AUTHOR: Gavin Ortlund
Pastor Gavin Ortlund loves the Lord, His Word, and His church. That is obvious from the pages of this book, his posts on social media, and his other written work. Finding the Right Hills to Die On presents an excellent model of how we believers can be Christlike toward those we disagree with while at the same time acknowledging that we hold differing conclusions. Ortlund wrestles with how much doctrine we must agree on in order to form a partnership or to lock arms in ministry.
For years, one of the hallmarks of our fellowship of churches (the GARBC) has been our commitment to loving yet Biblical separation from apostates and those who encourage and promote apostates. This is often referred to as “primary and secondary separation” and has been given a bad rap in recent years. Admittedly, it’s not always easy to discern how to apply this separation principle. Even within our own circles, where we take clear stands on Biblical teachings that most groups avoid, there is some debate as to how we apply this principle. For decades separation was something that many considered exclusive to fundamentalists. So I was eager to see how someone from the broader evangelical world would tackle this issue. As unpopular as the subject of separation may be to some, it’s important to understand that Biblical fidelity requires it and that it’s a truth clearly taught in the pages of Scripture (Rom. 16:17; 1 Tim. 6:3–5).
Gavin Ortlund is pastor of First Baptist Church, Ojai, California, and has a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. Let me say from the outset that I respect and appreciate his pastoral, gracious, wise, and thorough approach to this subject. Even though I strongly disagree with several of his conclusions, there’s much to learn from Ortlund’s approach and the appeal he makes in this book.
Ortlund breaks his theological triage into these categories:
- First-rank doctrines are essential to the gospel itself.
- Second-rank doctrines are urgent for the health and practice of the church, and they frequently cause Christians to separate at the level of the local church, denomination, and/or ministry.
- Third-rank doctrines are important to Christian theology, but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians.
- Fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration.
He takes readers on his journey of wrestling through these issues. Having to engage Scripture and church history and seeing that we are not the only ones who have grappled with the application of primary and secondary separation will resonate with many readers. Ortlund’s emphasis on the fact that Christians—even those who lean in different directions—need each other is helpful. I also wholeheartedly agree with him when he writes, “But again . . . the fact that a particular doctrine is not important for salvation or partnership does not mean that it cannot be important in any sense.”
In fact, many of the questions in chapter 4 provide a helpful schematic for ranking the different doctrines. Ortlund is also transparent in navigating the complexities and nuances involved with trying to rank some doctrines as secondary. It’s also helpful to consider that what separates Christians on an ecclesiastical level does not necessarily have to separate us on a personal level. I share that sentiment, as I enjoy sweet fellowship with other brethren outside of our circles and appreciate their contributions to Christendom.
Misapplication of a Helpful Triage
While I applaud Ortlund for providing a theological triage, I strongly disagree with his application of the triage, especially when it comes to theological conclusions that are driven by faithful hermeneutics. I find Ortlund’s application of his triage as problematic concerning, for example, cessationism, the Genesis creation account, baptism, and eschatology.
In my view and the view of our fellowship of churches, it’s essential within a local church context to have uniformity regarding these secondary and tertiary issues, at least on the leadership and teaching level. For example, would we want a child who was discipled by a curriculum that embraces a literal/historical/grammatical approach to Scripture to then as a teen be taught by a curriculum that takes an approach to Scripture that pins on the church promises made to Israel? Or what about a church that takes a strong stand on Biblical sufficiency? Would it want an influential adult leader telling learners that he believes God speaks today outside of the pages of Scripture? The same case could be made for issues such as the creation account, complementarianism, and the proper mode of baptism.
But let’s consider for a moment the reason having an open-ended approach to eschatology would be harmful to a local church’s hermeneutics. One of the key components of discipling believers in the local church is encouraging them not only to read their Bibles, but how to read their Bibles. What are church members supposed to believe about a future, literal, physical Kingdom promised to Israel? When believers are told that nearly 40 percent of the Bible directly or indirectly referring to the kingdom is unclear, it can have serious repercussions on how they understand future events and on how interpret other passages of Scripture.
The stakes are much higher than just getting our eschatology “right.” What’s at stake is how we understand the very utterances of God. It is our persuasion that having specific and clear positions within the local church regarding eschatology, baptism, or cessationism, for example, greatly enhances the church’s unity and sanctification. I understand and respect that not everyone agrees with this. Again, I’ll emphasize that I’m not calling those who differ on these “third-tier” doctrines heretics. Nor am I saying that they believe these doctrines are unimportant. But I am saying that within the context of a local church and church fellowship, having uniformity along these lines enables churches and ministries to ensure closeness of fellowship in endeavors such as disciple-making, church planting, church revitalization, and discipleship curriculum. This is why clarity in a local church’s doctrinal statement on third-tier issues is important.
Proper and effective discipleship happens when Scripture is both read and understood accurately. As unpopular as it is today, churches must maintain clarity regarding a host of doctrinal issues that many would argue are unclear or nuanced in Scripture. It’s also important to note that growth in discipleship entails manifesting a spirit of love and graciousness while refusing to judge the motives of others who are solid on the gospel but take a different position on these issues. May God help us to display a Christlike spirit. Even when we have spirited discussions over these issues.
Overall, I applaud Pastor Ortlund’s approach and desire to help followers of Jesus think more deeply about issues of theological triage and ecclesiastical and personal separation. Ortlund has produced a well-written, timely, and gracious book. He has served the church well by providing an example of how to talk about these issues with a Christlike spirit and love. Even though I strongly disagree with several of Ortlund’s conclusions, this book reminded me that we can disagree with our brethren without judging their motives. We can rejoice that God has led us to take specific stands on certain issues, without thinking that brothers and sisters who see some things differently are rank heretics. The book should also compel readers to be thankful that God uses Christians of different theological persuasions (while still being solid on the gospel) for His glory (Phil. 1:15–18).
Yet I’m also reminded of the importance of making sure that solid Biblical interpretation drives our doctrinal positions—not tradition or sentimental/emotional arguments. It’s imperative that even when we talk about emotionally charged issues such as Biblical separation or ecclesiastical cooperation that the Biblical text drives both the conversations and the conclusions.
Mike Hess serves as national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.