Commentary: Who controls orthodoxy?

deesis_russ_right_lg_550

By Dalton Rushing*

If there’s one word that gets thrown around more than any other in the church’s ongoing debate about full inclusion of LGBTQ people, it’s “orthodoxy.” Those who oppose full inclusion (or, less pejoratively, those who argue that the Bible does not allow for same-sex weddings or LGBTQ clergy) argue that their position is the orthodox one. Implicit in this argument, and sometimes said aloud, is the idea that those in favor of full inclusion stand against orthodoxy. You can see more of this kind of thing here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here, or here. In far too many of our conversations about sexuality, orthodoxy means nothing more than standing against full inclusion.

It’s a shame that we have so narrowed the word “orthodoxy” in this way, for orthodoxy is a gift from God to the church. Orthodoxy, broadly defined and broadly understood, holds us together as believers in the triune God, such that we celebrate one church, one Lord, one baptism. Orthodoxy ties us to the early church creeds, so that more than simply being on the same page, as it were, we may be in mystical communion with one another, and with God. In the Nicene Creed (part of our doctrinal heritage as Christians, and printed in the United Methodist Hymnal), we declare:

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We acknowledge one baptism
for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen

Orthodoxy, then, is about connecting us in one church, not about dividing us. It is certainly not about picking one issue to be the plumb line of faithfulness: particularly an issue not mentioned in the Creeds.

It has been absolutely remarkable, then, to watch the speed at which we’ve seen the term “orthodoxy” turn into something it has not traditionally meant. This narrow funneling of the term does not do justice to the wideness of God’s mercy, nor is it faithful to the rich witness of the Bible. I will acknowledge the necessity of using Biblical interpretation to arrive at a position of full inclusion (more about this in a bit) but I will not cede that I am unorthodox. Never mind the fact that the ancient creeds don’t actually mention the Bible; I see nowhere in the ancient beliefs about the Triune God where an argument about full inclusion of LGBTQ people stands in opposition to what the great councils of the church discerned to be good and true about Christianity.

I do not want to put words in the mouths of those who use the term “orthodoxy” to describe an opposition to full inclusion, but when I hear this term in this context, I find the speaker often actually means that he or she does not believe that God does new things outside of the knowledge base of those who wrote the scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

In other words, if it were true, the Holy Spirit would have told the original writers of scripture. Since the Holy Spirit did not do this, anything that stands outside the knowledge base of the original writers of scripture is unorthodox.

The problem with this argument is that this is never what orthodoxy has meant! Orthodoxy, throughout history, has meant a devotion to first principles of Christianity, in particular the creeds. Even G.K. Chesterton, the great Christian apologist, noted that “when the word ‘orthodoxy’ is used [in his book of the same name] it means the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed.”

Nor is orthodoxy, understood in a Wesleyan context, anything resembling what we have warped it into, in the context of our debates over sexuality. We certainly believe scripture to be primary–in this way, I am an unabashed evangelical!–but nowhere in our founding documents do we pretend that God only speaks through scripture. Those who conflate “orthodoxy” with opposition to full inclusion sometimes point to the fifth Article of Religion of the Methodist Church, “Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scripture for Salvation,” as guiding their understanding that no truth exists outside scripture. But read the article for yourself:

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

Not only does the fifth Article of Religion not say that scripture contains all that is true about God, but it implicitly acknowledges that new truth may be discovered outside the scope of scripture, even as it declares that nothing necessary for salvation is found outside of scripture.Relatedly, those who argue that orthodoxy stands in opposition to full inclusion say that the Biblical witness is clear, and that those of us who argue for the acceptance of the practice of homosexuality within married, partnered relationships are

Relatedly, those who argue that orthodoxy stands in opposition to full inclusion say that the Biblical witness is clear, and that those of us who argue for the acceptance of the practice of homosexuality within married, partnered relationships are privileging experience above scripture. The argument goes that the problem with the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral is that we misunderstand the role of experience within it. Experience, then, is not about saying “I experience something else to be true, so the Bible must be wrong,” but rather, “I live out the Biblical witness in my experience.” Let me be clear: I have no problem with this critique of the quadrilateral! So often, in this individualistic culture, the only thing that matters is my own experience. Church, I believe, calls us to understand experience much more broadly.

And yet experience does play into my understanding of scripture, and our communal understanding, because each of us reads scripture through the lens of our personal experience. Far from being about my experience subverting or overwriting scripture, my experience colors the way I read the words on the page and the understanding I have therein. I can no more remove my own experience from the equation than I can give up my own name! I read scripture as a human–we read scripture, together, as humans–and my social location necessarily colors my reading.

