Monday, July 28, 2008

Determining Orthodoxy

How do we determine what is orthodox within the church? Have you ever asked yourself the question? I have been asking it a lot over the last few years. Maybe that is part of the maturing process. I think most of us just accept that what we have believed and been taught all our lives is right. But as we grow and move around the world we run into people with conflicting views of Christianity who believe what they have been taught is correct. So who is right?
The obvious answer is that we have to base all our doctrine on the Word of God: the Bible. Great! No problem. Except that the Bible has been twisted to justify all kinds of crazy things. Now, I believe that the Bible must be twisted to get it to say many things that people want it to say. But, I ask again, how can we know when it is being twisted?
What I am driving at is that when we interpret the Bible without any reference to the history of the Church we run a real risk of twisting it. The Bible is the Word of God to all people of all time everywhere. On one level that means that if a passage is being made to say something to me that it could not have said to someone 400 or 1400 years ago, then that passage is probably being abused.
Let us look at an example. I grew up with conservative music. I came to a conviction in early adulthood where I decided that if I was going to listen to rock/pop/contemporary music that I would listen to secular music but I did not want that kind of music to mix with the Gospel. I look at David's new song and find it hard to see how it could sound just like his old song. But I have to admit that the idea that the church should never use any kind of contemporary music has little historical basis. The heathen Mozart used the same kind of musical structures to write hedonistic opera and to compose the music of great hymns like "Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken." So is my conviction valid? Let's look at another example and then answer that question.
My second example is that of church membership. This has been a big topic at Desiring God for several years. There is a conviction among some Christians that church membership is not biblically required. And it is not to hard to see how their arguments from the Bible are laid out. I would even grant them that the Scriptures do no overtly require church membership. But the Bible implicitly requires membership in a local body of believers and Church history shows that any challenge to that principle has been sporadic and far from mainstream.
So now, back to the question: should I ever hold a conviction that has no historical root? I believe the answer is yes. Our doctrine must be informed by the Word of God and guided by history of the Church. Those are the convictions that we stand on and for which we can and should fight. Convictions like my music conviction often become the things that we fight and separate over and they should not be so. Those are convictions that work in my home and my local church but not much farther afield. I don't think it is hypocritical to hold strongly to beliefs that are not applicable to all Christians. We just have to understand that when we elevate them to the same level as the great doctrines of the faith that we are perilously close to having another gospel (Galatians 1).
Convictions about church membership, inerrancy of scripture and the Trinity are non-negotiable tenets of Christianity. They have been for 2000 years and, if the Lord tarries His return, will continue to be so for another 2000 years. Our views of music, alcohol consumption and the method of the preservation of scripture are recent positions that will probably be outmoded in a relatively short time. They cannot become the basis for how we treat other servants of the Lord.