The Problem With Orthodoxy

It’s been said that Evangelicals are most concerned with orthodoxy (right doctrine) and Mormons are most concerned with orthopraxy (right practice). There are many Biblical reasons to hold strong to sound teaching and to defend good doctrine. But a place I see that the quest for orthodoxy can cause problems is when the bar for orthodoxy gets pushed past essential and core doctrine and well into issues that we are uncertain and unclear about.

A great example of this in the Evangelical world concerns pre-millenial, pre-tribulationism. This is the idea that Christ will return before his 1,000 year reign on earth. Before that happens there will be a 7 year tribulation, where the Anti-Christ will rule the world under one government and the earth will be under great torment. Before any of this begins, God will rapture all true believers and rescue them from this destructive time in human history. This view is most popularly expressed by the “Left Behind” series of books (totally off topic but a terrible excuse for literature and an embarrassment to Evangelical artistic efforts).

There are a great many Evangelicals who agree with the interpretation of the Bible’s description of the end times. I think there are many good reasons to believe this theological position is true and accurate. But there’s also plenty of reasons to conclude that this understanding may be missing the mark. My greater concern is not the belief in pre-tribulationalism, but the utter devotion to it. There are many people who are simply OBSESSED with figuring out how current events fit into the plot of Revelation. There has not been a time in my life when I haven’t heard some one guessing at which of the latest political leaders is the Anti-Christ or which of America’s enemies is the great whore described in Revelation 17.

I have some real concerns when Evangelicals make pre-tribulationalism any sort of benchmark for orthodoxy. I’ve seen too many people switch churches over the issue and far too many missionaries and full time ministers forced to change organizations because they don’t feel they can hold to pre-tribulationalism any longer and the organization is forced to choose their doctrinal statement over their people. This should not be a central and defining issue.

  • First off, this view point has only been around for about 100 years. In the scope of Christian history its a minority position. In one discussion, as I was pointing out the problems with this view, I heard some people say “well I’m just going to hold the normal view that everyone else holds.” Most Christians have not held a view anything like modern pre-tribulationalism.
  • Second, there is WAAAAY too much about the Book of Revelation that we don’t understand, that should be the first thing we say about that book.
  • Third, no where in the Bible does it explicitly express that the rapture will take place before the tribulation. A rapture is definitely stated, but we have no idea when it will happen.
  • Fourth, we shouldn’t take any meaning or understanding out of the Book of Revelation that 1st Century Christians didn’t understand. It was written specifically to them, not to us. We just get to learn from what was said to them. If anybody should be more clueless about “what it all means” it should be us, not them. A decent reading of Roman history will show that much of the book would seem quite familiar to the 1st Century persecuted church.
  • Fifth and most importantly, if we become too dogmatic about how and when Christ will return we run the risk of making the same mistake the Jews made in the 1st Century. We position ourselves to miss Christ because he doesn’t come the way we think he should return.

15 thoughts on “The Problem With Orthodoxy

  1. I have to agree with you on the Left Behind books. I read about the first third of the first volume before I couldn’t read any more. It’s not only bad theology, it’s bad writing. (There’s no arrogance in my comments here. There’s plenty of bad LDS fiction as well.)

    As bad as it is, though, Left Behind the book was better than Left Behind the movie (the first one, I haven’t seen any since). I must confess, I went to it expecting that it would be so bad I would find it funny. But it wasn’t even that good.

  2. Good point Tim. Mormons have their own problems with this – often in the form of Patriarchal Blessings, or from-the-pulpit predictions that Christ will arrive “within the lifetime” of the listener.

  3. Okay, but you can’t just handwave Patriarchial Blessings away. Either they’re true or they’re not, and they’re often not at all unclear.

  4. I find Patriarchal Blessings to have a high likelihood of divinity in overall message, and possibility of inaccuracy in the details. I take them as predictive, but not authoritative or infallible.

    As for my own Patriarchal Blessing, it has proven to be uncannily accurate and insightful to my character from a Patriarch whom I had never met until that day (a day or two after my 13th birthday). He pretty-much pegged me. And I don’t think he just got lucky either.

    But he also said I’d have a “successful” mission. I served a mission, but I’d hardly call zero baptisms “successful.” I view it like kind of like spiritual weather forecasting. Most of the people I’ve heard talk about the blessing highly value theirs and I count myself among them.

  5. Patriarchial Blessings are about as predictive as a tarot reading. In other words, they’re predictive in hindsight only, as you begin by assuming the blessing is “true,” and then work to fill in the details and find ways to construe the vague message to fit the events of your life, after that have happened. Invariably, this means taking broad chunks of the blessing figuratively, or assigning alternate meanings to words and phrases (than the obvious meaning).

    In other words, not actually predictive at all.

  6. I think Tim is making a good observation without taking it to its conclusion. Orthodoxy requires the assumption that you can absolutely interpret something “correctly” and that there are some human texts that get it absolutely right from God.

    The orthodox believe that if you can be absolutely sure about one thing, you should be able to be absolutely sure about most things and then expect others to believe or leave (you shouldn’t have to water down the Truth, right?)

    Non-orthodoxy accepts gray areas but all too often seems to just be wishy washy. Believing things that they like and ignoring or changing what they don’t.

    Kullervo’s comments seem to betray an understanding of LDS theology as a consistent whole which should be able to explain things consistently and without contradiction (which it doesn’t) and a frustration when LDS go through the mental gymnastics to explain away inconsistencies to hold on to a faith in the orthodox beliefs.

