Orthodoxy: It’s not what you think it means

A response to Timothy Tennent

Orthodoxy is an obnoxious word in theological circles. Graduates use it to describe their seminary. Pastors self-describe as it when raging against other pastors. And now seminary presidents use it as a weapon to those whom they disagree.

Rev. Dr. Timothy Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary. This week’s offering on his blog describes the current state of the United Methodist Church as a conflict between two groups…but not the two groups you are likely thinking of:

[T]he two groups should never be called “conservative” and “progressive” and they should never be viewed as equivalent groups. What we actually have is a group (however imperfectly) which is committed to historic Christianity. The second group (however imperfectly) is committed to a re-imagined church. One, however flawed, is committed to the recovery and defense of historic Christian orthodoxy. The other, however nice and erudite, has not demonstrated a robust commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy. Thus, we actually have two groups; one orthodox and one heterodox.

The blog would be fine if this was just a rallying cry for those on Asbury’s campus (who likely mostly self-define as “orthodox”). But beyond the academic halls, such a blog post collides with Christian history and basic reason, yielding understanding that orthodoxy has been redefined by Asbury President Tennent.

A Problematic claim of Orthodoxy

First, calling one side “historic orthodox Christianity” is not an easily definable term.  Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants are far apart on a great many issues, both in their history and today. And if you expand the circle a little bit wider to the Anglicans and Pentecostal/Charismatics traditions, you end up with a real mix of beliefs and practices. If three or all five of these historic arcs of Christianity are “orthodox,” there’s a very narrow definition of orthodoxy that can possibly be used. As defined by some smart seminary-educated friends of mine on Facebook:

Orthodox” means to be in line with the Apostles’, Nicene, and/or Athanasian Creeds…Orthodoxy has more to do with intentional engagement with decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, which themselves were attempts at engagement with the Apostolic witness regarding Truth of the Trinitarian Mystery.

If this is the narrow definition of orthodoxy…then I’m wondering who is out there in Methodism asking “Do we believe the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, the Father and the Son, or the Father through the Son?” Because basically creeds are affirmations about the Trinity, not social issues.

Second, referring to the dissenting voices from the majority opinion as “a re-imagined church” is a ridiculous claim from a historical perspective. As a friend noticed in Tennent’s list of dissenting voices in Christian ‘orthodox’ history, he neglects to include those that are staggeringly important to the history of the church, such as “the dissenting Fathers that stayed after the Great Schism, each “traditional” side of Great the Awakenings, the Counter-Reformation, and many other issues.” Many of these that Tennent would categorize as heterodox were, in fact, firmly rooted in attempts to serve the ailments of contemporary society by means of the timeless Word.

Let’s call it what this is right now: the line between heterodoxy and dissenting voices contained within orthodoxy is usually knowable in retrospect. For many of the above groups and movements in our Christian history that Tennent calls a “re-imagined church,” they were in fact living lives devoted to the heart of their connection with God as they see it upheld by Scripture, and only in retrospect are we able to vindicate or vilify them.

Orthodoxy is not “Trinity + social issues”

In short, disagreement with the majority culture does not automatically split Christendom into two camps: one orthodox, the other not. Rather, the question must be posed: “what it is that divides them?” If it is about the Trinity or Creedal claims…yeah, it’s probably about Orthodoxy. But if it is social issues, that is well beyond what classifies one as “Orthodox.”

I wonder who gave Asbury President Tennent authority to define Orthodoxy as “historical orthodoxy + social issues.” And what criteria gives him the reason to rebrand Orthodoxy as Orthodoxy+.

Tennent’s major error is equating orthodoxy with social issues. Each mention of particular troubles regarding the United Methodist Church alludes to homosexuality as its common issue, not a theological disagreement about the Trinity. Amicable separation, redefining human sexuality, voting deadlock, defiance by some bishops, enforcing certain lines in the Book of Discipline, and “agree to disagree” are all references to the homosexuality debate within the UMC and the desire for some pastors to separate the UMC into a pro-gay group and an anti-gay group.

So if it really is all about the gay to Tennent, the question becomes: Can you support LGBT full inclusion in the United Methodist Church and be Orthodox? I say you can. Christian historical understanding of orthodoxy says you can. Timothy Tennent, it seems, says you cannot because then you are in the “re-imagined [small-c] church.” I wonder if persons promoting women’s ordination would have been viewed as heterodox back at the turn of the 20th century…

 Refusing this “re-imagined” Orthodoxy

My rallying cry is this: We should refuse to play this Orthodoxy+ game.

If the game is that Orthodoxy+ must include how we believe on social issues, and you want to play that game, then I’m not playing it. It’s like playing a church version of Inequality Monopoly where the deck is stacked against other people. You will win this game if you keep re-defining orthodoxy+ in this way.

But I refuse to play it because that’s not what orthodoxy means. I call on the rest of Methodism to refuse to play it:

  • Refuse to see orthodoxy+ re-imagined (ironically) by the very people who claim that the other side is re-imagining church.
  • Refuse to refer to groups as “promoting orthodox+ Christianity” if their litmus test is a social issue.
  • Refuse to allow people like Tennent to call themselves Orthodox+ if they won’t refer to people as progressives.

But I want to join in the fun.

While Tennent redefines orthodoxy+ and claims to stand with the Apostles, I’ve got a better place to stand.

I stand not with the Apostles but with Jesus Christ. I stand in opposition to people claiming church authority to exclude all those who do not exclude the same people they do. As Dr. Dorthee Benz of MINDNY wrote on my Facebook:

As Rev. Dr. Traci West once said, “We need to reclaim the mantle of orthodoxy.” Orthodoxy depends on what you date back to. If we’re dating back to the Cleansing of the Temple — resistance to oppression by religious authorities — I am quite certain that I’m the most orthodox person around.

May we all become the most Orthodox people around, indeed.


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  1. Thomas Coates says

    I encountered an Episcopal priest who said “I believe the creeds are literally true, therefore I believe in LGBTQ relationships”. Indeed, I too have found the word “orthodox” thrown around to exclude and separate people, thin lines, the litmus test being LGBTQ people and relationships– I have a high Christology, believe in a God that suffers with us, who was crucified because of us, believe the creeds, and yet because I believe that LGBTQ people can be in love, I’m not orthodox? That’s messed. I often joke that we’re all heretics to someone. Orthopraxy comes into play here, perhaps you can’t actually be orthodox if you condemn all those who you decide aren’t (whether you’re from a Bible church, or Asbury Seminary, or yes, even me sometimes).

  2. jwlung says

    Orthodoxy means true teaching. The inclusionists embrace a pagan anthropology. Orthodox (small “o”) believe what the the church has since its beginning believed and taught about the origin and destiny of man.

    Read the article entitled “Against Heterosexuality” in last month’s issue of FIRST THINGS.

    • says

      jwlung, that’s a definition of Christian belief, but it is not a definition of Orthodoxy. As posted above, orthodoxy is only reflections on Councils, Creeds, Trinity, and Apostles.

      • jwlung says

        Orthodoxy can best be described by the rule of St. Vincent: What the church of Jesus Christ has always and everywhere believed, taught, and confessed based upon the word of God. While orthodox faith certainly includes the truths taught in the ecumenical councils, it cannot be restricted to the doctrine of the Trinity and the theanthropic person of christ.

        The church has always taught that the gift of human sexuality is only to be expressed and enjoyed in the union of one man and one woman committed to each other for life. The church has always taught that human beings are created in the image of God, male and female. In the light of the biblical revelation of the nature of “humanity” the notion that we are homosexual of heterosexual or some combination of both in our essence, is rubbish.

        • says

          You are welcome to have that opinion. However, claiming that accepting or rejecting that opinion is definitive of whether a person is “orthodox” is the issue here.

          And really? A 19th century Rule as definitive for the previous 19 centuries? Please. As someone who is claiming that we must stick to tradition, relating to a 19th century cleric is ridiculous.

          • jwlung says

            St. Vincent of Lerins was a 5th century monk. And he did not invent the canon quoted: He was merely teaching what was the universal practice of the church at that time and before for determining the true teaching of the church.

            You live in an insane world in which your “opinion” is the magisterium to which you submit. Paraphrasing Tom Sawyer, “just ’cause you say it’s so don’t make it so.”

            This is why “dialogue” in the UMC goes nowhere. How does one reason with insanity?

          • says

            Ooooooh. Well, I just got schooled on Patristics. Thanks for the correction and I retract my comment.

