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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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