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  • Writer's picturePaul Roberts

On the use and abuse of the term ‘orthodox’

Updated: Nov 12, 2023

The word ‘Orthodox’ is being used quite a lot in the debate about homosexuality in the Church. But what does the word actually mean? And what care is needed in denying it to fellow Christians we disagree with?

Paul Roberts reflects on this ....

I once knew a man who could only break bread with one other Christian. His faith had been formed in the Plymouth Brethren, and he believed that if a brother or sister had a wrong opinion on the scriptures, he was forced to break communion with them, lest he be ‘tainted’ by their heresy. He was not alone: the history of the Brethren, and other evangelical churches, is littered with stories of splits over matters of biblical interpretation. The ridiculous position this Christian man had ended up in was due to the fact that his Christian tradition had a very strong emphasis on ‘biblical soundness’ but a very weak emphasis on the unity of the Church. If he disagreed with another Christian on any matter of biblical interpretation, he was bound to exclude them from (his definition of) the Church.

We all know that in John’s gospel Jesus prays for the unity of his believers which marks the culmination of his ‘high priestly prayer’:

"that they may become completely one,

so that the world may know"

‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’ (John 17: 20-26)

We learn from this passage that unity is evidence that the Church is united with Christ as Lord, as Christ is united with the Father, in the unity of God. Unity is the key hallmark of the Church’s authenticity.

"unity is evidence that the Church is united with Christ as Lord, as Christ is united with the Father, in the unity of God.

Unity is the key hallmark of the Church’s authenticity."

Sadly, of course, that hasn’t prevented the Church from splitting into factions over its history. In the medieval period, a combination of political factors, doctrinal diversity and competing claims of power led to a breach between the Church in the East and the West. In the 16th century, Western Christianity was further split over the need for a reformation in doctrine and worship. Protestantism, in turn, was split between different denominations, whose doctrines of church governance and sacraments differed. One of the greatest movements of the Holy Spirit has been to reverse some of this trend through the 20th century Ecumenical Movement. Evangelicals were the catalysts in ecumenism. From the late 19th century onwards, they were aware that in many ways what united them to other evangelicals in other denominations was probably more important than what had divided their denominations in the first place. They co-operated on the Victorian mission fields. They had experienced the embarrassment of trying to plant churches, in places where the gospel had only just been heard, having different names, structures, doctrines and traditions. So 19th century evangelism, and evangelicals, paved the way with a pragmatic ecumenism which later flourished as more formal ecumenism in the 20th. Today, the idea that ‘being a Christian’ is a matter of staying in the silo of your own ‘true’ denomination, still less your own interpretation of the scriptures, is generally regarded as ridiculous. Neither is it fundamentally ‘evangelical’ - historically, doctrinally or biblically. On the contrary.

The word ‘Orthodox’ has been used quite a lot recently in the debate about homosexuality in the Church. Within the Church of England, especially, evangelicals who are conservative on the subject have taken to using the word to describe themselves in contrast to those with whom they disagree. The origin of the word is Greek, orthodoxia, which is from the two cognates, orthos = ‘right’ and doxia = ‘opinion’. Although the historical etymology of the word is rather obscure, it emerged strongly during the great debates over the nature of God and the Incarnation, which ran for about three hundred years following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, and which resulted in the seven ecumenical councils. The early councils, which ran from AD 325 to AD 451 hammered out important points of clarification, which fundamentally shaped the Christian understanding of salvation. Was Jesus truly God (in the same way that the Father is)? Was Jesus both truly human and truly divine, and how could we understand that without dividing Christ into two beings? These resulted in the creeds we use today. By the sixth council (AD 680), the arguments about the doctrine of Christ had become increasingly narrowed down and refined to the point that the discussion was about whether Jesus had one or two wills, and whether he had one or two ‘energies’. Although this occupied a lot of the time of clergy and politicians, most Christians had probably long lost the plot of the argument by then and were just carrying on as ordinary believers. In the meantime, the Eastern Church was suffering serious inroads on its Asian flank and in North Africa by invading Muslim armies, who sorted the matter out in another way: there was only one God, Allah, and Jesus was a prophet, not a saviour. A bickering Christianity was slowly diminishing in the face of a united and advancing Islam.

