The Cape Town Commitment: Primary and Secondary Beliefs

How easy is it to find common ground with other Christians on primary truths - and model respectful disagreement on secondary issues?

Key leaders behind The Cape Town Commitment, Douglas Birdsall and Lindsay Brown, explain that they boldly attempted to do just that:

We distinguish what is at the heart of the Christian gospel, ie primary truths on which we must have unity, from secondary issues, where sincere Christians disagree in their interpretation of what the Bible teaches or requires. We have worked here to model Lausanne’s principle of ‘breadth within boundaries’, and in Part l those boundaries are clearly defined.

Why is this effort so hard for us?

One reason might be pride. In his book Finding the Right Hills to Die On, Gavin Ortlund quotes at length from Augustine:

This way is first humility, second humility, third humility, and however often you should ask me I would say the same, not because there are no other precepts to be explained, but if humility does not precede and accompany and follow every good work we do, and if it is not set before us to look upon, and beside us to lean upon, and behind us to fence us in, pride will wrest from our hand any good deed we do while we are in the very act of taking pleasure in it. . . . If you should ask, and as often as you should ask, about the precepts of the Christian religion, my inclination would be to answer nothing but humility, unless necessity should force me to say something else.

As Ortlund explains,

… the divisiveness surrounding a doctrine involves not merely its content but also the attitude with which it is held. The greatest impediment to theological triage is not a lack of theological skill or savvy but a lack of humility. A lack of skill can simply be the occasion for growth and learning, but when someone approaches theological disagreement with a self-assured, haughty spirit that has only answers and no questions, conflict becomes virtually inevitable.

Therefore, we must engage those with whom we have theological disagreements with humility, asking questions to make sure we understand, remembering that we don’t see things perfectly, and always seeking to grow in understanding where we may have blind spots. Our attitude toward theology should be, and should always remain, like the Old Breton prayer inscribed on a block of wood on John F. Kennedy’s desk: “O God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.”

Now, it’s easy to admit in principle that you have blind spots. But humility will cause this recognition to make a noticeable difference in your actual interactions with people. It will lead to more clarifying questions, more pursuit of common ground, more appreciation of rival concerns, more delay in arriving at judgments.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How do the Scriptures define humility?

  2. What are some specific ways we can practice humility in the UP community?

  3. What effort have you made to ‘rank’ your theological commitments? How do you personally differentiate between beliefs of primary, secondary, and tertiary importance?

Q.3, I make my free choice of the tenets of my denomination and check whether there are “cross purposes” and if so, I limit interactions to areas where this will not cause the others discomfort.