“You theological types only care about creeds and doctrines and believing the right things. But the Bible stresses Christianity as a way of life.”
“It doesn’t matter if you believe the Bible if you don’t do what it says.”
These are a sampling of complaints and critiques lobbed at gospel-centered believers and “theology” folks who take doctrine seriously. Sometimes, the critiques are on target. The best preachers and teachers would agree that Christianity involves both belief and obedience, faith and practice.
Ironically, when some of these critics are challenged for their advocacy of lifestyles and behavior outside the mainstream of historic Christianity, they rush to the creeds as a defense. They go from saying, “Christianity is more about what you do than what you believe” to saying “How dare you challenge what I’m saying about a way of life! I believe the right doctrines!”
You can’t have it both ways.
What’s needed today is a robust understanding of the Christian faith that recognizes the multi-faceted meaning of orthodoxy.
What Jude Means When He Tells Us to Contend for the Faith
“Bible-believing” Christians love to trot out Jude’s exhortation to “contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all” as a challenge to shore up doctrinal fidelity and avoid theological slippage. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this verse applied in a way that emphasizes the need to maintain the doctrinal core of Christian truth claims.
Of course, there’s no disputing the legitimacy of applying Jude’s words this way. Surely “the faith” we are to contend for includes the truths at the heart of our faith (the lordship of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, the resurrection from the dead, the authority of Scripture).
But doctrinal drift was not the primary thing on Jude’s mind when he gave this exhortation. If you read on, he makes clear why he is telling us to “contend for the faith.” It’s because “some men… have come in by stealth; they are ungodly, turning the grace of our God into promiscuity and denying Jesus Christ, our only Master and Lord” (v. 4).
Two things to notice here. First, Jude wants believers to contend for the faith against other professing Christians. The foes here are those who are “inside” the church, not outside – ungodly people claiming to belong to Christ.
Second, the error that prompts Jude to exhort us is not the denial of foundational tenets of the gospel, but a twisted view of grace that excuses or celebrates sexual immorality. In other words, “contending for the faith” in the context of Jude 1 is less about doctrinal fidelity and more about Christian morality and praxis. The denial of Jesus Christ in this case isn’t creedal (as in 1 John 4, where the apostle warns against those who deny Christ’s humanity); it’s moral. By their advocacy and engagement in illicit sexual activity, they are functionally denying Jesus.
John’s 3 Tests of Orthodoxy
Recently, I’ve been doing my devotional readings in 1-3 John, struck again and again by the challenge to love God, His people, and those around me. I’ve also been struck by John’s multi-faceted approach to orthodoxy.
John Stott’s commentary on 1-3 John presents three tests of true Christianity:
- Obedience (The Moral Test)
- Love (The Social Test)
- Belief (The Doctrinal Test)
John’s epistles don’t let us isolate one test of orthodoxy from the others. As I study the apostle’s words, I find myself pressed and challenged from all sides, convicted for my tendency to see orthodoxy as either checking off a list of doctrines to believe, or a few actions to perform, or a moral code to live by.
Instead, I need to recognize that orthodoxy, orthopathy, and orthopraxy are all wrapped up in Jesus’ claim to lordship of the cosmos.
The challenge is that conservatives and liberals love to focus on the test that best vindicates their own outlook.
Conservatives are more likely to see the doctrinal and moral tests as essential and give less attention to hands-on demonstrations of love for neighbor. Case in point: we lift up Christians in the past of impeccable morals and doctrinal credentials who failed miserably at the social test (i.e., the early Southern Baptists who capitulated to Southern culture on slavery).
Those who call themselves progressives today are likely to see the social test as fundamental, with doctrines held more loosely and historic Christian morality, in some cases, jettisoned. Case in point: some claim doctrinal fidelity (doctrinal test) and genuinely seek to love their neighbors (social test), while they accommodate themselves to the West’s radical individualism and revision of the purpose for human sexuality.
The apostles’ view of orthodoxy is all-encompassing. It steps on all our toes. It doesn’t let any group get their “aha” moment, because it convicts and challenges us to expand our vision of orthodoxy, not look for a minimalistic substitute.
It’s time we listen to the Scriptures afresh and allow the Spirit to convict us regarding our failures in the three tests of orthodoxy. Only then will we think more carefully and more deeply about what it means to “contend for the faith.”