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Several years ago, I was at a conference where Don Carson was speaking, and I asked him if he could name some issues he thought would be problematic for Christians to navigate over the next few years.

He simply stated, “The battle will be for the Bible.”

He was right.

The prevalent worldview on Scripture has shifted from: it’s God’s Book, to it’s one of God’s Books, to it’s a good book, to it’s a corrupt, unjust, and unethical book. That cultural ideology has penetrated the minds of many believers. They have an inaccurate view of Scripture that is shaped more by culture than by historical, orthodox Christianity. That shift has caused many believers to question, redefine, and even deny the authority of Scripture. As I engaged in this battle, I realized my approach for dealing with the complexity of this issue was deficient.

A Subjective and Personal Grid

As friends and family members announce that they are deconstructing their faith or claim that the theological issue where they have shifted falls into the disputable matter category, many of us aren’t sure how to dialogue with them. We would explain what we believe regarding the issue from Scripture, showing them the relevant texts, and seemingly get nowhere with them.

The root problem lies with the grid with which they interpret scripture. They impose the philosophical trends of our day and their own emotional entanglement related to the issue on their exegesis of Scripture. This complication is compounded by the way we often categorize Scripture.

Maybe, like me, you’re struggling with the best way to dialogue with them. I’ve learned a few things, while making several mistakes, that you may find helpful as you continue to converse with them.

This Issue Isn’t New

God’s Word is sufficient for this task. Jude reminds his readers of their responsibility to contend for the faith. In his day, some who are claiming to be believers ‘have secretly slipped in among you.” They have justified their behaviour, (‘license for immorality’) and modified their beliefs (‘deny Jesus Christ’) purposely and with hard hearts (‘who pervert the grace of our God’).

The Dialogue is Nuanced

My journey was birthed out of frustration. Several of my evangelical colleagues’ perspectives began to shift in theological areas that were disconcerting. As I conversed with my colleagues, who would classify themselves as evangelical, they were adopting a spectrum of classically ‘liberal’ theological views in several areas including; salvation, sanctity of life, and sexuality.

As I continued the dialogue with them, I would call their hermeneutic flawed and their theological beliefs heretical. They would challenge me and say that they can’t be classified as ‘heretical’ as they could, with clear conscience, sign both The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. I would appeal to several other colleagues, who shared my theological convictions, only to be rebuked by some of them, as they believed I was violating John 17 and Christ’s call to unity. They explained that the colleagues I was challenging were brothers and sisters in Christ; therefore, I was creating division.

Most disconcerting was the fact that both groups were calling these areas of theological difference disputable. Both those that had shifted in their theological position, as well as those who were calling unity the paramount guiding principle, were appealing to Al Mohler’s Theological Triage Theory[i] categorizing these issues as third order and accusing me of elevating them to first order or to Gavin Ortlund’s book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On, and his four-rank doctrine theory.

Identifying the Issues at Hand

I was deeply troubled in three ways; 1) the shift some of my colleagues had made and their appeal to our historic creeds as the defence for their theological soundness 2) the pastoral heart of my other colleagues who called me to repentance for causing division, using Christ’s call to unity as their defence and 3) the (mis) use of Mohler’s three-order theory and Ortlund’s four-rank doctrine theory.

Three underlying assumptions were emphasised, 1) unity among believers is paramount, 2) the most common framework we appeal to is either Mohler’s or Ortlund’s and 3) those holding to a historical, orthodox Christianity suppress any vigorous academic approach to the text to guard their positions of prestige and power.

Alistair McGrath writes, ‘For many, heresy is now seen as a theological victim, a set of noble ideas that have been brutally crushed and improperly suppressed by dominant orthodoxies and then presented as if they were devious, dishonest, or diabolical. In this romanticized account of things, heresy is portrayed as an island of freethinking in the midst of a torpid ocean of unthinking orthodoxy enforced more by naked ecclesiastical power than by robust intellectual foundations.’[ii]

A Helpful Framework

I decided to take a closer look at Scripture. How does Scripture classify itself? Does Scripture indicate doctrinal priorities? I discovered four general categories in Scripture:

  • Sound Doctrine: 1 Timothy 1:3–20, 1 Timothy 4:6–10, 1 Timothy 6:2-5; 2 Timothy 2:14–19, 2 Timothy 4:1–5; Titus 1:9, Titus 2:1
  • Disputable Matters: Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8–11:16
  • Unsound Doctrine: 1 Timothy 1, 1 Timothy 4:1–5; 2 Timothy 4:2–4; Titus 1:9
  • Heresy (false teaching, blasphemy): 1 Timothy 1:3–20, 1 Timothy 4; 2 Peter 2:1-3, 2 Peter 2:12

All theological constructs fit into one of these four categories.

