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Russell Moore Repudiates Albert Mohler’s Theological Triage

In a recent article by Christianity Today and a recent interview on CNN, Russell Moore responded to Pat Robertson’s recent comments about divorce.  The title of Moore’s article says it all: “Pat Robertson Repudiates the Gospel.”  In short, Moore’s interpretation of Robertson is that he said Alzheimer’s disease is an “understandable” grounds for a divorce (Moore translated him as having said it was “morally justified”).

Robertson has since claimed that he was misinterpreted and all he meant was this: if a man is going to have an affair with his wife because she has Alzheimer’s he would be better off getting a divorce than to continue having the affair.  This is how I had initially interpreted Pat Robertson’s words before reading Moore’s interpretation, thus I do think Moore was taking his comments out of context.  Yet in fairness to Moore we might still say Robertson was not very careful in how he articulated his view and should have seen this one coming.  Moore has stood by his initial interpretation of Robertson’s remarks and argued that Robertson was now backtracking.

Robertson did not, in fact, say that. He said, “I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something he should divorce her and start all over again.”

Now when Robertson said “if he’s going to do something,” I took him to mean “If the man is going to continue in an affair” thus addressing a very particular context.  Nevertheless … This post will not be about what he really meant to say or what he really believes, but will (for the sake of argument) assume Moore’s interpretation of Robertson was right.  Here was Moore’s opening words of response:

This week on his television show Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson said a man would be morally justified to divorce his wife with Alzheimer’s disease in order to marry another woman. The dementia-riddled wife is, Robertson said, “not there” anymore. This is more than an embarrassment. This is more than cruelty. This is a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

These are fighting words, and clearly Moore believes he is fighting for the truth of the very gospel itself.  His argument was something like this: because marriage is supposed to be an icon of Christ and the Church, marriage is therefore an icon of the gospel.  This means that if we fail to live up to the standard Christ set for us by loving the church sacrificially and selflessly–even to the point of suffering on a cross to die–we fail to live up to the gospel.  The implication he has obviously drawn is this: to selfishly leave your wife just because she has Alzheimer’s and abandon your calling to suffer with her and take care of her is a failure to live up to the gospel.

But Moore takes it further, arguing that Pat Robertson, by allowing for a divorce in such a situation, has not only failed to live up to the gospel and Christ’s example of loving the Church (something every Christian has done), but he has in fact repudiated the gospel (something not all Christian do).

It’s one thing to fail to live up to Christ’s example in loving the Church in one’s own marriage; I don’t think Moore or virtually any Christian would claim they never stray from Christ’s example.  It’s quite another thing, however, to repudiate the very gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Yet it appears that Moore believes that in this case, Pat Robertson has done both.

Theological Triage

Although I (and so many countless others) disagree strongly with Robertson’s position and would more-or-less agree with most of what Moore has said about why it’s wrong based on the Christ-Church analogy, nevertheless I think the strong words used by Moore in this article do not do justice to the careful distinctions that must be made in light of Al Mohler’s theological triage.  Dr. Mohler has defended Christian unity for a long time by teaching that not all doctrines are equally important (for an animated video clip of his defense click here).  He calls this the process of theological triage.  His initial piece on this appeared in Daniel Akin’s book A Theology for the Church (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2007), 927-34.  He has most recently written on this topic in the book Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011).  As I sight Mohler I will abbreviate my source in parenthesis (V = video, ATC = A Theology for the Church).

In a nut shell, theological triage distinguishes between three orders (or “tiers”) of doctrine: first order, second order, and third order.

In Mohler’s own words, “first-order doctrines are those that are fundamental and essential to the Christian faith” (ATC, 930).  One must believe certain things to be recognized as a fellow Christian, such as the physical bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ or the doctrine of the Trinity.

The second order doctrines are those that “are essential to church life and necessary for the ordering of the local church but that, in themselves, do not define the gospel” (ATC, 931).  The importance of this distinction for Christian unity should be obvious.  Although these doctrines are important enough to divide distinct ecclesial bodies (Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, etc.), they are not important enough to define Christianity per se.  Baptists, for example, don’t have to try to “save” their Presbyterian brothers and sisters or tell them they are not real Christians just because they believe in infant baptism.  Cessationist Baptists can still consider Pentecostals (at least the one’s who still believe in the Trinity) as their brothers and sisters in Christ even if they have serious misgivings about these charismatic churches.  We can have respectful disagreement over these differences as Christians.  As Mohler says, this is because “one may detect an error in a doctrine at this level and still acknowledge that the person in error remains a believing Christian” (ATC, 931).

There is a third tier of doctrines “that may be the ground for fruitful theological discussion and debate but that do not threaten the fellowship of the local congregation or the denomination” (931).  Even Baptists (believe it or not) can disagree over things like eschatology or areas of Calvinism and Arminianism.  Calvinist Baptists and Arminian “Free-Will” Baptists can consider each other as deeply mistaken brothers and sisters in Christ and even be on the same pastoral team.  These also are doctrines over which we can have respectful disagreement.

