On Nicene Orthodoxy and Marriage

Last week James K.A. Smith kicked off a discussion on the use of the term ‘orthodox’ to describe the traditional Christian position on marriage and sexuality. Wesley Hill has a decent post rounding up the relevant articles in the ongoing discussion here. There’s a lot that has been said in the discussion worth considering, but I wanted to toss a few of my own thoughts in.

First, I agree with Smith, Hill, and particularly Alan Jacobs that the term orthodox in its proper sense shouldn’t be used to describe the church’s historic position on marriage and sexuality. The ecumenical creeds and councils do not deal with the subject, and attempts by Alastair Roberts and Derek Rishmawy to argue that the traditional position flows from the creedal grammar amounts, as Jacobs puts it, to making the creeds a wax nose. However, it is true that orthodox Christians have universally agreed on the issue of what constitutes marriage and the proper role of sex until the last 50 years or so. It is roughly only in the last 10 years in western Christianity that large swathes of the church have rejected the traditional teaching on marriage and sex. It is fair then to equate the traditional position as the orthodox position, not because holding it is necessary to be orthodox, but because the orthodox Christian church has always concurrently held the traditional position. Calling marriage between one man and one woman, with sex reserved for marriage, the orthodox position on marriage is fine because it is the position historically held by the orthodox church.

Second, Hill’s reflections on life in the Episcopal Church are not comforting. That he has to qualify through quoting Daniel Martin that most, but not all, of the Episcopal clergy hold to orthodox beliefs is not encouraging. I do not know of any Christian body that has rejected the church’s traditional understanding of marriage that would also disallow its clergy from holding unorthodox, heretical beliefs. That is not to say that the majority of clergy in the PC(USA), the Episcopal Church, or the Church of Scotland reject tenants of Nicene Christianity, but every denomination that has embraced or declined to discipline homosexuality already has tolerated or embraced clergy who reject orthodox Christianity. Just as it is fine to say the church’s position on marriage is the orthodox position, because it is held by the orthodox churches, it appears true to say that the revisionist position is held by denominations that find the rejection of orthodoxy acceptable.

Third, I think Smith’s larger concern is spot on. Most evangelicals do not care about orthodox Christianity in its historic expression. For example, my own denomination has a brief statement called The Essentials of Our Faiths in addition to its confessional standards. Its purpose is to “define core beliefs of the Christian faith. It expresses historic Christian beliefs common to all true believers and churches throughout the world.” Yet it adds things not found in the ecumenical creeds and councils or the Reformed Confessions (e.g. “The Church finds her visible yet imperfect expression in local congregations where…loving fellowship is maintained”), but does not even include all of the doctrines expressed in the orthodox faith (e.g. the eternal generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit). I do not hesitate to say that there would be a massive outcry from the laypeople in my congregation, as well as the ministers in my denomination, if I attempted to endorse homosexual marriage, but only a giant shrug from most, if anything, if I denied the eternal generation of the Son. This is a problem in need of remedy, and tying the word orthodox to other issues, however important they may be, has done a disservice to the church.