When Should Doctrine Divide, and When Should Unity Prevail?

How “theological triage” helps us pick our battles on matters of faith.

Ecumenical. Non-Denominational. In certain circles of evangelicalism, these are dirty words. (“Catholicity” is another.) Critics say these words represent a weak or thin theology—one whose core conviction is that convictions don’t much matter provided we can all get along. For some, they represent a potential threat to the mission of the church or even the gospel itself.

Other believers take a friendlier view of conciliatory language. Without compromising their core convictions, they want to build bridges with a range of churches and Christian organizations around the world, joining together in mission wherever possible. These principles are central to the work of groups like the Lausanne Movement, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, the Reforming Catholic Confession, and the Center for Baptist Renewal (where I serve as editorial director).

Yet even those of us who champion C. S. Lewis’s ideal of “mere Christianity” find it difficult to put into practice, especially in the face of entrenched theological and denominational divides.

Several years ago, Albert Mohler popularized the phrase “theological triage.” Although the basic concept shares a certain kinship with other “mere Christian” buzzwords, it sparked a renewed conversation about how and why Christians agree, disagree, or agree to disagree about various points of theology.

The term triage, of course, comes from the field of medical care. It refers to the choices medical professionals are compelled to make in the direst of circumstances, when a flood of patients (or a scarcity of resources) ensures that some cases must be prioritized. In the realm of theology, then, practicing triage means determining which …

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