The Implication of Russell Moore’s Language

According to this theological triage, it would appear that Moore has located Robertson’s position on divorce and remarriage as “first order” in terms of importance.  In other words, it appears that Moore believes that if you have the wrong view of “marriage and divorce,” you are not even a Christian because you have repudiated the gospel.  I strongly and respectfully disagree with Moore on this one, and find his article unnecessarily divisive.  Perhaps if Moore were to read this post he might say “No.  I do not believe Paterson’s view on divorce is a ‘first order’ issue.”  But if so, the strong language he uses certainly has no regard for Mohler’s triage.  Perhaps he might respond by saying that he thinks Robertson has denied the gospel by some other position he takes and not by the particular position on divorce he so aggressively attacks in his article.  But if so, his article certainly makes no such case, but appears to ground his accusation in Robertson’s position on divorce, which would make his article dreadfully misleading.

In surveys that have been done on what people think of Baptists, for so many people the word “Baptist” immediately conjures up the notion of “legalism.”  What I believe fits very well with those statistics.  There is a tendency in fundamentalist evangelical Christianity to make every point of strong disagreement a disagreement over “the gospel,” when in reality it’s just a second tier disagreement.  This helps feed the public impression that Baptists are divisive and legalistic.  The word “schismatics” is usually applied to people who tend to be unnecessarily divisive when they disagree with others and are excessive in their criticism of other Christians.  I think this word is appropriate inasmuch as such divisive discourse violates the biblical doctrine of Christian unity (a biblical doctrine you will not find treated at any great length in today’s systematic theological textbooks, but that was actually one of the most fundamental doctrines of the early church).

It is strong enough language that Moore (in the article) calls Robertson a “cartoon character” we evangelicals “allow to speak for us,” and calls his theology “Canaanite mammonocracy.”  But to argue that he has repudiated the gospel by his view on divorce and dementia is going too far and demonstrates the importance of Mohler’s theological triage.

The great challenge for our generation, as Dr. Mohler says, is that we get the “right doctrines in the right tier” not just for the sake of protecting first order doctrines, but for the sake of Christian unity (V).

If we take first order doctrines and make them third order doctrines–disaster will ensue and we will end up abandoning the faith!  If we take third order doctrines and make them first order issues and say “People have to believe this to be a Christian,” then we do violence to the New Testament. (V)

What “tier” should issues of divorce and remarriage fall under?  It seems to answer this question we must consider questions like these: Is it possible for someone to be a Christian and yet be too loose with their divorce policy?  I think a more humble, charitable, reasonable, and biblical response to this question is “Yes.”  Thus while I think Moore was right to lash out publicly and decry Robertson’s advice, his choice of rhetoric was overboard, and he could have publicly disagreed with Robertson without accusing the man of denying “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

To put it strongly, if we take Robertson, as Moore interprets him, as having “morally justified” divorce for a Husband who is in adultery with his Alzheimer’s stricken wife, we can say that Robertson’s advice asks followers of Christ to lay down their cross; to only follow Jesus when it is easy.  We could say Robertson’s position subverts and inverts the sacrificial, cross-carrying example of Christ’s love for the church, cheapening the biblical imagery to accommodate the husband’s self-ambition.  I could say more about this, but the point is this: There are many ways to offer sharp and public criticism against Robertson’s advice without blowing the anathema trumpet and accusing him of having repudiated the very gospel of Jesus Christ.

By choosing our words more carefully, we can not merely defend the sacredness of marriage and the calling of the gospel to love sacrificially after the example of Christ, but also do so in such a way that does not undermine Christian unity and also avoids feeding into the already widespread impression in Christendom that Southern Baptists (as a microcosm of conservative evangelicalism) are “legalistic,” “judgmental,” and “schismatic.”

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23 Comments

  1. Ricky Hardison says:

    Interesting approach…pitting Mohler against Moore.
    I think Christians should try to go a month without using the word “gospel.” It’s become so over-used in Christian vernacular. You’re right, everything is a “gospel” issue, and if everything is a gospel issue, then nothing is a gospel issue. Instead, we should just use synoymns for about 30 day! We need to be more precise as we refer to the evangelistic message of the gosepl (i.e. bodily resurrection), the theological implications of the gospel (election, imputation), the gospel as depicted through analogies (which is what Moore is getting at, I think–baptism, communion, marriage), or 2nd order doctrines that help protect the gospel (like regenerate church membership). Each of these doctrines stands on different ground.

    Problem is,..this doesn’t preach well!

  2. julie mata says:

    The wording of that last question could just as easily be “Is it possible for someone to be a Christian and yet sin?” Where does morality fit on the three tiers, especially morality that stems not only from scripture, but natural law precepts that protect marriage and the family as the most fundamental core of society? Even Plato and Aristotle are anti-divorce.

