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Orthodoxy is not optional

Neuhaus’ Law remains undefeated—and a challenge for the faithful

Rev. Richard John Neuhaus (right) appears on Meet the Press along with Rabbi Michael Lerner on April 12, 2006. Alex Wong/Getty Images News

Orthodoxy is not optional
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Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009), the conservative Lutheran-turned-Catholic cleric and writer, originated what would become known as Neuhaus’ Law. Deeply aware of social dynamics and theological truth, he claimed, “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” As our own culture continues its unsettling spiritual trajectory, Neuhaus’ Law keeps playing itself out over and over again in church bodies and other Christian institutions.

Now, there are many voices that insist otherwise. What we need, they say, is some kind of expansive tolerance. In days gone by, this meant downplaying the historical accuracy and certain theological claims of the Bible in favor of what Friedrich Schleiermacher would define as true piety, which was a religious feeling of absolute and utter dependance on God. As long as someone felt and expressed that inner feeling communally, he could entertain all sorts of doubts about the Bible.

Of course, these days, the target for skepticism has shifted to the moral realm, where one finds different variants of “inclusive orthodoxy.” Rather than scoff at the historic creeds, members of the clergy and laity alike express ambivalence or outright reject biblical teachings on sex. These are the majority of today’s revisionists. They earn that label because they wish to revise something that Biblical Christians have traditionally held for all the Church’s existence. Fewer today have hang-ups about “the supernatural,” but they certainly frown upon opposition to licentiousness, which is framed as self-realization through sexual expression.

But that is not where the fight between revisionists and orthodox believers who maintain biblical positions typically starts. The first demand of the revisionist is to live and let live—to allow for clergymen and laymen alike to disagree on matters of fundamental doctrine or sexual morality. And, typically, that involves changing denominational stances and statements in various synods, councils, assemblies, or conventions. The insistent promise is that there is “room for everyone” in the big tent of whatever ecclesiastical body or ministry the revisionist finds himself a member.

And, oftentimes, “moderates” of whatever group is in question seek to avoid bad feelings, conflict, and all-around unpleasantness. Like all good secularists and worshipers of therapeutic feel-goodism, moderates understand that, if we’re fighting over religion, we’re doing something wrong, and not because the heretics started the fire. Such moderate souls, of course, are formed over decades with bad catechesis, weak preaching, and worldliness. Accruing approval from the unbelieving world becomes increasingly paramount. And moderates often honestly believe that their denomination and their ministries can exempt themselves from Neuhaus’ Law, even if they’ve never even heard of the man or his ideas. They function under the assumption that finding a third way is always possible.

Whenever voices make a push to make orthodoxy optional, the faithful have a choice: to relent or to fight. And, if they fight, they will inevitably be painted as Big Meanies.

But Neuhaus’ Law remains unbroken. Just look at the Presbyterian Church (USA). For a decade, the PCUSA has allowed for same-sex marriage. Now, there is proposed legislation for the upcoming General Assembly that would bar ordination candidates who are not LGBTQ-affirming. Of course, the affirming position was typically sold as “making room” for various minorities that were pushed out by knuckle-dragging fundamentalists. Now, the shoe is on the other foot. Forces are working to kick out anyone who does not comply with revisionist sexuality. Orthodoxy hasn’t just become optional; it must be proscribed.

Now, whenever voices make a push to make orthodoxy optional, the faithful have a choice: to relent or to fight. And, if they fight, they will inevitably be painted as Big Meanies. When Christian colleges fire liberalizing faculty members, or when denominational authorities uphold church discipline against pastoral officers who violate ordination vows via heretical teaching or unrepentant sin, they are the ones cast as villains. The innovators who breached the trust of the institution—who changed it in fundamental ways that conform to the wider culture, adopted positions irreconcilable with the religious institution’s principles, and refused to leave—are typically portrayed as heroes. Revisionism feigns neutrality and victimhood, only to take over and drive out that which is right once it accesses levers of power.

Since this is the environment in which we find ourselves, it’s obvious that faithful Christians—especially Christian leaders—must develop tough minds, strong moral backbones, and thick skins, all while maintaining a compassionate love toward the brethren. Otherwise, we will be driven by the fear of men, particularly those who frantically slander traditional Christians as Big Meanies. But we need to see things from a heavenly perspective: If God is marked by His unchanging hesed—covenant-faithfulness—shouldn’t we be so marked? Or would we rather imitate the examples of forgetful Pharaoh or traitorous Judas? By God’s grace, we can bring forth the fruit of fidelity.

Without the virtue of conviction, we can expect the institutions we have built or inherited to be captured by revisionism, over and over again. The world will miscast Christian faithfulness as meanness. We mustn’t lose sleep over it.

Barton J. Gingerich

The Rev. Barton J. Gingerich is the rector of St. Jude’s Anglican Church (REC) in Richmond, Va. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from Patrick Henry College and a Master of Divinity with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.

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