Assessing Belief Importance

Inevitably in our interaction with other Christians, we will encounter differences in beliefs on different questions and issues. Some of the differences may be minor, and some may be more significant. But how do we assess how important a given difference really is?

This has been a particularly interesting question for me lately, we have been reviewing applicants for the position of pastor at our church. With this process, we have been reviewing many statements of doctrine, philosophy of ministry, sermons, and other communications that express a variety of beliefs. With the large number of different beliefs that can be covered, we naturally occasionally encounter some that we perhaps disagree with to some extent. But how important is that?

We often tend expend to a large amount of energy in establishing and defending our beliefs, with the main focus on whether something is right or wrong. But how do we know how important each of these beliefs are? How do we determine which ones are critical, and which ones aren’t?

Typically, these decisions seem to be prone to be a very subjective and vague determination, directed by pretty unhelpful measures, like how strange I think someone’s view is. Those seeking to be more objective, may choose to apply a more verifiable standard. We can divide issues into essential and non-essential, with the essential beliefs typically being something along the lines of a statement of faith, or orthodox creed.

While this is a helpful step, and a great and simple way to describe the variation that exists, a simple binary division still does not address the fact that our beliefs exist on a wide spectrum of importance. Many beliefs might be considered non-essential, but still could have a very large impact on our perspective and behavior. Beliefs can range from totally shaping our lives, to being very important, to somewhat important, to slightly important, to completely irrelevant. Placing beliefs on this spectrum requires a closer look than just determining if it is part of a statement of faith.

For a more objective assessment, I would suggest three measures:

  • Epistemic: This is an assessment of how confident we can really be in our position. Some beliefs can be easily corroborated, having been upheld by centuries of orthodoxy, and we may hold these beliefs with greater confidence. Other beliefs may be more esoteric, or have been hotly contested, with many brilliant people evenly divided on both sides of a belief. It is sometimes foolish and arrogant to claim a strong confidence in the latter beliefs.
  • Theological: The theological measure is an assessment of how a belief affects our perspective of God. How much does this belief shape our image of God? However, we must be very careful with this measure, often this can easily turn into a circular logic fallacy attempt to defend a belief, with both sides thinking their perspective is most God glorifying because they think it is true.
  • Empirical: The empirical measure is an assessment of how much we can actually measure a real distinction in behavior due to a belief. Does a particular belief cause truly distinct behavior? We must exercise caution here as well. We frequently tend to expect a certain behavior, based on our own understanding of someone’s belief. We can easily fail to look no further than our expectation, or even allow our expectation to bias our interpretation of behavior. However, to properly assess a belief by this measure, we must make an honest look at if behavior is really affected by the belief.

Hopefully these measures might provide a little more objectivity as you consider which beliefs are important and really how important they are. There are certainly beliefs that are indeed are very important, and others that are not worth much energy. Are there any other measures that you would apply?

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