Orthodoxy or orthopathos?

Spend a little time in the church and you’ll hear the word “orthodox” thrown around a lot. I explained to one bishop’s wife in Nigeria this summer how I thought the unity of Christians was a deeply Biblical concern. “Unity of orthodox Christians,” she tartly replied.

At the end of a summer traveling in the world church, I find myself wondering about the usefulness of a concept like orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy means “right thinking.” But Christian unity really isn’t about what we think. It’s about what we feel. There will never be a day when all the Christians in the world will be able to write down what we believe and have everyone sign on to it. (We should praise God for that.) Even the councils of the early church that produced our statements of orthodoxy like the Nicene Creed were incredibly divisive events. The Council of Nicaea did not settle the questions raised by Arius once and for all. Instead, it splintered and further divided Christians and led to more councils some decades later.

Christian unity is, rather, about the feeling that exists between Christians, a feeling of, for lack of a better word, agape. These are the kind of feelings I had when I encountered sisters and brothers in Christ who think differently to me on some issues but who love me (and I them). This is true of people like Paul, Chuks, and Chike in Owerri, “ashamed” Anglicans in Uzuakoli, refugees in Abyei, or Lisu on a mountain in Yunnan, or, or, or…. The list goes on and on.

Perhaps what we need to start thinking about is what I am now calling orthopathos, or “right feeling.” (There are Google results for this word but I’ve never heard it used before. Has anyone else?) Christian unity might best be served by concentrating on developing this feeling of love between fellow believers rather than spending so much energy on getting all our thinking ducks in a row. Indeed, the latter effort often, it seems, serves to undermine the former.

The body of Christ is not a metaphor. Paul knew that. I know that now, too. How do I know that? Not because I’ve thought it. It’s because I’ve felt it – in real, concrete relationships of Christian charity across deep cultural divides that I pray will only deepen with the passage of time.

5 thoughts on “Orthodoxy or orthopathos?

  1. Sydney

    I agree that concern for orthodoxy often leads to lamentable divisiveness, but I wonder if orthodoxy can be replaced by orthopathos. You suggest that orthopathos is a certain feeling that exists between Christians. But who are the Christians? Can we identify them without at least to some extent involving beliefs? More fundamentally, can one be a Christian without holding certain beliefs? I don’t mean to suggest that there is some nice, neat list of beliefs individually necessary and jointly sufficient for being a Christian. I’m assuming it’s more complicated than that. But I am suggesting that beliefs play some sort of essential role.

    Perhaps the, or rather, a problem with the term ‘orthodoxy’ is that it can be used in two different ways. On the one hand, orthodoxy or right-thinking is a very global sort of thing, i.e., there are a great many issues about which one can be right or wrong. So to be truly orthodox, you’re going to have to get an awful lot of checks on your test. On the other hand, when we use orthodoxy as a test for whether one is in or out, it’s supposed to be something more minimal. But I’m not sure we always keep it as minimal in that context as we should.

    In any even, more agape would no doubt be a good thing.

    – Sydney

  2. Johannes Anti-Hominem

    I like this tripartite distinction (orthodoxy, orthopraxis, orthopathos) very much. You may find some of our own musings on theological anthropology quite interesting at lupuscain.wordpress.com


  3. Matt

    Jesse, I think I am going to make the phrase “the bonds of affection” that appears in the Anglican Covenant the topic of my Anglican II paper on the Covenant. I remembered your phrase “orthopathos” from your presentation in the fall and was surprised that your post here is one of the top Google results (one of only about 2,000). I am actually going to be somewhat critical of the idea that “the bonds of affection which hold us together”/”mutual affection” is such a prominent principle of unity in the Covenant since orthopathos without some agreed orthodoxy seems problematic to me for a Christian communion. –Matt

  4. There are traditions that teach that the proper goal of theology is orthodoxy (right thinking), orthopathos (right feeling) and orthopraxis (right practice/behavior). These three are equally valid, equally significant, and all influence one another. I have found this incredibly helpful in keeping me balanced. Many of us (me included) have a tendency to focus on one or another of these three, but they’re equally significant parts of a godly life. Different traditions tend to “over-focus” on one or another: Charismatics tend to be “orthopathos” types; reformed churches tend to be heady “orthodoxy” types; and, in my experience, college ministries (of which I am a part) and missionaries tend to be “orthopraxis” types. Knowing this can help us to not be blind to the areas we tend to ignore.

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