As Quick to Listen listeners are probably well aware, Christians rarely agree on everything.
Take an issue like Communion. On the one hand, it would be hard to find a Christian who doesn’t believe participating in Communion is a key part of what it means to practice one’s faith. But for some Christians, this is the focal point of weekly gatherings. Others can go months without partaking. For some, using whatever food and drink is around the house counts as the body and blood of Christ. Others need their priests to have blessed the physical products. And of course, COVID-19’s interruption of church services has introduced other questions about digital v. physical options.
So how can Christians better connect with each other and work each other across real theological diversity? One recent look at how the church might do this better is outlined in Gavin Ortlund’s book Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, which asks when doctrine should divide and when unity should prevail.
Ortlund joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss whether evangelicals care too much or too little about theology, how debates about culture have changed how Christians relate to each other and how Christians can both stay true to their convictions and better serve the entirety of the body of Christ overall.
What is Quick to Listen? Read more
Rate Quick to Listen on Apple Podcasts
Follow the podcast on Twitter
Follow our guest on Twitter: Gavin Ortlund
Music by Sweeps
The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #221
Who would say is the audience of your book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On? Who are you trying to reach?
Gavin Ortlund: I’d say the emphasis is on evangelical Protestants, especially in America. But I did six or seven interviews with pastors, and one of those pastors was in Singapore and another was in Australia. So that was helpful to get a little bit of a sense of some of the issues that they were facing in their congregations.
So while it’s mainly written from my own context because that’s the context that I’m most familiar with, I hope that Christians around the world could benefit from it. And perhaps even non-evangelical Christians could find it relevant in some way.
Is there a cultural moment that makes this book particularly relevant and necessary right now in 2020?
Gavin Ortlund: It looks to me like in the church, and even just in our culture, the ability to have courteous, respectful, and principled disagreements seems to be fading. It’s not a great human tendency in general, but to whatever extent we have been able to do that, it seems to be less so these days.
I’ve done a lot of reading of Jonathan Haidt, who’s a secular psychologist who talks about the sociology of polarization. And he’s just talking about why it is that we have this human tendency to kind of clump up with a tribe or a group and demonize the opposition. And, unfortunately, there is a tendency toward that. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to say, we see that in the church. And the heart behind my book is to try to speak to that.
I want to try to encourage us to, on the one hand, learn how to love amidst disagreements and learn how to show humility amidst disagreements, but without swinging so far to the other side of the pendulum that we just sort of sweep away doctrinal issues that are important. I’m trying to encourage a balanced mentality like that.
Would you say that American evangelicals care enough about doctrine, too much about doctrine, or not enough?
Gavin Ortlund: It’s such a hard question to give one answer to because it looks like evangelicalism has become such a complex, variegated thing.
On the one hand, there are many circles within evangelicalism where there is such a tightening and narrowness in America that I would say by the standards of the global catholic Christianity, we’ve splintered off from the majority of Christians. And most would not be acceptable to us because we’ve got such tightness. On the other hand, in many other circles, you see such a broad, mild attitude about all doctrines. And so it looks like it’s the same thing that Jonathan Haidt is observing in our culture, which is very troubling to me.
I feel anxiety about this when I think about the long-term implications of the polarization. More people getting their information from cable news and social media, and more and more living in a silo where you’re not respectfully listening to and dialoguing with people who have an ideological difference. You’re not engaging across those boundaries. So I guess I’d say my worry is that evangelicalism is polarizing just like our culture.
Your book tries to break down how one decides what’s worth dividing over. Can you quickly go over the four groups you’ve identified here?
Gavin Ortlund: First, let me explain the term triage. This is a medical term and I’m using it as a metaphor for a system of priorities and doctrines. This is of course not the only way it could be done, but this is one way and it might be a helpful starting point for thinking about how to prioritize different doctrines.
The first ring of doctrines would be those that are broadly around the realm of orthodoxy; they separate Christianity from something other than Christianity. The second ring of doctrines would be issues that relate to denominational differences; they’re important doctrines but they don’t make you a Christian. But they might be so important that we couldn’t be a part of the same local church or something like that.
The third ring of doctrines would be doctrines that they matter, we shouldn’t just brush them aside as a matter of irrelevance, but they don’t need to divide us. And I argue in the book, they don’t need to divide us at any level. And then the fourth ring of doctrines would just be things that don’t matter at all.
