The word “orthodox” is very popular right now among many Wesleyan Christians. I have used this word myself in trying to illuminate the importance of both the divinity and humanity of Christ, and how being over focused on one leads to a less than whole understanding of faith. The same can be said for the Trinity and how this grand understanding of God keeps us from defining what is “right” through the lens of more narrow agendas. I give thanks for the living tradition that has passed these orthodox doctrines down to us.
In some circles, however, the word ‘Orthodox” is used in a different way. It is used as a label with an accompanied call to define and defend “right belief.” Seeing this development, I felt led to refresh my understanding of what John Wesley had to say on the topic. It is challenging, even shocking. Ultimately, I believe it is inspiring to all who aspire to a more holistic faith.
In one instance, Wesley speaks of the “orthodox in opinions” who have “zeal for the constitution in Church and state.” One might think that he is preparing to commend this zeal. Instead, Wesley calls this approach “a poor account of religion,” and even goes so far as to call it the “faith of the devil.” This is strong stuff, and it is not isolated rhetoric. This theme is repeated often. Wesley calls orthodoxy “an idol more dangerous than all the rest, a snare in which many have fallen.” For him, true faith is found in how we relate to one another — in “right tempers” and “holy virtues” more than “right opinions.” Anytime we placed position over people we stray from faithfulness.
In another place, Wesley categorizes zeal for orthodoxy into the “negative branch” of forms of holiness. Some with this zeal for orthodox may believe that they are doing good, but might find, at the great judgment, that “the love of God was not in them” and that their zeal had tempted them into a form of “salvation by works.” (When does our zeal for orthodoxy becomes a form of works-righteousness?)
Wesley warning is so strong. It is possible for us to become, in our zeal for our opinions and positions, “miserable corrupters of the gospel of Christ” who “spread abroad” poison. That’s what happens when we start believing that it is our job to defend God rather than witness to God’s love for all and use the resources of faith to examine our own hearts rather than judge others. (Among many others, see the sermon: True Christianity)
To be fair, Wesley would affirm doctrines and creeds as resources for much needed self-examination and for proclaiming the full faith, but to use these resources to create division or to center faith in “right belief” with a call to defend, is anti-Christ. He said this repeatedly so as to make sure the church doesn’t miss it, and yet, perhaps he underestimated how blinding our need to be “right” and to “win” over others can be. Since Wesley rarely, if ever, used the term Orthodoxy in a positive way, it seems that this would be worthy of reflection for Wesleyans wanting to embrace this term. I’m not sure one can claim to be both, except in a very soft way.
(Tomorrow I will explore Wesley’s critique of the Orthodox and his “non-orthodox” word about how we are to treat others. It is so challenging!)
One thought on “Negative Orthodoxy (A Word from Wesley)”
Thanks, Michael. I’ve moved to the position that a person’s attitudes about beliefs is almost, if not, more important than what is believed. I’m glad you’re dealing with orthodoxy. Another word that has been redefined is “evangelical.” When someone asks me if I’m an evangelical, I ask them what they think an evangelical believes.