In this long awaited episode – a transcription of my Discernment 101 classes – I break down some of the essential pieces for discerning through Christian content online, in books, and in conversations using Albert Mohler’s theological triage method and my own hacks for determining theological bias. We talk about:
- Key ways to identify someone’s bias
- Theological triage and how to use it
- Why core doctrine matters and how to discern it
- The danger of condemning teachers based on hearsay instead of hard evidence
- And so much more!
This was a much requested episode so I hope it is helpful! Transcript to come.
Hi, friends. I’m sitting here with my Culver’s ice cream, and we’re going to be talking about discernment, today! This is a topic that comes up so frequently these days. We are filtering so much information as Christians, and even if we weren’t Christians, we’d be filtering so much information at the world at large. This is a topic that is so necessary for critical thinkers today, and especially for those who have a Christian worldview through which they’re filtering the world. Now, I have done an episode on this before. I did an episode on the difference between Discernment and a critical spirit. That is about eight or nine episodes back now, I believe. But this episode is going to talk about discerning first, second and third tier issues, and I’m actually going to be using my notes from the free Discernment classes that I teach on a monthly basis. These classes have become incredibly popular. I am so blessed to have been able to host them and talk through how we can discern, what constitutes core doctrine, the fundamental teachings of the church, and what constitutes freedom issues or areas of denominational disagreement. How do we know what is a heresy? How do we know what is orthodoxy, and how do we know when something is just a difference of practice? That’s what this episode is about.
Now, I am crediting Albert Mohler with the full weight and force of what we’re going to talk about today, because we are following his method of theological triage, which comes from an article that I will link in the show notes on the blog and in the podcast episode description. Theological triage is basically a method for narrowing down the problem that we’re facing or the issue that we see at hand, and then running it through these analytical steps to discern what level of theological importance the issue is. Is it a core doctrine, or is it a secondary doctrine or practice? I love G. K. Chesterton’s definition of Orthodoxy. He said that Orthodoxy is the creeds, the Apostles in Nicene, and the historic behavior of those who followed such a creed. Basically, what we see outlined by the church is the fundamentals of Christian belief, and then Christian practice. What behaviors were followed? How did they live? What kind of practices in their communities showed their values? I think that we can look at Acts 15 to determine the behavior portion, but we’re going to talk about that in a moment.
In this episode, I’m going to run through the theological triage model that Albert Mohler generated for us so kindly, and then we’re also going to look at theological bias and how to identify someone’s denominational bias by the words they use, and a couple other hacks that I use to narrow down what angle somebody might have. Now, this is not foolproof. Obviously, you have to do some digging. You have to read widely, read from multiple perspectives, but this episode, I hope will help you determine what core issues are, what core doctrinal issues are, so that you can read widely. I think a lot of people have their two or three trusted authors that they return to over and over again, and of course, those authors have a very distinct theological bias, which is fine, but because they aren’t sure what to trust, or who to trust, and who is teaching orthodoxy, so sound teaching supported by the history of the church, they don’t branch out. They don’t read outside their tradition. Maybe, they only read reformed scholars. They only read R. C. Sproul, and John Piper, and Ligonier Ministries, Kevin DeYoung because they’ve never exposed themselves to Wesleyan, Methodists, and Armenian traditions. Or maybe you only read in those traditions or charismatic traditions and you’re consuming materials that are from Pentecostal or charismatic churches and have not opened up a book from a Reformed standpoint, or a Wesleyan standpoint. We want to be reading from multiple perspectives and denominations, because it offers such a robust understanding and a holistic view of our Christian faith.
One quick thing before we jump into the nitty-gritty also regarding denominations. Denomination literally means “to name” or “out of the name”. When we talk about denominations of Christianity, we’re not saying these are all different versions of Christianity. They’re just Christianity by a different name, because there were differences usually over secondary issues. When it was not over a secondary issue like how to practice baptism, many times denominations arose, because the conservative branch of the church could not in good conscience remain in fellowship with the liberal branch. So, to preserve orthodoxy, the conservative church branched off and created a new denomination. Now, sometimes this wasn’t the case. For instance, the Southern Baptist Church came into existence because of slaveholding, and not wanting to tolerate the Northern Baptist Church that was abolitionist. That’s a real part of American history. But in many other cases, such as the North American Anglican Church, which is a very recent split, they came into existence, because of branching off from a liberal Anglican Church. We also see right now, history is being made in front of us, as the global Methodist Church begins to form the conservative Methodist Church devoted to historical orthodox teaching, it’s branching away from United Methodist Church, because they have strayed from the sexual ethic on many levels.
