Are Terms Like “Unbiblical”, “Unorthodox” Still Helpful For Us Today?

There was a time when the terms “unbiblical” or “unorthodox” were trump card answers for me. Now I see them not only has unhelpful, but as very detrimental to needed conversation concerning the future of the church.

I remember asking in undergrad, “What’s wrong with Arminian Theology?” and was given the response, “Well a thorough examination of Scripture will prove that it’s simply unbiblical“. That worked great for me until I met an Arminian who told me the problem with Calvinism was that it was “unbiblical”. Then to complicate matters, I started investigating and some days I find both views to be “biblical” and other days, both to be “unbiblical” and a couple days a bit of both. To me those terms are the near equivalent to a parent’s trump card line, “Because I said so.”

This is among the issues that bothers me with some of my fellow evangelicals that we ought to honestly discuss. What is better to say is that a particular position is contrary to our interpretation of Scripture. Like everyone, I too quite often find things that run against my personal hermeneutics. I think sometimes I’m right and sometimes I don’t know I’m wrong. And while my seminary experience was quite helpful in confirming certain suspicions, it also revealed quite a few blindspots in my understanding of Scripture. I try to operate with a lot more humility and generosity these days.

This is what bothers me about the John Pipers, John McArthurs, Al Mohlers and the younger Neo-reformed crowd (like Kevin DeYoung, Justin Taylor and the Gospel Correction crowd). Now, before I start too far down this road, know that our essential convictions are probably similar. Know that I believe that these men love the Lord and mean well and please extend that benefit of the doubt to me. But a collective gift many of us conservatives have is slamming the door shut on anything that strikes us as “unbiblical.”

I encourage you to test this theory – whenever a group of conservatives and a group of liberals (and I know there are numerous shades in between but let’s keep it simple) and as soon as the conservatives identify the liberals, they leave the conversation, thereby leaving the table “liberal.” As a church we would do well to keep the conversation going, to share, discuss, as opposed to debate, argue, and exit. Exhibit A for me is the emerging church conversation. This conversation offers so much and it would be well-served if conservatives came back to the table.

Why does this matter so much to me? Reason 1, vocationally, I’m a youth pastor – I have to be open for conversation because teenagers walk in my youth room with some terrible theology. Some of it is due to a generational perspective, some of it is due to their parents, some of it is simply the fact they’re young and they are very much in the process of forming their views on God, the world and discovering who they are. Reason 2 is that I am an evangelical and I have a heart for non-believers. They sit at my table with very different views. To dismiss their convictions and opinions only reinforces the stereotype that evangelicals are arrogant, anti-intellectual and suffer from a superiority complex. Reason 3 is the example of Jesus. A careful reading of the Gospels shows that he debated those who presumed to have it all figured out and engaged in loving conversations with those that were very different from him (to put it mildly).

Which leads us to today’s big conversation – Rob Bell and his ideas in his book Love Wins (you can check out my review here). Should Rob Bell really be considered “unorthodox”? Can he be dismissed as “unbiblical?” Was it fair for Martin Basher to berate him with the line, “You are trying to make the gospel palatable, aren’t you?” Is it not better to say, “That’s interesting but I don’t see that way – let’s talk about it?”

In a time when evangelism is splitting and on the decline and further the growing divide between Christian believers and non-Christians believers, it would serve us well to sit at as many tables as we can, to share our viewpoints generously and lovingly and to grow in conversation.

While John Piper’s famous “Farewell Rob Bell” tweet helped Harper Collins sell more books, it would have been far better for the Kingdom had he tweeted, “I look forward to reading your new book Rob. Let me know when you come to Minneapolis, would love to grab lunch.”

That seems like a really naive statement now, but I tell you, it’s very Biblical, very Orthodox and very Jesus-like.

So back to my original question, are these terms still helpful for us today?  Yes, when used humbly and responsibly. Thoughts?


  1. Agreed. We have a “forum wall” next to the college post office here at Wheaton, where students post a ton of different stuff–random fliers, provocative questions, thoughts, etc.–and others sometimes write their reactions. A common joke in reaction is to write “is this biblical?” I’ve grown less and less inclined to even read the forum wall (call it senior cynicism), let alone to think the joke is funny (if only because it’s way overused).

    I agree that that the words “unbiblical” and “unorthodox” are also overused in a more serious sense. I agree that evangelicals often perpetuate that frustrating (but accurate?) stereotype of anti-intellect, superiority, and arrogance. And I agree that Jesus wouldn’t use those terms in that way (but, like you, I think that maybe there is an effective way to use them). Maybe it’s overly simple or something, but I often think the Christian life should be understood as striving to actively live like Jesus did, modeling our ethics after him, not asking nuanced doctrinal questions and judging a theology’s orthodoxy.

  2. If I ever leave Montvale and go to an interview, I am bringing you with me and introducing you as my resume. (I’ll say your kid can think, act, talk like this one.)
    What I really think is that God brought you through in spite of my best attempts to ruin you :)

    To your comment – I love the forum wall – Is that Biblical? – Nice. Liberty had a spirit rock that always said something like “Dorm 7 Rules”. I went to the wrong school.

  3. This is the space and tension believers have to live in. The reality is that the stuff you are talking about is church leader stuff. Ordinary people, who go to a job every day that isn’t a church, have to deal with this reality. Why? Because we don’t get to self-segregate over doctrine.

    In reality, when church leaders separate over foolish things like calling each other heretics, as you mentioned, it just makes them look petty.

    When I see stuff like that, I just think it is petty, that they aren’t capable of being seen as big C leaders, and they probably have a self-interest they feel they need to protect.

  4. Agreed that there will always be space and tension that we will have to live in (Honestly, I kinda like that in this life). Agreed that a lot of this stuff is not necessary for “ordinary people” with jobs, kids, mortgages, etc.

    I would push back a little on that and say that in another sense, it does matter because these conversations do shape our lives in some sense. They leak into our sanctuaries, into our prayers, into our actions, conversations, etc. I don’t think you are necessarily disagreeing with that but …

    Completely agree with the pettiness of church leaders and sadly, there are times when I find myself very guilty of that. Love the line abut self-interest that needs to be protected. Runs completely contrary to the humility of Christ and the Kingdom we must serve.

    Thanks for reading Adam.

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