Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage

by Gavin Ortlund

A Short Review

by Liam Walsh

This book will be a paradigm changer for many. It is an absolutely excellent work. Ortlund is navigating the question of what issues are worth drawing dividing lines between Christian groups. One of Jesus’ prayers before going to the cross – and one of the longest prayers in Scripture – (the high priestly prayer) was for the unity of his followers. The unity of the church matters greatly to Jesus. However – Christians have many different views on many things and doctrines. How are Christians to navigate these differences? And if we are to divide, in what way should we divide? 

Ortlund develops a four tiered system for navigating the importance of disagreements between Christians in their doctrinal convictions. All four also have differing ways Christians should divide as well. His four tiered system is as follows:

1. Doctrines which are essential to the Gospel
2. Doctrines which are essential for the health of the church and practice
3. Important doctrines theologically – but not enough to justify separation between Christian groups
4. Issues unimportant to gospel witness and ministry collaboration 

Ortlund has created a very nuanced approach, and has spent much time thinking on and developing his system. Not only do these four tiers contain different theological beliefs, but Ortlund also details 4 ways in which believers are to ‘divide’ over these issues. 

Tier one constitutes a division between Christian believers and unbelievers. It includes issues such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and justification in Christ’s death through faith. Tier one is also the most drastic of all the dividing lines. These issues should be stood and fought for – albeit in a loving, humble, and Christ honoring way. Ortlund also helpfully emphasizes that there are many Christians who hold errant views in this category who are just ignorant of the details – or just haven’t studied these issues yet. He also highlighted the difference in the way one approaches a doctrinal difference as a large indicator as well – humbly, or in an arrogant and prideful way. 

Tier two is a tier for extremely important issues, but not issues that should divide between whether we consider someone a Christian or not. However these issues are the ones that affect much of a persons Christian life. Prayer or sacraments are often greatly affected. 1st tier doctrines which are essential to the gospel can also be affected by these 2nd tier doctrinal beliefs. These issues, he argues, are usually grounds for switching churches or organizations over. Issues that fall in this category for Ortlund are baptism, the lords supper, Calvinism/Arminianism, strong cessationism/strong continuationism, and some nuances in justification (double vs single imputation) for example. However, in saying that a difference in these views can lead to dividing churches, he emphasized that it should not lead to a relational divide between Christians. Our desire to uphold the love and unity of the church should match our desire for truth. As Ortlund puts it, ‘gospel doctrine, and gospel culture should both be upheld equally.’

Third Tier issues were issues which have some importance – but don’t affect the more important doctrines and don’t affect life and practice of believers. Ortlund argues that though these are important issues, Christians should not divide over them. He places in this category the old vs young earth creation debate and some of the end times chronology controversies. Preferences of alcohol consumption he also places here. I personally would also place politics in this category – as something that,  while it is important, it’s not something which Christians need divide over. 

The fourth tier issues are those that are unimportant for life and ministry in the church, and are more simply preference issues. In this category Ortlund places worship styles and other more outward stylistic preferences. 

Reading this, it seemed right on target to me. Granted, my theology lines up with Ortlund extremely closely – but, even so, I’m amazed at the things Christians divide over. Even entire denominations often, divide over very minor theological preference points such as end times views, creation day lengths, or alcohol consumption stipulations. This book was a breath of fresh air – and contains much wisdom in how Christians should approach theological differences. 

In our current climate, with so many churches splitting or dividing over politics, I would have appreciated more conversation on politics and how Ortlund would fit them into this system. However – the book is really one about theology, not politics. So I suppose it’s fitting that it addresses only the former. [Speaking of politics, I couldn’t help thinking that a system like this would be a step forward for any system of beliefs – especially the polarized state of American politics right now. This would allow polarized groups to work together on the issues they agree on even when they have significant disagreements in other areas.]

I enjoyed this very much. This should be read by any Christian who ever wonders which issues they need to take a stand for and which ones to not let divide, but rather make their stand for unity – often in the face of opposition from both sides. It also had me checking my own heart on some particular doctrinal nuances I hold – that I’m particularly proud of – in a not good way..

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