I recently saw a Tweet by someone asking whether secondary doctrines were nonessential or non-important. It got me to thinking. Certainly these “secondary” issues distract us from our mission. However, it dawned on me that there may be an inherent problem with the way we pose this very commonly asked question.
First of all, let’s be clear. So-called “secondary” doctrines are important precisely because God himself has revealed them in his word. We must not functionally slice up Scripture like the old-school liberals did. All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for our mission (cf. 2 Tim 3:16–17)
The question about whether “secondary” doctrines are unimportant or non-essential is less straightforward than one might imagine. Aside from the fact that people often cannot even agree on which doctrines are secondary or tertiary, there is a more subtle consideration to account for. We must also distinguish between the doctrine itself and our grasp of that doctrine. It is possible that the truth of a particular doctrine is utterly crucial for the gospel and God’s mission in the world; however, it may not be essential that we each have a coherent understanding of its logic, implications, and applications.
Take the Calvinist-Arminian debate. Most people would regard the doctrine of election as important but secondary to other ideas like salvation by grace through faith. However, for the sake of salvation, it matters completely whether God elects whom he saves or whether people ultimately decide via “free will.” By definition, the doctrine of election is decisive in matters of salvation. Nevertheless, this does not imply that we must fully grasp how to “reconcile” the two points of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. (I won’t wade into those debated waters today)
(To the left is a rather complex chart describing the sequence of end time events from a dispensationalist perspective. Jesus comes back––yes, that’s essential. Knowing exact details? No. Jesus said no one knows.)
Does this mean we shouldn’t care about knowing the truth? Not at all. Because God has revealed “secondary” truths in Scripture, we must pursue such understanding will great vigor. Pursuing something and getting something are not the same thing. The pursuit is a part of worship; ultimately, God grants insight according to his wisdom and grace.
It is a sad reality that so many Christians distinguish between what is “essential” in the Bible and what is merely “theology.” This sort of dichotomy is grievous and offensive to God. Because of the Bible is God’s word, we should study and love every doctrine it teaches. “Secondary” does not mean trivial. On the other hand, the reason many doctrines are called “secondary” is precisely they are so difficult to understand that we should never realistically expect great consensus on such topics.
If this is the case, churches may disagree but still should be slow to divide over these topics. By distinguishing between what are essential facts and what is essential knowledge, we guard against countless divisions that undermine the Church’s mission in the world.