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

I’m involved in a few different discussion groups. In one, the subject of Darbyism came up: One of the members is a Darbyist and wanted a shout-out from all his fellow Darbyists in the group. Turns out most of us aren’t Darbyist at all; in fact a number of us consider Darbyism to be unbiblical and faithless. I’m pretty sure he was surprised, if not horrified, at the non-support.

Of course, among all the expressions of non-support, one newbie went even further and declared Darybism is heresy. There he went too far, and got a little backlash himself—some of it from the same folks who take issue with Darbyism. ’Cause Darbyism is wrong—often profoundly so—but not heresy. We mustn’t throw around the H-word so casually.

But of course many don’t know the difference between wrong and heresy, and sometimes think there is no difference: Heresy is whenever we get something wrong, and everything wrong is heresy. Getting the trinity wrong is heresy… and so is mispronouncing “Habakkuk.”

Yeah, obviously this extends the definition of heresy way too far. But some Christians do exactly this. And if we get God wrong in any miniscule way, they imagine it takes us outside the pale of God’s kingdom altogether. We’ve gone antichrist—and you know Jesus doesn’t include antichrists in his kingdom. This thinking is based on faith righteousness, the belief we’re saved by faith, which they define as “the Christian faith,” i.e. orthodoxy. Get the faith wrong, and you’re not Christian. Even though proper orthodoxy teaches us we’re saved by God’s grace and nothing else… but they’re clearly not as familiar with grace as they oughta be.

But back to the definition of heresy: I go with the historical one. 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, the 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.

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 might call their councils ecumenical, and claim they speak for every Christian… but obviously no other church 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, and affirm a priesthood of all believers. ’Cause I’m not Catholic.

So can any new councils determine something is orthodox Christianity, and condemn beliefs contrary to theirs as heresy? Nope. Because again: Nobody else believes they speak for all of Christendom.

Fr’instance Calvinists will point out to me that various Arminian teachings, like unlimited atonement and our ability to resist God’s grace, were condemned as heresy by the Synod of Dort in 1619. So there y’go: Arminianism is heresy. Thing is, the Synod of Dort was a church council convened by one denomination, the Dutch Reformed Church. Did they speak for other denominations of their day? How about Orthodox Christians or Roman Catholics, both of whom also believe in unlimited atonement and resistible grace? How about even their fellow Calvinists in the Church of Scotland, or the Genevan church, in that same year?—both of whom might agree with the Dutch church, but is the Dutch church’s ruling in any way binding for those churches?

You see the problem. One church doesn’t speak for all churches, because we’re no longer functioning as one church. Jesus may ignore all our denominational barriers, but we don’t—and sometimes an individual church will even 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 statements of faith 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.

Fr’instance if I find out I’m in a church which has embraced Darbyism, and uses that lens to interpret everything they teach, I can’t really trust a thing they tell me. I’m not gonna trust their teachers and pastors; 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 their 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 Darbyist—especially once they find out I don’t believe as they do about the End Times!—they’re mighty quick to call me heretic. Because to an awful lot of them, their End Times beliefs are non-negotiable. You either believe as they do, or you’re not really Christian. You can’t be.

Which church council decided all us non-Darbyists are heretic? Well you’ll find Darbyists tend to not 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.