The Weaponization of “Orthodoxy”

Today, June 28, we celebrate with our Roman Catholic siblings the Feast Day of Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons (202 CE). In my Sabbath rest I’ve been rereading “Against Heresies” and “Proof of the Apostolic Preaching” (for an entry level text see Irenaeus of Lyons by Robert M. Grant).

I see Irenaeus as one of the most significant early church fathers as he is a precedent to the Wesleyan-Arminian theological tradition. Justo L. González was the first to outline “three types of theology” generally considered to be orthodox expressions of the Christian faith, each tracing back to the earliest centuries of the church (see González, Christian Thought Revisited). Dorothee Sölle described these types as 1. orthodox/conservative 2. liberal 3. radical/liberation theology (see Sölle, Thinking about God). Missiologists Bevans and Schroeder outline these three types/paradigms of theology as Type A. Tertullian in Rome, conservative, emphasizing law. Type B. Origen in Alexandria, liberal, emphasizing truth. Type C. Irenaeus representing Antioch, liberation, emphasizing history (see Bevans and Schroeder, Constants in Context, 2004).

Irenaeus was born in Smyrna in the region of Asia Minor. Antioch was the principal city of the area and the place where Christianity was first recognized as a distinct religion in its own rite (Acts 11:25-26). Ignatius served as bishop of Antioch in the formative years of the church, and Polycarp served as Bishop of nearby Smyrna in the same region. Scholars believe that Matthew, John, Revelation, and many of Paul’s letters were a product of the early Christian communities there. Irenaeus was deeply influenced by these leaders, and through Polycarp, who was likely a direct disciple of John, was one generation removed from the first apostles. He migrated to the Roman frontier city of Lyons in Gaul but brought a distinct Antiochian theology with him.

Unlike Tertullian, Irenaeus was not a brilliant lawyer. Unlike Origen, he was also not a keen academic. He was the pastor of a Christian outpost in a frontier town, and his theology bears the mark of a practical theologian who was engaged in ministry as a practitioner. In fact, he warned against criticism of the “simplicity of the holy presbyters” and “how much better a simple religious man is than a blasphemous and impudent sophist” (Against Heresies, V. 20:2) (Sophist: paid teacher of philosophy and rhetoric in ancient Greece). González shows that Type C is the oldest stream of Christian theology, closer to the original witnesses collected in the New Testament and influenced by the sub-apostolic tradition. Whereas Tertullian and Origen were deeply immersed in Hellenistic culture, rooted in Platonic philosophy and Roman law, Irenaeus produced a theology that was both less legalistic and less abstract.  

Bevans and Schroeder place Wesleyan theology in this stream, with some emphases being a holistic understanding of salvation, the pairing together of both works of piety and works of justice and mercy, the ongoing activity of the Spirit in our daily lives today, and a reformist impulse.

So, when groups break off of Methodism in the name of preserving “orthodox theology” I always find this intriguing. There has never been a single “orthodox theology” in history. Tracing back even to the four Gospels we see distinct theologies that reflect the writers/communities’ contextual circumstances. Another odd dimension of this claim is that a focus on law, couched in terms of perfecting grace and sanctification is a distinct Wesleyan contribution. It is true that this is one Wesleyan distinctive, but certainly not unique among the various theologies of the world. One might just as easily argue that prevenient grace, or the integration of “waves of grace,” are the true Wesleyan distinctives. The fact of the matter is, Wesleyanism, was not formed from a distinct doctrinal emphasis, but rather a “practical divinity” worked out in the process of mission (see Beck with Acevedo, A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions).[1]

In reality, the term “orthodoxy” has been weaponized by various extremist camps, to discredit groups that don’t agree with them. This is not dissimilar to the conflict Jesus experienced with some of the religious leaders. The three primary religious sects within Judaism in Jesus’ day were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. The two dominate religious groups, Pharisees and Sadducees seemed to have certain ideas around how their ancestry and their interpretation of God’s law placed them in an elite and superior class (Matt 3: 7-9, Mark 10:5).

Jesus called them “blind guides” (Matt 15:14; 23:16, 24). Their eye condition was connected to a deadly heart condition, which he described as pōrōsis (hardened) kardia: (heart) (Mark 3:5). In several of those encounters, Jesus highlighted their diminished way of seeing others, their overly fixed views, and their stubborn resistance to take on the posture of a learner. Their rigid, hard-eyed, surety of knowing led them to accuse Jesus of hanging out with sketchy unclean people and ultimately to indict him as a fraudulent messiah. I’ve argued elsewhere that we need to hold orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy together as of equal importance.[2]

The weaponization of “orthodoxy” bears a strong resemblance to the legalistic attitude Jesus confronted.

