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Let me begin by confessing. I am an orthodox Christian.  My faith is deepened every time I seriously engage with the creeds, the canon of scripture, and the fathers and mothers of the Church catholic. This has not always been the case.  I entered seminary in the thrall of modernist, naturalist triumphalism.  I associated the historical tradition of the Christian church with naïve, anti-science perspective.  I had confused orthodoxy with the modern strand of Biblical literalism and inerrantism. And, I had confused the traditional faith of the Church with a right wing political program. In short I had confused orthodoxy with modernist right wing conservatism.

Seminary helped me sort much of this out. It taught me about the ways in which the classical confessions of Christianity could be succor for intellectual curiosity instead of a bludgeon for those with whom you disagreed. I learned that the fathers and mothers of the church had often fought against the kind of reductive treatments of our scriptures that were found in modern fundamentalism.  I came to see the orthodox Christian tradition as rich and diverse, certainly not reducible to a particular political platform.

Since then I have often found myself defending orthodoxy to my more “progressive” friends. What you dislike most about this tradition, I tell them, is not really a part of the tradition.  And, in places where the orthodox tradition pushes you, it is best to be pushed, to live into the tension, and to engage in the ongoing dialogue that is orthodox Christianity.

Unfortunately, this is always a hard position to take, often because those claiming to represent orthodoxy make exactly the same kinds of mistakes about the tradition that the enemies of orthodoxy make.  Take, for instance, two recent commentaries on the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, both of which claim that the Conference moved the Church toward orthodoxy.

The Baptists

Writing for the Southern Baptist Convention, Joseph Rossell penned an article entitled Methodists’ Long Arc Toward Orthodoxy. What evidence does he provide to fill out the title? Well, he notes that the General Conference did not change its stance on homosexuality.  He lauds the fact that the Conference did not decide to divest from programs supporting Israel.  And he finds most encouraging the fact that the Conference withdrew from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a pro-choice organization, and did not renew a resolution endorsing the language of Row v. Wade.

Now, one might wonder, where is the “orthodoxy” in all of this?  Where are the Ecumenical Councils, the Creeds, the Church mothers and fathers? Where is the great tradition of Christianity? Where is there even a mention of the Father, Son, and/or Holy Spirit?  Even the name of Jesus is absent from the article.  The list produced by Rosell is a who’s who of social issues for the Religious Right.  It says nothing about Christian orthodoxy.  It suggests only that the United Methodist Church is shifting to become politically more conservative. The UMC trends more toward the Republican party platform than it did three weeks ago, but there is nothing here to suggest any win for “orthodoxy.”

The Professor

One expects an analysis with more depth from William J. Abraham, Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Southern Methodist University.  In addition to being Wesleyan, and thus having a sense of Church tradition which would be understandably atrophied in a commenter from the SBC, Abraham has done sustained work on the concept of orthodoxy.  Indeed, his work on Canonical Theism is part of what lead me to my greater appreciation of orthodoxy.

So, when Abraham now turns to discuss The Birth Pangs of United Methodism as a Unique, Global, Orthodox Denomination what do we find?  Playing the Owl of Minerva, Abraham declares the direction of history, in which the 2016 General Conference has been “a watershed moment.” The United Methodists Church has become a “unique, global, orthodox Methodist denomination.”

What follows, however, is not an account of developing theological maturity in the Church.  It is a narrative of political intrigue, placing the progressives, the moderate Hamiltonians, and the traditionalists and evangelicals against one another.  The key issue, of course, is homosexuality.  The whole thing is enthralling.  There is even the suggestion of a cabal; “a network of progressive bishops who are very effective at controlling” the Council of Bishops.

The narrative climaxes in the clashes of the 2016 General Conference, where “traditionalists and conservatives” ran the field. For the progressives and moderates, Abraham tells us, things could not have been worse. “The orthodox train was barreling down the tracks and all they could really hope for was that someone could get their hands on the emergency brake and stop it reaching the station.” (Yes, he really used the phrase “orthodoxy train.”) The collapse of the left was halted only by the Council of Bishops stepping in and setting up a commission that pushed the resolution of the issue down the road.

Despite Abraham’s key use of the term “orthodoxy” here, his article is long on politics and woefully short on theology.  Aside from ad hominem generalizations about moderates and progressives, Abraham does not bother to engage any actual representatives of either group. And the most substantive support he offers for his claims about the significance of arguments about homosexuality in the church is that: “The issue is theological and moral; theological because it involves its doctrine of creation; and moral because it is a matter of the canonical and ethical practice.”

Abraham does not let this lack of theological substance limit the rhetorical heights of his claims.  What is at issue, he tells us, is “the total repudiation of authentic and canonical Christian teaching.” With our arguments over homosexuality, we face “a fourth schism in the life of the church.” [1] Those who disagree with the conservative position are likened to the Arian heretics of early Christianity.

The total repudiation of authentic and canonical Christian teaching is at issue in our arguments about homosexuality? Really?  Is this issue more central to the canonical tradition than other issues about which we argue? Issues of war and peace? Issues of divorce? Debates about the gifts of the spirit? What justifies suddenly declaring on this issue that those who disagree are as Arius? If we are to take such language seriously, we need it deployed with more seriousness.

What of the claim that the issue involves the doctrine of creation?  Do our arguments about abortion, in vitro fertilization, genetic testing, etc. involve this doctrine any less? Since when has “involving” a doctrine made something central to Christian orthodoxy?

This is not an appeal to orthodoxy, this is dressing a position up as orthodoxy for political purposes.  As Abraham councils, because “orthodoxy” is at stake, traditionalists “are right to eschew merely pragmatic schemes of accommodation and negotiation.” By running the stakes so high, he has made dialogue and compromise seem impermissible. All that is left then, is the play of power.  Not a bad situation for a person who believes that his position is the one with the power.

Orthodoxy Left out in the Cold

There is one further issue that makes it clear that the General Conference 2016 was not about re-claiming orthodoxy. During the General Conference, two separate committees took up the question of whether to recognize the Nicene Creed as a Doctrinal Standard for the United Methodist Church.  The proposal was not supported by either committee, and never made it to a broader vote.

Now, if one were concerned with orthodoxy, the voting down of the Nicene Creed seems like exactly the kind of thing that would garner that person’s attention.  The Southern Baptists predictably don’t make the connection. Abraham offers a weak argument that today’s disputes about homosexuality are like the early Church’s fights over Arianism while failing to mention that the UMC side stepped endorsing the Creed that actually addresses Arianism.

So, for all the whoopla about “orthodoxy” winning at the General Conference, what these articles reflect is the domestication of the language of orthodoxy for the purpose of forcing a conservative conclusion onto ongoing dialogue.  And that is a sad thing, because orthodoxy is something much bigger and better than we can fathom, being so fixated as we are now on the current power plays in our Church.  Unfortunately, so long as it is dragged down to be a mere symbol in those fights, we will never be able to appreciate its full grandeur.



[1] You will be excused for not knowing what the first three were as Abraham has selected (1) divisions over Arianism, (2) divisions concerning the doctrine of salvation by faith, and (3) divisions over the authority of scripture, and has not included the East West Schism or the split between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  Possibly, Abraham did not want to highlight the fact that most of the things that we think of as “schisms” in the life of the Church actually happen between groups that both maintain their place within some version of orthodox Christianity.