    It takes a LOT of stretching and misinterpretation of the Scripture to try to make divorce fit with Christianity. Sadly, as with so many moral issues, too many Christians are too worried about offending and scaring away the sinner (a.k.a. the divorced) to point out the truth of the matter. Jesus was never afraid to point out the truth in love.

  3. Emily says:

    Wow this is an awesome post! Really enjoyed reading it! Fantastically articulated!! Thanks for sharing!

  4. This is an insightful and very helpful post. You know the culture and context from which this insight has been drawn very well and I respect you for pointing out the inconsistencies of the way Russell Moore has stated the case against Robertson.

  5. @RIcky: I think your right when you say Moore is “getting at” gospel analogies. I like your distinction between the gospel, gospel implications, and gospel analogies, and gospel protections. It doesn’t preach well for most conservative evangelicals for sure.

    My question is: why is that? What is it about conservative evangelicals that tends toward elevating all strong disagreements into first tier disagreements? Could it be an ungodly divisive spirit contrary to the spirit of unity Paul calls for in his epistles? Lord knows I had to come to place of repentance in my own life at Liberty University when I realized that I was being too argumentative and divisive with my Calvinism. Ever since then I have begun to see things like this differently, and to make a sharp distinction between “the gospel” and everything else.

    Bradley

  6. @ Julie,

    I agree that people need to be confronted. But I believe it should be done “in love.” Part of this “in love” part means that we don’t alienate our brothers and sisters but encourage and admonish them as brothers and sisters and not as those who have “denied the gospel” just because they disagree with us on a second or third order doctrine or moral practice.

    Bradley

  7. @ John & Emily,

    Thanks for your kind words!

    Bradley

  8. julie mata says:

    Bradley,

    I completely agree that they should not be “denied the gospel.” My point was that Divorce is a sin, and should be recognized as one. We need to love sinners, but what is love? Is loving someone allowing them to continue in sin or to help them see their sin, repent, and get right with God?

    Let me rephrase the question again. Is it possible for someone to be a Christian and yet speak in anger to her husband or gossip at work? Both are sins, both I have committed, and yet I am still a Christian. It would be wrong, however, for me to keep committing them and live as if nothing was wrong. My fellow Christians, be it my husband or friend or priest, should help me recognize my actions as sin if i cannot. And it should ALWAYS be done out of love.

    My question is…where does morality fit on the tiers? Should fellowship be broken, not with sinners, but with people who refuse to acknowledge blatant sin?

    Julie

    P.S. I love the ideas behind your blog. I’m glad it randomly appeared on my facebook newsfeed =)

  9. Julie,

    I wasn’t actually disagreeing with your point that love demands confrontation, only complimenting it with my own. Also, I do think that church authorities must excercise church discipline, and there comes a point when after walking through the steps Jesus laid out in Matthew 18 that eventually Christians must treat “the unrepentant sinner” as an unbeliever. I do not, however, see how Russell Moore’s comments fit any of these biblical steps, thus I think here we are dealing with quite a different issue than this. Moore is not on the pastoral team at Robertson’s church excercising church discipline, but a public evangelical figure publically rebuking and denouncing Robertson as a Christian (or if he still considers him a Christian, he certainly would seem inconsistant at that point, given that he thinks Robertson has denounced the very gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ).

    As a side issue, I don’t think divorce is always a sin, for even the most conservative approach to the issue of marriage and divorce must take with absolute seriousness Jesus’ exception clauses (see Matthew 5:32 and 19:9). But that’s neither here nor there for our present discussion …

    You raise a wonderful question by asking: “Where does morality fit in their teirs?” I think the answer must be nuanced, and that we must not assume that all moral issues must fall under the same teir. More likely some of the “moral issues” (as you call them, although I beleive that doctrine is also a “moral issue”) will have to go under one tier, while others fall under another tier. Thus, they probably must be taken on a case-by-case basis. In this case, I don’t think Robertson’s positon on divorce (whether we take Moore’s or Robertson’s own interpretation of what he said) belongs to the same teir as things like “the bodily ressurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” or “the incarnation,” or any other first tier issue. That’s where I disagree with Moore.

    Thanks for your contribution to this discussion and I’m very glad you are engaged by the posts! :)

    Bradley

  10. Daniel H. says:

    I’m not so sure about your post, bro. It seems like Dr. Moore used the word “repudiate” for a specific reason. Repudiating means that you are basically “divorcing” something. Interestingly enough, it can also mean a public refusal of something, usually a law of some sort. I think he chose his word (and words) well. Not simply because he is a wordsmith of sorts, but for the high place of importance Jesus places on this issue in Matthew 19.
    He tells the Pharisees that they have a “hardness of heart.” In my mind, that’s worse than saying an pat Robertson should not teach Sunday School or that he is like a goofy cartoon character. I think Dr. Moore was saying that Pat Robertson’s words were divorcing Christian belief and practice, just like the Pharisees trying to test Jesus with bogus questions. He answered them back clearly. They were blindly ignorant of Scripture, just as Pat Robertson was (and still seems to be).
    Could you see Dr. Moore’s position better from this angle? Or do you think that this does not apply correctly? Thoughts? Thanks for hearing me out!

