You keep using that word

May 2nd, 2017

Reading the newest releases from the Wesley Covenant Association, I cannot help hearing the voice of Inigo Montoya in my own inner dialogue.

"Orthodoxy. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Now, I really cannot say if the members of the Association know what that word means or not, but at least their use of it should be questioned more regularly than it is. Many of us who are not aligned with that particular organization or the constellation of others around it continue to allow its regular use without much of a fight. I for one think that is a poor move on our part.

There was a time when "orthodoxy" meant primarily "right praise" and derivatively, "right belief." Orthodoxy was a claim that we worship together rightly, a worship life that unfolds before the Triune God in ancient patterns: Gathering, Proclaiming, Responding, Giving Thanks, Sending Forth. Right praise meant that we read Scripture in assembly, that we prayed to the Father through the Son in the Spirit, and we baptized into that same Triune name. Right worship meant that we regularly gathered around the Lord's Table, hands open to celebrate the feast.

Interestingly, in all of this talk about orthodoxy coming from the Wesley Covenant Association and its associated forces, there is little conversation around right worship. One might think that if you are going to invoke such words, you would be willing to do the grammatical work and talk it all the way through. One might expect that taking orthodoxy as seriously as so many seem to in these current discussions might find as strong a position on taking The United Methodist Book of Worship as seriously as our Discipline. One might hope that at the very least if we are going to prattle on about orthodoxy, the prattling might at some point circle around to what our worship should look like in order to be "right."

Now, I do not mean that to suggest that these conversations about sexuality are less important or secondary. As I have argued before, I think that we need to reframe sexuality as the way into the Triune life, not something to be bypassed on the way in. My point here is to say that we might have a richer opportunity if we were arguing about this reality through our worship rather than our Discipline as a standard of orthodoxy.

Similarly, talk of orthodoxy also once led to talk of right belief. Right belief was a claim about our relationship to the apostolic witness handed down through the witness of Scripture and the life of the community surrounding it. Right belief was a story refined and retold through creeds and councils, bound up in articles of faith that we still hold to in our church today.

But more than just a codification of the basics, right belief is meant to complement the ordering of a life made possible by worship. It is a well-established truth that our Wesleyan perception of right belief always orients doctrinal matters toward their significance for Christian discipleship, a truth attested to directly in our Discipline's opening sections on our doctrinal heritage. Right belief is always subservient to the possibilities of discipleship. What we believe serves to illuminate our way into life with God. Right belief, less a yard stick to be wielded, is a lamp to light the way.

Now charitably, those on the outside reading these statements by the WCA and associated forces might hear the challenge to be orthodox as a call to holiness. Understandably so, as holiness is a word with arguably greater weight in the Wesleyan imagination. 

Since when was holiness in the Wesleyan tradition imagined as our faithfulness to a codification of meeting minutes? As one who has not always stood in the Wesleyan stream, I was taught not long ago that Wesley and the Methodist people fundamentally understood holiness as coming to love God and neighbor more fully and completely. Surely that is a simple statement with a complex outworking. Perhaps our Discipline attempts to outline how we understand the work of becoming holy, but it cannot itself be the measure by which holiness is maintained.

It seems that if this debate is going to continue and some are going to keep using this word "orthodoxy," then we ought to at least have more than one voice questioning how it is used. We should all be interested and concerned about issues of orthodoxy, holiness, and faithfulness in our struggles to be in holy community with one another, which means we should all take up the same grammar and see how the words might be used. Orthodoxy is not something to be owned or wielded, but as we see in the long life of the church, something to be debated and discussed until we all grow in perfection through Spirit's working on us.

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