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Humpty Dumpty


Humpty DumptyI was urged recently by several people to watch a videoed debate between two ministers who both would use the word “Evangelical” of themselves (and others would use it of them). The topic of their heated disagreement is unimportant for this particular post. Suffice to say that the word “orthodox” was bandied about a lot (as it so often is nowadays). “Orthodox” was understood to refer to the opinions and beliefs held by most Christians for the majority of Christian history including the church of the early great councils (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus,…)

The intense clash concluded with one minister claiming that they were both still brothers in Christ, and if they “got out the bread and the wine” they would both participate. [It is an interesting side-note, the pursuing of which would distract from this thread, that unity be ultimately driven and measured by worshipping together. Another thing I will leave to the side this time is, when they talk about bread and wine, do they mean (scare-quotes) “wine”, ie. Ribena or its equivalents, or actual wine?]

In this post I want to highlight the extensive use of the word “orthodox” disconnected from its historic understanding. This use of “orthodox” is a revisionist practice.

The word “orthodox”, of course, aside from its obvious (etymological) meaning as “right worship”, is about “right belief”.

From the early church, through the majority of Christian history and most Christians, orthodoxy involves

  • bishops
  • apostolic succession
  • worship following the forms inherited from our Jewish roots

People currently use the word “orthodox” profusely to make judgements on themselves and others approvingly or disparagingly. But often when they use the word “orthodox” it is with a revisionist understanding; it has been stripped of the meaning that early and the majority of Christianity understood it to include as essential aspects of that word.

The two ministers use the word “orthodox” (as so many people do) without a moment’s hesitation that their usage is not an orthodox usage of “orthodox”!

When people use “orthodox” to approve of and themselves and commend their own opinions while disparaging others, it seems they too regularly use it to mean right thinking as opposed to left thinking, rather than what it should mean – right thinking as opposed to wrong thinking.

It is time to reclaim the orthodox use of the word “orthodox”. There’s a perfectly good neologism I’ve just made up for when people want a word that means right-as-opposed-to-left thinking. From the Greek δεξιά (rather than from ὀρθός). So next time someone misuses “orthodox” – correct them. Tell them to use “dexiadox” instead!

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

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18 thoughts on ““Orthodox”?”

  1. If I may – the word “orthodox” is of course of Greek origin and explicitly applies to the Orthodox Church.

    It has come into English with a broader meaning, of course, but it is confusing and a little disconcerting for an Orthodox Christian to hear others describing heterodox opinions as orthodox.

    The Orthodox Church did not usurp this word, rather this word has been usurped by English speakers and is often misused

  2. Chris Sullivan


    So, if Orthodox means “right worship” then it would seem that the Orthodox way thru the gay marriage conundrum would be to look at where traditional Christian worship has celebrated same sex marriage. Which, of course, we have not.

    OTOH, there was a rite for blessing same sex couples.

    One might also note that “From the early church, through the majority of Christian history and most Christians, orthodoxy involves” also the Pope.

    God Bless

    1. Thanks, Chris. I’m not sure what you mean by your last paragraph. “Pope”, as I’m sure you know, has long been a title for bishops and senior clergy, and the first recorded use of it we have is it being applied to the Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Heraclas of Alexandria. So yes, as I said, orthodoxy involves popes (ie. bishops). Blessings.

  3. As an Orthodox UK Methodist, may I respectfully point out that we do not drink ribena. The rule is quite clear: we may only use the unfermented juice of the grape or the fermented juice of the grape with the alcohol taken out. I suspect the rules are similar in NZ. We don’t have bishops though.

  4. I was a UK Methodist for years and we always used Ribena for the Eucharist- many Methodists ‘signed the pledge’ during UK Methodist history, alcoholism was one of the significant social problems Wesley faced in his ministry, I don’t know if that’s where it came from, detachment from the grape!

    I grew up in Staffordshire, women and children were always part of the Primitive Methodist movement’s ministry, after the branches of Methodism fused it was years before womens’ ministry became part of Methodism…

    So-what is orthodox indeed…?

    Anyway- since so many people have food allergies and illnesses these days which preclude ingesting problem-diets in the middle of a church service- when it would be embarrasing or distracting to run to the bathroom- I am guessing like me they just stopped taking communion. If I am the central musician to a service, as I often have been as pianist or organist, I don’t even need to be eating or drinking anything frankly to do my job…

    Funny how ‘Christian’ religions can often justify the most practical banal liturgical adjustments to raise more money or get more people through the doors, yet when it’s about very human personal problems…suddenly ‘it’s unorthodox’ becomes important.

    With perfect synchronicity this was a BBC article this week http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22250412

    Confirming to accepted liturgical structures might equally be an unhealthy cult as a perfect religion.

    We can think for ourselves ( ie I am not well to ingest this ) or we can go conform to some kind of ailment…wonder what Jesus would say?

    Oh- here it is- Mark 7

    ‘Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.’