Today, the term ‘orthodox’ has gained a more secular meaning, suggesting an opinion which accords with the status quo, or the inherited majority opinion. This benign sense, in secular usage, can serve to mask the seriousness of the charge of being unorthodox (not having the right opinion), or heterodox (having an opinion other than the right one) in Christian discussion. To put it another way, in Christian theological debate, the word ‘orthodox’ has a more powerful payload than it has in secular usage. To be unorthodox or heterodox is to be heretical. In Christian theology, you cannot really be both heterodox and not also heretical. So when conservative evangelicals use the word ‘orthodox’ to distinguish themselves from others with whom they disagree, they are calling the others ‘heretics’ – let’s make no bones about it.

"when conservative evangelicals use the word ‘orthodox’ to distinguish themselves from others with whom they disagree, they are calling the others ‘heretics’

– let’s make no bones about it"

So does it matter whether a Christian is orthodox or heterodox? Well it may depend on what the matter is under discussion. I suspect many conservative evangelicals would be hard pushed, when put on the spot, to say which is the ‘correct’ answer when challenged as to whether Jesus had one will or two, and whether he had one energy or two – a human energy and a divine energy – despite this matter being the subject of an ecumenical council. If so challenged, they’d probably do the sensible thing and go to the scriptures with the question, find relevant passages pertaining to the question, look at the context of the passages, decide how definitive those passages might really be in regard to the question, check the wider context of the text and then come up with their answer… which could be wrong! If so, suddenly they would find that, though they were being ‘biblical’ in their approach, they were not ‘orthodox’ – in the strictest sense of the word – at all. They were heterodox – heretics. On the other hand, if asked whether Jesus was as divine as God the Father, they could still do the same process, but in the back of their minds would be the Nicene Creed, which does all the working out for them. They could still do the scriptural study, but they would know what the correct answer was before they started, which more than likely would influence their scriptural study. Nevertheless, this hasn’t prevented some who have started from an evangelical commitment to scripture – but rather less commitment to the creeds – from becoming heretical in regard to the divinity of Christ, and the relationship between his humanity and divinity. The Jehovah’s witnesses grew out of millennial evangelicalism in the mid- to late-1800s. By relying on their reading of the scriptures alone, they ended up with a heretical view of Jesus, as less divine than the Father, which nearly all churches reject as profoundly wrong, denying a right understanding of the gospel to the point where the saving power of the gospel is lost entirely. This kind of ‘wrong opinion’ (heterodoxy) wrecks the true meaning and power of the gospel.

It is this second, most critical, sense of the word ‘orthodoxy’ that has been at stake in the most serious theological disputes. As early as in the New Testament Church, we get St Paul saying, of his opponents at Galatia:

There are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! (Galatians 1:7-9)

The word translated ‘let that one be accursed’ is the Greek word anathema – which in Christian terms means ‘let him go to hell’. When the content of the gospel is under dispute, there is no room for playing around. Salvation, and souls, are at stake. After its major councils had made up their minds, the Constantinian church issued anathemas, condemning the heterodox to hell using the same phrase as St Paul.

In my two historical examples, we see the different impacts of being ‘orthodox’ – it can be a case of complex, obscure theological questions which deal with matters which are hard to understand and seemingly remote or even irrelevant to the faith of ordinary Christians; on the other hand, it can be a question upon which the heart of the gospel message itself depends. And this is where creeds come in. They help us see the bigger picture – the essentials – upon which the core gospel message depends. To put it another way, the creeds help Christians ‘to see the wood for the trees’ and to distinguish beliefs which are vital to the true message of the gospel from those which are not.

The main result of disagreement over doctrine is divisions among Christians, and therefore the division of the Church into separate ‘churches’, divided by the disagreement. Despite their ‘pragmatic ecumenism’ in missions, evangelicals have been rather bad at realising the seriousness of such divisions. Theologically, divisions confuse Christian witness to the gospel, calling into question the Church’s authenticity and its spiritual union with Christ. Pragmatically, they hinder the functioning of the Church as a single entity for the common good, in accordance with the will of Christ.[1] Historically, divisions are extremely difficult to resolve once they have occurred, and are often only overcome when one or both sides die out.

