Is There Such a Thing as ‘Moral Orthodoxy’?

Heston, bro. 'Nuff said.

Heston, bro. ‘Nuff said.

Note: The following is a somewhat tentative post. It is offered in a spirit of exploration and invitation to conversation, not as a definitive pronouncement or prescription on the issue.

Just yesterday, in a post on the Future of Protestantism (#protfuture), I raised the issue of what we might term “moral orthodoxy.” In the contemporary Evangelical discussion about sexuality, marriage, and the moral permissibility of same-sex romantic or sexual relationships, one of the big issues that’s been toyed around with is whether or not differing sexual ethics is a “gospel issue” and so forth.

The question has become, “Is rejecting the traditional position on same-sex relationships an issue of orthodoxy? Especially since it’s not something explicitly referred to in any of the creeds? Is it appropriate to call an Apostolic-, Nicene-, Chalcedon-affirming Christian, who nonetheless changes their mind on this issue, heterodox? Or is this more in the adiaphora category? Or maybe it’s not something that will brand you a heretic, but certainly not an Evangelical? Are the creeds sufficient to define the faithful, then?” Or something on that order.

Note, the issue isn’t whether someone is saved or not. Rather, it’s about the category of seriousness, or the classification of the sort of error (assuming a revisionist position is in error), this happens to be.

To be honest, I find myself sympathizing in both directions. While I would never say that the issue is adiaphora–a departure of this nature is far more serious than that–I initially have trouble reconciling myself to calling a resurrection-affirming, Trinity-praising, even justification-by-faith confessing believer a heretic because of their position on gay marriage. I tend to think heresy is a heavy word to be used mostly with reference to the classic heresies (Arianism, Pelagianism, Doceticsm, etc)–errors with a council condemning it or something.

That said, I do wonder how much of that tends to reflect a rather modern split between theology and ethics. “As long as you get your Christology right, then most of the rest of it we can discuss.” Being more of a dogmatics guy, I’m probably even more bent in that direction. The problem is, I’m not sure I really see that kind of divide countenanced in Scripture. Indeed, thinking of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he moves seamlessly from correcting doctrinal deviancies to ethical ones and drawing a number of connections in between. Chapter 6 ties a tight knot holding the resurrection of the body together with its sexual uses. It’s a Christological sexual ethic. In which case, a deviance on sex seems to imply a deviance on Christology.

Which, as I begin to think of it, reminds me of Alastair Roberts’ suggestion that such a demarcation of creedal sufficiency isn’t really even how creedalism works.

Affirming the Creeds
In a thoughtful post on what it means to be a creedal Christian, Roberts examines what that actually involves. Does being a creedal Christian simply mean that one happens to affirm the content of, say, the 12 articles of the Apostles’ creed as a summary? A lowest, common-denominator of faith? Or is it more than that? Does affirming the creed actually involve posture of humility and commitment towards believing and living within them as norm (normed under the Word of God, of course)? Possibly accepting it as firm yardstick of orthodoxy and so forth? Is there a depth beyond the surface?

Those are leading questions, of course. Roberts answers them quite clearly and suggests that mere affirmation of the words of the creed isn’t really enough. No, indeed, a certain level of adherence to accepted interpretation is involved:

The creed is given to us as a tool by which to discern error and as a form within which to recognize shared truths. Much is implied within the creed that is not explicitly stated. Various theological stances adopted by people who express the creed may be discovered to be unorthodox as their positions are revealed to be contrary to the creed on account of their hidden implications.

Pelagianism isn’t explicitly contrary to, say, any of the big three symbols I named earlier, and yet the Church later saw that it was in fact deeply destructive to the faith, constituting a fundamental denial of the truth of salvation in Christ. Tied to this point also is the fact that the creeds don’t deal with a number of issues of great importance (creation in the Image of God, etc.).

Finally, and crucially for my point, it must be noted that some can even affirm the creeds verbally while substantially denying them. It’s easily possible to see someone confessing the Apostles Creed while being a Trinity-denying heretic. Actually, in the 4th century there were teachers who held variations of Arianism that still affirmed the first Nicene creed. Their interpretation of the received text is rightly deemed to be a false one, contrary to the content it was designed to protect. So, while affirming Nicaea, they weren’t actually properly Nicene. Therefore, heretics.

