I’ll start this post by explaining the Christian jargon in the title. Primary issues are those things which are thought to be absolutely essential to believe in order to be saved. Without believing these things, you cannot be saved. Secondary issues, on the other hand, are those which are not essential for salvation, therefore genuine Christians may have all sorts of different beliefs about them. Not surprisingly, most Christians actually disagree on which issues are primary and which are secondary.
I suppose that I’m talking mainly to Christians with this post, although if you’re a non-Christian reading this, then I hope it’s a useful insight into how a lot of Christians think about their beliefs. I think my aim in writing this is to get you to think, if you haven’t already, which issues you think are primary and secondary. To explore the issue further, I think it’s easiest if I go through a handful of issues and say whether I think they’re primary or secondary, and explain why I think that.
I’ll start with the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus. For me, this is the primary of all primary issues. If you do not believe that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, then I do not see how you can be a Christian. The New Testament makes it clear that freedom from sin and death comes through Jesus Christ. God can see us as spotless because Jesus took the punishment that we deserve and in his resurrection, he demonstrated the power of God to renew us in a physical and spiritual way. Yes, this means that I don’t think you can be a Christian if you don’t believe those things. ‘Who are you to say what Christians can and can’t believe?’ you cry. Let me make it clear that I am not writing this as a way of condemning great swathes of people, but as a way of illustrating primary and secondary issues. There has to be some sort of belief that makes a Christian a Christian – for me, the death and resurrection of Jesus is one of these.
Another primary issue for me rests in the nature of God. I think the entire fabric of Christianity rests on the notion that God is just and operates indiscriminately in line with his own laws. This may not seem an obvious primary issue, but let me explain. The alternatives to believing God is just are either believing that he is all merciful and could never punish anyone, or believing that he is cruel and vindictive. Both of those are non-starters in terms of Christianity. Why? If he is all merciful, then Jesus’ death is unnecessary because he would have let everyone off anyway. Therefore, either you deny that Jesus was God (which most Christians would agree is a big issue) or you would have to see God as inexplicably cruel for allowing him to die, which would contradict the original belief that God is entirely merciful. The other belief is more obviously incompatible with Christianity, because if you believe that God is unfairly cruel, you would have to deny the sacrifice of Jesus completely. For those reasons, I see it as essential that a Christian believes in the justice of God.
So what do I see as secondary issues? Most things, if I’m honest. I hesitate to brand things as primary because I’m then saying that if you don’t believe it, you’re not a Christian. The question I ask myself is: ‘Could someone deny that belief and still be a Christian?’ This can be hard to answer. Clear secondary issues for me are the issue of free will/predestination, the exact nature of creation, women in ministry, interpretation of Revelation…you get the idea. Any issue that has genuine, God-fearing Christians arguing for different interpretations is likely to be a secondary issue in my mind.
The problem, for me anyway, is in the grey areas – those things that you’re not sure as to whether they’re primary or secondary. One of these, in my opinion, is the existence of Satan and other supernatural beings. I think that without an acknowledgement of these beings, there is something crucial lacking from Christian beliefs, but on the other hand, it seems strange (to say the least) that a belief in Satan would be necessary for someone’s salvation. Another grey area is the Trinity. I think believing in Father, Son and Holy Spirit is essential, but do you have to believe that they form a Trinity in the way that the early church decided? I honestly don’t know (for the record, I do believe in the traditional view of the Trinity).
Hopefully this has shed some light on what primary and secondary issues are. Interestingly, I would say that whatever each Christian sees as primary or secondary is a secondary issue. Broadly speaking, I don’t see that there is an obvious set of primary/secondary beliefs that all Christians should hold. If you’re a Christian, I think it’s important to know where you stand with this, because it may make it easier to know where you stand in different debates and to know when it’s worth speaking up and when it isn’t. If you’re a non-Christian who is reading this out of interest in Christianity, I hope that it’s been helpful and that it will encourage you to keep on seeking for the answers you need.
P.S. – If you want Biblical references for the issues that I’ve raised, leave a comment and I’ll post them in a reply. In Biblical terms, the words ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ are not used, but it is clear in Paul’s letters that he views some beliefs as more important than others. Unfortunately, we’re not provided with an exhaustive Biblical list of what is essential to believe and what isn’t.