All this to say, denominations are not a bad thing when they come into existence in order to preserve the heart of Christianity. As we talk about how to discern core doctrine, secondary and third tier issues, keep that in mind. That just because there’s multiple denominations does not mean that it’s because they argued over the color of the carpet, or that they split because of different end times views. More often than not, the split happened over a core doctrine, or simply because two churches decided to practice a secondary issue differently, such as creedal baptism, which we had an episode about recently, or infant baptism.
Let’s get started. We’re going to start by looking at biblical literacy, because I think this is our foundation. Biblical literacy is just the ability to understand process and apply the principles of the Bible to life and culture. Just being literate is to read and communicate, to be biblically literate is being able to read and communicate biblical truths in their proper context. We don’t want to take these biblical truths out of their context or divorce them from what they really meant. We want to make sure we’re understanding them as they were meant, and then process and apply them to life and culture as Blair describes it this way, “It’s not just facts and the ability to recall them, but the ability to use them to create meaning about life, about God, about the world, and my place in all of it.”
All theology, all study of the nature of God has to begin with biblical literacy. If we don’t have biblical literacy, and we aren’t accustomed to rightly dividing the word of truth, applying appropriately, our theology will inevitably be skewed. We’ll come up with theologies that aren’t actually a reflection of the principles taught in the Bible. You guys, this has happened so many times over the course of church history. We see it happen in the extremist sects of “Christianity” today, where they take small portions of the Bible, and they twist them to mean something that they do not mean about God and about man. Theology begins with the Bible always, but some people twist the Bible. That’s why biblical literacy is necessary for a sound theology.
We’re going to talk about theological bias. I thought about starting with Mohler’s theological triage, but I want to start with this because I think this really lays the groundwork for when we’re determining core doctrine. Theological bias is not necessarily a bad thing. There has always been a range of thought within Christianity. A freedom of thought, and exchange of ideas within Christianity over the course of its history. A theological bias is just the lens through which a particular theology is presented, a way of looking at the Bible. Our hermeneutic, or way of interpreting Scripture, is often determined by our theology, but also vice versa. The way we interpret Scripture dictates our theology. They go in this circle. Theological bias changes how Christians will look at the same Scriptures. You can have a Calvinist who looks at Romans 9 and hears God is choosing who will be saved. And are many and looks at Romans 9 and hear, God sovereignly used Israel even though, it was made up of believing and unbelieving Jews. They don’t see personal election in that passage. A Catholic might look at Romans 9 and hear, God is choosing to bless certain Israelites and not to bless others. You have different perspectives on that passage based on theological bias. But the theological bias actually arose from the Bible itself as well.
Now, here’s where I want to pause. Sometimes, especially in the world of deconstruction, we’ll hear, well, the very fact that you’re disagreeing on what this passage means that the Bible is not trustworthy. Or, the fact that there are denominations just shows how divided Christianity is. But that’s not true. The core doctrines are what hold Christianity together, and they’re what we unite around. That’s the whole point of this episode. There may be diversity of thought on certain ‘how’ questions. How certain things work? How God elects people to salvation, or doesn’t? But the core doctrine, that Christ is the center of salvation, and salvation is by grace through faith, and we must work it out with fear and trembling, that we can agree upon.
How do we determine somebody’s theological bias? I have a couple tricks that I use when I’m looking at material, or looking at an article, looking at a book I find secondhand to determine whether I want to buy the book, first of all, but also what that theological bias might be. What terms do they use is the first question. What terms are they using? There are certain hot words that help give us a clue into somebody’s theological viewpoint. For instance, frequent use of words like sovereignty, decree, election, doctrines of grace, even actual references to TULIP, which is the five points of Calvinism, all point to a Calvinistic or reformed viewpoint. If you see frequent use of words like fivefold ministry, activation, breakthrough, destiny or prophetic word, this all points to a charismatic viewpoint or Pentecostal. When you see words like the Eucharist, confession, sacrament, these point to a liturgical tradition, which may be Episcopalian, Anglican, Catholic, or Orthodox. While these certainly aren’t your guaranteed telling signs of a specific denomination or a specific viewpoint, they can definitely point us in that direction. Look at the terms the author uses.