Thus, I must necessarily interpret scripture when I read it. There is no other way for me to be faithful, as scripture cannot simply be implanted into my brain. It must pass from the ink on the page, through the air, into my eyes, through my optic nerves, into my brain, where it co-mingles with everything else lodged in there. You read scripture the same way. I pray that I may discern God’s will through the scripture, but the very existence of the step between the writing of scripture and its presence in my brain–namely, my reading and comprehending it–means that scripture must be interpreted. To pretend that there is no interpretation necessary, as many fundamentalists do, is to miss the fact that those of us who read it tend to be human.

It is simply impossible to not interpret the Bible! We may disagree over the interpretation, but interpretation is a necessary part of following Christ, honoring scripture as primary, and expressing faithfulness to the historic creeds of the church. These are necessary practices in the service of maintaining orthodoxy, and they can lead to disagreements about how God is calling us to live in the modern world, but those disagreements do not necessarily mean that one side is faithful and the other is willingly otherwise. In other words, when people conflate orthodoxy with belief about a single issue not mentioned in the Creeds, what they seem to be doing is subverting the historic meaning of orthodoxy so that they may control what it means.

I cannot speak for all who believe in full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church, nor do I mean to put words in the mouths of those who cry “orthodoxy!” in these conflicts. If I am demonstrating unorthodoxy in terms of what “orthodoxy” has always meant (that is, being in agreement with the historic creeds of the church), I am open to being called out.

But if we are going to have this discussion–and it is time to have this discussion, Church–let us at least be fair with one another and refrain for assuming that everyone who disagrees with my position or my side is, by definition, a heretic. That kind of argument has not exactly been good for the church throughout the centuries.

 

daltonrushing*The Rev. Dalton Troy Rushing is the lead pastor and chief troublemaker at North Decatur United Methodist Church. He writes a lot of words.

 

 

 

 

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
editor@circuitwritermedia.com
.

Leave a Reply

19 Comments on "Commentary: Who controls orthodoxy?"

applications-education-miscellaneous.png
The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
Notify of
avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Paul W.
Guest
The entire commentary is based on a semantic fallacy. Though revisionists often claim that “orthodoxy” is a term broad enough to encompass even their own recent theological heterodoxy, this is not true. Orthodoxy has always included a clear understanding of our requirement to keep the moral law and a clear understanding of what the core of the moral law encompasses. When we speak of “Wesleyan orthodoxy”, the term is even more well-defined as the specific theology taught by John Wesley. Those who press for “full LGBT inclusion” are attempting to argue that homosexual behavior is not sinful, which is an… Read more »
eric pone
Guest
Both you and the prior commentator have placed well reasoned arguments. Grace as a The problem of course comes when large segments of the American church disagree with you. THAT is the issue here. We have large chunk of folks who either don’t care or disagree. The Church cannot survive either side picking up their ball and going home. Methodism in America dies on the vine if either side “wins”. So the question is what is orthodoxy in an environment that is hostile to it? Does Grace change? Does it matter as it relates to Salvation? Finally what is to… Read more »
David Vaughn
Guest
The author says, concerning the quadrilateral, he agrees with scripture being primary. But, then he goes on to say that he filters scripture through his own life experiences and understanding in order to interpret the scriptures. Yes, all of us have to use our own minds, hearts, experiences, and understanding when we read the scriptures. However, the bottom line is this- when our understanding and our experience run counter to the scripture, we must surrender our understanding and adopt the scriptural pattern and prescription. As Jeremiah reminds us, “The heart is deceitful above all else and desperately sick; who can… Read more »
eric pone
Guest
I think Wesley got scriptural primacy wrong, Its appropriate if you are Anglican and interpreting it through that lens. But that was Wesley’s issue throughout his life he could not commit fully to the cause and as a result we never really got a fully fleshed out quadrilateral. I think seen through an evenly balanced quadrilateral with no one point having primacy (as God is fully expressed in all four points), think the answers change radically. So to me Wesley is wrong and he lets the fact that he is Anglican taint how he views scripture. God isn’t JUST past… Read more »
David Vaughn
Guest

My thought is that the problem is not with the primacy of scripture, but with the term ‘quadrilateral.’ Wesley never used that term. It was coined by Albert Outler, but was not Wesley’s term. ‘Quadrilateral’ would infer 4 sides that are equal in value or length. Wesley held to the Reformation view of ‘sola scriptura.’ Scripture is primary to our understanding of what is right, true, and correct in the understanding of the Christian faith. Tradition, experience, and reason may help illuminate the faith, but they do not negate, cancel, or discount what the scriptures have to say.