  11. Aric says:

    First of all, let me say I’m a new and intrigued reader of theophilogue and really appreciate what you’re doing here. Thank you for the effort you put into this blog and the wonderful, interesting selection of post topics!

    Onto the post:

    Perhaps the gravest error here lies with neither Moore’s spiteful accusation nor Robertson’s low, unlearned, perspective on the Holy commitment of marriage, but rather in the idea of a “theological triage”… Although I see sufficient reason within the protestant tradition to create such a… what is it? Doctrine? Guideline? – Perhaps just a “catalyst for Christian unity” – whatever one decides to call it – “theological triage” is a certain kind of compromise that is not necessary within either the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic traditions. Before I defend my premise I must say that I have deep respect for peacemakers. Those who intend to culture unity within the Christian tradition do so, I can only hope, from a heart of compassion and love for God’s children.

    However, when Mohler creates this ‘guideline’ of “theological triage”, he is, ironically, creating a kind of guideline in which some Christians may adhere, and others may vehemently oppose… Thus creating the very disunity he seeks to abolish. Click on the source link of his animated video clip above, scroll down to the comments, and see my case in point.

    Mohler doesn’t seem to see the philosophical irony in what he’s doing (or perhaps he does, which makes him more sophist than philosopher) – his notion of theological triage is fundamentally schismatic in and of itself. You were right that the early church saw schismatics as violating the doctrine of Christian unity – and such schismatics were rightfully deemed heretics and excommunicated until they conformed their wills back to that of the Church.

    I suppose my point is that any form of protestantism is doomed to perpetual schism, and no triage, quatrage, or pentage will ever solve the issue. Men could spend countless hours figuring out which “tier” certain doctrines would fall under, only to find their tier’s conflicted with others.

    It brings me to tiers just thinking about it.

    It seems apparent to me the real solution to schism is to adhere to a dogma that asserts that all dogma is on equal ground – that no dogma is higher than another dogma, because all dogma is espoused to create perfect unity, not schism. Such is the dogma of the Holy Catholic Church. Robertson’s cheap view on marriage certainly would have been rebuked, but not with the ungraceful, unforgiving spite of Moore’s poisonous polemic passion.

    Oddly enough, I am neither Catholic nor Orthodox… But I can no longer with any integrity deem myself a protestant, and internal issues like these urge me every day to sojourn either West or East. I am also not ignorant that the Catholic Church has had many of its own internal schisms – but the point is that there has always been a final judgement, and there has always been a clear notion of what is heretical and what is not.

    It sum, I see Mohler, Moore, and Robertson as forming a kind of trinitarian microcosm of the evangelical theological landscape – filled with anxiety, anger, and apathy – respectively.

    Please lend me your two cents, I allow myself absolutely no shelter from criticism on issues like these.

    Thanks!

  12. Daniel,

    First, thanks so much for your kind words of disagreement. I can respect respectful disagreement. I enjoyed hearing you out and thinking through why your way of thinking about this and my way of thinking are so different. Let me try to articulate my perspective a bit and maybe somewhere my way of thinking will become more clear.

    First, whether the word “repudiate” means divorce or public refusal, just because Pat Robertson has a more lenient policy on divorce does not mean he has “divorced” the very gospel of Jesus Christ; nor does it mean that he has publicly refused the very gospel of Jesus Christ. Although I do also disagree with Robertson’s advice (as Moore interprets it), I also disagree with your opinion that Moore chose his words well.

    Think of it this way … What would Moore’s article be entitled if Pat Robertson came out and said, “Jesus is not God, did not die on a cross, and probably never existed.” or “Christianity is a sham!” or “Man does not need grace to be saved, but can be saved by his own power!” What words would Moore use to respond to this? I could think of no better title if Moore were to write a response article than “Pat Robertson Repudiates the Gospel,” but if we are accustomed to using these same words for much lesser matters, these words would’ve lost their true meaning, and repudiating the gospel would be the same sort of thing as giving bad advise about divorce or teaching an “unbiblical” position on re-marriage, etc.

    Now in Matthew 19 Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees who were in open public hostility to Jesus himself and his gospel. Thus the context is so different that this parallel you are making and applying to the situation between Moore and Robertson does not persuade me. The Pharisees were certainly “hard hearted”—they were in open, public hostility to Jesus and secretly plotting to kill him. Also, I have heard a thousand times about how the Pharisees were not simply allowing for divorce in exceptional situations (that would be parallel to something like “the Alzheimer’s exception”), but were allowing for divorce for just about any reason imaginable. I’ve never researched it myself so I don’t know if this depiction of second temple Pharisaic Judaism is fair, but if there be any merit to it, the parallel you are drawing would fail yet further. Thus I don’t think comparing Robertson to the hard-hearted Pharisees is a very careful comparison, and unfairly demonizes him.