            That said, this conversation sure escalated quickly from reasonable discussion to calling people insane. Too bad.

  3. says

    Really thoughtful writing, Jeremy! I found Dr. Tennet’s article to be unusually shrill, which has not been my previous experience with his writings or blog. I think your response post is especially strong in your push-back claim that those who “support LGBT full inclusion in the United Methodist Church” can be orthodox and/or part of “historic orthodox Christianity.” I think your claim is a convicting one to those in the evangelical sections of United Methodism and the Church as a whole. This is a claim/issue some in those circles would rather not discuss nor think about much. However, I feel a weakness in this post may be your defining of orthodoxy as “creeds are affirmations about the Trinity, not social issues.” Of course, I may be reading you wrong (which is always entirely possible!). Are you saying orthodoxy only reaches as far as talk/belief/faith about the nature of God?

  4. says

    *Sorry for my mistake in my last question! It SHOULD read: “Are you saying orthodoxy only reaches as far as talk/belief/faith about the Doctrine of the Trinity?” Again, sorry.

    • says

      Brian, that’s exactly what Orthodoxy means, though I like the definition in the blog post better. Read all three creeds and they are all reflections on how God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit interact with each other and the world.

      That’s it.

      • says

        Thanks for answering and clearing that up for me, Jeremy! I really appreciate it and the hard work you have done on this blog post! Yet, I think that is where I would like to push-back a little. I think the definition of orthodoxy you used is a bit narrow. Orthodoxy is more than simply the “Apostles’, Nicene, and/or Athanasian Creeds.” I think part of this push-back comes from the publications of most of the Patristic scholars I read in that they seem to refer to orthodoxy in terms of the first Seven Ecumenical Councils. And those first Seven Ecumenical Councils, while surely dealing with the Trinity as you point out well, also dealt with much more. Those councils also set the scriptural canon, the two natures of Christ, which in turn directly deal with the via salutis . . . plus worship. Many of these had social implications for the Church and were in some ways social issues as well. Thus, I would disagree with you that orthodoxy is only understood as to questions/beliefs concerning the Doctrine of the Trinity. However, I would agree with you that orthodoxy is larger than the issue of supporting “LGBT full inclusion in the United Methodist Church.” Persons can disagree about this yet still be orthodox. What do you think? Am I being uncharitable in my reading of you on this matter? Or do you think I am splitting hairs? 😉

        Finally, I think I understand your blog post and appreciate it. However, to be fair to Dr. Tennent, I do not think you engaged him on his larger point. As I read him, I thought he was making a case that the real divide is not over the issue of “LGBT full inclusion” . . . this is only one symptom issue of a greater divide in the United Methodist Church between those who identify as orthodox and those who identify as progressive. Do you not see it that way? If so, why? If not, what other reasons would you give for this divide? Again, thanks for all your time!

        • says

          Let’s be honest here. There is little that actually divides the UMC except for the inclusion of LGBTQ people, and we all know that this is the driving force behind the IRDC and those claiming some “orthodoxy” to divide the Church. I suspect Tennent realizes it is unlikely the Church would divide (or, in his mind, drop welcoming congregations), over that one issue, so he and others are working to try to make the issue something bigger…something that goes to the core beliefs of doctrine…not just a social issue.

          Make no mistake, there are several groups who, for differing reasons, are actively working to bring about schism. There are the “orthodox+” folks, who want to take their church and leave, and then are the mega-church pastors to want to split off to form their own group, so they get to keep more their money. Same goal, different motivations.

  5. Patrick says

    How can you have a definition of Christian orthodoxy and not reference the Bible? Or, is the assumption that orthodoxy can only exist in reaction to the Bible, and therefore is extra-Biblical (hence the creedal references?)

    • says

      The Nicene and Apostle’s Creed don’t reference the Bible other than to say the actions of Jesus Christ parallel the Scriptural account.

      But I do like Marcus Borg’s definition of Orthodoxy:

      . If orthodoxy is a way of saying “There are certain foundational affirmations in Christianity without which the position isn’t Christian,” I think that’s true. I would keep those affirmations to a relative minimum and would always want to caution against too much certitude or precision.

      For me the foundational affirmations are the reality of God, Jesus as the decisive revelation of God, the Bible as constitutive of Christian identity. And maybe I would be content with that much.

