Orthopraxy is a compound Greek word. The first word in the compound is ortho, which is quite familiar to most of us today. Is means “right, correct, or straight.” An orthodontist is a dentist who can “straighten” or correct teeth. An orthopedist is a doctor who works with deformities or misalignments of the skeletal system, often the spine, with the hope of being able to correct them. Praxis, the second word of the compound, sounds similar to the English equivalent—practice. Orthopraxy or orthopraxis is simply “correct practice” or “correct behavior.”
Orthopraxy is often seen in distinction from orthodoxy, which is “correct teaching” or “correct doctrine.” If someone is orthodox, it means that he believes correctly. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy are often seen to be on opposite ends of a spectrum. Some forms of Christianity seem to place more emphasis on correct doctrine. Other forms of Christianity seem to care little for doctrine but place heavy emphasis on proper deeds. Orthopraxis can also refer to the correct performance of required rituals, which is important in some expressions of Christianity as well as in other religions. In many religions, it matters little what one believes as long as the correct works and rituals are performed.
Evangelical Protestantism emphasizes correct doctrine, and critics sometimes caricature the evangelical position as teaching that, as long as you believe the right things, it doesn’t matter what you do. That is not a genuine evangelical position, and neither is it a biblical understanding of the relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
According to the Bible, correct doctrine will lead to correct behavior, but the doctrine comes first. In Romans, Paul spends the first eleven chapters explaining correct doctrine. In Romans 12:1 he transitions to correct practice: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” The word therefore means that the instructions that follow are based upon the doctrine that has just been explained.
In Ephesians we see the same pattern. Ephesians 1–3 explain correct doctrine, and chapters 4–6 explain correct practice. Once again, Ephesians 4:1 makes the transition: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” In the first 3 chapters, Paul has explained the calling of the Christian in doctrinal terms, and now he calls his readers to live in light of that doctrine.
In Titus 3:8 Paul pulls orthodoxy and orthopraxy together in one verse: “I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God [orthodoxy] may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good [orthopraxy]. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.” He does the same thing in Ephesians 2. Verses 8–9 emphasize the orthodox teaching that we are saved by grace through faith apart from good works: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Verse 10 completes the thought: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Once again, correct belief comes first, and out of that flow correct works. We are saved apart from works; God’s purpose in saving us is that we do good works.
In fact, the relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy is so strong that, if a person does not perform good works, it is doubtful that he believes the right things. First John 2:3–6 explains, “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”
Some religions and some forms of Christianity emphasize orthopraxy with little regard for orthodoxy, but this is not the biblical pattern. Likewise, some forms of Christianity emphasize orthodoxy with little regard for orthopraxy. This too is unbiblical. The biblical model is that we must embrace correct doctrine (orthodoxy), and this must be more than mere intellectual assent to truth. Biblical faith involves trust and personal commitment. When a person goes beyond affirming the fact that Christ is the “Savior of the world” to trusting Christ as “my Savior from my sins,” then he or she is born again. The indwelling Spirit of God begins to change that person from within. Correct behavior (orthopraxy) will result from that inner work.
We cannot see a person’s heart, but the link between orthopraxy and orthodoxy is so strong that, if a person’s practice is not correct, we can infer that his faith is not truly orthodox. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:14–19). Even demons have an orthodox theology, but they are not saved!
In summary, both orthodoxy and orthopraxy are important. If any form of Christianity emphasizes one to the exclusion or diminishing of the other, it is unbiblical. Good deeds are a necessary and normal part of the Christian life; however, they are unable to make one righteous before God. Justification is only possible by faith in the Savior whose substitutionary, sacrificial death paid the penalty for our sins and provided us with the righteousness that we need to make us acceptable to God.