Al Mohler wrote this in 2005:
A trip to the local hospital Emergency Room some years ago alerted me to an intellectual tool that is most helpful in fulfilling our theological responsibility. In recent years, emergency medical personnel have practiced a discipline known as triage–a process that allows trained personnel to make a quick evaluation of relative medical urgency. Given the chaos of an Emergency Room reception area, someone must be armed with the medical expertise to make an immediate determination of medical priority. Which patients should be rushed into surgery? Which patients can wait for a less urgent examination? Medical personnel cannot flinch from asking these questions, and from taking responsibility to give the patients with the most critical needs top priority in terms of treatment.
In the same way, Mohler says, when Christians disagree with one another, we perform a theological triage. We stop, evaluate the significance of each disagreement, and remain in fellowship to different degrees depending on how much each issue matters. Because I was raised in the EFCA, this is my default mindset. We call it the “major on the majors, minor on the minors” approach. Doctrine can be sorted into three orders:
- First-order issues are most important to the core of Christian faith. Mohler lists “the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture” as first-order issues. We cannot accept that someone else is a Christian or that their beliefs are Christian in nature if they deny any of these doctrines. If someone believes that Jesus is not divine, I refuse to acknowledge them as a Christian, plain and simple.
- Second-order issues are issues “believing Christians may disagree on… though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominational forms, these boundaries become evident.” Mohler lists the meaning and age of baptism, and the ordination of women. I would add the historicity of Adam, the penal substitutionary atonement debate, and whether and to what degree we should take the Scriptures literally. Mohler rightly points out that these are the most debated topics in Christianity. Nobody is debating first-order doctrines like the divinity of Christ (at least, nobody who I consider a Christian!), and the third-order issues are less central, so the second-order issues get the most attention. Denominations split over these questions.
- Third-order issues are issues “over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations,” but they not necessarily trivial. Like my denomination as of this summer, Mohler includes “most of the debates over eschatology” in this category, which do matter. Issues are not third-order because they “do not matter.” Rather, third-order issues do not have many other doctrines depending on them, or are highly speculative or unclear, or they regard categories that did not exist in Biblical times (like “undocumented immigrant”), or in some other way are highly disputable. Mohler does not list more examples, but in this debate he included the age of the Earth as a third-order issue (24 min mark). I would include under this label worship styles, some beliefs about spiritual gifts, beliefs about church and politics, and evangelism method.
None of these are unimportant, because all have eventual downstream effects on Christian living and discipleship which can be more or less helpful to a walk with Jesus by being more or less faithful to the Scriptures. Some beliefs may seem “trivial” but wholly depend on other beliefs which are not trivial, and so they are implicated in non-trivial beliefs. All these beliefs matter, even if some are more foundational.
So. Homosexuality. Where is it? Is homosexuality a first-order, second-order, or third-order issue?
This question cannot be answered as asked. “Homosexuality” is an umbrella term that encompasses three different debates in the church right now: marriage, orientation change, and labels. Depending on your answer to these three questions, you will land on one of four sides: A, B, Y, and X. By the end of this post I hope you will understand all four sides and why some of these questions fall into higher and lower levels of theological triage.
First-order debates on homosexuality. There are no first-order debates on homosexuality. Sometimes people leave Christianity altogether over this topic. But few if any are trying to remain within Christianity and support homosexuality by radically revising Christian theology from the ground up.
Second-order debates on homosexuality. There is one second order debate on homosexuality, which is the debate over affirming same-sex marriages. Churches cannot both affirm and not affirm same-sex marriages. They have to decide. When a church decides to be affirming, they make a major division with non-affirming churches, because the latter consider same-sex marriage to be explicitly unbiblical. Both churches will consider the other to be seriously wrong, but at the same time, both can recognize that they agree on all first-order issues. Because affirming same-sex marriage is not a first-order issue, we can continue to have personal fellowship with those who disagree. But because it is not a third-order issue, we cannot have public-ministry fellowship with someone who is affirming or invite them to teach in our churches on this topic. If someone is affirming of same-sex marriage, they are in Side A for Affirming.
