Wednesday, September 27, 2006

What is Christian orthodoxy?

It may sound like I am backtracking somewhat, but the establishment of definitions is crucial. Orthodox means different things to different people and among Christians, talking about orthodoxy gets responses that range from imposition upon Christian liberty to idolizing creeds and formulas. God’s Word, the source of sound doctrine, teaches that holding to sound doctrine pleases God (Titus 2:9-10). Sound doctrine rightly explains to a fallen people who God is and rightly explains how they ought to relate to Him.

Just because an individual is orthodox does not mean that he is right with God. To hold to the biblical propositions about God will make you correct, but will not make you a Christian. The dictionary sitting on my shelf defines orthodox as “correct or sound in doctrine, especially religious beliefs.” So, any adherent to any religious faith can be orthodox. A Mormon can hold orthodox Mormon doctrines; a Jew can hold to orthodox Judaism; a Muslim can be orthodox in his beliefs about the Koran. Their doctrines are what they consider to be true and binding upon them and their lives are an extension of what they believe. The word orthodox transcends religious affiliation yet what does it mean for a Christian to be orthodox?

Orthodoxy is straight thinking. It means holding to a right opinion about a matter. When a Christian is “thinking straight,” he is thinking in terms of truth and allowing that truth to permeate who he is. The truth is then woven into his life; heart, soul, and mind. The truth has obvious effects on conduct and attitude. Therefore, an orthodox Christian is one who diligently seeks the truth found in the only source for sound doctrine, the Bible.

Do not think that you are thinking straight, that you are orthodox in your beliefs, unless your heart and will are subject to the truth. A personal commitment must be made to the truth, or else Christian orthodoxy becomes prideful and an affront against God. This is why Pastor James called on his congregation to understand the false dichotomy of faith and works (James 2:14-26). The two are not mutually exclusive, for the believing of right doctrine necessarily leads to right practice; hence, orthodoxy’s fraternal twin, orthopraxy.

James addressed his folks’ unwillingness to do; they believed perfectly fine. An unwillingness to do blinds our minds to the truth and raises in our minds a prejudice that prevents us from thinking straight. James used the example of passing by one who was destitute of daily food and clothing and the failure to provide for the impecunious’ daily necessities. “Go in peace, be warmed, and filled,” is simply platitudinous and benefits the weary one nothing. A truly orthodox Christian would address the poor man’s needs in this example not because it is the right thing to do but because he believes the right thing about God.

The intellect is not a faculty or a function that can act independently of the condition of the heart. There is always going to be an inter-permeation of knowing and doing. Only as the whole truth of God’s Word is applied to life and life is brought into conformity with it can true orthodoxy come to pass in the life of a believer. Only as the Christian is subject to the truth can he “think straight.”

For this reason, orthodoxy can be considered fluid; not in the sense that orthodoxy changes, which it does not, but understanding of what is and what is not orthodox can change. It is not that the doctrines change; the doctrines are static. It is the attitude toward those doctrines that is fluid and dynamic. As daily experience affords the believer opportunity to try his faith, one must bring that experience under the subjection of Scripture. He may or may not respond the way God would desire him to respond. So a failure in orthopraxy (sin) must necessarily lead to a revision of what would be considered orthodox. If we fail in doing a particular doctrine, it is not that our heads are at fault, it is our hearts.

If a Christian is not thinking straight, then he is thinking crooked, and if a Christian is thinking crooked, he is not thinking in terms of the truth. If he is thinking crooked, then the truth of the Word of God is not being woven into his existence. “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). If he is thinking crooked, then he himself is crooked, in need of careful, prayerful, persistent, study of the Word of God, in order to straighten himself out to the standard of the Word of God. Dwight L. Moody is famous for the quip, “The best way to show that a stick is crooked is not to argue about it or to spend time denouncing it, but to lay a straight stick beside it.”

