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A Triage for Marriage Conflicts

Just as Christian thinkers need a theological triage to sort through their doctrines, Christian couples need a moral triage to sort through their conflicts.

Aug 25, 2015

Eric is shocked that his wife is so angry. Most of the guys in his office do the same thing every week. Why does Rachel have to make a big deal out of it? Doesn’t she understand that it is an unavoidable part of his job? Despite his best efforts to help her see his dilemma, Rachel is still offended by his weekly business lunch alone with a female colleague.

At the heart of this argument is a disagreement over the basic nature of the situation. Eric doesn’t see a problem with having a business lunch with a female co-worker, while his wife considers it appalling. Is Eric sinning against his spouse by having a professional lunch with another woman? Could it be argued that the Bible prohibits this action? How might Eric and Rachel go about resolving this conflict?

In recent years, Albert Mohler, Jr. has called for Christian thinkers to develop the “discipline of theological triage.”In the same way that emergency medical personnel evaluate their patients and classify their needs, Mohler has urged Christians to have a grid to guide them through doctrinal discussions.

Just as Christian thinkers need a theological triage to sort through their doctrines, Christian couples need a moral triage to sort through their conflicts. Before a couple determines who is right and what to do next, they must first determine what they are arguing about and what the Bible has to say about it. If a triage can help someone articulate their theology, it makes sense to seek a triage to help apply theology as well.

In this series, we will set forth a moral triage based on four categories found in the Scriptures: sin, wisdom, conscience, and preference. Today, we will lay the groundwork by briefly defining each category in the grid. The essential question a couple must ask in order to triage their conflict is, “What kind of issue are we disagreeing about?”


The moral category of sin is the most familiar of the four and is typically the easiest to recognize. Sin is “lawlessness” (1 John 3:4b) and “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20b). Therefore, in order to classify an action as sin, it typically needs to transgress the revealed law of God in some way.

Because sins are necessarily tied to the Scriptures, this category should apply equally to all Christians. However, if the issue at hand is not an actual sin, then the couple must recognize it as such and agree to handle it differently.


The second moral category to consider is wisdom. Wisdom begins with a proper understanding of God (Proverbs 9:10) and moves toward God-honoring application of biblical principles (Proverbs 1:2–4). The absence of wisdom often results in sinful foolishness, but some actions can rightly be classified as unwise, even if they are not truly sinful (e.g., James 1:5).

For example, in Proverbs 7, Solomon presents a wayward young man whose poor judgment leads him into the arms of an adulteress. The distinction between sin and an absence of wisdom can be perceived when one progresses through the text asking the question, “At what point does this man sin against God?” Verse 7 tells us the young man is “lacking sense,” which leads to him “passing along the street near her corner” and “taking the road to her house” (Proverbs 7:7–8). While his decision to go near the house of the adulteress certainly contributes to his eventual sin (Proverbs 7:21–23), his travel route itself is not sinful. The Bible does not prohibit a man from being near a promiscuous woman, otherwise Jesus himself would be guilty of this sin (John 4:16–18). However, the young man’s decision to go near the house of the adulteress is far from morally neutral. It lacks wisdom. In the moment, he is rejecting the divine wisdom that would have him to avoid temptation (Proverbs 6:20–35). His lack of wisdom eventually leads him into sin (Proverbs 7:21–23). Wisdom, therefore, requires one to perceive when a particular choice could lead to sin by thinking biblically about patterns and outcomes.


The third moral category is conscience. When someone chooses to abstain from something that is neither sinful nor foolish, it is typically due to their conscience. This term is used throughout Scripture, but it is most clearly defined in Paul’s discussion of food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8–10 (see also Acts 24:16, 1 Timothy 4:1–2, 2 Timothy 1:3, and Hebrews 13:18–19). In first-century Corinth, believers were concerned about whether or not they should eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol and how they should respond to a dinner invitation where such meat might be served. For Christians who recognized that idols do not truly exist, Paul declared the meat to be untainted (1 Corinthians 8:4). However, he went on to say, “Some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (1 Corinthians 8:7). Based on this text, one could say that conscience is the result of applying biblical wisdom to personal experience. The reason some Corinthian Christians struggled with eating meat sacrificed to idols is because they formerly did so in the context of pagan worship. Eating the meat was not inherently sinful or unwise but, “through former association with idols” the act itself defiled their consciences (1 Corinthians 8:7).


Preferences are no doubt the largest category on the grid because so many daily decisions fall into this classification. In reality, this is the area in which many couples have the most arguments. Preferences may have a faint connection to a particular piece of wisdom or issue of conscience, but they are largely the product of an individual’s taste, style, tendencies, life stage, generation, and cultural background. Biblical terms for this category include “opinions” (Romans 14:1) and “interests” (Philippians 2:4).

The key to understanding the category of preference is to recognize that such an opinion is morally benign, so long as one holds to it properly (i.e., without making an idol of it). While the Scripture may inform our preferences and even change our opinions over time, Christians should expect to disagree on such issues.

Having briefly examined each of the four categories, in the next post we will discuss several key principles for applying these categories as a moral triage.