Orthodoxy: Getting our theological ducks in a row.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 February
ORTHODOX 'ɔr.θə.dɑks adjective. Correct; conforms to what’s commonly or traditionally believed true; generally accepted as right.
2. Usual, conventional, normal, customary.
3. [capitalized] Of the ancient churches originating in the eastern Roman Empire, which formally split from the Roman Catholics in 1054.
[Orthodoxy 'ɔr.θə.dɑks.i noun.]

Christianity is primarily about trusting and following Christ Jesus. We read what he taught, agree with him, and do as he said; we join his kingdom, with him as our king.

An important secondary thing (and you just know people miss the point and turn it into the primary thing) is what we believe about Jesus. How we understand him, and who we understand him to be, are mighty important things. ’Cause when we misunderstand who Jesus is, we follow him wrong. Aren’t even following him at all, in many cases: We’re following an imaginary Jesus who looks a lot more like us, and our biases and prejudices… or who looks more like the cult leaders who got us to believe in their imaginary Jesuses.

Obviously people had wrong ideas about Jesus while he was still walking the earth. Definitely didn’t stop after he left: There were Pharisees who were pretty sure his kingdom couldn’t include gentiles, or Greeks who were pretty sure Jesus can’t have come to earth in a physical body, ’cause animal matter is icky and gross. There were Egyptians who objected to the idea Jesus is God, and said he’s gotta be a lesser god, not the God. Don’t forget all the con artists inventing new religions, who decided to throw bits and pieces of this new middle eastern religion into their mixtures to make themselves sound more exotic. (Nope, it’s not a new practice. Humans have always been doing that.)

So… what’s correct and what isn’t?

Who decides orthodoxy?

Well, here’s where things get tricky. How do we determine which Christians, and Christian beliefs, are orthodox, and which of ’em are wrong, heretic, or even evil? How do we sort the wheat from the weeds, the good from the dumb, the gold from fool’s gold, the kosher hot dogs from the pure pink slime?

Well, every church in Christendom claims they have the solution: They’re orthodox. Believe ye in their doctrines, and ye shall be saved. Believe ye not in their doctrines, and out you go. Either they’ll kindly ask you to go elsewhere, or they’ll formally excommunicate you, and hand you over to Satan, 1Ti 1.20 ’cause they’re pretty sure God won’t have you.

I agree every church’s leadership has the ability to decide for themselves what they believe, and how firm they’re gonna emphasize those beliefs. Fr’instance one of my previous churches believed Christians shouldn’t drink. No, the bible mandates no such thing; it only recommends we don’t get drunk. Ep 5.18 But that church ministered to a lot of alcoholics, and the leaders felt those who could drink might mislead those who can’t. So it’s more important to protect weaker believers. Ro 14 Makes sense, right? But is this a make-or-break issue, where you’re going to hell if you drink? Absolutely not.

…Except one of the church’s leaders believed strongly and vocally that if you drank, you probably were going to hell. Drinking meant you thought so little of your fellow Christians, you were so selfish as to do your own thing without taking other people into consideration, that you were essentially an antichrist. He doubted thoughtless people like that were even saved. To his mind, people whom God truly saved people would never, ever do that. To him this was a make-or-break issue. Drink, and you’re heretic.

Now who died and made him God?

But that’s how it works when individuals get to decide what’s orthodox and what’s not. All of us have our favorite beliefs, and most of us will turn ’em into priorities and absolutes—and not just for us personally, but for everyone. Every Christian has to think and believe as we do.

Or we’ll go the opposite extreme: We’ll dismiss and permit all sorts of things. We’ll call it “generous orthodoxy.” But our liberalism will allow things we really shouldn’t. Paul had to rebuke the church of Corinth for not just including a guy who was banging his stepmother, but for being proud of how inclusive they were. 1Co 5 Look, we gotta be gracious and embrace sinners, and forgive them everything, same as God forgives us. But Jesus expects us to turn from such sins, and stop doing ’em, not make accommodations. A church which doesn’t teach likewise isn’t following Jesus.

So while churches are free to set a standard—and really oughta—do they set a universal standard, true for every Christian everywhere? Well, some of us think we do. Fundamentalists in particular. Disagree with their doctrines and they’ll insist you’re not a real Christian. In fact some of ’em are mighty sure they’re the only real Christians, and when the rapture happens the only ones we’ll find in heaven are Fundies, the first apostles, and Ronald Reagan.

