Years ago, I was part of the editorial team for a magazine published by a conservative Christian organization. Because the organization’s name was on the masthead, its reputation was linked with the ideas and authors that appeared within the magazine’s pages. Some of our readers were also donors who occasionally complained when an author’s pedigree or the nature of the ideas expressed did not appear to conform to the organization’s distinctive theological perspective.
The result was a kind of predictability. Some of my friends joked that our slogan should be “The magazine you don’t have to read to know what it is going to say.”
Writers, like composers and other artists, are chided if they repeat themselves too much. Especially today, novelty is prized above nearly all else when it comes to creative expression.
But to focus too much on originality misses a fundamental principle of what enables originality in the first place: namely, the fundamentals. It’s why top-tier cellists still practice hours of scales and other technical exercises, why Michael Jordan practiced free throws until he could shoot them with his eyes closed. Only in the confidence built through endless repetition are great performers free to improvise melodies or dazzle on offense in ways that showcase their unique, individual giftings.
Where faith is concerned, repetition is also a virtue. This is precisely what Scripture demands of the church. In 1 Corinthians 1:10, the apostle commands: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
In the Greek, the idea is that we should “all say the same thing.” This language, drawn from the political realm, does not call for us to speak in unison so much as it calls for harmony through agreement with the truth. There are certain fundamentals of the faith, and we are to work together to internalize them, to reinforce them, if the church is to have its full effect on the wider world.
In an age that celebrates diversity, that might seem like a handicap. But it would hardly be a new corrective. In Letters to Malcolm, C. S. Lewis complained that churches in his day were overly interested in innovation. “I think our business as laymen is to take what we are given and make the best of it,” Lewis said. “And I think we should find this a great deal easier if what we were given was always and everywhere the same.”
This ability to say the same things is at the center of the Bible’s notion of church unity. But to do that, the church must first hear the same things. While it is true that sound teaching sometimes imparts new information, more often it is a matter of being reminded of and shown how to apply things we already know. Paul’s directive to Timothy was to “keep reminding God’s people of these things” (2 Tim. 2:14).
In contemporary culture, we have come to see unity as an emotion rather than a conviction. We seek ways to have warm feelings toward everyone. Yet Paul was not writing about a feeling so much as a confession when he told the Corinthians to agree with one another. The Bible’s call to unity is a call to be at peace, yes, but not peace at any price. The things about which the church is expected to agree have already been defined for us. They are matters of truth.
Any call for unity based upon agreement with truth is a hard sell these days. The widely accepted truth of modernity is that people curate their individual truth. We accept or reject “truths” based on how we feel about them. If one makes us comfortable, we accept it. If not, we regard it as false.
As a result, we no longer think in terms of theology but of theologies. We do not celebrate the “one faith” spoken of in Ephesians 4:5. Instead, we have seen the fragmentation of the church into countless theologies. Instead of appreciating the beauty of a common faith held by people from every nation, tribe, people, and language, as Revelation 7:9 depicts, the contemporary church has flipped the emphasis. We have a theology for every tribe, sexual identity, and political interest.
Consequently, our celebration of the church’s diversity is in danger of disintegrating into factions, each with its designer version of the faith. In its effort to acknowledge and celebrate diversity, the church runs the risk of forgetting those crucial areas where it has been commanded to be the same.
This tendency toward a subjective and individual view of truth sparked my first crisis of faith as a new believer. Although I grew up in the Detroit area with nominal Judeo-Christian values, our family did not identify with a particular denomination. When I came to faith in the early 1970s, some Christian teaching made me uncomfortable. I especially did not like the church’s doctrine of hell, so I decided to ignore it. I accepted the Bible’s message about the love of God, the hope of the Cross, and even its assessment of me as a sinner. But I dismissed its teaching about eternal punishment. My view was so boutique that, for a short time at least, I believed both in salvation through faith in Jesus and in reincarnation.
If you are wondering how I reconciled these conflicting views with one another, the answer is that I did not. Nor did I feel a need to do so. In the first days of my faith, my theological views were not based on the fruit of careful reflection about truth but were more of an emotional decision. I believed what I liked and rejected what I didn’t.
