Primary or Secondary Importance?: Some Cautions
Not every doctrinal issue is a matter of heresy versus orthodoxy. In today’s internet fueled climate this first sentence is worth repeating to ourselves. As young growing Christians many of us, myself included, zealously desired to defend Biblical doctrines. Sometimes in our zeal we brought more heat than light or, to switch metaphors, like the equivalent of a wartime friendly fire incident we attacked genuine brothers in Christ.
In this respect, it is important to distinguish between primary and secondary doctrines. Primary and secondary doctrines distinguish between doctrines that hinge upon our salvation over against those that do not.
What are some first order doctrines? Examples include that God is triune, the deity of Christ, and the incarnation. Scripture guides us here in setting these doctrines as primary. For example, the apostle John calls someone an antichrist when there is a denial of certain things about Christ:
1John 2:22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.
1John 4:3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
2John 7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.
Elsewhere Paul tells us that if there is no resurrection of the dead, we are still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17). Preaching and faith is in vain if there is no resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15:14). We understand from Paul that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are matters of first importance (1 Cor. 15:1-4). Therefore, we understand by the nature of Paul’s argument that a denial of the death of Christ would be a heresy. Likewise, someone who denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a genuine believer in Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, the early church creeds such as the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed can help us prioritize things that are matters of first order doctrines. We do not put the creeds above the authority of Scripture. Instead, the early history of the church shows us a time where these doctrines were attacked and denied. The gravity of the historical situations reminds us what is at stake in denying these doctrines.
What is a secondary doctrine? A secondary doctrine is best defined as something that is important to take a stand on but that salvation itself does not hinge on these doctrines. A secondary doctrine would be something that a local church or confessional statement should divide from others but the division on the issue is one among brothers.
I think the issue of the sacraments is a good example of a secondary doctrine. Contrary to the opinion of evangelical-lite, the sacraments or ordinances of the church really matter. Should I baptize believers based on their profession of faith or should I baptize believers and their children based on a sign and seal of the Abrahamic covenant? This matters not just for church practice but for larger views of Scripture. In what way is Christ present in the element of the Lord’s Table? Is it a memorial? Are the elements transformed into Christ? Is he present in, with, and under the forms? Or is the Spirit present to enhance a spiritual union and communion? Again, all of this matters for church practice, for proclamation, and for discipleship.
It is dangerous when we run and declare every person who disagrees with us a heretic. It shows we have no balance or the ability to weigh Scripture and exercise discernment. However, we also do a disservice to the church when we pretend that secondary issues are not worth debating or dividing over. The division does not need to be as deep as it would be with heretical views but at the same time, I cannot pretend these things do not matter where the Scripture is clear that they do. Here again, church history can be a helpful guide as to what division can be acceptable within a local church (say for example: what is the age of the earth?) versus what should we divide fellowship over (example: the mode of baptism).
Two words of caution when it comes to sorting out these divisions:
First, be sure to listen. Sometimes we can be quick to press the “heresy” button or divide with someone without actually understanding their view. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. This is not to say we never divide but it is to say we are careful and deliberate because we understand what is being said. If something is heretical we should say so. When it is opposed to the gospel, we should be clear to stand.
The second word of caution flows out of the first: be careful to discern when someone is inaccurate or untrained versus when they are with full knowledge denying a doctrine. Sometimes new believers are accidental heretics not because they are rejecting truth but because they have never been taught. For example, a child or a new believer might unintentionally describe the Trinity in modalistic or social trinitarian terms because they are new in articulating the truth. The response needs to be gracious, instructive, and guiding. This is very different from a learned theologian who seeks to revamp Apollinarianism in a defense of Christology.
By dividing doctrines into primary and secondary categories, we are upholding that matters of heresy and orthodoxy are important. At the same time, we are seeking to protect orthodoxy by not narrowing the definition so that every issue is one where salvation is at stake. We have all met the person whose test list of doctrinal affirmations for orthodoxy is so long and so narrowly specific that only he is saved. Distinguishing between primary and secondary categories is beneficial for our unity in the gospel, our church fellowship, our own spiritual health and even our sanity.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.