Pastoring a church today is challenging on many fronts. One of those fronts is navigating the biblical call for maintaining unity among the local and global body of Christ, and the call for pursuing the purity of the local and global church as well. A pastor can feel like a pinball getting knocked around between battles over purity and brawls for unity as though the two are in opposition to one another like two prizefighters contending for a championship belt. It is nothing short of a tightrope walk for the pastor seeking to balance these realities, yet purity and unity are actually complementary and should be kept in cooperation with one another.
This is where the work of Dr. Albert Mohler and Gavin Ortlund, with contributions from many others, can be incredibly informative and helpful. Dr. Mohler coined the phrase, “theological triage” shining light on the posture by which we can pursue purity and unity as pastors leading our churches. Triage means “to sort”. Mohler illustrates its value through the analogy of a medical doctor prioritizing the urgency of patient’s injuries in order to treat the highest priority first. Dr. Mohler asserts a similar approach to theological triage in which Christians learn the discipline of determining “a scale of theological urgency” that consists of various levels (he suggests three) that correspond to issues and priorities of theology present in current doctrinal debates. Ortlund takes Mohler’s concept and further develops it, providing insights from his own journey into theological triage and highlighting helpful principles to guide the overall process. He identifies four categories for prioritizing our theology. For both men, the point as it relates to the pastor who desires unity and purity, is that not all Christian doctrines are created equal, nor should they possess equal weight, but must be accurately prioritized in order that we may experience the beauty and benefit of living as the church unified and pure.
Church history provides us many examples of believers doing this well and others when they did not. One example that serves us well is the lengthy process the church navigated in recognizing the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as the divinely inspired authoritative Word of God serves. Throughout this process is a blend of a desire for unity and a pursuit of purity.
For a period of approximately three hundred years the church no longer enjoyed the presence of the Apostles and did not possess a formally recognized collection of writings to guide the practices and expansion of the Christian faith. From local church to local church there was some similarity and some disparity regarding which of the approximately 125 books in circulation should be read when the church gathered for worship. This put churches in a vulnerable position in which error could creep in and pollute the fellowship. Just such a scenario appears to be what launched the Church on the pursuit of recognizing a formal list of writings for guiding the Church.
Near the end of the second century, two individuals stepped on the scene presenting some unique perspectives regarding what should and should not be considered God’s revelation to humanity. Marcion was convinced the god presented in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) could not possibly be the same god presented in the gospels and the writings of the Apostles and their contemporaries. Therefore, he proposed a complete removal of the Old Testament for use in local churches. As far as the writings of the Apostles were concerned, he promoted only Luke’s gospel and eleven of Paul’s writings. Montanus was far more inclusive. He believed that he and a few of his followers had been given the gift of ongoing revelation by which their words should be added to the authoritative writings for the church.
The Church displayed a desire for purity in recognizing that both Marcion and Montanus were promoting and teaching aberrant beliefs that threatened Christians leading some astray into false beliefs. In the end, the Church declared them heretics, seeking to preserve the purity of the Christian church. At the same time, the actions of these two men led churches to recognize the need for an actual list of which writings were true, authentic, and useful for Christians to read, showing a desire for Christian unity. The result was lists like the Muratorian Canon, our earliest Christian effort at listing Christian Scriptures (c.175) and likely drafted in response to Marcion and Montanus. Several other lists followed in the third and fourth centuries concluding with the first listing of the current twenty-seven books coming from Athanasius in his letter declaring the date of Easter in 367. There he lists all 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New Testament. His letter hints that this was a process that had been passed on to him by others who encouraged him to carry on. He writes, “it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine…In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these.”
Athanasius’ comments reflect a pursuit of unity and purity among Church leaders which was later finalized at the Council of Carthage (393) and the Council of Hippo (397) in which Church leaders from across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East joined together to affirm the recognition of the twenty-seven books listed by Athanasius which we consider the true, authentic, and useful books of the New Testament.
This is a beautiful picture of how churches and leaders worked together to preserve the purity and unity of the church. Then they passed that conviction along to succeeding generations in hopes that they would do the same until the entire process was brought to completion, which is exactly what happened. Though not a perfect process it does give us hope and a model to learn from and build upon.
As we seek to build upon and honor the legacy of the saints who have gone before us (Hebrews 12:1), one of the keys is to revive a concept that has fallen out of favor in our culture and among many within our congregations. It is the idea of civility. Merriam-Webster defines civility as polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior. If we are to navigate the pursuit of purity and unity in a biblical manner within and between our local churches with those who believe differently than us on issues not essential to the gospel itself then we must familiarize ourselves with an approach to unity and purity that adopts the importance of civility. We live in an age of extremes that have found their way into our human interactions. The automatic response for many toward those who disagree with us is shutting out and shutting off. It’s been labeled “cancel culture” in which there is no time, space, or tolerance for dialogue about differing views. It forces uniformity instead of unity. Sadly, this is slinking its way into our churches. Another deeply ingrained cultural belief is captured in the phrase “love is love”. This love takes whomever and whatever as they are without no regard for reality or truth. It flies in the face of purity at the expense of going along to get along. Sadly, this too is wriggling its way into our churches.
As pastors, pursuing civility in the face of both extremes brings out the beauty and the benefit of unity and purity in cooperation. No matter the degree to which we disagree with someone, a respectful conversation can help us see things in a different light and affirm the reality that every human being is an image-bearer to be treated with dignity and honor that comes from their Creator, whether they acknowledge the Creator or not. For those of us in the church who acknowledge and esteem the Creator, the responsibility to be civil with other human beings is non-optional. Leading through the challenge of preserving and promoting the unity and the purity of the church will continue to demand pastor’s attention. Purity and unity should exist together in every church and Christian. Pastors who cultivate civility will nourish the soil of their congregations to enjoy this biblically beautiful blend.
Athanasius, St. n.d. “From Letter 39.” New Advent. Accessed February 16, 2021. https://ww.newadvent.org/fathers/2806039.htm.
Greenspan, Rachel E. 2020. “”How ‘cancel culture’ quickly became one of the buzziest and most controversial ideas on the internet.”.” Insider. August 6. Accessed February 16, 2021. https://www.insider.com/cancel-culture-meaning-history-origin-phrase-used-negatively-2020-7.
Jr., Dr. R. Albert Mohler. 2005. “”A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity”.” Albert Mohler. July 12. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://albertmohler.com/2005/07/12/a-call-for-theological-triage-and-christian-maturity.
Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “civility,” accessed February 16, 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/civility.
Nickens, Mark. 2020. A Survey of the History of Global Christianity, Second Edition. Nashville: Broadman & Holman.
Ortlund, Gavin. 2020. Finding the Right HIlls to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage. Wheaton: Crossway.