    I agree that Jesus places a high importance on divorce. For Complementarians the Holy Spirit (through the writings of Paul) also places a high importance on women not teaching in authority over men. Yet should they say to their Egalitarian brothers: “You folks are not just an embarrassment, you have denied the very gospel of Jesus Christ.”(?) For Egalitarians the Holy Spirit places a high importance on the equality of women in all things (including positions of church authority). Should they say to their Complementarian brothers: “You have denied the very gospel of Jesus Christ!” Jesus also places a high importance on avoiding lust—to the point that he told people to gouge out their eyes if their eyes led them to lust (and no I don’t take him literally here). Does this mean that when a Christian falls into sexual sin (whether a public figure or not) we should publically respond by saying “Your sin is not just an embarrassment to the rest of evangelicalism, but you have denied the very gospel of Jesus Christ!” (?)

    In Scripture and the Christian Tradition there are things that are important. Then there are things that are even more important. Finally, there are things that are most important. If we treat all serious disagreement we have with other Christians as disagreements over things that are “most important,” those things that actually are most important will, ironically, thereby be trivialized as less important (i.e. as on the same level with being a tad bit too lenient on divorce and remarriage policy, for example, and I say “tad bit” because we should remember that many self proclaimed Christians would allow for divorce in just about any situation, just like the Pharisees did, which is much different than what Pat Robertson holds to).

    Finally, a failure to do justice to the doctrine of Christian unity both in Scripture and in the Christian Tradition is, I think, one of the problems that causes our the rhetoric of conservative evangelicals to become unbridled and overly divisive. Christian unity is so under-taught that most pastors (much less their congregations) don’t even think of it as a doctrine per se, thus “sound doctrine” often becomes the very banner of the rhetoric of alienation that causes further disunity in an already overly-fragmented Protestantism. Thus divisiveness is seen to be justified because “the other” has violated “sound doctrine,” and this makes it OK for Christians to treat each other horribly, mock each other, publicly scorn and ridicule one another, demonize each other, and slander each other. If we cared more about the sacred teaching of Christian unity, this would help us to be more charitable and to better prioritize doctrines.

    Thanks for contributing to the dialogue here!

    Thoughts?

    Bradley

  13. Aric,

    First, thanks for you kind comments about the blog. I’m glad we have a similar “taste” in topics.

    Second: “It brings me to tiers just thinking about it.” – This was a brilliant line! Very witty. I love this.

    Third, I’m afraid there is much truth to your assessment of the evangelical “landscape,” which is so diverse it’s hard to get a handle on. But I think these three men only represent a large plot of the more conservative landscape, not evangelicalism per se, which is much more diverse than can be represented by these three men. Yet I sympathize with your perspective.

    Yes. Catholics and Orthodox have something evangelicals don’t “officially” have: authoritative Tradition that demarcates heresy and orthodoxy. Instead, to some extent, it’s “orthodoxy by democracy,” as it were. Now I realize (like you) that evangelicals would say they do have an authority that “settles” all disputes–the Bible. But (like you) I think this claim is hollow, since to demarcate heresy and orthodoxy, one must have an authoritative interpretation of the Scripture.

    For example, if Oneness Pentecostals get their teaching from the Bible, then how can another Trinitarian evangelical say their “oneness” is heresy? Well, perhaps by saying that it contradicts Scripture’s clear teaching. But this too, is hollow, inasmuch as both parties think the other group is denying what the Scripture “clearly” teaches. Without a recognized authority to “settle the dispute” (as you aptly put it) the issue will never be authoritatively resolved–unless you want to say that it will be resolved in the afterlife. In this sense, I’m afraid that you are right when you say “Any form of protestantism is doomed to perpetual schism, and no triage, quatrage, or pentage will ever solve the issue.”

    “Click on the source link of his animated video clip above, scroll down to the comments, and see my case in point.” – Point well made.

    When you say “His notion of theological triage is fundamentally schismatic in and of itself,” I can’t go with you there. The reason is that no matter what Christian Tradition you are in, the truth still holds:

    In necessariis unitas, in non-necessariis (or, dubiis) libertas, in utrisque (or, omnibus) caritas. [In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things Charity].

    In the Catholic Church, a combination of the pope, the bishops, and Tradition decides what issues are prioritized and how; something similar happens in the Orthodox Church (minus the pope). Thus it seems more appropriate to say that such a maxim could only be “enforced” and thus Christian unity actually accomplished, in a ecclesiastical context foreign to evangelical Protestantism in North America. Yet as you pointed out, there is also a certain level of division within Catholicism (and I would also say Orthodoxy too), although perhaps the level of disunity that exits in these two non-Protestant Traditions is much smaller compared to Protestantism. How much smaller I have yet to satisfyingly discover.

