Rigid Orthodoxy, Army Intelligence, and Other Tautologies

Recently a person whose opinion I respect lamented my commitment to what she termed “rigid orthodoxy”, the use of the word “rigid” being both a pejorative (who wants to be considered inflexible these days?); and a tautology, because calling orthodoxy “rigid” is like saying “one hundred per cent out of one hundred”.

Of course orthodoxy (right thinking) is “rigid”, that’s the point, it doesn’t shift from its position.  The very Christian faith is built on the premise of handing on what Jude 1:3 describes as “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”

And note the context:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. 

Jude is keen to write about a common (rigidly orthodox?) salvation, but finds it necessary to put that to one side to ensure his audience contends for a faith that is, er, rigidly orthodox.  Right at the outset of the gospel mission the warning is clear, don’t mess with the message.  That’s orthodoxy right there, rigid or otherwise.

And why does Jude have to do this?  Because of wrong thinking or heterodoxy:

For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

But not heterodoxy as an end in itself. No way, that’s never enough.

Jude’s concern is not that these “certain people” move away from orthodoxy to heterodoxy, but that their goal is to shift themselves, and others, away from orthopraxy (right practice) to heteropraxy (wrong practice).

Heterodoxy isn’t content with perverting grace, it’s aim is to encourage perversion.

So far so good, or so bad as the case may be.

But let’s flip it over into the positive.  If the goal of heterodoxy is always heteropraxy, then it stands to reason that the goal of orthodoxy is orthopraxy.

Why do we need to say this?  Because perhaps my friend is on to something.  If we make the goal of orthodoxy orthodoxy, it will tend towards rigidity.  Certainly the people who do so will tend towards that.  Put a community together that is orthodox simply for the sake of it, and the word “rigid” certainly springs to mind. They’re not a fun crowd to be around, and to be honest, scratch the surface of their orthodoxy and you will find all sorts of sophisticated, self-righteous heteropraxy!

It’s helpful to remember the Westminster Shorter catechism’s first question regarding the chief end of man: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. There’s a whole lot of orthopraxy right there springing out of orthodoxy.

And guess what?  Such orthopraxy never looks rigid!  A God glorifying person who enjoys God here and now, in the certain hope of enjoying him forever, is invariably vibrant but gentle, humorous but sober-minded, self-deprecating but confident, attractively holy, but safe for sinners, sensible but risk-taking, thrifty but generous.  In other words, a reflection of Jesus the God glorifier par excellence.

Just as an orthodox commitment to flight mechanics enables the beautiful orthopraxy of winged flight; just as the orthodox commitment to running technique leads to sheer, exhilarating speed; just as the orthodox commitment to creating weight bearing loads leads to a bridge that won’t collapse, so theological orthodoxy leads to a beautiful, God glorifying life.

Heterodoxy, on the other hand, is the gateway to an ugly heteropraxy that promises people the liberty of flight without the bothersome necessity of flight mechanics. And the end result will always be a crumpled mess of feathers and bones on the ground.

14 Comments

  1. Good post. Interestingly, orthodoxy for its own sake always presents as joyless! The second part of the answer to WSC’s 1st question affirms that joy should be a defining characteristic of orthopraxy. That is only possible if the primary motivation of orthodoxy is love for God and its corresponding practice seeks only His glory.

  2. The problem is that what was orthodoxy three thousand years ago was not orthodoxy 2000 years ago, which was not orthodoxy last century, which is not orthodoxy today. In Jewish tribal societies, it was orthodoxy to stone to death those who work on the Sabbath and deny the presence of the Tabernacle to a woman in menstruation. 400 years ago, biblical orthodoxy said that the earth revolved around the sun. Even a mere 200 years ago, slavery was orthodoxy, justified by the Bible. What is orthodoxy today may not be orthodoxy tomorrow. In a hundred years from now how can you be certain that orthodoxy as you know it will still be “orthodox”?

