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What Doctrines are Worth Dying For? – A Conversation with Gavin Ortlund

Home » What Doctrines are Worth Dying For? – A Conversation with Gavin Ortlund

Dr. Arnold interviews Pastor Gavin Ortlund, author of *Finding the Right Hills to Die On* about how we prioritize Christian doctrines, and he answers the question, “Which doctrines are worth dying for?”

Conversation topics include:

  • Are some doctrines more important than others?
  • Theological triage (categories for ranking doctrines)
  • What are the first rank doctrines? (The Trinity, justification by faith, etc.)
  • What are the wrong doctrines to fight over?


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Intro (00:01):
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding—a podcast from Phoenix Seminary, helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:17):
Welcome to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast, where we will talk about matters of theology, the Bible, and practical ministry. Our goal is to help Christians grow in their understanding of the faith and to move from the milk to the meat. There’s no doubt right now, we live in pretty divisive times. Christians even find themselves at odds with one another often over silly things, but sometimes over important areas of doctrine. One of the great challenges that I think Christians face as they grow in the understanding of theology is how to know which doctrines are more critical than others. And when Christians rank every doctrine the same, it devalues truly critical doctrines of the faith. We need to know the different weights we give to doctrines, so we know which ones are worth dying for, which ones are worth fighting for, and which doctrines are just open to intramural disagreement today.

Brian Arnold (01:04):
We’re going to be speaking with Dr. Gavin Ortlund, who’s the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California. Dr. Ortlund earned his Ph.D. from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena. And he’s the author of several books, including Theological Retrieval, and for our purposes today, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage. Dr. Ortlund, thanks for joining us today.

Gavin Ortlund (01:28):
Hey, my pleasure.

Brian Arnold (01:29):
So the big question we’re going to be looking at today is: are some doctrines more important than others? And I really liked how you started your book on this, saying that there’s nothing that a fundamentalist won’t fight over, and there’s nothing that a liberal will fight over. So what led you then to write a book like that?

Gavin Ortlund (01:49):
Well, I think we live in such divisive times, as you just mentioned. And, unfortunately, amidst all the polarization that we’re seeing, the church sometimes doesn’t provide a better model for that. Sometimes we can be just as polarized, just as disagreeable. And so the book is trying to help us chart out a balanced mentality about doctrinal disagreements, where on the one hand we’re not feisty and mean spirited and, you know, dying on every hill and fighting about the color of the carpet and all kinds of minuscule things. On the other hand, we don’t want to just throw out the importance of theology. So the book’s trying to chart out: how do we find ourselves between those extremes and how do we have a more winsome approach amidst all the polarization that’s happening in our culture?

Brian Arnold (02:38):
That’s right. And you even mentioned these two poles between which Christians gather and then, you know, maybe move towards the middle and those are sectarianism and minimalism. How would you describe those—define those—and which way do you see most Christians in evangelical circles gathering around these days?

Gavin Ortlund (02:57):
Well, the best way to get at doctrinal sectarianism is if you do a Google search for “church split.” One of the suggested follow-up phrases is “color of carpet.” I’ve always found that pretty dismaying, that that’s what we’re known for, or at least for some people, that’s what they’re interested in. And I have to be honest, I’ve seen times where Christians can divide from one another over the most petty, minuscule things or in more subtle ways. Sometimes there’s just parts of our theology we kind of take pride in and we tend to look down on others who don’t have the same views as us. And that could be very subtle, but I do think the gospel calls us to a humility and a love toward other Christians. And so we want to be careful about that. So that’s doctrinal sectarianism, when we fight too much over theology.

Gavin Ortlund (03:48):
Doctrinal minimalism is also a very common mentality in some circles. This is where we just want to downplay things. Sometimes we want to focus on just the gospel and kind of sweep everything else away. In terms of which is more common, I’d have to say, I’m not sure over all, because you can see both of them so much in different places. You know, it seems as though both are on the rise. And, unfortunately, sometimes it seems as though a more moderate, balanced mentality—one that I think would be the biblical route—sometimes it doesn’t get as much representation.