    Any thoughts?

    Bradley

  14. julie mata says:

    Aric,

    That was beautifully written =) My side notes on whether divorce is a sin and where sin in general fits into the triage were trying to drive at that very point. This triage system seems to lead to either more schism or an odd kind of relativism within Christianity.

    Prayers from someone who recently swam the Tiber.

  15. Daniel says:

    Hi Bradley,

    Thanks for your comment on my blog earlier today, which led me (quite thankfully) to discover yours! Nice work here, and I look forward to reading more sometime soon.

    The main difficulty I have with Mohler’s “tiers” metaphor is that it seems to assume (but not state) that there exists an authority to define what goes in each tier. As nice an idea it is to imagine two doctrinally-opposed Baptists on the same team, if one believes the other is committing a tier-one error on what the other believes to be a tier-two doctrine, there are going to remain significant problems…not only about the difference, but about the very quality of the difference.

    The distinction between essential and unessential doctrines only masks a broken system of authority. Yet, authority abhors a vacuum. What seems to happen in reality is that everyone steps in with their assumption that they are united with other Christians on all the essentials, yet no one really stops to ask if everyone shares the same list of essentials.

    I’m fascinated by the nuance that Mohler brings to this question by adding a second-tier category, though I think his doing so becomes exhibit A of the problem I have in mind: how do we know that Mohler is the proper authority to define the categories into which doctrines fit, and which doctrines fit in which categories?

    Without an answer to this question, Mohler essentially answers that question by the very action of offering the categories: he is the authority…but only over himself. We each act as our own authorities in deciding whether or not to accept or reject Mohler’s assessment of doctrinal divisions between Christians.

    There is more to be said here, but I’ve gone on too long already.

    To close, imagine how things change if we use a different metaphor: that of a symphony. If truth is more like a symphony, in which each doctrine relates to the others in a kind of beautiful counterpoint, then it is easier to understand how messing with one line tampers with the whole. Change one line of music, and all the relationships change. Tamper with the counterpoint in any way, and everything shifts; the entire symphony is altered.

    And this is true if even *one line* is changed. Now, think of all the areas where there exist even tier-two and -three differences, and it becomes clear that different churches are singing quite different songs from one another.

    Sadly, it seems that there are likely significant tier-one differences that are often not discussed. For instance, take infant baptism and baptismal regeneration, both issues that divide Bible-only Christians. One could argue that these differences remain tier-two only, but it seems to me that these differences imply the presence of other differences related to the nature of original sin, redemption, justification, sanctification, and the nature of the very tools Jesus established to accomplish our salvation. If these things are not tier-one issues, then I’m afraid we’ve ended up with a reduction of Christianity to the least common denominator.

    On the flip side, if the Jesus Christ is the Truth, how can we take any of these critical issues and say that it is acceptable for Christians to divide over them? What truth of Jesus Christ can be viewed as unessential? And where do Jesus’s and Paul’s constant prayers and commands that (as an entire body…not just a local church) we be perfectly unified allow for us to even *imagine* a situation where we allow divisions (and the “institutions of division”*** that support them)?

    ***John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint

    Thanks again for the fascinating post, and I look forward to joining you in dialogue and prayer for unity in Gospel and in the Body of Christ.

    Daniel

  16. Daniel,

    Thanks for contributing to the discussion here! I found your blog as I was looking for responses to Moore’s message that did not amount to a simple “Amen,” but had something more to add.

    I think I get what you are saying–namely, that the problem here is one of authority. Evangelicalism has no official “authority” to settle disputes, and this leads to an inevitable pluralism and results unavoidably into endless schism. Thus, every heated controversy within evangelical ranks (or Protestant ranks in general such as the recent Anglican schism) could be a reminder of the path “we” (as Protestants) have chosen to follow by rejecting all authority except the Bible. No actual living person or group of people are left to actually settle disputes like these, instead “the people” are left to themselves to figure out what the Bible teaches and “the people” inevitably do not see eye to eye. In other words, all Protestant schisms become the Catholic apologists (or Orthodox apologists) object lesson: “Look! See! That’s what you get when you don’t have an authoritative Tradition or a unified Church with authority figures who enforce doctrine!” No unity. No doctrinal agreement. The masses become the preying ground of a thousand different Protestant perspectives competing for attention and “Media might makes right” (i.e. whoever at the end of the day has more charisma or media savvy ends up winning the most followers). It leads to subjectivism, schism, and doctrinal pluralism, and the “tier” doctrine in such a context is no good unless it can be authoritatively determined which doctrines are in which tier and enforce their prioritization (as it were).

    Am I summarizing your point well?

