Theological Triage, Yes. How about Emotional Triage, Too?

by Jonathon Woodyard May 25, 2020

There are these moments.

These situations where your conversation enters into the realm of debate.

The disagreement is clear. Debate ensues.

You hold one position, your friend another.  On the inside, you are convinced of your position. You have studied the issue, read your Bible, formulated careful conclusions, and are ready to stand your ground. As the debate gets going, that’s what you do. You lay out your understanding of the issue with zeal as best you can.

This is a normal part of human existence. Disagreement is simply part of reality. If social media has made anything clear in our age, it is that we are an opinionated species. And our opinions are often not the same as the opinions of others.

Whether we disagree over how best to educate our children, or who to vote for during an election, or the best movies of the year, this life provides plenty of chances to meet those who hold different opinions. Sadly, we are not very good at disagreeing. Our emotions too often get the best of us.

Though the reasons this is the case are, no doubt, complex, I want to suggest one idea that may help us disagree in ways that love God and love people more faithfully. Namely, building on the popular idea of theological triage, I want to suggest that theological triage should find a partner in what I’m calling emotional triage.

Two Situations, Two Debates

Let's imagine you are meeting with a friend over coffee. You get together to discuss some things that your friend is wrestling with. The most important issue you are discussing is the deity of Jesus Christ. A friend, someone who was a professing Christian, has been persuaded that Jesus is not God. Instead, he argues that Jesus was a man, though certainly a wise sage. You’re stunned at this development. You and your friend begin discussing the issue and your emotions are amped up. Clearly, you have no intention of budging on this issue. The stakes are too high. Everlasting sorrow and everlasting joy hang in the balance. You are broken for your friend and what this means for his soul. Furthermore, you are serious about the glory of Christ and raise the banner of his divine nature. The emotional agitation in this discussion is significant.

Now, consider another debate. You and a different friend are meeting to discuss some points of theology. Both of you took a dive into Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology and enjoy learning and growing. This week you’re discussing the doctrine of baptism. Each of you have read your Bibles, agree with Grudem, and are convinced Baptists. Yet, theology textbooks don’t provide an answer for everything. For instance, baptistic Christians have disagreed over the wisdom of baptizing younger believers. Should you baptize a six-year-old, or a ten-year-old? Should you wait until someone is a teenager, perhaps even eighteen? You and your friend agree that you should only baptize believers. And both of you are aware of the debates surrounding the age of those whom you baptize. Your friend holds one position. You hold another.

Thus, the conversation moves to disagreement. And again, on the inside, you are convinced of your position. As the debate carries on, you stand your ground with zeal as best you can.

Two debates. Both over theology. But here is the rub. Your emotional agitation in the discussion over baptizing children is just as significant as when you were debating the deity of Christ with your other friend. Get the picture?

That raises my present question: Why are your/my emotions at the same height in both discussions? Shouldn’t one conversation demand a higher emotional charge than the other? I think it should. I believe our level of emotional agitation should come down significantly when discussing something like the age of baptism versus the deity of Jesus Christ. That is, when we move up or down theological tiers, our emotions should climb up or down tiers as well.

Theological Triage

Christians have historically held that not every doctrine is as important as the next. John Calvin made this observation 500-years ago, Albert Mohler articulated theological triage more recently, Gavin Ortlund contributed most recently here. The idea of theological triage is simply this: not every doctrine is as important as the next.

For Calvin, some doctrines were “necessary,” while others are “disputed.” When disputed matters were being discussed, charity was the order of the day. If necessary doctrines were threatened or perverted, then schism was perhaps unavoidable (see my post on Calvin here). It was Albert Mohler who coined the term theological triage. He writes the following.

“The word triage comes from the French word trier, which means "to sort." Thus, the triage officer in the medical context is the front-line agent for deciding which patients need the most urgent treatment. Without such a process, the scraped knee would receive the same urgency of consideration as a gunshot wound to the chest. The same discipline that brings order to the hectic arena of the Emergency Room can also offer great assistance to Christians defending truth in the present age. A discipline of theological triage would require Christians to determine a scale of theological urgency that would correspond to the medical world's framework for medical priority. With this in mind, I would suggest three different levels of theological urgency, each corresponding to a set of issues and theological priorities found in current doctrinal debates.”—Albert Mohler (here)

I have found theological triage an extremely helpful tool in my own life and want to affirm the need to think with this tool in mind. At the same time, I believe there is an idea we have overlooked: how our emotions fit into theological debate.

