Unavoidable Orthodoxy

“Orthodox” or “orthodoxy,” used not in reference to church bodies often known as “Eastern” Orthodox, but in the more formal sense of “adhering to right beliefs,” has been much on my mind lately.  Today, I posted on my Facebook timeline a Religion News piece (here) about Rob Bell, former pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church.  I did so, not because I want to criticize Bell.  I don’t.  Nor do I want to criticize his critics.  I don’t.  I have an entirely different concern.  I posted the news piece as evidence that it is impossible to avoid some form of “orthodox.”  And, yes, when I think of other posts I’ve written, I know that I’m more or less repeating myself.  And probably stating the obvious.  But it seems like I must.

I want to challenge a common narrative (and a misuse of John Wesley) regarding the attempt to uphold and explore the notion of United Methodist orthodoxy.  That is, we have doctrinal standards and those standards are connected to a set of normative practices that vivify Christian life and the church and bring good to the world.  Quickly, in engaging such a topic, I get two kinds of reactions, one agreeing that we have doctrinal standards (that there is a United Methodist orthodoxy) and wondering what the big deal is or saying that we just need to apply them.  The other, with which I am here concerned, is that doctrine is divisive and that those of us who want to talk about it are motivated by the desire to exclude people.   From this point of view, the word “orthodox” is little more than a tool to abuse power.

I want to try two basic answers, one direct and the other by way of an example from my own work, to show why orthodoxy of some sort is unavoidable.  This post will run a tad long, so hang with me.

First, here’s my answer to the claim that orthodoxy is simply a tool for excluding people.  In purely pragmatic terms, if you’re going to have a group that you can identify as a group (give it a name and a purpose), it requires that its members agree with its purpose, values and beliefs.  You cannot have a group without something that identifies it, even if that definition is as simple as the shared experience of college fraternity brothers.  If someone does not agree with the group’s purpose, beliefs or values, then, to be honest, that person should not join the group or if, having changed her/his mind to a point of disagreement, should depart the group.  What purpose is there in staying a member of a group, the purpose or values or beliefs of which you no longer accept?

I work in a university.  Every student who matriculates is responsible for the Student Code of Conduct.  That code includes values that students are to uphold in their daily lives and practices.  Behind those values are assumed theories about human nature and goods.  Ignorance is no excuse.  If a student offends the code of conduct, that student goes through a disciplinary process up to and including expulsion.  Every group has some provision for keeping the group on track with its mission.  This includes disciplining members of the group, with the possibility of expulsion.  Yes, exclusion.

But notice, exclusion is a by-product, not the aim.  It’s a consequence of someone standing out as not adhering to the group’s purpose, beliefs and values.  If you have no way of governing members of the group, formal or informal, you don’t have a group.  I know I’m oversimplifying here but I’m trying to focus on the inadequacy of the charge that desiring to be orthodox is really nothing more than a desire to exclude people.  It is simply a repetitively false and distracting charge.

Even informally, a group or a movement or a loose association of people related around common concerns will develop a form of orthodox (with respect to the values of their group) thinking and practicing.  They may not “exclude” you formally if you offend these values, but you will feel the heated disagreement or the cold shoulder of exclusion.  Something like this set of relations and responses is unavoidable unless the “purpose” of the group is so whimsical and irrelevant that nobody cares about offending the boundaries.  But, of course, what the church is about is far more serious than that.

Now, still working on the inevitability of some orthodoxy taking center stage, I turn to an example by way of some work I’ve tried to do in college student spiritual development.  Many people in ministry at some point or another either have read James Fowler’s Stages of Faith or were introduced to the concepts via some other means.  One of Fowler’s PhD students from the 1980s (I think) is Sharon Daloz Parks, author of, among other works, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams.  Parks modifies and extends portions of Fowler’s stages of faith theory in light of her work with emerging adults.

One learns from these two theorists that a mature, grown-up faith goes beyond the conventional (“what I learned growing up”) to a more reflective (Fowler’s stage 4) awareness of the diversity of opinions and the need to come to grips with and answer some questions for oneself (what Parks calls “convictional knowing”).  One has to “own” one’s own faith and, along the way, it will be modified.  Think of the numerous references you’ve likely heard to the old “Sunday School faith” that must be jettisoned for a more grown-up version.  So, for example, a college freshman takes an Introduction to Religion course and learns that the Christian Bible went through a historical process of formation of its own.  Or that the writers of Genesis drew on a stock of stories known across cultures.  This new knowledge, according to our theorists challenges students to re-think their understanding of their Christian faith, working through the various tensions and anxieties to a more nuanced, therefore more “mature” understanding and expression.

We’ve entered some tricky twists and turns here, but a couple of observations.  Both Fowler and Parks have a dynamic view of faith.  Faith must move and change as it grows.  From a strictly formal view, the “what” (i.e. doctrines, beliefs) of one’s faith is not in question in the theory.  But(!) in the application, things start to look different.

If you read Parks’ Big Questions Worthy Dreams, you will see that she’s pretty hard on “dogma.”  In fact, her references would sit well with the “Doctrine divides” advocates.  She gives the impression that adherence to dogma does not support the dynamic view of faith that she and Fowler (and others) have observed and theorized.  Dogma is established.  Dogma doesn’t move (well, not much).  Dogma ossifies.  For faith to “grow,” it must respond dynamically to the experiences a person has.  It must hold loosely to dogma or it will stop growing.

Whether or not Parks’ comments about religious dogma are accurate is not critically important.  What does matter is that she has adopted a dogmatic point of view herself and it affects her view of religious dogma.  She operates from the epistemology of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and from the canons of empirical social science, through normative methods of observation, interview and data analysis.  From Kant: God’s true nature is ultimately unknowable, therefore all dogmas are human constructions.  They should thus be held loosely.  What really matters for faith, then, is movement, response to empirical experience.  The social science method also provides for Parks a certain view of human nature, one based in ideas that have developed in modernity.

Now, she may be right.  But my point is that she did not free herself from dogma or from a view that is considered orthodox within the community of research and practice of which she is a stellar example.  She sees human nature according to a set of normative concepts.  She operates her practice of mentoring young people on that basis.  Her theories guide her understanding of the human condition and what helps people flourish (or not). In this way, her beliefs works just like orthodox teachings do within a church.

You can’t avoid the formation of some set of beliefs and practices considered standard and normative; that is, orthodox.  Some version of orthodoxy will hold, or the group won’t continue to exist.  So, to those who insist on repeating that orthodoxy is really about exclusion and doctrines do little except divide people and cause difficulty (and should be held loosely or jettisoned), what you want cannot be done.




About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.


  1. A great analysis of an all too-common discussion that often ends up going nowhere. Would it be logical to continue a line of reasoning that says that it is not orthodoxy in an absolute sense that is exclusionary, but rather an application of multiple orthodoxies – which I would argue is a better description of the operational structure of most groups – and the prioritization of them by a group’s members that can lead to exclusion? Because ultimately in an organization of any size, won’t there be competing strictures whose importance may flow and ebb with time and maturity? I appreciate your thoughts. Peace …

    • I’m not confident I know what you mean by “absolute,” but I think I agree. In a large and complex organization, there easily could be (and likely are) competing understandings of central beliefs. Everyone thinks of themselves as orthodox, but they vary some in understanding. If this is what you mean, I think this characteristic does exist. All of us, therefore, will live with some ambiguity. At the same time, an organization can “mature” or evolve or devolve to the extent that members of the group hold such divergent views on central topics that it becomes evident that they no longer share common beliefs. What happens to the group at that point?

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