Phil
Guest

One has to be careful that “interpretation” of scripture doesn’t become “rationalization”. I believe the Wesleyan Quadrilateral has an order: 1. Scripture 2. Tradition (that is in agreement with the bible and not necessarily in agreement with personal opinions) 3. Reason and THEN 4. Experience. When these are reversed in priority with Experience and Reason first, the Traditions of the Church are based on OUR reason and experience. The final result is we then bend Scripture to fit OUR authority. I really don’t think this is Wesleyan in any way, shape, or form.

jimmie sheldby
Guest

Phil: Why not Scripture only? Is the definition of “Tradition” from the Wesleyan Quadrilateral? When “Reason” and “Experience” come into play, interpretation becomes uncertain……………

Harley Wheeler
Guest
I would say that ‘liberals’ turned to calling themselves ‘progressives’ and conservatives turned to ‘orthodox’ because of the easy confusion of liberal and conservative with images of certain politicians. ‘Liberal,’ especially fell out of favor in my lifetime, becoming a common pejorative, and conservative also had connotations of ‘boring worship.’ I was an early adopter of ‘orthodox’ as a better explanation of who i was, and what I might bother advocating, particularly, since before the national spitting match became all about LGBQTIA . . . (how many letters are there now?) we had some dandy theological flare-ups over sophia-worship and… Read more »
Wes Andrews
Guest
Just some thoughts. I find it interesting the way many of us (including myself), typically use the term “orthodoxy.” Protestants make it about right theology, but it is much more deep and broad in the way the Orthodox traditions understand it. They take it literally, “right praise.” They see that worship and belief are intertwined. I think the problem with those of us who have been influenced by protestant thinking is that we tend to separate categories and place concepts, theology, action, worship, academia, politics, etc. in nice neat boxes as if they can be better understood as separate entities… Read more »
Daniel Wagle
Guest

Or were talking about Paul who commented?

Daniel Wagle
Guest

I am not that different from Dalton in my point of view.

Wes Andrews
Guest

The weakness with Dalton’s points is that Scripture is clear about sexual boundaries. He seems to suggest that it’s up to “interpretation”. Based on what he writes, it seems that all one has to say is “this is true to me” and then it’s “true”. No one’s truth is equal to Scriptural truth. Scripture transcends how “I” feel about a issue. Scripture is orthodox, not my feelings about a topic.

Respectfully,

Wes Andrews

Daniel Wagle
Guest

How is my stance different from his?

Kevin
Guest

Everyone wants to be called orthodox no matter what they believe. This is simply a lame attempt to appropriate the term.

eric pone
Guest

You have done a good job of describing PCUSA orthodoxy. I would recommend reading John Wesley’s Sermons for getting solid info right from the horses mouth.

Daniel
Guest

For a fuller discussion or orthodoxy and what it means, I cannot recommend too highly “The Cruelty of Heresy: An Affirmation of Christian Orthodoxy” by C. FitzSimons Allison, retired bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina in The Episcopal Church. It’s not the lightest reading I’ve ever done, but it’s one of the best theology books I’ve read.

Daniel Wagle
Guest

Maybe one point you could make is that “Orthodoxy” or right opinion is not necessarily the same thing as “orthopraxy” or right conduct or practice. Orthodox Jews are often into “orthopraxy,” although they would not emphasize “orthodoxy” as much. Paul seemed to deemphasize orthopraxy in favor of being led by the Spirit and by Love. Also, I live very close to your Church. I live behind the Goodwill Center on Lawrenceville Hwy.

Pete Fleming
Guest

The tyranny of orthodoxy has caused much anxiety in the church. From the beginning the Bishops whom Emperor Constantine summoned to Nicea could not agree. The resulting creedal constructs are and always have been extra-biblical. Is God bound by the creeds? Of course not. Are they human constructs? Of course they are. Is the UMC a “creedal” church. No, it is not. So don’t try to convince me that excluding LGBTQI people from marriage and ordination in our church is OK because it is creedal. That is utter nonsense.

John
Guest

Please note that every one of the UMC’s official baptism liturgies uses the Apostles Creed to respond to the questions, “Do you believe….”.So you’re incorporated into membership in the UMC (unless by transfer) without assenting (or, if you’re unable to respond on your own behalf, without your sponsor assenting) to what is contained in the Creed.

wpDiscuz
Google+
%d bloggers like this: