Christians have long talked about life as a journey, whether as runners or pilgrims or travelers or something else. Journeys tend to involve forks in the road, decisions to make, and obstacles to overcome. Sometimes, the decisions of this journey are between light and darkness, holiness and sin, redemption and backsliding. In these instances, the follower of Christ is called to choose the path of faithfulness. Other times, however, the decisions we make along the way do not seem to be inherently good or bad—it’s not immediately clear whether one path is better than the other.
Such an image of journey has been on my mind lately as I’ve wrestled with what seems to be an increasingly common trope for contemporary Christians: the ongoing debate between orthodoxy and relevance.
Per Merriam-Webster, orthodoxy means “right belief, sound doctrine” and relevance means “the quality or state of being closely connected or appropriate.” Based on those definitions, you wouldn’t expect contemporary Christians to believe that orthodoxy and relevance are at odds with one another. But if you talk to many Christians, you’d be wrong. Let me explain.
“Make the Church Relevant Again”
For some Christians, the church needs to become relevant again, because orthodoxy means staleness. While orthodoxy may have governed the way the Christian Church operated for a time, the challenges of the modern word call for a different approach. Fresh engagement, new ways of things, and an adoption of the language of the “other” are the expectations of this camp. (It’s worth pointing out that this way of thinking need not necessarily descend into a rejection of the historical truths of Christianity, although it certainly can.)
When talking about the liturgy, for example, I routinely hear arguments that boil down to “it’s how Christians have done things for a long time” and “I personally find great value in the liturgy.”1 For Christians concerned with the 21st century relevance of the gospel in the cultural West, these explanations—and others like them—are insufficient. For those who believe the church should be attractive (or at least not unattractive) to contemporary people, the liturgy is an aspect of Christianity that may be modified in order to better facilitate the communication of the gospel and transformation of lives.
“Always and Everywhere”
Of course, for other Christians, the desire for relevance distorts the very thing trying to be made relevant. In short, relevance becomes a code word for theological liberalism or heresy. For instance, last week Reuters noted in its report on Pope Francis that, “The anger directed at Francis by many conservatives is often cloaked in concerns over doctrine and orthodoxy….” The danger of making Christianity relevant is that relevance risks eroding the truth of Christianity. Be wary of Christianity that tries to be relevant, this viewpoint says, because it eventually slips into heresy.
Such is often the perspective of those who champion orthodoxy. While some Christians define orthodoxy historically, others creedally, and far too many others as “precisely what my church happens to believe,” these are all generally positive portrayals: Christians should want to be orthodox, because orthodox means right. In this view, the church is a hospital for the sick—people come into the church because they are convinced of their need for healing and they stay because they are being transformed by the work occurring within. Relevance matters not when the healing of souls is on the line.
Orthodoxy vs. Relevance
At this point it’s obvious (I hope) that Christians who champion relevance and Christians who champion orthodoxy represent two different views of Christian faith and cultural engagement. And I also hope that it is obvious that there are deficiencies associated with embracing one of these views without listening to the insights of the other.
A Christianity that is more concerned with cultural popularity than with bringing redemption to the lost and making disciples has sold its soul. Seeking relevance—whether book sales, retweets, or political power—for the sake of anything other than advancing the Kingdom of God is a clear corruption of the gospel. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” The lack of disciplined discipleship that accompanies the low-commitment pursuit of relevance can certainly fall into this trap.
Likewise, a Christianity that is concerned with keeping Christianity the “way it’s always been” relegates itself to a position that stunts the spread of the gospel. While there are confessional aspects of Christianity that are changeless, the form of orthodoxy has changed throughout the years.2 To correlate “the gospel” with how one does church—or, more accurately, how one’s subsection of a denominational family belonging to a particular time and variety of theological, expressive, and cultural positions does church—is simply to adopt an ethos of “relevance” that is a bit older than whatever those newfangled megachurches are thinking up now.
Orthodoxy and Relevance at Conciliar Post
A recent article at Conciliar Post demonstrates this kind of “orthodoxy vs. relevance” thinking.3 While there is much to commend in this article, I want to focus on the opening line from the conclusion:
“The focus of both men [Erasmus and Andy Stanley] is not on doctrinal assertions, but moral action and ecumenical unity with some set of decidedly undogmatic, amorphous Christian principles serving as the feeble glue to the whole project.”
