The other day I talked about the issues we choose to lose sleep about and not feeling compelled to lose sleep about everything that others are passionate about. Well, I’ve just started reading a book by Gavin Ortlund called “Choosing which hill to die on.” The imagery is about defending your position in battle and deciding where it is that you will make your last stand. In contrast there are places where you can choose not to fight.
Ortlund’s book is about theological triage. In other words, just as with medicine, we make a first assessment about how serious the issue is, so too with doctrine and error. There are some issues that are so important that we cannot continue to hold fellowship with those who disagree and there are other issues where we can maintain fellowship whilst agreeing to disagree. So, the hills we should die on are things like The Trinity, the divinity and humanity of Jesus, the revelation of Scripture and the truth of the atonement. There are issues we can disagree on whilst recognising our unity in Christ whilst choosing to meet in different churches such as how much water to use and when to baptise, whether to have a vicar or plural elders and our views on things like speaking in tongues etc. Then there are things that might be of interest to some but should not divide a church such as how many angels there are and that kind of thing.
Well, weirdly enough, in his introduction he also notes that there are other issues that we need to do triage on to get a feel for importance that are either practical or cultural. He doesn’t deal with them in his book. However, one of the examples he gives is different views on private education! And that got me thinking about how we apply the triage. How do we decide whether or not something is worth losing sleep over?
In the end, we are going to run with the same triage method because actually, everything is theological. Everything I do either glorifies and honours God or it doesn’t. Therefore, there will be choices in behaviour that to a greater or lesser extent will point to Christ.
Now, there are a couple of further points that have struck me. The first is that one of the reasons why these decisions are often a little more complex is because they aren’t necessarily that binary. Let me use the Doctrine of the Trinity as an example. As I mentioned above, I believe this to be an essential doctrine that we must not deny. We deny the Trinity if we deny either the unity, distinction or equality of the persons. Anything that suggests that we are not dealing with one God in Three Persons.
Now, if I claim that Jesus was created and therefore a lesser being than the Father then I am denying the doctrine of the Trinity because I am saying that the three persons are not equal. If I claim that the one God is a bit like water, ice and steam, I deny the distinction of the persons. If I say that God is like a jaffa cake, chocolate, jam and cake, I deny the unity and equality of the persons being of the same nature. All of them are first order issues.
However, if I say that I believe that the son in some way submits to the Father but is not a subordinate being in nature, then I have been careful not to deny the three key statements. This is what the debate about Eternal Functional Subordination is all about. Now, some people may feel that this is an inaccurate understanding of God’s nature, they may find the language unhelpful, clumsy even. They may feel that it pushes a bit too far towards the boundary in denying the equality of God but it has not crossed that boundary. In that case the disagreement may relate to a first order issue but in fact the specific disagreement is either second or third order.
Meanwhile, I might decide one day that only certain people can sit at the dinner table with me. Now, clearly to exercise prejudice possibly because of race or class may not at first sight seem like a first order issue. I am not denying the Trinity, I am not denying that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. However, when you read Galatians, Paul takes a different view. This may appear to be about practicalities and customs but by failing to be reconciled with others and by treating some people as less worthy, I am acting as though we are not co-heirs of Christ, saved by grace. My “third order” debate is in fact a first order issue.
To give one more example. What shape was the wooden object Jesus died on. We instinctively say “cross shaped” but we also recognise that the Romans used a variety of styles of “cross.” However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses insist that it could only have been a single stake. Now, you might think “what’s the big deal” the principle of execution is still the same. However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses make it a big deal. If you believe Jesus died on an actual cross, they argue, then it proves that you have bought into a false religion. So, we can choose to push an issue front and centre and make it a first order issue. In those cases the matter has to be challenged with that level of seriousness because the desire to provoke division shows that whilst the surface issue seems innocuous, there is something deeply unpleasant and dangerous behind it.
What all of this means is that it is not so simple as to take the presenting issue and assume that this tells us all we need to know about where the issue sits in terms of importance. Sometimes we need a little more nuance. Sometimes, it is also about how we argue and the specific aspects we focus on.
If I can return to the original example of private boarding schools. When I respond to an article about some potentially closing by saying “I won’t lose any sleep about that.” Then implicitly I an indicating that I am not in favour of private schools, however, I am saying a little more than that. I am indicating where in the order of priorities they exist. In other words, this isn’t something I am going to die on a hill for. Now you might disagree with me about the benefit of private schools but would you die on that hill to defend them? I suspect in most cases, the answer is “no.” Even when we step outside of the Christian context and into politics, most people are neither clamoring for private schools to be closed or over concerned about their existence. There is a live and let live attitude to them. So, if we started falling out about that it would seem a bit trivial.
However, if we start talking about the potential risk to families as education is disrupted, if we talk about loss of livelihoods, then that begins to sound like something to lose some sleep over. The argument shifts. The issue now is no longer about saving the institution but rather about how we look after children. If I have friends struggling with this and I don’t care then I am a little cold. Now, this does not mean that I will end up supporting keeping the schools open as private schools but I would want people to work out a solution that ensures the children continue to learn without serious disruption.
There will be lots of examples you can think of now, whether it is the type of decoration you have at the front of the auditorium, how many communion glasses you have or whether it is time to ditch Hillsong in favour of something a bit more contemporary. These are all issues that can either be trivial or serious, either not worth losing sleep over or worth getting passionate about. It all depends upon how we approach them.