Is Marriage a Secondary Doctrine?

Photo by Colin Broug

Photo by Colin Broug

I must confess that I am co-opting the title and building off a fine blog by Nathan Finn entitled, Is Baptism a Secondary Doctrine. ( In his blog, Finn described Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler’s method of theological triage. Finn wrote,

According to Mohler, primary or first-order doctrines are those that are essential to the faith–you cannot reject these beliefs and still be Christian in the biblical sense of the term. . . . Secondary or second-order doctrines are those that generate disagreement among authentic Christians and typically result in an inability to be a part of the same denomination or often even the same congregation. . . . Tertiary or third-order doctrines are those doctrines that engender disagreement, but do not normally prevent two Christians from being part of the same church or group of churches.

While different people might organize the categories differently, Mohler’s triage approach is useful. I have heard my own Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson speak of the importance of understanding and sorting our doctrines and of how we should relate to those who believe differently from us.

However, I wonder if our doctrine of marriage is facing a triage test. Where, for example, in this order of doctrines does it fit? Should our triage of marriage doctrine change now that those called Christians accept so great a deformity of the Biblical and historical doctrine?

Tertiary? Could a Christian who holds to a Biblical view of marriage worship side by side with someone who accepts and advocates marriage of homosexuals and lesbians?

Secondary? Or can Christians with such divergent views simply say, “Well, you and I must move in different congregations and denominations, but we can still call one another, Brother and Sister in the Lord?

Primary? Or has the distortion to the doctrine of marriage been so great that accepting the novel, twisted version of the doctrine can be considered a sign that a person or a congregation or a denomination is no longer truly and Biblically Christian?

Dr. Mohler’s own April 1 blog, Bracketing Morality — The Marginalization of Moral Argument in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate, notes that “the moral dimension has virtually disappeared from the cultural conversation.” This is true, as Dr. Mohler cogently observes, even among defenders of historic marriage.

If a church or an individual has lost moral judgment so severely as to endorse homosexual marriage, can the presence of the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth be detected and can that church or individual be considered a part of the body of Christ? As Dr. Mohler concluded, “Without moral judgment there is no truth, and without truth there is no moral judgment.”

Without truth, there is no Jesus. (  Without Jesus, . . .

Is marriage a secondary doctrine?



  1. Scott C · ·

    The connection between marriage and a picture of Christ and the Church is significant and cannot by sidestepped, but I do not believe that it is the only doctrine that points to a biblical marriage being a first or second level doctrine at least. The Bible clearly outlines God’s plan for marriage as one man and one woman, together for life. Any other act outside of this prescriptive is then considered sin. That includes homosexuality, but also fornication, adultery, and permiscuity outside the bounds of marriage.

    Then the issue in question becomes the way in which believers are told to deal with a sinner amongst themselves. By attempting to define marriage in the “triage” system, it seems apparent that the homosexual/adulterer/fornicator is a professed believer since the issues of worshiping together and refering to that person as a brother or sister in Christ are raised. Matthew 18:15-17 offers direction at this point. Believers are commanded to approach that person about his or her sin, and then again with witnesses. If the person is still not repentant, they are called to bring him before the church, and if still he will not repent, the he is to be put out from the congregation and regarded as an unbeliever “gentile and tax collector.”.

    Because of the sin nature of relationships other than a biblical marriage union, and because of the command to separate from this sinner as a nonbeliever, I could not worship alongside that person nor regard then as a brother or sister in a different denomination, which by default makes the issue of marriage a primary issue and extremely important doctrine to the local church.

  2. Drs Owens/Lenow:
    Do you agree that a doctrinal triage approach is the best approach to determining these issues? If so, how do you differentiate the levels? If not, what do you think best?

    1. I am not certain it is best for all uses, but it is a good place, I think, to begin and to frame this discussion. Within the 3 categories, we can nuance, but we need a larger context in which to start.

  3. Shaun Skiles · ·

    In the since that it is being referred here I would agree it is a primary doctrine. In that unlike secondary doctrines that make for different congregational churches if biblical marriage is put into one of these other categories you are in a since saying that homosexuality which clearly is put forth as a sin can be supported and practiced within the church. It is a primary doctrine because of what Dr. Lenow said but also because to put it in one of the other categories is saying yeah you can be a Christian and take part in this.

    1. Thanks, Shaun. You make some interesting points. Hope we have some conversation. The church needs to be thinking carefully about this, I think. I know I do.

  4. Reblogged this on Ethics as Worship and commented:
    This is an interesting question raised by Waylan Owens. What are your thoughts? Is marriage a primary, secondary, or tertiary doctrine?

    1. Thank you, Dr. Lenow.

  5. I lean towards viewing marriage as a primary doctrine because the God-Israel/Christ-church analogy with marriage is a major component of Scripture. It is used in both OT and NT to describe how God relates to his people. It is one of the primary ways God communicates what his relationship to his people looks like.

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