      • says

        You just came up with a radically different definition of orthodoxy than the one you shared in the post, Jeremy. Who’s redefining orthodoxy now? 😉


        • says

          At my count, I’ve presented four different versions of Orthodoxy and another one on UMClergy Facebook Group…but only one, I feel, goes radically too far (Orthodoxy + social issue opinions) and is a disservice to Christian tradition.

  6. says

    I was the first to respond to Tennant’s post. I agreed with him in this: if the only options are to stand with or in opposition to the Apostles, I stand with the Apostles.

    I intended, in that brief comment, to show the fallacy of his dichotomy. Very few movements in Christian History have stated an intent to move away from or in opposition to the apostles.

    I am not ceding the Apostle’s to Tennant.

    Steve Heyduck
    MDiv Asbury 1989

    • says

      Steve, I saw your comment and I wondered if it was snarky! Glad to have my wonderings confirmed. Well done in a brevity of words, sir!

  7. says

    The heterodoxies that are actually killing the church have little to do with sexuality. The most devastating heterodoxy is the perversion of Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God into a middle-class consumerist “focus on the family” idolatry. Our consumerist culture tells us to “focus on the family” so those of us who are parents have become neurotic, slavish helicopters devoted to our kids’ college applications from the time they’re five. That’s the main reason why families stop coming to church at least in my part of the country.

  8. Rick says

    I’m an Asbury grand (twice: M.Div., D.Min.) Dr. Tennent’s line of reasoning used to make sense to me. 15 years distant from Asbury and 10 years out of the closet, I can’t even begin to sort it out. Just a lot of words to justify keeping undesirable folks out of the church, IMO. I agree with Sandy Brown’s reply among the comments there, and I truly appreciate this Hacking Christianity post in response to Tennent.

  9. Nate says

    I’m an ATS grad and I came out just prior to beginning my last year there. It was well known that I was gay (I used my experience as fodder for preaching class a number of times, and was open about my experiences throughout).

    It’s a shame that what we hear as the “voice of Asbury” is this unfortunate us-and-them dichotomy. While both being honest about my sexuality and living within the community ethos, I did not once experience any negativity from faculty or fellow students, and not once was my “orthodoxy” questioned (whatever that may mean). I found ATS to be a community of grace and embrace, and I don’t want Tennent’s voice to be the only voice from ATS that matters when it comes up in this discussion.

  10. says

    The relegation of the same-sex intercourse conversation to a “social issue” continues to baffle me.

    Whether we are speaking of the biblical authors or their apostolic successors, the ancients saw the human body and the sexual expressions that we use it for as an inherently theological entity.

    Talbot Davis,
    Highland Park High School 1980; Asbury Seminary, 1990

    • says

      I agree the theological conversation is hugely important over the human body and sexual expressions.

      However, whatever one believes in the conversation and any conclusions from that conversation are completely irrelevant to whether they are “orthodox” or not. That’s my claim. If orthodoxy is classically defined as assent to the Councils and Creeds, none of them dealt with this conversation. If orthodoxy is being re-defined by people like Pres. Tennent, then they need to start adding the plus sign to it: Orthodox+

  11. says

    “basically creeds are affirmations about the Trinity, not social issues.”

    “I believe in the Holy Spirit,
    the Holy catholic church,
    the communion of saints,
    the forgiveness of *sins*,
    the resurrection of the *body*,
    and life everlasting.”

    Sins committed with the body are indeed issues of historic orthodoxy. The hermeneutic reasoning that undergirds revisionist views of NT sexual ethics is strikingly similar to that of Paul’s Corinthian opponents. They too were seeking to bless and even boast of the “spiritual” enlightenment in their condoning of those among them engaged in a loving, consensual, adult sexual relationship.

    • says

      I reject your interpretation as applying a hermeneutic of morality police against a document that was rendered as a form of everlasting doctrinal police.

      “Forgiveness of Sins” is about soteriology: how does any sin keep us from God, and how does God’s forgiveness lead to life everlasting.

      “Resurrection of the Body” is against those who claim Jesus wasn’t bodily resurrected.

      Neither of those lines are about who was having committed relationships with another.

