It’s hard for some to stomach the drawing of clear, bold lines of demarcation in matters of Christian doctrine because declaring what’s orthodox means ruling out what’s heretical. Standing on truth means opposing falsehood. And once you draw lines, you imply some people fall outside the boundaries.
In a world infected by postmodern cynicism, making distinctions of “who’s in” and “who’s out” gets attributed to the selfish quest for power and domination. Religion is a matter of the heart. Who can tell you if you’re orthodox or not? It’s your truth, right? Anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to control you!
In The Thrill of Orthodoxy, I show how foreign this sensibility was to the apostles. It’s clear from the New Testament writings they didn’t believe the way forward was to blur the lines, or to make fuzzy the edges, but to insist on sharper clarity out of love for the truth. They promoted “sound” or “healthy” doctrine because they cared for the church. Theological errors damage health and lead to detrimental effects. Heretical doctrine is poison; it kills. It is loveless to pretend otherwise.
Today, we labor under the false pressure of thinking lines must be erased if all are to be loved. The way we extend love is by pretending our beliefs and practices are of no ultimate importance. Walk this path and you eventually extend the boundaries of Christianity so far it becomes impossible to define. In the name of love, openness, and inclusivity, we don’t expand Christianity but dissolve it. We remove load-bearing walls from the house, watch it collapse, and call it progress.
Loving the Other
This approach to doctrine is attractive because we’ve fallen for the notion that love requires agreement or approval. It’s hard to imagine we might love—deeply love—people with whom our disagreements are fundamental. We assume we must shift the foundations if we’re to love someone, when instead a better understanding of foundational Christian truth shifts us into a posture of love across chasms of difference.
Most often, this plays out in the area of sexual ethics. What do you do if a close friend abandons a spouse for an illicit relationship? Or your brother moves in with his girlfriend and scoffs at your “old-fashioned” notion of “living in sin”? Or your daughter comes out as gay and rejects the biblical and historic Christian teaching on sex and marriage?
It’s a sign of an impoverished imagination if we think we must either approve whatever our loved ones decide or turn our backs and abandon our relationships. Reject this false choice.
For those who remain committed to orthodoxy in these matters, we must take a closer look at the foundations of our faith. On the one side, we see the implacable, unchanging stance of the Scriptures and the church—a ruthless opposition toward sin in whatever form it takes, not out of hatred or disdain but love for the one most affected by that sin. On the other side, we serve a Savior with arms outstretched, the ever-loving, ever-wooing God whose heart bleeds for sinners in need of grace. The orthodox line is stark: an eternal “no” to sin, matched by abounding love from a God whose kindness leads sinners to repentance.
Love with the Light On
As a teenager, I recall seeing a television interview with Billy Graham where the host asked him about homosexuality and made the question personal: “What if your son told you he was gay?”
Graham’s response? “I’d love him even more.”
I don’t know if Graham meant that his heart would beat with compassion for a son who shared his inner struggle at that level of vulnerability or if he was implying a son in that situation would need even more love, not less, if there was any hope of calling him back to a future of holiness. Whatever the case, there’s not a whiff of the sentiment too often true of religious parents: “I’d kick him out of the house and never talk to him again!”
Graham’s posture seems to me fundamentally correct. There’s no wavering on the question of sin, but also no wavering on the calling to a love that wills the good of the other. If a daughter ventures out into the far country, the response of our Father is to leave the porch light on and the door unlocked, to survey the horizon, looking, hoping for the silhouette of his daughter to reappear, anticipating the moment when—instead of chiding or chastising—the father can race down the street to shower her with kisses.
This kind of love upends all worldly expectations. Orthodox love extends into the far country.
We go wrong whenever we assume that “orthodox” and “unorthodox” are categories for “those we love” and “those we despise (or barely tolerate).” If we take our stand on Christian orthodoxy, we’re bound to follow Jesus’s command to love our neighbors, even our enemies.
Yes, there are lines. The sword of truth divides mother from daughter and brother from sister. Our devotion to Jesus separates us from the world with bold, distinct lines. But that same devotion to Jesus calls for a love that crosses those lines. The same orthodoxy that rejects falsehood requires us to love the one deceived.
Like the apostle Paul, we’ll mourn the Demas types who walk away from the faith “out of love for this world,” and like the apostle Paul, we cultivate a love that “hopes all things.” We entrust our loved ones to the care of a merciful and just God whose redemptive plan will collect our tears of grief and turn them into rivers of mercy that carve out new canyons of beauty that testify to his grace.