    It also seems you are saying that all doctrine is important, just like all notes to a song are important. I would agree. Yet I think if there is a song on my ipod that (for technical reasons) has a skip in the song (and I loose 3 seconds of the song) or there is another “version” of that song in which a certain instrument is taken out, it would still be the same song, and it would depend on which instrument is taken out as to how different the song sounded. Catholics call Protestants “separated brethren” only by virtues of such distinctions (VII). The nature of ecumenical discussions over justification between Rome and Protestantism have also made such distinctions paramount to the discussions and agreements taking place.

    Your thoughts?

    Bradley

  17. Daniel says:

    Hi Bradley,

    Yes. I think at the heart of it is the epistemological quandary posed by Pilot: “what is truth?” The scary thing is that Truth was right there all along, and remains so today. Jesus is truly with us.

    I think the only thing I’d like to emphasize is that I don’t want to be taken as seizing upon this difficulty as an opportunity to teach Protestants a lesson. The fact is, I (and many Catholics) have a lot of lessons to be learning from non-Catholics, including how to be truly evangelical and committed before all else to the authority of God’s Word.

    The written portion of God’s Word is indeed an authority that we all have, and share in common (i.e. I’m not saying Protestants are without an authority). But as you basically point out, where do we go from here? We can discuss different ways of categorizing all of our different interpretations of Scripture, but how much closer does that get us to an answer to Pilot’s question? The answer to Pilots question isn’t a list that can be neatly divided out. The answer was standing right before Him.

    Jesus is with us, and remains so today. If we only knew how much Jesus wanted us to know Him in his fullness (which includes but goes beyond doctrine), we would pray even more fervently to know how we can gain unadulterated access to the fullness of His revelation, “left once for all with the saints” (Jude 3). And if we only knew how much we as Christians have scandalized the world through our divisions…and how many souls that could have been saved…I think that we would probably find ourselves on our knees in repentance and working harder than any of us have ever imagined to find our way back to the perfect unity that Jesus offered His passion to achieve, depending on His grace all the way.

    God bless,

    Daniel

  18. Daniel says:

    Hi Bradley,

    I just saw the second paragraph in your earlier comment.

    The music metaphor is an interesting one, and I like the questions you pose. I think people will have different opinions about how any random 3 second clip effects the integrity of a piece of music. Music scholars have endless debate over what makes various musical materials the same or different, and I couldn’t hope to give justice to this question here. I think the most useful approach to the example you give (a new version of a song) would be to speak specifically about the elements that are the same (perhaps melody, harmony, and rhythm) while noting significant differences. These differences, of course, would be the very reason for being of the new version (and the very things that would protect the new version in copyright court!).

    The part of the metaphor that I think is more meaningful has to do with counterpoint, or the relationship between musical lines. Each line in music creates contrapuntal relationships with all the other lines in the texture, and if only one line of music is changed, all the relationships change. If one line is removed, multiple contrapuntal relationships are lost. The idea here is that, according to this metaphor, it is impossible to think of removing one line without considering the profound effects on the whole structure. Certainly, there is a hierarchy of truths as their are musical lines. Yet, to remove any one line (however *seemingly* insignificant) is to produce musical consequences for the entire structure. And, which one of us would dare remove even the most seemingly inconsequential part of a Mozart Serenade? Once again, we are back at the issue of authority. If we are not musically competent to mess with one line of a Mozart Serenade, are we somehow able and competent (i.e. invested with authority) to remove one iota of truth from the revelation deposited in the Church?

    Of course, looking at the entire picture of Christianity, what we see is that virtually every single line of the score has been altered, changed, removed, and added to by various Christian groups.

    The question is: do we think it will ever be possible to hear the original composition?

    Also, what might it even mean to hear the original composition given the development of doctrine that J.H. Newman discusses? (I’m not sure I have a good answer to that question off hand.)

    All I can say is that the composition of truth must obey certain fundamental laws, such as the fact that the oboe can not both be playing and not be playing at the same time.

    Likewise, baptism was either intended by Christ to be regenerative, or it was not. Good works either helpful faithful Christians grow as justified children of God, or they do not. These and other questions have profound consequences for the composition as a whole.

    God bless,

    Daniel

  19. I had posted a comment on Dr. Moore’s blog about Pat Robertson’s public statement about Alzheimer’s and divorce (sometime around October). I usually don’t go back to my comments on someone else’s blog, but a Google search this evening for something else led me to see a response to my comment by “theo.philogue” who invited me to comment on this thread. I apologize for seeing that response about 4 months later.

