On Being a Practicing Christian: Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy

One of the odd things about being a Christian is its emphasis on orthodoxy, or "right belief." This focus has a long history. Mainly it seems to stem from the early church's preoccupation with dealing with heresy. And in those early centuries of the church, the big anti-heresy weapons were the early Christian creeds.

Now, I've got no problems with creeds or creedal orthodoxy. But I'd like to suggest that this early emphasis on "right belief" has seriously skewed the Christian tradition in ways that I don't think are all that healthy. Specifically, by emphasizing "right belief" (orthodoxy) over "right practice" (orthopraxy), Christians have lost (or never acquired in the first place) a robust notion of "Christian practice." This is evidenced by the observation that most churches would not understand what it might mean to be an "observant Christian" or a "practicing Christian." That is, Christianity isn't mainly understood as "practice," it is understood as "belief." This situation makes Christianity a bit of an odd duck when it comes to world religions. For example, being an observant Jew is totally comprehensible. But being an observant Christian sounds odd to most church-going folk.

This distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy came up recently in one of my research classes at ACU. We were entering some data for a religiosity study. On the survey participants were asked all kinds of things about their religious practices and their beliefs. One of the subjects, who self-identified as "Christian," indicated that they had been faithfully attending and participating in a local church for most of their life. However, later in the survey, this same person indicated that, as far as belief goes, they were best described as "agnostic." When the students got to this data point, they objected, "How can you be actively engaged at church, call yourself a Christian, and be agnostic?" I responded, "Easy. You're a practicing Christian." The students responded, "What? How can you be a practicing Christian? If you don't believe then you are not a Christian." I responded, "Well, what about times when your faith fails or falters? Wouldn't continuing to practice Christianity during that dark time help keep your faith alive while you struggled? If so, practicing Christianity might actually be more important, more vital, than believing in Christianity."

Now I'm not suggesting that belief or orthodoxy are unimportant. I'm simply suggesting that most Christians have an anemic vision of Christian practice or Christian observance. Given my struggles with doubts, for much of the time I'm basically an observant Christian. Specifically, I believe all kinds of weird things. And I doubt a lot. And this chaotic mix of "belief" in my head is constantly shifting and changing. Thus, my Christian identity is anchored in my practice rather than my beliefs. In sum, a good portion of the time I'm an observant Christian, a practicing Christian. What do I believe? Well, who knows? What day is it? Because it will be different tomorrow...

I've encountered lots of people who are in a similar situation. And, because Christianity has de-emphasized practice, these people tend to feel marginalized, like they really aren't "Christian." Well, if they follow Jesus (i.e., orthopraxy), I think they get to own the title Christian even if they are agnostic or heterodox. For me, beliefs are like the tides, they ebb and flow. But how I treat my neighbor, how I practice my faith, should be constant and unchanging.

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9 thoughts on “On Being a Practicing Christian: Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy”

  1. Reminds me of listening to Dan Savage speak at my college, sometime in 1998. He came during Easter and delivered a scathing indictment of Catholic homophobia.

    And then at the end of his speech, he announced simply, "And now I'm going to Mass."

  2. This post is a wonderful articulation of my understanding of the Christian faith. As I finish up my time in seminary I realize that I have much more sympathy for those "heretics" who were simply outnumbered in many instances but have been colored in a negative light historically. I do not understand the fascination with orthodoxy and feel compelled to adhere to the Jewish emphasis on orthopraxy. My ideas may be wacked out at times, but my desire to live my life in the service of others remains fairly constant. I appreciate this blog, Dr. Beck. Hope all is well. shalom.

  3. I am a practicing Orthodox Christian (and also a world-class sceptic due to my scientific trainnig, so I am enjoying your blog). I found God only through orthopraxy (which perhaps ironically is a very large part of Orthodoxy, at least in countries which are historically Orthodox, although among American converts long theological discussions prevail). Curiously, I have found Judaism and Islam closer to my worldview than the Protestant or Catholic faiths. I have a read about a rabbi who suggested to an agnostic Jew who said 'I don't really know if I believe in this' to go to a synagogue every day for a month and pray. This person eventually become a rabbi himself. The constant emphasis on orthodoxy at the cost of orthopraxy also produces what in Orthodoxy (ironic that one of the most praxis-oriented faiths is called Orthodoxy) is called a 'spiritually dry' person. True change does not come from merely believing but experiencing. I believe this is behind the 'blessed are those who are poor in spirit'.

