Defining Orthodoxy Relationally: 'It Takes More Than Correct Doctrine to be Truly Orthodox'

Orthodoxy Relationally Defined

Defining Orthodoxy Relationally

“Objective historic theology is Reformation theology.  It is historical evangelicalism.  It is historical orthodoxy.”  So says John MacArthur (Charismatic Chaos: 32). If John’s lips are moving, there’s a good chance I don’t agree with much of what’s coming through them! The narrow and sectarian nature of that statement is appalling. But John is just following in the footsteps of his spiritual forefather, Martin Luther.  Luther said that in the history of the church no one–not Augustine, not any of the Church Fathers–NO ONE other than himself–ever understood “pure doctrine.” He called everything before himself “great darkness.” (Table Talk: §530)  

It is highly likely that your pastor, Bible School teacher, or seminary professor never told you this. Why? Because it complicates the simplistic historical narrative about how wonderful the Reformation was and what great heroes we as Protestants are.  The real story is not that clean-cut.  My friends, if any one alive today made the kind of statement that Luther made, what would you think of that person? Would you make that person your pastor or head of your organization? I doubt it. You would think that person could be more than a few degrees off of level. Yet for many, he is arbiter of truth and the rescuer of the Universal Church rather than a very flawed human being doing the best he could to walk in the light of what he thought he saw, as he saw it– just like the rest of us.  We need to be intellectually honest about this. Who or what is “orthodox?”

Defining Orthodoxy

Since Luther there have been centuries of perennial fragmentation in Protestantism. Depending on how statistical categories are defined, there are between twelve and approximately thirty seven-thousand different Protestant groups–each disputing over evermore minute and arcane points of doctrine. It should be self-evident to any honest, objective person that something is not quite right.  The tree has not produced entirely good fruit. There is a defect in the spiritual genetics.

I believe at the bottom of it all is a differing understanding of what it means to be orthodox. The Western and Eastern Church view orthodoxy differently.  The Eastern Church certainly has its own warts and issues–not the least of which is suffocating ethnocentricity which comes from a long and complicated history (Which is too much to get into here.). However, it has not experienced centuries of fragmentation like the Western Church. To me, that makes looking into the Eastern perspective of orthodoxy worth considering.


Understanding the danger of making too much of too little when it comes to word definitions and meanings (the etymological fallacy), what follows seems to me to be on safe ground regarding the word: orthodoxy (orthodoxa).

Ortho should be familiar to most from the English terms orthopedic or orthodontic. It means straight, upright, or proper. Doxa is more of a challenge for a translator. It can mean “opinion” or “glory.” Many of life’s easy decisions are between what is right and what is wrong. Decisions between two rights are much more challenging. And that is the case at hand. Which of the two legitimate possibilities the translator chooses is going to shape a great deal down-stream.

Orthodoxy therefore, can mean either that which is of proper opinion or that which gives God proper glory. Many might say it is, and should be, both. That is ideally and theoretically true. One does not exclude the other. However, in the Protestant tradition in which I was raised, in neither theory nor practice was it a fifty-fifty balance. It was not an eighty-twenty proportion. It was one-hundred to zero.

The concept of orthodoxy being proper glory was not on the radar screen. It wasn’t in the room where the radar was. It wasn’t even in the building of the room where the radar was. It did not exist (All theoretical objections not withstanding). It was and remains all about proper doctrine, not proper glory. In most places I have been, we don’t even have the vocabulary, intellectual frame of reference, or interest to begin to talk about “proper glory.” As long as our belief system is right, everything is supposedly okay–deviate even a little from the consensus point of view and the hammer will be lowered on you. 

What if that overemphasis is a mistake?

I think it is, and a very serious one with literally centuries of painful human consequences. What does it mean to give proper glory to God?   What does orthodoxy defined as proper glory look like? As always, Jesus shows the way. 

John 17:22

Jesus makes a remarkable statement about the glory of God: I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. 

A few points:

1) The glory has nothing to do with chills, thrills, and goosebumps.

2) It is a past tense event!  We don’t have to sing, shout, or hop about to ‘bring down the glory.” It has been freely given to us. 

3) The purpose is for manifesting the kind of relationally harmonic life that reflects the oneness the Son and Father share.

The glory that Jesus fulfilled, the proper-glory (orthodoxy) that Jesus manifested was the glory of a Father-Son relationship in fidelity and love. The mind-blowing reality is: the glory of that filial relationship Jesus had pre-incarnate, and has now in resurrection has been given to you and in our union in the Indwelling Holy Spirit! 


