Orthodoxy v Orthopraxy

Posted on: October 4, 2019, by :

(Some thoughts after Giants v Tigers)

It is a much-too-simplistic assessment, but it seems to me that one of the key differences between the Giants and the Tigers in last week’s AFL Grand Final was the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy!

The Giants went into the game with a very orthodox playbook, one that had served them well in most of their games during the year, a game based on stopping the opposition from winning the ball through the use of sheer physical effort as they attacked the ball (and/or the ball-holder). Their orthodox playbook had gotten them to the Grand Final and they were not about to depart from it on the last Saturday in September. They had their team rules and they would stick to them no matter what. Richmond also had their playbook, but throughout the year they had demonstrated a willingness to be much more flexible or adaptable in their application of it. For the Tigers, what mattered most was not simply sticking to the pre-determined team rules, but allowing their play-makers the freedom to respond to the circumstances, to experiment and to make reflexive responses to the situation at hand. Where the Giants were committed to ‘orthodoxy’ (right teaching and rules), the Tigers were focused on ‘orthopraxy’ (right action).

As I said, it’s a far-too-simplistic assessment, but it does parallel one of the great challenges facing the Christian Church (and perhaps most other faith groups) – the tension between keeping the rules and doing what ‘feels’ right. This is not a new conundrum – in a recent Facebook post (referenced by Frank Rees), Nils Von Kalm quotes from the letter of Bishop Ignatius to the Church in Smyrna around 90 CE: ‘Note well those who hold heretical opinions about the grace of Jesus Christ that came to us; note how contrary they are to the mind of God. They have no concern for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the oppressed, none for the prisoner or the one released, none for the hungry or thirsty.’ The ‘heresy’ that Ignatius was pointing to was the legalism of church leaders who held that personal purity and piety (keeping the rules) was more important than the exercise of grace and compassion toward those who didn’t ‘keep the rules’.

This is the age-old assertion that what really matters is right belief – orthodox teaching – and that if you step outside the rules then you are ‘wrong’ and ‘heretical’ – not really Christian! Ignatius saw that ‘heresy’ was not about wrong beliefs, but about ‘wrong’ action, about not living in love, not caring for the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, the prisoner, the hungry, the thirsty. Perhaps you recognise the echoes of Jesus’ teaching story in Matthew 25:35-40 about those who ‘do this to the least of them’?

Too often the focus in the Church is on being’ right – right teaching, right systems, right theology, right beliefs. That’s orthodoxy. But the focus in the life and teaching of Jesus was on ‘doing’ right – right action, right relationships, right practice based on love and compassion, grace and forgiveness. That’s orthopraxy.

In essence, how we act toward others is more important than what we believe. Our practice is more important than our thinking. Orthopraxy is more important – and more effective in creating healthy communities – than orthodoxy.

What do you think?


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