    I’m not advocating that orthodoxy therefore must be fluid to the point of useless. In Christianity there are things that define what a Christian is and what a Christian isn’t, and if we let the threads orthodoxy mean whatever we want them to mean then people can say “I’m a Christian” and not even believe in an historical Jesus, let alone a resurrected Messiah. These core truths remain true, and must remain true in order for Christianity to still be “Christian”. And Christians can and do use the Bible to get to the core of what this orthodoxy is.

    But when speaking of “rigid orthodoxy” (as seems to be the case in the article), it appears more to be about certain doctrines that people may or may not see as essential for knowing God or salvation rather than the broader question of “what must I do to inherit eternal life” (as the rich man would ask). I don’t think anyone will ever agree 100% on what these doctrines are or aren’t. Gay marriage? At the moment it seems orthodoxy says no, but will the future think the same? Only 50 years ago (less, actually), interracial marriage was illegal in large areas of America, and the reasons cited were that of biblical orthodoxy!

    And Christians today holding to biblical orthodoxy are fighting no less hard for their views than Christians did when desiring to keep interracial marriage illegal, or to keep slaves to work their farms, or any other number of things Christians have held on to in the past.

  3. A lot of big statements in their Robbie, but at the very least Galatians saying “no slave nor free, no Greek nor Jew” deals with a lot of what was heterodox thinking by Christians. The most “orthodox” of Christians in the Reformation era, especially the dissenters, would reject members who had slaves. Cultural Christianity accepted slavery with a laissez faire wave of the hand, but increasingly orthodox Christians (the likes of the Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect, were the ones to push for change on the basis of Scripture).

    The primary problem is not that orthodoxy changed, but that the cultural Christian practice did not line up with their belief. Wilberforce shamed the Parliament into acting on what it said it believed. In the same way interracial marriage was illegal in large parts of America fifty years ago, but the church through time and space has not believed that. The closer one looks at the Bible the more clearly such prohibitions are wrong.

    So I am willing for someone to expose the aberration on SSM with a closer, more intense look at Scripture and explaining all of the texts convincingly starting at Gen 1-2 on gender and sexuality (backed up by Jesus). And that’s just not happening. Texts are being explained away as to what they don’t mean, but the exegesis taking its place is poor. That’s pretty much the consensus.

    I am also old enough to remember the great evangelical preacher Roy Clements from Eden Hill Baptist in Cambridge, coming out, leaving his family and moving in with his boyfriend. He said he would write the definitive book showing how the Bible clearly affirms homosexual behaviour, and as a great Bible scholar he certainly could. But despite all of his other materials over the past 16 years, that book remains unwritten. Why? Because he has no material to work with. So a convincing argument from Scripture would be helpful.

    What would also be helpful would be an explanation as to why at the very time the culture is shifting away from the Christian framework, this issue comes to the fore. Perhaps I would find it more convincing if the culture were moving BACK towards Christianity if the church re-visited the issue (was it ever visited in the first place?) and aligned itself with the culture. But the opposite is clearly the case. The culture has moved decisively away from the Christian framework. Why should we have any confidence that it is leading us in the right direction? Thoughts on that one?

    1. Stephen, on the first point arising:

      ” at the very least Galatians saying “no slave nor free, no Greek nor Jew” deals with a lot of what was heterodox thinking by Christians.” – you conveniently also left out the next line, “neither is there male or female”. This leads to several points. First, despite that Galatians says there is neither slave nor free, Paul still writes to slave owners, telling them how to treat slaves, and he writes to slaves themselves, telling them how to behave towards their owners. Second, Paul also writes about the marriage covenant and the gender roles assigned to husbands and wives under God in a relationship. If “there is no slave nor free” is justification that slavery was never intended, then “there is no male nor female” can be justification that there should be no gender roles within a relationship (a view that is strongly denied by rigid orthodoxy). Likewise, if there is no male nor female, then why can there not be male-male or female-female relationships.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this text should be used in that context. You were the one who opened that door by quoting it to show the heterodoxy of 1st Century Christians. But the context of that passage is about the covenantal nature of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, that we are all heirs and all have the same rights as heirs to that kingdom. it was never intended as anti-slavery rhetoric. Thus it’s implications beyond that relationship is limited only by how far we want to take it, and if we take the slave/free side of it as reason why Christianity can’t support slavery, then we also have to take the male/female part of it in equal measure and say we can’t support traditional marriage roles. .

