Monday, October 08, 2007

On Orthodoxy and orthodoxies

Originally published as Orthodoxy at heart of faith in Christ in the Charleston, SC, Post and Courier on Sunday, October 7, 2007

In recent weeks, Adam Parker wrote two articles investigating the history of religious schism and asking the question, “should religion’s goal be a ‘universal church’ or is religious diversity a good thing?” Adam states that in times of trouble and theological debate “some believers…react by reasserting orthodoxy.” I would like to take the liberty to explain why I believe there is no ‘little ‘o’’ orthodoxy and to define and describe “Orthodoxy” as “Christianity from the beginning”. As a result we will see but one Jesus Christ, and the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

Little ‘o’ orthodoxy is a concept which inherently has no meaning, precisely because it is an idea used to defend certain Reformation and Post-reformation ideas, not all of which are held in common by those who would label themselves orthodox. Consider a few examples. Some Protestant Christians would interpret certain passages in the Holy Scriptures to defend the ordination of women, while others will interpret certain verses (often the same ones!) to condemn it. Some would interpret the Bible, defending adult-only baptism. Others would claim that baptism is unnecessary, using the same Bible. Some would baptize “in the Name of Jesus” only, citing the Book of Acts. Others would baptize “in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” referencing Jesus’ command in Matthew 28. Each of these might call themselves ‘orthodox’. The main question which should arise from this discussion would be, “who decides who’s orthodox?” Phrased another way, “whose interpretation is correct?” Little ‘o’ orthodoxy is a term which is gaining popularity in an effort to defend one’s own beliefs and denominational affiliations without checking all of them against the received beliefs of the Universal Church.

Orthodox (capital ‘O’), is a term which does have meaning, precisely because Orthodoxy is the Ancient Way of Christianity, believing and teaching that which has always been believed and taught about Jesus Christ and everything related to him: the Church, the Sacraments, missions, etc. When theological debate arises, we can always look back and ask, “what have Christians always believed?” We will find, in this search, two records. First, a long line of teachers (Bishops) stretching from the first century to the present day, whose sole task it is to guard and transmit this ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3). And second, we will find the content of their defense and teaching to be this long-held ‘body’ of belief. Both are critical to Orthodoxy. We can know the “mind of Christ” in every critical area by looking back from the beginning to see if what is being questioned is congruent or an innovation. We are looking for the golden thread of commonly held beliefs.

To hold all of these commonly held beliefs, and to profess them publicly in word and action, would make one “Orthodox”. To hold some of them, but not all of them would make one (again historically and theologically) “heterodox” (literally “a different glory or praise”)—and places one outside the Church. To teach against these teachings and beliefs, especially from within the Church makes one a “heretic” (literally “an opinion holder”, “sectarian”, or “dissenter”), perhaps the most dangerous spiritual label.

Though not always, the heterodox and heretical views of Christianity often start with questions about me or my rights. For Christians, to start with the individual is a dangerous endeavor. “What will make me happy?” “What is my right as a human being?” “If I am like this, what must God be like?” “Why don’t you believe what I believe?”

Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, takes God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, holds tightly onto it, and seeks to live it in every possible scenario, public and private. It begins something like this: “If God is whom he has revealed himself to be, what will make me genuinely me?” “If God is whom he has shown himself to be when he took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, what is my responsibility as a human being?”

Heterodox Christianity and heretical views often take our present (read ‘fallen’) human existence as “the way we were created” and start there. Orthodox Christianity understands that God became man not only to conquer sin and death, but to show us what it truly means to be human. We understand that how we were born and how we are now are *not* necessarily what or who we were created to be.

Orthodox Christianity stands, as the Church, already united in fullness of faith and shared belief. Receiving communion within the Orthodox Church is, in addition to its essential meanings, the outward sign of commonly holding these ancient beliefs about Jesus Christ and sharing a fullness of the faith. Within Orthodox Christianity, community is truly our common unity, and communion is our common union.

Heterodox Christianity and heretical sects are inherently dis-united and may or may not share some beliefs but not others, not only amongst themselves, but across time and geography. The act of receiving communion in these places is often the only common ground amongst them. The sacrament itself may or may not have essential meaning (depending on who is teaching), so communion is often reduced to “the union we have by doing something together, whether it means something or not.”

The questions of unity and community, union and communion, as well as the big question concerning “the Church” have been being answered since Jesus himself instituted the Church with the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Again, don’t take my word for it! Read not only the Scriptures, but also the history, starting with the Apostolic Fathers (found online at Start also with the first bona fide, universally accepted “History of the Church” by Eusebius (found online at and also published as a Penguin Classic).

