The Challenge of Pragmatism – Part 2

(May 2009 – Volume 15, Issue 3)

A Blast from the Past

Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and others from the Emergent camp write and speak winsomely about what they are offering, but history, not to mention Scripture, suggests great caution must be exercised at this point.  Church historian Iain Murray reminds us that 19th century “liberal theology very rarely presented itself as being in opposition to Scripture.  On the contrary, its exponents claimed the authority of the New Testament for the view that Christianity is life, not doctrine.”[1]  Some using this line of reasoning, like the eventual Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, could say, “An atheist who lives by love is saved by his faith in the God whose existence (under that Name) he denies.”[2]  It was living by love that mattered, not what one believed about God. Nineteenth century liberal theologian Schleiermacher went so far as to bar doctrinal preaching from the pulpit for “experience, not teaching, is to be the object of the preacher.”[3]

As theologically the 21st century seems to be an echo of the 19th, so too is the reaction by evangelicals.  While there was a concerted effort to combat liberalism on the part of some of the most conservative believers toward the end of the 1800s,[4] many chose to hang back and express tolerance.  Murray reports, “There were some who were unsure what to think, and in their uncertainty they erred on the side of neutrality and false charity.  It was probably the attitude of this group which eventually allowed the new teaching to become so general.”[5] This is the error often being repeated today by well-intentioned evangelicals who don’t want to make waves and fear, above all things, that they might be called “Fundamentalists.” Historically, Fundamentalists in America marched to the frontlines to do battle with the opposing liberalism of the early 20th century.  On the other hand, evangelicals in Great Britain took a more relaxed approach and unintentionally, as Murray would confirm, allowed liberalism to ultimately win the day.  Much criticism has been launched at the Fundamentalist movement, some of it deserved, but arguably it is the Fundamentalist who should be given much credit for the preservation of the evangelical faith in America .  

Relevant and Authentic

But just as concerning to many evangelicals as being termed dreaded Fundamentalists is being labeled “not relevant” or lacking in authenticity.  Being relevant and authentic are two buzz words popular in many Christian circles today.  Everyone wants to be relevant and authentic, although defining what these words mean often proves to be difficult.  I had lunch about a year ago with a pastor from one of the most well-known “authentic” churches in America .  Since this church is known world over for its authenticity and relevancy, and since it is has become the poster church for these coveted features, I asked him to describe for me in what way his church members were authentic and relevant.  I was especially curious of his answer within the context of my local church which could be described as conservative, Bible-centered and basic. 

The pastor stumbled around a bit, behaving as if he had never before heard such a question.  Possibly I was the first person he had met dumb enough to not know what relevant and authentic mean (by the way, you will find the same response if you ask what it means to be missional or what the kingdom really is – two other buzz words in postmodern church circles).   Finally he told me that most of his people wear jeans to church, to which I replied some of ours do too.  He then said his people lived authentically in the community, to which I replied that many of ours do as well, (although in theory you are not supposed to define a word by using the word).  Upon further urging from me he then said that his people drink beer (I assume he did not mean during the church services themselves).  I am pretty sure that some of our people do too, but they don’t talk about it (at least around me) and it surely would not be a badge of authenticity.  I asked, “Is that all you got?”  But he was done and had nothing more to say. 

Surely casual dress at church services and drinking alcohol is not the definition of either authentic or relevant.  And I am sure this pastor could have provided some better descriptions of the same had he had more time to reflect.  Still, from reading his church’s literature and website I know that added to this list is the use of any form of music in church gatherings, no matter how godless or if performed by unbelievers, foul and gutter language, use of sexually inappropriate comments and illustrations and involvement in almost any form of entertainment and amusement which is attractive to unbelievers.  As a matter of fact, I get the idea that relevancy and authentic are terms being used today, at least by some, to describe what evangelicals of another generation called “worldliness.” 

“Worldliness”—now that is a word you won’t often find in “relevant” Christian literature and churches, except to make fun of “prudish” Christians who still care about such things.  Past generations of believers saw purity and separation from questionable activities as not only obedience to God (Rom 12:2) but also a witness to unbelievers.  Not that unbelievers necessarily understood or appreciated the Christian’s desire for living a separated life (another old fashioned term you won’t hear in most Christian circles today), but they recognized that in many regards true Christians lived differently from the way they did (1 Pet 4:3-4).  While this repelled and even infuriated some, it nevertheless served notice that Christ transformed the life and the lifestyle of those He regenerated.