Irenaeus challenged some of the Platonic assumptions that the spiritual and physical were incompatible. He could hold the goodness of creation and its current fragmentation together in tension. He saw the incarnation of Jesus as God’s intention before the creation of the universe, “because the Word, Fashioner of all, preformed in Adam the future plan for humanity around the Son of God” (AH, III, 22:3). Some of Irenaeus’ more well-known statements like, “Jesus Christ our Lord, who because of his immeasurable love became what we are in order to make us what he is” (AH, V. PR) has certainly been taken up into Methodist theology. But so has, “The glory of God is the human fully alive” (AH, IV, 20.7) and how that can be held together with “But we do now receive a certain portion of His Spirit, tending towards perfection, and preparing us for incorruption, being little by little accustomed to receive and bear God” (AH, V, 20.1).

Irenaeus gave us a grace-centered, holistic, and inclusive vision of human flourishing, that has been core to the people called Methodists. The seeds of these ideas were taken up by liberation theologians who recognized how the physical embodiment of God’s justice could free the marginalized and the oppressed, while simultaneously threatening the powerful and the comfortable.

I will remain a post-separation United Methodist. There are parts of my denomination I don’t love. But one distinct Wesleyan posture that we talk little about is a commitment to reform from within. Wesley gave his life to that. What a sad thing it is that people would weaponize the word “orthodox” in such a small-minded and legalistic way. Which orthodox are we referring to? The stream of theology that arose with Tertullian, Origen, or Irenaeus? Each of them had distinct emphases in their theological systems, but each is an orthodox expression of the Christian faith.

In Against Heresies, through cataloguing and deconstructing the various Gnostic misinterpretations of Jesus, Irenaeus provides to “the Church dispersed throughout the world” a “uniform faith” … “received from the apostles and their disciples” in “one God the Father almighty … and in one Christ Jesus the Son of God, incarnate for our salvation, and in the Holy Spirit … the birth from the Virgin, the passion, the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension of the beloved Jesus Christ our Lord in the flesh into the heavens, and his coming from the heavens in glory of the Father to ‘recapitulate all things'” (AH, I.10.1) I am a United Methodist who with Irenaeus confesses that faith and believes in a fully inclusive church where all can serve together equally. With Irenaeus I’m convinced that we need to have the humility to know we cannot find solutions for all the questions raised in the Scriptures (AH, II. 28.2), that God is still active and alive in human history today, that redemption is less about some kind of legal transaction, and more about Jesus drawing us into his victory over the forces of darkness and death (AH III, 19.3).

Wesley, a practical theologian who worked out his theology in fields and on horseback in the process of mission said things like, “In essentials unity; in nonessentials liberty; in all things charity.” And “If your heart is as my heart, take my hand.” And “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”      

Perhaps on this Feast Day of Irenaeus we can get some historical perspective and focus on the essentials that bind us together, rather than using our distinctions to judge, divide, and dismiss. A passion for orthodoxy “right opinion” can become harmful when it’s used as a weapon, no matter what camp you are in. Holding that passion together with orthopraxy (“right practice”), and orthopathy (“right pathos”), or a right heart centered in the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, gives us a way to disagree in love.


[1] A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions: Beck, Michael Adam, Acevedo, Jorge: 9781501899096: Amazon.com: Books

[2] Ministry Matters™ | The Heart of the United Methodist Crisis: Passio Dei

24 thoughts on “The Weaponization of “Orthodoxy”

  1. Michael, thanks for the thoughts. Perhaps abandoning the word “right” would get us closer to the humility it takes to seriously attend to each other. This side of the curtain, none of us gets it right. Thinking, praxis, doctrine, feelings, can all be helpful or harmful. It is only tempered or corrected in relationship to Jesus. The only one who really knows. It is very Barthian of me I’m sure. But it is good when all control, initiative and knowledge are in God’s hands and I’m left to saying, not my will but thine. Anything to set down our “weapons”.

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    1. That is insightful feedback Craig. The word “right” could be the trigger word that causes us to draw battle lines. “Right” is contextually determined as well, especially regarding praxis.

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  2. Michael: Thanks for this thoughtful and practical word. It’s amazing the way digging into history can give us a fresh way of seeing the present. You nailed it, Brother! Jim

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  3. St. Iranaeus’ seminal work is “Against Heresies” and you want us to believe his true legacy is theological pluralism?

