Clarence L. Haynes Jr.
Theology is fun because you get to talk about different kinds of words that the average person has absolutely no idea what they mean. I believe if you are a theologian, you can appreciate the humor in that statement. Orthopraxy likely falls into this category of words. For those who don’t know, orthopraxy literally means correct deeds or correct actions. For a more formal definition of the word, here is how the dictionary defines it.
Orthopraxy is the belief that right action is as important as religious faith.
There is a lot packed into that definition that we need to uncover, so let’s begin our journey, and by the time we are done, you will be able to move orthopraxy from this list of words where you have no idea what it means.
A Closer Look at Orthopraxy
When you read the definition of orthopraxy, you are probably wondering what, if anything, is wrong with it. Well, we are talking about a theological term, and if there is a theological concept you can be certain there is someone who will have a problem with it (more theological humor). Before we get to the issues, let’s first address another question. Does the Bible support orthopraxy?
As an expression of our faith, I believe orthopraxy is good and even biblical. I would even say the Scriptures are clear in support of correct deeds and correct actions being as important as what we believe. Consider these scriptures, which seem to support the definition of orthopraxy.
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” – James 1:22
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” – James 2:12-18
“This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.” – Titus 3:8
These scriptures place a great emphasis on what you do, not just what you believe. They are highlighting how your actions are as important as what you believe. I would even add your actions reflect what you believe. Faith that is real is faith that is demonstrated, which is what these passages remind us of. If you are going to say you believe God, then there must be actions connected to your statement which demonstrate that faith. It is very easy to conclude from these verses that right actions are just as important as your faith which falls in line with orthopraxy.
What Is the Other Side of Orthopraxy?
In true theologian form, let me introduce another word to you that you may have heard but are unsure of what it means. That word is orthodoxy. Some of you may be familiar because you have heard the word orthodox before. Orthodoxy simply means right beliefs. In some religious circles, greater emphasis is placed on correct belief over correct actions. This means they place orthodoxy above orthopraxy (I know that can be a tongue twister, and I apologize for it).
Looking at both of these terms brings a few questions to mind.
Is it more important to do what is right as a reflection of your faith, even if your beliefs are wrong?
Is it more important to have the right beliefs even if they are not always displayed in your actions?
Is right practice more important than right doctrine, or is the opposite true?
I hope you can see how this can lead to great theological discussion. As I look closer, however, I think it is incorrect to place one of these higher than the other. Instead of seeing orthopraxy and orthodoxy as combatants, they are more like comrades, which is what I believe is the way the scriptures position them.
How Do They Work Together?
One of the main objectives of Scripture is to present you with the right beliefs (orthodoxy), so it can produce in you right actions (orthopraxy). Here are a few passages that support this.
“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” – Joshua 1:7-8
In this passage in Joshua, the instruction is to be careful to obey all of the law. To obey the law, you must first know the law, which in turn helps to develop your right beliefs. However, knowing it is not enough, you must also be careful to obey it, which means it must influence your actions. When this happens, then your beliefs (orthodoxy) are impacting your actions (orthopraxy). I am convinced this is the model that is consistent throughout the Bible. Let me give you one more example to show this principle.
“I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” – Psalm 119:11
For many, this is a very familiar verse that follows the same model and shows how they work together. The word is hidden in your heart so that it will impact how you live. Your beliefs are affecting your actions. Throughout Scripture, these two things work together. As important as right doctrine is, it has no real value if it does not impact your actions. In fact, if your correct doctrine does not lead to correct actions, then it leads to sin and hypocrisy.
“If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” – James 4:17
Allow me to add one more thing. Right beliefs should lead to right actions that flow from a right heart. You probably guessed, but there is a theological name for this as well, and that is orthocardia, which means a right heart. This might be the most important of them all because without it you could believe the right things and take the right actions but do them for all the wrong reasons. This was the problem the Pharisees and teachers of the law had.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” – Matthew 23:27-28
Ideally, what you do (orthopraxy) should reflect what you believe (orthodoxy) and should flow from a right heart (orthocardia). One should not trump the other, but rather, they should work in harmony because you truly cannot have one without the other. The Bible tells us plainly that faith without works is dead. You could probably make the case that works without faith is just as dead. Roman 14:23 tells us “…everything that does not come from faith is sin.” What you believe forms the foundation for your faith, and this should transfer into everything you do coming from a heart that is right before God.