How To Plant Flags

By Erik Thoennes Oct. 3, 2011 3:51 p.m. Christian Education, Church Life, Evangelism, Ministry and Leadership, Theology

Essential vs. Peripheral Doctrine

The ability to discern the relative importance of theological beliefs is vital for effective Christian life and ministry. Both the purity and unity of the church are at stake in this matter. The relative importance of theological issues can fall within four categories: (1) absolutes define the core beliefs of the Christian faith; (2) convictions, while not core beliefs, may have significant impact on the health and effectiveness of the church; (3) opinions are less-clear issues that generally are not worth dividing over; and (4) questions are currently unsettled issues. These categories can be best visualized as concentric circles, similar to those on a dart board, with the absolutes as the “bull's-eye” (see diagram).

Essential vs. Peripheral Doctrine

Where an issue falls within these categories should be determined by weighing the cumulative force of at least seven considerations: (1) biblical clarity; (2) relevance to the character of God; (3) relevance to the essence of the gospel; (4) biblical frequency and significance (how often in Scripture it is taught, and what weight Scripture places upon it); (5) effect on other doctrines; (6) consensus among Christians (past and present); and (7) effect on personal and church life. These criteria for determining the importance of particular beliefs must be considered in light of their cumulative weight regarding the doctrine being considered. For instance, just the fact that a doctrine may go against the general consensus among believers (see item 6) does not necessarily mean it is wrong, although that might add some weight to the argument against it. All the categories should be considered collectively in determining how important an issue is to the Christian faith. The ability to rightly discern the difference between core doctrines and legitimately disputable matters will keep the church from either compromising important truth or needlessly dividing over peripheral issues.

(This is an excerpt from my book, Life's Biggest Questions: What the Bible Says about the Things That Matter Most (Crossway, 2011)


  • Joe Hellerman Oct. 6, 2011 at 11:17 AM

    I like this, Erik.

  • A real Christian Apr. 14, 2013 at 6:50 PM

    By your old age, this country and the majority of Christian people in it will have judge your theology as bigoted hatred. Over the next few years, you will suffer the slow and painful realization that clinging to your misguided and insular beliefs has only watered a gnarled shrub of thorns inside your desert of a heart. Perhaps you will cope by developing a sincere, but wrong, feeling of victimization. But, while I have full, equal and honest relationships with the beautiful and kind people who fill my life, you will discover that shrouding yourself in dogma and demanding that all around you bow to your righteousness is a sure sign of delusional power. There is but one true God in this world, and He will sweep the rug out from under your prophane and blasphemous imitation.

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