Had you asked me a couple of years ago to lay out Christian doctrine, I would have done so by explaining them in terms of a hierarchy. First, there are primary doctrines – doctrines you must believe to be a Christian. Next, there are secondary doctrines. These would place you in a particular denomination. Then, there are tertiary doctrines, which may place you in one church over another and may cause splits. Beyond that, there are even more doctrines but they should never divide churches.

However, I’ve come to rethink this. My new approach is a bit less clean and organized, but I want to explain what it is and why I think it’s still superior in this post. I’ll call my old view the “hierarchical” view. It’s hardly my own invention, but I need a shorthand way to talk about it. I’ll refer to my new, developing view as the “functional” view.

A Few Examples

To reiterate, under the hierarchical view, there are a few levels with doctrines at lower tiers often but not always fleshing out higher tiered doctrines. Here’s an example:

  1. Primary doctrine: Christ is God
  2. Secondary doctrine: Christ is returning in the future and doesn’t rule yet (premillenialism)
  3. Tertiary doctrine: Christ will return to claim the elect before the tribulation (rapture theology)
  4. Quaternary: The rapture will happen soon

The list of primary doctrines on this view is fairly small, and the number increases as it gets lower. Other primary doctrines include: God exists, Christianity is true, we are sinners and must repent. Other secondary doctrines include: sacramentalism, church governance, the role of free will.

It Works Until it Doesn’t

For a number of doctrines, the hierarchical view is convenient and accurate and a good place to start. However, the limitations and problems grow the more we examine it. One of the largest inadequacies of the view is that it doesn’t deal with right living or orthopraxy. This is something that flows out of true doctrine, but it becomes a big problem for the hierarchical view.

Paul the Apostle would often write doctrinal positions in the first half of his letters and then spend the second half imploring believers to live rightly given their doctrinal positions. If we have right doctrine, the authors of Scripture expected that it would naturally lead to right behavior. I think that’s essentially true. But lets try to fit that into the hierarchical view. Where, for example, does a prohibition on same-sex desire feature into the hierarchy?

Well, it can’t be a primary doctrine, because that list is limited to the absolute basics of the Gospel message and those basics aren’t a limited list if we include every single good and evil behavior. We couldn’t do that anyway; there’s no way the early church could have known about vices like surrogacy or sex-change operations, so if prohibitions of those things are primary, then the Apostles themselves didn’t believe all primary doctrines.

Maybe we could say that the core beliefs that lead us to label things “sinful” or “good” or “neutral” are primary. But again, that list is hardly limited.

Yet, a prohibition of same-sex desire is not a secondary doctrine because churches which don’t believe it aren’t genuine Christian churches. But if it’s too important for secondary and not foundational enough for primary, the hierarchical view begins to break apart.

What about egalitarianism/complementarianism/patriarchy? Where does a view of the nature of sex differences fit? Again, it doesn’t fit neatly into the hierarchical view.

Something New

All of this led me to think that maybe there’s another way to think of doctrine that more robustly describes how it all fits together. Because this view focuses on the functional role of doctrine rather than how churches and denominations have traditionally divided up over it, I’m going to call it the functional view.

Naturally, if we are going to organize doctrine by function, we need some functions. These can be true or false for any particular doctrine:

  1. Required for Salvation
  2. Required for Maturity in Belief
  3. Required for Right Living
  4. Required for Church Membership

For example, the doctrine that “God exists” would look like this:

Required for SalvationRequired for MaturityRequired for Right LivingRequired for Membership
TrueTrueTrueTrue for all churches

You need to believe in God to be saved. You need to believe in God for Christian maturity, for right living, and for membership in any Christian church or denomination. This one’s pretty simple. We have the hierarchical primary doctrines figured out already; they’re true in every category on the functional view.

Here’s another: “Christ was born of the virgin Mary”

Required for SalvationRequired for MaturityRequired for Right LivingRequired for Membership
FalseTrueFalseTrue for all churches

You may disagree with this, but let me explain. I don’t believe one must first accept the premise “Christ was born of a virgin” to become a Christian. I believe it can and probably should happen concurrently with faith in Christ. We don’t proclaim Christ as Lord after we believe in the virgin birth; the virgin birth is something we believe on the basis of the truth of Christ which we embrace when we accept Him as our Savior. If someone becomes a Christian on Easter Sunday after visiting a church, it’s entirely reasonable that when he goes to a New Believers class the next Sunday, he comes to accept the virgin birth after seeing it proclaimed in the text; I can’t think of any reason we should dispute his salvation during the interim week.

Therefore, this is a belief required for maturity in belief, hence the “True” for that column. It is also required to be a member of every real Christian church and denomination. However, I don’t believe any right living flows out of this belief. It’s a truth about the Christian faith and we should want to believe all true things about Christianity and no false things about it, but beyond that, there’s no effect I can imagine on orthopraxy.

Lets try the two problematic topics for the hierarchical view we identified earlier:

DoctrineRequired for SalvationRequired for MaturityRequired for Right LivingRequired for Membership
Same-sex desire is sinFalse if not practicedTrueTrueTrue in all churches
PatriarchalismFalseTrueTrueTrue in some churches

This is more complex, but I think more accurate. You don’t need a comprehensive list of all sin in order to repent and come to Christ. However, if one engages in the sin, repentance of it is required for Salvation. Is it required to list it in your prayer accepting Christ? Maybe, maybe not. I could imagine someone who isn’t sure just saying “Lord, forgive my sins, even those I don’t know are sins yet”, and I would think if done with a contrite and honest heart, this would be genuine and sufficient.

Patriarchalism, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be a belief required for Salvation. To believe something false is wrong but not necessarily sinful. It’s possible to simply make mistakes in our reasoning and it happens all the time because we’re finite.

In both cases, maturity should lead to right belief. In both cases, these doctrines are very important for right living. Lastly, I can’t imagine any true Christian church denying the sinfulness of same-sex desire and acting upon it, though I know many churches don’t have a firm requirement when it comes to sexual distinctions, though I’d argue egalitarianism is unacceptable.


There are likely other useful functions to add to the list, but I think this gets to the heart of it. I think the functional view is much more effective at conveying what’s going on doctrinally than the hierarchical view in most cases. There are certainly some situations where a hierarchy is useful – particularly when trying to break down doctrines into more nuanced positions. However, especially when it comes to right living, the functional view helps separate things in a more helpful way. I find distinguishing between “salvation” items and “right living” items in particular to be significant.