When it comes to the question of what Christians believe, the answer often depends on which stripe of Christian you ask. Throughout the course of two millennia, faithful Christians have disagreed on a wide range of theological, ethical, and practical concerns. Nevertheless, certain beliefs break with even the broadest understanding of the Christian tradition. In the end, there is a difference between primary and secondary issues.
But how are primary and secondary issues defined?
Primary issues are the doctrines that define orthodoxy. That is, unless you hold to a specific view on these matters, you could not rightly be considered a Christian, even if you identify yourself as one and hold to what could be described as a broadly Judeo-Christian worldview.
Secondary issues are everything else—and that list is much longer.
It is important that we see secondary issues as just that: secondary. While our stances on any number of secondary issues may be deeply held and richly formed, there is not one doctrinal position that corners the market on orthodoxy, even if only a limited range of positions do.
Here’s a closer look at what would be considered primary and secondary issues.
Interestingly enough, most primary theological issues have been settled upon among orthodox Christians for the better part of 1,500 years and are best represented by the ecumenical creeds that are affirmed by Eastern Christians, Roman Catholics, and Protestant Christians alike.
Despite the theological diversity among each of these traditions—and the subsets of traditions within them—key doctrines unite them all.
Ironically, one of the most foundational theological convictions of the Christian faith is also one of its most mysterious, if not outright confusing.
The doctrine of the Trinity can be summarized as such: God is three persons existing in one essence. In other words, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are distinct persons who are equally eternal, sovereign, and worthy of worship. The Father, Son, and Spirit are not “modes” of one divine person but three distinct persons. And yet there is only one God.
Orthodox Christians might not all understand this doctrine very well, but we all affirm it nonetheless. To do anything else would be heresy that would place us outside the global Christian community.
Jesus Christ and Salvation
Another primary theological issue is properly understanding who Jesus Christ is and how it is we are saved by him.
All Christians affirm that Jesus is the Son, the second person of the Trinity, who has existed eternally. At the time appointed by God the Father, he incarnated to human flesh, being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary of Nazareth. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, was raised from the dead on the third day, and ascended into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of God.
Every orthodox Christian also affirms that eternal salvation comes only through faith in Jesus, who alone is our Savior. Further, Jesus will return from heaven to judge the living and the dead, assigning some to eternal life and others to final judgment, and he will usher in the full realization of his eternal kingdom.
When it comes to primary issues, these doctrines just about cover it. Everything else is a secondary issue.
By secondary, I do not mean that the following issues are unimportant. I feel rather deeply about many of them. It’s just that it isn’t necessary for Christians to hold to any one view on them and still be considered an orthodox believer.
As I stated above, secondary issues range from disagreements over theology to disputes regarding ethics and practical matters that relate to church life. Yet, these are disagreements that Christians can have across traditions and still consider each other brothers and sisters in Christ.
With some of these issues, Christians across the divide may still be able to attend the same local church. With others, they might be able to join the same denomination or network. And then there are other issues that strain the relationship further, though none of these issues should sever it entirely.
This list is not meant to be comprehensive, but hopefully it gives you an idea of how many issues are, in fact, secondary.
Baptism and Communion
While Eastern Christians and Roman Catholics affirm seven sacraments, Protestants affirm only two. (This is itself a secondary issue.) Nevertheless, while every Christian tradition agrees that baptism and communion are two ordinances that the church is commanded to observe, how they understand the meaning and administration of these sacraments varies widely.
When it comes to baptism, some affirm paedobaptism, which is the practice of baptizing children and infants. Others affirm credobaptism, or believer’s baptism, which is only performed after an individual has made a confession of faith. Some baptize by way of sprinkling or pouring, others by immersion. These are all orthodox Christian practices.
As it relates to Communion, otherwise called the Eucharist, some believe in transubstantiation, which sets forth that the body and blood of Christ are literally present in the elements, even if the appearance of the bread and wine remain. Others believe that Jesus is spiritually present in the elements. Others still believe that the elements themselves present no special reality, but rather are purely symbolic of Jesus’ body and blood.
I’m painting with broad brushes on both these issues, but hopefully you get the point.
Church Polity and the Role of Women in Leadership
Another secondary, though important, issue is church governance.
Some churches are elder ruled and others are congregationally governed. Some denominations create hierarchical structures across congregations, and others maintain local church autonomy while participating in voluntary associations. (And a range of options exists between these two ends of the spectrum.)
Different churches define membership and membership requirements differently, appoint elders and pastors differently, and have different processes for discipleship and church discipline. Some churches make their worship services intentionally traditionalistic; others are “seeker sensitive.” Some love online church; others see it as theologically suspect.
Christians also disagree about the role women ought to play in the polity of the church. Some allow women to fulfill any leadership role, while others restrict women to complementary roles. While some applications of complementarity are certainly harmful and abusive, complementarity is not itself abusive any more than egalitarianism is “liberal.”
Some believe that the charismatic spiritual gifts, such as tongues, prophecy, and healing, are operative in the church today. Among these so-called continuationists, a great deal of diversity of views exists as it relates to exactly how to regulate and cultivate charismatic gifts and practices.