Secondly, look at the back of the book or the last page where it talks about the author. What seminary or school that the author attend? Schools like Westminster Theological, Reformed Theological, Covenant, Master’s Seminary, Midwestern, all of these are Calvinistic schools. They’re going to have a view of salvation that leans toward God-specific election of individuals. Others like Southeastern Baptist, Dallas Theological, they’re going to be leaning Baptist/Dispensational with probably a few reformed teachers sprinkled in there, but definitely more solidly Baptist. You have others like Western and Fuller, that would lean more, or minion, or provisionist in their view. Or Azusa and Biola, which may reflect more charismatic ideas. Then, of course, you have schools like Union, Harvard, Yale, Marquette in the UMC Seminaries, and it’s some Presbyterian Seminaries, Presbyterian USA, that would lean more progressive or more liberal in their theology. This is obviously painting with a broad brush. Every seminary has multiple professors. I went to Liberty University, their seminary would probably have a good mix of dispensationalists, BAPTISTS, and reformed professors. I had both reformed and non-reformed professors when I was in the religion program there. This isn’t a for sure thing again, but when you stack all of these questions on top of each other, you start to get a better idea of what the bias is.
The third question I ask is, who endorses this author or book and who do they endorse? Now, if you don’t already know who the major Christian leaders, and writers, and teachers are, and their theological camps, then it could be a little bit difficult to do. Normally, I don’t name names. But in this section, I think it’s helpful to get an idea of who is in what group. Like I mentioned earlier, if you’re reading, say, John Piper, R. C. Sproul, Kevin Dionne, you’re reading a lot of the gospel coalition. Jen Wilkin. These are coming from a Calvinistic/reformed perspective. Once you know that, you know more of what to expect in that work. If you are reading Ann Voskamp, Ruth Simons, Rebekah Lyons, Lysa TerKeurst, these would probably fall more on either the very, very moderate reformed end or Armenian/Brethren. In these groups, you’re going to see more of an openness to first of all denominational interaction and exchange of ideas, but you’re also going to see them be more open to the idea of man’s response to God and salvation as a general rule. They don’t fit any one particular denomination, but they aren’t branded as reformed. You can know going into their work, that perhaps they’re a little bit more open denominationally. That’s not to say that the others are closed off to it just that their work is very distinctly in one tradition.
Jen Hatmaker, Shauna Niequist, Sarah Bessey, and Rachel Held Evans all fall in the progressive camp, which may come from anywhere to progressive politics to LGBTQ affirming. In those circles, you want to be aware that their particular bent and bias is towards progressivism and liberal theology. When you’re reading Allie Stuckey, Rachel Jankovic, Summer White, Sheologians, Doreen Virtue, you have to understand that this group is going to fall on the more, hard Calvinist, or more on the fundamentalist Calvinist end. John MacArthur would also fall into this camp. They’re going to share a lot of the same theology, and even responses to culture and politics in those groups, and maybe even cross share each other’s content, because they tend to agree.
Theological bias again, it is not a bad thing. It’s just a way of expressing one’s views and revealing that you have a certain stance on certain issues. Knowing someone’s theological bias is important, because it informs our own understanding of what they will likely say about certain Bible passages. It also helps us to vary the content we’re reading. If you’re only ever reading from people like Jen Hatmaker, and Bessey and Evans, it’s time to shake that up. It’s time to get some other resources, and some other points of view. The same if you’re only reading Stuckey and Jankovic, and listening to theologians, it’s time to introduce some Armenian thought. It’s time to introduce some other people, so that you’re varying the Christian thoughts you’re listening to. Determining theological bias helps us to broaden who we listened to.
When you’re looking at these groups, again, this is not a complete list by any means, a lot of them endorse each other. They support one another’s books. When I do an endorsement, when I write an endorsement for someone’s book, I take it very seriously and most authors do. If my name is going to be on a book saying you should read it, I do not want to mislead people. I want to make sure that they can trust my recommendation. Now, obviously, you can recommend a book, and then somebody can go off the deep end, and then, oh, boy, my name is on it, what can I do about it? Probably nothing. Endorsements, they aren’t necessarily a lifelong way of determining whether somebody’s solid, who endorses them, etc. But it is helpful for figuring out where groups of people stand on certain things, who is endorsing each other?
