I have had a few people message me concerning my last post, specifically about how I defined ‘orthodox’ as being an emphasis on early church liturgy and worship. The first few messages I tried to address privately with the individuals in question, but since a few more have landed in my inbox, I decided to write up a quick hot take on orthodoxy and how it is a word and term that gets used in such a perverse manner within Christianity today.
Around the end of the Middle Ages a movement began to take form within the Christian church in Europe. There was a desire to go back to a more “pure” church that was more like what the church would have been for early believers throughout Israel and the entire Roman world immediately and shortly following the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. When we speak of the church in that period we call it the patristic church. There is a spiritual and temporal reason for this push to go back to how things were done originally within the church. First from a spiritual perspective, the men and women who established those practices were closer to Christ in terms of time and space than we are, so that could give them more insight than we have today regarding what Christ’s intention was for His church. And secondly, from a temporal perspective, without any sort of guidance in the face of multiple forms of worship and adoration, the Church Fathers concluded (no doubt with the guidance of the Holy Spirit) that the best litmus test to determine what would be good and bad liturgy should be whether or not it was practiced in the patristic Church.
So having this historical perspective in mind regarding roots of the movement to turn to the early church for guidance in how liturgy should look today, we can say that orthodoxy is a desire to justify all forms of modern worship and liturgy using the rites and customs that were developed by the early church. True orthodoxy goes a step further and says that only those rituals and customs established by the early church are pleasing in God’s eyes and validates a human action as liturgical, orthodoxy is embracing a single form of liturgy to the exclusion of all others. It is important to note that orthodoxy should not be confused with the development of liturgical forms of worship via sola scriptura. An example of this would be an evangelical church that baptizes anyone who walks in the front door on any given Sunday on the grounds that Scripture does not explicitly state a catechist period is required. Interpreting Scripture alone personally and developing modern liturgy around that unilateral understanding of the Bible is not catholic and it certainly is not orthodox. To go back to the baptism example I used, we know that in the early church that there were established and enforced time periods for a potential convert to Christianity, and that catechism classes were a fixture of the early church right from the start. Taking that historical fact and building it into our liturgical practice today is exactly how true orthodoxy manifests itself within the church. It is orthodox that we have Christian schools for our children, adult initiation programs for converts and an entire liturgical form around the act of baptism.
But the problem with how the word orthodox is used today is that it has been warped to really mean ‘conservative.’ Meaning, a person or catholic who adheres to the traditional precepts of the church (but more often it specifically relates to how one see social issues within the church). This is wrong. It is wrong because what this little change in meaning of the word orthodoxy does is paper over partisan positions within the church using ecclesiastical terms. And if you are an Anglo-Catholic you probably hear it all of the time, that priest who wears his cassock after mass when speaking with parishioners during lunch is described as being “very orthodox” by parishioners who are not used to seeing a priest in a cassock. Or a person will write on a Christian blog that they are “orthodox” and therefore will never accept gay marriage as being a Christian concept. Who gets to be married by the church is not a question of orthodoxy, it is a question of church teaching and Biblical interpretation, which are entirely different things. Whether or not we have a marriage ceremony at all is the orthodox question in that mix. If a church suddenly decided that marriage was no longer a sacrament worthy of a liturgical movement, that would be unorthodox (there are churches that practice this, they are unorthodox). The fact that some churches allow same-sex couples to engage in the beautiful liturgical movement that is the Christian wedding ceremony is not unorthodox, it is the application of church teaching within a very orthodox practice of two people going to church together for their special day to witness before their friends, family and God their Christian commitment to one another. It saddens my heart to scroll through the ‘Christian’ or ‘catholic’ tags here on WordPress and see post after post of Christians attacking other Christians for not being orthodox or being too orthodox over a debate of whether or not the priest should face the people or not during mass. They miss the mark because while they are fighting over this trivial issue, there are actual unorthodox churches that have gone away entirely with a organized form of worship that includes an officiant– that is unorthodox. It is not unorthodox for a pastor to set up a youth geared mass with music from instruments like guitars and drum sets. It is unorthodox to conduct a so-called Christian service with only that music and nothing else, saying that the music alone gives us the Eucharistic form of worship we need and that God instituted for us during the Last Supper.
So how do you avoid this very common misunderstanding of the word orthodox and it’s use within the church? Before you label something orthodox or unorthodox, ask yourself if this wasn’t a spiritual issue but a temporal one, would you find yourself using the word ‘conservative’ instead of orthodox or ‘progressive’ instead of unorthodox. If that is the case, chances are you are not using the term properly. If you are calling yourself orthodox because you like to discern yourself from your fellow Christians who believe in Christian same-sex marriage than you are using the word improperly. If you are calling yourself orthodox and you show up to a church that never prays the Kyrie together (literally the oldest form of worship we know in the church) and this troubles you than you are bang on the definition. Partisan categorizations, even ones that are given fancy ecclesiastical terms to paper over the temporal labels, have no place within any Christian church. We are not conservative Christians or progressive Christians or classic Christians or [insert temporal partisan adjective here] Christians– we are Christians. And we are part of the catholic church, which means our Christianity is universal, meant for all, regardless of whether you are a conservative, progressive, liberal or otherwise when you are not sitting the pews. We undermine a legitimate catholic principle of justifying the sacredness and importance of our liturgy using practices from the early church (orthodoxy) when we remove the true meaning from the word orthodox. We give some form of legitimacy to truly unorthodox liturgy when we try and take this term and apply in within the church in a way it was never meant to be used.