in the Pews

Photo Courtesy of Hans Braxmeier

By Zach Mashburn

Published October 1st, 2020

            America 2020 will go down as a historical era, one which debates on a piece of cloth over one’s face. Masks are politicized and weaponized—elevated to the epitome of political expression, even emerging as top priority of some American evangelicals. Though, there may be a deeper and more ominous issue at hand. A dilemma that does not find its results aligning with the right or left, but instead dwelling in the hearts of churchgoers. Many Christians may be finding themselves at extremely difficult and emotionally charged political crossroads.

            Outside of the optimistic third-party, American Christians are stuck between the Democratic and Republican party. However, these offices are starker in contrast than ever before. Nowadays, many often enter the poll booth, not to cast a ballot for the best and most qualified politician, but instead to identify and pick a side. It no longer becomes about what you stand for but instead, whom you stand against, demonizing those who will not agree. This is not only the general synopsis of America, but also within the church. When political agendas are the driving force behind pulpits and pews rather than the Word of God, the church arrives on the brinks of a great divide.

            The unfortunate thing about partisan identity is that it is brought through holding similarities in belief and by putting one’s very identity within a party. This becomes a psychological topic, one rooted in ontology. The right wing individual no longer becomes one that “conserves American values,” but now identifies themselves as a Republican. They say, “I am Republican,” which implicitly communicates that they are in agreement, one party and against the other. They conflate their own personhood with the policies of politics. It is no longer about values. It is rather the substance of who they are.

            We have found ourselves within an ideology. As Chuck Colson commented, "It is a huge mistake to become married to an ideology, because the greatest enemy of the gospel is ideology. Ideology is a man-made format of how the world ought to work, and Christians instead [must] believe in the revealed truth of Scripture."[1] Christian identity must first and foremost be rooted in the adoption from our heavenly Father—the children of God. Missing the greater uniting aspect of faith ends with Christian brothers and sisters quarrelling tirelessly. Since many Christians refuse to allow unity under Christ be the primary, it is no wonder they fall prey to divisiveness under political platforms.

            Many have misplaced a zeal for Christ and confused it for a zeal of politics. However, the two identities are conflated. This leads to political debates carrying out as if they are faith issues. Thus, our theology must inform our politics and not the other way around. Rather than writing about why there is such polarization in regard to politics in the church, or to dabble in left or right wing interests, I have found it much more beneficial to devoutly pursue Christ, and then allowing the Lord Jesus Christ to convict hearts accordingly. Unity in the church, despite a political position, becomes catalyzed through 3 different sources: The Holy Scripture’s truth, the Holy Spirit’s convictions, and by direction from devoted followers of Jesus Christ. The rest of this article will derive from the third.

            As a means to not make the same argument that another has already made with more eloquent words, I wish to point you towards a resource, Gavin Ortlund’s thought provoking book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage. Having read this, I find it extremely helpful with establishing the divisions and the essentials of Christian community. Though not all aspects of the book are explicitly political, they often point to politicized topics and speak to Christians who must navigate the political world meanwhile maintaining a heavenly focus. Or in Ortlund’s words, “It is easy, even while having a notionally high view of the Bible, to let some other ideology or value filter which parts of the Bible function authoritatively over us.”[2] Following this statement is a brief synopsis given through the method of an academic book review. It will highlight many of the book’s strengths as well as relativity to the current affairs in the West. I found this work extremely helpful and beneficial in the midst of political uprise and ecclesial indifference. But first, let us pray.


Dear Lord. We come before you humbly today to admit that we do not always get things right. Even when we do, we tend to handle, address, or rebuke a brother or sister in Christ in ways that are not humble, loving, or for the benefit of the Body. We are deeply saddened and apologize for the way in which this grieves them and You. May we seek unity as your church, not being divided over tertiary issues, but only focused on the true essentials of the Gospel. May we be reminded of your Son’s words, “We love because He first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”[3] May our will continue to be aligned to your will, Oh God. Help us in these troubling times. We love you Lord. Amen.

