Dr. Al Mohler has written a helpful piece on theological triage. Briefly, theological triage is an attempt to "sort" the doctrines of Christianity according to their relative significance to the faith. First order doctrines are things that one must believe to be a Christian—things like the Triunity of God and the two natures of Christ. If you don’t believe Jesus died for your sins, you’re not a Christian, and this is the nature of a first order issue. First order issues divide Christians from non-Christians.
Second order doctrines are important, but believing Christians can and do disagree on them—things like who gets baptized and how we baptize them. Christians divide from each other over these issues.
Third order issues are, in Mohler’s words, "doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations." An example of a third order issue is the question of whether or not there will be a millenium. Disagreement over this doesn’t mandate that we not worship together in the same church (it doesn’t affect our view of baptism or the Lord’s supper).
So here’s the big question: Is the dispute between Calvinists and Arminians a first, second, or third order dispute? I would like to suggest that, depending upon one’s view of the relationship between Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, it is either a first or third order issue. The fact that there have been both general (i.e., Arminian) and particular (i.e., Calvinistic) Baptists, along with the existence of Calvinistic Methodists, keeps this from being a second order issue.
So what determines whether this is an issue of the first or third order? This is probably an oversimplification, but because I think it is helpful I will suggest that if both Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility are affirmed, this is a third order dispute over whether the emphasis should lie more on God’s initiative or humanity’s freedom. But if one denies either Divine Sovereignty or Human Responsibility, this becomes a first order issue.
Some Calvinists assume that all Arminians deny Divine Sovereignty. But it is not fair to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a theological position by its worst representatives. The truth is that there are Arminians who have a high view of God’s sovereignty. After all, Charles Wesley wrote "And Can It Be," and a glance through Grant Osborne’s excellent commentary on Revelation will show that an avowed Arminian can affirm the absolute sovereignty of God (see for example Osborne’s comment on Revelation 17:17, Revelation, 627).
Some Arminians assume that all Calvinists deny human responsibility and as a result think that things like evangelism and prayer are unnecessary. I have often heard people talk about "hyper-calvinists"—people who deny human responsibility and say that evangelism is not necessary. But never in my life have I ever actually met a self-described hyper-calvinist, someone who would affirm this position. If someone denies the necessity of evangelism and prayer, the problem is not that some aspects of their thinking are Calvinistic, the problem is that they are ignoring the clear teaching of the Bible. Some Arminians seem to forget that William Carey, the father of modern missions, was a five point Calvinist, as was Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the "prince of preachers" (and many other evangelistic Calvinists could be cited). To assume that these evangelistic Calvinists are the exceptions that prove the rule is no more fair than the assumption that a biblical Arminian is an exception that proves the rule.
John Hannah often says we owe two things to everyone: (1) to understand their position as they would articulate it; and (2) to interact with that position fairly. Let us think charitably of one another as we contend for biblical and theological precision.
More could no doubt be said, but we must believe that God is sovereign and humans are responsible. If we sacrifice either of these truths we are unbiblical. Errors on both sides affect one’s view of God, and one’s view of God is determinative for one’s world-view. This is why many react to the dispute between Calvinists and Arminians as a first order issue—because one’s view of God determines everything (or should).
We must believe everything the Bible says about God. I maintain that as long as one can affirm that God is sovereign and humans are responsible, this is a third order debate. We should all be in the process of biblical and theological growth, and may the Lord give us grace to live up to the theology we have attained (Phil 3:16).