However, the more I attended church, listened to the church’s preaching, and read the Bible on my own, the more I saw that Jesus repeatedly spoke of some of the things I wanted to dismiss. I realized that if I was going to accept Jesus, I also had to accept all that he taught. I did not have the liberty to cherry-pick only those teachings that were to my liking.
The joy of limits
Christians, like artists, inevitably operate within the sphere of tradition. One of the fundamental assumptions of Christian doctrine is that it does not originate with us (1 Cor. 14:36; 2 Thess. 3:6. We believe and teach things that have been handed down. But this does not mean that there is no room left for creativity or originality. There is a parallel here to the musician’s work, both in terms of the danger posed by monotony and the task of working with materials that exist within a given order.
In his book Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, Jeremy Begbie observes that musicians “are not given a vocation of identical repetition, replicating the past.” Begbie points to improvised music to show that considerable freedom can exist within a given constraint and argues that the church must do something similar. “The church needs to improvise imaginatively—that is, to be so schooled in these texts and scriptural tradition that it can (out of habit ideally) act in ways that are true to the texts yet engage with the world as it now is, responding in ever fresh and fruitful ways to whatever life throws at us.”
Begbie also invokes Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote within specific established rules and developed simple themes with an astonishing variety. Begbie explains: “A simple aria, such as that which starts the Goldberg Variations, or the even shorter opening material of the ‘Ciaccona’ from the D minor Partita for solo violin, is, in effect, repeatedly reborn through breathtakingly elaborate variations, but without leaving any impression that the possibilities have been exhausted.”
Similarly, theologians, preachers, and teachers are free to do their work within a given order that we might characterize as the consistency of truth. They reflect on the ancient truth that has been revealed in the Scriptures and speak into the present context, drawing out its implications for God’s people, even for circumstances far removed from those the original writers addressed. This freedom allows for differences in style, and even a kind of personality that enables the faith held by all to be expressed in myriad ways, so that we all say the same thing but not always in the same way.
In short, orthodoxy is not a straitjacket but a gift. The faith that was handed down to the church is an inheritance, not baggage.
There is often great comfort in the familiar. We sense this whenever we reread a well-loved book, watch a classic movie for the tenth time, or listen to a favorite playlist. But the comfort we derive from biblical orthodoxy is more than a matter of aesthetics or even the pleasure of revisiting what is familiar. Biblical orthodoxy defines the safe zone for the church’s beliefs and practices.
In 2006, landscape architects at Mississippi State University conducted a simple study to determine the effect that fences—often considered a restrictive or oppressive constant in children’s lives—had on preschoolers. During recess, teachers took children to a local playground without a fence, where the children remained nervously huddled around the teacher. Later, they took the same group to a similar playground that included a fenced-in border. There the children felt free to explore.
Responsible boundaries are essential to freedom and creativity. The repetition of orthodoxy defines the boundaries within which we may uniquely express and practice our faith. Only when our faith operates within those boundaries can we legitimately speak of a culturally distinctive theological perspective, or what Yale professor Leonora Tubbs Tisdale has called “local theology.”
If we are supposed to keep saying the same thing about what the church believes, what exactly is it that we must say? It would be pointless to deny that there are many doctrinal differences between Christians. Some are minor, while others are not. Yet in 2 Timothy 1:13–14, Paul commands, “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” Paul, at least, felt that the core of Christian faith was clear enough to charge Timothy to preserve it. What is more, the standard that the apostle set for orthodoxy was one based on his own teaching.
This means that we can use Paul’s summaries of the heart of Christian doctrine to identify what is at least elemental to “the good deposit.” First, it is Christocentric. What makes the church Christian is not merely its teaching about God and morality but what it has to say about the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is the gospel, or “good news,” about Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:19; 2 Cor. 9:13; Phil. 1:27). Paul’s summaries of his message invariably dwell on Christ’s coming in the flesh, his atoning death, and his resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3–4). Second, it is a promise of forgiveness and transformation that comes as a gift by faith. The word for this is grace. Paul clearly saw any compromise on this point to be a perversion of the truth (Gal. 1:6–7). Third, it dwells on the implications of Christ’s work for those who believe. This is the promise not only of forgiveness but of new life. In a sense, this is the message of all the New Testament epistles.