Book Review: Finding the Right Hills to Die On

            In Gavin Ortlund’s book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage,[4] Pastor Ortlund theologically writes from an evangelical Protestant perspective in the Reformed tradition. He mentions his thesis, saying the book is, “about finding the happy place between these two extremes [fundamentalism and liberalism]—the place of wisdom, love, and courage that will best serve the church and advance the gospel in our fractured times. In other words, it’s about finding the right hills to die on” (17). Thus, it is evident that he intends to propose a better way of dealing and sorting theological understanding as well as catalyze a personal response from his readers.

            The primary way that Ortlund argues his thesis is through organization and synthesis of four doctrinal categories. First-rank doctrines: those that are essential to the gospel itself. Second-rank doctrines: urgent for the health and practice of the church to such a degree that they tend to be the cause of separation at the level of local church, denomination, and/or ministry. Third-rank doctrines: important to Christian theology, but not important enough to be the basis for separation. Lastly are fourth-rank doctrines: unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration (19). The trajectory of the book is straightforward and Ortlund begins by setting the stage. Part 1 argues why a theological triage is necessary for the church. He then shows what this looks like when put to the task in Part 2, ending with his conclusion and prayer.

            Ortlund first focuses heavily on the balance of the Gospel—truth and grace, conviction and comfort—(27) before approaching the importance of unity in the body of Christ and heeding a warning against those who have been enticed into doctrinal sectarianism. He mentions that, “Theological zeal must be subjected to the test of love. Not all zeal is from God. Even when the error we oppose is a deadly heresy, our aim must be to heal, not to disgrace” (42), stressing his concern for balanced believers. He proceeds by addressing those in an opposing camp, that of doctrinal minimalism. In this, he clarifies that every matter of doctrine is important in and of itself, however there are some that are essential, meanwhile others that are urgent, important, and indifferent (47). Before embarking on the outworking of theological triage, the author also shares some of his own reservations, struggles, and findings in secondary and tertiary doctrines in a short autobiographical synopsis. Here he encloses a random array of some of his own convictions of doctrine.

            In the 2nd part Ortlund’s argument really develops, beginning with the vitality of primary issues and the heart that should be fueling them. He mentions that, “Some first-rank doctrines are needed to defend the gospel, and others to proclaim the gospel. Without them the gospel is either vulnerable or incomplete” (76). Thus, his interests are very practical and a matter of fact, rather than sourced in personal leanings. He precedes to navigate secondary doctrines, and explaining why we should not divide over those third-rank doctrines. He claims that, “Most of the battles you could fight, you shouldn’t. And I’d go so far as to say that the majority of doctrinal fights Christians have today tend to be over third-rank issues—or fourth. We deeply need to cultivate greater doctrinal forbearance, composure, and resilience” (125). This claim is something that evangelicals desperately need.

            As Ortlund concludes, he presses Christians with the responsibility and privilege of humility. He claims that a theological triage is impeded, not because of lack of theological skill, but rather a lack of humility and meekness. Before his closing prayer, he says “Our zeal for theology must never exceed our zeal for our actual brothers and sisters in Christ… If maintaining the unity of the body of Christ is not costing you anything—if it doesn’t hurt—then you probably are not adjusting enough” (149-150). Of the many strengths of this book, Ortlund’s greatest is the pastoral tone delivered very thoughtfully and lovingly throughout the work. This is a very influential and timely book, and Ortlund not only speaks about unity but exemplifies unifying language in each chapter. He is authentic and transparent of his own journey in discerning each classification of doctrine. The book was remarkable and full of great insight from a God-fearing individual.

            Ortlund’s work contributes to the realm of theology in a very distinct way. One that challenges readers to not just think about topics in disunity itself, but also in how it is approached. The book does not so much give answers unto what these items are in each tier, but rather how to correctly choose them, meanwhile being a humble member of the body of Christ. This will ultimately help others as they continue their journey in theology, by using the analogy of triage to decide which hills are truly worth dying on for the sake of the Gospel.



            [1] Gabe Lyons, David Kinnaman, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity...and Why It Matters. (Forest Hills, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2007) 174. See also: Samuel Rodriguez, The Lamb's Agenda: Why Jesus Is Calling You to a Life of Righteousness and Justice (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 61.

            [2] Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die on: The Case for Theological Triage (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020.), 86.

            [3] 1 John 4:19-21, ESV.

            [4] Ortlund, Theological Triage.

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