The same would hold true today. Someone may come along and claim to affirm Nicaea, and yet reinterpret it–honestly, in good faith–along Arian lines, and we would say, “No, I know you think you’re affirming the creed, but really, you’ve changed it and filled it with new meaning.” It would be a verbal affirmation, but a substantial denial.

So what does this have to do with moral orthodoxy?

The Commandments as a Moral Creed
Well, Roberts goes on to discuss the “sufficiency of the creed”, pointing out that the creeds themselves were never actually designed to function on their own as sufficient to define the faithful apart from the liturgy and the rest of the church’s moral instruction. It’s at this point that the very unremarkable thought occurred to me that, despite the fact that there was no major ecumenical council adopting it as such, Christians have had a basic, unquestioned moral creed we’ve used for 2,000 years–indeed, the Jews for a 1,000 before that–the 10 Commandments.

As far as I can tell from the study of church history, alongside the early baptismal confessions, and the later expanded creeds, the 10 Commandments have functioned as an effective moral creed for the whole of Christendom. Catechism in the early church would have included teaching on the commands (See article links below.) Moving through the Middle Ages on into the catechisms and confessions of the Reformation (Luther’s, Westminster, Heidelberg, etc.) all have large sections devoted to them as they were seen as the basic skeleton of Biblical piety and ethics. As I understand it, they’re similarly central for Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic catechisms. As Roberts pointed out without quite making this point, the Commandments function as the creed does for the doctrinal storyline, standing as the summary of the rest of Torah, and really, Biblical ethics as a whole. Denying any of them, then, along with being a clear denial of Scripture, would be an unthinkable denial of the core of the faith.

If I’m correct, then, it’s just here that Roberts’ comments about the creed become relevant. It’s not that anybody in the revisionist camp actually explicitly denies the 10 Commandments. All but the most extreme liberal fringe would probably be horrified at the suggestion of such a repudiation; there’s no need to impugn motives here. Still, the question is whether or not this constitutes something similar to one of those unintentional, yet ultimately destructive, moves on the order of affirming Nicaea while actually holding beliefs that lean or are Arian. It could very well be that when properly understood there are revisionist positions–not only on same-sex issues, but with respect to premarital sex, divorce, etc.–that constitute a functional denial of the command against adultery as it sums up and embodies the biblical sexual ethic as a whole.

Any revision, then, of the traditional interpretation that has crossed confessional boundaries of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox thought for 20 centuries, if wrong, is not likely to be a mere adiaphora.

This seems like a plausible line of thought to pursue. In fact, I’m quite sure someone already has.

Is There a Middle Category?
All the same, while I’ve floated this suggestion out there for discussion, I still find myself uneasy calling someone a heretic while they still hold the basic theology of the creeds in a fairly conservative form. Perhaps I’m too slow to call a spade a spade. It’s precisely here where I wonder, though, if there is possibly some third category between heresy and adiaphora. I don’t have a fancy name for it, but possibly something along lines of  “really, really, serious theological error.” As in, excommunication maybe isn’t fitting for the person who holds this, but then again, neither should you be signing them up to teach Sunday School for the kids.

I’m not sure where this leaves us. I guess I’m floating the idea that, no, bare-bones creedal affirmation is not enough. But then again, it doesn’t seem to have ever been–the Christian tradition has always said there was a bit more, especially in regards to biblical morality. Nor has that standard been an arbitrary one, but an ethic at the heart of biblical revelation.

As I said, this is all somewhat tentative. I think it makes sense, which is I why I wrote it, but I welcome your gracious corrections, thoughts, and comments. Please do be respectful of each other, though, and pleased don’t be offended if I don’t respond.