This reads like a typical orthodox perspective: Erasmus and Stanley have fallen prey to the whims of chasing relevance and find their output devoid of true Christian teaching.
The problem with such a reading, however, is twofold. First, it falls into the all-too-common trap of creating a dichotomy where there isn’t one. Pursuing “moral action and ecumenical unity” —relevant projects now as they were in the 16th century—does not inherently require the rejection of true Christian faith. Orthodoxy and relevance don’t have to be at odds with one another in the terms of this conversation.
The second problem with this kind of reading is that it fails to take what Erasmus and Stanley say about themselves seriously. Freudian thinking aside, I’m unconvinced that the best way to understand what someone thinks is to psychoanalyze their unconscious mind.4 It’s far more charitable and intellectually honest to take someone at their word than it is to resort to telling someone what they believe based on our perception of what they believe.5
A Better Way Forward
Rather than forcing people’s thinking into dichotomies or telling them what they are saying, we should adopt a posture of listening—not primarily to correct or critique, but to understand what someone is saying. This requires conversing in the spirit of dialogue and reading with a spirit of charity. It involves adopting a spirit of pursuing the truth, investing the time and energy necessary to undertake a rigorous investigation of what a person says in order to better understand reality.6
In practice, thankfully, there is often a great grey area between the extremes of the “orthodox” and “relevant” viewpoints, an area filled with dialogue and conversation. People do express nuance and allow for exceptions. But at the end of the day, far too many of us default to these positions: beware of the dangers of relevance; move beyond the staleness of orthodoxy.
The starting point for this dialogue should be gathering information. With Erasmus and Stanley, I would suggest this means reading what Erasmus says about scripture and taking seriously what Stanley affirms as doctrinally accurate.7 In other words, one ought to begin a conversation by taking people’s statements in the context of the framework and principles they publicly adopt. This is not a hard and fast principle, of course:people sin, viewpoints change, and life happens.
But a commitment to listening and dialoguing is a good place to begin our conversations with one another, especially when it comes to something as contentious as the orthodoxy versus relevance debate.
1 These are not the only explanations for the liturgy, of course, and in certain traditions may hold more weight that others; I’m not trying to convince you one way or another here—I simply want to note that this kind of thinking highlights a particular view of orthodoxy over a particular view of relevance.
2 Even if you’re Eastern Orthodox, the liturgy you live out every Sunday is ancient—but it is also a development from how the earliest followers of Jesus worshipped.
3 I do wish to thank Timon Cline for his thought-provoking read. My chief complaint with this piece is that Mr. Cline casts Erasmus as the antagonist without letting Erasmus speak for himself, instead preferring to voice Erasmus through Luther’s critique. I’ve written extensively about the Luther-Erasmus debate elsewhere and I remain completely unconvinced that Luther read Erasmus correctly. It may well be that the theology Luther argues against is worth discounting; but the fact is that he’s not criticizing Erasmus so much as a strawman dressed like the scholar from Rotterdam.
4 Nor should an opponent be viewed as providing a completely accurate picture of the person with which he or she is arguing. Listening to the strongest critiques of someone’s position is a fine way to determine the holes in their thinking; but it’s a poor substitute for seeking understanding about meaningful issues.
5 In accordance with action of course (Prov. 20:11) lest we fall into the trap of always taking liars and charlatans at their word.
6 A brief aside on culture here: I wonder if this desire to “out truth” is something that we’ve generally lost in American culture in our race toward the political mountaintop. We’ve become so obsessed with “our side” that we’ve made the mistake of thinking that we have the monopoly on truth and that we cannot learn from those across the aisle. In my estimation, we would be much better off if we followed the example of Robert George and Cornel West rather than Donald Trump and Maxine Waters.
7 I am hardly an Andy Stanley apologist, but it seems prudent to take seriously North Point’s doctrinal statement at this juncture, especially since Stanley is the lead pastor there. Now, there are certainly follow up questions that we should ask; for example, it might be useful to investigate how a particular sermon squares with the expressed doctrinal position. But churches have these conversations all the time without needlessly falling into caricatures of orthodoxy and relevance.
This article originally appeared at Conciliar Post.