Orthodoxy has fallen from favor among some otherwise fervent adherents of Christianity. Its critics associate orthodoxy with old-fashioned, unreasonable Christian beliefs from a bygone era. Moreover, its detractors often link orthodoxy with contemporary right wing politics and social policies, which in turn is used as the justification, by those who disagree with these political and social opinions, to dismiss orthodoxy as irrelevant if not harmful to the church. The reasoning goes like this: If one adheres to Christian orthodoxy, one’s politics and social views must be old-fashioned and regressive, somewhere on a fast track back to the Dark Ages.
Granted, orthodoxy is old, as old as the Christian faith itself. It was alive and well during the Dark Ages but also in every era of the church. Christian orthodoxy thrives today in many places in the world. As in ages past, in historic creeds and confessions, Christian orthodoxy even now is capturing and conveying the very heart of the gospel message.
What is orthodoxy? Merriam Webster defines it simply as “a belief or way of thinking that is accepted as true or correct.” In Christian usage this definition applies to central beliefs of the earliest Christian church, those which, in a great sea of competing options, were finally synthesized into creeds and confessions that were formally adopted by the church. It was because of these convictions about the gospel that Christians of each era have gone to the trouble to pass their Christian faith on to others, including their own children, and eventually including us who now also embrace the core doctrines the early Christians believed to be true and correct.
Although some will assume or argue that Christian orthodoxy is made up of an oppressively long list of doctrines used to subjugate and control people, history will confirm that Christian orthodoxy is most often expressed in a stunningly short list of beliefs that affirm the Holy Trinity and salvation offered in Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy as historically understood does not wed believers to a long inventory of theological, political, and social doctrines. Rather, orthodoxy as we are using the term here and as expressed in Christian history is made up of a relatively short list of core doctrines that have to do with the heart of the gospel. For example, orthodoxy is not even definitive on the nature of atonement. Rather, it generates conversation among believers in the gospel about the nature of Christ’s death and how we then should live.
Contrary to the assertions of its adversaries that it is regressive and backwards-looking, a brief survey of Christian history indicates that orthodoxy has inspired some of the most forward-looking, prophetic movements in the life of the church. Great teachers and leaders come immediately to mind: Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Augustine, Frederick Douglass, Irenaeus, Richard Allen, Billy Graham, Jarena Lee, and Anna Howard Shaw, as well as Susanna, Charles, and John Wesley. These giants of the faith upheld orthodox Christianity and changed not only the church but the world in commendable ways. They also left their critics in the dust spiritually, theologically, and historically speaking. Speaking of dust, one needs only to dust off and reread one’s church history to be reminded of the triumphs of truth over corruption, the well-fought fights for good over evil and social progress over oppressive, status quo politics by Christians who held tenaciously to orthodoxy.
It is also the case that some doctrinally “orthodox” Christian leaders have used their positions and power to oppress others. For example, for many decades leading Methodists, Baptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and others rode vociferously along on the band wagons that justified the horrific evil of American slavery, oppressed women and persons of color, and discriminated unapologetically against persons who were divorced in both church and society. But these political and social opinions and actions had nothing to do with these leaders’ “orthodoxy.” In fact, we can say they held such views in spite of, rather than because of, their orthodoxy. Tragically, they failed to allow the God in Christ of the gospel to permeate and transform their status quo politics and social views.
There has always been religion that serves the human status quo and religion that serves God’s purposes on earth. There has always been good theology and bad theology, just as there is good practice of medicine and bad practice of medicine. Faulty interpretation and bad practice do not mean the textbook or the principles taught therein are outdated or harmful. Oppressive politics and bad theology by self-avowed Christians do not mean that the orthodox Christian faith is wrong.
There remains a common ground among Christians of many different denominations, theologies, politics, and social views. That common ground is orthodoxy — the basic and continuing beliefs that Christians have held since the church began. There are such things as orthodox Christians who are Republicans and orthodox Christians who are Democrats. I have even met some Socialist Christians, especially in places in the world where Socialism is the dominant form of politics. There are orthodox Christians who believe in traditional family structures and roles, such as the Mennonites and Amish, as well as those who think that all persons should be treated equally in the home, church, and society. Unless we want to run the risk of disrespecting, fighting, and possibly killing one another the way Christians did for centuries in Europe and elsewhere over differences in theology, we should give orthodoxy its due respect if for no other reason than the fact that, when taken seriously, it can help Christians of varying stripes to live together peaceably.
One of the great legacies of Christian orthodoxy is ecumenism. Peaceful and constructive ecumenism would not be possible without common adherence by persons of many different communions to the orthodox Christian faith as expressed in creeds and councils of the church. Catholics, Baptists, Calvinists, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Pentecostals, as well as Free, Wesleyan, African, and United Methodists hold in common the historic Christian faith also known as orthodoxy. Yet we would be hard pressed to conclude that ecumenism is somehow regressive.
Beyond these spiritual and practical grounds there is yet another, even more important reason we should give Christian orthodoxy our respect. Why have fiercely apologetic Christians cared so much about orthodoxy that they defied kings, emperors, torture, and death in defense of the “faith once delivered to the saints”? Why did it matter so much? Why was it dearer than prestige, wealth, and even life itself? For those who have believed Christian orthodoxy to be true, it is truth itself, the foundation for all else.
Orthodox belief for its adherents is an essential matter not only for this life, but for eternal life. In the midst of a world quickly fading away, it is the essence of what was, is, and will remain forever. The gospel truth expressed in orthodox Christianity is worth living for, worth giving away to one’s friends and enemies, and worth dying for. This is not just because it is orthodox, but fundamentally because it is true.
Orthodoxy represents the message, identity, and mission of the Christian church through all ages. It is the heart of the gospel. It does not change with the seasons and cultures of humanity because it represents the core revelation of God in Jesus Christ in human history.
What’s right with Christian orthodoxy? Not any given theology, politic, or social view. What’s right with Christian orthodoxy is that it makes it possible for Christians to live in peace with one another and thereby to have a credible witness to the Prince of Peace. Most important, what is right about Christian orthodoxy is the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ that it proclaims to us and to the whole world.