Is Orthopraxy All that Matters?

In “Unpracticed Faith is Functional Atheism,” I addressed one error in the Church: heteropraxy—that is, the belief in right doctrine (orthodoxy) without the pursuit right living (orthopraxy). Now I turn to the equal and opposite error—orthopraxy divorced from orthodoxy—which is a reaction to the first.

Sadly, heteropraxy has been a problem in the Church from the beginning. 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 clergy or immoral character of laity, the same struggle persists irrespective of church brand and affiliation.

This mismatch between teaching and practice has led to the rise of the “nones,” the “dones” (self-exiles from Catholic and Protestant churches who self-identify as Christian, but remain ecclesially unaffiliated) and the “spiritual, but not religious” crowd swept up in the postmodern moment, piously espousing, “what’s important is how one lives, not what one believes.”

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It is a sentiment that collapses under cursory examination.

Golden Rule Ethics
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 fashion and convention. Without a transcendent point of reference, a culture that believes in loving one’s neighbor has no moral authority over another culture that believes eating one’s neighbor is okay.

What about the Golden Rule, the common thread in all moral codes?

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, the last, the disabled, the unborn, and the dying?

Spanning the worldview spectrum, while the principle of fairness or reciprocity implicit in the Golden Rule is universal, the concept of “neighbor” is not. Rather, it varies from the members of one’s household to all of mankind. Consequently, despite its general esteem, the Rule has done little to keep individuals and 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 a moral people or just society.

In fact, following an alluring Golden Rule logic, one can easily conclude that “loving neighbor as self” means sparing him from any consequence I would want to be spared from—like being confronted about my sinful behavior.

Founded Upon Doctrine
The Golden Rule is not a moral superstructure, but an ethical framework that needs a roof, floor, walls, plaster, and paint. What’s more, it needs the firm foundation of doctrine.

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).

For Christ’s followers, the definition of one’s neighbors and the manner of loving them was not up to guesswork or personal preference—it was according to Jesus’ teachings: “Whoever welcomes a little child,” “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine,” “love each other as I have loved you,” and most bracingly, “love your enemies.”

Common Pitfalls
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 (I personally knew a pastor who did so). 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 hypocrisy. Sharing the gospel is good. But done by someone who doesn’t buy it himself is hypocritical to the extreme.

In the last few decades social researchers have discovered a truth contained in Scripture for millennia: beliefs lead to behaviors, behaviors create habits, and habits shape character. If we want right behaviors (orthopraxy) and upright character we need to start with right beliefs (orthodoxy).

Jesus’ View
It can be surprising to learn that 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 that they will be held accountable for such knowledge.

After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus weeps for his countrymen 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 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 that carries us along the stream of fashion until we settle out in the sediment of a distant shore, who knows where and when. Rather, moral actions are those grounded in beliefs that flow from a transcendent moral perspective. Absent of that, there is no ortho- in orthopraxy.

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 Scripture and historical Church teaching.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Sermon on the Mount” painted by Cosimo Rosselli, ca. 1481.


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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