I believe we need to pay closer attention to how we respond emotionally when making our way through certain discussions. That is, if one adopts a sort of theological triage with different “tiers” of doctrine, indicating that some doctrines are less important than others, then as we move down the tiers, our emotions should come down as well. Conversely, as we move up the theological tiers, our emotions go up as is fitting. Paying attention to the proper emotional response to any given discussion of doctrine will help us love our brothers and sisters in more Christ-like ways.

Emotional Triage

Emotional triage is simply the idea that our emotional response level should match the level of importance of the issues we are discussing. For instance, in the first conversation above, the deity of Jesus Christ is what we would call a first-tier issue. In the words of Calvin, it is a “necessary” doctrine. To abandon the deity of Jesus is to lose the gospel. To watch as one of our friends denies that Jesus is God is to watch them run down the path of destruction. Given the implications, the stakes are high and our emotions are right to run hot. We do not respond with anger and hate, but with proper levels of brokenness, passion, and conviction. To state it differently, defending the deity of Jesus and calling your friend to confess Jesus as God is not something you do dispassionately.

However, baptism is what some would label a second-tier issue and thus can or should result in separation. For instance, Baptists form Baptist churches while Presbyterians form Presbyterian churches. That is, your particular view of baptism might not undermine or undo the gospel but it might mean two persons cannot join the same local church.

Two Baptists brothers debating the most prudent age of baptism moves us down yet another tier. In the third-tier we land on issues where disagreement does not necessarily cause separation at the local church level. That is, two individuals can possibly disagree on this point of practical theology (i.e. the age of baptism) and remain in the same congregation. Simply put, the stakes on the age of baptism are not as high as when considering the deity of Jesus Christ. Therefore, what I’m saying is that as the discussion over the age of baptism moved you down theological tiers, you should pray for the Spirit’s help in bringing your emotional agitation down as well.

Emotional Triage: As you move up or down theological tiers, your emotional response level should move in corresponding ways.

A Couple of Applications

For some doctrines, we fight (e.g. deity of Christ, the gospel). For others, after a good debate, perhaps we simply shrug our shoulders, smile, and shake hands on our way to dinner. I have found this incredibly freeing. I do not need to be up in arms about everything. For some things, I simply don’t need to offer my opinion at all. And if I do, and people disagree, if the issue is at the bottom of the theological ladder, I can shrug it off and move on.

So here are a couple of practical takeaways:

Are you a person who is emotionally charged in every discussion? A good question to ask is why your emotions run hot, no matter the doctrinal debate. Is pride lurking beneath? Are you worried that you might lose a debate or be proven wrong? Perhaps you’re simply immature. You haven’t lived long enough to see that black and white isn’t always black and white and that the world, even theology, includes some gray. It is possible that you’re ignorant. I don’t mean that in a demeaning way, but the reality is that sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know. So, if you’re always up in arms, ask some hard questions. Why are you this way? Pride? Immaturity? Ignorance? All three?

Second, learn to let some things go. You don’t need an opinion about everything, regardless of what Twitter or blogs say. Some people are prone to insert themselves into every debate. You might have an opinion on a matter, but do you need to share it? You could perhaps point out the flaw in someone’s thinking, but are you in the best possible position to challenge them? Sometimes, you don’t need to jump in. Letting some things go and taking care of things that really need your time is often refreshing.

Pray for Spirit-controlled and Spirit-illumined emotional triage. The Spirit must help us control our emotions. We are weak and sinful. I am not suggesting that practicing emotional triage is always easy or that bringing our emotions to where they should be is something we can do in our own strength. Instead, in all of this, we need the Spirit. By the grace of God, as we move up or down the theological tiers, the Spirit will work in our hearts to help us make sure theological and emotional triage appropriately correspond.

The goal in all of this is to love God and love people in Christ-exalting and God-glorifying ways.

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