What’s the goal of determining bias? I want to reiterate this, and I’ve probably said this three times already, but it’s important. The goal here is not to make a list of people who are on the No-No list. The goal is to have a framework for understanding people’s theology, authors’ theology, teachers’ theology, so that you can process their work and compare it to Scripture. Here’s the important thing though. You have to allow their work to speak for itself. You might think you know someone’s framework, but then you’re surprised by what they write. You did not know what they actually believed. Allow their work to speak for itself, do not go on hearsay. The cancer of the Christian writer, teacher world is this Godforsaken hearsay and gossip about writers and teachers. You need to go to the source. This is a biblical concept regarding slander.
In fact, there is a Jewish word for it and it’s called loshon hara. I’ve been reading this devotional, it’s actually a Jewish devotional that talks about how loshon hara is committed, and lashon hara is actually the practice that Miriam committed against her brother, Moses, that got her struck with leprosy. It’s falsely accusing based on misinformation. It’s slandering without getting the full story or going directly to the source. Loshon hara is avoided by simply treating others the way we want to be treated and following the 1st and 2nd commandments as Jesus outlined them, “Fear God, Love People.” And that includes people online.
So, no, you can’t contact Jen Hatmaker and find out exactly what she said from her directly. You can’t DM her and get a reply most likely, but you know what you can do? You can go read her own posts. You can go even read her book, rent it from the library. Get the information directly from the source. Don’t go off hearsay. It’s important that we are dutiful students who do not condemn so quickly based on what somebody else said, especially over secondary issues. That’s what we’re going to talk about next.
Now that we know somebody’s bias or theology, it can help us engage with a perspective different from ours, help us understand why someone interprets passages the way they do even if we don’t agree, and give grace for differences of interpretation on secondary issues. I am not saying that a person who compromises core doctrine should be endorsed or that I would promote their book. Absolutely not. But when I know that something is a secondary issue, I’m able to give grace for that difference, which makes us question, what then is a secondary issue? We’re getting there. We’re getting there you, guys.
We’re going to start with heresy. Heresy is a word that’s tossed around a lot right now, which is sad, because it’s very serious and people have been killed for it. We need to be very careful in tossing around the word ‘heretic’ or ‘heresy.’ This word comes from the Greek which means choice and the Catholic canon describes heresy this way. “It is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt, after the reception of baptism of some truth, which is to be believed by Divine and Catholic faith.” In the Catholic Church, baptism is basically alongside and works along with salvation. So, for a Protestant, we could say heresy is the denial or doubt after salvation of some truth, which is supposed to be believed, some core doctrine. Heresy, here’s the important thing, can only occur unsettled, indispensable teachings of the church. What this tells us is, somebody believing a different end times theory than you is not a heretic, because end times theology has been debated over the course of church history. It’s not a fully settled indispensable teaching. It’s something where there’s a lot of speculation. We can’t say, “Aha, this person is not pre-millennial or is not post-millennial and therefore they are a heretic.” We can’t say that. Also, heresy can only occur if the person teaching claims to be a member of the body of Christ. So, unbelievers can’t be heretics.
Now, according to the Catholic Church, there are two types of heresy. There’s formal heresy and material heresy. I thought this definition was very helpful even though it’s distinctly Catholic. Formal heresy is the outright rejection of a known and established Christian doctrine. Material heresy is the misapplication or misunderstanding of a doctrine. It’s accidental or ignorant. We commit material heresy often. When we talk about a doctrine, we don’t fully understand it, and we maybe even teach it without understanding it, and we make a mistake in how we talk about it. That’s very different than formal heresy, which is a willful outright rejection of that known and established core Christian doctrine.
If that’s what heresy is, let’s go back to talking about orthodoxy. I want to reread this Chesterton quote. He said, “Orthodoxy or sound teaching means the Apostles’ creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian, and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed.”
Fr. Michael Cooper says this about Chesterton.
