The Vital Relationship of Orthodox Practice to Orthodoxy in Doctrine
“Why call ye Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ and do not the things which I say?” —Luke 6:46
[This timely topic was thoroughly discussed at our Summer Plenary Pastoral Conference, June 19, 2007 and subsequently published in the July-August 2007 edition of The Concordia Lutheran. Its substance is presented herewith in summary for the information and edification of our readers. —Ed.]
We rightly confess in full accord with Holy Scripture that Christians must distinguish carefully between orthodox and heterodox churches, and that therefore they must test teachers of religion as well to determine whether they are true or false prophets. This is not merely a “divine advisory,” as many regard it who have made up their minds that they, personally, are simply unqualified to make such judgments; but this is a solemn charge laid upon every believer to exercise with due diligence for his own spiritual safety and for the safety of his spiritual brethren.
Many laymen in particular would rather leave the evaluation of theologians to other theologians, trusting their judgment and then adopting such judgment as their own. But the Apostle John writes to those who would enjoy true fellowship with Christ and with one another, saying in his first epistle, chapter 4: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (v. 1). This is a heavy responsibility which every Christian bears, not to leave those who may themselves be spiritual foxes in charge of chasing other foxes away from the spiritual hen house, or predatory wolves, manifest false prophets, to guard sheepfolds against invasion by other wolves. The Chief Shepherd of His sheep tells them: “Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves; ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16). Spiritual predators can be easily and accurately identified by what they teach AND, as we shall see in our present examination, also by what they practice.
The sheep themselves can and should be able to recognize false prophets and judge them for the menaces they are, “clear and present dangers” to the Savior’s sheep and lambs. They do not need commissions on doctrine and committees on church relations to make a “righteous judgment” for them (John 7:24)!
The term “orthodox” is seldom used anymore in these latter days of sore distress, even among Lutheran pastors who would like to be known as preachers and teachers that are faithful to the Word of God both in what they teach and in what they practice. They prefer the adjectives “conservative” (which is really a political term) and “confessional” (which commonly refers to the Lutheran Confessions comprising the Book of Concord of 1580), even though the latter do not address and treat all the doctrines of Holy Writ. For our part, we cherish the word “orthodox” because of what it truly means and signifies. “Ortho-” is a prefix from the Greek that means “straight,” “true,” and “without perversion.” (Compare its use regarding medical specialists who “straighten” and “correct” crooked limbs, teeth, etc. — orthopedic surgeons, orthodontists.) Much to his surprise, this writer received an e-mail several years ago inquiring concerning our Conference and its “orthodox” position whether we have some connection with the Eastern [Greek, Russian, Armenian, Serbian, etc.] Orthodox Church and its doctrine and practice! And this was from a pastor! “Dox” comes from the Greek word for “thinking” and thus also for fostering “thinking” by teaching and “prescribing ordinances” which govern thinking. Orthodoxy, then, is adherence to correct, straight, unperverted teachings and ordinances, to what the Apostle Paul calls “sound doctrine” (I Timothy 1:10; II Timothy 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1), “good doctrine” (I Timothy 4:6), “the doctrine which is according to Godliness” (I Timothy 6:3).
Orthodoxy in DOCTRINE is not merely a “goal” to be sought after and hopefully to be achieved among those who represent themselves as teachers of religion in the visible churches of outward Christendom. It is God’s own requirement. The Holy Scriptures confirm this “in the words…which the Holy Ghost teacheth” (I Corinthians 2:13) in both the Old Testament and in the New. The Psalmist confesses: “Through Thy precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way” (Psalm 119:104); “Thou hast trodden down all them that err from Thy statutes; for their deceit is falsehood” (v. 118); “Thy Word is very pure; therefore Thy servant loveth it“ (v. 140); “Thy righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and Thy Law is the truth” (v. 142).
Jeremiah, the Lord’s spokesman, declares in the words of God Himself: “He that hath My Word, let him speak My Word faithfully” (Jeremiah 23:28). Jesus makes consistent orthodoxy the hallmark of discipleship, saying in John 8: “If ye continue in My Word, then are ye My disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (vv. 31-32). Moreover the Apostle Paul leaves no doubt as to the degree of conformity with divine truth that the Lord fully expects of His people when he says: “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Corinthians 1:10).
This is no “pipedream of the Holy Spirit,” as one liberal theologian once characterized Paul’s exhortation, as if such consistent conformity were not possible in this life among fallible men. For St. Paul is not addressing personal sanctification of life, which is a “work in progress” and varies from believer to believer. He is speaking of conformity with the perfect, infallible standard of Holy Writ in what is preached, taught and applied, so that God’s people “hearken not unto the words of the prophets that…speak a vision of their own heart and not out of the mouth of the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:16). And, as we pastors and all our laymen know very well, these passages of Holy Writ are but a mere sampling of the many sedes doctrinae which require orthodoxy of both preachers and their hearers.