Brian Arnold (04:21):
That’s right. And it even seems like the church probably shifts from one side to the other, given different centuries and different issues that have arisen. One of the things I like to tell my students: I quote Martin Luther who said the church is like a drunken peasant who falls off one side of the donkey to get up and fall off the other side. And it even seems like between sectarianism and minimalism at times, we see the church falling off the donkey.

Gavin Ortlund (04:45):
I think that’s exactly right. And I’ve noticed too, in our personal lives, it’s really easy to react to the bad experiences that we’ve had. And so we’ve seen one of these errors and so we go to the other extreme. And so that’s a reason to be very careful that we’re not reacting from one side of the spectrum all the way to the other. But again, trying to find that Christ-like mentality that will value both truth and love.

Brian Arnold (05:15):
That’s right. Well, that’s great. One of the things you really develop in the book is this idea of theological triage. And I know Al Mohler is the one who’s classically given credit for developing that metaphor. And it resonated with me as soon as I heard it because I spent 10 years as a paramedic where we did triage all the time in the field. And one of the things we would use is triage tags that would have four kind of different colors that represented the severity of a person’s injury. So a black tag would be somebody who has already passed away. A red tag is given to somebody who’s in critical, serious trauma. A yellow tag is pretty significant. They need to get to the hospital, but may not be as urgent. And green we called the walking wounded. So I love even that you have four categories yourself in theological triage. And I found it very helpful as a heuristic tool for my students. So walk us through theological triage and the different weights you give to each one of those levels.

Gavin Ortlund (06:15):
Okay. And this is just one way to approach it. I mean, if we wanted to get in further detail, I think we could even maybe expand each of these categories. These are broad categories, but one way to think about it is first ranked doctrines being those that are essential to being a Christian. If you don’t affirm this, you’re really outside of orthodoxy. Second rank doctrines don’t make you a Christian, but they might affect what kind of church you go to. So an example might be how you understand baptism or church government, or something like that, where Christians will be a part of different churches, and unless they change their mind, it’s really hard to come together as one church because there’s just practical differences that are at play. Third rank doctrines would be those that they’re there, they matter, they’re important, we should study them. We shouldn’t just stop thinking about them, but we just don’t need to divide over them. Two pastors at the same church could have a different view. Maybe some of the details leading up to the second coming and how we understand the end times might be an example there, where it’s important to study, it’s in the Scripture, but it’s not as consequential. Our unity and our fellowship really isn’t hanging on it. And then fourth rank doctrines would be things that don’t matter at all. And it’s good to have a category for that. Cause there are things in that bucket where we just don’t need to worry about it.

Brian Arnold (07:39):
Absolutely. I would love for you to give, for somebody who might be listening, this is brand new to them, they’ve never even thought about us categorizing doctrines differently, in fact, to them that may sound like heresy itself, because all truth is God’s truth and it’s important that there’s no doctrine that’s superfluous or anything. So let’s walk through these four tiers and maybe throw out two or three examples that you would put on these. So that top tier, what I like to call the black-tag kind of issues, what would you put in that category?

Gavin Ortlund (08:11):
Well, there’s a lot, and anytime we start getting into this, you fear leaving something out, but not as an exhaustive list, but just some examples would be, the doctrine of the Trinity. You know, this is something that distinguishes Christians from other religions and other very basic conceptions of God, very clearly taught in the Scriptures, it’s in the early creeds and councils. So that’d be an example of a first rank issue. Another one that I go into in the book is justification by faith. And the reason I say that is because it’s so important to the gospel. As you see in the book of Galatians, for example, the way Paul triages that issue and the way the Judaizers are attacking that and saying, it’s not just by faith, it’s faith plus works. Well Paul feels pretty strongly about that. And the way he engages that error, I think makes it very clear: this is one of those frontline issues.

Brian Arnold (09:03):
Well, he does, let me jump in there and just ask a question that will be glaring, I think for a lot of people. And that is: then how do you understand Roman Catholicism as it touches on that issue, if it is a top-tier, black-tag issue?