“Chesterton, writing in 1908 insisted that Orthodoxy is a flesh and blood reality, not just an intellectual system. In terms of the believer, orthodoxy happens in the fullness of God’s truth, the person of Jesus Christ becomes integrated with the believer’s life. Without this fusion of right belief and right living in and with the living Christ, orthodoxy can become a joyless catalogue of dogmas, always searching for heresies in our midst.”
Just as we must use the word ‘heresy’ with great restraint, the same is true of orthodoxy, especially when applying it to ourselves against anyone else. What Fr. Cooper is saying is that we should be very careful in accusing people of being heretics or applying the word ‘orthodox’ only to ourselves. The more heretics that are out there, and the more heretics that we see and find, the more concerned we should be with what we call our orthodoxy. He also makes a great point that right belief and right living must be fused together. If that is not happening, if we do not have the person of Jesus Christ, our personal relationship with Him fused into our understanding of doctrine, it does become a long, joyless, legalistic list of dogmas that we just bash people over the head with anytime they disagree with us. The problem in today’s Christianity on social media is that people delight in bashing people over the head with dogma instead of recognizing that the personal relationship should lead, the Holy Spirit should lead, and that true orthodoxy comes with compassion. As Francis Schaeffer so wisely said, “Biblical orthodoxy without compassion is surely the ugliest thing in the world.” And it is. It’s monstrous, and it destroys, and it divides. We must know what orthodoxy is. We must know what these core doctrines are. But we cannot separate that from the personal, lived, daily joyful relationship with Jesus. As soon as we do, we have elevated the doctrine about God, above the Heart of God Himself.
How do we actually determine what things constitute orthodoxy, and what things constitute heresy? We don’t want to be out there hunting for heretics. We don’t want to be spiritual headhunters. But we also need to be discerning, and we need to know what’s going on in the world. This brings us to Dr. Miller’s theological triage. Making a theological evaluation of issues, urgency, or “heretical level.” Here’s a summary. First order issues are doctrines essential to the Christian faith. Second order issues are denominational things that prevent fellowship under the same church authority. For instance, if you believe in Infant baptism, you’re probably not going to go to a Baptist church. If you believe that spiritual gifts are for today, and you speak in tongues, you’re probably not going to go to a Reformed church. These churches tend to have a specific view on these things that prevent fellowship with those who do not hold that view. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t be friends, but it means that you’re probably not going to submit to a church structure that holds a certain view on that secondary issue. It separates the denominations even though they unite around the core doctrines. Third order issues are disagreements that still allow for close fellowship within one church body. Maybe views of schooling your kids. You’re in the same church, but one person homeschools and the other public schools, and has biblical reasons for doing so. Maybe you’re in the same church, and you have different views on modesty, maybe different views on the end times or different views on how roles in marriage should look. A lot of this gives freedom for diverse thought and Spirit-led conviction when it comes to third order issues.
I’m going to read you a quote from Albert Mohler about the error that’s potential on both ends of this theological spectrum. He says, “The error of theological liberalism is evident in a basic disrespect for biblical authority and the church’s treasury of truth. The mark of true liberalism is the refusal to admit that first-order theological issues even exist. Progressive Christianity treats first order doctrines as if they were merely third order in importance, and doctrinal ambiguity as the inevitable result.” Pause here. If you listen to the dispensationalist episode, I’ve talk about how the rise of fundamentalism came to counter Protestant liberalism. Protestant liberalism came out of enlightenment, humanism. It’s a lot of isms, I realize that.
But these ideologies have been at war for, first of all, the entire history of the church, but especially since the enlightenment. And then, with the rise of postmodern thought, where truth is relative and not absolute, we see this even more. In the name of “science,” we have seen theologians alter core truth of Christianity, and take doctrines like the resurrection, the virgin birth, the sexual ethic, and dismantle them, and say that they’re not necessary. They’re not a part of Christianity, we don’t need them. Ultimately, it leads to a form of universalism, which is exactly what postmodernism does to Christian thought. That is the error of liberalism. They treat first order doctrines as if they were third order. They’re just free to misuse. We don’t need to have them. I’ve sat through an eight-week progressive Christianity class that really presented the ultimate end of this ideology.
