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.