I would recommend you to read Dr. Mohler’s article in its entirety here before proceeding. But if you prefer to save the time, I will summarize what it says as follows…
Basically, when dealing with controversial theological issues, we do well to divide between the relative urgency of each in relation to the effect they play upon the foundation of our faith.
According to Dr. Mohler…
First-level theological issues would include those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith. Included among these most crucial doctrines would be doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture… These first-order doctrines represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself.
The set of second-order doctrines is distinguished from the first-order set by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominational forms, these boundaries become evident… Christians across a vast denominational range can stand together on the first-order doctrines and recognize each other as authentic Christians, while understanding that the existence of second-order disagreements prevents the closeness of fellowship we would otherwise enjoy.
Third-order issues are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations… Christians may find themselves in disagreement over any number of issues related to the interpretation of difficult texts or the understanding of matters of common disagreement. Nevertheless, standing together on issues of more urgent importance, believers are able to accept one another without compromise when third-order issues are in question.
Since these ideas also play into a good bit of what we have been talking about on this blog, and relate to the main topics of this blog (i.e. missiology and ecclesiology, and especially how the two relate to each other), I would like to "park" here a little while, and try to "milk" this for what it’s worth (which I believe is quite a lot).
First off, while I appreciate Dr. Mohler’s observation that "the mark of true liberalism is the refusal to admit that first-order theological issues even exist" and that "liberals treat first-order doctrines as if they were merely third-order in importance" as well as that "the misjudgment of true fundamentalism is the belief that all disagreements concern first-order doctrines" and that for the fundamentalist "third-order issues are raised to a first-order importance, and Christians are wrongly and harmfully divided," I think a lot of the issues that face us today in the SBC have to do with where we draw the line between second and third-order doctrines.
I would also ask where, along this spectrum, do we as Southern Baptists place the doctrine of the unity of the church. Early Christians held it in high enough esteem as to be among the few key doctrines included in the Apostles’ Creed: (I believe in… the holy catholic church, the communion of saints). As Baptists (and I believe, rightly so), we do not interpret this phrase the same as others, such as the Roman Catholic Church. Some among us, most notably the Landmarkists, would perhaps change this phrase to "I believe in the local church." What I am afraid of, though, is that we often, in practice if not in theory, sweep this crucial doctrine under the carpet in interest of promoting the more convenient practice of denominational unity.
Two thousand years of church history have created some situations that make it very difficult for us to go back to pure New Testament ecclesiology. Some, such as Watchman Nee, have proposed idealistic church models that would be difficult to put into practice, given the context of the vast array of denominational groupings dotting the ecclesiological landscape of the West. But, at least from what I gather, it is working fairly well in China.
What is the alternative for us? In my opinion, it is accept reality for what it is for the time being, but be as careful as we can to not make issues for which biblically we have no warrant to consider as any more than "third-order" doctrines into "second-order" doctrines.
This is getting long, so I’ll have to leave further "triage milking" for another post. But, in the meantime, I’d be interested to hear your reactions and responses to this…