Now, not all progressive Christianity is that extreme. There are some progressive Christians who hold to the first order doctrines, but they have maybe different political thoughts and so they brand themselves progressive because of that. We need to make sure that we’re aware of that. But when it comes to true theological liberalism as rooted in postmodern thought and in Protestant enlightenment liberalism, first order doctrines often become relative. To continue Dr. Mohler’s thought, he says, “Fundamentalism, on the other hand, tends toward the opposite error. The misjudgment of the true fundamentalist is the belief that all disagreements concern first order doctrines. Thus, third order issues are raised to a first order importance, and Christians are wrongly and harmfully divided.” Let me give you an example here. W
hen someone says, “If you let a woman teach in your church,” whether that’s Sunday school, anywhere that maybe a man might be present. “If you let a woman teach in your church, it’s only a matter of time until you endorse the progressive sexual ethic.” Or, maybe they say, “If you let a woman teach in your church, you should not be trusted on anything else taught from that church.” This is the error of fundamentalism. It’s raising a secondary issue, which is the issue of egalitarian versus complementarian roles in the church to the level of a first order doctrine. Instead of recognizing that two churches can be orthodox in what they teach and continue to be orthodox and yet hold different views based on scripture on that issue. When a Christian raises secondary issues to the level of first order importance, they do wrongly and harmfully divide the church.
We see both of these errors happening at the same time today and they react against each other, because those who were raised in fundamentalist homes that committed this error often swing into liberalism. Those who see liberalism everywhere in social media and in culture often swing further into fundamentalism. We need wisdom. We need God’s grace and guidance so that we do not commit these same illogical and unbiblical actions.
We’ve talked about critical thinking versus a critical spirit in the first episode in this season, and so I’m not going to talk about that here. I recommend going back and listening to that episode on discernment versus critical spirit. Instead, what I want to conclude with here is this. Core doctrines start with the creeds and the gospels. The gospels are what the creeds were based on. What happened with Jesus? What did he do? What did he accomplish? How did he live? What was his ministry like? What’s it like to follow the King and to live like him? And then, it builds on that with a lifestyle that is endorsed by Jesus and promoted by Him. Then, of course, promoted by the Apostles.
I like to look at Acts 15 as a guide for the basis of holy behavior for Christians, because as new believers were flooding to the church, the Apostles were saying, “We need to figure out what to teach these Gentiles who don’t know the first thing about how to behave as a Jewish Christian.” So, they decided to teach the Gentiles to abstain from eating blood, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and idol worship, and to abstain from sexual immorality. In other words, the basics to start with for Christian behavior are sanctity of life, an honor for the image bearer, sanctity of worship only to God alone, and sanctity of sex, the sexual ethic. The core doctrines of Christianity then constitute everything related to Christ’s life, death, resurrection, the virgin birth, and the Trinity, but then also the actions of one who follows Jesus as outlined in Acts 15, and also in Hebrews 5 and 6.
So, where do we go from here? We know the core doctrines. We know to give grace on secondary and third issues even as we study those things out? Here’s what I suggest. Pray for a critical mind in a humble spirit. Pray that God would give us minds that can discern the hearts that are open. Pray for those who differ and disagree, especially for the graceless and the condescending, because they are the hardest to love. Study the role of the Holy Spirit and learn to obey His voice. Holy Spirit was given to us to specifically guide us and sanctify us. That’s the power of the Christian life. I once heard a quote, I think it was Dwight Moody, who said that, “He would rather lose his right arm than lose the Holy Spirit.” When I was a younger Christian, I thought, “Well, that’s a little extreme.” [laughs] But now, I understand it, because the power of the Christian life is in the Holy Spirit and His specific guidance.
Remember that God is sovereign enough to defend himself and he does not need a theological bulldog. He doesn’t. He can accomplish more through your educated grace than you can accomplish through unrighteous anger. I speak from experience. Read widely of multiple perspectives and ground yourself in the Word. When you’ve done these things, you’ll have what you need to engage in culture. Rather than thinking of engaging in culture and engaging with the threat out there, I just recommend thinking of it this way. The way Jesus looked at the crowds as he was coming to Jerusalem, and he said that they were like chicks who wanted to gather under his wings, that they were tossed and turned by every wind of doctrine and that they needed a shepherd. “They were harassed,” as the Bible says. He had compassion on them. That’s the state of many people today, when it comes to their theology. We can have compassion, or we can be graceless. It’s our choice.