Many of us like to debate theology in a friendly fashion over meals together. But how do we know which hills are really worth dying on? How do we know which issues should move beyond friendly debate to true contending for the faith?
Historically, there have been a few things that believers have considered when trying to address this question. The first: is the issue directly related to the gospel? The Protestant Reformation represents one of the most serious of theological hills in that it was largely based upon the struggle for the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. The Catholic church had adulterated the gospel to the point that believers of conscience could no longer stand idly by. They fought for the gospel and that fight changed the course of history.
A few years back, there was a sustained assault on the doctrine of substitutionary atonement in some of the more liberal pockets of the church. Conservative evangelicals rightly recognized that this doctrine was foundational to the gospel itself, and they contended for their all against the liberals. I have ten books on my shelves spanning a mere five-year period, all written specifically to address the crisis. The truth won out and those questioning the atonement are correctly considered outside the camp of orthodoxy today. We should follow in the footsteps of those who have come before us by contending for any essential component of the gospel.
A second question to consider when determining whether a hill is worth dying on is, does this issue directly impact our view of Scripture? From the turn of the 20th century to the late 1970’s, the Southern Baptist Convention saw a steady decline in inerrantism in the leadership of the denomination. Conservatives, unwilling to turn a blind eye on this most important of doctrines, waged a steady campaign from the late 70’s to the early 90’s to re-establish inerrantism as an essential position of the denomination. We, too, should be willing to die on any hill related to the nature of Scripture.
A third question: does this pertain to the nature of the Godhead? Most of the theological controversies of the early church surrounded the orthodox understanding of the members of the Trinity. This is why all of the early creeds are so heavy on the deity of Christ – they fought long and hard to win that theological battle. We should be willing to stand anytime there is a movement in the church to downgrade a member of the Trinity from our biblical and historically orthodox understanding of them.
We could say that there are a good many hills to die on out there. Most of them have already been fought before, but they will undoubtedly need to be fought again. As we have seen with the crises about the atonement and biblical inerrancy, we can never consider these issues completely resolved, never to be fought again. Others will come in the future to challenge these essential doctrines and we must always be ready to contend for them as did earlier generations.
At the same time, we need to extend great grace to one another on issues not closely related to these more central issues. For example, the church has not engaged in sustained, strenuous debate over doctrines such as eschatology or the charismata. No one has been anathematized for holding to post-millennialism. It is not that these areas have not been debated at all over the course of church history. It is simply that they have not received great attention as doctrines essential to the faith. For that reason, while we are free to debate these things, we should keep them in their proper place, reserving our greatest energy and attention for what the church has long considered first-tier doctrines.
This subject prompts me to consider how strong our stance should be on a couple of issues receiving much attention and energy today: homosexuality and homosexual marriage. Should we consider these things hills to die on? Should we be willing to partner with churches that perform same-sex marriages? Should we be willing to partner with churches that ordain homosexual pastors? That’s what we’ll consider next time.
Until then consider: are you currently making a stand on a hill that is not essential? Conversely, are you falling down on a hill that is essential?