Others, called cessationists, believe the use of charismatic gifts rightly ceased with the death of Jesus’ apostles and any use of them in the present life of the church is an affront to sound worship.
Christians across this disagreement, especially if they feel strongly about their position, are often not able to fellowship at the same congregation or in the same denomination. However, they are often known to still work together for the sake of evangelism.
Eschatology (End Times)
Some Christians believe that Jesus will return before his millennial reign, which is described in Revelation 20. Others believe he will return after it. Others still believe that the millennium that John describes in Revelation is figurative rather than literal.
The various and sundry disagreements over the details within each of these views are worthy of their own series of articles. Nevertheless, so long as you affirm that Jesus is returning to judge the living and the dead, your view is orthodox. The rest, though interesting fodder for spirited debate, is a secondary issue.
The Age of the Earth
Despite Ken Ham’s best efforts to convince you otherwise, you can be a theologically robust Christian of sound faith regardless of whether you believe the earth is 6,000 years old or 4.5 billion years old.
In other words, what you believe about the age of the earth is not a litmus test for orthodoxy.
God’s Sovereignty in Salvation
Some believe that God predestined in eternity past a very specific list of individuals he was going to call to salvation in Jesus, and it is inevitable: they will certainly come to faith. Others believe that God has given us free will to choose faith and that it is legitimately possible for anyone to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus.
Again, this is summarizing entire systems of thought into a few brief sentences, and nuances and disagreements exist within both sides of the divide. But as long as we affirm that salvation comes exclusively through Jesus—his life, death, and resurrection—we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
Hell and Eternal Punishment
This may come as a surprise, but the doctrine of hell is anything but settled among orthodox believers. Some believe in eternal conscious torment, in which God will actively punish evildoers for all eternity. However, others believe that while God’s judgment is eternal and final, this biblical terminology refers to the irreversible nature of the judgment rather than the duration of the punishment.
This view, called annihilationism or terminal punishment, sets forth that rather than being eternally punished, evildoers will be ultimately destroyed, ceasing to exist entirely.
Of note here is that while eternal conscious torment and annihilationism are both orthodox views of hell, universalism is not. Universalism argues that eventually all people will pass through the fires of moral purification and make their way to salvation, which is necessarily at odds with the primary issue of Jesus’ final judgment of the living and the dead.
The ethical issues upon which orthodox Christians disagree is almost too long to list but includes whether Christians can smoke, drink, gamble, get tattoos, dance, get divorced or remarried, use birth control, or utilize certain medical procedures.
Perhaps the most contentious debates center on matters of life and sexuality. Some Christians staunchly oppose abortion and medical assistance in dying for any reason or in any circumstance. Others would argue that one or both are allowable in a limited set of situations. Few Christians would actively encourage engaging in either, though they exist.
With regard to sexuality, some argue that same-sex attraction either doesn’t exist as a sexual orientation or is otherwise sinful to experience, even if a Christian doesn’t act upon it. Others affirm that Christians can identify themselves by their sexual orientation while still holding to a traditionally Christian sexual ethic. Fewer Christians would say they affirm the full expression of LGBTQ+ sexual ethics.
When it comes to these issues, I feel strongly about upholding the sanctity of life and traditional sexual ethics. Even still, I would be hesitant to place pro-abortion or LGBTQ+ affirming Christians outside the circle of orthodoxy. However, I would say that they are morally compromised—and deeply so.
Just as Christians disagree about how to answer certain ethical questions, they likewise disagree about how to translate those ethical convictions into public policy. In some cases, disagreement over an ethical question is the source of differing political visions. Other times, political disagreement is the result of a difference of opinion in how to order priorities. In other cases, Christians merely disagree over how to best address a shared problem or concern.
Nevertheless, for Christians to question one another’s orthodoxy on the basis of voting patterns or political leanings is nothing short of frivolous.
Why Does This Matter?
I believe it is vital for Christians to be clear-eyed about which of their convictions are essential to the preservation of orthodoxy and which are merely part of their particular tradition within the broader church. And that’s because when we get our primary and secondary issues confused, we begin creating unnecessary divisions within the church.
I have often repeated this axiom, and I plan to continue repeating it: “In the essentials unity, in the nonessentials liberty, in all things charity.”
But we can’t actually do that if we don’t have a clear understanding of what is essential and what is nonessential. We need to be able to rightly identify the difference between primary and secondary issues.
Fundamentalist Christians want you to believe that everything is an essential, right down to the fact that pews are better than theater chairs and hymnals are better than digital projectors. Progressive Christians want you to believe that nothing is an essential, and we can link arms in Christian mission with just about anyone who expresses a vague affinity for Jesus. In either case, severe damage is done to the witness of the church.
The church must preserve orthodoxy. And it must celebrate its diversity—including its theological diversity. All Christians must be defined by fundamental truths as we seek to advance the mission of Jesus. And we must do so together, even amid our astonishing diversity of opinion on secondary issues.