It is this very thing against which many crying relevancy today have reacted.  How, they ask, can we expect to draw people to Christ by modeling for them a lifestyle they find repugnant?  If we are to win the unbeliever to the Lord we must identify with them.  We must show them that we enjoy the same things they do.  They must be made to realize that Christians can drink and cuss and dress like and gamble and be foul and enjoy all the same forms of entertainments that non-Christians do. Living this way, we are told, will be winsome to the unbeliever for they will see in us an authentic life which is transparent and free from hypocrisy and smugness, which the unbeliever claims to see so universally in Christians.  We are, after all, no different from them except that we believe in Christ.  Emergent leader Jim Henderson, in a book co-authored with an atheist and sponsored by George Barna, writes: “[Unbelievers are] just like me, except they’re not currently interested in Jesus to the same degree I am.”[6]

Certainly, this caricature of Christians is sometimes realistic.  Too often believers are afraid to admit their weaknesses and deficiencies.  They may put on airs while they are struggling with the same things that all people do: sin, loneliness, disappointment, pain, etc.  On this type of pretense we need to call a moratorium.  But it is surely an overreaction to adopt a lifestyle characteristic of those who do not know the redeeming power of Christ in a misguided notion that we will attract them to the Lord as a result.

Truth and Authority

What we are talking about ultimately are the issues of truth and authority – two concepts which Emergent thinkers will tell you come from the Enlightenment, not Scripture.   As we have seen, postmodern church leaders, like those of liberalism of the past, have tried to drive a wedge between life and doctrine.  If they are correct then what we believe does not matter; what matters are our experiences, our emotions and our behavior.  It needs to be clearly stated that no one I know is discounting the importance of “life,” but there are numerous things wrong with equating Christianity with life alone.  For one thing this reductionist approach is simply impossible.  There is no life, good or bad, that does not stem from our beliefs.  Even as Emergent leaders such as McLaren and Bell decry doctrine, they are nevertheless teaching their own brand of theology.  The very rejection of doctrine as our basis for authority is a theological pronouncement.  Conservatives may affirm the ideas that Emergents reject, but both are testifying to a system of beliefs.  Emergents believe that many things the Bible teaches and evangelicals avow are not true, or at least not necessary for life and spiritual experience.  One proclaims certain truths, the other rejects them, but both are expressing their approach to theology.  It is merely word-play to speak of “life, not doctrine.” 

Our source of authority is another problematic issue with the life vs. doctrine school of thought.  Ultimately everyone has linked his beliefs and life to some concept of authority.  For the biblical Christian that source is the Word of God.  When Scripture speaks, and on whatever subject it speaks, it has the last word.  All other voices are silenced in the presence of God’s revelation.  Our task as believers is to seek to understand what the Word teaches and apply it to our lives. 

Some in the Christian community will challenge this idea head-on.  They will tell us the Bible is an outdated book full of stories, myths and historical accounts that bear witness to God’s revelation but is not the very revelation of God itself.  It is a book written by men and, as such, its pronouncements and teachings can be seen as little more than sage advice which we are free to filter, adopting or rejecting as this advice conforms to our own opinion.  In this same vein others would make Scripture subservient to science, psychotherapy and modern thought. After all, the Bible is an ancient book and can hardly be expected to have much to say to citizens of planet earth in the 21st century.   In both of these scenarios authority rests either in the individual or in the collective wisdom of men rather than the Word of God. 

The average Christian follows neither of these scenarios however.  Most would give lip-service to the authority of Scripture, but in practice their real master (authority) is pragmatism.  They would never deny the infallibility and the value of God’s Word, but in reality “what works,” or at least what they think works, calls the shots.  It is not that they have consciously rejected what God has revealed, but what seems to be working at the moment is their default mode.

