Who decides what’s orthodox and what’s not?

by K.W. Leslie, 21 April

I’m involved in a few different online discussion groups.

In one, the subject of Darbyism came up. ’Cause one of the members is Darbyist, and wanted a shout-out from all his fellow Darbyists in the group. To his surprise, turns out most of us aren’t Darybist at all… and in fact a number of us stated Darbyism is unbiblical, and some of us called it faithless… and some of us flat-out called it heresy.

Heresy is taking it too far. Those who called it heresy got some backlash from the rest of us. ’Cause while we might disagree with Darbyism (often profoundly), we’d call it wrong, but we won’t call it heresy. We don’t throw around the H-word so casually.

Of course there are plenty of Christians who use it all the time. There’s a pastor I’m thinking of (and no doubt you can guess who he is) who drops the H-bomb every chance he gets. If you’re not Protestant, Calvinist, and Darbyist like he is; if you claim miracles still happen; if you have women in any positions of leadership in your churches; if you in any way support members of the opposition party… well you’re heretic and going to hell. The way he describes it, nine-tenths of humanity is going to hell, and God is somehow pleased with this idea. No surprise, he doesn’t talk a lot about how God is love. In his mind, God’s really not.

I think he’s profoundly wrong too. And yet I won’t even call him a heretic.

See, there’s a difference between being wrong, and being heretic. Guys like this pastor don’t recongize any such difference: Heresy is whenever we get anything wrong. Understanding the trinity wrong is heresy… and so is mispronouncing “Habakkuk.”

Okay. If every wrong belief is heresy, does this mean any wrong belief might send us to hell? Well few of them will ever go that far. They’ll make distinctions between minor sins and mortal sins. Little heresies are forgivable, big heresies not so much, and the biggest ones are so grievous you instantly forfeit salvation and are doomed. For that matter, in Dante Alleghiri’s Inferno he tells of some people whom he was surprised to find in hell—he thought they were alive! Turns out they committed such grave heresies, they were instantly extracted from their bodies and put in hell… and their now-dead body is actually being puppeted by a demon. (Yes this is pure mythology; the bible teaches no such thing. But some Darbyists have borrowed this idea for how they imagine the Beast is gonna someday be taken over by Satan.)

When I was a kid, I grew up among people who defined heresy like this. Get God wrong just enough, and you’re outside the pale of God’s kingdom altogether. But this thinking is largely based on faith righteousness—the belief we’re saved by “faith,” only they don’t actually mean faith; they mean the faith, i.e. orthodoxy. Get the faith wrong, and you’re not Christian. So even if you have actual faith, and trust God to save you… whoops, you got the trinity wrong, so he’s not gonna. His grace is wholly contingent upon our good work of getting our theological ducks in a row.

Of course it’s the wrong definition of heresy. I go with the historical defnition: Heresy is any belief or opinion which goes against historic Christian orthodoxy.

If we believe and teach contrary to what Christianity has taught since the ancient church—long before Christians split into the Orthodox and Catholic camps, and way before Protestants ever came around—that counts as heresy. Whenever theological issues became particularly divisive, ancient Christians convened church councils, hammered out their differences, and defined orthodoxy. They didn’t do it comprehensively, but they covered pretty much everything vital, and did it really well.

Church councils since antiquity.

But after the Orthodox/Catholic split, Christians don’t do these councils anymore. Not because we can’t; ecumenical Christians certainly make an effort. But none of these councils can claim to speak for all of Christendom.

The Roman Catholics hold councils every few centuries. Their most recent, Vatican 2, took place in the 1960s. They call their councils ecumenical, and claim they speak for every Christian. Thing is, no other church, no matter how much they respect Catholics and consider them our sisters and brothers in Christ, considers these councils anything but internal Catholic matters. I may like several of Vatican 2’s reforms (particularly the one which acknowledges Protestants as fellow Christians), but I still feel free to ignore their idea of a male-only priesthood. I affirm a priesthood of all believers, like the scriptures describe. ’Cause I’m not Catholic.

So can any new councils determine something is orthodox Christianity, and condemn beliefs contrary to theirs as heresy? Only if we can get all the Christians together. Good luck with all that; only Jesus is gonna be able to pull it off.

And yet individual churches, and individual Christians, are gonna point to some council or conference, and claim it’s applicable to every Christian everywhere. Some Christian political activist group is gonna gather, write a manifesto denouncing the death penalty, and anathematize every Christian who doesn’t agree with them. And the rest of us who have no problem with executing dangerous criminals (though we may absolutely have a problem with the way the death penalty is implemented!) are gonna feel entirely free to ignore them. Because they don’t speak for Christianity. Nobody but Jesus does, anymore. They only speak for themselves.

Sometimes these groups are gonna have a lot of supporters. Fr’instance in 1978 the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy put out their “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” in which they defined what biblical inerrancy means to them. A lot of Evangelicals have decided this council does speak for them, and require anybody who works for their organizations to sign off on the Chicago Statement. If you don’t believe in inerrancy the same way they do, they’d call you heretic, or certainly treat you as one. But again: That’s only among these Evangelicals. You can of course find other Evangelicals who have their own views on inerrancy, who want you to sign off on their statements; or no statement at all. In fact you’ll find a number who chafe at the whole idea of agreeing with someone else’s statement, ’cause once again: These guys don’t speak for Christianity. Why are we ceding them any authority? That authority only belongs to Jesus.

You see the problem. One conference or church doesn’t speak for all of us: We’re no longer functioning as one church. Jesus may ignore all our denominational barriers, but we don’t. Heck, sometimes an individual church will choose to disagree with its own denomination. So how can any church council speak for all of us anymore?

Not that Christians don’t try. Many a preacher, many a church board, many an individual Christian, thinks they can. They’ve read their bibles and are pretty sure they understand it perfectly. They’re pretty sure certain issues are non-negotiable—they certainly are non-negotiable to them!—and therefore anyone who disagrees must be heretic. So they’ll use the H-word. And figure they’re entirely right to.

And they’re not. Orthodoxy and heresy aren’t defined by individual Christians, nor individual churches. They’re defined by Christendom as a whole… and since we’re not a whole anymore, we’re limited to the conclusions we came to when we were a whole. And if you don’t care for the ancient Christians’ conclusions, or wanna add new heresies to the list, I would say you fall in the very same boat as those people who wanna add books to, or take ’em out of, the bible: That’s not for you. That’s been decided long ago.

Later councils, later “heresies.”

What individual Christians, and individual churches, do get to do, is define our own limits. We have the freedom in Christ to decide, “This is what I believe; this is what I’m gonna teach; if you wanna teach otherwise, there are other churches to teach it in, but not mine.” We’re perfectly free to draft faith statements and tell the world where we stand.

In fact it’s probably best we do. If people are gonna worship with us, they oughta know what we and our churches believe! And if they happen to disagree, they may wanna worship elsewhere. I certainly do.

Let’s say I find out my church leaders have embraced cessationism, and use that lens to interpret everything they teach. Um… that’s a big problem. God still does miracles; he ceased nothing. So I can no longer trust a thing these church leaders teach me. I may respect these people’s character, personal behavior, personal devotion to God, but I certainly can’t respect their teachings.

I won’t feel comfortable inviting newbies to such a church, because I’ll have to refute and correct so much. It’ll be a massive stumbling block. Yes we’re all following the same Lord Jesus; I’m not gonna call them heretic! But I can’t stay in such a church. Not unless Jesus personally directs me to reform them—and man alive is that gonna suck, ’cause it’s such a gargantuan task. Not that Jesus can’t easily do the impossible, but still.

Now, that’s me. To many a cessationist, they’re mighty quick to call me heretic. Because they firmly believe miracles are of the devil, so either I believe as they do, or I’m following the devil. I can’t be Christian.

Which church council decided all us continuationists are heretic? Well you’ll find cessationists don’t know squat about Christian history. (They’re way more interested in the future than the past.) So they have no clue that church councils determine orthodoxy and heresy. In fact most of ’em assume all the ancient church councils were Roman Catholic—and they’re not Catholic, so these councils don’t apply to them. Or anyone. Heresy, they figure, is only defined by bible, and thanks to their harebrained interpretations, they’re entirely sure it tells ’em they’re orthodox and we’re heretic.

Now they’re not entirely wrong the bible determines orthodoxy and heresy.

2 Timothy 3.16 KWL
Every inspired scripture is also useful for teaching,
for disproving, for correcting, for instruction in rightness.

But when the scriptures don’t clearly, bluntly say something’s true or false, Christians gotta use wisdom to figure out whether something’s true or false, good or evil. We dig through the scriptures, find proof texts which defend a point of view (hopefully quoted in context!), and take a stand based on them. Same as the Christians of the ancient church councils did: They searched the scriptures for themselves, bounced their ideas off one another, and came to consensus about them. It wasn’t just one nut making binding declarations, nor one faction or party prevailing in a popular vote. It was a diverse bunch of Christians coming to the very same Spirit-led conclusion.

But after the Orthodox/Catholic split, we don’t have diverse bunches of Christians doing that anymore: We have factions. We have denominational councils. We have Catholics who figure they speak for everyone, but really only speak for themselves. That’s one thing the Protestants get right: Their denominations recognize they only speak for themselves, and won’t claim otherwise.

Well, most won’t. Like I said, there are those Calvinists who like to refer to the Synod of Dort, and act as if their ruling applies to all of Christendom. Which is just as loopy as claiming Vatican 2 does likewise.

We’re not in charge of defining orthodoxy.

If Christians could actually get every church on earth (or at least a serious majority of us) to set aside our differences for the sake of our common Lord and his gospel, maybe we could hold a definitive church council again. And maybe we could officially, universally decide certain new controversies count as heresies.

But don’t hold your breath. I expect we’re just gonna have to wait for Jesus to return and rule on these issues personally.

In the meanwhile I’m not wholly sure we do need such rulings. The universal church had seven centuries to sort out the really necessary stuff. Most present-day problems are simply those old heresies with new names, or hypocrisy disguised as righteousness. We don’t have any desperate need for a church council; if we did, the Holy Spirit might actually put one together! But as it is, we can denounce sin, confusion, delusion, and stupidity just fine without another one.

And we Christians need to resist the temptation to seize the reins of orthodoxy, and claim we get to set new standards for who’s in God’s kingdom and who isn’t. That’s not our call; never was. That’s always been up to Jesus, whose judgment is infallible and trustworthy. Us, not so much.