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True Doctrine Doesn't Wait

Without good theology, you can't have Christlike love and compassion.
True Doctrine Doesn't Wait
Image: Illustration by Michael Parkin / Folio Art

In a recent email to me, a writer encouraged CT to pursue a new trajectory. He argued we should move away from orthodoxy, even if “beautiful,” and instead in a direction where orthopathy (meaning right feelings or emotions) and orthopraxis (right practice) are seen as “first-order issues responsive to the two great commandments and the mission of Jesus, and witnessed through love and unity.” This is a near-perfect summary of the increasing confusion found in much of Christianity, but especially in the progressive variety.

The reasons for such confusion are many, and some are understandable. Many progressive Christian writers today came from 1990s evangelicalism. If, in fact, that evangelicalism was legalistic, evasive, and self-righteous, it should be rejected.

But reaction to error makes for distorted theology. Robert Barron, in The Priority of Christ: Toward a Post-Liberal Catholicism (Baker Academic, 2016) [p. 13], notes the following about liberalism and late medieval Christianity: “Early modernity saw itself as a salutary response to oppressive and obscurantist strains in Christian culture, but since it was reacting to a corruption of true Christianity, it itself became similarly distorted and exaggerated.” The same can be said about some reactions to unhealthy evangelical faith.

The term orthopathy has various definitions, but in evangelical contexts it generally refers to having the proper emotional and attitudinal posture. And orthopraxis refers to the correct practice of action. That we should be compassionate and ethical nearly goes without saying—our take on “beautiful orthodoxy” certainly includes them. But there’s a reason Paul, in epistle after epistle, devotes so much space to clarifying theology before he moves on to ethical exhortation: We cannot truly love the neighbor if we don’t know the truth about our existence and God.

The dividing issue of our time is, of course, human sexuality, and so it makes for a good case study. How one understands the issue depends on one’s doctrine of God, of creation, of revelation, and theological anthropology. The classic, orthodox summary is expressed well in an internal CT document that guides us in this area:

Based on the teaching of the Bible, and specifically the way that the Hebrew Bible’s teaching was affirmed and strengthened in the New Testament by Jesus and the apostles, CT believes that human beings are created in the image of God, male and female, and that male-female covenant relationships are the context where sexual expression is designed to contribute to human flourishing.

If this expresses the reality of our existence as created sexual beings, we are wise not only to live in this reality (that is, reject all sexual expression outside of marriage between a man and a woman) but also to encourage and exhort others to do the same. To assume that a person’s sexual life is a matter of private choice is to consign that person to a life that ultimately cannot flourish as God intends. That’s the most positive way of putting it. Jesus, at the end of the Book of Revelation, is more bracing. After reiterating that he is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End,” he blesses those who have come to live in the heavenly city, and then describes those who remain outside its walls: “those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (22:13–15).

The point is not to single out one set of sins, because it’s clear that many, if engaged in habitually and without repentance, will put one’s soul in danger. If we fail to speak the truth about how God has, in fact, revealed who he is, what he is about, and what he calls us to believe and obey, to that degree we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves.

This does not mean we rush up to the wayward and pointedly announce God’s coming judgment in self-righteous tones. Hardly. We continue to engage our neighbors sensitively, wisely, and with patience. We treat them with respect as men and women created in the image of God. And precisely because we respect them, we will, as the Spirit leads, look for opportunities to explain to them the hope that is in us, that is, the reality of the way, the truth, and the life as God revealed it to the church.

In the end, orthodoxy is not marginalized in favor of orthopraxis but instead is the very firm foundation for not only what we believe but also how we live.

Mark Galli is editorial director of Christianity Today.

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