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Regis Nicoll Christian Blog and Commentary

Orthopraxy over Orthodoxy

(This article first appeared on

Theology without hands and feet has plagued the Church from the beginning. Early church leader James warned Christians about faith without works. Reports of quarreling, drunkenness and sexual immorality, prompted Paul on numerous occasions to remind Christians to live out their faith in accordance with Jesus’ teachings. Two thousand years hence, whether it’s the latest scandal by church officials or unethical conduct by rank-and-file members, the same struggle persists.

Recently, George Barna reported that the behavioral differences between born-again Christians and the general population are small to “statistically indistinguishable.” Among the behaviors evaluated were lying, gossiping, substance abuse, and extra-marital sex. It would appear that the mismatch between head and hands is endemic in the Church.

Disillusioned by this discrepancy, some believers have aligned themselves with the “emerging” Church: a postmodern movement within the Christian community that stresses right living—orthopraxy—over right doctrine—orthodoxy.  According to “emerging “author Peter Rollins “orthodoxy is no longer . . . the opposite of heresy . . . [it’s] a way of being in the world rather than… believing things about the world.”

It’s something I’ve heard numerous times: “What’s important is how one lives, not what one believes.” Despite the sincerity accompanying that sentiment, it’s one that collapses under cursory examination.

The sentiment immediately begs the question: “Important to whom?“ Unless the answer points beyond man and his institutions, the “rightness” of any practice—be it sexual behavior, substance use, divorce, polygamy, or even slavery—is a matter of what is legally permissible according to the prevailing winds of social convention. Without a transcendent point of reference, a society that believes in loving one’s neighbor has no authority over another that believes eating one’s neighbor is okay.

“But we have the Golden Rule,” someone’s sure to point out. “It’s the common thread in all moral codes. If everybody set aside their divisive doctrines and just treated their neighbor as they wished to be treated, peace would reign.”

The problem with the Golden Rule is in the definition of one’s “neighbor.” Are my neighbors those in my family, ethnic group, community, church, country or are they members of the global village, including the least and last—the disabled, the unborn, and the dying?

What one finds, spanning the worldview spectrum, is that while the principle of fairness or reciprocity in the Golden Rule is universal, the concept of “neighbor” is not—it varies from the members of one’s household to all of humankind. Consequently, despite its general esteem, the rule  has done little to keep civilizations from colliding.

Indeed, divergent beliefs about who does and who does not deserve neighborly consideration have been behind every conflict from Cain and Abel to modern day Jihadists. Unhinged from doctrine, the Golden Rule is powerless to produce moral progress.

In his classic book, Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen depicts a drunk trying to kick his addiction. “The trouble [with the Golden Rule]” writes Machen, “is that the drunkard’s companions apply the rule only too well; they do unto him exactly what they would have him do unto them—by buying him another drink.” The Golden Rule is not a moral superstructure, but an ethical framework that needs a roof, floor, walls, plaster, and paint; that is, it needs descriptions, definitions, and boundaries.

Jesus introduced the rule in His Sermon on the Mount; and although the “crowd” was in earshot, the whole discourse was directed to his disciples.  It’s an important distinction. The disciples were daily absorbing the vital connection between teaching (orthodoxy) and life application (orthopraxy). Only such persons, Machen writes, “can safely do unto others as they would have others do unto them.”

For Christ’s followers, the definition of one’s neighbors and the manner of loving them was not up to guesswork or personal penchants; it was according to Jesus’ teachings: “Whoever welcomes a little child,” “Whatever you did for one of the least of these,” and love “as I have loved you.”

Everything we do, we do for a reason. The moral thing is doing the right thing for the right reason.

Giving a drunk a drink is doing the wrong thing (enabling his drunkenness) for the right reason (out of compassion). The same goes for counseling a homosexual to seek a committed same-sex partnership in order to avoid the hazards of the gay lifestyle.

But the opposite error—doing the right thing for the wrong reason—is equally immoral.

Attending church is a good thing, but doing so because it’s good for business, the wife expects it, the kids need it, or because of the great preaching and special music are all wrong reasons. Likewise, spending Thanksgiving at the community kitchen to serve the homeless is a good thing. Doing so to rub elbows with the mayor who will be carving the turkey is the wrong reason.

Then there’s the problem of good things that conflict with one’s beliefs. That’s called behavior modification or hypocrisy.  Getting a teenager to wear modest apparel is good. Getting her to do it before she believes it is wrong is behavior modification. Sharing the good news of salvation is good. But done by someone who doesn’t buy it himself is hypocritical to the extreme.

In short, moral actions are those grounded in beliefs that flow from a transcendent moral perspective. Absent of that, there is no ortho- in orthopraxy; only the shifting currents of our collective preferences. 

Against the tide of the “emerging” movement, stands Jesus and the Gospels. In particular, the Gospels expend more bandwidth on what Jesus taught than on what He did. In some instances, like the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teaching spans multiple chapters. Even after His resurrection, Jesus spends a seven-mile journey expositing Scripture to two fellow travelers on a dusty road to Emmaus.

Yet, nowhere is His regard for doctrine more ringing than when He says: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

While parables like the sheep and goats and the wheat and tares convey the importance of our conduct (orthopraxy); it is, again, conduct in keeping with Jesus’ teaching (orthodoxy).  Jesus stresses this connection in His final words when he commissions His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

To be sure, Jesus was concerned about how people lived, but he was equally concerned about what they believed. Repeatedly, Jesus challenges his listeners to search the Scriptures to understand the times and recognize the road signs ahead. He even warns them that they will be held accountable for such knowledge.

After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus weeps for His countrymen and their coming judgment for not recognizing the “time of God’s coming.” On several occasions He scolds the religious establishment for either not knowing or not believing what the Scriptures had to say about a matter and, particularly, about Him. In the parable of the sower, Jesus warns His hearers about rootless faith stemming from the failure to take hold of gospel truths. It’s a warning He repeats in his discourse on the end times, as He urges his disciples to watch and understand so they won’t be deceived.  

Faith without works is dead. But faith without doctrine is no faith at all—it’s conformance with the cultural drift which carries us along the stream of fashion until we settle out in the sediment of a distant shore, who knows when and who knows where.

According to George Barna, only 9 percent of the 101 million born-again Christians in the U.S. have a biblical worldview, which Barna defines as

[B]elieving that absolute moral truths exist; that such truth is defined by the Bible; and firm belief in six specific religious views. Those views were that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and He stills rules it today; salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned; Satan is real; a Christian has a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with other people; and the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings.

Barna reports that although the lifestyles of “born agains” closely mirror that of the ambient culture, the lifestyles of those having a biblical worldview are significantly distinguished in a number of areas, including pornography use, substance abuse, extramarital sex, and gambling.

It reflects what social researchers have been telling us for decades: beliefs lead to behaviors, behaviors create habits, and habits shape character. So if we want right behaviors (orthopraxy), and upright character we need to start with right beliefs (orthodoxy).

Orthopraxy? By all means. We Christians need to do a better job of aligning our hands with our heads. And that begins by making sure that what’s in our heads is aligned with a biblical worldview.

(What are your thoughts about right conduct and right doctrine? Post them here.)