#23  What We Do Is More Important than What We Believe

ORTHODOXY IS A WORD that has had a long and checkered history in the two-millennia-long story of the Christian faith. While the idea of orthodoxy was not completely absent even in New Testament times,[1] the emphasis on the importance of orthodoxy was not prevalent in Christianity until the fourth century. The Ecumenical Councils of the church, beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325, composed creeds which were intended to separate orthodoxy from heresy. More precisely, the religious and political leaders sought to remove those deemed to be heretics from the orthodox within the Church.

Until about sixty years ago, the emphasis on orthodoxy was largely unchallenged in Christianity, although, to be sure, some small, “splinter” groups placed more emphasis on correct action than on correct belief. But for the church as a whole, the creeds were the focal point of correctness, and all who entered the Christian faith and sought to maintain good standing in that faith were expected to agree with the creeds.

There are, of course, some non-creedal churches—such as the Baptists. But Baptists, too, from not long after their beginning in the seventeenth century, have drafted and adopted various confessions, church covenants, or statements of their “faith and message.”

Until recently almost no Baptist church would use a creed, not even the Apostles’ Creed as a part of their worship. Nevertheless, in the case of Baptists, “orthodoxy” meant agreeing with the Bible as generally understood and believed by other Baptists. And in recent years, within the Southern Baptist Convention orthodoxy meant agreeing with The Baptist Faith and Message as revised in 2000. Thus, for Baptists, as well as for most other Christians, what one believed has been, and continues to be, considered to be a primary focus of what it means to be a Christian and a member in a local church.

In spite of all this, however, Christians, and people of all faiths, need to recognize that what they do is more important than what they believe.

The Contribution of Liberation Theology

That which is known as liberation theology has its strong supporters as well as severe critics. In July 2010, Glenn Beck, the widely influential (then more than now) American conservative radio and television host, political commentator, and author, publically denounced liberation theology—and criticized President Obama for being linked to liberation theology through his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Beck declared that “liberation theology has completely perverted Christianity and [is] teaching something radically different.”[2]

There are variations in all movements and schools of thought; some are more excessive in their emphases than others. That is true for liberation theology, too, of course. Assuredly, there have been some statements made and some actions performed in the name of liberation theology that clearly have to be labeled as extreme. But leveler heads than Glenn Beck’s are needed for an accurate analysis of liberation theology, and a good starting place is a book by Robert McAfee Brown, Liberation Theology: An Introductory Guide.[3]

Three distinct liberation theology movements began in the early 1970s. There was a liberation theology movement started by James Cone, an African-American theologian who wrote A Black Theology of Liberation.[4] A second liberation movement was begun by Rosemary Radford Ruether, who wrote Liberation Theology, a book about women’s issues.[5]

For many, though, liberation theology refers primarily to a theological movement whose roots go back to the late 1960s in South America. Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez became the clear leader of that theological movement when in 1973 A Theology of Liberation, his seminal work, was published in English by Orbis Books.

Gutiérrez defines liberation theology as “a critical reflection on Christian praxis in light of the word of God.” He goes on to assert that “a principal task of ‘reflection on praxis in the light of faith’ will be to strengthen the necessary and fruitful links between orthopraxis and orthodoxy.”[6]

But what is all this talk about praxis and orthopraxis? Praxis simply means action or practice, but it often has the connotation of being the practical application of a theory. For religious people, praxis refers to the idea of putting faith into action. For Christians, It is particularly related to the idea that “faith without works is dead,” as found in the book of James.

Orthopraxis, or orthopraxy, then, simply refers to right action. This concept stands over against orthodoxy, which means right belief. Gutiérrez says that the purpose of orthopraxis is to recognize “the importance of concrete behavior, of deeds, of action, of praxis in the Christian life.”[7]

Given the wretched economic conditions of the masses of people in South America, the liberation theology developed in that continent emphasized liberation from poverty, and “the preferential option for the poor” became a widely used, and often misunderstand, slogan.

Similarly, given the wretched treatment of African-Americans, the Black liberation theology developed by James Cone focused on the liberation of minority groups in the U.S. from white supremacy. Likewise, the primary emphasis of Rosemary Radford Ruether and many other feminist theologians was on liberation from patriarchalism.

For all forms of liberation theology, though, action (praxis) is considered more important than words.

To Love God is to Do Justice

One of the subsections of Gutiérrez’s book is titled “To Know God is To Do Justice.” There he asserts more specifically that “to love Yahweh is to do justice to the poor and oppressed.”[8] This claim is bolstered with many references to words of the Old Testament prophets, especially the words of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea.

Here again Glenn Beck has spoken, but not wisely. Back in March 2010, Beck said on one of his daily radio and television shows, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!” Later, as we have already seen, he referred to social justice as “a perversion of the Gospel.”

There were many Christian leaders who responded to Beck’s ill-advised statements, perhaps none more eloquently than Jim Wallis, who has advocated social justice as a Christian for decades. He is the founder of the Sojourners Christian community, centered in downtown Washington, D.C., and the editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine. Sojourners’ mission, according to Wallis, is “to articulate the biblical call to social justice.”

In “Tell Glenn Beck I’m a Social Justice Christian,” his blog entry for March 10, 2010, Wallis contended that “the Bible is clear: from the Mosaic law of Jubilee, to the Hebrew prophets, to Jesus Christ, social justice is an integral part of God’s plan for humanity.”

