 1:8–10; 2:8; 2 Tim. 3:14–17). We see in these verses that sound faith is determined by our fidelity to Scripture. We also see that the gospel is a message about Jesus Christ, who gave us grace before the ages began and saved us unto works and immortality. This is all because of grace, not according to our works, but in accordance with God’s eternal purposes.
From these four sets of passages we can begin to sketch what the essentials look like: God is glorious; we are sinners; and Jesus Christ is our Savior and God. Jesus Christ is the Son of God and God in the flesh; He died and rose again; He ascended into heaven; He is coming again. Salvation is by sovereign grace, according to the converting power of the Holy Spirit, through faith, not according to our works. The Scriptures are wholly inspired and true. Jesus Christ saves us from sin, saves us for eternal life, and saves us unto holiness. Any gospel that denies these essentials— or ignores them, marginalizes them, leads people to doubt them, or is ashamed of them—is a different gospel.
2. Listen to the communion of the saints.
Tradition must never trump Scripture. But if we love Scripture, we will learn from the traditions of the church. We are not the first people to read the Bible. We are not the only ones who have had the Spirit to help us. God has been at work over the centuries to shape and protect the truth by means of His church (1 Tim. 3:15). This means we should be extra cautious before believing something almost no Christians have believed before (like the goodness of homosexuality) and extremely hesitant before rejecting something almost every church has accepted (like the reality of hell). By the same token, we should be less dogmatic about issues that have divided Christians for centuries (like the millennium).
Those who wrote the ancient creeds, such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Definition, were not infallible, but these creeds have served as effective guardrails, keeping God’s people on the path of truth. It would take extraordinary new insight or extraordinary hubris to jettison these ancient formulas. They provide faithful summaries of the most important doctrines of the faith. That’s why the Heidelberg Catechism refers us to the Apostles’ Creed, “a creed beyond doubt, and confessed through the world,” when it asks, “What then must a Christian believe?” (Q&A 22–23).
Similarly, John Calvin states (as a kind of throwaway comment) that the “principles of religion” include: “God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like” (Institutes 4.1.12). John Owen provides a similar list, asserting that the “principal fundamentals of Christian religion” affirm “the Lord Christ to be the eternal Son of God, with the use of efficacy of his death, as also the personal subsistence and deity of the Holy Spirit” (Works of John Owen 15:83). Later, Owen expands the list to include: believing in God the Father, looking for salvation in Christ alone, professing obedience unto Him, believing that God raised Him from the dead, insisting on personal holiness, and “many other sacred truths of the same importance” (84). These short statements confirm that we were on the right track with our summary statements under point one.
3. Distinguish between landing theology and launching theology. Some doctrines represent different conclusions reached from basically the same premises. Other doctrines are starting points that set us on a wildly different trajectory. For example, the difference between postmillennialism and amillennialism is not a difference over first things. The two sides simply disagree how best to interpret a few disputed texts. It’s a matter of landing theology. By contrast, the doctrine of Scripture (to give one example) is about launching theology. If we get that doctrine wrong, we are bound to mess up everything else.
4. Distinguish between the explicit teaching of Scripture and the application of scriptural principles. The Bible clearly teaches that parents train their children in the way of the Lord. It is less clear about how to do that. The Bible does not definitely answer the question as to whether kids should go to public school, Christian school, or home school. Different Christians may reach different conclusions based on good Christian principles. To make the Bible speak dogmatically on this issue is to force the Bible into all sorts of anachronisms.
5. Distinguish between church existence and church health. Lose some doctrines and you no longer have a church. Lose other doctrines and your church is not everything it should be. The latter is still a problem worth correcting, but you can exercise more patience and gentleness in getting there.
6. Avoid foolish controversies. This is another common theme in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim. 1:4–6; 4:7; 6:4, 20; 2 Tim. 2:14, 16, 23; 4:4; Titus 1:14; 3:9). Some doctrinal disputes are worth dying for, others are just dumb. We should steer clear of theological wrangling that is speculative (goes beyond Scripture), vain (more about being right than being helpful), endless (no real answer is possible or desired), and needless (mere semantics).
7. Allow for areas of disagreement, especially regarding “conversion baggage.” Paul is most flexible when it comes to the traditions of new converts. He is willing for Christians to be convinced in their own minds about certain days and foods (Rom. 14:5). This isn’t because Paul doesn’t know what to think. He knows that these external habits aren’t required. But he’s willing to let others continue in them so as not to violate conscience. You may know that drinking alcohol and eating meat on Fridays during Lent are perfectly fine, but it’s not worth upsetting sincere Christians who still have trouble with such practices.
Over, around, and in all these steps we must put on love—love for God, love for neighbor, love for truth, and love for the church. The point in drawing lines is not to be right or even courageous. The goals are to love God by proclaiming and protecting His Word, and to love others by putting up fences to keep out wolves and nurture green pastures. The hard work of setting boundaries must not be ignored. God calls us to it for His glory and our good.