What is the point of being a Christian? What is the goal? If you were a visitor from another planet observing our religious gatherings and conversations, what understanding might you walk (or teleport?) away with? I would imagine that it would be easy to assume that the point is believing in the right doctrines and dogmas. After all, we spend lots of time and energy trying to discern what the right beliefs are, and the rest of our time is often spent trying to convince those who disagree with our rightness.
There’s a word for this emphasis on belief in the Christian tradition, and that word is orthodoxy. Etymologically, the word combines the Greek words ortho, which means ‘straight or right,’ and doxa, which means ‘opinion.’ Orthodoxy literally means ‘having the right opinion.’ Which, for me, has raised all sorts of questions.
How do we know who has the right opinion? There are some 36,000 different Christian denominations, all of which have differences of understanding and interpretation. Even within denominations there are a plurality of perspectives on various and sundry theological issues, and every perspective assumes that it is the correct (or more correct) one. To be sure, I think the current perspectives I hold about God/Jesus/Bible/faith are true, otherwise I wouldn’t hold them.
Can anyone be totally correct? Is it really possible that one person or group or subset of a group could actually nail the truth down? Can a particular tradition invite you into their den and show you truth, stuffed and mounted on the wall?
And what kind of attitude/posture comes from believing that you have it all figured out? As someone who once believed that I was that person who had conquered mystery, I can tell you the posture this attitude creates isn’t humble. Nor is it usually kind (did I just quote a Tim McGraw song?). When we think we have it all figured out, we can easily begin to think it’s our job to be the orthodoxy police for others.
I literally told a friend once, “I have the speck out of my eye, and I am coming for the beam in yours.” As you might imagine, she was hurt by that. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. I said it.
What makes us think that the whole point of all this is having the right beliefs? It’s as if God will only love us and save us if we check off the right boxes doctrinally. We talk about grace, but we operate under the assumption that God will only be kindly disposed toward us if we get a high enough score on the exam.
It’s interesting that Jesus himself could not pass the exam. In his own time he was accused of being in league with the Satan, of being a false teacher and a false prophet. Jesus actually laid out some parameters for discerning who is and isn’t such a person.
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves. You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit. [Matthew 7v15-20, CEB]
For Jesus, a false prophet is known, not by their opinions on various doctrines, but by the kind of lives their opinions are creating. Jesus asserts that good fruit can’t come from a rotten tree, and bad fruit can’t come from a healthy tree. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
But what kind of fruit? In Galatians 5 Paul describes the transformational effect of the Spirit in the life of a person with the same metaphor, fruit. He writes,
…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Perhaps the question we should ask about the trueness or falseness of a particular person’s theological positions is this: Is there evidence in them that this good fruit is being cultivated? Are they becoming more loving, and as a result, more joyful, peaceful, kind, etc.?
Jesus puts the emphasis, not on our particular theologies alone, but on the kind of person they are cultivating. Have you ever known someone who is proudly orthodox, but in their interactions with others they are hateful, mean-spirited, bitter, and harsh? How can that be? As James asks, can saltwater and freshwater come from the same spring?
I am convinced there is a drastic difference in believing in something, and believing it. Believing in Jesus, giving intellectual assent to the orthodox understandings of the tradition and scripture, is far different than believing Jesus was right, and joining in his ongoing work in the world.
You can believe in Jesus and be cruel, mean-spirited, selfish, and hateful. But if you believe Jesus, if you seek to engage the path he invites us to, then you can’t help but be transformed. It’s just what happens in you and through you.
So, I don’t think much about being orthodox anymore. Don’t get me wrong; I know our beliefs matter, because what we believe, we do. Yet our fruit, our lives, are the truest evidence of what is happening in and through our beliefs. I’m not afraid of being wrong about this or that. I’m certain I’m wrong about some things, but if the Spirit is transforming me, then I assume those things will be brought to light over time.
Paul says, again, to the Galatians (who were struggling with the tension between law and freedom):
Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter. [Galatians 5v6, CEB]
Perhaps, today, we could say this: Being orthodox or unorthodox doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.