    If anyone is not familiar with the NT,

    ‘immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.’

    We are not slaves to anyone or anything, Orthodox implies that though.

  5. Thank you and to you too dear Bosco.

    Oh- you have a spell-checker underline thingy now!

    This news here recently is where religion really gets weird for me, when people are so adamant they have the right religion they become irrational, unintelligent and showing no compassion:


    Killing not one but two of your own children. I suppose it’s similar (il)logic people who abuse in other ways, or commit other crimes, use- not taking responsibility, excuses, rationalization and dogmatic adherence to a warped perspective.

    Orthodox it may often be historically to hate or ignore suffering or impose cruelty or injustice- but it’s of no value in a religion proposing to follow Jesus Christ. Not to me anyway. Why bother?

    I wrote about this before once, and a local Sunday school teacher wrote to me and said he thinks Jesus was a lot harsher than we tend to portray him nowadays. Stunned I asked why ‘ well he overturned the money-lenders tables and whipped them with a rope of knots.’


    In a recent discussion with a relative who goes to church every week he was making some rather obnoxious comments about another relative, I joked ‘I don’t know why you bother sitting in church each week- it doesn’t seem to improve your disposition’. He answered me in all seriousness:

    ‘so I’m saved’.

    Matthew 25 is still in most Bibles isn’t it?! Mind, his church preaches more from Leviticus than the teachings of Jesus…

    It’s not a massive leap from ‘this is Orthodox’ to *the unacceptable* being upheld as a norm and more than that- as something holy by virtue of tradition or interpretation rather than common sense or compassion
    ( Leviticus being a perfect example )

    Isn’t that the only unforgiveable sin in the Bible?

    1. Thanks, Tracy.

      No, I haven’t altered anything at this end – so the spell-checker underline thingy is something happening at your end.

      What a fascinating soteriology: being saved by sitting in church! I have a possible blog post brewing on salvation…


  6. Brian Poidevin

    i am in sympathy with what you say as principled and an orthodox use of orthodox. However, I fear as i glance at modern dictionaries of all kinds of orthodoxy, i listen to and read the media, listen around the community then Humpty Dumpty has won and it is probably inevitable he would when we regard the history of language. i have recently read for instance that cockney is dead and replaced with jamafricain. In any case both my Shorter Oxford and McQuarrie dictionaries would agree with the ministers use of the word.
    I am not sure that the same Humpty Dumpty approach should be adopted to the wine used in the eucharist or whatever one cares to call it.

    1. Yes, Brian. We then move into another discussion. A word in a Christian context can have a specific “insiders'” meaning. Different to street usage. Blessings.

  7. Brian Poidevin

    I agree with you, Bosco, about “insider” use and actually eliminated a sentence on this. However as outsiders read from time to time what insiders write it can confuse. I tend to try to avoid insider language- not always possible- but I actually wonder whether these two were not sliding between two usages of orthodox.

    1. I think “sliding between” is a good description of what they appear they might be doing – which means that the word has been emptied of real usefulness. Blessings.

  8. ‘fascinating soteriology: being saved by sitting in church! I have a possible blog post brewing on salvation…’

    oh, it’s even more fascinating than that Bosco- being saved by ‘simply believing’.

    Believing what? you will ask, as I often have.

    Those parents who neglected their children to death in the article believe that’s how they are ‘saved’.

    I think my relative, if I understand him correctly, believes mis-quoting the OT and hating Catholics, Muslims and Jews- and most especially homosexuals- ‘saves’ him.

    ‘the spell-checker underline thingy is something happening at your end.’

    Well I hate to be a nay-sayer and all that, but I’m pretty sure it’s not an example of Divine intervention…yet it wouldn’t be the oddest example around I dare say, if that is what I claimed.

  9. Brian Poidevin

    Late in the piece but I found this recent comment by the fine historian Diarmid McCullough. He attends a very high Anglican service in England he says out of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. I have some sympathy.

  10. Very interesting Bosco. Part of the confusion I think is that words often mean different things to different people in different places.
    For example I was born and raised in Sydney and came to faith through the ministry of an Anglican Church and the word Evangelical meant a certain thing.
    After Bible College I served in Scotland with the C of S and in the parish where I served Evangelical was equated with Baptists (who were not Reformed) and Charismatics.
    Where as in England Charismatic means that you believe the Bible and are not a liberal.
    But when I was in the Newcastle Diocese, the term Evangelical meant Sydney Anglican (which to many in this diocese meant Mysogony, fundamentalist). So I stick with the terms Anglican and Reformed.

    1. Yes, Joshua. I cannot get someone to give me a definition of “Evangelical” which would include all who call themselves “Evangelical” and not include everyone else. I think siloing people an unhelpful activity. I think we are better to examine and discuss things issue by issue. For the record, I declare myself an orthodox charismatic evangelical catholic. I also thought Anglicans are Reformed! What would be an unReformed Anglican? Blessings.

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