The diagram that has helped me-- and scores of other students at Covenant Seminary-- understand this concept was developed in 2002 by Bryan Clark, and the foundation of it looks like this:
Obviously, the premise is that the issues we face in ministry-- those things which we may disagree about to one degree or another-- should be broken down into three categories. And the key to the whole thing is how those categories are understood. What is a primary issue? How do you handle it? When must you agree-- or put another way, when may you disagree?
It's easiest to understand the primary issues as those that define orthodoxy in Christianity (think Apostles' Creed)-- these are doctrines that are essential to Christian life and faith. On the other hand, secondary issues are those which may typically divide one denomination from another (think Westminster Confession). These are doctrines for which there may be a large amount of biblical data, but that data can be construed in more than one way.
Tertiary issues are much more personal, and obviously have a great deal more variance than the other two. They may not be doctrines at all, but simply matters of preference or a conviction about the application or result of a doctrine. If they are doctrinal, they have limited biblical data supporting them-- in other words, they are more inferential than clear, evident doctrines. Tertiary issues are typically understood to be matters of conscience rather than dogma.
The biblical basis for dividing out issues into these categories can be seen in three verses:
- Galatians 1:9: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned.
- Titus 1:9: He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
- Romans 14:5 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.
Clearly, the scriptures themselves delineate different levels of issues or matters of division, and some are more severe than others. It may be helpful to think of them in this way: primary issues are matters you should be willing to die for. Secondary issues are matters worth sacrificing unity about, and you may divide over them. Tertiary issues should be those which you dialog about, but should not break fellowship because of them.
Examples are numerous, but just a few that come to mind are here. What should you do when these-- and many others like them-- present themselves? How should you handle them?
Clearly, deviation of primary issues requires church discipline, and persistance in such deviation should result in excommunication. The only way for the church to keep herself pure is to insist upon this. (This idea is latent in Galatians 1:9, above.)
Deviation on secondary issues generally does not requre formal discipline. However, if the differences here threaten the peace and unity of the congregation, discipline may be necessary. Excommunication, however, is seldom appropriate at this level.
For tertiary issues, deviation requires humility, acceptance, and dialog. We should seek to understand each other at this level, and even be open-minded to the perspectives of others. However, it is perfectly normal-- even expected-- that there will be many points of disagreement at this level.
Tomorrow I will finish this idea with particular discussion about how these issues matter for pastoral candidacy.