    In that comment to Dr. Moore’s post, I essentially said that the body of Christ would serve its mission better if Christians would practice more redemptive correction when disagreeing with one another instead of making uncharitable judgments and presumptions about another’s motive, intent, and relation with God. Uncharitable judgments tear the body apart, and this problem is only amplified in proportion to the public nature of the forum for verbiage exchange. The universal church, taken together as the body of Christ, can behave more like the world than set an example of peace, unity and forgiveness to the world. This can be easily observed in the political antics in Congress and by those vying for the Republican nomination to run for President. No matter what one’s political view might be, it is obvious that each side is bent on self-advantage and blaming the other. One wonders if the paralysis that is produced isn’t viewed by the politicians as being good (as we ordinary citizens might think it was very bad) because that just affords another posturing to blame the other party. This Presidential election is typical in that it shows the incumbent party just playing it cool and waiting as the non-incumbent party divides itself into pieces by the candidates biting and devouring one another. By the time the election attacks are finally over, the voters are sick of the issues, sick of the candidates, and even sick of the entire process. Christians can express their righteous disgust at the political mess and then turn around and do the same thing in the church. And some people are sour on the church for those reasons. Thus the words of Paul in Gal. 5;15 (slightly modified) can be relevant, “If you don’t stop biting and devouring one another by your public judgmental comments about one another, you will destroy the very unity that Jesus prayed for before He went to the cross.” The role model direction is supposed to be from the church to the world, not the other way around! The world is invading the church more and more, and too many people are busy promoting themselves at the expense of the body of Christ while others are too busy with their life in the world to have time to do anything but say, Duh!” This trend cannot be reversed until more people discern the problem and call attention to it and demand that members of the body of Christ act in a more righteous manner toward one another.

    My comment to Dr. Moore’s approach was not to defend Pat Robertson, but to point out that God has given us a better way to approach one another’s problems, burdens, and sin. It wasn’t that Dr. Moore was not addressing a real concern, but that, rather than judging, this was an opportunity to show the world the method to handle conflict using love and peacemaking principles. This was “the most excellent way.”

    So, I decided to take my own admonition and attempt to contact CBN management. I wrote an email that actually got a response from somebody, who referred me to a video segment of what was said and the text of the statement along with the “misunderstood” scenario. I responded by saying the issue was much larger than Pat Robertson needing to defend himself, but that this was a God-ordained opportunity. This statement had gotten the attention of a lot of people, both Christians and non-, and I asked Pat Robertson to seize this public-interest opportunity to witness to the world aboutr the love and unity of the body and teach what God said about marriage rather than try to “cover himself” and justify what he said. There is a migh higher priority. If he would preach the truth about marriage, the other stuff would be surpassed and the “misunderstood” comments would be more credible. It was a strong encouragement to positively portray what the church is about. I was not surprised, but still a little disappointed, to hear nothing more from them.

    This theophilogue site, both the posts and the comments, are encouraging. We have to keep pounding the message of love, peace, and unity in the whole body of Christ, because the church in America is not leading an assault against the gates of Hell (as an understatement).

    Thanks and God bless.

  20. Your final statement nails it clearly: “We have to keep pounding the message of love, peace, and unity in the whole body of Christ, because the church in America is not leading an assault against the gates of Hell (as an understatement).” It is more popular to nail each other than to love and pursue peace and unity in the global and local church. You are attempting something that too few will attempt to understand thus it will be subject to misunderstanding. Having said that, I support your effort totally.

  21. Thank you, John, for your comment, and thank you for your work for unity in the church. The Act 3 website is very encouraging to see.

    Not becoming overly ambitious with a message (even a good message) can be a challenge. Balance, discernment, prayer, and Spirit power are essential. “Speaking the truth in love.”

  22. Dr. Theophilus,

    Thanks for your thoughtful contribution to this discussion, but most of all your dedication to a life of peace, unity, and love (grounded in truth). Schism and indifference are never our only two options.

    Pax,

    Bradley

  23. Thank you, Bradley, for your comment and for this web site that brings together people who want to choose the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17. Indeed, the members of the Lord’s body have been choosing schism and indifference for much too long. We must proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor for the strength of unity in the church while (if?) there is still time. We must stop abusing the grace of God as an entitlement of freedom for the church to compete within itself and divide. The Lord’s judgment in the past has ridden on the hoofs of the enemy and the fishhooks of evil. The world scoffs and Christians get mad at the suggestion of conviction of sin. But, judgment starts with the household of God. Sounds like the prophet Jeremiah. But societies and cultures and philosophies cycle in the natural realm, and the church will cycle with them when the church places itself in subjection to the flesh. Cycles were created by God and have been used by God to run the universe. God has given us (and, collectively, the church) the right of choice between the dunamis power of the Holy Spirit of God or the power of this natural realm. By God’s power found in the unity of the Spirit, we are transformed and the church grows into the fullness of Christ. By natural power of the flesh, selfishness, competition, greed, idolatry, division, chaos, the church places itself under submission to the physical laws of thermodynamics, and the church will suffer the consequences of the law that God has created. (That sounds less like Jeremiah). But I believe this is just a verbose of describing “the discipline of judgment.”

    Keep up the good work, Bradley. Have courage in the Lord. God bless.

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