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Challenges to the Church - Pragmatism

This is the third article in a series that examines various doctrinal and societal challenges the Evangelical church must face early in the 21st Century. Previously we examined Relativism and the dangerous doctrine of Open Theism. Today we will examine pragmatism, which has become a dominant force in both the world and the church. I want to take a brief look at the history of pragmatism and then show how it has influenced the church.

A History

Pragmatism is a school of philosophy that arose in the late nineteenth century in the United States. It is rooted in the teachings of men like John Stuart Mill who had a great formative influence in philosophers such as John Dewey who applied pragmatism to education and William James who applied it to religion. These men taught that the way to determine truth was to examine practical results. Having been founded by philosophers, pragmatism was cemented into the Western mindset by the Industrial Revolution. Pragmatism in industry has changed the way we live. James Boice says “The goal is to find the fastest, least expensive way of producing products and getting things done. Pragmatism has improved living standards for millions who now enjoy the benefits of home ownership, adequate clothing, indoor plumbing…and abundant food.” (Whatever Happened To The Gospel of Grace p.50) This mass production has been achieved, of course, at the cost of quality and craftsmanship.

Wikipedia says the following of pragmatism (emphasis added):

Pragmatism is characterized by the insistence on consequences, utility and practicality as vital components of truth. Pragmatism objects to the view that human concepts and intellect represent reality, and therefore stands in opposition to both formalist and rationalist schools of philosophy…Pragmatism does not hold, however, that just anything that is useful or practical should be regarded as true, or anything that helps us to survive merely in the short-term; pragmatists argue that what should be taken as true is that which most contributes to the most human good over the longest course. In practice, this means that for pragmatists, theoretical claims should be tied to verification practices—i.e., that one should be able to make predictions and test them—and that ultimately the needs of humankind should guide the path of human inquiry.

Few of us would object to the many benefits pragamtism has brought us. When we visit the local big box store to purchase second-rate furniture and cheap electronic goods for only a fraction of what it would cost to hire an expert to build them for us, we are experiencing the benefits of industrial pragmatism. The philosophy of pragmatism is deeply-rooted in our Western mindset.

A Definition

Pragmatism is defined by Webster’s as “the doctrine that practical consequences are the criteria of knowledge and meaning and value.” In short, truth is determined by consequences. Whether something is right or wrong, good or bad is primarily dependent on results.

A Challenge

Since the time of the Reformation, Protestants have affirmed the doctrine of Sola Scriptura which teaches that the Bible alone is to be our standard of morality and truth. This standard is rooted in the early church and, of course, in the Bible. It has always been a fundamental teaching of Protestantism. Sola Scriptura was the foundational doctrine of the Reformation - the doctrine upon which every other doctrine was built.

Pragmatism and Sola Scriptura must stand in opposition as each claims to be the key to determining truth. As Christians we need to decide if we are going to depend upon Scripture as the absolute standard of truth or if we will determine truth by consequences. Though we would be hard pressed to find a Christian who says “I believe in pragmatism” the philosophy manifests itself in the Christian world in many different ways. Though people affirm Sola Scriptura with their mouths (or doctrinal statements) they often deny it with their actions.

A Case Study

In order to understand how pragmatism can affect a church, let’s look at a fictional case study which compares two churches.

Oakville Community Church

A church of 250 people has been offered the opportunity to have a popular female minister preach in their church in a few weeks. Though the church believes that having a woman preach is unscriptural, they see the benefit of allowing her to preach just this one Sunday (no matter your feelings on women preachers, for the sake of this fictional story you’ll have to at least pretend you do not approve of women in teaching ministry). They share the news with the congregation and the people are electrified. They hold meetings to determine how they can best leverage this amazing opportunity. Eventually they decide they will spend a good portion of their advertising budget for that year on advertising this event. Each person is given cards to hand out to their friends and posters to hang in the work places. Prayer teams form to pray about this event and teams are trained to help respond to those who may wish to make commitments to Christ through the event.

As the big day approaches the excitement mounts. The morning of the service the members of the church arrive early, anticipating a great day in the history of their church. They are thrilled to see many of their friends and co-workers arrive. They are even more thrilled to see many strangers. By the time the service gets underway the church is packed. Literally hundreds of guests fill the seats that morning.

