Many American Christian leaders spend a great deal of time “defending orthodoxy.” They have a list of the things that Christians must believe, and they draw lines between who is orthodox and who is not.
There is no doubt the Bible teaches that some things are very important and must be upheld. However, our list of “essential” truths may not be on God’s list. And some of the things on our list may be completely incorrect.
We bump into the realm of idolatry when we put our “orthodoxy” list ahead of God. We can grip to our church’s or our denomination’s teachings so tightly that we miss the heart of the Word itself and even lose connection with the One who inspired it.
I wonder why we think we have perfect understanding of so many things, when in the scriptures there is a great deal of confusion. Peter found Paul hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). Many people who walked with Jesus had no clue what he meant much of the time (e.g. Matthew 22:29, Mark 9:32). Paul constantly corrected huge errors in the churches he founded (Galatians 1:6). If they didn’t get it back then, how can we expect to have perfect understanding 2,000 later?
I think part of it came around the time of Constantine in AD 325. Much has been written about the impact of the State-Church created in that era, and much debate surrounds whether it was good or bad. I think the shift in spirit from one of a right relationship with God to one of right knowledge about God was cemented by one of the Church’s most famous creeds, the Nicene creed. The version that most churches quote today leaves off the creed’s original last sentence, which encapsulates the spirit of many orthodoxy-defenders:
But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.
(Note: lower-case “catholic” in the quote means the universal church, not the Roman Catholic church denomination.)
The Councils that adopted creeds like these would follow their proclamations by condemning those who disagreed with them. Those condemnations included the loss of jobs, social connections, and sometimes, even martyrdom. This continued to the Protestant Reformation, which was stopped cold by the spirit of “defending orthodoxy”. In fact, John Calvin himself supported the condemnation of Michael Servetus, who was burned at the stake for teaching against the doctrines of the Trinity and infant baptism. Calvin is quoted as saying:
Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime and guilty as they are. There is no question here of man’s authority; it is God who speaks, and clear it is what law he will have kept in the church, even to the end of the world. Wherefore does he demand of us a so extreme severity, if not to show us that due honor is not paid him, so long as we set not his service above every human consideration, so that we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory.
Do we really represent God in our defense of orthodoxy? Did God ask us to defend orthodoxy by condemning those with whom we disagree? Did He want such a spirit of fear that Christians should never question certain doctrines? The Bible says we are to seek God with all of our hearts (Jeremiah 29:13). If that is the case, shouldn’t seeking include hard questions that lead us to a deeper understanding of God and His ways?
None of this is saying that we are not to stand for truth. We are to study God’s ways and practice them. We are to wear truth like a belt. God wants us to know and walk in truth. How can we come together and find truth, instead of making the defense of our list of beliefs a reason to condemn others?
- Start by loving God and others. We teach in love for the benefit of others, not to be right or superior.
- Walk in humility and gentleness. Only God has perfect knowledge on every subject.
- Maintain objectivity, separating our doctrinal convictions from our relationship with God and our own view of ourselves.
- Seek the Lord with all of our hearts. An open heart towards God is always ready to hear what He will teach us.
How does all of this relate to the question of whether hell is a place of “eternal conscious torment” (here articulated by Bobby Conway)? If those who are staunch defenders of orthodoxy are keeping people from coming to a relationship with their Maker, their defense has become a dangerous idol.
The e-book Endless Hell Ended contends that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is a fabrication of tradition and not a scriptural teaching. Unfortunately, this doctrine is so enshrined in church orthodoxy that most believers don’t feel the freedom to question it. They fear that by questioning it, they would become ostracized from the church itself, and perhaps even fall out of favor with God. Other Christians have just grown up with the doctrine and become desensitized to both the horrific nature of it and the fact that it contradicts the Bible’s clear teachings on the nature of God and justice.
Do you have to become an unbeliever, a universalist, or a heretic if you question whether the Bible teaches that hell is a place of endless conscious torment? Our Bible study, which is faithful to the original intent of Scripture, teaches an interpretation that is in harmony with the entire message of the Bible. Request your free copy today!