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    1. Caleb, that is not at all the point of the article. Irenaeus (please note the proper spelling Greek: Εἰρηναῖος Eirēnaios) represents one theological stream, within a diversity of theologies. In his “Against Heresies,” he was condemning emerging heretical sects and in so doing provides his clear theological core (represented above). Some have dismissed Irenaeus himself as a heretic who proposed a view that was more binitarian than Trinitarian. Among missiologists, an understanding of diverse streams of theology is the norm rather than the exception. As Martin Kahler wrote “mission is the mother of theology.” So, all theology is contextual, provisional, and forms distinct contours in the process of transmitting the faith across new cultures and boundaries. Consider for instance, Bevans and Schroeder (referenced above), or see “Intercultural Theology, Volume One: Intercultural Hermeneutics (Missiological Engagements) by Henning Wrogemann, or Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Truth is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism.” I think this statement describes the general position, “There is not one Christian interpretation of Jesus: there are many different ones, shaped by different cultures. The church itself is a changing reality, and it’s confession of the faith has changed and must continue to change.” Lesslie Newbigin, “Open Secret,” 89. Hope that’s helpful for your question.

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    1. This is the kind of logic that led to crusades, inquisitions, and witch trials. Lesslie Newbigin provides some wisdom here, “There is not one Christian interpretation of Jesus: there are many different ones, shaped by different cultures. The church itself is a changing reality, and it’s confession of the faith has changed and must continue to change.” “Open Secret,” 89. Don’t tell the Ethiopian church (which dates back to the first century and is one of the oldest continuous expressions of the Christian faith in the world) or other non-Chalcedon siblings that there is only one true orthodoxy.

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  4. Another article reflecting the great wisdom and intellect by Arthur Holt, my brother in the faith. I have adopted a “FOND” strategy through the years. While it may not be very sophisticated theologically, it works for me. This is how it goes: F is for feelings. We all have them. They are neither right or wrong. They simply exist in our being, and they can be expressed best by securing permission from the person who has been instrumental in evoking a particular feeling in us. They can best be expressed by a declarative phrase or sentence, as “ I feel (anger, sadness or scaredness). I have found that the permission to share a feeling is very important. One might then say something like: “I am pretty angry with you right now.” What is expected from the other participant is simple acknowledgement: “Okay,” “I hear you.” Or something like that.

    The O stands for “ Opinion.” Many seem quite willing to share his or her opinion. What sometimes complicated things is one’s need to be “right,” or have one’s opponent be “wrong.” In my understanding and view, there is no such thing as a right or wrong opinion. Having one is my perfect right, whether it is about Iraneus or Epicurious. Some opinions seem to stand the test of time while others not so much. It turns out that the world is not flat after all. The jury of public opinion is still seated on many opinions. That appears to be true of most theological dogma. Bill Mallard, one of my professors of New Testament Theology used to say that Christianity is the most successful heresy.

    The N is for needs. We all have them. I have noticed that people I have known sometimes go to great lengths to meet their needs. One might ask: what prompts an eighteen year old to murder fellow classmates seemingly indiscriminately? My opinion is that his/no her yet destructive act is his way of meeting a particular need that he/she may have that has gone un-met. Perhaps we can think of less costly ways of meeting needs, for example, mental health understanding and
    “unconditional positive regard,” taught to us by one Carl Rogers in the late 60’s.

    The D stands for decisions. Each of us has decisions to make brought about by opportunities that are available to us. I learned from Professor Charles Barrett of Wofford College, that “decision” and “incision” come from the same Greek word, the definition of that verb is to “cut off from.” So, when we decide, we cut ourselves off from other opportunities that might have been. I have also noticed that a problem sometimes occurs when a person assumes responsibility for a decision that is not her or his to make. I remember that following a certain dilemma of a former president that a certain high ranking (general) by the name of Haig, held a press conference and announced that “he was in charge” of the Presidency” when he lack that authority. Sadly, there are many examples in history of persons taking upon themselves responsibilities that they had not earned.

    So, please pardon my rambling on about FOND. These four concepts are ones that have been painfully learned over over fifty years as a UMC clergy. I trust that you may find them helpful, also.

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  5. And “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”

    Imagine a world where this was the norm

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  6. And “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”

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  7. I agree with this assessment of the weaponization of orthodoxy. As I have heard the claims from those who profess to know the “true orthodoxy” two questions come to mind: 1) whose orthodoxy? and 2) where does it end?

    The first question comes to mind as I walk around my community. Is it the orthodoxy of the Holiness Pentecostal Church or the Eastern Orthodox or the Greek Orthodox or maybe the Nazarene or Salvation Army or any one of the many “orthodoxies” found in the varied expressions of the Kingdom of God on earth.

    The second question is very important. Although the weaponization of orthodoxy has focused on human sexuality, ordination and marriage, those are only the tip of the iceberg. Should women avoid cutting their hair, wearing make-up, jewelry and brightly colored clothing? Who is able to receive communion? What about remarriage after divorce? Once the door of orthodoxy is opened, watch out for the floods to come.

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    1. Scot, these are great thoughts and questions! The various streams of theology have found many beautifully embodied expressions across history. I for one believe we need them all. Each is like a fragment of the totality that is the truth of Jesus Christ.

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