I must have heard the words “orthodox” and “orthodoxy” in my home hundreds–if not thousands–of times as a boy. For whatever reason, I never cared to ask my father what they meant until I was almost in my 20’s. It is anything but uncommon to hear them used if you move within any serious ecclesiastical circle–especially in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. In fact, one Reformed and Presbyterian group has denominated themselves by the word. The words “orthodox” and “orthodoxy” are grown-up words. They are words that denote that which is accepted in history and tradition as being right and true. They are words that have been used to set apart a people of truth from a world–and sadly often from churches–full of falsehood. Sometimes, however, they are wrongly used to set apart those who are orthodox in their doctrinal views from others who are orthodox in their doctrinal views. Let me explain.
There is, in most serious-minded ecclesiastical circles, a propensity for men to group together to advance a common interest or to accomplish a common task. This is natural, as we all seek for strength in numbers. Camaraderie and concerted efforts are not, in and of themselves, bad things. It was C.S. Lewis who–while warning about the dangers of the phenomenon of “The Inner Ring“–explained the nature of concerted efforts happening with the substructure of any organization. He wrote:
There must be confidential discussions: and it is not only a bad thing, it is (in itself) a good thing, that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together. And it is perhaps impossible that the official hierarchy of any organization should coincide with its actual workings.
However, when these “inner rings” become large enough to become “camps” (or, “wings” or “tribes”) within an ecclesiastical structure, the idea of orthodoxy begins to take different shape and form than that which it held before. Certain phrases become Shibboleths of orthodoxy and the way in which men dress and speak becomes a defining mark of orthodoxy. A “more-refined-than-thou,” “more-professional-than-thou” or a “hipper-than-thou” mentality weaves its way into the fabric of the definition of orthodoxy within individual camps. Whereas it was once believed that adherence to “Calvinism” or “Confessionalism” was the defining mark of orthodoxy for men aligning themselves with others who held these common interests, it is no longer so. Robes and jeans, ties and tattoos, organs and drums have crept into the re-definition of “orthodoxy” for many. External preferences become part of the milieu of “orthodoxy.” It is found in churches that–whether doctrinally or practically, publicly or subversively–vocally insist on particular forms of education. It encompasses more than merely what is done in corporate worship–it is an “all of life” matter. It manifested itself in the Galatian error of insisting on adherence to dietary laws and separating from those who did not share this emphasis–which was so subtle and persuasive that even the Apostle Peter succumbed to it (Gal. 2:11-13).
Add to this the idea of pathos. In many circles, it is not enough to have a common interest in an orthodox system. For many, the idea of “orthodoxy” has practically come to be loaded with the idea of being passionate about the same distinctive elements or traditional nuances of a certain form of Calvinism or Confessionalism, and about being passionately against everyone who doesn’t share the exact same passion about theses distinctive elements. Two men may–with sincerity and uprightness–adhere to the Westminster Standards or the London Baptist Confession, but if they do not distain or vocally oppose those are perceived to be rejecting or jeopardizing one or more nuanced elements of those orthodox standards then these two men do not belong to the same “orthodox” camp. They may have friendships that cross over from one camp to another, may–for a time–work together against those who are strong opponents of essential doctrines and may even pretend friendship with one another, but they are not truly in mutual agreement about the “orthodoxy” of the other. When they are within the presence of members of the “orthodox” camp to which they belong, they will make sure that they distance themselves from those who do not fight the same battles as they themselves deem most important. A prime example of this was Carl McIntire’s separation from J. Gresham Machen et al over eschatology, Presbyterian traditions and liberty of conscience in the use of alcohol and tobacco. All of this unravelled after years of McIntire fighting together with Machen against Liberalism. It is also seen in the way in which those who are soft on doctrinal fidelity distance themselves from those who are zealous for Confessional integrity. Both legalistic and antinomian tendencies fuel such separation.
The New Testament doesn’t promote or tolerate such reshaping of orthodoxy. Biblical orthodoxy is holding to, with sincerity and conviction, those central doctrines revealed in the Apostolic ministry and teaching and held by the church throughout the ages. It exalts the Triune God of Scripture and His saving work in the world. It keeps Christ and Him crucified at the center of all that is taught, proclaimed and defended. It will lead a man or woman to defend against any and all attacks on the doctrine of God, the two natures of Christ, the doctrines of grace, the doctrine of justification and the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. It involves the strongest convictions about the virgin birth and the resurrection. It stands against any idea of cheap or presumptuous grace–while not allowing the pendulum to swing the other way into legalism. Biblical orthodoxy is never found in championing causes that the Apostles never championed. Biblical orthodoxy encourages us to respect the traditions of church history without seeking to bind the consciences of others with them. It acknowledged doctrinal uniformity and cultural diversity as over against doctrinal diversity and culture uniformity. It is evidenced in the lives of others, not merely in the words that they speak but in the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. It is zealous–not for some compromising ecumenism, but for the sort of biblical ecumenism prayed for by our Lord (John 17) and grounded in His Person and work. In short, it seeks to bring glory to the God of Scripture by maintaing purity in our doctrine and lives and peace with all those who belong to Him. May God give us grace to submerge ourselves in the Scriptures and in the doctrine of Christ to such an extent that we may evidence the most biblical orthodoxy in both our words and lives.