Western society loves to think.
The lineage of our method to thought traces back all the way to our Greco-Roman ancestors – Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates – the greatest thinkers of all time. The term Orthodoxy, or “correct belief”, is tied directly into these conversations of thought that happen to this day within the Christian Church: what do we think? What creeds do we affirm? To what doctrines do we hold?
These questions divide the Church into Catholics and Protestants, Orthodox and New Age, and into every denomination in between. They construct barriers that divide us, restrict us, and label us, until we become nothing, save for the labels that have been passed about behind our backs and under our noses.
There’s a reason that last sentence doesn’t sound biblical. I would suggest that the Bible presents a different reality. It presents a reality that is counter-intuitive to the thoughts and ideas we form on our own: about the world, the text, and the way those two intertwine.
If orthodoxy is defined as “correct belief”, then it would be safe to claim that the term orthopraxy can be interpreted as “correct conduct”. This is a term, I find, that is rarely floated around Sunday morning when we gather within our congregations of like-minded believers and debate amongst ourselves about the meaning of scripture. It’s a term that gets swept under the rug when we run into another human being who claims to believe in something different from the line of orthodoxy we ourselves affirm.
When we place orthopraxy in a position of inferiority to our orthodoxy, we find ourselves running into problems. Our lines of Greco-Roman thought take us from a position of categorization to a position of dividing and isolating. We call this person an atheist and that person a godless homosexual. We try to build walls along our borders, attempting to keep the Muslims out as if we couldn’t trust in God to take care of us while we obey his commands to love our neighbors and care for those in need.
“They Sell The Innocent For Silver”
The most unfortunate thing about this situation is we do all of this with the idea that it “us vs. them”.
We’re right so they’re wrong.
We claim our personal version of “orthodoxy” to be true and if what someone else believes doesn’t agree with our line of thought, then well, I guess they’re going to spend eternity being tortured in hell. This mentality blinds us from realizing that its basis is flawed from the get go. The standard is not defined by what we believe.
The Book of Amos exists within a historical context not much different from our own. The kingdom of Israel is divided. A once proud dynasty is weak and separated into the nations of Judah and the Northern Kingdom. The Shepard Amos travels from Judah to the Northern Kingdom to present the people with a rather straightforward message.
“For three sins of Gaza,
even for four, I will not relent.
Because she took captive whole communities
and sold them to Edom,
I will send fire on the walls of Gaza
that will consume her fortresses.
I will destroy the king of Ashdod
and the one who holds the scepter in Ashkelon.
I will turn my hand against Ekron,
till the last of the Philistines are dead,”
says the Sovereign Lord. (Amos 1:6-8 NIV)
The Book of Amos repeats this basic model of condemnation for all of Israel’s neighbors: Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, even Judah – they all are chastised. It’s interesting to note that nowhere in this section of condemnation is idolatry mentioned. Their discipline is not due to their worship of false Gods, and not due to their orthodoxy being flawed. This message comes because they fail to take care of and love their neighbor.
Subsequently, as the Israelite audience was getting comfortable with a directive of condemnation for their neighbors, the author shifts his message: The prophecy transitions towards Israel. As the next eight chapters unfold, Amos outlines the litany of Israel’s offences and God’s forfeiture of patience.
“For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not relent.
They sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
and so profane my holy name.
They lie down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge.
In the house of their god
they drink wine taken as fines.” (Amos 2:6-8 NIV)
Even through the limited lines that appear about idolatry, we see a shift to judgment upon their absence of hospitality for their neighbors in need. They “lie down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge” — a direct defilement of Deuteronomy’s appeal to care for those in need. They consume wine in the house of their god, but it’s the notion that the wine is taken “as a fine” that develops dispute.
The text continues to fortify this point as the author continues:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24 NIV)
Throughout Amos’ prophecy, it is apparent that having the correct orthodoxy bears little worth to what the Lord is trying to accomplish in the world with his nation of priests. As Jeremiah puts it in a similar situation, “look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.”
In chapter 7, Amos discusses a vision that God gives him of a plumb line. A plumb line is an architectural instrument, which when employed upon a wall, the force of gravity effects the device in such a way that shows you a straight line to the ground. It allows one to observe whether or not a wall is leaning. To paraphrase, God is saying that he has hung his plumb line against his people and found them to be warped beyond repair. He is left with no other choice save to tear down the wall and rebuild. And God has made clear what is wrong with his wall: There is a lack of hospitality and justice for the poor and needy.
In other words, their orthopraxy is all wrong.
“Which Of These Three Acted As A Neighbor?”
This issue of Orthopraxy continues throughout the Old Testament (See Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, etc.), yet in order to really bring this message home to a Christian audience it would be wise to go straight to the top of the pier. And this is important because Jesus did not shy away from this conversation.
Within the Book of Luke exists what many scholars and rabbinic teachers consider as the greatest parable of all time.
“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this, and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37 NIV)
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, it’s important to remember the context of who exactly a Samaritan is: although Samaritans and Jews shared a common heritage, they differed from one another in terms of legal traditions, the sanctity of Jerusalem and Mt. Gerizim, and what was considered to be the Word of God. If you wanted an honest, modern day version of this parable, you could replace the Levite with an Evangelical Christian and the Samaritan with a Mormon.
Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone here go out and swear by the words of Joseph Smith. However, I do hope that such a simple switch conveys the weight of this parable when Jesus says that the one who actually got down into the ditch and showed mercy, a subset of orthopraxy, is the one who loves his neighbor, and thus is the one inheriting eternal life.
Love Is the Ultimate Demonstration of Faith
In the Book of Matthew, the final parable Jesus teaches before the unfolding of the events leading to his crucifixion is the parable of the Sheep and the Goats.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’” (Matthew 25:31-45)
This is where I find that the conversation of orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy can be put to rest. In the final Parable that Jesus teaches before being led to the cross, a parable about the end of days, we find the centrality of the message grounded in orthopraxy. It is not the creeds, the doctrines, nor the orthodoxy of the individuals that Jesus uses as a divider between the sheep and the goats. It’s not whether they are Atheist, Agnostic, Homosexual, Heterosexual, Catholic, or Protestant: not a single label we see propagated throughout our society is used when the Son of Man sits on the throne and separates people to his right or his left. The process we see here in this parable is defined by how they lived out the commission to serve humbly, give generously, and love unconditionally. And that’s the only standard.
So now that we’ve somewhat put the scope of our faith into a period of transition I would suggest that, in the spirit of orthopraxy, it’s necessary to refocus our eyes towards a direction of Love. Paul writes in his letter to the church of Galatia the following:
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words: I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again, I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:1-6)
And Later on in his letter, Paul culminates his message with:
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-14)
His message here, and all throughout his letter, is straightforward: Love is the ultimate demonstration of faith. To have faith is to Love. And acting out of Love is the fulfillment of the Law. This understanding is so simple yet it radically changes the conversation on faith and negates every divide we’ve placed between ourselves and “them” – our neighbors – particularly those based on our view of orthodoxy.
We can draw so many different conclusions from the bible. Indeed, Christians have been debating “orthodoxy” since the time of the first apostles.
But when it’s all said and done, it’s important to recognize that being a Christian shouldn’t boil down to a question of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy – one’s belief standard -was never supposed to be the point of the conversation.
The point of the conversation is a point of orthopraxy – “How do we love our neighbor?”
When Love, not belief, becomes most important, perhaps we’ll finally see the fruition of God’s mission for this world: that all might know him.
Michael Green is an incoming masters student of chemistry at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. He was exposed to the vastness of the conversation of theology while studying the Text through both undergraduate studies at the University of Idaho and being a student of his rabbi Marty Solomon. He’s learned that it’s most important to lay differences aside and cooperate with all walks of life to spread the goodness and love that was so central to the message of the one he calls both Rabbi and Lord.