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How Tiered Theology Gives us Confidence

You could say I’m obsessed with books and I wouldn’t protest.

Over the years my husband and I have curated a library of hundreds of books, most on theological and doctrinal topics. Ever since seminary (and yes, even since having kids), you can find us in quiet moments sipping tea and picking up a book out of our collection. Reading theology, for us, is sheer delight.

But I still won’t forget the day I picked up a theological book by an author I was unfamiliar with. As I read her words, the question kept rattling around in the back of my mind: what if she taught something other than sound theology? Would I recognize it? And where could I allow myself to be generous with the places where her theology diverged from my own, and what would raise a serious red flag? Would I know?

You may have heard a lot of Christians talking about “keeping the main thing the main thing,” or talking about how certain topics “aren’t gospel issues.” And the question I asked as I read that theology book was basically asking this: what isthe main thing? Or, put another way, which doctrines are essential (or, gospel issues), and which are non-essential?

As Christians who love to learn this is an important question for us to answer. As we read theologically beyond our own traditions (which I highly encourage), we need the ability to assess which theological topics or doctrines are core to the Christian faith and cannot be given up, and to be able to distinguish those from topics and doctrines that differ from one denominational tradition to another, without giving up the essentials of the Gospel message.

One approach that I have personally found incredibly helpful in this pursuit is a tiered approach to theology. This approach creates four tiers of doctrinal issues, categorizing them this way:

Tier one: Essentials of the Christian faith. These are the topics you would find covered in the creeds and confessions of the historic church. They are topics like the Trinity, the deity of Christ, Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection; the coming return of Christ, the authority of Christ and his Word to order the Christian worship and life in areas of worship, sex, and obedience. These are doctrinal matters that you must hold in order to profess the Christian faith.

Tier two: Doctrinal matters that address how we live out our faith as Christians in community. These are topics like how we practice baptism (infant baptism and believers’ baptism, or exclusively believers’ baptism), how do we participate in the Lord’s Supper, how are spiritual gifts exercised today, what roles does God call men and women to hold within the church, etc. These are doctrinal matters that will likely determine where you worship and which local church you call your home church.

Tier three: Matters of conviction as guided by principles from the Word of God. In this category you’ll find topics like how Christians should interact with alcohol, how we view the specifics of the end times, how we observe particular holidays, school choice for families, etc. These are topics that we may feel personally lead by God through a study of his Word to hold a particular perspective on, but we hold an open hand of generosity toward others who view it differently from ourselves.

Tier four: Matters of preference. Things like the worship style of our church (high liturgy or low liturgy), how we dress for worship gatherings, how we practice hospitality in our home, etc. These are issues that we may change our view on over time, by season of life, and by our exposure to new habits and practices.

Since adopting this approach to doctrinal topics, I’ve found myself incredibly helped as I read beyond my tradition, interact with Christians who are part of different denominations from myself, and invite people into our church ministry who come from different backgrounds. I have benefited from this approach so much so that I think every Christian would be helped by exposure to this approach! There’s a historic phrase in the Church that I hold tightly to: in the essentials, we have unity; in the non-essentials, we have liberty; in all things we have charity. I think we can live this out with much more effectiveness as we think through doctrinal matters in these tiers.

In the Essentials we have unity

By knowing what is an essential issue, we are able to close one hand tightly around the core theological topics of our faith. This gives us a rootedness – we know what we can hold tightly to. This gives us a sense of belonging in the historic Christian faith. When we cling to the doctrines in this tier, we can have deepened confidence that we are holding to the orthodox Christian faith (which is just another way of saying, the faithful Christian witness throughout church history). We are on solid ground when we cling tightly and faithfully to these doctrines. As Christians in churches today rally around these core issues, we are holding the line of orthodoxy in our generation (a tremendous responsibility and privilege).

In the Non-Essentials we have Liberty

Because we stand on such a solid foundation by knowing what is essential to our faith and refusing to give those doctrines up, we gain a freedom to learn and grow on non-essential topics. Without discrediting their faith (IE: saying, “they’re not really Christians”) we can learn from different church denominations, brothers and sisters who practice baptism or teaching in the church differently than we do. We have freedom to read books from different perspectives on the gifts of the Spirit or what is happening at the Communion table. Like a ship securely anchored to the shore by our tier one issues, we have the liberty to explore the harbor of tier two issues without fear of being swept out to sea.