Those who transgress this divine requirement, either by deliberately and flagrantly teaching contrary to sound doctrine or by demonstrating indifference to sound doctrine and thus ignoring its vital importance, not only do so to their own peril, but they bring also others into jeopardy, continually causing “divisions and offenses,” dissensions and stumbling-blocks, in outward Christendom (Romans 16:17), instead of faithfully feeding Christ’s local flocks, edifying His sheep and lambs, reproving, rebuking, and exhorting them “with all longsuffering and doctrine” (II Timothy 4:2). Intolerant of sound doctrine themselves, just like their hearers who won’t put up with it, they willingly itch (i.e., scratch and tickle) their ears with what they want to hear (v. 3) so as to maintain their popularity and look out for their own personal welfare here in this world. Such teachers of religion the Lord calls “shepherds…that do feed themselves” but not His flock (Ezekiel 34:1-16). And St. Paul says that “they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ but their own belly, and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:18). Their “good words and fair speeches” are specially deceptive “sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15) because they lie and deceive by God’s Name [Second Commandment], using the Name of Christ (Matthew 7:22) while departing from His Word (Mark 8:38). To them, Jesus Himself will say on the Day of Judgment: “I never knew you. Depart from Me, ye that work iniquity!” (Matthew 7:23). Those who “teach otherwise and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the doctrine which is according to Godliness,” Paul tells Timothy, are “proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is Godliness” (I Timothy 6:3-5).
And yet, their hearers who refuse to “try the spirits” on the basis of Scripture, will not be blameless victims; for Paul says that they will have turned away their own ears from the truth to be turned unto fables (II Timothy 4:4). They will have preferred non-nutritive spiritual garbage [“the husks that the swine did eat” (Luke 15:16)] to “the sincere [pure] milk of the Word” (I Peter 2:2). They will have turned down the “strong meat” of “sound doctrine” (II Timothy 4:3) that is appropriate spiritual food for “grown-up” believers, those who “by reason of use,” that is, having let the Word of Christ dwell in them richly (Colossians 3:16), “have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14) to recognize the difference between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Such lazy and naive hearers are perpetual “children” in their knowledge of Scripture and in spiritual judgment (cf. also I Corinthians 14:20), who refuse to grow up and thus allow themselves to be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” by theological flim-flam con-artists who cunningly “lie in wait to deceive” (Ephesians 4:14). There is no excuse for spiritual ignorance, when God’s Word “giveth understanding unto the simple” (Psalm 119:130).
But it is not only orthodoxy in doctrine that is required by the Lord for the nurturing of His flocks. He also requires orthodoxy in PRACTICE — not as distinct from doctrine but as in accordance with doctrine. “Practice” is defined as “the consistent application of the doctrines of God’s Word.” The Lord Jesus asks in our title-text: “Why call ye Me ‘Lord, Lord!’ and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46); and the Apostle James, as if in answer to the Savior’s almost rhetorical challenge, says: “Be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22) — but “doers,” not by coercion, not motivated by the commands and threats of the Law, but willingly and cheerfully, constrained by “the love of Christ” (II Corinthians 5:14) to do His will, motivated by the “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25), His precious Gospel, whereby His Holy Spirit “worketh in [us] both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
The orthodox application of orthodox doctrine is absolutely vital if what the Lord our God sets forth in His Holy Word is not to be merely “taught” mechanically and “preached” with lip service as meaningless “theory.” The “doctrine which is according to Godliness” (I Timothy 6:3) is not only to be taught and consented unto “in theory,” but that doctrine is both the standard and the vehicle whereby God’s precepts are to be applied or put into practice as having been written for our learning (Romans 15:4), as well as for our steadfastness (I Peter 5:9 and II Peter 3:17) and for our being properly equipped [“thoroughly furnished”] for a life of Christian sanctification (II Timothy 3:17) according to “the will of the Lord” (Ephesians 5:17).
Not every situation, circumstance, condition and act to which its principles, ordinances and precepts apply is specifically mentioned in Holy Scripture; and yet orthodox PRACTICE requires that consistent application of orthodox doctrine be made without equivocation in and to all such cases in which the principles set down by God in His Holy Word properly pertain. This does not give the theologian or the individual pastor license to apply or not to apply Scripture doctrine according to his own pleasure, according to his own subjective judgment, according to the accepted custom of the day, according to the preferences of his hearers, or according to whether or not a “backlash” of resistance or resentment might result. The principles of Holy Writ must be taught as established by God Himself in His Word (Matthew 28:20a), and the same principles must be applied consistently, evenhandedly, forthrightly and unequivocally to ALL situations and to ALL persons involved in such situations where those principles are being violated, obviated or ignored.