The service goes off without a hitch. The worship band plays songs that honor God and lead people to worship Him. The guest minister preaches an evangelistic sermon that shares the gospel message. By the end of the service many people are in tears and the prayer room at the back of the church is filled with people praying and making commitments to Christ. The congregation is overjoyed to see twenty five people come to the Lord.

In the aftermath of this service the twenty five people who made commitments to Christ all join the church and become active members. They grow in the Lord, becoming strong, committed Christians and even leading others to Christ. The church experiences a time of growth.

Second Baptist Church of Oakville

A church of 250 people has been offered the opportunity to have a popular female minister preach in their church in a few weeks. The leaders gather the congregation together to speak about the opportunity and after prayer and discussion they decide to affirm their belief that the Bible does not allow for female preachers. Though they acknowledge that his opportunity could help their church grow and lead people to the Lord they politely decline the invitation.

Several weeks later on the day the guest minister would have been there, the church has 250 people in attendance. There are two or three guests, conspicuous by their hand-written name tags. The pastor continues in his message series which is a 10-part exposition of Ephesians. He preaches a good sermon. At the end of the service no one goes to the prayer room and no one sheds a tear.

In the aftermath of this service the church continues its slow growth.

Which Is Right?

Now please, do not be distracted by the issue of women preachers, or you will be missing the point of the case study. Feel free to replace that example with any contentious issue. What we need to determine is which of these two churches was most faithful.

From our human perspective we would see no reason to doubt that the first church was faithful in using an open door provided by God. They took a step of faith and God blessed them richly. He also furthered His kingdom as twenty five people became believers that day. We have to acknowledge, though, that our human perspective means little if it does not agree with God’s perspective.

What would God say? God, above anything else, desires obedience. More than sacrifice, more than excellence, more than results, God wants obedience. By studying Scripture we can learn that in eternity when all is made clear, God will tell the second church that they were the ones that did His will. Results simply cannot excuse disobedience. God may choose to use our disobedience to further his purposes, but this does not give us license to ignore the clear teaching of the Word.

Evidently the first church was the pragmatic one. They foresaw wonderful results but ignored the Bible. The second church was the obedient one, also foreseeing the potential for wonderful results, but choosing to heed the Bible. The point is clear: either the Bible or the results need to be our standard. And as believers we must hold to the primacy of Scripture. The results, no matter how wild, cannot make up for disobedience.

Where You Might Find It

Pragmatism has reared its ugly head throughout the Christian world. It is found in statements about evangelistic techniques such as “if it only reaches one person it is worth it.” It is found especially in the Church Growth Movement. In Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Church, a textbook for church growth, he writes “Never criticize any method that God is blessing.” He also says “We must be willing to adjust our worship practices when unbelievers are present. God tells us to be sensitive to the hang-ups of unbelievers in our services.” These ideas are not Biblical; they are rooted in the perceived consequences. We saw pragmatism at work before and after the release of The Passion of the Christ when far more emphasis was placed on the potential results of the movie than whether it was doctrinally-sound. Pragmatism is found wherever Christians run to join programs and hurry to change their worship services because of what they expect to see happen because of the changes they make. In short, it is found anywhere the emphasis is removed from what Scripture says and where the emphasis is placed on the expected results. Sadly, this means that it is found throughout the Evangelical world.

Concerns

We are far too human. We are limited in our perception and understanding. We are prone to believe that good results are necessarily indicative of faithfulness to Scripture. But this is simply not true. God sometimes chooses to use us despite our disobedience.

Similarly, God does not always provide the results we would like to see. There are missionaries that have spent many years laboring in the mission field and have seen very few hearts and lives changed. Does this necessarily mean that their technique is flawed? Does it necessarily mean that they are not doing God’s will? By no means! God sometimes chooses to provide results and other times He does not. Even Jesus experienced varied results when He ministered. In some towns the people listened and trusted in Him while other towns rejected Him. This does not mean that Jesus’’ technique was flawed or that He was being disobedient.

The obvious danger of pragmatism in the church is that we lose our focus on the absolute standard God has given us in His Word. When we lose that focus the church is on the slippery slope to becoming like the world. When we discard God’s standards we must depend on our own deeply flawed standards. We begin to trust in ourselves and lose our trust in God.

More than anything else God desires and expects obedience of His children. Pragmatism has no answer to the question of how we determine obedience, for obedience can only be determined through Scripture. Therefore pragmatism cannot be reconciled with Scripture and must be set aside in favor of faithfulness to God’s Word.

Resources

Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur

Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace