It’s beyond me as to why, but it seems like we like reducing things to either-or situations a lot more often than is warranted.
We Christians are not immune. We have plenty of people who suggest that what we say or what we do is much more important than what we believe. And we have people who say that what we believe is much more important than what we say or do.
In seminary, we called this something like “the tension between orthodoxy and orthopraxy,” which is one reason I’m glad I’m not in seminary anymore. What we meant was that sometimes we find ourselves trying to figure out whether or not we should emphasize right doctrine (orthodoxy) or right action (orthopraxy). The answer, of course, is yes.
Trying to say we should pick one or the other as more important is like trying to say we should pick whether or not our right leg or our left leg is more important. It can’t really be done, and it will only lead to confusion if we try.
Many people today say they are disgusted with all the church fights over doctrines and dogmas. They say they don’t want to put up with people who just want to argue about Jesus’ divinity or whether God is a trinity and similar ideas. Jesus, they suggest, was interested a lot more in whether or not people followed him than he was in how many rules they followed or how many different theological concepts they got right.
There’s some truth to this. Jesus did seem to suggest people follow him a lot more often than he gave pop quizzes on theology. He did say a whole lot more about caring for each other than he did about professing all the right beliefs.
But can you imagine watching someone for a little while, seeing what they say and do, how they react to people and how they handle issues that come up, and not understanding a few things about what they believe? It wouldn’t be a perfect picture, of course, because none of us always practice what we preach, but it would be a pretty good snapshot. I read an article once about an executive who had two candidates for a promotion. He watched how they handled themselves at dinner and how they treated the person who waited on them, and he promoted the one who showed her more respect. He said that both candidates said they cared a lot about people who worked under them, but only one showed it.
What we do flows out of what we believe. My preaching professor in seminary said the three short sermons we prepared for his class would tell him more about our theology than the 40-page paper we turned in for our systematic theology class.
But the flip side is just as true. Yes, what we do flows out of what we believe, but what we believe has to flow into what we do or else it’s just some words.
There’s a series of novels by Andrew Vachss about a career con-man, thief and sometimes private investigator named Burke. Burke has no blood family, just a group of people he considers his family because they have stood by him in every situation. He knows he can count on them because they have always come through for him. They may never have said they would stick by him, but they always have stuck by him, which leads Burke to one of the codes he lives by: Behavior is truth. He has heard a lot of people lie to him and say things they didn’t follow through on, so he accepts behavior and behavior only as the truth.
We can’t un-link doctrine and action – and John’s letter uses that link to show us how God’s promise of salvation is real: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.” It also directs how we ought to act in response: “…we ought to lay our lives down for one another.”
That, after all, was the commandment John emphasized from the Last Supper, when Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” That would become the basis of our doctrine as Christians. Everything we say roots in it. Think about it. Somebody asks us, “Why do you all always help each other out?” or something similar.
“Well, Jesus told us that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
“We say he’s the Son of God.”
And you can see how from there we will eventually get to our doctrines of things like Jesus being fully human and fully divine, as well as how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit make one God, not three, and so on.
I’m not stupid. I know that we don’t always have that reputation as the people who help each other out, and I know that even if we did, there would be people who wouldn’t care or who would work to make up rotten stuff about us. But I’m pretty sure that’s their problem. My problem is making sure that the actions I take proclaim the doctrines I believe, and that in whatever small way I have available to me, I point the way to the gospel that has offered me salvation.