Soli Deo Gloria


1. Interesting post on the possible (non)-use the 10 commandments in early church catechesis. I don’t think it changes the usefulness of the proposal, but still a thing.
2. Post by Brad Littlejohn on Hooker’s distinctions when it comes to adiaphora. Longish, but helpful read.
3. Andrew Fulford has an especially instructive discussion on the difference between essential beliefs and beliefs that one is culpable or not culpable for holding. 

29 thoughts on “Is There Such a Thing as ‘Moral Orthodoxy’?

  1. Thoughtful post, Derek. I think that what you’re getting at, on one hand, is that mere affirmation of a creed is not enough. In a sense, there must serious “exposition” of the creed. Whether by an organization, denomination, or an individual. You need to know what it means, how it functions, what its implications are, and joyfully uphold it. People can use phrases like “I believe in Jesus” or even a term like “resurrection,” and mean something completely different than what Scripture teaches.

    I also do think that there is something like “moral orthodoxy” found in Scripture, because Scripture regularly teaches that Christians live in certain ways. Christians are called to love one another (John 15:17), and are to be kind and compassionate (Ephesians 4:32), just to name a few. So I think that separating belief from behavior (and labeling just belief as “orthodox”) divides something which Scripture holds together. Of course, our behaviors never earn us merit before God, but a life truly made new and renovated by the gospel will begin to put away sin and live in a new (in a Christian) way.

  2. “As long as you get your Christology right, then most of the rest of it we can discuss.”

    I think it’s less arbitrary than that and more like “As long as we have the same Christology a conversation about the moral implications of our shared theology is possible.” For example, I haven’t yet found a way to have a real conversation (rather than a polemical debate) about abortion with those that don’t share my belief in the imago dei. I’ve also found that I can have a (lively) conversation with those that share my theology. I think that “middle category” needs to be an ecumenical posture at it’s core. There’s nothing that kills ecumenism faster than when one or both sides bring the attitude “Well I’ve got the truth and you all need to submit to it” to the table.

  3. One of the questions standing behind this concerns how we define heresy. I’m personally uncomfortable using that word unless we’re dealing with some issue that the vast majority of Christians have historically condemned as heresy–preferably through the vehicle of a church counsel. So I’d call Arianism a heresy, but I’m less inclined to use the same term for open theism, although I’m open to arguments for calling it such. (Honestly, that could be an interesting precedent to look at for this issue–it’s a very very serious theological error that has come up in an era when ecumenical counsels aren’t really possible, so how do we speak of it?)

    That said, it seems to me that viewing same-sex behavior as morally licit is problematic on a creational level–I seldom go straight to Romans 1 when talking about the issue, but instead start with creation. So depending on how much you think we can develop an ecumenical doctrine of creation, you might be able to make an argument for the h word that way. Approving of same-sex sexual relationships is such a foundational rejection of the creation order, etc. Perhaps one way of getting at the question is how much is meant when the creed refers to God as “maker of heaven and earth”? Is that simply professing belief in the fact that God made a physical creation, or is there more we ought to comprehend in that confession?

  4. The question is whether human community falls apart without complementarian binary gender. I don’t believe that it does. And every context in which the Bible affirms a particular gendered order, it is always also affirming patriarchy, which isn’t just a word for bad oppressive male chauvinism but a necessary transitional phase in the development of human community on our way to becoming “no longer male and female” in Christ. If men are the only legitimate sexual agents and are charged with the guardianship of female sexuality as WAS the case in the Old Covenant (c.f. rape of Dinah and Tamar), then men cannot be compromised of their guardianship role by becoming the “woman” in a relationship. That’s the only ethical issue with any teeth that I have been able to discern. I think that the greater “gnosticism” is to say that we must deny everything that has been discovered about the complex reality of God’s creation and force everything into binary boxes of male and female because Paul’s 1st century Judaism didn’t have a grasp of the true complexity of gender. I agree with Matthew Vines that the best analogy is the crisis that Galileo and Copernicus’ discoveries posed for the church’s Biblical geocentric cosmology. To go heliocentric, they had to make a lot of interpretive decisions that were a complete break with tradition.

