The Problem with Orthopraxy

It’s clear that when someone devotes their life to Christ, something about their behavior should change. With the help of the Holy Spirit they should be transformed into a new kind of person. Their lives should be marked by grace, mercy and righteousness. But I’m unconvinced that focusing on people’s outward behavior as a marker of change is what Jesus was all about. In fact I get the opposite picture.

Jesus’ harshest critiques were not directed at sinners. Instead they were reserved for the religious who were consumed with following every letter of the law. Jesus over and over again condemns them for obeying the law and keeping evil in their heart. He accuses them of being white-washed tombs and of only washing the outside of the cup. It’s clear that their outward obedience was not a credit to their righteousness. It did nothing to endear them to Christ. Should we expect it to be different with us? I can’t imagine how a church that is truly devoted to the teachings of Jesus can be consumed with orthopraxy.

I’m convinced that Jesus is unconcerned with our behavior. Instead, what he is after is our character. A heart that looks like his. Obedience to rules (even if they come from a church) doesn’t make someone a true follower of Jesus anymore than the ability to pass a theology test.

Listen to these words from Paul:

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. . .

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:16-17, 20-23)

Look at verse 20 in the KJV: Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances

I agree, they lack any value in restraining sin. Only developing a character that loves what Jesus loves gives us the ability to live a truly different kind of life. (which is what Colossians 3 goes on to talk about)

26 thoughts on “The Problem with Orthopraxy

  1. I’m convinced that Jesus is unconcerned with our behavior. Instead, what he is after is our character. A heart that looks like his. Obedience to rules (even if they come from a church) doesn’t make someone a true follower of Jesus anymore than the ability to pass a theology test.

    I agree 100 percent. I remember a missionary telling me something that is consistent with the above: “God doesn’t care where you are. What He cares about is in which direction you’re headed.” And that, I believe, is the essence of the Gospel, what the Atonement is all about.

    But that leads to the obvious question: How is our character developed? How do we become more like Christ? Ultimately, it is developed by what we do, not by what we say. Look at the great people of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11. All of them are praised for what they did by faith. I don’t believe it’s possible to become like Christ without doing like Christ. Faith and doing are two sides of the same coin, the two halves of a pair of scissors, whatever cliché you care to use.

    Nor do I believe it’s possible to become more like Christ while continuing to choose sin.

    Is it possible to be overly concerned with orthopraxy? Definitely! I’ve seen Mormons do it, I’ve seen evangelicals do it. But does that mean it plays no role? Paul certainly didn’t think so. Read his letters to the Corinthians, where he tells them in no uncertain terms that what was going on in that church was wrong.

    Ultimately, we aren’t saved by following the rules, nor by doing what is right. We are saved by the blood of Christ. But that doesn’t mean what we do is unimportant, nor that it doeesn’t play a role in accepting the grace Jesus so freely proffers us.

  2. Tim, I agree with you. If following the rules was all-important, then Jesus would have always done things according to the rules–when many of the stories of His life demonstrate that He specifically didn’t (violating Sabbath laws in order to help and heal others, etc.).

    I think that that is one of the problems with the Mormon church. There are so many rules–over and above what is necessary–and in order to be a member of the church in good standing you have to obey these rules. So it’s clear that the church teaches that behavior is required.

    Now, I’m not saying that there are not standards that true followers of Christ will likely adhere to. There are. However, I think that depending on where we are in our path to following Jesus will affect how His power changes and transforms us. So we certainly have no basis to judge other people for their actions.

  3. My feeling is that righteous works are more for our own personal benefit within the Atonement, than any particular expectation God has.

    Joseph Smith once gave as a requirement for “faith unto salvation”:

    “an actual knowledge that the course of life which he is pursuing is according to his [God’s] will.”

    Joseph also explained that fear and doubt in the human mind would preclude the necessary faith to invoke Christ’s Atonement. I believe this means that the unrepentant wrongdoer can have no such internal assurance. Constant repentance is therefore needed to reassure the follower of Christ that she can indeed be forgiven and the atoning blood of Christ may be applied to her. I believe that the ordinances at the center of Mormon worship are essentially about producing this attitude of absolute reliance upon Christ in the worshiper. It is not enough that Christ suffered and died for us. We must also accept first, that he died for us, and secondly, that we are actively seeking His mercy. Ordinances such as baptism and then the temple are essential to this attitude in the worshiper.

    Why is the temple so essential?

    Because of what is taught there. The central idea that is taught (and I feel comfortable saying this) is that total commitment of the worshiper is required for exaltation. The sacrifice of all that we are to Christ. Then is his grace sufficient for us. Another relevant quote from Joseph:

    “Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for, from the first existence of man, that faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things. It was through this sacrifice, and this only, that God has ordained that men should enjoy eternal life; and it is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God…. Under these circumstances then, he can obtain the faith necessary for him to lay hold of eternal life.” (pg. 69)

    He continues:

    “But those who have not made this sacrifice to God do not know that the course which they pursue is well pleasing in his sight; for whatever may be their belief or their opinion, it is a matter of doubt and uncertainty in their mind; and where doubt and uncertainty are there faith is not, nor can it be. For doubt and faith do not exist in the same person at the same time; so that persons whose minds are under doubts and fears cannot have unshaken confidence; and where unshaken confidence is not there faith is weak; and where faith is weak the persons will not be able to contend against all the opposition, tribulations, and afflictions which they will have to encounter in order to be heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ Jesus; and they will grow weary in their minds, and the adversary will have power over them and destroy them.”

    It’s a bit rough, but some compelling ideas just the same.

    My own personal inquiry of Mormon Gospel indicates that “Celestial material” (as some Mormons put it) is basically anyone who is repenting. This was Hugh Nibley’s view. It’s not so much a matter of how close to, or distant from perfection we are. It’s more a matter of where we are facing. We must be constantly facing toward God and constantly and sincerely repenting.

    So “good works” within Mormon doctrine really is not a matter of making the worshiper independently “more godlike” and thus “more worthy” of going to heaven. In fact the good works are infinitely inadequate for bringing us even so much as a centimeter closer to God on their own merits. Likewise, no Mormon has cause for judging himself any better than his brother by virtue of good works. The works are quite irrelevant to any question of whether I am Celestial material.

    What the works do (and I speak primarily of the ordinances of the Church), is provide a framework within which faith can flourish. It’s about the inner state of the the worshiper, not the external positioning of the worshiper in some merit-based scheme.

  4. Sorry, I forgot to provide a citation.

    The quotes come from Joseph Smith’s “Lectures on Faith.” A short and interesting read.

  5. “If following the rules was all-important, then Jesus would have always done things according to the rules–when many of the stories of His life demonstrate that He specifically didn’t (violating Sabbath laws in order to help and heal others, etc.).”

    Can you site a specific example? Because the one you allude to—breaking Sabbath laws—doesn’t work: Jesus was breaking the rules that the scribes and lawyers had created, but he was still in line with the original Sabbath commandment. In other words, he followed God’s rules and broke man’s.

  6. How about not stoning a woman caught in adultery?

    I do believe that Jesus kept the law, but he also made it clear that keeping the law really meant nothing if we aren’t right with God and right with other people.

  7. Re-read the account. Jesus never redacted the stoning law in that instance.

    What he said was “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

    Mosaic law required two witnesses for an adultery sentence to be carried out (the practical result of this requirement was that – in theory – few adultery cases could ever be prosecuted – witnesses to the act being hard to come by). What Christ’s statement here actually means is “let the witnesses come forward and testify then.”

    Christ was requiring that all due process of the Mosaic Law be carried out.

    Of course, no witnesses were willing to come forward. Quite likely the man involved was either in the crowd, or was a son of one of the angry Pharisees. Either way, they weren’t about to step forward and admit to the skeletons in their own closet. Convicted of their consciences, they lamely slunk away.

    Christ was acting as an attorney here. He basically got the woman off for a failure to give her full due process of the law. The woman’s guilt was never in question, but she had not been properly convicted under Mosaic Law. Christ simply demanded that the law be carried out properly.

