In religious parlance, “orthodox” means: “sound or correct in opinion or doctrine.” In general use it means: “of, pertaining to, or conforming to the approved form of any doctrine, philosophy, ideology etc.” Orthodox is “approved, conventional.”
The word “doctrine” of course means “teaching.”
In our world, the word “orthodox” comes into play in a multitude of areas. We have Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, orthodox medicine, orthodox warfare, orthodox agriculture, orthodox dentistry and a whole host of other orthodoxies.
The question I’d like to examine in this article is: who decides what is orthodox and what is not? The answer is: establishments do. So what is an establishment? It’s a power structure. Whichever faction emerges in possession of the most power becomes the establishment in that field. Establishments represent institutional authority. Whatever the establishment, it decides what is “orthodox” for the community over which it wields power. Medical orthodoxy, for example, is determined largely by the American Medical Association. Military orthodoxy is determined by the nation’s military academies and training facilities, along with the Joint Chiefs who take their cues from the President. Religious doctrinal orthodoxy is decided denomination by denomination, by the power clique of each group. Educational orthodoxy is determined largely by the NEA, the nation’s largest teacher’s union.
What is “orthodox” is usually determined on the basis of the self-interest of the power structure – the establishment. In religious circles, the opposite of orthodoxy is “heresy.” The dictionary defines “heresy” as: “opinions or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, esp. of a church or religious system.”
Since there is no such thing as an inter-denominational consensus, there are myriad definitions of orthodoxy and heresy within religious circles. One group’s orthodoxy is another group’s heresy. The larger and more powerful the establishment, the more legitimate it may appear to be.
We, the participants in and consumers of religion, medicine, agriculture, education, dentistry, etc. may find ourselves confused as we get into the nuts & bolts of each. Whose orthodoxy should we adopt, and whose should we reject? Do we know enough about the subject to make such a value judgment? Chances are, going in, we don’t.
Challenges to Orthodoxy
Orthodoxies will ever be challenged by the losers, endlessly heralded by the winners and those who benefit most from them. Those who choose to avail themselves of the insights and skills of alternative or unorthodox medicine my find themselves accused of supporting “quackery.” A “quack” is a “fraudulent or ignorant pretender to medical skill” – at least from the point of view of the orthodox. Those who have benefited from the applied skills of “quacks” will testify to the efficacy of their methods. They will campaign for legitimacy for the particular therapy that helped them. A person who has been relieved of pain by a chiropractor doesn’t want to hear that he is a quack. It’s the same with acupuncturists, homeopaths, naturopaths, nutritionists, iridologists, colon therapists, herbalists, and so on. For patients, the proof of the treatment is that it worked.
If a patient goes to an orthodox doctor and finds that the drug the doctor prescribed not only failed to cure his disease, but resulted in side effects that required treatment by other drugs that had side effects and so on – he or she may become disillusioned with orthodox medicine. The patient may consider an alternative approach.
A good question to ask after you have experienced any type of medical treatment or approach is: did this treatment make me healthier? Am I healthier now than before I started the treatment?
We could ask the same question of any involvement with any given religious establishment: am I better off spiritually because of my involvement with this denomination? Am I happier? Do I now have the answers I’ve been looking for? Am I freer than I was before (after all, Jesus said, “the truth shall set you free” – not “bring you into bondage”)? What kind of fruit is born of any given religious system? Does it truly meet the needs of the “flock” at their actual points of need? Or is it constituted to meet the needs of the ruling hierarchy at the expense of the flock?
Has involvement with a given church deepened your relationship with God and Christ? Do you sense more of the power and influence of the Holy Spirit in your life? Are you closer to God than ever before? Or have you merely formed a neurotic relationship with a nucleus of autocratic human leaders? Do you find yourself caught up in a cult of personality, or with a nurturing spiritual community of brothers and sisters in the Lord?
Here’s a good barometer; ask yourself this: Am I involved with a group of Christians any one of whom I could ask to pray for me when I’m in trouble and know that God would likely hear their prayers? Are the people you’re involved with close to God, eager to pray, feeding on the Word, and living lives filled with good works? Or are they merely an assortment of doctrinal hard liners whose claim to faith is based on having circled the wagons around a small set of unique dogmas and doctrines which they claim proves they are the “true,” Orthodox Church?
The self-proclaimed orthodox are inclined to administer litmus tests of orthodoxy to those who wish to join them, or to challenge them: Is he a strict Sabbatarian? A Trinitarian? A Binitarian? A Unitarian? A tither? A tisket? A tasket? A green and yellow basket? Name your orthodoxy!
