by Rubel Shelly

Published in LoveLines (Jan. 1, 1997)


The word practically jumped off the page when I first saw it. I was reading from William Larkin’s commentary on Acts about the establishment of the church at Antioch, one of the pivotal events in Luke’s narrative of the early church.

The Antioch church was the first on record to cross ethnic lines in its membership. It had Gentile and Jewish believers in the same congregation. The blessing God poured out on that church let us know that his intent is to bring people from all classes, races, and backgrounds together in community. Oneness is found in a common devotion to Jesus, not in the homogeneity of a church’s members.

One of the early things the Antioch Christians did to affirm their unity with the church at Jerusalem (an all-Jewish church) was to send famine relief through two of its leaders. "The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul" (Acts 11:29-30).

Writing about this event, Larkin says: "For Antioch to model fully what it means to be Christians, it must demonstrate orthopraxy by meeting physical needs." [Acts, p. 179.]

You may know the term, and it may be in common usage. But I think it is the first time I have ever come across it. What a wonderful and challenging idea is contained in it.

"Orthodoxy" is a term everyone knows. It signifies correct belief. And some people appear to be under the impression that having right convictions about right doctrines makes one right with God. While not wishing to sell orthodoxy short, is that the essence of Christianity?

"Orthopraxy" points to correct actions. In the case of the Antioch church, it points to a compassionate sharing of goods. It can signify Harvest Sunday, the Christmas Wish Tree, medical supplies to Moscow, rebuilding burned worship structures, or relief to Croatian refugees.

John wrote of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. "If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20).

This means that all the sermons, lectureships, and church papers that get so exercised about doctrinal orthodoxy that they vilify, backbite, and defame their brothers negate their very boast to orthodoxy. Without the orthopraxy of loving one’s brothers whom he has (or can) see and talk with, the attacker proves himself to be a liar.

It also means that the church member who salutes Sunday’s preaching of the gospel only to gossip about someone on Thursday is deceiving himself. And so with the person who wants the teens taught biblical morality but who is stingy, the believer who demands sound doctrine but justifies her racist attitudes, etc.

Don’t compromise your demand for correct teaching. But guard as well against negating your claim to orthodoxy with a conspicuous failure of orthopraxy.

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