    The Mercy part comes after the Pharisees have left. “Woman, where are thy accusers?” To which she replies that there are none. “Neither do I condemn thee, go thy way and sin no more.”

    Christ in no way, abrogated the Mosaic Law in this instance. He simply demanded it be carried out properly and then, when the procedure failed to convict, He was more than willing to not hold it against her and let her go with a mere call to not let it happen again.

  8. Remember, Christ’s Atonement was never in effect until he actually died. The “fulfillment” of the Mosaic Law had not yet taken place. It was still in full force during Christ’s mortal ministry. And he kept it in the full spirit and intent that it was originally meant. And who better to observe the Mosaic Law properly, than he who originally gave the Law?

  9. My gut tells me Seth’s comments above are completely off-base and riddled with characteristically Mormon legalism. A perfect example of trying to retrofit the New Testament in order to fit “seamlessly” with meticulous Mormon doctrinal formulas.

  10. Yeah this seems to be a way of saying that Jesus was MORE legalistic than the Pharisees and it was actually legalism that saved the woman.

    Like I said, I think Jesus was keeping the law, but he was unimpressed with it’s ability to do anything for us other than show us we can’t keep it. (and thus need salvation from it and ourselves).

  11. Actually, I got the story while in law school from Protestant legal scholar Thomas Schaffer. Most Mormons read the story exactly the way you read it Tim and the take I described would be just as unconventional to them (sorry Kullervo, that dog won’t bark).

    You’ve completely misread the message Tim.

    Christ returned to a detail of the Law that existed for a very important reason. The need for a witness is no “mere technicality.” It speaks to the most basic notions of fairness and justice. A law system given by God would rightly demand a witness. As I noted, the Law was actually rather merciful in itself in this regard since a conviction would rightly be rather rare if the Law were actually being observed (which I imagine it usually wasn’t).

    That the Pharisees had degenerated far enough to be willing to execute a woman without these requirements of justice, shows how much they had twisted the Law given to them by God. Christ required that justice and the Law be met. Not in “mere technicalities” as you have wrongfully labeled them, but in the very essence of what was good and holy about the Law to begin with. To say Christ was a mere trial attorney getting his client off on a technicality is to miss the boat. Christ has often been called “our advocate with the Father” and he acted in this capacity here. He demanded a very central and vital component of the Law. When it could not be provided, the Law was completely satisfied. The woman was free to go.

    Christ often took the Pharisees to task over their treatment of the Mosaic Law, NOT because they were “so nitpicky” in keeping it, but because they were selective in which parts they kept and emphasized. Thus Christ’s condemnation of them for “tithing mint and cummin” while turning widows out of their homes and oppressing the poor. Thus his anger at the priestly corruption that made the Holy Temple into a base profit-scheme – usually at the expense of the poor and in favor of the rich.

    Let’s take another example. Christ and his disciples stop by the roadside and grab some food from a nearby farmer’s field. They are then rebuked by the Pharisees for “laboring on the Sabbath.” Under the Mosaic Law, there was, in actuality no mention of grabbing nearby fruit being a violation of the Sabbath. This was a legalistic interpretation made by later rabbis and Pharisees. Christ was rightly unimpressed with their indignation. The Lord of the Mosaic Law knew full well what was, and was not required by that law.

    But here’s the second part. In taking freely of the farmer’s field, the disciples were actually fully in compliance with the Mosaic Law which allowed passersby to freely eat of any field or orchard they happened to be near if in need. In this manner, and others, the Mosaic Law proposed to provide for the poor in society and promote generosity among the Jews.

    How ironic, that the disciples in partaking of the generosity of the Mosaic Law, should be condemned by the avaricious and power-hungry Pharisees over an added technicality that was incidental, if not irrelevant to the actual Law! The same Pharisees who were extorting money from the poor via temple services and complex and corrupted tithing practices.

    To call Christ more legalistic than the Pharisees is to misread utterly the message. Christ adhered to the TRUE Law. Not the imaginary and corrupted Law treasured by the Pharisees. And Christ used the demands of the true Law to undo the additions of the Pharisees.

  12. Thanks for the clarification.

    You’re still not really dealing with the point of my OP. Is Christ more concerned with your outward adherence to the law or your character? What’s your take?