1. Sound Doctrine

Sound doctrine is the standard by which all other teaching and doctrine is measured. Some of the guiding principles regarding sound doctrine include ‘correctly handles the word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2:15); ‘correcting, rebuking, and encouraging – with great patience and careful instruction’ (2 Timothy 4:2); ‘holding firmly to the trustworthy message so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine’ (Titus 1:9); and ‘teaching sound doctrine’ (Titus 2:1). The ‘of first importance’ principle from 1 Corinthians 15:3–4 confirms some doctrines bear a greater weight than others. Sound doctrine is the gauge of all other doctrine.

2. Disputable Matters

Disputable matters are theological issues where God has granted freedom of conscience or when there is enough movement in Scripture regarding the issue that two distinct conclusions can be reached with an orthodox Biblical hermeneutic, or when Scripture is silent on the issue.

When Scripture is silent, the issue is simply one of opinion or preference. Scripture offers guiding principles regarding the means by which we determine if a doctrine is disputable. Guiding principles are also given regarding how we fellowship with other believers when dealing with disputable matters.

Unity is more critical than any theological position that is a disputable matter. We need a robust hermeneutic to navigate disputable matters.

3. Unsound Doctrine

Unsound doctrine arises when someone has strayed far enough from a matter of sound doctrine, in belief or behaviour, that they should be rebuked, corrected, or refuted. However, they might not be considered a false teacher or heretic.

Some passages explicitly name areas of unsound doctrine. For example, 1 Timothy 1 calls slave trading, perjury and lying contrary to sound doctrine. One of the examples in Scripture where unsound doctrine is dealt with occurs when the Apostle Paul corrects the Apostle Peter in Galatians 2 stating that Peter is no longer, ‘acting in line with the truth of the gospel.”

Unsound doctrine damages Christ’s church. Scripture calls us to rebuke, correct and refute those teaching or believing it. This was the posture I knew I was to take with many of my brothers and sisters who had shifted in their doctrinal positions.

4. Heresy

Heresy, blasphemy, and false teaching tear at the essence of the gospel in belief or behaviour. The Apostle Paul describes blasphemers as ‘shipwrecking their faith.’ They are ‘handed over to Satan to be ‘taught not to blaspheme’ (1 Timothy 1:19-20). It is said that they have ‘abandoned the faith’ and are teaching what they have learned from deceiving spirits and demons’ (1 Timothy 4:1-2).

Of false prophets, Peter writes, ‘They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves’ (2 Peter 2:1-2). Heresy’s destructive nature is dealt with severely to guard God’s people.

I would admit however, that too often, I have quickly labeled a theological position as heretical, when it was a disputable matter or unsound doctrine.

Where from Here? Four Considerations

  1. Language is critical. If we begin to categorize our doctrinal positions as sound doctrine, disputable matters, unsound doctrine, and heresy over and against third order or fourth rank, some conversations will shift dramatically.
  2. If we’re discussing a disputable matter, unity is paramount. May we be charitable and gracious when God reveals the issue is disputable.
  3. If we’re addressing heresy, we cease fellowshipping with them if they refuse to repent.
  4. If we’re debating unsound doctrine, we rebuke, correct, or refute them. Explaining to a friend or colleague that their position is unsound in doctrine will carry a troubling weight for most.

Prayerfully, God’s Spirit will convict some of our friends, family, and colleagues, whose beliefs are unsound in doctrine to repent, restoring them to a position of sound doctrine while re-establishing a Spirit-filled unity and fellowship with them. God, grant us wisdom to navigate this day.


[i] Mohler, Al. ‘A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.’ Al Mohler, July 12, 2005. https://albertmohler.com/2005/07/12/a-call-for-theological-triage-and-christian-maturity

[ii] McGrath, Alister, Heresy. A History of Defending the Truth. (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishing, 2009), p.6.