What Is Theological Triage?

What Is Theological Triage?

by: Scott Dickson

Imagine you’re leading a small group Bible study at your church. Over the course of an (apparently eventful) evening, one group member casually mentions that they don’t believe Jesus was divine, another expresses disagreement with you and your church’s stance on baptism, and still another expresses a view about the timing and manner of Jesus’s second coming that you don’t agree with. You feel the need to address each, but your time is limited. Where do you begin? 


There are many, many things that Christians disagree over. And it’s not always easy to know when we should “agree to disagree” and when we should draw a line in the sand. We certainly don’t want to act like the Bible isn’t important and never push back against someone we disagree with. But we also don’t want to let every disagreement drive a wedge between us! 


This is where the task of theological triage is helpful. “Triage” is a term used to refer to how doctors and emergency personnel will prioritize certain patients based on the urgency of their needs. Put simply: the most serious cases get the most attention. In a similar way, theological triage is a way of determining what doctrines Christians must agree on, and which ones—while important to discuss—should not divide us. To do so, theological triage will often place doctrines into one of these three categories: primary issues, secondary issues, and tertiary issues. 



Theological triage helps us know what we must agree on as Christians | TDGC

Theological triage puts doctrine into three categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary issues | TDGC

Primary Issues

When it comes to theological triage, primary issues refer to the most important and urgent doctrines of the Christian faith. These are doctrines that one simply must affirm in order to be a Christian. They are what Christians across the centuries, across nations, and across denominational lines agree on. To deny one of these doctrines is to place oneself outside of the Christian faith. 


Examples of primary issues include: 


  • The Trinity
  • Jesus being truly God and truly human 
  • Salvation being an undeserved gift of God’s grace
  • The death and resurrection of Jesus 
  • God being the Creator of all things
  • The Second Coming of Jesus


Secondary Issues


Again, putting doctrines into the categories of secondary and tertiary issues isn’t meant to suggest that they’re unimportant. It is rather an acknowledgment that these are doctrines which faithful Christians disagree on. 


Examples of secondary issues include: 


  • Baptism (both who to baptize and how)
  • Church government 
  • Women’s roles in the church
  • Spiritual gifts 


On a practical level, your position on one of these doctrines might impact the type of church you attend. For example, if you believe that spiritual gifts such as prophecy and tongues should be part of your Sunday morning worship service, you will likely find it hard to attend a church that does not believe those gifts are still operative today. And if you are convinced that as a Christian parent you ought to have your infant baptized, you will probably not attend a church that is convinced that infant baptism is inappropriate. 


Tertiary Issues


Like secondary issues, tertiary issues involve doctrines on which Christians often come to different conclusions. But unlike with secondary issues, churches may be full of people who disagree on tertiary issues! Examples of these sorts of doctrines would include: 


  • The age of the earth
  • The relationship between Israel and the Church
  • Views on alcohol use
  • Views on tithing
  • Views on predestination
  • How and when Jesus will return


Wherever we land on secondary and tertiary doctrines, we should be sure to have a biblical basis for our position. We should also have the humility to acknowledge that some of our brothers and sisters in the faith have biblical reasons for holding a different view. Our stances on secondary and tertiary doctrines should not be hills to die on. 


Conclusion + Application


Returning to our small group example above, theological triage helps us to see that the person in your group claiming that Jesus is not divine would be your biggest priority because this claim goes against a foundational element of the Christian faith. For the person who disagrees with your church’s stance on baptism, it might be wise to follow up with them to hear why they disagree. It could be the case that they might be better aligned with another church. And for the person who has a different understanding of Jesus’s Second Coming, grab some coffee, open your Bibles together, and share what you each see in Scripture about that topic. 


As Christians, we all want to grow in our understanding of what God’s Word says. Theological triage helps us to approach this task with humility and to disagree well. It helps us to listen with patience and curiosity to interpretations on second and third-tier doctrines we may not have considered before, and to not assume that someone isn’t a Christian or that they take God’s Word less seriously than we do because of where they land on such issues. And by centering us around the primary doctrines of the faith, theological triage reminds us that we are part of a worldwide body of believers, with whom we will one day gather around the throne of Jesus, worshiping Him with one voice (Revelation 7:9–10). 



cal triage helps us to approach God’s Word with humility and to disagree well. (alt text: Theological triage helps us approach God’s Word with humility and disagree well | TDGC)

Additional Resources on Theological Triage:

Mentioned Products

The Theology Handbook

Faith Foundations | A Study on the Basics of Christianity

The Daily Grace Podcast

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