      To the rest, what you write appears to be blatant revisionist history. While some parts of orthodox Christianity may have thought slavery was wrong at various times and places the fact is that this is not the case for the most of history. For the largest part of Christian history, slavery has existed, thrived, and even been defended by Christians thinking they were doing the right thing for God. And (in America, at least) those who opposed the abolition of slavery the loudest were those states that are traditionally viewed as most evangelically protestant in nature (the South), while the Northern states (typically far more secular) were the first to demand abolition.

      As for Roy Clements, I cannot say I’ve ever even heard of him. As to your request for “a convincing argument from scripture” I wonder how you are defining that? As said, slavery was justified by scripture, it took more than “a convincing argument from scripture” for people to change, it took civil war! In America, it did, at least. There are several paths I could take to answer it (both for and against), but I’m neither gay nor particularly a staunch pro-gay Christian. I argue neither for nor against homosexuality, I simply acknowledge that it’s there, and that in the big picture I think it’s a non-issue that should be dropped so that we can get on with greater community issues in our society. Whether my neighbour has food in their bellies and a roof over their head is far more important to me than who they happen to fall in love with or have sex with. Whether an individual church decides to allow a gay couple in their doors is a matter for them to decide, and I won’t say yay or nay to that decision either way. But if a church is trying to lobby the government to deny gays the rights to marry under secular law then that is where I step in and say “hey, as long as the State doesn’t force your church or your minister to host a gay marriage, let the matter drop and move onto something more productive”.

  4. TO be honest I actually agree with you about the church NOT wasting energy lobbying the government on this. For me I have no real angst over what the culture does with this, but I have a real concern what the church does. And as for a gay couple coming in to church, why would I stop that? That doesn’t mean I would consider them living a lifestyle God either celebrates or condones, but I would say the same about adultery, heterosexual couples living together etc.

    So yes I think that we could move onto something more productive, except it’s not just that the State won’t force ministers to marry gay couples – that’s a furphy, as no one with a marriage licence is obliged to marry anyone they choose not to marry. The real issue is whether Christians can publicly affirm their position on marriage without being dragged off to the courts etc. The freedom of speech matter is huge on this, and the (now) former Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, personally told me that he thinks that that battle could well be lost.

    We’re obviously going to disagree on this and we can pull out our proofs either way. But it’s a conversation that needs to be had.

    1. What do you make of Matthew 18:15-17, Stephen, if you have no problem with a gay couple coming to your church?

      ““If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

      It would seem that if a gay couple attending church would fill the description of this passage, if they are self-professing believers.

      And on a personal level, I perhaps can relate better to this than most other Christians. I fell in love with a non-Christian and the pastor at the church I attend is currently working out whether to invoke the last aspect of that passage, because of Paul’s comments about not marrying non-believers. I’ve already had the confrontation just between myself and a friend, and then he approached me with “one or two witnesses”, and now the pastor has to decide whether to “bring it before the church” or whether it’s something we can simply agree to disagree upon. Of course, at the time when my friend first approached me just alone I wasn’t aware he was doing this and I shared some private things about my partner in the expectation of confidentiality. Now at least two other people know about a private issue of mine, and if it is brought before the church then the whole congregation will know. Needless to say, my fiancee is unimpressed, and my trust levels of sharing my personal struggles with my Christians friends at church has been severely dented.

      The difference between my situation and a gay couple is that when I marry my fiancee, the church will have to accept that I’m married and see it as a god-recognised union (1 Corinthians 7:12), so even if I get asked to leave now, there’s a loophole that will let me back in one day in the future. A conservative evangelical Christian church will never do the same thing for a gay couple, even when gay marriage is legalised in secular law.