In all things we have Charity

There’s a common misconception in the church that we have to agree to build unity. But as a person who has served in many churches in various traditions, I’m here to say that I’ve never seen that work. When this is the goal, what you find is a bunch of anxious people trying to get everyone on the same page on every topic. What grows in this environment isn’t unity – it’s uniformity and anxiety.

Alternatively, charity is a heart-posture that leads to greater unity. When we can sit in small group with another family who has chosen a different schooling route from our family, believing firmly that they love and fear the Lord and want the best for their child, and yet they made a different choice than we did – that is unity. When we worship alongside a brother in Christ who has chosen a dry lifestyle (abstinence from all alcohol) while we enjoy a glass of wine on occasion without being given to drunkenness, all the while commending each other for walking in the Spirit and being guided by the Scriptures – that is unity. As theologian N.T. Wright once put it to brothers and sisters in his local church, “I will not make any demands on your convictions; but I will make demands on your charity.” In other words, Scripture doesn’t insist we see third and fourth tier matters the same way, but it does insist that we practice the “one anothers” of Scripture.  

A tiered approach to theology isn’t the only approach, but I have found it to be a fruitful one. By knowing what I believe that is non-negotiable (essential), and what is negotiable (non-essential), I’m able to hold tightly in one hand to the anchor, while opening my other hand in friendship to those who see things differently from me. This approach has given me deeper roots on tier one issues, and grown me to greater heights in subsequent tiers. It allows me to extend a hand of fellowship to other believers, and to know when I must part ways with someone who professes the faith but doesn’t hold to an essential issue like the deity of Christ. In short, it gives us the gift of rootedness and generosity of spirit (both of which are in short supply today). It enables me to say with the historic church –

In the essentials, we have unity; in the non-essentials, we have liberty; in all things, we have charity. 

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  1. This seems like a pretty exclusive system to me.

    I’m not sure why the first tier isn’t something like “red letter” Christianity — the words and works of Jesus — grounded in the Great Commandment, the Sermon on the Mount, the wisdom of the parables, etc. IMO, that’s pretty essential stuff.

    I’m not sure why the focus is doctrinal, and why your “essential” doctrine is often not the same as “Gospel message,” since doctrine such as original sin and the Trinity are not in the Gospels. Others, like virgin birth and physical resurrection, are not common to all of the Gospels (assuming that the “long ending” in Mark is a later addition.)

    Let’s say that I’m a Christian who is inspired by the words and works of Jesus. (At mid-life, I quit my job and sold my house to follow Jesus, so I take Jesus’ words very seriously. Augustine’s or Tertullian’s words? Not so much.)
    Let’s say that I don’t believe in original sin or the Trinity or a virgin birth or a physical resurrection.
    Let’s say that I believe that all of life is sacramental, irrespective of church or clergy involvement.
    Let’s say that I don’t believe that I have free will or a soul, so I’m not concerned with an afterlife or a second coming.
    Let’s say that I believe that my relationship with God isn’t (and shouldn’t be) mediated by clergy or a church.
    Let’s say that I don’t believe that religion and science should conflict, so I may trust a scientist over a theologian, at times.

    Now, let’s say that I want to attend your church. Am I a Christian?
    Are you supposed to determine whether I’m a Christian or not? Do you serve any purpose in doing so?
    Am I welcome to worship in your church without submitting to a theological litmus test?
    Can we worship together, regardless of our beliefs, like the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Jewish Christians?

    Like you, I’m obsessed with books and I like to read outside my tradition. As you know, most traditions (other than Christianity) emphasize orthopraxy, rather than orthodoxy, and most traditions (other than Christianity) emphasize unity, rather than division. (Christianity’s focus on division begins in Genesis — Creator and creation, men and women, etc.)

    All traditions are shaped by their cultures, so that the more that Christianity is proscribed by Greek philosophy and Western theology, with their emphasis on personal responsibility and personal salvation, the more exclusive it is.

    “Well, at some level, we all have to believe the same thing,” you might say. Why is that?

    Sorry to clog your inbox, but I’m a writer, as well as a reader!! Thanks for listening.

    1. I think I understand where you’re coming from, and my question would be: if you don’t believe in original sin or the Trinity, both of which are heavily preached and core to the Gospel message we proclaim every single week at our church, why would you want to worship with us? I don’t mean that pejoratively or dismissively, but I simply can’t think of a motivation to participate in our active and weekly worship and discipleship if we didn’t share these core convictions (top tier issues).

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