Straight Teaching

Imagine an argument where one parent said, “I love our baby,” and the other parent didn’t reply, “Well, so do I!” Even in an amicable separation, that would raise some eyebrows. For the same reason, there are three words I’d like mainline protestant Christians to reclaim. They each represent something too important to walk away from.

One of those words is “orthodox.” We don’t use the word very much, except when we use a capital “O” to refer to “Orthodox Christians,” the eastern branches of Christianity resulting from the Great Schism of 1054.

That’s too bad, because “orthodoxy” should be important to us.It means “straight teaching” or “correct doctrine,” and doctrine is important. Christians are new creations, but we’re not complete. We need to be instructed in the faith. Apollos is described in Acts 18 as having “burning enthusiasm,” which is wonderful, but he also “taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.” (That passage says he taught in the synagogue, so we might assume he taught only to non-Christians. But if we think that means Christians don’t need instruction, note that Apollos himself needed instruction: “Priscilla and Aquilla took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.”)

Doctrine seems to have a slightly negative “air” to it. Maybe it’s because it sounds like something people argue about, without much significance in the real world. To some people, doctrine suggests a debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (A related word, “dogma,” has the same negative connotation.)

For other people, the problem with doctrine is that it has been set in opposition to biblical teaching. Rather than saying something is “orthodox,” they would say it is biblical.

But there are important doctrines that aren’t biblical: the Trinity, or Christ’s nature as both man and God, to pick two major doctrines. (By “biblical,” I don’t mean that these doctrines contradict the Bible. But they aren’t explicitly stated in the Bible. Rather, they are doctrines that attempt to synthesize into a single concept diverse teachings from the Bible.)

For still others, doctrine is collapsed into the catch-all bucket of tradition. Presbyterians, for example, trace their origins to the Reformed Tradition of Calvin’s Geneva. The Reformed Tradition certainly includes a great deal of theological doctrine, but it also includes polity, or theory about how the Church is to be governed. Within the PC(USA), for example, our constitution consists of a Book of Confessions, that articulates our theology, and a Book of Order, that regulates our polity.

Certainly, we hope our polity is theologically sound, we recognize it can extend beyond what is theologically defensible. At the extreme, such matters are called adiaphora, or “indifferent things,” like what time we ought to gather for worship on the Lord’s Day.

So how important is doctrine? Well, to judge from the Bible, it’s vital. From the Sermon on the Mount to the Upper Room Discourse through the letters of Paul, James, Peter, John, Jude, and the writer of Hebrews, great blocks of the New Testament are devoted to doctrine. More significant are the many passages that encourage the reader to contend for the faith, against those who might “bewitch” them, to guard against deceivers, to be of the same mind, and so forth.

In his masterful the The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis points out it is easier to muddle someone’s thinking than to get him to renounce it. It’s easier to produce heretics than apostates. For that reason, it’s vital that the church uphold the value of orthodoxy.