    I liked your description of existentialist-defensive faith. We all have a need for both, I think.

  4. I think the notion that orthopraxy is more important and in fact the defining aspect of the Christian faith is to miss what the Christian faith is about.

    The key feature that makes someone a Christian or not is whether they are justified before God by Jesus's blood. Now, its not to say that justification is the end of it for Christ also sanctifies us and more.

    Being a true Christian then is not primarily societal or cultural but theological. It is not about you and a people group but you and God. Now again, I am not saying that it is not also about the community of the church and these other aspects, but when the rubber meets the road it is about our sin being imputed to Jesus and Jesus's righteousness being imputed to us.

    And how do we cause this dual imputation to take place? Is it by our orthopraxy or orthodoxy? The answer is neither. The whole premise of us being able to cause the imputation is faulty. For as Romans says:

    So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

    The bible is chalk full of verses that could be brought to bare. However, there is not time nor is this the place for that. Instead let me pose a question.

    Is the bible a story primarily about man or God?
    Is the bible a handbook for how to live or is it a testament to what God has done, is doing and will do?
    Is the bible primarily prescriptive or declarative?

    Well that was more then one question. But they are really restatements of the same question. For the record my argument does not concern percentages of prescriptive verse declarative, but instead i refer to the thread that runs through it all. The great witness of scripture has a direction to it. Which way does it flow?

  5. Hi David,
    Just a quick clarification before I try to respond. How are you using the word "scripture"? Are you referring to the Tanakh, the Apocrypha, the gnostic gospels, the canonical gospels, the collected letters of Paul, etc.? All of this? Some? And sketch out how you are adjudicating the texts you call "scripture." Your answer will help me frame a reply.

  6. Question? How do you judge another's orthoprazy? does any "work" count toward proper orthopraxy? In other words, is only meeting the needs of the poor and the outcasts, as Jesus did, count as Christian faith? Or does teaching a 6th grade class at a local elementary school count? There are many ways in which faith is defined, I find that there are so many ways, even within one "paradigm" such as your "practice" that it still becomes impossible to gauge another's orthopraxy...

    I think you have a difficulty in ethical values if you propose to study experiences of individuals without their knowing, and yet, there is not other way to get an objective view of the experience.

  7. Late to the game, but I love the thoughts you've framed here, Dr. Beck--and in many ways, I relate and agree.

    During a particularly difficult time in my spiritual life as a teenager(struggling with doubt, wondering if God was hearing my prayers)I considered stopping all "Christian" activity (going to youth group, evangelism efforts, etc.). An adult leader advised me to keep up what I was doing anyways, that the doubtful times are the most important times for obedience. Didn't make much sense, but I did it anyways...and I pulled through that time of intense doubt, and I believe I had stronger faith for it.

    I'd like to suggest that one of reasons that we Christians have trouble practicing our religion is that according to orthodox doctrine, salvation comes by belief and faith rather than our efforts. While I certainly think that Christians throughout history have valued practice as the outgrowth of belief/faith, clearly the emphasis has been mostly on the salvation-by-faith part of the gospel.

    Now, I'm a big saved-by-grace guy, but I know I forget that being saved by grace carries with it implications for how I should "practice."

    I think it would benefit us to revisit Jesus' words on not only being saved by faith, but the importance of obedience and discipleship. Although to our eyes salvation seems to be the most pressing matter, I think that God desires practice/discipleship right alongside it. Not as a substitute for saving-grace, but as part of the joy of living in that grace.

  8. I'm sorry to be sodense - please enumerate for us what are the practices of a Christian who wishes to practice the faith.  I go to church, I pray, I tithe, I fast, I meditate - but it doesn't seem enough.  Maybe because I am a doer - I need something to do.  Oh, I make quilts for the poor, buy food  but need to do more.

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