No, it is the deeper questions which are the more difficult: Am I willing to seek, to be found by, and to find the one, true Jesus Christ, who always has been—the same yesterday, today, and forever? Am I willing to accept that I am “fallen and I can’t get up”? Am I willing to believe what has always been believed about Jesus Christ, trusting that in this faith is found the fullest and truest life? When we come to this point, finally, we can heed the invitation so beautifully made in one of my favorite movies—Oh Brother, Where Art Thou: “Come on in, boys, the water is fine!”

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in the I’On community of Mt. Pleasant. Read more at or contact him at

Hotter than Hell?

Originally published as Turning from God leads to eternity without life in the Charleston, SC, Post and Courier on Sunday, September 9, 2007.

By all reports, the recent heat wave was the most intense and prolonged in recent memory. Record highs prompted some churches in their roadside signage to post statements relating the temperature in Charleston to those of the infernal abyss. “You think it is hot here?” “Fire Insurance. Inquire within.” “Hell has no thermostat.” Clever—but even at the literal level, ‘thermostat’ means ‘keeps the temperature the same’. I guess the implied statement is, “in hell, one can’t change the temperature for the cooler.”

It is good that this heat prompts us to ask about hell. What is hell, though? And what is heaven?

Our Lord, Jesus Christ said, “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Heaven is begun. By our participation in the life of the Church—through baptism and receiving the Sacraments—by our co-laboring with God, we are welcomed more and more into the Kingdom as we are transformed from corrupt into incorrupt, from imperfect to perfect, from sinner to saint. Whenever we actually seek and accomplish the will of God (rooted in self-denial, taking up our cross, and following Jesus), we partake in the life of the Kingdom of God, life as it was intended, heaven—even here and now.

Hell is similar. To sin, to harm others, to deny God and his power, to turn from the will of God, to seek self over others, to worship anything or anyone above the One, True God, is to participate in hell. We even have a phrase in our every-day vocabulary which points to this: “living hell.” Precisely. Ask anyone who has or is going through divorce or abuse—no matter who is a fault, it is hell for everyone. Consider, honestly, the worst times in your own life: hell. In these and other areas, we can observe, or participate in, hell—living hell.

Hell, is not some geographical place—as heaven is not. These realities begin in time and space but have their conclusion outside of it, in God’s timelessness. Wherever they “are”, God is there. “If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there” (Psalm 139:8)! In fact, we would even dare to teach that hell is not a place where God sends anyone. The Prophet Ezekiel, for example, said that God desires not the death of a sinner, but that he should turn from his ways and live (Ezekiel 18:32).

Today, as in the days of Moses, we have two choices always set before us: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him…” (Deuteronomy 30:19ff). The choice, life or death—heaven or hell, is ours to make, in every living moment, and to our dying breath.

God never says, “Love me or I’ll kill you.” “Love me or you’ll burn in hell.” Rather, he describes the consequence of not choosing life: “you will surely die”. This already true in our daily lives—just look around.

Sadly, many choose such hell, and for two apparent reasons. First, the way to paradise, to heaven, to communion with God, is narrow, and few are they who find it. True life is work. It means crucifixion, forgiveness, and endurance. It is definitely not the path of least resistance!

Second, since the devil is so clever, we are often quite well-convinced that hell is actually paradise.

Consider this story: A man dies and is permitted to take a preview of both heaven and hell to choose his eternal lifestyle. First, heaven: a peaceful, bright place. The antiphonal singing of the angels is impressive; the landscape, lush and serene. “Not bad,” the fellow notes.

Next, hell: well-manicured golf courses; an open tiki bar on the nearby beach—and endless snorkeling over pristine coral reefs teeming with marine life. “Wow! I can’t believe it,” he thinks. “This is really great.”

Surprised even at himself, the man chooses hell. “It isn’t what I expected!”

The gates of Hell are opened to the fellow who is warmly welcomed in. With the gates barely closed behind him, he sees nothing but death and destruction, torment, grief, sadness. He can only hear wailing and weeping. His face shows his utter horror and surprise. “But, what about yesterday?” he manages to ask.

“Yesterday,” says the devil, “we were recruiting…”

In the midst of all of this is Jesus Christ, who loved and laid down his life for us all, even for his worst enemies, including those who crucified him. Our Lord even descended to hell for us and with us, to rescue us from eternal death and hell. This was his action on Holy Saturday, the day on which he “rested in the tomb”, and “rested from his work”—the true Sabbath. He lived, died, and rose again to show us and give us life, true life in his Kindgom.

Choose life and live!

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in the I’On community in Mt. Pleasant. He can be reached at Read more at