In the first article of this series, I proposed a simple schematic illustrating the essential Marks and Works of a church. These essential Marks include Orthodoxy, Order, and Ordinances. And the vital Works include Evangelism, Edification, and Exultation. In this second article of the series I focus on the fundamental Mark of Orthodoxy.
What comes to mind when you hear the word orthodox? For some it conjures up icons, incense, altars, and priests rattling off ancient liturgies in Greek or Russian. Others might associate the term orthodox with their own personal doctrines. That is, their beliefs are orthodox, so everything else is heresy.
Actually, orthodox is a Greek word meaning “correct opinion.” As such, orthodox believers have always held to the essential, unchanging truths of the Christian faith—the “things” Paul instructed Timothy to “entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). These unchanging essential truths, expressed in different language throughout history, were originally summarized in brief hymns or creedal statements that appear in the Bible (see John 1; Romans 1:1–4; 1 Corinthians 15:1–5; Philippians 2:5–11; Colossians 1:15–18; 1 Timothy 3:16). Later this same set of essential truths, usually summarized in confessional statements like the Apostles’ Creed, formed the basis for early Christian discipleship—especially preparation for baptism and admittance into the church (as is likely the case for the “elementary principles” described in Hebrews 5:12–6:5).
From an Evangelical Protestant perspective, these essential truths include, inter alia: (1) the doctrine of the Trinity—one God in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; (2) the incarnation, virgin birth; atoning death, resurrection, ascension, and future return of Christ; (3) the creation, fall, and depravity of humanity; (4) salvation by grace through faith; and (5) the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture. To err in matters of orthodoxy has always meant to err in matters that form the very heart and life of the Christian faith. For most of these issues, eternal life is at stake. For all of them, spiritual health is on the line. So heresy, the opposite of orthodoxy, is “damnable doctrine”—opinions held by false Christians.
Beyond these essential truths, various churches and denominations may have their own theological and doctrinal “preferences.” That is, their unique identities as churches or denominations are often driven by their preferences regarding everything from angels to end-times . . . from church governance to spiritual gifts. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having and teaching “distinctives.” But if a tradition allows its distinctives to invade the inner sanctuary of orthodoxy, then the Mark of Orthodoxy is actually weakened, not strengthened.
When I was in grade school, our teacher explained that most people in America were Christians. Then she polled the class: “How many of you consider yourselves to be Christians?”
All the students raised their hands . . . except one girl. She looked nervously around the room, spotted one of her friends raising her hand, and shouted, “Hey, Tina, put your hand down! We’re not Christians, we’re Catholics!”
For most Evangelicals the word “catholic” brings to mind Popes, statues, rosaries, and the Spanish Inquisition. But the term catholic actually comes from a Greek word meaning “universal” or “general” as opposed to local and particular. Ignatius of Antioch, around A.D. 110, was the first to use this term in reference to orthodox Christian churches. In order to strengthen the Mark of Orthodoxy and prevent heresy, Ignatius instructed the local church in Smyrna to trust the teachings of their bishop (or “head pastor”), Polycarp, who had been a personal student of the apostle John. Ignatius wrote, “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church” (Ignatius, Smyrnaeans 8.2). In this original context catholic refers to the body of Christ throughout the world under the headship of Jesus Christ (not the Pope!), just as the local church in Smyrna was under the headship of their bishop, Polycarp. (I’ll address the issue of pastors, elders, bishops, deacons, and members next time when I focus on the Mark of church Order.)
Are You an Orthodox Catholic Evangelical?
Properly understood, Evangelical Christians must be orthodox. And if they are orthodox in their beliefs and practices, they are part true catholic Christianity of ages past and places present. Being orthodox and catholic means that we’re united on the essential truths that Christians have believed from the beginning. Individual churches may be “separated” by language, culture, geography, distinct traditions, and organizational preferences. But all churches that center on the ancient and enduring orthodox beliefs that have always been the warp and woof of the Christian faith are truly and properly catholic. Whether Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Independent Bible, or something else, Evangelical churches share this common Mark of Orthodoxy with each other.
But here comes the warning. Sometimes our own preference-driven distinctives can be so emphasized that we lose sight of the foundational Mark of Orthodoxy. We can easily fall into the error of thinking everything we believe is fundamental, essential, and of utmost importance. And then the truly orthodox doctrines are merely assumed . . . then neglected . . . then forgotten . . . and eventually lost. In response to this preference-driven mentality, we need to reassert the Evangelical Mark of Orthodoxy. It’s not enough to bury the essential truths in a lengthy doctrinal statement at the same level as the origin of angels and the order of the end-times. More than anything else in our postmodern, post-Christian culture, Evangelical churches must clearly, unambiguously, and intentionally identify themselves with the biblical and theological core of the ancient Christian faith.
An official statement of essential truths that focuses attention on the Mark of Orthodoxy would be a good place to start. And, like the apostolic and ancient church, actually reaffirming these orthodox essentials for membership, baptism, discipleship, and discipline would be a proper function of these truths. Also, keeping our own personal theological distinctives out of that ancient and unchanging center would go a long way to promote humility and unity. Only when we restore the essential Mark of Orthodoxy to its proper place of centrality—not merely in our doctrinal statements, but also in our teaching—can we move beyond the problem of the preference-driven church.