    • What is so “complex” about gender? A young child, by simple observation, can see that boys and girls are made different. I’m not an advocate for Darwin, however, the survival of a species is dependent upon reproduction, which is only possible with opposing “parts”. Mountains of Scientific research from the last 30 years has shown that the traditional family is absolutely the most successful and beneficial form of society (thus the governments interest…tax laws, marriage laws, etc…in order to protect a safe society). Mountains of Scientific research also show the harmfulness to the body of same sex relationships. I just lost a cousin, whom I loved, to AIDS because of his homosexual behavior. Why would we want to endorse behavior that not only condemns to hell but also ravishes the body? How loving is that?

      •Lev. 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.”
      •Lev. 20:13, “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death…”
      •1 Cor. 6:9-10, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
      •Rom. 1:26-28, “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. 28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper.”

      As a result, they can no longer see the error of what they are doing. They will not seek forgiveness. They will die in their sins and face God’s holy condemnation. But, that isn’t all. In addition to the judgment of being given over to their sin, those involved in it also promote it and condemn others who don’t approve of their behavior.

      ” . . . and, although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.” (Rom. 1:32).

      So, in their hearty approval of homosexuality they encourage others to be trapped in their sinfulness. This means they will reject Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. Without Jesus, they will have no forgiveness. Without forgiveness, they will have no salvation. Without salvation, there is only damnation in eternal hell. We don’t want this for anyone.

      • Jeremiah writes: ” I just lost a cousin, whom I loved, to AIDS because of his homosexual behavior.”

        I’m sorry to hear of this. It’s a horrible loss. Yet, I must remind you that millions of heterosexuals in America have HPV, herpes, HIV and other diseases that can cause sterility, cervical cancer and even death.

        Would you suggest the cessation of all heterosexual conduct? The problem is being indiscriminate about one’s sexual partners. This isn’t to say that everyone who has contracted HIV has done so through their own behavior. One can be in a committed relationship but get cheated on.

        Now .. you believe apparently believe ALL homosexual conduct is a sin. I don’t believe that. Maybe it is… but the problem is that you’ve made salvation predicated upon what one does or does not do. If that’s the case, no one will be saved. You may have sinned and not known it or done something in good conscience that God finds offensive. Are these actions going to be held against you and determine your salvation?

  5. From a Reformed-ish perspective, I think you could call that third category – those who deny the Moral “creed” (aka Law) either doctrinally or practically – “antinomian”. In fact, I think using the “Moral Law”terminology is very helpful in making sense of this issue. According to the many of the Church fathers, the refomers and the confessions, this Moral Law is the rule of righteousness by which unbelievers are judged, believers are obligated to, and to which Christ was the model of perfect obedience. Not only that, it’s how we define sin! (1 John 3:4)

    In 1 Cor. 5, Paul uses moral conduct as a rule to distinguish who is in the church and who isn’t (and that is really the essenence of the wider conversation, right?). Also, isn’t it interesting that often when scripture speaks of those inside/outside the Kingdom of God, or of those heading toward final destruction that it describes those people in moral categories (sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, greedy) and not doctrinal ones? My point is not to diminish doctrinal rigour, but to emphasize the necessity of this “Moral Orthodoxy”. I think the seriousness of this moral category is greater than most of us realize.

    • Thanks Nate. Herein lays the rub, as he put it: “In 1 Cor. 5, Paul uses moral conduct as a rule to distinguish who is in the church and who isn’t (and that is really the essenence of the wider conversation, right?). Also, isn’t it interesting that often when scripture speaks of those inside/outside the Kingdom of God, or of those heading toward final destruction that it describes those people in moral categories (sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, greedy) and not doctrinal ones?”

      Is there any doubt that Jesus emphasized moral behavior beyond doctrinal assent?

  6. We are ALL born liars (according to Jesus).

    So being gay from birth, is absolutely no excuse…as tough as that sin might be to live with.

    The Scriptures are quite clear that it is sin.

    Yes, gays are forgiven. But the church ought never affirm sin of any kind.