      With that said, I’m glad you seem to agree that churches shouldn’t be wasting money on things like government lobbies, there’s far more important things in this world than what a secular legal system decides to say about sex and marriage. Thanks for the chat 🙂

      1. Hi mate
        It would have to take a lot to convince me that a gay couple were Christian. To be honest I would treat them as unbelievers, which means I would proclaim the gospel to them, befriend them, but would not permit them leadership or ministry opportunities.
        If you don’t mind me saying it, now that you have mentioned it, the bigger question for you is not whether you would be married by your church and all would be ok, but whether you’ve understand the claims of the gospel rightly yourself. To go into a marriage with a non-Christian person with your eyes open raises some big gospel issues for someone who claims to be Christian. Isn’t that a little dangerous to tread that line given the exclusive claims of Jesus to our lives above all else? God-recognised unions aren’t the final say on it for the Christian, as common grace is different to special grace. Ezra 10 is a sobering read because they had to put away their foreign wives because the very salvation history of the nation was under threat by it. That’s worth pondering. And if you are in marriage already that’s different in 1Cor7 to making a deliberate decision to disobey Jesus and do it. Thoughts?

      2. Stephen, to get things out of the way, my comment on “loophole” was more tongue-in-cheek than anything else, more a way to say that heterosexuals are free to marry in church as we please, regardless.

        On to your point, I’ve spoken to several Christians from all the various churches I’ve attended over the years about this very question, I’ve always considered Paul’s comments about marrying unbelievers to be “good advice” rather than “a command from God”. And in many aspects it really is good advice. There are going to be many many issues that will arise when we marry that simply wouldn’t exist in a marriage where we are both faithful (how to raise our children, when/if we have them, for example).

        But the thing is, whether or not it was wrong to initially begin the relationship, the fact is it began and so now the question has to be about what to do now that it’s started. I’ve promised to marry my partner, this is a vow I made that I do not think can be unmade, and it comes down to what is the most “loving” thing to do in this instance? I’ve made a promise to my partner to be with her forever, and whether that promise was rightly or wrongly made, I don’t think it can be unmade just because the government hasn’t officially provided me with a piece of paper that says we are married. It would not be loving in the slightest to simply say to my partner that this is the end of it, let’s break it off. I would describe it as the very opposite of loving, actually, if I were to do that.

        On a wider point you raise about gay couples not really being Christian, why do you say that? If two heterosexual Christians are having premarital sex are you alright with saying “I don’t even consider them Christians, actually”? If you’re okay with that idea then you’d be consistent at the least, and we could move on. Presuming you wouldn’t do this, though, what is it about same sex attraction that automatically disqualifies a person as non-Christian, but Christians engaging in sinful sexual desires are not disqualified from being Christian?

  5. Robbie is right about the covenantal flavoring of Paul’s “neither male nor female; neither slave nor free” passage in Galatians. Troy Martin, in a JBL article, suggests convincingly that Paul is reflecting directly on the Abrahamic covenant’s injunctions to circumcise certain people (Jewish males, slaves) and eradicating those distinctions for the Christian community.

    However, it is not so simple to scuttle the SSM issue while we get on with feeding people. The greatest cause of poverty in developed nations is the breakdown of family structure. It feeds hungry people (and more efficiently than govt. programs) when families are healthy and functioning.

    Finally, the hands-off approach to influencing government seems to be rather poor citizenship. Righteousness exalts a nation, and sin is its reproach. In governmental structures where Christian-citizens have influence, they should use it to shape their cultures in ways that glorify God and bless people.

  6. That’s an erudite, thoughtful and pointed response. Thanks John. And yes, that’s more the flavour of the context of Galatians indeed, less to do with core distinction and more to do with boundaries broken down.

  7. Stephen,

    At risk of turning this into a mutual admiration society, thanks for your kind expression and know that I remain here (after Exile Stage Two) for your on-target and deliciously-expressed thoughts.

  8. Hi Steve, thanks for the thought provoking posts. I always enjoy checking out your blog posts. Regarding the complex history of slavery and christianity Mark Noll’s book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is excellent. The relationship between christianity and slavery is more complicated than simply mentioning Wilberforce. Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were both slave owners and defenders of slavery against abolitionists.

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