While all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable, this is not the same as saying all doctrines are as important as every other. Jesus acknowledges this himself.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23:23)
If there are “weightier matters of the law,” then there are less weighty matters of the law. Some matters – even in God’s Word – are simply not as important as others. All are profitable, and all are true. Not all are helpful in every situation, and not all are essential to the basic Christian life and salvation.
Likewise, Paul acknowledges some things he taught were more important than other doctrines.
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)
If some things were of “first importance,” then some doctrines taught by Paul were of secondary importance or less. Paul will elsewhere warn against disputing over questionable matters or what some translations have dubbed “opinions” (Romans 14:1). “Opinion” is not the most helpful word in this case, as we use the word opinion to describe whatever someone else thinks, but we tend to call our opinions “facts” or “convictions.” The term “opinion” (dialogismōn) in the Romans passage seems to be those issues raising doubts or causing internal turmoil (compare to usage in Luke 2:35; 24:38; Philippians 2:14). It is after all the work of the church to create faith, not dismantle it.
Other passages hint at this same sort of distinction. The author of Hebrews singles out belief in God and his reward for the faithful as “necessary” (Hebrews 11:6). Paul lists seven tenets of a united faith (Ephesians 4:1-6). While these are not in either case exhaustive lists, they do seem to highlight certain necessities above other matters.
But how do we tell the difference?
Jesus teaches that love is the first and second great commandments. Paul teaches that the death, burial, and resurrection are of first importance. First comes first. Everything else must be second (Matthew 22:37-40; 1 Corinthians 13:13; 15:1-9). Jesus stated that justice, mercy, and faithfulness come above ceremonial or technical issues in the law (Matthew 23:23).
Beyond this, the Bible does not seem to offer any explicit guidance on how to prioritize concepts of doctrines. That being said, I have found the following guidelines to be helpful to me, and so share them here for further study. They are not ironclad or unassailable, only guidelines for thought.
- Perspicuity. Perspicuity of Scripture is the doctrine claiming all of Scripture can be understood. While that point is debatable, a helpful modified version is this: If your argument or doctrine requires specialized training or intellect to understand, then the church as a whole is simply not accountable for knowing or practicing it. Intellect is not a requirement for salvation or fellowship. To quote the wise words of Thomas Campbell: “That although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. Therefore, no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church. Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession” (from Declaration and Address). One’s intellect may be of service to the church, but neither the church, her doctrine, nor her fellowship may ever be a servant to intellect or to a particular view of rationality.
- Tradition. Traditionalism assumes that what we have done, we must continue to do in all cases. Tradition itself, on the other hand, is a very helpful tool for helping to understand Scripture itself and discern matters outside of Scripture. Tradition is the living faith of the dead, whereas traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. For our purposes, tradition is helpful in giving a sense of perspective. If the church has been doing something consistently for 2000 years, don’t go tinkering with it. If your doctrine has never been known or understood until the last century or so (lucky you), then it must not be essential to Christianity.
- Practice. Related to tradition is practice. The church is not hypothetical. It is a living, breathing body of believers. If your doctrine noticeably alters the practice of the church (broadly speaking) you should at least reconsider it. On the other hand, if two people can share a pew, have differing views of a particular issue, and never have it affect their worship or practice, then it must not be that important. An example of this might be a dispute over the nature of the Spirit’s indwelling or over a point of eschatology, neither of which would prevent two Christians from working and worshipping together indefinitely. If you have to persuade people that their differences should divide them, then perhaps they should not.
- Canon. If in all the Bible, an issue never comes up in a real discussion (as in a complete thought, not a fragmented proof text), then the Only Wise God did not see fit to address it. Neither should you. Admittedly, the changing of times and seasons has brought some issues to the forefront which otherwise might have been unimportant. However, as a general rule, canon – not reactionary sermons or hobby-horses – should shape the church. The argument from silence cuts two ways.
- Fruits. A tree is known by its fruit. If raising a particular issue has a track record of harming a congregation, then perhaps it is not wise to continue raising it. The Gospel changes lives. Opinions do not (unless you are forming a cult, in which case you should stop that). If your congregation’s sense of important doctrines and issues reaches no one with the gospel, then it is time to at least prayerfully reconsider what you deem important. However, even more important than this consideration (which might be confused with pragmatism) we must consider whether the doctrinal focus of the church is producing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24). If the doctrines valued as important produce anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, and things like these rather than love, joy, and peace, how can they be rightly deemed the work of the Spirit who has given us the text and lives in the church?
- Patience. No matter how important you may think an issue is, the default posture of the church is one of extreme patience and grace. In the church at Corinth, there seem to have been some disciples who were not clear on how many gods there are (1 Corinthians 8:4-7). However, despite the mess at Corinth, faithful members are still present and no one is encouraged to split or any such thing. The church at Thyatira permitted a woman to teach who encouraged men to commit adultery (Revelation 2:20). However, Jesus gives even her time to repent (2:21) and acknowledges the faith of other brethren in that congregation (2:19, 24-25). Membership is a commitment to God and each other, not a tool to be used to extort the leadership. It should never be a bond easily broken.
To be clear, you should never intentionally believe or teach something that is false. You should never allow sloppy study or negligence of the text to lead you to a false position. However, no human person – not even you! – is right about every doctrine. The conclusion is either no persons are saved, or some people will be saved while at the same time being wrong about some of what they believe and teach. I, for one, can live with that.