Orthodox means “right belief”. Orthodoxy then refers to the study and possession of right belief. In Christianity the need for orthodoxy emerged early as counterfeit religions (like Gnosticism) sprang up. Many false teachers claimed to be speaking the true words and teachings of Jesus. To counteract these claims the early Christians pointed out that 2 facts showed why their beliefs were right: first, the current Christian leaders had either learned directly from the apostles or from someone who belonged to an unbroken chain of discipleship from the apostles to the present moment (an early form of “apostolic succession”). That is, the “apostle’s doctrine” was orthodox and the early Christians were quoting the apostles. Second, only the early manuscripts (now known as the gospels and epistles, or new testament) written about Jesus and which recorded His words and teachings (as well as the apostles teachings) were valid and reliable for forming doctrine. Thus a blending of using (what eventually became known as) the bible as an authority and using “apostolic succession” as an authority became the basis for orthodoxy.
Since the bible must be interpreted and since different groups have interpreted it differently orthodoxy has always traveled a rocky road. Divisions within the Christian church bear obvious witness to the difficulties in determining what is orthodox and what is not. Nevertheless, over time, and especially recently, a large number of Christians have decided to concentrate on a few “non-negotiables” and to show tolerance for diversity over smaller issues. This non-negotiable orthodoxy centers on the 4 foundational beliefs of: the divinity of Jesus, the atonement, the resurrection and the future judgment. Orthodoxy, then, is essential belief; essential to the foundation of the revelation that is in Christ. Non-essential doctrines (such as water baptism) can still be important but differences are tolerated. Thus we can say that infant baptism and adult post-conversion baptism can both be held by orthodox Christians. But if someone says that Jesus was only a prophet and not an incarnation then that person cannot be considered a Christian.
In monasticism and contemplation the concept of orthodoxy is very important. The similarities between Christian contemplation and eastern meditation, the increased connectedness in our shrinking globe, the exodus from Christendom, the rejection of dogma and the sympathy for disenfranchised and marginal cultures and peoples have all converged today into a threat towards orthodoxy. The challenge to the Para-modern Christian contemplative today is to retain the truth that is in Jesus while jettisoning the historical abuse and misuse of His words and teaching. That is, the challenge is to be contemplative yet orthodox.