"When Christians divide, the Body of Christ is ‘torn’, in an image which recalls the method of Jesus’ execution on the cross"

The early Church realised more keenly the danger of division: division was ‘schism’ – which is a Greek word meaning ‘ripping’ or ‘tearing’. When Christians divide, the Body of Christ is ‘torn’, in an image which recalls the method of Jesus’ execution on the cross. There are probably only two obviously justifiable reasons for a Christian to divide from another part of the fellowship of a church. One is if that part they are dividing from is no longer Christian: no longer true disciples, preachers of the gospel and inheritors of the Kingdom. (This is a pretty drastic state of affairs.) The other justification is if the other part of the fellowship has thrown them out on the grounds of matters which the ones being cast out must continue to hold in conscience. Given the intensity of Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his disciples, and the profundity of the circumstances in which he prayed that prayer, all other reasons to divide really don’t stand up to much. The intensity of most Christian arguments pale when faced with the prayer of Jesus for unity on the night of his betrayal and the eve of his crucifixion.

"The intensity of most Christian arguments pale when faced with the prayer of Jesus for unity on the night of his betrayal and the eve of his crucifixion"

So if Christians are to participate in a division for good reason, then it really can only be over circumstances wherein the genuine authenticity of the Christianity of one side of the argument is being called into question. And this is why the meaning of the word ‘orthodoxy’ is so important, and why it mustn’t be misused in debates between Christians. If one side starts to call themselves ‘orthodox’, then they are effectively saying the other side is ‘unorthodox’. But if the other side is truly ‘unorthodox’ by implication they are heretics, and any split justified only because their differing opinion is such as to damage the authenticity of their gospel, of their claim to be the Church – the Body of Christ – and severe enough to call into question their salvation. To determine such a grave matter in relation to one’s theological opponents without reference to the creeds should immediately ring alarm bells.

Of course, it is entirely possible for Christians to disagree theologically without using such grave, and potentially dangerous, words. I disagree with my Baptist brothers and sisters over infant baptism, but I still regard them as ‘orthodox’ Christians – as members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church – even if we may neither regularly worship together, nor have the same church structures and governance. I do this because I also know that the Nicene Creed’s ‘marks’ of the Church – One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic – are gifts from Christ to his Church. They are not ‘works’ we possess or earn, but actions of the grace of God, in response to his prayer. They are things we may be or become, not things we ‘generate’ by virtue of our ‘right opinions’ on matters which are of lesser importance than the saving message of the gospel. Because they are gifts from Christ, they are things we aspire to have, to receive, even if in practice none of us are yet in full possession of them. This is why I can regard my Baptist sisters and brothers as ‘orthodox’ (in the sense that they conform to the doctrine of the creeds). I also look towards a time when we can be visibly united through the gift of God into one visible Church, one visible Body, in which I believe we are already spiritually, but not visibly, united. And because I believe this is in accordance with Jesus’ high priestly prayer, I continue to pray – and to work – for it to become a visible reality.[2]

"Contemporary evangelicals who bandy about the word ‘orthodox’ in the current debate should be far more careful

to understand what it really means.

Christ’s Body can still be torn."

This approach and understanding is the essence of a genuine, ecumenical, modern and catholic understanding of the Church, after centuries of divisions, of ‘ripping apart’. Ironically, this view of the Church is also one of the greatest gifts evangelicalism has ever given to the Christian faith. Which is why contemporary evangelicals who bandy about the word ‘orthodox’ in the current debate should be far more careful to understand what it really means, what is at stake, and be sure they are using it in a clear, correct and appropriate way. Christ’s Body can still be torn.

[1] Actually, to be orthodox, I should really have said ‘wills’ there – because that’s the answer to my earlier question. And, yes, the Sixth Ecumenical Council also anathematised anyone with whom it disagreed. [2] It is my joy and privilege to work in an ecumenical theological educational institution which incorporates both Baptists and Anglicans.

Paul Roberts lectures in Worship and Church History at Trinity College Bristol. He writes here in a personal capacity.


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