Third-order debates on homosexuality. There is one third-order debate on homosexuality. This is whether sexual orientation can change or whether it is a fixed or mostly fixed aspect of a person. Belief that sexual orientation change efforts can be effective or that God regularly does deliver people from homosexuality (or “heal” them, if that’s your language), is a third-order issue. Christians should be able to respectfully disagree and coexist in the same churches. Do not hear me saying “ex-gay theology doesn’t matter.” It does matter, because your answer to this question will impact how your church does pastoral care for gay/same-sex attracted people, which makes a dramatic difference in their Christian living and discipleship. This means that, while individual Christians can agree to disagree and still remain in fellowship, it is wise for leadership at the same church to be on the same page. Those who believe sexual orientations will or often do change are in Side X for Ex-Gay.
Fourth-order debates on homosexuality. Al Mohler does not have a category for fourth-order, so I am inventing one. Fourth-order issues are third-order issues that do not matter. They are petty debates, more like squabbles, that have yet to be demonstrated to necessarily impact Christian living and discipleship in any meaningful way. There are two fourth-order debates on homosexuality right now, and they track together. The questions are, Should Christians use sexuality labels like “gay” and “lesbian,” or use phrases like “same-sex attraction”? and, Should Christians participate in the broader LGBT community? If you think Christians should not affiliate with the LGBT community and should not use sexuality labels, you are in Side Y for “Why Identify as Gay?” Nobody uses that phrase. I just made it up. But the agreed upon letter is Y. Conversely, if you say yes, non-affirming Christians can use sexuality labels and can consider themselves to have affinity with the LGBT community, then you are in Side B, for in-Between the other positions.
Fourth-order issues are third-order issues that do not matter. They are petty debates, more like squabbles, that have yet to be demonstrated to necessarily impact Christian living and discipleship in any meaningful way.
To be clear, this triage is contested. Some say that you are not saved if you marry the same sex, so, a first-order issue. Others think ex-gay theology is so harmful that Christians ought not associate with it, and they accordingly place it at second-order. Rosaria Butterfield recently commented that those in the Side B camp are “another religion,” then compared them to Muslims and Jews, and then called for their excommunication as heretics — whereas I put that debate at fourth-order, a squabble, not a significant debate. By contrast, this interview at TGC, while loaded with other problems, at least managed to make its anti-labels point without denouncing those who use labels as non-Christians.
If I were to play which one of these things is not like the other with Sides A, B, Y, and X, the first one to go is none of them. That is to say, before we play that game, we should recognize the common theological core that all Christians share which is not changed by beliefs about homosexuality. Then, playing that game, Side A goes first. Affirming same-sex marriage places churches out of fellowship with one another for the purpose of ministry because it regards as acceptable what the other side considers explicitly unbiblical. Denominations need to have a stand on this question. Then, playing which one of these things is not like the other again, the next to go is Side X, because ex-gay theology changes pastoral care practices within each church. Pastoral teams need to have a stand together on this question, though the congregation does not need to uniformly agree. Then Sides Y and B remain. These are similar enough that many have questioned whether there even is a Side Y, or if everyone who is non-affirming and non-ex-gay is just, by definition, in Between those two and therefore under the umbrella of Side B. (Others contest this.) Regardless, I believe the positions are trivially different.
There are more nuances to the state-of-the-debate, but that should capture the big picture. “Homosexuality in general” cannot be ranked on the theological triage scale because it is not one question but three. Nothing necessitates first-order disagreement. Affirming same-sex marriage (Side A) leads to second-order disagreement. Promoting ex-gay theology (Side X) is a third-order disagreement, one with important practical consequences. The debate over labels and the degree to which it is wise to affiliate with the LGBT community or in what ways to do so (Sides Y and B), is particular enough that all Christians should grant one another glad freedom and warm hospitality to decide where they stand.