We don’t hear much about orthodoxy these days. The notion comes from a time when the church exercised control over the beliefs and practices of its members. The idea of a binding body of religious teaching is simply untenable in the modern world. These days, among Protestants at least, we get together and vote on what we believe.
But that may be changing. In his book, The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis, Robert George, a law professor at Princeton University, suggests a new kind of Christian orthodoxy is emerging.
According to George, the new orthodoxy is characterized by a litany of conservative social issues. The list includes abortion, homosexuality, marriage, euthanasia and expressions of religion in public. These issues are the new orthodoxy, and they are gradually taking the place of traditional Christian beliefs.
It is no longer sufficient to hold to a traditional view of God, to believe in the incarnation, and to affirm the atoning death of Jesus. We may believe all these things, but if our views on abortion, or homosexuals, or prayer in schools, or even political parties are at odds with the new orthodoxy, we’re considered unfaithful.
This new Christian orthodoxy is also changing the face of traditional gospel ministry. Christian activity is now defined as political activism aimed at crafting a social order that fits in with the issues of the new orthodoxy.
In short, the new orthodoxy has become the basis for Christian faithfulness. Inclusion within the community of faith depends on believing the right things about these issues, and doing the right things about those beliefs. Failure to follow the official orthodoxy constitutes heresy and may result in expulsion.
For instance, in January of this year, the National Religious Broadcasters elected Wayne Pederson as their new president. In February, he resigned under pressure. Pederson was not charged with any moral lapse, or of violating the principles of the NRB. No, his sin was expressing his concern that the NRB should make gospel ministry its primary focus.
“We get associated with the far Christian right and marginalized,” Pederson said in an interview with the Minneapolis Sun Tribune. “We do have a political orientation, but that should not be what we’re known for.”
Apparently, political orientation is exactly what the NRB wants to be known for. After Pederson’s remarks were made public, several leaders in the NRB, including “Focus on the Family” founder James Dobson, expressed concern about Pederson continuing as president. While the word heresy was never applied to Pederson, the scent of the new orthodoxy was heavy in the wind that drove him out.
This is a devastating development. Christian beliefs are being systematically redefined as pure political ideology. Worship is being replaced by political rallies. The Scriptures are being replaced by a conservative political agenda. We are left with a faithless faith, emptied of its theological substance, and consequently of its significance.
A return to the old orthodoxy is clearly not the answer to this dilemma. But there is something to be said for Christian beliefs and practice having at least some connection to “the faith once delivered to the saints.” In the new orthodoxy, that connection is hard to find.
James Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.