A necessary conclusion must then be drawn. It is a false antithesis to contrast the orthodox person with one who is seemingly devout or at the very least, to think that devotion can be severed from orthodoxy. John Murray, a Scottish minister of the early 20th century, said, “The person who is pious is pious only in the measure he is orthodox and the person who is orthodox is orthodox only in the measure in which he is pious.”

True, genuine piety is beautifully complemented by a faith that sees to its neighbor’s needs, shares joyfully the love of Christ with the stranger, serves dutifully in the church, disciples new believers in their faith, submits willingly to authority, and daily dies to self, bearing the cross with dignity and grace.

Therefore, by Christian orthodoxy, I mean straight-thinking Christianity; Christians, rightly-related to God, saved by grace through faith, thinking in terms of the truth, allowing that truth to infuse every facet of life. Thinking on the truth then is synonymous with thinking upon God, relating all of life to God and God to every part of life. Orthodoxy, truly understood, is striking a balance between Christian liberty and formal doctrine.

One cannot exist without the other; the two must peacefully co-exist, not as parasites feeding off one another but in a symbiosis in which the believer is challenged and inspired by both. Doctrine drives what the believer knows and understands; liberty entitles him to respond to those doctrines in the way God would expect.

This leads then, to the next question, what are the demands of orthodoxy? At the next post, we will take up this question.



Raborn Johnson said...

Interesting thoughts on orthodoxy. It seems to me that in contemporary society (including the Church), orthodoxy does not have the functional meaning of "right" or "sound" teaching, but rather, "accepted" or "codified" teaching. Now, I understand that Merriam Webster would not necessarily concur with my definition, but the meaning of words seems to evolve over time. If the practical definition of orthodoxy then is "accepted" or "codified" teaching, then I would have to say that orthodoxy does indeed change. The Reformers confronted nearly 1000 years of what had come to be seen as "orthodox" teaching. The fundamentalists, evangelicals, Pentecostals, etc. have done the same progressively over time. Even the idea of orthodoxy was developed over time. The last letter in the New Testament was finished well before the idea of a codified orthodoxy as complex as we hold today was developed. If "orthodox" standards were so essential to someone's walk in Christ, how did the early believers walk in Christ with such vitality?

If by orthodoxy we mean "right" or "sound" teaching or doctrine, then how much is necessarily understood for us to walk in Christ with the same fruitfulness as the early believers? I think that you might have hit the nail on the head when you said (loosely) that our heads cannot be separated from our hearts. Is it better to know Christ or to know all of the correct facts about Him? Is it better to know all of the Scriptures on the subject of love, or to love each other fervently, from the heart?

I think that while it is important to embrace sound teaching, we still "see through a glass darkly" and therefore, probably don't embrace as much sound teaching as we think. Sometimes I wish that we could just chunk our systematic theology books and instead do the works of Christ!

Thanks for your time! Your thoughts are very insightful and well stated!

Tony said...


Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting on my little blog.

You have a lot of great thoughts!!! And you have given me something to chew on...these are my initial thoughts.

I would not expect Webster to hold to the definition of "orthodox" neither as you do or as I do. I just used that as a springboard to begin my discussion on orthodoxy and essentially, and I guess it didn't come across leading that way, that it is an insufficient way to view orthodoxy.

I agree that the terms orthodox(y) do carry too much religious baggage with them and probably ought to be jettisoned; but as I said in a previous post, I have no problem with the usage of those words, but their usage needs to be qualified, which in this series of posts has been my goal. Interacting with you is really helping!

And a question, if I may, you said, "If "orthodox" standards were so essential to someone's walk in Christ, how did the early believers walk in Christ with such vitality?"

How do we know that they did? Again, this seems to press an awful lot into the Scriptures. I agree with you that we need to base our lives and practice on the living word, that is Jesus Himself, but how can we go beyond the Scripture and what has been revealed to us in the Bible for justification? There are several times in the Scriptures where God's people were confronted by the apostles for holding to unsound doctrines. For instance, take these verses:

"Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the people to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolatians. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and fight against you with the sword of My mouth." Revelation 2:14-16 NIV

This Scripture was written, as you said, before any formal doctrine (as we know it) was codified and before the closing of the canon of the NT. The church in Pergamum was an established church and obviosuly there was a codified set of teachings that was being taught in this church or else God would not have chastised them for failing to abide by those. There was a contingent of false teachers leading people away from what was acceptable teaching. So my original question stands; how do we know for certain that the NT believers led such vital lives in Christ, as you assume?

