Christians will commonly argue with each other about “secondary” issues of doctrine, while assuring themselves and the rest of us that it’s okay since they agree on the “primary” issues. Obviously, not all topics of biblical teaching are on the same level of importance. On the basis of this sort of distinction between “primary” and “secondary” we can readily join with Christians across denominational lines while continuing to warn Mormons that they have the primary material wrong.
My concern is that the well-intentioned emphasis on the basics of mere Christianity and “primary issues” that we can all agree on also disparages the “secondary issues.” Less clarity in the Bible, less agreement among Christians, and less treatment by the tradition should not add up to counting these matters as unimportant. I suggest that the doctrinal topics that Christians feel free to disagree about are not adiaphora in the sense that we need not take them seriously. I propose a different analogy to help alleviate this concern.
For example, lots of people will line up and howl about disagreements regarding eschatology. People readily roll their eyes, let out heavy sighs, and check their watch (or phone) to see if somehow they can escape a nit-picky and acrimonious discussion. Topics such as the rapture of the church, the tribulation, the meaning of the millennium, and the nature of hell seem to get seconded to the status of “let’s not talk about that now.” Also uncomfortable are discussions about contemporary prophecy, speaking in tongues, the office of apostleship, and the correlation between science and our theology of the Genesis account.
The problem with setting these topics aside from discussion among friends in the local church is that people don’t think about them, as if such topics are a waste of time and harmfully divisive. (On many occasions, discussion has led to division, but maybe the fault in these splits has not been theology but other interpersonal issues are the real cause of division). Without thinking about these doctrines rigorously, I doubt that people are going to understand them well, so people will be limited to the thoughtless sound bites about these topics that come through jokes, or derogatory comments about someone who actually believes some position on the topic. Sometimes, it seems that people just doubt the truth is even knowable for these topics, and judge anyone who forms a conviction about them as just narrow, arrogant, and not to be listened to. In a word, such a person is counted a Fundamentalist Bible-thumper of yesteryear.
The usual model offered to correlate the various levels of doctrines in their importance may contribute to the marginalization of and distaste for the “lesser” topics of theology. Concentric circles display the center as the core of Christian doctrine: Trinity, Jesus, Scripture, and salvation by grace through faith. Outer layers to this core give levels of decreasing importance that account for differing denominations and Christian practices, such as views of the meaning of water baptism, the Lord’s Supper, topics of eschatology, and etc.
This typical model of a hierarchy of doctrines haunted me when someone in a large audience at a debate asked me if hell was an essential doctrine. Hmmm, I wondered. Essential to what? Essential in what way? I think the intended meaning was “primary” and “core” as a doctrine that is central to Christian faith, something that must be affirmed to count as Christian. The concentric circles model was misleading for me to think through how to answer that question. I have another model to suggest in its place.
I offer the model of the human body to understand and explain the relation of doctrinal topics in our belief system. In the body, a dysfunction or sickness for an organ such as the heart is going to bring down the body much faster than a similar problem in another organ, such as the gall bladder, a muscle group, or the skin (the largest organ). A tumor in the brain is harder to ignore and usually more lethal than a tumor in the forearm. By application to theology, a problem with your doctrine of God is going to cause more severe problems that are more immediately apparent than a problem with your doctrine of hell. This does not mean that hell, like your gall bladder or forearm, is unimportant or even less important to the whole doctrinal system. Similarly, people probably don’t think very often about the identity of the church in relation to biblical Israel, but a problem here can show up in subtle ways like having high cholesterol in the bloodstream, and the buildup of plaque in one’s arteries. We only think about this when we get a blood test that shows a problem, or when there is some sort of disruption of blood flow.
The analogy shows that a problem may take longer to show up because that doctrinal part, the theological organ, does not do as much for the overall well-being of the body, as compared to your doctrine of Jesus or salvation by grace (alone, as my affinity for Luther presses me to add).
People can live without considering some doctrines (such as eschatology), but I wonder if this is similar to living without a leg. You can do it, but it’s not best, and your overall functioning will be disabled. We may be more aware of certain organs in our bodies (such as our skin, or our lungs and heart), but this does not mean that the organs we pay less attention to on a daily basis are not doing important jobs. Similarly, everything that God revealed as topics of doctrine does important jobs in our belief and practice, whether we are aware of it or not.
A truly whole-Bible theology should embrace all the doctrines, and pursue confidence and understanding of everything God has given us, no matter how much or how little it drifts into the center of our attention. Know your body, and it will help you know your theology. In this way, the ultimate unity of our understanding of biblical teaching may be preserved in a way that the concentric circles model seems to miss (and mislead). You can have your core circles and leave the others behind. You can’t do this with the body: a heart without a stomach, arms, blood vessels, etc. is not going to be alive very long. All the parts contribute to each other in many ways, manifesting the interdependence and unity of the whole. Such is our theology as well, even the weird stuff that seems just foolishness and weakness to us.