  12. says

    I really like this post and agree wholeheartedly with the problematic nature of “orthodoxy+.” I am reminded of a piece by Roger Olsen about the distinctions between orthodoxy and fundamentalism:


    I disagree with Dorothee Benz quote at the end, because putting “orthodoxy” back to the words of Jesus basically leaves everyone with their own interpretation of orthodoxy, which is what we need to avoid. Orthodoxy is defined by the “right teaching” of the church, handed down from the Doctors, Mothers, Fathers, saints, apostles, and martyrs, and especially found in the creeds and ecumenical councils. For UMs, “orthodoxy” might expand to the doctrinal standards recognized by the BOD: articles and confession of faith, Wesley’s Notes and Sermons, etc.

    The problem that the far left in the church has with claiming orthodoxy is that so often it does not defend its own borders from heterodox teaching. In other words, you may be dealing with a guilt-by-association problem: yes, one can be robustly orthodox theologically while being progressive on sexuality, but many who are progressive on sexuality do not sound like they are interested in a “mere Christianity” that would be recognizable to the early church. Nor do I often hear progressive Christians expressing concerns about orthodoxy in their own ranks – but I would welcome this change! Progressives often seem so intent on getting social issues “right” that they never get around to doctrine – and saying “Biblical obedience” loudly while using mostly secular arguments from the 1960’s doesn’t count.

    • says

      Thanks for the comment, Drew. For the record, I was including Benz’s quote as a foil to Tennent as another form of what “re-imaging Orthodoxy” means.

      I would be okay including the variety (and at times contradictory) of foundational documents into Wesleyan orthodoxy. However, attempts to apply fundamentalism hermeneutic ala “wesleyan literalism” would really not sit well with me. I would hate to have to have my marriage dissolved and refuse communion to people.

      I can agree with your comment about progressives and try to not fall into that error myself. My next writing on this topic will look at orthopraxis and orthokardia as helpful complements to orthodoxy (all of which are Wesleyan).

  13. David says

    Jeremy, the statement in the Apostle’s Creed about the Resurrection if the body is eschatological (referring to our ultimate resurrection in the New Creation, as in EUB Article XII). The resurrection of Jesus is referenced earlier.

    With that said, if we eliminate ethics as relevant to apostolic teaching, might err be better served in the work if UM unity eliminating the Social Principles all together and remanding all ethical questions to the Annual Conferences (with the General Rules our basic guide)?

    • says

      That’s a good clarification on the Apostle’s Creed section, thanks David.

      I never said that ethics were irrelevant to apostolic teaching. What I said was that ethics was irrelevant to determining if something is orthodox or not. What you are describing would be applying a slippery slope fallacy to what I’m actually arguing.

      • David says

        I’m not intending a slippery slope, but rather a potential solution. I’m not really comfortable with it, but minimizing all social teaching at the General Church level might give us a way forward in living together (and, perhaps, give us room to work on greater doctrinal unity).

  14. Audrey says

    You know what scares me about “orthodoxy +” ? Until 1956, Methodists would have generally claimed that ordaining only men (in a plain reading of 2 Timothy and the rest of Paul, as well as the example of the priests of Levi…) was the teaching of the church “always and everywhere throughout all of history”

    I really really hope this isn’t a slippery slope back to the days of the plain reading which reinforced sexism and oppression for too many centuries.

  15. Bill Ashworth says

    According to the Eastern Orthodox, orthodoxy literally means right glory or right worship, and is defined primarily with respect to the received tradition of the Orthodox church. Practically, it can be defined as a series of negations: you are Orthodox if you are not a Nestorian, an Arian, or what have you. Most are ancient heresies that Methodists have never heard of (but frequently believe). Thus, practically, orthodoxy means being a member of the orthodox church, with orthodox bishops, which as a rule, either does not change, or changes verrrry slowly. There is something cool about the extreme antiquity of worshipping with a fourth century liturgy in dim candlelight, in a fog of incense, listening to Byzantine chant. I don’t think we can ever have that in Methodism because the amethodist church lacks the ancient heritage and is defined more by the changes it has undergone over the years than by its past.

  16. david brainerd says

    This is why no real Christian ever joined up with the Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches. This is why you had all those dissident groups out in the woods. Because orthodoxy must be morality first, then dogma. If you say orthodoxy is dogma only, you might as well be a Jew or a Muslim since they place ceremonialism and abstract nonsense over morality too. Jesus always made the moral commandments the primary thing, never the Trinity.


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