Orthopraxy: Learning How to Live Out Our Faith from Heathen

by Scott Bessenecker

Pagan astrologers worshipping at the feet of the Messiah is an interesting way to begin the story of Jesus.

It is not the theologically-correct, teachers of the Law who seek out and worship the Messiah, even though they know from scripture his precise birthplace. It is the star-gazing heathen from the enemies of God’s people that search out and worship God made flesh.

Shepherds, tax collectors, and prostitutes manage to find and follow Jesus. But quite often, those who are obsessed with orthodoxy end up missing signs of the Messiah. It should, therefore, be no surprise to us when Jesus highlights the theologically-incorrect as a contrast to those who possess right theology but wrong attitudes and behaviors.

Jesus’ inaugural sermon nearly got him killed for praising a couple heathen to his synagogue-attending friends and relatives. Elijah, he told them, could have gone to any good Jewish widow in Israel, but instead, he found in a pagan widow in Zarephath the kind of prophet-welcoming hospitality that ought to mark God’s people.

And God could have easily healed one of the many faithful, kosher-loving Jewish lepers in Israel, but chose to heal Naaman the infidel from Syria. Publicly shaming the good Jews of Nazareth might today be like to a young Texan seminarian returning to his small town conservative church attended by Gulf War veterans and preaching, “The Taliban are more faithful in following God than you all.”

In Luke 10, when Jesus taught what it looked like to “love thy neighbor,” he lifted up the theologically-misguided (a Samaritan) to the shame of the theologically-informed (a priest and a Levite). And when a pork-eating, uncircumcised, Roman barbarian pleads with Jesus to heal his servant from afar, Jesus tells his followers, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (Matt 8:10).

Whether it is non-Jews populating Jesus’ genealogy or godly exemplars like the Canaanite woman in Mark 7:24-30, we see Jesus unafraid to laud those who do not have their theological act together and challenging those who pride themselves on their theological precision.

I am not saying that attention to orthodoxy is wrong-headed. Having good grounding in the truth should lead to right action. It is just that an obsession with theological minutia can sometimes get in the way of practically living out the faith.

“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life.” Jesus tells Jewish leaders who are upset by his Sabbath-breaking ways. “These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (Jn. 5:39-40)

It seems odd to me that Jesus was more generous in praising those with bad orthodoxy but good orthopraxy than his followers are today.

Might some non-Christians be expressing a form of worship in living out the teachings of Jesus’ sermon on the mount? How might we call out and celebrate the good things that people of other Christian traditions let alone other faith traditions are doing? And where in our meticulous attention to theological precision have we strained out a gnat but swallowed a camel?

Even one of the greatest Christian theologians of all time, the Apostle Paul, confessed that we see through a glass darkly, and we know only in part (1 Cor. 13:12). In this very passage the apostle holds up the supremacy of love over all other Christian gifts and virtues.

As we consider how the pagan Magi sought out a Messiah whom they likely had very little good theology to go on, let us be willing to appreciate the mark of God in those who do not share our faith, and perhaps even allow them to model an orthopraxy that we have lost in our quest for technical correctness over practical goodness.


Scott Bessenecker (@Bessenecker) is associate director of mission for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Each year, he helps to mobilize thousands of students to high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods in the U.S. and to dozens of nations around the world. He is author or editor of five books, including his new release Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex. Scott also blogs at www.OverturningTabels.net.