  13. Mercy cannot rob justice. Of course Christ is concerned with our inner character.

    But suppose a genuinely nice guy has one too many beers at the bar and then runs over someone’s child on the way home.

    Of course Christ values the man’s good nature, but he still weeps for the pain of the loss of the child. The man being a nice person does not change the harm caused. Justice will now have its demands.

    Make no mistake, Christ values justice. Probably far more than you or I. He therefore highly values adherence to the law. But he, and his Father, both realize that we have been placed in a bit of a catch-22. They both love us dearly and want to find a way out for us. This is the basis of the Atonement. It satisfies both justice and mercy at the same time.

    The Atonement was certainly an act of mercy. But don’t think that this means it wasn’t also an act of justice. Christ highly prizes justice. He prizes it so much that he was willing to suffer and die for it. We would do well not to trivialize it as “mere technicalities” or as a failure to “lighten up a little.” Christ doesn’t look at justice that way, I’m sure.

    Which is more important to him?

    We have no basis for saying he values either one over the other. They are both infinitely precious to him.

  14. Great. So now the man has accepted the atonement. He’s received mercy and justice has be done. What does Christ want out of his life as a follower of Him:

    Adherence to rules
    a pure and virtuous character

    What should the Christians focus be as he models his life after Jesus?

  15. It’s not a one time acceptance. Repentance and conversion is a constant and lifelong process.

    As to what Christ wants of his followers… again, both. Both adherence to the commandments (a much better word for them than mere “rules”) and a pure and virtuous inner state (by which, perhaps, you mean “conversion to Christ”?).

    The focus of the Christian should be to devote his every effort to following Christ’s perfect example – “what manner of men ought ye to be… even as I am” – with an ultimate reliance upon Christ “who is mighty to save.”

  16. Tim asked:What does Christ want out of his life as a follower of Him:

    Adherence to rules
    a pure and virtuous character

    As Seth R. suggests, who says it’s either-or? (And like Seth R., I’m not fond of the word “rules” either.)

    But for the sake of argument, let’s say that the only thing Jesus wants from us is “a pure and virtuous character”? How do we get that?

    It seems to me that the commandments we’ve been given — and there aren’t many, but loving God and neighbor are on top of the list — are designed at least in part to help us develop a godly character. (Or we could flip that and they they are designed at least in part to impart a godly character. Putting it that way may put more emphasis on grace, where it belongs.)

    It seems to me like that if we say the choice above is an either-or choice, we’re ignoring what Paul said: “What shall we say then? Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase? Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2)

    I think that one difference between Mormonism and at least some strains of evangelicalism is that we tend to see salvation as a process, not an event. And that process involves both doing and believing.

    If we think that what we do is more important than what we are (or what we are becoming), then we have misplaced our priorities, which is the way I interpreted the original post. But that doesn’t mean that what we do doesn’t matter, for what we do influences what we become.

    When Paul writes about presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice and connects that with the renewing of our minds (see Romans 12:1-2), I think he’s saying that what we do is intimately connected with the inner purity we’ve talked about here. Paul didn’t separate doing and being, and it’s a false dichotomy for us to do so.

  17. To say that there aren’t many commandments–especially in the Mormon church–is a bit of an understatement, eh? I mean, let’s list just the commandments in the word of wisdom:

    1. No drugs.
    2. No alcohol
    3. No tobacco
    4. No coffee
    5. No tea
    6. Caffeinated beverages debatable (although I will die saying that they are not against the WoW until a prophet says that they are)
    7. Go to bed early, awake early
    8. Eat healthy–lots of veggies, not much meat.
    9. Exercise

    While, I agree that this is generally a good health code, without following it, you can’t go to the temple, can’t receive saving ordinaces, and thus cannot go to the Celestial Kingdom. Do you really think that Jesus cares if you drink wine (which he did), or if you drink coffee (which Joseph Smith did, and was on the recommended packing list–after the WoW was published–for the trip to Utah)?