And the reason I find it helpful in some contexts to have more groups, more buckets like that than just two—essential and non-essential—is because something can be not essential to the gospel, but still matter and still be important. Let’s take communion, for example. That’s really important, but it’s not an orthodoxy issue.
So the heart behind this triage system is not to have a technical way of thinking about the theology that’s really formal and is for seminaries. This is really a practical thing. How do we have less church splits unnecessarily? How do we have fewer pastors fired unnecessarily? How do we have more unity and less fighting on social media? And I think having a system of priorities might be helpful for that.
The term triage is something that’s often used in emergencies and war, and it is not necessarily everyone’s job. Usually, there is a triage officer whose job it is to make those kinds of calls so that the individual doctors don’t have to and can focus on other work. Does Paul’s parts of the body analogy play a role here? Are there some people for whom a theological triage is particularly important?
Gavin Ortlund: Certainly there may be some in the body of Christ who may be able to play a role that’s particularly useful for helping the rest of us think about this. At the same time, I do think there are enough passages in the New Testament that talk about forbearance and patience for other Christians, love for other Christians, living in unity, living in humility, that it seems to me that at the most basic level, it’s something that every Christian should at least be working at in some way.
One of the ideas in the book that I’m emphasizing, and that really struck my own heart as I was writing, is that I think the scripture calls us to love every single other member of the body of Christ—no matter how strong our differences may be with them on secondary and tertiary doctrines.
Jesus said, “All people will know you’re my disciples if you love one another.” And he’s not saying that just to the Baptists or the Presbyterians. That’s something common to all those who are of the people of Christ. So I do hope that every Christian will at least think about this as how do I show love amidst disagreement to others in the body of Christ?
When Christians are arguing about stuff that is more on the practical application end or has to do with culture, that seems to be where things get a little bit more personal and oftentimes a little bit nastier. How might your ideas help Christians rethink how to have those types of conversations—in particular, the ones that have to do with cultural issues we’re arguing and wrestling with?
Gavin Ortlund: Yeah, it’s been my observation as well, even at my church, that the practical and cultural issues are often more divisive right now than theological doctrines. I’ve commented to more than one person recently that how whether one wears a mask is more controversial than the deity of Christ. I will tell you that being a pastor during the pandemic has been extremely challenging for maintaining unity because there are such different perspectives in the body of Christ.
My book is focusing on theology. I explained in the introduction that it’s not a book on social issues. I’m focusing on specifically doctrinal matters. But the principles of the book, what I’m laying out in the first two chapters, I hope is a framework for how to find a balanced mentality where on the one hand we have a backbone and we are willing to say like Martin Luther, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” And on the other hand, we see the dangerous direction of the lovelessness and the meanness that so many Christians display splitting hairs on so many things. So I hope those principles are relevant. I hope they’re helpful on some of the issues we’re facing right now as a nation.
So the issue of racism, for instance, I think those principles could help us think about an issue like that. On the one hand, encouraging us not to shy away from that Martin Luther courage. I’ve been processing this on Twitter a little bit in my own personal responses to George Floyd’s deaths and other related issues that we’re working through as a culture. I’ve just made a decision personally that I will speak out to address the sin of racism and do everything I can do—which may be very limited—but I’ll do my best to address that.
And then at the same time, recognizing that in the nuances of strategy and how we go about that, there does need to be love. And so there are some people who are blasting away that if you’re not speaking out on social media, you’re a coward or you’re not doing something right. And I think we do need to have a little more grace. Social media, number one, is not always the best context in which to speak out. And number two, there needs to be a little bit of grace for different people to speak out according to their own calling and gifting and context and so forth.
A lot of theological issues come out of whether the Bible is explicitly clear about something or not. But you go a different route. You have the gospel issues in that first level, and then Bible issues are in that second level. Can you help us understand a little bit about how you might go about distinguishing between a Bible issue and a gospel issue?
Gavin Ortlund: I give a list of criteria for how to rank doctrines that’s entry-level, a basic starting point. One is how clearly something is taught in the scripture. Another has to do with how it’s logically related to the gospel. A third is how it’s practically relevant to the church. And then the fourth is the witness of the historical church.
And I think the reason I’m not just reducing to the Bible alone is that theological triage is a practical matter. It’s not just as a matter of studying the Bible and doing our best. It’s a matter of what will actually affect the kingdom of God. And there are some things that are taught about in scripture, but the level of clarity or the level of relevance is such that it may not be the kind of thing we have to divide over.