And I truly appreciate the comment you made; "Is it better to know Christ or to know all of the correct facts about Him? Is it better to know all of the Scriptures on the subject of love, or to love each other fervently, from the heart?"

This is really THE heart of the matter and the point of this series of posts. Jesus said, "If you love Me, you will obey what I command," John 14:15.

Thank you for the dialogue, my new friend. Hope to see you again soon.


Raborn Johnson said...

Sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you.

As far as the "Merriam Webster" quote, I did not even realize that you had used this definition, and in no way meant that you were wrong in using it. All that I was trying to say was that the meaning of a word needs to reflect it's contemporary, informal usage, not only it's formal definition.:)

As to the idea of the early believer's walk with Christ being a vital one, I should not have made such a blanket statement. Obviously, not all believers experienced this. What I should have said is that many of the early believers experienced a vital and invigorating walk with Christ without knowing or understanding some of the ideas that we would consider "orthodox" or even "essential" today. Obviously, according to Paul, the Phillipian believers seemed to be experiencing such a relationship with the Lord, as did Paul himself, Phillip, Peter, etc. I would consider leading many to the Lord, experiencing the fruit of the Spirit, seeing people raised from the dead, seeing people healed, etc. to be some pretty good indications of experiencing vitality in Christ?!?!? What do you think?

For a to the Scripture mentioning the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, I find this idea to be very intriguing. The Greek word translated Nicolaitans comes from two other Greek words:
1. Nikos--in the verb form "conquering", "overcome", "prevail"
2. Laos--the people (also where we get our word "laity")

So, it seems that the doctrine of the Nicolaitans could have been the suppression of the laity. Could this be where the whole clergy/laity distinction comes from? If you would like, read my post on "Who's the Priest?". Let me know what you think.:) (I know that this is somewhat off-topic...hope that's okay):)

Tony said...


Wow! I'm glad to see you again. I think you are absolutely right. There are several indications from the NT that several new believers experienced vital walks with Christ. I did not think that you really meant to make a blanket statement and you are right that many new believers experience a vital walk with Jesus without "knowing all there is to know."

I know I sure did! To be honest, I had no clue Jesus was virgin born until some time later; I really had a hard time reconciling creation and evolution; and let's not even go there about the Trinity. Nevertheless, I truly believed I was saved and no amount of doctrine or teaching would have lessened my conviction. It is just as I learned all those things and formulated my own theology, it rather strengthened my faith in Him, evidence that demands a verdict, ya know??

But, if you'll forgive me a quick story, I was "defending" a sister in Christ not too long ago who was being impugned in our homeschool group. An accusation had been brought against her because she was wrestling with creation and was bringing Genesis 1-3 under question. He claimed, to make a long story short, that she could not be saved because she did not believe Genesis 1-3!!! I told him, "Well, I guess I was not saved up until about six years or so ago (I was saved as a teenager) because I also brought the veracity of Genesis under question!" I really struggled with that creation vs. evolution (I have a science background, BS in biology.)

So, I get really (REALLY!) fretted with someone who says that you have to prescribe to a particular doctrine to be saved. But, on the flip side, I think once one comes to understand the more meaty teachings, then God will hold that person accountable.

I plan on coming by the X-change and reading the post you recommended...and I'll save my comments about the "clergy/laity" dichotomy for over there!!!

Thanks Raborn!

Raborn Johnson said...


Whats up?:)

You said:
There are several indications from the NT that several new believers experienced vital walks with Christ.


you are right that many new believers experience a vital walk with Jesus without "knowing all there is to know."