    And, to rant just a little–the WoW is a requirement to go to the temple, but people who are eating unhealthily (and are absurdly overweight as a result), don’t exercise, and don’t go to bed early are allowed in the temple. It’s not a temple filled with skinny, healthy folks. So, the only portion that bishops and stake presidents actually focus on is the ‘don’ts’. And, honestly, I just don’t see how doing those things is going to provide me with a faith that is stronger than my giving money if I have it to the person who asks me for it on the street (which Jesus said to do, but is not a requirement and is probably a repugnant idea to many conservative (read: Republican) Mormons). Why the discrepancy? Shouldn’t we be patterning our lives after Jesus?

    So, if I’m giving all that I have–all of my time, talents, etc. to the good of the world, but enjoying a morning latte while I do it, I cannot go to the Celestial Kingdom because I cannot get my temple recommend.

  18. Katyjane, the recommend interview asks if you keep the Word of Wisdom. That’s it. The bishop isn’t supposed to pry into the details.

    I can’t speak for anyone else. But I am emphatically grateful to have grown up in a faith that had the Word of Wisdom and in a family that took it seriously. Alcohol would have destroyed me. There is no moderation for me on this issue. It would have ruined me, just as it ruined others in my family line. With what they are discovering about caffeine, it too would have seriously damaged my brain and messed things up, majorly.

    Now I’ve come to learn that my pattern of staying up too late has probably been a very bad influence throughout my life. I believe that the Word of Wisdom is possibly one of the most important commandments given to our Church and has served us very well. I watched caffeine slowly eat away at my classmates throughout law school. I saw the depression, ugliness, and desperation that pervaded their existence through alcohol. Law school has some of the highest substance abuse rates and marriage failures of any other academic endeavor.

    I came through substance-free and marriage intact. I believe that is entirely due to me being a Mormon and little else. I know my nature. I really dodged a major bullet being born into this religion.

    Just an aside that really doesn’t have much to do with the OP.

  19. If we think that what we do is more important than what we are (or what we are becoming), then we have misplaced our priorities, which is the way I interpreted the original post. But that doesn’t mean that what we do doesn’t matter, for what we do influences what we become.

    I absolutely agree.

    A right character will always produce right actions. A man with a virtuous heart will ALWAYS do the right thing even if you give him no commandments or instruction.

    A focus on rules and commandments will produce people who aren’t able to think for themselves and are incapable of responding correctly when they rules aren’t stated or the rules don’t apply. At it’s worst it produces legalism which twist the rules to make them evil and oppressive.

    But for the sake of argument, let’s say that the only thing Jesus wants from us is “a pure and virtuous character”? How do we get that?

    Great question. I could say a lot about his, but the answer is with hard work and a lot of intentionality. I strongly recommend “Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ” by Dallas Willard and “Celebration of the Disciplines” by Richard Foster. These books are specifically written to help you become a new creation the way Jesus intended.

  20. Just because you got it from a Protestant law professor doesn’t mean it doesn’t sound like something straight out of the bowels of CES.

  21. “I do believe that Jesus kept the law, but he also made it clear that keeping the law really meant nothing if we aren’t right with God and right with other people.”

    Which is, I think, the original point of the Law (a point many missed). I also think this is Paul’s point in Romans 1-5 (sorry, no time to give exact verses).

    To tie this into the OP: the Law served as a way to communicate how to “be right with God and right with other people.”

    Seth’s rebuttal of the adulteress notwithstanding, can you site an example of Jesus breaking the Law—an example that isn’t riddled with signs of being a later scribal insertion?

  22. I blogged about this in July, but rather than throwing out both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, I said that they are coupled, that they balance each other. Problems arise when we focus on one or the other. Like Tim said in comment #20, I think, pure character will produce right actions. But if I’m trying to examine my life to discover where my character needs refinement, the only thing I have to go on is what I do, what the Bible calls fruit. John in his letters talks about the indissoluble link between our character and our actions.

    Paul mentions holiness a lot, too, and holiness is definitely descriptive of behavior. In Titus he calls it behavior “becoming [suiting, appropriate to] godliness.”

    Here is the link to my post on the subject. I appreciate Tim bringing it up.

    To God be all glory,
    Lisa of Longbourn

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