  7. If the question: “Is There Such a Thing as ‘Moral Orthodoxy’?” were asked of those whom the “orthodox” through the ages persecuted and / or killed what do you think the answer would be? It seems fairly obvious to me that, historically speaking, the suppression of those considered “heretical” using very non Christ-like actions was pretty much concurrent with the development of conciliar doctrinal explications of what it meant to be a “heretic.” There ought to be some serious rhetorical and doctrinal implications that follow from that reality. For Paul, those who abandoned the Gospel were excluding others from participation on an equal basis with the people of God in Christ. So (tentatively?), I’m inclined to think that Jesus is likely to take into account a ‘Moral Orthodoxy’ in separating the sheep from the goats, and so YES, I think there is such a thing.

  8. There are two major issues:
    1. The authority of scripture. Acceptance of gay sex is in blatant contradiction to the text of scripture.
    2. The doctrine of creation. Acceptance of gay sex entails a denial of inherent meaning in the world. You either end up with a pure materialism where everything boils down to meaningless little bits, or with an amorphous spiritual world that is radically divorced from our material existence, if the latter even really exists. (It won’t be too hard to think of examples of both tendencies. I see some in this blog thread.)

    • I’d add that acceptance of gay sex makes the incarnation incredibly problematic. If you take the materialist tack, then the incarnation becomes God dumping himself into a hunk of meaningless bits. If you take the Cartesian position, then isn’t the soul the really important thing? Why is bodily incarnation so darn important if our real self is a disembodied soul? And an idealist, purely spiritual position makes the incarnation completely pointless, if there even is a material reality to incarnate in.

  9. Derek,

    One potential problem with uniting around the Ten Commandments is that not all Christians number the commandments in the same way.

    Roman Catholics, Lutherans and high Anglicans generally subsume the Second Commandment under the First, and break the Tenth Commandment into two to compensate.

    At first glance this is a minor difference, but God threatened to curse those who committed liturgical idolatry down to the third and fourth generation; hence this is not a minor issue at all in my view.

    Sorry if I am distracting from your post.

  10. I don’t think there is a split between theology/ethics, though there is a distinction. I’m pretty much a subscriber to Bonhoeffer’s ethics – so as far as I’m concerned, theology/ethics or dogmatics/ethics are two braids of one rope – distinct, but intertwined in a strong unity.

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  13. The ecumenical creeds don’t say everything–robbery is not addressed, cheating on college tests is not mentioned. In fact, I prefer the Nicene Creed over the Apostles because the latter is mute on the point of the incarnation. Do you think that you got started on the wrong foot? Active homosexuality (bisexuality, whatever) is listed in the OT and NT as sinful. If a society wants to give ‘really good friends’ privileges similar to husbands and wives, so be it. BUT this is not ‘marriage.’

    • If we take Scripture at face value on all ethical questions, we would have to conclude that:

      a) Divorcing your spouse because they were physically abusing you and your children is sinful in the eyes of God and equivalent to adultery … you should just have everyone walk around in a crash helmets to avoid permanent injury and take it (Luke 16:18, Matthew 5:32)
      b) Slavery is morally neutral
      c) There’s nothing impermissible, per se, about a 30-year-old man marrying a 12-year-old female
      d) Fathers may determine how and when their daughters lose their virginity. After all, Lot (declared as “righteous” before God) did offer both his daughters without their explicit consent to a lustful and angry mob
      e) Teasing a pastor about his receding hairline should be punished by having the offender thrown into a cage of bears to be torn apart alive

      • Derek, of course Christians have developed more nuanced and sensitive interpretations of these passages. Why, though? Why have we come to reject slavery as morally neutral or a positive good? How have we developed an understanding of marriage as a partnership (generally speaking) rather than a that of a master and subordinate? Why have we categorically rejected the targeting of civilians as a moral evil?

        All of these conclusions can only have been reached if one rejects a simplistic and face value reading of Scripture. Sometimes, the spirit of the law conflicts with its letter.

        I’m just wondering why this sensitivity and appreciation for moral complexity is never extended to the issue of homosexuality. Christians act as if support for legal gay marriage is equivalent to the legalization of pedophilia or rape. This is not consistent.

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