    I think the problem with Christian orthodoxy is that it is essentially a method of bringing people together by creating doctrines that are simple and understandable by stripping out all of the complexity of the nature of human knowledge of things and the uncertainties inherent in Christian reliance on scripture which really is a very scant description of reality. I am with Paul when he told the Corinthians that we only prophesy “in part” and see things as a dark reflection.

    Any intellectually honest person should recognize that even the Mormons with volumes of other scripture can really only put together a complete and coherent picture of reality through simply studying the scriptures and resolving the apparent contradictions with good rhetoric.

    The pre-tribulationist view is a very exciting and dramatic idea that attracts and holds attention. Patriarchal blessings are also a very intriguing concept that also holds our attention. These, like other religious belief’s and practices allow us to give meaning to our lives in their own way and help us relate to God. But I believe that if you don’t recognize that we don’t have the entire picture and that all of our writings about God and reality are wanting of more information or understanding from God we are not only being intellectually dishonest, we are also being un-biblical.

    (However maybe believing that makes me a heretic) >;)

  7. I read many of the Left Behind books. They weren’t well written, but I found the topic to be fascinating. I imagine that that’s why so many people get dragged into it. It’s interesting. But to me, it’s just a possibility–one of many–of what may come.

  8. I think there is inherent weakness in basing a religion on orthodoxy to begin with. I have heard some call Mormonism “slippery” or “opportunistic” for its lack of care regarding its orthodoxy.

    I could just as easily call fundamentalist Christianity “static” and “dead” for its obsession with orthodoxy to the exclusion of all else. But the labels don’t really get us anywhere.

  9. Tim, I am in agreement with you totally when it comes your view of pre-tribulationalism as you have expressed in your post. Isn’t there a verse in the Bible that talks about “the day and the hour no man knoweth” as regards to Christ’s return? (Sorry I don’t remember what book or verse this is located in.) I’ve always believed that it’s going to be a complete surprise to everyone anyway, so for me, I have chosen not to “obsess” over trying to figure it out. If, in an instant, I find myself up in a cloud with other Christian friends, (hopefully) then I will know what happened, but until then, I choose not to think on it overmuch.
    Your comment on how the quest for orthodoxy becomes problematic when the bar for orthodoxy gets pushed past certain core and essential doctrines and into areas which are more uncertain is also a good one, as far as I’m concerned.
    My personal observation has been that Evangelicals are in great disagreement among themselves over what are core and essential doctrines. From what I’ve read of your views, they seem to be very biblical and reasonable, but there are many Evangelicals who would disagree with you—and they seemed to be able to make a good case from the Bible for their opinions. What should a convert do who finds himself or herself in a group with what that person considers “wacky” views, when the Evangelical group they belong to says “You have to believe this and follow this or you’re not a true Christian.” How are converts without any background in Evangelicalism supposed to know what is the true biblical interpretation and what is not, or what is a core and essential doctrine and what is not? It was and is confusing to me, because both sides seem to be able to use the Bible to prove their respective points.

  10. How are converts without any background in Evangelicalism supposed to know what is the true biblical interpretation and what is not, or what is a core and essential doctrine and what is not?

    Prayerful and careful individual study of the Bible. Just about every “controversial” subject in the Evangelical world has an opposing viewpoints book written on the topic, where multiple sides are given the chance to express their viewpoint and interact with their critics.

    As I’ve stated in the past, I think Evangelicals are guilty of sin when they hold they become judgmental over a difference of opinion. We need to be checking in on our humility as often as our doctrinal purity.

    Seth, you need to account for all of the scriptures that encourage us to hold firm to the truth and actively reject false teaching. You are aware of these verses right?

    You could call us dead and static, but growth and conversion numbers show that churches who concern themselves and hold strong to solid teaching are the ones that prosper.

  11. I didn’t say we don’t “hold strong to solid teaching.” I just said we don’t make orthodoxy the touchstone of faith. There’s a difference.

    Now I’m aware of verses condemning “false teachings.” But you make a jump when you assume that such verses are addressing the idea of maintaining orthodoxy within the Church. Now, you could be right, but that’s a jump that warrants explanation rather than mere assumption that orthodoxy is the way to go.

    As far as growth numbers, I think you could interpret the growth patterns within Protestantism and Mormonism as much to a focus on correct living, as correct doctrine. I’d bet you that what people are looking for first and foremost is guidance on how to live a godly life, and only secondly, how to have a godly theology.

  12. You could call us dead and static, but growth and conversion numbers show that churches who concern themselves and hold strong to solid teaching are the ones that prosper.

    Like prosperity gospel megachurches?

  13. Seth R. said: I’d bet you that what people are looking for first and foremost is guidance on how to live a godly life, and only secondly, how to have a godly theology.

    And I think there are lot of people that a looking primarily for a way to connect with other people. Many of the megachurches do a pretty good job of that in a fairly nonjudgmental way. The LDS church does a good job of that too, but the judgmentalism (or perceived judgmentalism) can be an obstacle for someone who would just walk off the street and not be familiar with the LDS subculture.

    In any case, I agree that for most people, theology is only secondary or even tertiary. I’ve been surprised at how many people I’ve met who go to Protestant churches, and are even members, who don’t know the denomination of their church, much less whether its Calvinistic or Arminian, premillenial or postmillenial, whatever. Theological orthodoxy simply isn’t an issue for them.

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