You mentioned theological retrieval and the role of history. Are theological creeds helpful in identifying some of these core issues or are the criteria a little bit different?
Gavin Ortlund: I would see the creeds as very helpful, but not as an exhaustive sort of manual. Especially with regard to the topics they were designed to address. But I do want to bring the reminder that the creeds were written in a particular historical context. They were intended as an exhaustive statement for all time about everything. So I would see them as very foundational, but not exhaustive.
And then I would say, with the broader point here of the value of retrieval, my own testimony on this has been simply the more I’ve read church history, the more I’ve gotten perspective. It’s kind of like traveling to other countries and then you understand your own culture more. Or when you go to a counselor and you learn more about your own family dynamics and you understand it more objectively.
So American evangelicalism has some eccentricities, we have some things that we tend to fight over that most Christians throughout history haven’t. Or vice versa, things we just neglect that other Christians have considered really valuable. And so that’s actually been the greatest tool for me personally. And so just looking back at what did the church fathers have to say about this, that’s very helpful and it can sometimes give us perspective for today.
Let’s talk about guilt by association. There’s a sense of outrage that can happen when we feel like people who are part of our communities and representing particular theological tenants are in spaces that we might not feel abide by our convictions. Do you think that’s fair? Should we avoid publicly engaging with others who hold different foundational convictions to avoid that conflict? How do you sort through all of that?
Gavin Ortlund: The way I’ve thought about this is I do think there are some contexts in which actually avoiding someone is warranted simply because of the pastoral epistles and some of those verses where, in a case of extreme heresy or sin, Paul does give some directives to stay away from someone after a warning—but even those need to be thought through in terms of to whom were they written in what context were envisioned there?
But I think we must fight the tribalism of our times by understanding and modeling that listening and talking is not compromise. And to engage with someone of a different perspective can be an expression of humility. It can be an expression of charity and it can be a wonderful occasion to learn.
And so one of my hopes is as a pastor, as with our church, we can model that for people. Get together with someone who genuinely thinks differently and have a humble engagement with them and not see that as a compromise. And of course, there’ll be criticisms, but I hope I’m willing to just take the criticisms because I don’t it’s healthy for us to avoid talking to people when we disagree with them. I think that contributes to the polarization of our times.
When we have a schema like you’ve set up in your book, how do you avoid letting your denominational theology get in the way? How do you check yourself to say, that’s not an issue of theological triage, that is just a way of being Presbyterian or Baptist?
Gavin Ortlund: Well, I do worry about this. We’re all influenced by our own traditions and we all have blind spots. And you can just picture me, especially when I wrote the chapter on secondary doctrines, just nervously writing at my desk because I’m just so aware I’m making judgment calls. And these judgment calls are very fallible. I just assume I’ve gotten something wrong, right?
That’s why I always get a little bit nervous when people respond to the book by saying, “Oh, I totally agreed with everything you said.” Really? I mean, even six months after, when reading the book I think I would have emphasized this point a little differently or something like that because we’re in the nuances in this book.
I think the only solution I know is what I emphasize in the conclusion to the book, which is humility, one aspect of which will be dialogue. Sometimes when we talk to other Christians, we go into the conversation with the assumption of I already know what the truth is. But somebody once said, we’re not really listening unless we’re open to being changed by what we hear. I think humility is when we have dialogue with Christians in a different tradition than our own and we are honestly asking the Holy Spirit to show us where there are blind spots.
And so one thing that might help us on this—obviously we’re not going to be perfect until heaven—but one thing that can help us is just learning the wonderful skill of listening. Particularly outside of our little tribe. Find someone who just thinks differently than you. You’ll know that by the fact that sometimes what they say annoys you or gets under your skin. And listen. Do what Atticus Finch does in the book To Kill a Mockingbird, genuinely try to put yourself in their shoes and see the world through their eyes.
That is one of the most wonderful skills to learn in life. And I hope that as a church, we can do better at that. We have every reason to be that way in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
There’s incredible power when we come together for something greater than just our own tribe. And I think the gospel calls us to that. I think Jesus prayed for that in John 17.
I think Jesus spoke to that in John 13. I think the apostle Paul calls for that clearly, repeatedly in his epistles. We are to love one another and serve one another within the body of Christ. And so I just look down the road and the prayer is, “Lord, how can we move towards one another in the body of Christ and stand together as much as possible?”
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 60+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more