One of the unfortunate realities of church history is the frequency with which churches have divided over theological differences. It continues to happen today. Issues such as baptism, spiritual gifts, and ordaining women cause Christians to fight and, ultimately, break fellowship.
Gavin Ortlund has written a helpful book about navigating the complexities of theology while maintaining a spirit of unity. I included the book in my list of favorite books for 2021, but wanted to give it a proper review.
In Finding the Right Hills to Die On, Ortlund uses theological triage, a term he credited to Albert Mohler. Triage is a system of prioritization. It’s often used in medical contexts. Theological triage, therefore, is a system of prioritizing theological convictions from those of utmost importance to those of least importance.
When it comes to theology, Ortlund believes most of us “have a tendency in one direction or the other — to fight over doctrine too much or too little.” He believes theological convictions are necessary and good but warns against breaking unity, for unity is “essential to the mission of the church.” Jesus prayed for the unity of the church in John 17. We, therefore, must also seek unity when navigating theology in our churches and lives.
Ortlund provides four basic categories to prioritize doctrine. He ranks them from first-rank to fourth-rank doctrines. First-rank doctrines would be those such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and justification by faith alone. These are hills worth dying on. These are the types of doctrines worth breaking fellowship over.
Second-rank doctrines include women in leadership, baptism, and charismatic gifts of the Spirit. It’s easy to shift these doctrines into the first-rank category, at least in our practice, but doing so can be detrimental to unity. Such doctrines are important and require wisdom and balance. They are the most challenging to navigate.
Third-rank doctrines, according to Ortlund, are issues such as the creation days of Genesis 1 and the nature of the millennium. Ortlund believes Christians should not divide over tertiary doctrines.
Fourth-rank doctrines would include issues such as whether or not churches should use electronic instruments in their worship. Ortlund believes fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to gospel witness and ministry collaboration. These hills are never worth dying on.
Before discussing each rank and how to best navigate them, Ortlund provides some thoughts on doctrinal sectarianism and doctrinal minimalism, giving a chapter to each.
Doctrinal sectarianism is “any attitude, belief, or practice that contributes to unnecessary division in the body of Christ.” The best way to battle sectarianism is grasping the importance of unity. Ortlund says, “Jesus does not have a plurality of brides. He has one bride, and her unity is so important that, as Paul stipulates in Ephesians 2:14, it was among the intended aims of Jesus’s atoning death.”
On the other hand, doctrinal minimalism claims that everything outside the gospel message is insignificant. Yet, “if we isolate everything outside of the gospel as a matter of indifference, we end up trivializing the majority of what God has communicated to us.” We cannot, therefore, claim that doctrine is unimportant. It always impacts the way we live our Christian faith.
In chapter 3, Ortlund discusses his personal journey through secondary and tertiary doctrines. I found this chapter interesting, especially in light of the author’s upbringing. His father is Ray Ortlund, a well-respected pastor in the reformed tradition. His brother is Dane Ortlund, a Presbyterian pastor who recently wrote the popular book, Gentle and Lowly (you can read my review of that book here). Gavin Ortlund, it appears, landed in a different camp than his family in regards to baptism. He describes his journey and how his understanding of credobaptism made finding ministry positions challenging.
Ranking doctrines can be challenging but, according to Ortlund, are determined by whether or not they are essential to the gospel; clear and abundant in the Bible; systematically defined by the early church through councils and ecumenical creeds; and practically relevant for every aspect of the Christian life.
Why I Enjoyed This Book
I appreciated several things about this book. First, Ortlund’s humility made the reading more enjoyable as I didn’t feel like he was trying to pick a fight. Books about theology can feel brutal because they often fire shots at opposing views. Such an approach to theology is not Christlike, even if the opposing view has major weaknesses.
Second, navigating the complexities of theology is no easy task. For instance, should one serve or worship at a church that ordains women if they believe the Bible forbids it? Or, should a pastor serve on staff at a church that baptizes infants if their theological conviction is that only people who make a conscious profession of faith should be baptized? Such questions are not easily answered, especially in light of Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17. While Ortlund’s book is not a precise “how to” manual, it definitely provides some helpful tips for answering such questions.
Lastly, I appreciate the fact that there is a case to be made for theological triage. Ortlund does not downplay the importance of theology, but he also doesn’t divide over it. I’m not sure how many times I’ve encountered pastors and ministry leaders who promote their theology as the only viable option to biblical interpretation. Cults are created on the basis of positions that rule out everyone and everything else.
Heaven will be full of people who resided in different theological camps. If we will spend eternity worshiping Jesus together, why not start acting like we’re family today?
Finding the Right Hills to Die On should be in the library of every ministry leader. It’s not a long or difficult read. I do believe it can help the church unite around the mission of Christ while having convictions on important biblical doctrines.