Believers are supposed to manifest something on earth reflecting the Trinitarian love between the Father and Son, not just possess correct opinions about the Bible–“so they may be one as we are one.”

Glory is relational. Proper glory is living in right relationship with God and humanity. Therefore, orthodoxy cannot be singularly defined by right doctrine. Rather, being orthodox is a state of being. It is growing conformity to the Great Commandment (Mt.28) and the New Commandment (Jn 13:34)–thinking and acting like Jesus (Rom. 8:29). None of these deal with “knowing the Bible.” They are all relational. They are all about loving the “other.” Growing in understanding of Scripture is not precluded. It is just not the definitive metric.

Giving God proper glory is living in fidelity, love, and obedience like the Son of Man, being progressively transformed into the image of Christ. This gives God proper glory and is orthodoxy. On Mt. Tabor that orthodoxy became visible. The relational glory (shekinah) in a human being in whom the Father recognized Himself was seen in time and space: This is my dearly beloved Son in whom I am delighted. Believe it or not, that is our inheritance, our calling and our destiny as believers. Our destiny is not just heaven. 

Isn’t Just “Believing” Enough?

All the above has good news/bad news elements. It means I can be quite flawed in my Bible knowledge and still live a fully orthodox, dynamic, and abundant life, being conformed to the image of Jesus. That process does not require my doctrinal perfections. That is, I give God glory because my relationships with God and humanity are being conformed to Jesus’s way. That is God-glorifying, orthodox, good news: I am not dependent on my intellectual prowess. The not-so-good news is: If I am a walking-and-talking Bible encyclopedia–the proverbial Bible-answer-man/woman–but my relationships are an un-Christlike disaster, I am not truly in orthodoxy, regardless of how straight my views of the Bible may be.  Orthodoxy cannot be just abstract intellectual positions about what the Bible says. Orthodoxy must include resembling Jesus in life. Not sinless perfection, but engaged in the process of transformation. 

I saw a survey once (and I can’t put my fingers on it at the moment) where nearly 80% of Evangelical pastors admitted they never mention conformity to Jesus in their public preaching. Why? Because it is too hard, causes problems, and it doesn’t grow their churches. They just preach what Jesus has done for us (salvation) because that fills the seats.  That is an example of what is not orthodox, regardless of how much “Bible preaching” happens every week. 

Even the English word believe or belief comes from the Old Norse “by-lief.” Literally, by your life. That is, if you do not live it you do not really “believe” it.  Over the centuries “to believe” has become watered down to mean only subjective intellectual posture toward propositional truths in the Bible. That cannot qualify as orthodoxy. Even the thief on the cross was “living it” in the moment of his confession. So, this is not implying that every person must have a lifetime of faithful living to be orthodox. We just leave the “yeah, but what about . . .” and apparent exceptions (death-bed confessions, etc.) to God. That is His business. If we have been given life, it is to be lived in conformity to Jesus. 


In Luther’s disputes with the Anabaptists, he admitted that his followers did not at all resemble Christ in their actions. He also admitted that the Anabaptists lived exemplary lives of conformity to Christ. But that didn’t stop him from persecuting them. He said that all that mattered was “doctrine” (1). Other Reformers went so far as to say Christ-like behavior in believers who disagree doctrinally is a satanic counterfeit because satan masquerades as an angel of light (2)! When orthodoxy is defined by doctrine rather than giving God proper glory–especially in our human relationships–it becomes justification for any and all kinds of evil. It begins with anger causing division. It migrates to hate, it grows to persecution and blossoms fully in justified (sic) violence because–God is on our side.  The differing other must be destroyed. The soil of Western Europe was saturated in blood for centuries because of doctrinal orthodoxy wars.

It is naive for us to think this is not submerged in the DNA of Reformation-based Evangelicalism in our day.  In the United States at the time of this writing the ugly face and logical fruit of the “all that matters is doctrine” monster is all over the media as so-called Evangelicals–individuals and groups–behave egregiously before a watching secular public. It is all swept away with: “Well, it’s ok because she’s a Christian or He’s a believer, and we are not supposed to judge one another. We have given our hearts to the Lord.”


A canoe that is paddled only on one side will indefinitely go around in circles. Five hundred years of paddling on one side of the definition of orthodoxy is enough. It is time to radically rethink and live out a different definition. I see no hope for the future of what calls itself “Christian” (debatably) until we repent of, and abandon, this lop-sided belief system. 


[1] Verduin, Leonard. The Reformers and Their Step-Children, 108.

[2] Ibid. And it only goes to show what kind of nonsense can be believed with a distorted proof text. You can “prove” anything you want with a Bible verse. 

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