Gavin Ortlund (09:19):
Well, one of the things that I really emphasized in the book is that there are nuances in how we understand justification. So I’m not trying to say everything about justification is first tier. If we said that, then Saint Augustine is not a Christian or Richard Baxter, who wrote The Reformed Pastor is not a Christian, because issues like how we understand imputation, for example, how we distinguish justification and sanctification. There are differences on those matters in the body of Christ. How we understand Christ’s active versus passive righteousness. I mean, there’s lots of nuances within justification. So I talk about a kind of a mere justification—just the basic claim that we’re made right with God on terms of grace, we’re not meriting our salvation. And that basic claim, I think, is the foundational one. And I have Christian friends who disagree with me on this, but I don’t think Catholicism is the same right now today in 2020 as the first century Judaizers.

Gavin Ortlund (10:23):
Because of some development that’s occurred, and because I have some Catholic friends who I think in their hearts, that’s what they truly believe. And that’s another distinction that has helped me—distinguishing between the official teaching of someone’s church and what they actually adhere in their heart to. But at the same time, there is theology within the Catholic church that I think obscures justification. So I’d see that as kind of a complicated thing we need to parse through. But I wouldn’t say that, you know, the Catholic church as a whole, is in the same category as the Judaizers in the first century. Some people say that. I don’t think it’s helpful to go that far myself.

Brian Arnold (11:07):
Right. I think that’s really helpful and clarifying. I always think about somebody like John Owen, who said something to the effect of, people can be justified by the faith that they deny is justification by faith alone, right? Type of thing where in their hearts they do believe in Christ as their sole righteousness and so are saved by that. That’s really helpful. So let’s move down to the next tier. What would you put on that second level?

Gavin Ortlund (11:34):
Okay. A lot of things in the second level have to do with practical matters where you can’t join together in the same church, because one person is going to be turning left and the other person is going to be turning right. And you just can’t stay together. So baptism, for example. There are churches that do dual practice, but I treat that a little bit in the book and offer a few reasons why I’m more cautious about that. I don’t think that’s the way to go, but if one person thinks we should baptize babies and another person doesn’t, it’s hard to be a part of the same church, because baptism is an entry into the church and who we understand are the members of the church. Another issue would be church government, and even issues of how we constitute our elder boards.

Gavin Ortlund (12:19):
Do we have just men or men and women? Those issues can get into the second rank, because if you have two people with different convictions on that, and they try to be a part of the same church, it can cause a lot of friction and disunity. And there’s also important things at stake in those doctrines. So I want to have as much unity as possible, but I think it’s legitimate to recognize there are these doctrines where we simply have to bless one another, recognize one another as fellow Christians, but we’re going to be a part of different fellowships in different church groups.

Brian Arnold (12:50):
Absolutely. And it might be good for our listeners even to know, that this issue is near and dear to you and your own family, right? So you’re kind of the Baptist outlier of a Presbyterian heritage. So you would even say, obviously we can love people on this other second tier doctrine level, love them deeply and disagree on these things and not even go to the same type of churches, and recognize that we’re still within the Christian faith.

Gavin Ortlund (13:16):
Absolutely. I mean, I talk about this with my dad, with my brothers, with others in my family and circle of friends. Most of my best friends are in the PCA, which is a Presbyterian denomination that I grew up in. I had a fantastic experience growing up in that denomination. That’s where I felt my call to ministry. We talk about it with a smile on our face, you know, it’s not a feisty thing. But the other thing is, you know, it’s okay to have a conviction and to follow through on the conviction to recognize, you know, this really is important. We want to follow what the Bible teaches.

Brian Arnold (13:56):
Good. So then what would you be placing on that third level of doctrine?

