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How do we guard the gospel, contend for sound doctrine, avoid quarreling, and earnestly pursue unity in the church, all at the same time? It’s a tall order, and it’s the principle objective of Gavin Ortlund’s new book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage.

Writing with unusual clarity and much needed urgency, Ortlund calls for a fear of God that compels us to love his gospel and his people. Some of us mistake doctrinal brawling for theological strength. Others accept error, perhaps even heresy, and confuse it with unity for the sake of the mission. Both errors must be rejected.

We should remember that humility is not opposed to strength and silence is not necessarily opposed to conviction. In Ortlund’s own words, “We should eagerly pursue the kind of theological conviction and strength that is willing not only to fight for the truth, but also to avoid fighting in order to promote the gospel. This is the best kind of strength.”[1]

Yes, But How?

Ortlund builds on Al Mohler’s foundational article explaining the concept of theological triage. In short, it’s a call to recognize certain doctrines are more important than others. Ortlund lays out the following structure for determining the relative importance of a given doctrine:

1st Rank: Doctrines that are essential to the gospel. Examples include the virgin birth and justification.

2nd Rank: Doctrines that are urgent for the church, but not essential to the gospel. Examples include baptism (infant vs. believer), spiritual gifts, and women in ministry.

3rd Rank: Doctrines that are important to Christian theology, but not essential to the gospel or necessarily urgent to the church. Examples include the days of creation and the nature of the millennium.

4th Rank: Doctrines that are indifferent – they are theologically unimportant. Specific examples are not cited.

Such a structure allows us to understand the relative importance of each doctrine. This in turn informs appropriate disagreement on various issues. What standards determine where a given doctrine is ranked? Several models are mentioned, but Ortlund ultimately proposes the following four criteria:

  1. How clear is the Bible on this doctrine?
  2. What is this doctrine’s importance to the gospel?
  3. What is the testimony of the historical church concerning this doctrine?
  4. What is this doctrine’s effect upon the church today?

In other words, we need to consider the biblical, theological, historical, and practical questions raised by a given doctrine. These aren’t necessarily weighted equally, but each merits consideration.

What’s at Stake

Unfortunately, much theological debate is characterized by feelings of superiority, condescension, and even hatred. Even worse, this is nothing new. Ortlund writes, “more Christians were killed by each other over baptism during the Reformation than were killed by the Roman Empire over their faith in Christ.”[2]

Simply stated, the unity and mission of the church are at stake. Jesus himself linked these in John 13:35, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Certain disagreements are unavoidable – that’s what it means to think. But the way in which we disagree defines our unity. And it’s our unity that, according to Jesus, will propel the mission.

At the same time, losing the gospel is at stake. Paul reserves his strongest words not for the divisive church at Corinth, but for the churches at Galatia who had altered the gospel. These warnings resound throughout Paul’s entire epistle, but consider the force of Galatians 1:8-9, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”

We need gospel doctrine and gospel culture. Both are necessary; neither is optional. As he concludes, Ortlund offers a prayer of guidance, “Lord, where we have sinned either by failing to love the truth or by failing to love our brothers and sisters in our disagreements about the truth, forgive us and help us … Lead us toward that healthy, happy balance of adhering to all your teaching while embracing all your people.”[3]

Getting Practical

Ortlund strategically (and in my view, wisely) avoids a comprehensive catalogue of every conceivable doctrine and their corresponding categories. His point is to urge individual Christians, local churches, seminaries, and others like them to pursue that work. If you are a ministry leader of any sort, this is an exceedingly profitable endeavor. We undertook a project like this at my local church several years ago and found it wonderfully enriching. That’s not to say it didn’t generate conflict and expose errors, both in character and theology, but it was still a worthwhile undertaking.

You may disagree at points with his understanding of certain doctrines, and that is fine. Ortlund demonstrates great charity and care in parsing about half a dozen doctrines over the course of the book. His modeling of winsome dialogue between various tribes is a great strength of the book. If anything, I wish he would have included more issues.

As we disagree on issues and even disagree on when we should divide over certain issues, growth in humility cannot be optional. Ortlund writes, “In doing theological triage, humility is the first thing, the second thing, and the third thing. It is our constant need, no matter what issue we are facing.”[4]

Who’s It For?

If you are a pastor, this is an essential read with leadership at all levels. It goes well beyond a resource for ministry leaders, though. In congregational churches, guarding the doctrine is entrusted to the congregation as well as the elders. Pastor, give this book to your flock! Theological triage finds immediate application in numerous contexts beyond the local church as well:

  • You are seriously dating someone, but they differ on what seem to be important points of theology. How do you know if these are a deal breaker or just another issue to work through?
  • You have enjoyed the writing and preaching of a particular ministry, but you then find out they disagree with your church’s statement of faith. Should you continue supporting this ministry? Can you keep listening in good faith? Should you publicly renounce them?
  • When churches from several denominations in your area combine for an outreach and service event, how do you know if you or your church should participate?

These issues and others like them highlight the need for theological triage in our day.

It’s rare that I finish a book wishing it was longer, but that’s exactly how I finished Finding the Right Hills to Die On. This is a testament to the urgency of the topic, persuasiveness of the writing, and most importantly, the spirit behind the book. I (dangerously) came into this book with high hopes, and it not only met them, but also exceeded them. I trust you will be equally enriched by this much needed book.

[1] Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, 144.

[2] Ibid., 100.

[3] Ibid., 152.

[4] Ibid., 146.