Real Christian faith is so much more than that sand pile nonsense. A Christian is one who lives in active relationship with God in Christ. He or she follows Christ and the leading of the Holy Spirit. He or she has been bought with the price of Christ’s blood; therefore the Lord owns him or her. A true follower of Christ does not allow anyone to get between herself and God for “there is only one mediator between God and man…Christ.” A real Christian feels the weight of working out his own salvation with fear and trembling. Ministers are not gods; they are mere helpers, facilitators, encouragers, teachers, but never lords over Christ’s flock. He alone is the ultimate Good Shepherd.
The bottom line is this: you can’t always trust religious or other establishments to tell you the objective truth about anything. The fact that they are an established power structure does not automatically mean that they are right. History shows us that the majority is often wrong. Some of the most powerful establishments have sometimes done the greatest damage. Might does not make right – it merely makes it possible for some power clique to assert its will on the multitudes. That so-called orthodoxy may be utterly self-serving or malevolent – it often is.
Ultimately, you and I are responsible for the shape of our lives. We are either building or deconstructing our relationship with God at all times. The condition of our health is largely of our own doing (barring accidents, genetics etc.). Our financial condition is of our own making. We live daily with the consequences of both our sins and our best decisions. We also live with the consequences of other people’s sins. There are no “victimless sins.”
We cannot afford to become spiritual Adolph Eichmann’s – only “following orders.” We must learn to take responsibility for our own beliefs and practices. In a cooperative relationship with God and Jesus Christ, we are well advised to follow Paul’s instruction: “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12b & 13).
Learn to be like the Jews of Berea to whom Paul preached: “These were more fair-minded that those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
Don’t gullibly swallow anything and everything that is spewed forth by the representatives of some establishment, but develop your critical thinking skills. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking orthodox medicine, education, dentistry, politics or religion. Truth exists, but sometimes we have to run the gauntlet to get to it. Establishments are often more concerned with maintaining power than they are with doing good in the world or in advancing truth. In some cases, they may actively suppress the truth in order to maintain their orthodoxies. Put simply, don’t assume that because a group of people in a hierarchy represent some sort of establishment or orthodoxy they are automatically right. Throughout its long and sometimes deadly history, the medical establishment has often been wrong. The “father of our country,” George Washington, was bled to death by the then-orthodox medical establishment.
Religious establishments, however, have done far more damage than almost any other kind. The trail of blood left by religions throughout history would fill an ocean. Religious people in power can be among the cruelest of taskmasters. Talk about “control freaks”!
As Christians, our trust must be in God and in Christ, not in men, establishments or orthodoxies, all of which are probably operating out of self-interest. One of the most important statements in the New Testament for me is found in Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Ever since I renewed my commitment to Christ more than 22 years ago, I have fed on those words. I believe them, experience them and they sustain me.
Establishments look out for their own interests. If you follow the trails of money and power, you’ll often understand what’s really going on. Christians, ideally, ought to live by a different standard expressed by Paul in Philippians 2:4: “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” Put another way, we are permitted to take care of ourselves, but not at the expense of others. We need to create “win-win” situations instead of “win-lose” ones.
There’s a line from a song in “Porgy & Bess” that seems appropriate here: “It ain’t necessarily so; the things that your preacher is liable to teach ya, it ain’t necessarily so.” Establishments aren’t right because they’re establishments. Nor are they automatically wrong for that reason. Power alone does not give a clique of people any special insight into truth. The fact that a group of people in power agree on something doesn’t make it truly orthodox, but only in the perception of that group. Each of must take responsibility for “ferreting out” the truth on any given issue before we internalize it. We must take responsibility for the shape our own lives, past, present and future. Tying one’s life up with a group of tithe-hungry religious leaders is an “iffy” thing. Tying it up with God in Christ is a sure thing. Like Paul, we must learn to live in “good conscience toward God” (Acts 23:1). The Lord Jesus Christ will be our Judge. It is Him we must please, not cliques of men in power. Peter and the other apostles understood this when they said collectively: “…We ought to obey God rather than men”(Acts 5:29).
Both in our time and in historical times, religious establishments have tortured, unjustly imprisoned, confiscated the property of, burned at the stake and otherwise murdered other religious, but dissenting, people. I simply don’t trust establishments, religious or otherwise; and one establishment’s orthodoxy is another’s heresy. Who needs it? In this brief, ephemeral lifetime, we all “see through a glass, darkly.” No one has a comprehensive understanding of the things of God. Each of us may possess fragments of truth, but none of us sees the whole picture. We can love each other, and look out for each other, as brothers and sisters in Christ, but we cannot impose upon each other some package of orthodoxy and claim it to be the last word in truth. Anyone who attempts to do so has greatly overreached himself.