North Point Ministries talks about types of theological topics in terms of two categories:
- Core: Things that are essential for the faith, and that we need to agree on (although you can still have a respectful conversation about them).
- Periphery: Everything else. Things that aren’t core.
This distinction is definitely helpful. For a while, I had so much in the core that I couldn’t find a single church I could attend. I went through an exercise of moving things from an “essential” category to “very important”, and even that was painful!
I have a bit of a concern with a two-category system, though. I’m not sure they explicitly say that the periphery isn’t important, but it’s certainly implicit in the name “periphery”. And I think that plays out in North Point’s practices as well.
Over the years I’ve heard various ways to slice up different theological topics. The Gospel Coalition has a great summary post about different ways to break down the categories of doctrines.
Here are the categories I think make the most sense, although you don’t always need to break it down this far:
- Things you must believe: If you don’t believe these things, you cannot be saved. If we really believe that justification is by faith in Christ alone, then this category must be very small. Otherwise it’s justification by faith in a complex theological system.
- Things you must not reject: These are things that new believers don’t have to know about, such as details of the Trinity. But if a believer knows about them and rejects them or teaches against them, this puts them outside the boundaries of the faith. Many churches today only require agreement on these first two categories to be a member, but there are further requirements to be an elder.
- Things necessary for fellowship: Things that, when believers disagree, make it difficult to be in a church together. For example, views on church government. You can’t have a church that is governed in two ways. It’s important to note that disagreeing on things like this doesn’t mean you can’t respect someone. Somewhere I read that the best Calvinists and Arminians have always had high respect for each other.
- Things not necessary for fellowship: Things that believers can disagree on but still be in a church together. This category could likely be broken down in many ways: for example, things that affect Christian living vs. things that are mostly only intellectual.
- Speculation: Things that aren’t addressed by Scripture at all. For example, the question of how it was possible for Satan to fall, given that God created him good. These things are likely not even productive to look into, if we believe that Scripture thoroughly equips us for every good work.