Who has the right to say what is orthodox?

Following the recent controversy regarding Rob Bell's soon to be published book about the meaning and nature of hell, one commentator suggested that Bell should no longer be considered as an evangelical.

Quite what difference this would make to the sale of this new book can only be surmised.

This statement did send my thoughts back to some study I had undertaken several years ago about the nature of orthodoxy.

All organisations and cultures develop their own plausible reality structure; one in which certain assumptions and beliefs are taken to be orthodox.

The evangelical community is no exception in this respect and has gathered around a general set of values and beliefs that have become sacrosanct over many years.

This is not to suggest that there is homogeneity of belief within the camp but that the centrally held tenants are seen as the prerequisite for entering into the fold; indeed for continued inclusion.

This said it would not be impossible to produce a list of many points of disagreement between various subsets from within the movement. Everything from eschatology to ecclesiology has the potential to bring division given the right set of circumstances.

From time to time particular subsets develop the loudest voice and therefore, by implication the greatest influence.

Calvinists, Baptists, Pentecostals, charismatics, church growth movements have all been significant voices in shaping the evangelical topography. Usually such voices are initially seen with suspicion but have been able to ride the calls for exclusion on the grounds of orthodoxy due to their popularity.

Their stories are not unlike that of today's fresh thinkers: some of whom have welcomed the label emergent to describe the subset they find themselves within.

Others, like Bell, have earnestly tried to avoid such labels: perhaps in the hope of engendering a wider and deeper conversation.

It seems unavoidable that groups will attempt to define orthodoxy at some level and, by implication, will feel the urge to exclude those who differ significantly at those points that are seen as key.

The sadness is that the call for exclusion often comes at the beginning of the dialogue when questions are being raised.

If individual and groups are to be labelled as heretics for asking key questions about generally accepted views it is likely to create a culture that is all too ready to act as accuser than enquirer.

This stance will only ever lead to a clamping down on the essential element of theological discovery that has taken us from the worst aspects of Christendom to a faith that is able to cope with the nuances of modern life.

Leslie Newbigin once describe the missionary calling as being willing to leave the safety and vantage point of the hill of the cross in order to travel to where another human being exists. In doing so we must risk the notion that they may be right and we may be mistaken whilst trusting that the Holy Spirit will meet us in the dialogue to confirm the work of the cross.

Perhaps church leaders need to adopt a similar stance when looking to build the unity that is so implicitly a part of Christ's passion.

Leaving the safety of our long held doctrines to meet our Christian kinfolk. Taking the risk that they may well be correct we trust that the Holy Spirit will meet us in the dialogue and guide us to truth.

If I am honest I don't sense this willingness in the words of those who call for fellow Christians to be placed outside of their own version of orthodoxy.

We must do better.

No comments: