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 Trinity. 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 own personal with doubts (which if one is honest we all have from time to time), 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 (because understanding changes- more knowledge is gained, prior knowledge is corrected based on new more complete information, futher revelation ) are like the tides, they ebb and flow. But how I treat my neighbor, how I practice my faith, should be constant and unchanging.