Writings by Cole Huffman


Hills to Die On

During the Memphis snowpocalypse, I read a short book by Gavin Ortlund: Finding the Right Hills to Die On. He offers a fourfold way of ranking doctrines. It’s as helpful for the pew as the pulpit:

  1. First-rank doctrines are essential to the gospel itself.
  2. Second-rank doctrines are urgent for the health and practice of the church such that they frequently cause Christians to separate at the level of local church, denomination, and/or ministry.
  3. Third-rank doctrines are important to Christian theology, but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians.
  4. Fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration.

Note his distinguishing terms: essential, urgent, important, then unimportant. No cafeteria approach to the Bible is intended, where the reader gets to independently decide what matters and what doesn’t. Evangelicals have always promoted biblical authority because, in Ortlund’s words, “it ensures that we remain the judged, not the judges, in our relation to God and truth.” Everything in Scripture is what God wants us to know. We believe it all matters. 

Evangelical Christians also believe not every doctrine in Scripture holds equal weight. It requires discernment and wisdom to sort the differences well, and a deep commitment to fellowship. Much of the sorting work has been done for us already throughout church history, but differences persist.

What a ranking matrix like Ortlund’s does is helps us avoid two ditches. One we land in when we recognize no distinction between essential and urgent and important. Call that ditch fundamentalism. The other ditch is when we act like all that matters is loving one another and doing good works. Call that ditch reductionism—we’re leaving a lot out that God took care to put into the Bible.

How we treat one another over second- and third-rank doctrines is a prime indicator of whether we value the unity of the church, which first-rank doctrine is in service to. Take a passage like Ephesians 4:4–6: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

See “baptism” there? Is baptism a first-rank doctrine? Evangelicals do not believe one must be water baptized to be justified by God. Justification by faith is one of our first-rank doctrines. At the same time, why wouldn’t a believer be baptized? While water baptism is not essential to faith, neither is it optional. This makes it a second-rank doctrine, something urgent to the unity of the church, but not essential to the gospel itself (see 1 Cor. 1:17).

What about third- and fourth-rank doctrine examples? To offer a list without the benefit of explanation annoys, and I won’t make the explanation space in this format. I’ve addressed third- and fourth-rank doctrines in preaching—a series from Romans 14, for instance. What we should all be after is the flourishing of the church according to the blueprint of God (Eph. 2:20). We can and do get infallible truth wrong. I’m sure I do now and again. Other times we get God’s Word right but in the wrong spirit. Guilty there too, but I look forward to improving.

“Some doctrines,” Ortlund writes, “are on the border between one [rank] and another.” We should be wary of oversimplification, he means. We can even have oversimplified ideas about what the unity of the church requires. Unity does not require we agree on every point of doctrine. Unity requires we direct one another back to the gospel as the source of our common identity and “rightness.”

The gospel is so simple a first grader can grasp it. It’s also profound enough for that same first grader to be unpacking its wonders fifty, sixty, seventy years later.

Ortlund concludes his book with this prayer:

“Lord, where we have sinned either by failing to love the truth or failing to love our brothers and sisters in our disagreements about the truth, forgive us and help us. For those of us who tend to fight too much over theology, help us remember that you also died for the unity of the church, your precious bride. Give us softer hearts. For those of us who tend to fight too little over theology, help us to feel our need for courage and resilience. Give us stronger backbones. Help us to be people who tremble at your word and therefore ultimately fear no one but you. Lead us toward that healthy, happy balance of adhering to all your teaching while embracing all your people. Amen.”

Posted by Cole Huffman at 10:51 AM
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