Are there levels of beliefs for a Christian?
I want to encourage unity through truth. I don’t see unity and truth being against each other. In fact, unity allows and needs a strong belief system to undergird our commitments. Good emotions, peace, tradition, for their own sake, cannot withstand the conflicts of our world today. We must encourage genuine Christians to develop strong convictions while at the same time make them realize that they cannot and do not hold every belief they have at the same level.
I have always been puzzled by those who called themselves Christians but denied basic doctrines like the Trinity or the deity of Christ. C. S Lewis says that the common core of Christian belief: “…turns out to be something not only positive but pungent; divided from all non-Christian beliefs by a chasm to which the worst divisions inside Christendom are not really comparable at all.” In the remainder of the book Lewis, in essence, establishes two categories of views: those that are a part of “mere” Christianity and those that are not.
In answer to the Question: Are there levels of beliefs for a Christians, I say “YES”, and I’ve found Erik Thoennes’s perspective to be thoughtful and helpful. The following is from his first essay on Doctrine in the ESV Study Bible.
The ability to discern the relative importance of theological beliefs is vital for effective Christian life and ministry. Both the purity and unity of the church are at stake in this matter. The relative importance of theological issues can fall within four categories:
- absolutes define the core beliefs of the Christian faith;
- convictions, while not core beliefs, may have significant impact on the health and effectiveness of the church;
- opinions are less-clear issues that generally are not worth dividing over; and
- questions are currently unsettled issues.
These categories can be best visualized as concentric circles, similar to those on a dart board, with the absolutes as the “bull’s-eye”:
Where an issue falls within these categories should be determined by weighing the cumulative force of at least seven considerations:
- biblical clarity;
- relevance to the character of God;
- relevance to the essence of the gospel;
- biblical frequency and significance (how often in Scripture it is taught, and what weight Scripture places upon it);
- effect on other doctrines;
- consensus among Christians (past and present); and
- effect on personal and church life.
These criteria for determining the importance of particular beliefs must be considered in light of their cumulative weight regarding the doctrine being considered. For instance, just the fact that a doctrine may go against the general consensus among believers (see item 6) does not necessarily mean it is wrong, although that might add some weight to the argument against it. All the categories should be considered collectively in determining how important an issue is to the Christian faith. The ability to rightly discern the difference between core doctrines and legitimately disputable matters will keep the church from either compromising important truth or needlessly dividing over peripheral issues.