• Jamie McClanahan

Triage and Cooperation in the Local Church (Part II)

Triage is a necessity in the medical world; it is a matter of life and death. In the world of theology, it can also mean spiritual or physical life and death too. In the last post on this topic, we considered the importance of fleshing out the brilliant statement by Rupert Meldinius in the 17th Century about church cooperation. He wrote, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”[1] His statement invokes the need to think about theology in prioritized categories. Gavin Ortlund and Al Mohler prescribe several ways to rank theology. Mohler and Ortlund have similar categories for stages one, two, and three, while Ortlund adds a fourth. They both encourage us to think of processing theology in primary, secondary, and tertiary rankings. Ortlund adds a fourth, which he refers to as adiaphora or "indifference." Primary, first rank, doctrines are essential to the Gospel. Secondary doctrines are vital to the health of an individual church or denomination but not directly to the integrity of Gospel. Third rank doctrines are still crucial to portions of theology but should not divide believers. Finally, fourth rank doctrines are unimportant to the Gospel altogether. These are based on preference and opinion. Today's focus is to consider how theological triage can unify believers by observing how it has been applied historically in the church. For the past 2000 years, the church has relied upon Church Councils, Creeds, and Confession Statements to apply triage and maintain unity. Certain writings of believers have clarified primary and secondary issues. However, there was much confusion over how to apply issues to these categories. Sometimes, the confusion resulted in the death and exile of God's people. Historically, the church utilized ecumenical councils, creeds, and confessions to help with the triage.

In the first eight centuries of the church there were seven ecumenical councils. They began in 325 with the First Council of Nicaea and ended in 787 with the Second Council of Nicaea. These councils were formed to root out a theological error while maintaining first-rank theological concerns. For example, in the First Council of Nicaea in 325, Arius, a priest from Alexandria, was taught that the Father created Son. Furthermore, he believed and instructed that the Father was greater than the Son. Alexander of Alexandria argued that Jesus was begotten of the Father, not created, and was fully equal with the Father. The Council agreed with Alexander, and the divinity of Jesus was preserved in the local church. [2] In this case, theological triage prevailed, and the truth was preserved. The Council sided with the orthodox and composed a statement of what would become known as the Nicene Creed. [3]A pattern emerged in the coming centuries regarding false-teaching. An error would arise, a church council formed to address it, and an orthodox conclusion reached to maintain first-rank theological issues. Usually, a creedal statement emerged to provide further clarity to the resolutions of the Council. Some statements had to do with the humanity of Christ and others the Divinity of the Holy Spirit.

The use of creeds and confessions was often how theological triage was sustained for the church. Archibald Alexander defines a creed as "the systematic statement of religious faith; and by the creeds of the Christian church, we mean the formal expression of "the faith which was delivered unto the saints."[4] The most well known of the Creeds are the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. The Apostles Creed is the most ancient of Creeds and is often referred to as the Creed of creeds. [5] The Creed represents apostolic gospel teaching in summary form. The Creed has a beautiful statement about the Trinity, which should always remain a first-rank theological issue essential to the Gospel.

There have been many times when the church has got it right with councils and creeds. And yet, the church and its leaders did not always get theological triage correct. Even when they do get it right, they sometimes applied their convictions violently.

Baptism in the 16th Century was an example of confusion and chaos. As we have alluded in the last post, baptism is considered a secondary issue in theological triage. However, during the time of the Anabaptist, it was first-rank. The question was not whether or not to be baptized; it was the timing and baptismal mode. It is hard for us to imagine believers so dug into credo-baptism that we are willing to punish those who disagree with us by killing them. However, that was the Roman Catholic Church's position and many protestant believers in the 16th Century. Ulrich Zwingli, a contemporary of Martin Luther, was pro-reformation but not as radical as some of the anabaptists in his attempts to revitalize paedobaptism (infant baptism) doctrine. Felix Manz was a friend of Zwingli's, but the two could not get along on baptism. W.S. Reid explains the tension between the two men. He writes: Manz, however, came to reject Zwingli’s view that the ultimate authority in any reform movement must be the civil authorities, and he did not accept the other reformers’ distinction between the “visible” and the “invisible” church—i.e., those who professed faith and those who truly did believe. He believed that the church must be made up of only those who have true faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. Therefore, he denied the right of infants to baptism. [6]

It was a struggle for Zwingli and those he considered his brothers. Christian History Magazine summarizes the tension he felt. Zwingli felt the choice was between orderly change and ecclesiastic anarchy. He urged moderation and patience and engaged the radicals in a series of public debates. Still, when the radicals began re-baptizing in February 1525, he sided with the Council in its decision to outlaw private meetings and required that all children be baptized. [7]

The sad ending for the first Anabaptist martyr came on a cold day in 1527. The Roman Catholic Church passed a verdict of guilty upon Felix Manz and sentenced him to death by drowning the River Limmit. If he held to water immersion baptism after a confession of faith, they would forever immerse him in the cold river. It was a tragedy all-around for the Roman Catholic church and the reformation oriented saints. Even Zwingli was silent on the matter of Manz and did not oppose his death sentence or punishment.

As we close on this sobering note, Meldinius' statement emerges from the depths of the ice River Limmit. "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity." In Felix Manz's case, there was no liberty and charity. In our theological triage and cooperation with others, we must hold our convictions firmly and with grace toward those who disagree.

[1] https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/essentials-unity-non-essentials-liberty-all-things/ [2] https://www.challies.com/articles/7-councils-the-first-council-of-nicaea/ [3] Brett Scott Provance, Pocket Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship, The IVP Pocket Reference Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 43. [4] Arch. B. D. Alexander, “Creed, Creeds,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 741. [5] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-know-apostles-creed/ [6] W.S. Reid, “Manz, Felix,” ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 451. [7] “A Gallery of Family, Friends, Foes, and Followers,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 4: Zwingli: Father of the Swiss Reformation (Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 1984).

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