The same baseless claim is, of course, made regarding orthodox practice as is made concerning orthodoxy in doctrine, namely, that complete consistency is impossible to achieve here in this world among fallible men. Were there no infallible standard for orthodox doctrine, were there no infallible standard for orthodox practice, those who make such a claim would have a “case” for their slipshod doctrinal theology, as well as for their sloppy pastoral theology, according to which just about “anything goes” nowadays. But the Lord of the Church holds pastors in particular, but also their people, accountable not only for the faithful preaching and teaching of His Word, as we have seen above, but also for its faithful practice. He states plainly for all to read that the Holy Scriptures are “profitable” —not nebulously impractical and hopelessly problematical— “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16).
The principles which are to be applied faithfully and consistently in orthodox PRACTICE are established NOT on the basis of passages that require exegesis, or interpretation, in order to learn and understand the God-intended meaning of the text. Rather (and this is what makes truly orthodox PRACTICE possible), those principles are based upon the passages that are so clear and so certain in and of themselves as to what they say and teach that they are called sedes doctrinae or “seats of doctrine,” the pillars or pilings that belong to “the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20). Such passages neither need, nor require, nor do they even permit any interpretation in order for us to determine their true, God-intended meaning. They say what they say; they mean exactly what they say, they teach precisely what they say and mean, and they are “profitable” for practical application in “doctrine” — teaching what the will of the Lord is (Titus 2:12-14; etc.), in “reproof” — identifying and condemning sin (Ephesians 5:11- 18; etc.), in “rebuke” — sharply convicting a person of his own sin and guilt (Proverbs 9:8; Titus 1:13; etc.), in “correction” — turning the sinner from evil ways to repentance, faith, and the fruits of righteousness (James 5:19-20; etc.), in “exhortation” — urging and comforting the penitent sinner with the sweet Gospel so that the love of his Savior constrains him (II Corinthians 5:14) to walk in the paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake (Psalms 1 and 23; etc.), in “instruction in righteousness” — equipping the Christian to recognize and to be “zealous of good works” in the sight of God as the evidence and fruit of his faith (Titus 2:14; Ephesians 2:10; John 15:5, 8; etc.).
Practice “falls flat,” however, and can never be orthodox when the sedes are blatantly ignored or are represented as not being “applicable” to what they clearly address. The Statementarians [LC-MS signers of A Statement in 1945] became guilty of false PRACTICE when they “deplored” the fact that Romans 16:17 was applied against prayer fellowship between professing Christians who were not in complete unity in every point of doctrine. And the very same false PRACTICE in the area of fellowship occurs when the principles set forth in such passages as Romans 16:17, Amos 3:3, and II Corinthians 6:14ff. are commonly set aside as “not applicable” by those who want to pray with the heterodox at table, join with the heterodox in singing religious music in civic glee clubs and choral societies, worship with the heterodox in services conducted under the auspices of a chaplaincy in hospitals, in prisons, on military posts, and at Boy Scout “jamborees.” Pastors become guilty of false PRACTICE when they permit their congregations to support the Lord’s work with merchandising schemes (sales, bazaars, fairs, etc.) contrary to the Savior’s plain words in John 2:16. Churches are guilty of false PRACTICE when they observe “open communion” contrary to Acts 2:42, Amos 3:3, I Corinthians 10:17, etc. Church bodies are guilty of false PRACTICE when they permit and even encourage congregations to call pastors whom they cannot or do not even intend fully to support but expect them to support themselves, at least partially, by means of secular employment contrary to I Corinthians 9:14, Luke 10:7, etc. Congregations become guilty of false PRACTICE when they extend suffrage (voting membership), the holding of offices of authority over the men, and incumbency in the pastoral office to women in the church contrary to I Corinthians 14:34 and I Timothy 2:11-12. Parents are guilty of false PRACTICE when they neglect their children’s Christian education and spiritual upbringing contrary to Deuteronomy 6:6-7 and Ephesians 6:4. Such examples only scratch the surface of the cancer of false practice that runs rampant even among those who profess to be doctrinally sound. Their orthodoxy in doctrine (assuming that they even have that) is belied by their lack of orthodoxy in practice (Luke 6:46). They simply do not “practice what they preach.”