I am here not just talking about new believers, but people who were considered mature in the faith and yet probably did not understand orthodoxy as all of the teachings that are considered so today. The doctrine of the Trinity for example is a teaching that did not begin to be codified until probably around the time of Nicea?.?. There is not much Scripture to "back up" the wording of this doctrine as used in things such as the Athanasian creed. Many people will jump to Matthew 28 as a "proof text", but then we find the disciples baptizing people with what seems to be a different formula than we understand today, that is "in the Name of Jesus". Now, for clarification, I am not a Oneness, and I embrace the idea of the separate personhood of the Father and the Son as well as the Deity of Christ. It is not that I do not believe in the Deity of the Holy Spirit, (I have been raised a Trinitarian all of my life) but I wonder sometimes if we have mis-understood who the Holy Spirit is. The Bible calls Him the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of God. In many of Paul's letters, he closes them with prayers for grace and peace (for instance) from the Father and the Son, but (if I am not mistaken) only adds a mention of the Holy Spirit in such closing. In the New Jerusalem, we find God and the Lamb mentioned, but no mention of the Holy Spirit. I personally am wondering if the Holy Spirit is a manifestation of the Father or the Son (or both) and not a separate person as stated by the creeds.

I am not saying that I am convinced that the doctrine of the Trinity is completely wrong, I am simply saying that to state that the doctrine of the Trinity as we have it today was understood by the more "mature" believers in the early church would be to super-impose something on the Scriptures that we don't have a lot of evidence for.

Tony, you are a blessing to dialogue with. I am enjoying our conversation:)

Tony said...

Hi Raborn!

It seems like you are honestly struggling with understanding the Trinity. Not an easy endeavor ;-)!

The codification of the doctrine of the Trinity did not come about until the time of Nicea, about 325. It simply said, “And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit.” It would have been kind of nice to have just left the creed at that, wouldn’t it? Several creeds after that developed the doctrine, expanding on it, and giving it further scriptural credence.

I do believe the doctrine of the Trinity and that God must necessarily be understood as three-in-one; though there is no “proof-text” as you say (Thou shalt believe in God as a Trinity! I wish!), there is ample scriptural justification for it. One of the best texts is Matthew 3:16-17 where Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River, the heavens are opened and God speaks, and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus as a dove. All three are there!

The Holy Spirit, though there is a dearth of concrete imagery in the NT, He is still prominent. And you are right; there are verses that refer to Him as the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of God, but there are also many verses that refer to His ministry among believers and in the church as well. I echo your statement, I wonder sometimes if we have mis-understood who the Holy Spirit is, and I think we have downplayed His ministry to our own detriment! Over and over in the NT, we are told to do such things as pray in the Spirit, live by the Spirit, walk in the Spirit, exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, be filled with the Spirit, our glorification will take place by the Spirit; our whole lives are to be lived alongside the Holy Spirit! WOW! 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 tells us that to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit is to be indwelt by God Himself. Again, WOW!

And if I could respond to your statement, that the doctrine of the Trinity as we have it today was understood by the more "mature" believers in the early church would be to super-impose something on the Scriptures that we don't have a lot of evidence for…I don’t think that the early believers didn’t believe in the doctrine of the Trinity as we know it; the apostles must have taught it along the way somehow; what point would it have made for Paul to say what he did in 2 Corinthians 13:14 or Peter in 1 Peter 1:2? The doctrine of the Holy Spirit was not really a concern of the early church. The doctrine of the Trinity, though organically related to the doctrine of Christ, could not fully be develpoed until there was an accepted understanding in the church of who Jesus was. The first 400 years of church history saw vitriolic debate after debate over the deity/humanity of Christ. Frankly, the early church was too busy fighting over who Jesus was to get sidetracked with the three-in-oneness of God! Until they nailed down their doctrine of Christ they couldn’t move on to more trivial matters ;-)!! And if you don’t get that One right, the rest aren’t going to follow!

Man! I certainly have enjoyed talking with you…likewise, you are a blessing!