Triage is a process where you sort people needing medical attention into different groups based on their sickness or injury to help those with the most urgent needs first. If you have ever had to go to the emergency room, you’ve gone through a triage process. A while back, I had a pretty nasty cut and went to the ER. The triage nurse sent me back to get stitched up rather quickly, and I jumped ahead of many people who had been there for a long time. Around the same time, a man with a work accident came through the door, and the triage nurse put him in line to be treated right after me. I was being prepped for stitches when a third individual came in with a life-and-death situation. The doctor left me, and along with the other medical staff, rushed to help this third person.
A little while later, the doctor returned and sewed me up. I could hear the worker making a fuss because he was still waiting. When he finally got to be examined, the doctor told him he was ok, they were releasing him to go home, and he needed to follow up with his family doctor. He was incensed and protested that he was not fine. The doctor said, “I’m in the ER. My job is to try and make sure you don’t die. You have no broken bones, no bleeding. You are injured. But you are not going to die, so you need to go your family doctor for further treatment.”
In this situation, all three of us needed medical attention. All three of us legitimately required to be seen by a doctor, and we all, rightly, went to the ER. Though my cut was pretty bad, I wasn’t going to bleed to death, but it was more urgent than the shoulder injury because once they assessed the nature of the damage, there was nothing more they could do to treat the man. I had an open wound, and I was bleeding all over the place. However, when the life-and-death situation came in by ambulance, all attention rightly went to the most dire and pressing problem.
In Gavin Ortlund’s book Hills to Die On, he uses this concept to describe “theological triage.” There are issues where the gospel is at stake, church distinctives are at stake, and church and Christian unity are at stake that move to the front of the line and demand our urgent attention. Not every issue is a hill to die on. Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees, in Matthew 23:23, they were hypocrites because they tithed their spices but “omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” It’s not that Jesus said one was unimportant, but were bigger issues at play. They missed the weightier matters of the law and had more urgent matters to deal with, such as mercy and faith.