When pragmatism overtakes scripture

Tim Challies posted an excellent piece on the elements that are all too often missing in the modern worship service. You can see why he believes losing them is a problem, here. I was particularly taken, and entirely agree, with his concluding comments:

I am convinced that most of these elements have gone missing for pragmatic reasons—they do not accomplish something the church leaders wish to accomplish in their services. Instead of searching God’s Word to determine what elements should or must be present in a worship service, leaders are judging elements by whether or not they work (according to their own standard of what works). Yet each of these elements represents a significant loss because each in its own way expresses obedience to God and brings encouragement to his people.

Sadly, this is an all too common approach to church leadership as a whole. It is not confined only to the ‘seeker-sensitive’ folk who believe bringing unbelievers through the doors – irrespective of what is actually done in the meeting itself – is the raison d’être of the church. It is a problem that extends well beyond the worship service itself. It is a pernicious approach to church that waters everything down to ‘whatever works’, irrespective of what God’s word has to say on the matter.

The essential problem with pragmatism in the church context is that it reduces all matters to their practical consequences. Even moral issues of right and wrong are determined as such, by the pragmatist, in terms of whether the outcome was desirable (and then only the outcome they subjectively believe is desired). The pragmatist argues if it works, it must be right and if it doesn’t, then it is wrong.

But as John MacArthur rightly points out:

when pragmatism is used to make judgments about right and wrong, or when it becomes a guiding philosophy of life and ministry, it inevitably clashes with Scripture. Spiritual and biblical truth is not determined by testing what “works” and what doesn’t. We know from Scripture, for example, that the gospel often does not produce a positive response (1 Cor. 1:22, 23; 2:14). On the other hand, Satanic lies and deception can be quite effective (Matt. 24:23, 24; 2 Cor. 4:3, 4). Majority reaction is no test of validity (cf. Matt. 7:13, 14), and prosperity is no measure of truthfulness (cf. Job 12:6). Pragmatism as a guiding philosophy of ministry is inherently flawed. Pragmatism as a test of truth is nothing short of satanic.

As Tim Challies elsewhere helpfully points out:

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.

And this is the heart of the issue. The Bible says one thing but the crowd, the results, the increase in the weekly giving all point to something else simply working better. Do we, therefore, hold to scripture despite the dent to our membership rolls and church finances or do we ignore scripture because ‘the results’ tell us God got it wrong?

I’m not quite a fully paid up regulative principle sort of guy. I think right and wrong (both in and out of the church) are determined by a very simple formula:

  1. If God says we must do something (or such can be determined by ‘good and necessary consequence’), we must do it
  2. If God says we must not do something (or such can be determined by ‘good and necessary consequence’), we must not do it
  3. If God neither says we must or must not do something (either explicitly or by ‘good and necessary consequence’) we have liberty to do or not do it

It is a formula that seems a credible response to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Yet, even in good confessing Evangelical churches this is routinely ignored.

The Lord is very clear on the importance of evangelism (cf. Mt 28:18-20; 1 Pe 3:15). This would seem to fall into the bracket outlined by #1. Yet how often is evangelism sidelined because it might make folk uncomfortable? Sure, we’ll call sinners to repentance just not anywhere they might be likely to hear it and, worse yet, offended by anything that doesn’t openly affirm them and all their choices. How bold we are in our pulpits on a Sunday, more muted and cautious in our church-based evangelistic events – where we control the guest list but daren’t spook the horses – and downright evasive and equivocal outside the sanctuary of our four protective, and largely private, church walls. Why so? Pragmatism tells us such people will not return, will be turned off, may cause a scene if we dare to do what God asks of us.

What about the never ending fights over hymns ancient and modern. God nowhere commands the sole singing of centuries old dirges any more than he demands us to sing only repetitive, saccharine and banal songs penned in the last week. The age and style of our music is surely one that belongs under #3 (what some called adiaphora, or ‘indifferent things’). Yet quarrels and bickering are rampant, very often due to pragmatism. It is the view that a significant section of our folk will leave if we get rid of the older hymns or the belief that nobody new will possibly join unless we focus on the contemporary and up to date. But does God not judge harmony among the brethren of greater import than style and age of our songs (cf. Ps 133:1; Rom15:5-71 Cor 1:10; Jm 4:1)? In many cases, we have made the pragmatic choice of making the unsaved, non-member the de facto worship leader. What we perceive to be the things that may put them off, or bring them in, becomes the arbiter of what we do and why we do it.

The perniciousness of pragmatism prowls around every corner. Why do so many neglect the biblical model of church leadership, the plurality of co-equal elders? Because the CEO business model is seen to work. Why do people very often end up overemphasising even good things (like pastoral care, evangelism, prayer, teaching) to the detriment of other equally good and right things (like pastoral care, evangelism, prayer, teaching)? It’s because pragmatism tells them it works. Many pastors have stories of people saying we need less [X important thing] and more [X similarly important right thing]. Usually the drive behind that is someone, somewhere kicking off that the first X is being overemphasised over the second. Why does someone raising a fuss determine what we do? Because pragmatism tells us everything will be quieter, calmer and easier if we just do it. And, if we’re honest, isn’t that so often what we all really want?

Where was pragmatism when Noah built his ark? Where was pragmatism when Moses aligned himself to God’s people? Where was pragmatism when Joshua stood before the walls of Jericho with nothing but trumpets and glass jars? Where was pragmatism when David fought Goliath with a stick and a sling? Where was pragmatism when Elijah stood against the prophets of Baal believing he was the only believer left? Where was pragmatism when Daniel and his friends sought not to defile themselves with the king’s food nor to give up his daily prayers with all its consequences? Where was pragmatism when Jeremiah preached for forty years without success?

Pragmatism, according to Hebrews 11, amounts to the opposite of faith. And as the writer to the Hebrews makes very clear: ‘without faith it is impossible to please him’ (Heb 11:6). Pragmatism says the results are what matter. That’s just another way of saying what I think best is what matters. That is, of course, another way of saying God has got it wrong, especially when the results I think matter come by doing the opposite of what God says matters. Our faith cannot operate in a world of pragmatism because it leaves no room for the working of God over and against what we think must obviously work.

All of that is to say, any argument that begins with ‘but I just know what works’ or ‘I’ve seen it done that way and it really is effective’, that does not take into account what God actually says on the issue, is to run contrary to faith. If the writer of Hebrews is correct, without faith it is impossible to please God, an operative principle of pragmatism is displeasing to God. If pragmatism is against faith, and is actively displeasing to God, it is surely a cancer to the church.

6 comments

  1. “1. If God says we must do something (or such can be determined by ‘good and necessary consequence’), we must do it
    2. If God says we must not do something (or such can be determined by ‘good and necessary consequence’), we must not do it
    3. If God neither says we must or must not do something (either explicitly or by ‘good and necessary consequence’) we have liberty to do or not do it”

    Whether Presbyterian, Anglican or Baptist, we should all agree with the first two questions. However, the question remains: Does anything fall under question 3? Was Cornelius van Til right when he said, “The Bible is authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything.”?

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    1. Thanks for your comment.

      Is it not the case that the Bible speaks of everything ‘necessary for faith and practice’, that is those things of which it doesn’t speak (and it is undoubtedly true, there are things of which it doesn’t speak) are not necessary for faith or practice. I take that to mean it is a matter of liberty.

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