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Orthopraxy: Some basics

How do we define a "practicing Christian" as opposed to one who merely claims to be a Christian, e.g., on the basis of cultural reasons, human religiosity, or mere intellectual assent to church creeds? How do we define a church body or fellowship group as not only biblical, but balanced and healthy in its practice of the faith? I think that it's necessary to be able to define that, when churches, especially evangelicals, so emphasize faith alone, or orthodoxy as a basis of Christianity or theology, to the exclusion of lifestyle and practice. Thus, many people in the pews think that assenting to certain creeds and maybe performing certain rituals are sufficient for Christian spirituality. They are not.

Clearly we need orthodoxy, since that's essential for biblical faith; otherwise, it's heresy or heterodoxy. (As one blogger points out, orthodoxy is not a dental procedure, and it has an added advantage that it can score you 23 points in Scrabble, getting rid of those pesky X's and Y's.) But we also orthopraxy, or proper practice of the faith, which means more than just proper, outward, Christian-looking conduct, or just performing certain rituals. We need a balance of both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Orthodoxy without orthopraxy is a hollow faith, a superficial faith, a mere intellectual faith, religious intellectualism, religious intellectualism, religious rationalism, or such. Orthopraxy without orthodoxy becomes legalism or going thru the motions. Either type of imbalance is not biblical Christianity. Both are necessary for our spiritual lives, and in characterizing what a Christian is. So what is orthopraxy?

It would be easy to say that a Christian should live a moral, holy lifestyle, but it's not so easy. We all mess up, but we are still Christians. We are still saved, and still hold to orthodox theology (hopefully). But what is the essence of a holy lifestyle that defines how a Christian should live, beyond all the specific moral directives of Scripture? And how much deviance should call his/her orthodoxy or faith into question? We want to be careful not to be legalistic or judgmental, and we have to recognize that we all backslide, but God eventually brings us back. This is a kind of gradience - there's no black and white in terms of a carnal or spiritual Christian. We all fall somewhere in between, and there's no dividing line, unless you want to get into passing judgment on people. The only biblical distinction is between Christian and non-Christian. For Christians, the Bible lays down a number of principles of lifestyle to follow, which should characterize a Christian's life.

First, being saved doesn't mean we don't follow the moral law. Christ freed us from the ceremonial law of the Old Testament, and the "law" in the negative sense of which St. Paul spoke sometimes in Romans - that which accuses us, or a general, common misunderstanding of the law as something we strive for, supposedly to be saved, and from which Christ frees us. But we are still supposed to follow the moral law, not legalistically, not as a basis of spirituality (only grace is the proper basis of spirituality), but following the law, properly understood, is what we do as followers of Christ. The Ten Commandments and all moral teachings of scripture still apply, but as a result of our relationship with God, because the moral law is a reflection of God's character, because it follows directly from his holiness, and God wants us to live holy lives. "Be holy, for I am holy."

So what shall we consider to be basic principles of Christian orthopraxy? Two that come to mind are these, which seem to be what should come first for a believer.

1. Confession of faith - faith in Christ and of proper belief. A person must make a profession of faith, confessing Christ publicly as savior, as stated in Scripture. And s/he must also confess adherence to the basics of the faith, i.e., orthodoxy. Again, this is not just intellectual assent, but to submit one's life to these principles. This has been done throughout church history, most notably, by learning and reciting creeds as a statement of faith, and very importantly, as an expression of worship, not just intellectual assent. Most famous are the Nicene Creed and the Apostle's Creed, which uphold all the basic doctrines of the faith.

2. Works follow from grace, are a necessary result of salvation; works cannot ever be the basis of spirituality - salvation or sanctification or Christian living; proper works or practice can only come from grace. This is an important basis to orthopraxy, as it is necessary in order to guard against legalism. Legalism can not only be salvational - one tries to earn one's salvation by good works - but in daily spirituality, as one tries to do things to please God, to earn God's favor, as a basis for one's daily spiritual walk with God. This of course will fail, and is unbiblical. Only grace can be the basis of proper works and practice in our daily lives.

Beyond that, there are a host of good moral principles from scripture, legions of them. Be a blessing to others; love; humility; moral living; witnessing; getting baptized; taking communion; going to church; following the Ten Commandments; and many others. How do we capture the essence of the myriads of biblical teachings on godly lifestyle and holiness in a theory of Christian orthopraxy, as defining characteristic of what it means to be a Christian? I'll have to tackle that in my next post. But for number three, I pick the following, which may surprise some Protestant evangelicals:

3. Taking the sacraments, that is, being baptized and taking communion or eucharist. Why? These are essential signs of the covenant, things that believers are commanded to do, as a public witness of their relationship with Christ, as symbols of Christ's death and our being born again, and as fundamental blessings.

Just as Old Testament believers were required to take part in various rituals that were signs of the covenant, we are especially commanded to take sacraments, which are special rituals of special significance. Old Testament rituals were signs of God's covenant and were required for teaching and admonishing people about who God is, about their relationship with him, and about the covenant that one is to enter with him. These included temple sacrifices, circumcision, and religious feasts. These have New Testament equivalents that are especially important rituals. Circumcision was something that identified Jewish males as God's people, and likewise, baptism identifies us today as God's saved people (see theologians like Francis Schaeffer on the relationship between these two rituals). The Passover feast was an important feast and celebration of the covenant, and formed the basis of communion, which Christ turned into a symbolic observance of his body and blood, and thereby we proclaim Christ's death, and take part again in his body and blood and his blessing. Misusing or disobeying the sacraments is serious, as St. Paul points out, for example, the Corinthians who were dropping dead for turning it into a party activity. Unfortunately, today many evangelical churches take these lightly, especially communion, which I find kind of distressing and sad. It's important, and we're commanded to do it regularly, and so evangelical Protestant churches need to rediscover the age-old importance of regular communion in the worship service. This stuff is important, because it is a prescribed ordinance, a means of divine grace to us, and a sign of the gospel-covenant. [Sometimes I feel like I want to become Episcopal or Methodist or Catholic for such reasons.]

Next time I'll try my best at tackling the problem of what else might constitute essential orthopraxy.


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