November 16, 2022

The Cheap Thrill of Heterodoxy

One of the key features in the church is that you get to see the battle between orthodoxy and heterodoxy (the move away from orthodoxy) played out in real time. In every generation.

Sure there are always different issues coming to the fore, depending often on what the cultural pressure is doing. Heterodox views always seem to mirror the culture, and generally a day late and a dollar short. (But more about the New South Wales Baptists’ position on marriage later.)

Here’s the thing, there’s a cheap thrill to heterodoxy. There’s a sugar rush to it that gives the impression that this or that latest move away from orthodox biblical teaching will be the lost key that unlocks our engagement with the culture. That rolling over on a major matter is the key to our future survival and thriving. Get on board kids, or you’ll find yourself on the wrong side of church history and maybe even of history itself!

In other words, heterodoxy is being viewed as a missional, evangelistic strategy. And the kids love it. Or at least some of the kids do. The rest are dismayed, disheartened and “dis-whatever-else-there-is” by it.

I say all of this against the backdrop of having just read Trevin Wax’s excellent new book, The Thrill of Orthodoxy: Rediscovering the Adventure of Christian Faith. While the word “thrill” gives you the, ahem, thrill of the thing, it’s the subtitle that I think is super helpful. Especially for those who wish to maintain a biblical stance – and not a revisionist one – in the vexed area of sexual relationships.

Why is the subtitle helpful? Because it’s often the case that heterodoxy, especially in our day and age around sexuality, is pitched as the adventure. It’s pitched as the rediscovering of gospel freedoms and vitality that were somehow overlaid by beetle-browed rule-keepers who just couldn’t wait for Jesus to get out of the way so that they could get on with their strictures and structures. Heterodoxy pitches itself along these lines: “If we could just slough off the dogma, this Christian thing would fly.”

Well let’s keep the avian analogy going. Because it’s the denominations – the mainline ones – over the past decades that have done that sloughing, and the results are in: The only bird they resemble is the dodo.

Yet here we now have in Australia – and beyond – nonconformist types such as Baptists etc, toying with the same disastrous route as the mainlines have taken on sexuality. Go figure! If even for pragmatic reasons you stayed orthodox, history would demonstrate the wisdom of that in terms of sheer survival.

Trevin walks right up to that cheap heterodox thrill, stares it in the face, and says “Actually, here’s the long-term thrill – the orthodox Christian faith of the confessions and the theological, ethical conclusions they reached.”

In other words, any other thrill is going to be one you regret about when you wake up in the morning. His book is a warm invitation to lose yourself in the timeless truths of the gospel. Oh, and find yourself in them as well. I particularly loved this quote:

Too often, people speak about orthodoxy or traditional Christianity as an impediment to progress. It’s easy for some to imagine orthodoxy as regressive, an obstacle that slows down the church from being on the “leading edge” of societal development in morals and manners. But if we take a longer view of things, the opposite is true. The orthodox are out front because we are also behind. Orthodoxy is bigger than our era. The Spirit of God is before and after the spirit of the age. The progressives are those who will eventually be left behind. Wed the world and you’ll soon be widowed.

Ah the longer view of things. That’s something that heterodoxy just can’t do. Or just won’t do. What I like about this book is that it doesn’t simply focus on sexuality matters, it covers a wide range of heterodox views down through the ages, and it hits hard too on the issues around greed and wealth in our churches today too. But the New South Wales Assembly Council statement wisely put it this way in bringing the sexuality issue to the fore for its “Gathering”:

The Council regards this as responding out of necessity to what has become a very significant social issue for discussion in the wider community and within the church, rather than an ‘elevation’ of this particular issue above other matters of discipleship practice.

In other words, “Events, dear boy, events!” Events, or movements in culture, are always the precursor for the church to sit down under Scripture and thrash out what it truly believes about the faith in a particular area. Wax’s book points out that the great creeds and confessions were often birthed in events and in cultural moments that challenged orthodoxy. Heterodoxy is good for one thing at least – it’s clarifying!

There’s no escaping the fact that the current cultural moment – the event – that the church is facing in the West is a challenge over sexuality. Not just a minor view on who can marry who, but around what it actually means to flourish under God as a human. And too many people seem to be playing the short game, not the long one. And in the case of some within the New South Wales Baptists, there’s a case of almost wilful blindness to how that short game has played out for other denominations (hint: not very well).

So we get this from a blog post by Scott Pilgrim, who in other settings says many things I admire:

I’m saddened when any Baptist voices seek to tell others what’s right or wrong, based on their view of Scripture.

To which I want to reply “Really?”. I mean, why does that sadden you? If Baptists don’t go to Scripture to determine amongst themselves what is right and what is wrong then where do they go? They don’t have to be rude and crass with each other, but some firmness is needed in conversations. I say it again, if a denomination is not going to Scripture to determine what is right and wrong, and calling each other to return to orthodoxy on the basis of Scripture, then what’s the point?

My other concern with Scott’s blog post was that it pitched the unity trope (yet again a day late and a dollar short). Surely orthodoxy down the centuries has told us that without a truth to be united around there is no actual unity. Can we not learn anything from the train-wreck occurring among Anglicans and the other liberal mainlines? He makes this irenic statement:

“I respect their right to hold their view and with grace and respect, and with the valuing of autonomy and association, we can find many other ways to still share in mission together. “

While I respect Scott’s right to say that, I would also wish to say, No Scott, no you won’t. You won’t find other ways to still share in mission together. Experience in other denominations has proven this. The fact is that a revisionist view on sexuality in those denominations has become their mission. As has always happened in other denominations.

A man I know who lived an active homosexual lifestyle for many years gradually found his way to Christ. His first port of call was an affirming church, and he stayed there a while until he realised, as he said to me, “They had a gospel, the gospel of sex”. He realised that the sexuality question was a watershed issue. Everything in that church’s doctrine had a rainbow tint to it.

Whose voice is authoritative to us? When it comes to heterodoxy, it’s usually the voice of the culture, or the siren song of it at least. Trevin Wax’s book points out that this is always the issue when it comes to heterodoxy. You’re going to sing from someone’s hymn sheet. Make a predetermined judgement on which one it will be.

Above all else surely this issue is a pastoral one. Trevin’s book points out that all heresy has pastoral concerns, but it fails to read the long game in how these play out for the faith, – and for the eternal salvation – of others.

Look, I get how affirming same sex relationships will ease some tensions, and will create some goodwill culturally, and will even help many same sex attracted people emotionally in their church experiences. But those who wish to hold an orthodox perspective aren’t doing so because of curmudgeon attitudes, but because of pastoral concern. They actually take seriously the prohibitions around sex in the Bible (the ethics of the thing), and the promises (the eternality of the thing).

I think Trevin Wax’s book is timely. It’s timely for those Christians, especially of a younger set, who are finding themselves in the firing line of their peers around sexuality, and who are tempted to just roll over on this one and hope that the tension goes away and they can get on with the mission. Wax’s book gives them encouragement and vigour to keep going in what is an astonishing adventure and thrill: the thrill of orthodoxy that won’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth in the morning.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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