What is a First Order Issue?

A lot of the time when I talk to people about creation I get responses something along the lines of “Creation is just a side issue, you should focus on being loving and accepting like Jesus was.” (That sentence used to end with “you should focus on the Gospel” but most Christians seem to have forgotten the Great Commission). This idea that creation is not as important as the Gospel, or being loving as it’s now seeming to be termed, seems to come from the idea that there are doctrines in Christianity which are more or less important. This ranking, otherwise known as order or tier system, is not found in the Word of God. However, it is incredibly prominent in evangelical thought. This leads to the fairly obvious question of do tiers of doctrines exist? And, if they do, what doctrines are most important?

The idea that there are tiers or orders of doctrines in the Scripture is not something presented by Scripture itself. While we know from passages in the New Testament that at least aspects of the Law are not applicable to us today, the Bible makes it clear that all Scripture, no matter what doctrine it applies to, is profitable for the man of God (2 Tim 3:16-17). Therefore there is no Biblical reason to sort doctrines into tiers or levels of importance. Why then do we have these tiers? Mostly because theologians of today want those who name the name of Christ to look past denominational differences. Numerous popular theologians have written articles arguing for this tier, or as one very popular theologian called it,triage, system of viewing doctrine.

If you are unfamiliar with this tier system, there are some basic ideas associated with it. The foremost idea is that first tier issues are issues involved in salvation. Concepts such as justification by grace through faith, penal substitutionary atonement and so on would be considered first-order issues because they involve salvation.  According to the theologians espousing this claim, these issues are issues to divide over. People who teach ideas we disagree with on this point are people we should distance ourselves from.

Second-tier issues are issues that do not impact salvation but are, instead, denominationally defining issues. Things like infant vs believers baptism, church leadership structure and so on would be in this category. These are issues that should be reasons we do not attend the churches of a particular denomination or give money to particular ministries. However, we should still be able to fellowship with these individuals as fellow believers in Christ.

Third-tier issues are issues that do not define denominations, nor do they significantly impact fellowship. People with different views of these issues can happily attend the same church and fellowship together. Things like Bible versions preferences, dietary preferences and so on would be classified as third-order issues. Since this is the lowest rung on the ladder, everyone who names the name of Christ should be able to get along on these issues, regardless of their preference.

This tier system is the default position of most orthodox denominations today, with the exception of the much-reviled fundamentalists, who, according to the mainstream theologians who devised this system, view every issue as first order. The strawman they set up here is brilliant because they defined first-order issues as issues impacting salvation. They have just painted fundamentalists as saying everything is a salvation issue.  This is just patently untrue and the mainstream theologians should know it.

How then should doctrine be viewed? Is there merit in the “triage” system? The answer is complicated. Obviously, not every doctrine is a salvation issue. So, in a sense, there are some doctrines that are essential and others that are not. However, in order to be a true follower of Christ, there are no doctrines that are less important than others. What I mean is, once you are saved, no doctrine can be viewed as subordinate to another.  All doctrines are important.  This “triage” system of representing doctrines as being of greater or lesser importance to the Christian is simply not found in Scripture. While salvation only requires certain doctrines, once one is a Christian, all doctrines take on equal importance. That said, non-doctrinal issues, such as the color of the church walls, or whether the church has a youth group or not, are not on the same level as doctrines and should not be fought over within the fellowship.

 

Do you know what’s going to happen when you die? Are you completely sure? If you aren’t, please read this or listen to this. You can know where you will spend eternity. If you have questions, please feel free to contact us, we’d love to talk to you.

 

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