And what seems to be working right now?  On an ecclesiastical level the churches and parachurch organizations that are most likely to be successful, if you define success as “nickels and noses,” are the very ones who are giving people what they want to hear rather than what God wants them to hear. People want to hear about how to be successful, how to have a happier marriage, and how to feel good about themselves as opposed to the biblical concepts of how to glorify God, how to have a godly marriage, how to deny self, how to take up ones cross and follow Him.  Since most Christians have the wrong goals for their lives, having derived them from conforming their thinking to the world rather than being transformed by the renewing of their minds ( Rom. 12:2), it is not surprising that they live by the world’s methodologies as well.  Individual Christians now wanting the same things the unbeliever wants must use the methods the unbeliever has created.   When we have accepted that the purpose of life is being successful, popular, powerful, wealthy, having a healthy self-image and so forth, the Scriptures have little to offer because these are not biblical categories.  That is, God does not define true life in the same way the world does.  The Lord has much to say about denying self but nothing about loving self.  He has much to say about joy but nothing positive about amusing ourselves to death (as one author calls it).  He offers loads of principles concerning finances but little about how to be rich, and even warns about the desire for wealth (1 Tim 6:9-10).  The Bible is filled with ways of bringing honor to God and lifting up His greatness, but calls us to focus on personal humility (Luke 9:46-48).

We do not naturally think as God thinks.  While regeneration changes our nature it is a life long task to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:2) – a process never completed in our lifetime.  It is not surprising to find that since we so easily turn to the wrong sources (such as self) for understanding life, we also use the wrong means in our effort to find life (such as pragmatism). If life is defined as succeeding at what one does then whatever enables one to succeed will become one’s controlling influence (dare we say god?).  Pragmatism therefore, simply because it seems to “work,” is dominating the Christian landscape today.  Truth, as revealed in God’s Word, is taking a backseat to the doctrine of “what works.” 

King Pragmatism is on the throne of too many lives and churches, but fortunately there is a means of overthrowing the king. Paul paved the way when he said that he was “destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God…we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).  We must challenge our thinking with the Revelation of God.  We must allow the Word to have the first word and the last word in our lives.  As Isaiah said to the ancient people of Israel , “To the law and to the testimony!  If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn” (Isa 8:20).


John Piper, in his excellent book The Supremacy of God in Preaching, writes of the need for preachers to diligently remind their listeners of the grandeur of God, although most have no idea that such a message is important to them.  The majority would rather hear “relevant” sermons and will criticize the pastor who focuses on God and not on their personal felt-needs.  “Pastor Piper,” he has a critic complain, “Can’t you see your people are hurting?  Can’t you come down out of the heavens and get practical?  Don’t you realize what kind of people sit in front of you on Sunday?”  To which Piper replies, “The greatness and the glory of God are relevant.  It does not matter if surveys turn up a list of perceived needs that does not include the supreme greatness of the sovereign God of grace.  That is the deepest need.  Our people are starving for God.”[7]

George Gallup, in a book which explores spirituality in the 21st century, suggests, “The problem is not so much that people do not believe anything; it is that they believe everything.”[8] He sees this as a problem for the foreseeable future because “the emphasis [at this time] is on a desired feeling or fleeting moment of wonder, not on understanding truths with a larger view or power to truly transform.”[9]

Not too long ago, if your child wanted a stuffed animal, you went to some local retail outlet and bought one off the shelf.  While there may have been a large number of possibilities, still the options were limited to the stuffed animals in stock.  Enter “Build a Bear” franchises which have popped up in many places.  At Build a Bear children can create their own stuffed animals.  They can be as creative as they like, for Build a Bear allows children to be sovereign over their own creations, leaving the toy store with a unique critter unlike anyone else’s. The only question is, what does the child want in a stuffed bear?  But what may be desirable in a fuzzy friend is not desirable when it comes to God and the Christian faith.  Neither the Lord nor the faith is left to our desires or designs.   While there is much diversity within the body of Christ, there is only one Lord and one faith (Eph 4:5).  We are not free to “build a God” or “build a faith.”  The one true God and the one true faith have been handed down to us in the Word.  We must reject the temptation to be our own creator and humbly accept that which the Lord has revealed to us.  Pragmatism, the god of “what works”, is a creation of our own imagination and ingenuity.  We must rest in the true God of the Word.


[1] Murray, p. 12.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Murray, p. 11.

[4] See Marsden, pp. 171-228, (this was especially true of the old line Presbyterians represented by Princeton Theological Seminary, Dispensationalists and the Holiness movement).

[5] Murray, p. 14.

[6] Jim Henderson and Matt Casper, Jim & Casper Go To Church, (Tyndale House Publishers, 2007, p. xxxv (pre-publication document).

[7] John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), pp. 10-11.

[8] George Gallup, Jr., The Next American Spirituality, Finding God in the Twenty-first Century ( Colorado Springs: Cook, 2000), p. 129.

[9] Ibid., p. 130.


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