In 1 Corinthians 15:3, the apostle Paul declares that the gospel is “of first importance.” In other words, Paul is telling his audience that the gospel is the most important thing for them to know. His words have huge implications for how the church holds its beliefs and how it does theology. For if the gospel is of “first importance,” then, by implication, there are other Christian beliefs which, while important, are not quite as important as the gospel. Paul further confirms the need to prioritize our beliefs by discussing “disputable matters” amongst Christians, particularly in Romans 14-15 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. According to Paul, there are certain issues that godly Christians can disagree about but still co-exist in the same church. Therefore, churches need to think carefully about their beliefs and how to prioritize.
At LBC, we generally operate with three “levels” of doctrine, or theology: Essentials, Convictions, and Opinions.
Level 1: Essentials
The most important level of doctrine is what we call Essentials. These are the items expressed in our Statement of Faith. We believe that these items speak directly to the character of God and the nature of the gospel. Being “gospel-centered” in our theology doesn’t mean that we only believe the barest, most-stripped down version of the gospel, for we believe that many other doctrines intersect with and uphold the gospel.
For example, the gospel speaks of the divine plan of salvation that comes from GOD. But where do we read about the plan of salvation? In the BIBLE. The Bible also reveals that we need to be saved from something, that is SIN. But the solution to sin is the PERSON and WORK of JESUS CHRIST. He died for our sins, and rose again for our justification. Jesus’ work on the cross and through his resurrection happened about two-thousand years ago so how does it come into our lives in the present? It is through the HOLY SPIRIT who applies redemption to us and gives us new spiritual life. When we are born again by the Holy Spirit, we are born again, not only to new life with God, but also in a new family, the CHURCH. And being part of a church has implications for CHRISTIAN LIVING, for faith without works is dead (James 2). While we live out faith in this time, we await the RETURN OF CHRIST to judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous. Because God’s judgment is coming, the church’s mission demands that we call for a RESPONSE to the gospel and speak of reality of an ETERNAL DESTINY.
The gospel implies, and is upheld by, many other doctrines of the Christian faith which we deem “essential.” Now, we do not mean that an unbeliever needs to initially understand everything about the Trinity or Return of Christ. In fact, the beauty of the gospel message is that it is simple. To be saved, most people merely need to know that they are a sinner and that Jesus died and rose again to save them. But upon believing and accepting the gospel, the Essential doctrines of our faith will also be accepted over time and not rejected as part maturity and developing in our faith in Christ.
Level 2: Convictions
The second level of doctrines and practices we hold to are our Convictions. Convictions are our persuasions of what we deem best for our church. Most clearly, our Convictions are upheld in our Constitution. The Constitution of our church determines much of what kind of church we will be and how we will do ministry.
Where is the level of Convictions found in the Bible? While there is no explicit verse which says, “Thou Shalt Have Convictions,” we believe that doctrinal and practical “convictions” are implied in the broad-minded nature of most of the commands that God gives to the church. For example, God tells the church to sing together (Ephesians 5:19-20; Colossians 3:16). But these texts do not tell us exactly what songs to sing, whether to use instruments or not, or how many songs we should include in our worship services. The Bible presents some broad-minded guidelines and God allows each local church to apply these commands appropriately to its context.
If Essential doctrines are those which define what it means to be a Christian, Convictions shape what it means to belong to a particular church. Churches may come down on particular issues differently from one another. This doesn’t necessarily mean that one is more “biblical” than the other; it means that God allows certain amounts of freedom on a issue for churches to decide among themselves. For example, some churches allow women to be deacons, while others restrict the diaconate to men. Eventually, you have come down on a side of particular issue and that will shape the theology and practice of your church. You’ll either baptize infants or you won’t. Developing a conviction on an issue doesn’t mean that other churches are wrong per se but that this particular church will believe and operate certain ways.
Level 3: Opinions
The final level of theology is Opinions. Opinions are issues on which Christians within the same church body can disagree about but still fellowship together. In Scripture, the apostle Paul calls these “disputable matters” (Romans 14-15; 1 Corinthians 8-10). Not everything in the Bible rises to the level of an Essential doctrine or even a Conviction. Multiple opinions on an issue can be held. For example, our church does not divide over the age of the earth, the continuation of miraculous spiritual gifts, or the timing of the return Christ (pre-, a-, or post-millennial).
How to We Determine Levels of Theology?
Even if Christians agree on the fact that certain levels of doctrine exist, the larger question that must be grappled with is how, exactly, do we determine where they fit? Our denomination, the EFCA, has develop six factors that go into evaluating and locating a doctrine (from Evangelical Convictions A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America, 2nd ed. (Free Church Publications: Minneapolis, MN), 261):
- Relevance to our understanding of the nature and character of God: To what extent does this doctrine or practice reveal the person and nature of God?
- Connect to the gospel and the overarching narrative of the Bible: How directly is this doctrine or practice connected to the gospel and to the storyline of the whole Bible?
- Exegetical clarity: To what extent does Scripture unambiguously affirm this doctrine or practice?
- Biblical prominence: How prominent is this doctrine or practice in Scripture?
- Historical consensus: How widespread is the consensus on this doctrine and practice in the Church both past and present?
- Application to the church and the believer: How relevant is this doctrine and practice to us today?
Of course, these questions to do not immediately answer all of our questions or necessarily make it easy to develop quick judgments on doctrines. But the point is not to be quick, but accurate.
The Need for Wisdom
The fact that the Bible gives some delineation of various levels of theology demonstrates the need for believers to cultivate and exercise wisdom. It can be disastrous for a church, and for the individual believer, to get their doctrines jumbled or put in the wrong category. If an Essential doctrine is left out, then important truths which undergird and support the gospel will be lost, imperiling the soul. If an Opinion on a matter is elevated to the place of an Essential or Conviction, then a legalistic spirit can take hold in a church, also imperiling the soul.
Therefore, churches must cultivate wisdom to be able to discern which doctrines will be deemed Essential and held onto fiercely, those which will shape a particular congregation, and those issues on which much freedom is allowed and believers can co-exist together in the same body.