Practice also “falls flat” when sedes are perverted or twisted, when they are stripped of their true sense (according to the common usage of their words in their context), when a euphemistic or symbolic meaning is foisted upon them, when their force is mollified or softened, and when they are otherwise “watered down” to accommodate variance under the guise of “reasonableness.” The claim is often made that particularly certain modern-day practices are not even mentioned in Scripture and therefore cannot be condemned as being “sinful” on the basis of passages of principle. The completely unjustified charge of “legalism” is therefore often leveled against those who insist upon orthodox practice. We cite only several pertinent examples:
—Grape juice is used instead of wine in the Lord’s Supper upon the claim that the word “wine” never once occurs in the texts that treat of the Sacrament of the Altar.
—Surgical abortion is permitted upon “humanitarian” grounds (“to save the life of the mother” or “in the case of rape or incest”), and equating such abortions —never so much as mentioned in Scripture— with “murder” under the Fifth Commandment is branded “legalistic.”
—It is a “stretch,” we are told, to condemn gambling as a sin under the Seventh Commandment, as “stealing” that which our neighbor is not willing to part with, or, at best, wantonly wasteful stewardship of our daily bread.
—Jesus condemns as “adultery” looking on a woman to lust after her (Matthew 5:28). Does that apply equally in the condemnation of a male “centerfold” poster in a girl’s locker? “The passage doesn’t specifically say so,” claims the accommodationist; but neither does any passage specifically mention “kiddie-porn”!
—Proverbs 5:20 teaches that it is a violation of chastity for a man to “embrace the bosom of a stranger,” that is, according to the context, of one to whom he is not joined in the married estate. That very romantic embrace, forbidden as inappropriate in any other venue, should not be condemned in modern social dancing, claim those who accuse us (and Dr. Walther, and Drs. Engelder, Kretzmann, Graebner, Maier, and many others) of “legalism” because of our Scriptural position to the contrary! Why, even the children of this world recognize the embrace in social dancing as a “sexual ice-breaker,” a sensual experience, “sexual mobility,” and the opportunity to do in public, in a socially approved activity, what otherwise is unacceptable. And yet many professing Christians, thinking themselves to be “children of light” (Luke 16:8), do not “walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8), refusing to see what is clearly evident to the spiritually blind!
—St. Paul condemns being “unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (II Corinthians 6:14). “‘Come out from among them, and be ye separate,’ saith the Lord,” (v. 17); and, on the basis of that sedes (and others including the First Commandment), we forbid, in application or PRACTICE, membership in lodges, in the Scouting organizations, and in any other associations which are antitrinitarian, which require belief in “God” but hold that even the gods of pagans are equally valid in fulfillment of that requisite, which teach work-righteousness and justification by character-modification and self-directed moral improvement (“doing a good turn daily” and living “on the level and on the square”). Truly orthodox practice requires that we apply not only the First Commandment principles and the doctrine of justification, but also the principles of complicity (I Timothy 5:22) and fellowship (Amos 3:3; Romans 16:17) to membership in such organizations as being unequal yokes with unbelievers — even though most Lutherans today have long ago abandoned as “legalistic” positions against such alliances.
“Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good,” writes St. Paul in Romans 12:9. Orthodox practice, the consistent application of Scripture doctrine, of principles taught by the Word of our God, requires the recognition that, in His sight, there is no moral “grey-scale” between black and white, between darkness and light, no room for the accommodation of evil, even in degrees, as if certain “evils” were “spiritual misdemeanors” while others are “spiritual felonies.” II Corinthians 6:14-17 is pointedly instructive in that regard. There is no middle ground, no fence to straddle. “How long halt ye between two opinions?” asked God’s servant, Elijah, of the prophets of Israel (I Kings 18:20-21). They were literally limping on both sides, “and the people answered him not a word.” There is NO LEGITIMATE REASON to surrender orthodoxy in PRACTICE, refusing to apply with consistency “the doctrine which is according to Godliness” (I Timothy 6:3) if and when that doctrine is being preached and taught in its full truth and purity. False practice indicates either that the doctrine preached and taught is itself false, flawed or perverted, OR that the preachers and teachers, and probably their hearers as well, simply refuse to acknowledge the truth, refuse to believe the truth, and, as the fruit of their unbelief, refuse to apply the truth in orthodox practice.
May God, by His never-failing grace mediated to us in and through His blessed Gospel, continue to guide us into all truth, the truth of His infallible, clear, authoritative, and all-sufficient Word, and keep us ever faithful, not only in our profession of the same, in orthodox PREACHING and TEACHING, but also in its faithful, diligent and consistent application, in truly orthodox PRACTICE, for the love of our precious Savior, that His Name may continue to be hallowed among us to His glory alone!
— D. T. M.