But realistically though: Who sets the ultimate standard? Who gets the final word?

I say Christ Jesus. Should be Jesus, right? I mean, why’re we calling ourselves “Christians” otherwise? If we’re gonna be judged in the End by him, obviously he determines what’s correct and what isn’t. That’s the whole point of his teaching, “You’ve heard it said… but I tell you” Mt 5.38-39he defines Christianity. Not me. Nor my favorite Christians. Nor my favorite church. Nor my favorite beliefs, faith statements, creeds, or anything else. We don’t get to the Father except through Jesus, Jn 14.6 and that’s true of our beliefs as well: We don’t “get” God unless Jesus interprets him for us. He sets the standard—and he forgives us when we fall short of it, as we will.

Beyond Jesus, we got the ancient creeds. And this part gets controversial for Fundamentalists, who insist they get to define orthodoxy; not some ancient “Catholics.” (Even though the creeds were written long before the Roman Catholic Church came into existence.) Whenever heresy became a serious issue in the Roman Empire, the emperor would call a council of every leading Christian and have ’em sort it out. I believe their conclusions are consistent with the scriptures, and so has nearly every Christian since. Their conclusions aren’t comprehensive—there are still a lot of wrong ideas they never got round to addressing!—but they got to all the important ones, all the Christianity-defining ones. So they defined orthodoxy too.

Misusing orthodoxy.

Two common mistakes Christians make about orthodoxy.

First, faith righteousness: Many Christians think we’re only saved when we believe all the right things. That if we get any of our beliefs wrong, Jesus’ll say, “Whoops, you didn’t pass the orthodoxy test,” and it’s off to hell. This is what they mean by “saved by faith”: If you put your faith in the wrong beliefs, it doesn’t save! It condemns.

It’s absolutely wrong, of course. We’re saved by God’s grace alone. The Protestant slogan sola fide, “faith alone,” refers to how we’re justified, not how we’re saved. We trust Jesus, Ga 2.16 the one whom the Father sent us, Jn 6.29 and it’s through this faith God grants us grace. Ep 2.8 Not through our individual orthodox beliefs; it’s through trusting Jesus.

The reason Christians teach faith righteousness is pretty simple: They don’t understand grace. As we can tell by how utterly graceless they get, and how quick they are to condemn. Much as they correctly point out we’re not saved by works, they somehow wanna slip into the mix, without anyone really noticing, the hard work of sorting out our beliefs and becoming orthodox Christians. And convince us if we don’t do it, we’re not really saved—because they don’t believe, can’t believe, God might extend his grace to heretics. They’re not gracious, so they wanna remake God so he’s ungracious too.

Second, the idea since orthodoxy doesn’t save, it’s not important. Or not that important. Hence many a Christian figures we can believe as we like, since all roads lead to God anyway, and God’ll forgive everything and sort us all out.

Look, the reason God saves us is so we can do good works. Ep 2.10 Not so we can sit on our growing behinds and bask in his salvation. Now that we’re saved, we got work to do! And just so we get cracking on the stuff God actually wants us to do, instead of the busywork our Christianist culture does instead, it just makes sense to get to know the actual God, instead of the Christianist interpretations which con us into doing anything and everything else—preferably things which get their candidates elected. Stand back and look at what they expect us to do. Now, if Jesus is just gonna overthrow all these works once he returns, stands to reason it’s a colossal waste of our time, effort, money, and passion.

If we want a growing relationship with God—heck, if we want a relationship with him period, instead of just taking him for granted—it only makes sense we’ll try to get to know him as he really is, and not just embrace whichever interpretation of him is most convenient. We’ll trust him enough to actually tackle the things he tells us to do, instead of preemptively assuming they’re impossible, unfathomable, too righteous for unrighteous humans to approach (sola fide notwithstanding), too perfect for imperfect humans to do without ruining everything. We’ll embrace God instead of embracing cop-outs.

After all, Jesus came to earth to reveal God to us. Jn 1.18 Dismissing Jesus’s mission as irrelevant doesn’t strike you as the most Christian of behaviors, does it?