The next day, even the New York Times explained that “the term ‘social justice’ was probably coined in the 1800s, codified in encyclicals by successive popes and adopted widely by Protestant churches in the 1900s. The concept is that Christians should not merely give to the poor, but also work to correct unjust conditions that keep people poor.”

This is what is meant by doing justice: working to change unjust conditions in the world. And that is partly why what we do is more important than what we believe.

The Powerful Message of Matthew 25

Keith Green was an outstanding Gospel musician who died in a tragic small airplane crash in 1982 when he was still only twenty-eight years old. Green composed the words and the music for “The Sheep and the Goats,” and that remains one of the most powerful Gospel songs I have ever heard—and I am listening to it again as I write these paragraph.[9]

Green’s moving song is based, of course, on Matthew 25:31-46. And the song closes with these words: “And my friends, the only difference between the sheep and the goats, according to this scripture, is what they did, and didn’t do!”

Since the time of Martin Luther, most Protestants have emphasized salvation by grace, not by works. Sometimes, however, there has been a faulty understanding of grace, a problematic construal that the German Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

Many Protestants have placed significant stress on Ephesians 2:8-9, which says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” But those Christians have often not properly stressed the very next verse: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Because of his strongly negative reaction against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church of his day, Martin Luther’s zeal for salvation by “grace only,” led him to take a rather dim view of the Book of James, which he called “a right strawy epistle.” But can the pointed words of James 2:17 be easily disregarded? That verse declares that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” And in the very next verse the insufficiency of belief is addressed, as it is pointed out that “even the demons believe.”

Perhaps there is no clearer statement in the Bible about how what Christians do is more important than what they believe than here in James 2—unless it is Matthew 7:21. There in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

As was noted earlier in the ninth chapter of this book, it is widely recognized that “Jesus is Lord” was the early “confession of faith” that people voiced before being baptized. That declaration emphasized what those who sought baptism believed about Jesus, although the original intention was probably more about following Jesus as Leader than holding certain beliefs about him. But here Jesus is saying that the oral confession of faith or belief is insufficient; it is doing God’s will that is of utmost importance.

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the well-known story of the contrasting builders, one constructing his house on the rock and the other building on the sand. Jesus starts by saying, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (NIV). Here is a clear emphasis on praxis; Jesus’ plainly stresses doing, not just believing.

Doing Theology

The recognition of the importance of praxis has led to an emphasis on doing theology. That is, theology is understood mainly as an action rather than as speculative thought, study, and the composition of learned papers. The idea is that followers of Jesus must do theology just as they must do justice.

And the New Testament even declares that people must also do the truth. John 3:21 makes the informative statement that whoever “does the truth comes to the light.”[10] Truth is generally thought of as something that must be acknowledged, understood, or believed. But John writes that truth is something that must be done.

Similarly, theology is generally thought of as something that one studies or a system of beliefs that one embraces. Personally, I have spent a lot of time in the classroom, in Japan and following retirement in the United States, teaching theology. The emphasis in teaching theology is primarily that of seeking to distinguish correct beliefs (orthodoxy) from heretical (or at least questionable) beliefs. Considerable time is spent on the study of “propositions,” doctrinal statements. Attention is given to how and why such statements were formulated and what they mean.

That is all good and important. But theological study has its limits, for doing theology is more important than studying theology.

When I was a theological student decades ago, I never heard the words “do theology.” Theology was considered something one studied, not something one did. Perhaps it was in the 1970s that some people started talking about doing theology. That was when I began to hear it used in Japan—and I remember hearing lay Christians there question the use of such an “odd” phrase.

But people came more and more to realize that there was great discrepancy, as perhaps there has always been, between what people said they believed (all in accordance with orthodoxy) and how they put the teachings of Jesus into practice. To counter such inconsistency, many began to downplay the emphasis on theology as correct belief (orthodoxy) in order to emphasize more strongly that vital theology must include correct practice (orthopraxy).

For the development of theology as it has generally been known, Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians talked about theology as the “second act.” First was action or loving service in the name of Jesus. Then theological thought was “critical reflection on praxis,” which led again to action. Thus, theological study was not something that could be done adequately in the classroom alone. It had to be related to a specific context in which people were living, usually a context in which they were suffering in varying ways.

Responding in love to the poor and needy was primary; thinking about the meaning of that response was secondary. This is a good way to understand the meaning of doing theology. And it undergirds the important point I am making here: what we do is more important than what we believe.


[1] See particularly the Apostle Paul’s condemnation of those who were seeking “a different gospel” in Galatians 1:6-9.

[2] Found at http://www.glennbeck.com/content/articles/article/198/42891/.

[3] (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993). Brown (1920-2001) is also the author of another excellent book on liberation theology: Theology in a New Key: Responding to Liberation Themes (Westminster Press, 1978).

[4] First published by Lippincott in 1970, this book was most recently published by Orbis Books in 1990.

[5] (Paulist Press, 1972).

[6] Pp. xxix and xxxiv of the 1988 edition of A Theology of Liberation.

[7] Ibid., p. 8. This statement is in “Theology as Critical Reflection on Praxis” (pp. 5-11), the longest part of Gutiérrez’s first chapter.

[8] P. 110; the brief subsection is found on pp. 110-2.

[9] The song was released in 1981, although he performed it live as early as 1978. The YouTube version I listened to was performed that year in Estes Park, Colorado. If you haven’t heard Green sing that song, I highly recommend listening to it as you consider the content of this chapter. (Here is the link.)

[10] Other translations are not as explicit. For example, the NIV has “whoever lives by the truth,” and the New American Standard Bible has “he who practices the truth.” But the idea is very similar.

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