Gavin Ortlund (14:02):
Well, these are the examples I give in the book. Some might disagree with these. I would give an argument that the millennium is in that category and there are others who have argued that that’s not the case. And I give three arguments in the book for that. The millennium is in Rev. 20, that long stretch of time that John prophesies about where there is prosperity for the gospel and so forth. And there’s different views on that among Christians. I think that’s important. It matters, but I don’t know that we have to divide over it. It’s just less practically relevant, it seems to me, for how we can come together as the body of Christ. Another example I give in the book is the days of creation in Gen. 1, how long those are. It’s another important thing, we want to study it, want to get it right, but I just think that two Christians can have a different view on that and very fruitfully interact with each other and have unity with each other and just try to convince each other, you know, have a good debate about it, but take the Lord’s Supper together, serve together. I don’t see anything that blocks us from having partnership and the underlying heart behind this book. It’s not a technical book. I really want to see as much unity in the body of Christ as possible because I do think that matters. I do think that’s important. I do think it makes a huge impact on how we advance God’s kingdom when we can partner with each other as much as possible.

Brian Arnold (15:29):
Absolutely. So then, what then goes on that last category, because as if I heard you, right, and it might’ve startled some of the listeners where you said these are issues that don’t really matter at all. So I’m curious to see what you put in that final category.

Gavin Ortlund (15:44):
Well, don’t matter at all, in the sense, in a practical sense that we don’t need to worry about them too much. It might be interesting to think about, but one example, that’s come up in historical discussions of this: it would be the number of angels that exist. That’s something people have actually thought about a great deal and, you know, medieval theologians had a lot of interest in, are human beings replacing the fallen angels and questions like this, and, you know, it might be interesting. It might be stimulating theologically to think about, but it seems to me like one of those issues that really is not all that consequential. It doesn’t actually make a big impact on how we follow Jesus, how we are the church and so forth. Another one that has come up in historical discussions among Lutherans and Reformed types is what kind of musical instrumentation we use in worship. And that is obviously practically important. You know, what you do will make a difference, but theologically, it’s not like there’s one right view and one wrong view.

Brian Arnold (16:53):
Right. No, those are really helpful. I think for understanding those, let me, let me throw out an issue that seems to get bounced around the triage area in a lot of different ways. And people might be wondering this, where would you put something like the Calvinism-Arminianism debate in your theological triage?

Gavin Ortlund (17:11):
Okay. Well, and here my instincts for unity may come out, because I think when it comes to what people call the TULIP, the five points of Calvinism, I do see that more in the third rank, simply because I think a Calvinist and an Arminian can be a part of the same church and take the Lord’s Supper. And it’s not that it’s not important, but the second rank issues are those where you have to divide. There’s no way to have fellowship. But as Calvinism issues. . . and this is why this topic is so tricky—it’s very tough to isolate a doctrine from its impact on other doctrines. And that’s part of why I think this whole topic is so important to think about. So as something like Calvinism versus Arminianism grows and touches on other areas, and you’re getting into a broader sort of Reformed worldview that comes into how you interpret the biblical covenants and broader worldview issues about how you understand culture and stuff. I do think that issue can grow in importance. So sometimes with each of these, we kind of have to take it on a case by case basis. So, who are we talking to? And that’s the one thing I really feel strongly about triaging. It’s not a technical exercise about getting things right and checking the box. It’s a practical exercise about what will actually advance God’s kingdom. And so, because it’s that, I do think it can depend upon the nuances of the situation in question.

Brian Arnold (18:41):
Yeah. And I think that’s really a wise way to approach it. And that’s where I put that issue as well. It’s kind of my yellow-tag or a third category kind of issue for the exact same reasons you outlined there for us. And these are ones that I see people, like you said, they, they move it up and down, depending on the way it intersects with other types of doctrines. I mean, if we switch our metaphor, theology and doctrine is a bit of an ecosystem too. Once you tamper with a doctrine on one side, it has some sort of effect on doctrines other places. So there’s multiple ways we even need to approach it. Like how you said at the beginning, theological triage is just one way we approach this kind of question. I’m imagining, too, somebody might be listening who’s saying, who are Dr. Ortlund and Dr. Arnold to say what doctrines belong in what category? So do you get kind of that level of pushback as well, where people say, I mean, you’re kind of the arbiter then of who decides where these doctrines go. So how do people come to their own conclusions on this? And how can we have some level of authority to say where these doctrines fit best?

Gavin Ortlund (19:46):
I do hear that from time to time. I recall one particular Amazon review of the book that made that point. But yeah, my response to that would be, I’m not the arbiter. In fact, I would go so far as to say, I think every Christian needs to think about this at least at a basic level, because it’s an unavoidable topic. I mean, all you have to do is live a few years or less as a Christian and you face practical questions of how you can fellowship and partner with other Christians. So I think every Christian needs to do this. I just hope my book would serve Christians as they make the efforts themselves.

Brian Arnold (20:25):
Well, I know it was really helpful for me to think through. And like I said, as I take my students through theological triage, as I have for several years now, it’s been really engaging for them. And most Christians have not even thought about how to categorize doctrines in this way. It means we’re talking about our major question today. Do some doctrines matter more than others? I think we’d both say the answer to that is emphatically, yes, some doctrines are heresy/orthodoxy-level issues, and some of them, the color of the carpet, don’t seem to matter nearly as much as some of the other ones.

Gavin Ortlund (20:57):
That’s right. And I love to try to make that case for people by just looking at the Scripture itself: where you think of Jesus talking to the Pharisees, and he’s saying you guys are majoring on the minors. And he says, you’ve neglected the weightier matters of the law and strained out a little gnat. Or Paul, when, you know, there’s some topics, Paul gives great latitude on. In Rom.14, he’s saying, you know, accept one another amidst your differences on these different views of Jewish food laws. And, you know, don’t judge one another and so forth. But as we mentioned earlier, when it comes to Galatians, he’s much more emphatic. So I think in the Scripture itself, you can see Jesus and the apostles and others operating with different levels of severity and importance for different doctrines.

Brian Arnold (21:44):
Absolutely. That’s wonderful. So maybe, as our final question, what are some takeaways for our listeners, and maybe specifically for those who would see themselves as minimalists and those who would see themselves as sectarian.

Gavin Ortlund (21:59):
Okay. For those of us who struggle more in the sectarian camp . . .  I think sometimes we have a tendency one way or the other though probably all of us are not immune from any of these errors . . . but in the more sectarian camp, I think we need to remember that the gospel teaches us that we’re made right before God, by Jesus alone. We need always to search our hearts and make sure that our doctrinal convictions are not functioning in a self justifying way of making us feel better or making us look down on other Christians or something like that. Sometimes that can happen, and we just need to be so careful with that. When we notice that in our hearts, as we all will from time to time, we need to put Jesus back in the center. He is the one who makes us right. He’s the one. It’s his grace alone that gives us a standing before God, and our doctrinal convictions are our response to his work in our lives.

Gavin Ortlund (22:52):
When I lean in the minimalist direction, I think Isa. 66 helps me. It speaks about trembling at God’s Word. And that really is a provocative image: to tremble, to shake before the Word of God. And we need to remember that our Lord has spoken to us and what he said to us matters immensely. And if we love him, you know, it’s just like, if your wife or your husband or a loved one writes you a long letter, we’re going to take that letter very seriously. So if we love the Lord, we should tremble before his Word and take it all very seriously.

Brian Arnold (23:25):
That’s a really great word for us, Dr. Ortlund, for keeping those gospel-centric issues there. And I love that image of trembling at the Word. I mean, God has spoken and each of those words matter. So I do hope that nobody has misunderstood anything we’ve said today as though something that God has said doesn’t matter. Of course, it all matters. But knowing how to triage those doctrines, knowing how to put those in right perspective and category, I think can really help bring unity to the Church, to “the big C Church.” And in this highly polarized, highly charged day of ours, I think things like theological triage are going to be the ways that we can seek unity in a culture that’s continually becoming more hostile to the Christian faith. So, Dr. Ortlund, thank you so much for joining us today on Faith Seeking Understanding. We appreciate your time.

Gavin Ortlund (24:16):
Hey, my pleasure. Great to be with you.

Outro (24:19):
Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at

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