It is nearly impossible to orient our lives to this kind of teaching without the institution of the church and gathered worship. That is because three practices have been instrumental in forming and preserving orthodoxy: instruction, singing, and action.
The Bible clearly emphasizes the primary importance of the church’s teaching ministry in passing on the truth to subsequent generations. But the church also has a rich heritage within the arts, chiefly in its increasingly countercultural tradition of communal singing. Because of music’s power to affect both the mind and the heart, it is a tool for so much more than just marketing or to set the mood; the early church saw it as a form of instruction (Col. 3:16; also, see p. 30).
The church also relies upon repeated practices, the practical and symbolic significance of which reinforce the explicit truths the church expresses in teaching and song. Some of these traditions, like the observance of the Lord’s Supper, are universal and prescribed by Scripture. Others are more personal and enable the congregation to express the common faith held by all in its own unique context. Whether it is a matter of reciting the scheduled prayers of the Daily Office or including an invitation at the end of every service, every congregation observes its own kind of liturgy.
These liturgies, both great and small, enable the church to act out its most important truths. They are, as James K. A. Smith notes, “not just something we do” but are practices that “do something to us.” They reinforce what the church teaches by becoming “habits of the heart” that shape the way we live.
Constraints that set us free
It seems paradoxical to argue that orthodoxy—bounding by its nature—is a path to inquiry, creativity, and freedom. We usually think of freedom as the opposite. Yet church historian Jaroslav Pelikan observed that one of the characteristics of authentic orthodoxy is its acceptance of and dependence upon free and responsible inquiry.
In a 1966 address at Valparaiso University, Pelikan noted the fourth-century debate that resulted in the church’s articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. “Without such inquiry, neither the Nicene Creed nor the theology of St. Athanasius would have been possible,” he explained. Orthodoxy invites examination and exploration because it expresses truth. “The orthodox tradition, then, has no reason to fear free and responsible inquiry,” he asserted. “It does have reason to fear sentimentality, trivialization, and indifference.”
The freedom that orthodoxy offers is a freedom of constraint. In contrast, our age is an age of unrestrained shouting. It is a modern reenactment of the unproductive project at Babel: voices on every side demanding our attention, allegiance, and action, often contradicting one another. Those who speak the rubric of freedom the loudest often employ such rhetoric to contradict the plain teaching of the Bible.
Biblical orthodoxy provides a filter for knowing which voices to ignore. It shows us which “new” understandings about personal behavior, desire, sexuality, and morality are merely the old lie of the Serpent in contemporary clothing.
However, if limits were all we needed, the law of Moses would have never given way to the gospel of Christ. Boundaries are an essential starting point for freedom, but boundaries are not enough. Jesus warned that to be truly free, we need more. We need the one who is at the heart of all biblical orthodoxy. Truth in this sense is not only personal. It is a person. To those who believed him, Jesus made this promise: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).
The liberation that Jesus promises involves more than a list of truths to affirm. It is forgiveness, emancipation from slavery to sin, and the ability to live a new life. It is a permanent place in God’s household. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:35–36). This is the freedom G. K. Chesterton spoke of when he observed, “It is only since I have known orthodoxy that I have known mental emancipation.” But Chesterton went on to observe that because this orthodoxy came embodied in the person of Christ, it also bestowed upon him an even greater gift: joy. As Chesterton put it, “Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.”
Theological differences, cultural factions, and disagreements are not peculiar to the 21st-century church. The church has struggled with such things since its beginning. But this history should not make us complacent. If we take the apostle Paul’s warnings seriously, the greatest danger we face today is not the threat posed by the unbelieving world, but one that arises from our own lack of vigilance in the area of doctrine (Acts 20:29–31; 1 Tim. 4:1).
The church does not need to suppress its innate diversity to be true to the faith. The Scriptures make it clear that the two can coexist. But Jude 1:3 also makes it clear that to be faithful to its message, the church must contend for the faith that was “once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” We have known this for a long time. What we did not expect is that we would be contending with ourselves.
John Koessler is a faculty emeritus of Moody Bible Institute. His latest book is Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good.
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