The Twin Temptations of Pragmatism and Authoritarianism


It is easy for church leaders to look only to their left or only to their right in seeking to avoid the errors of others. Something I have learned from watching Tim Keller is the importance of looking in both directions. Hence, the man always seems to have a “third way” on offer.

When the topic turns to philosophy of ministry or church practice, it has been the tendency of 9Marks writers like myself to look leftward toward the squishy tendencies of mainstream evangelicalism. This is a response to the evangelicalism of my youth that was constantly anxious to avoid slipping too far rightward toward some type of authoritarian fundamentalism.

Many things in life are binary, and there is no third way. But I do believe there are errors both to the right and to the left of a biblical philosophy of ministry. On the left are the errors of pragmatism, and on the right are the errors of authoritarianism. What’s most striking to me is what they share in common.


At first glance, they look pretty different. Pragmatism is flexible. It says, “Let’s try this, or this, or this, or this, or this!” Authoritarianism is rigid. It says, “Do what I told you, now!” Pragmatism respects autonomy and the role of assent, even if things get a little messy. Authoritarianism respects order and efficiency and completion. Surely, pragmatism and authoritarianism are not identical twins.

But they are fraternal twins. Look beyond the surface and you will find a surprising number of commonalities:

Both pragmatism and authoritarianism are fixated on results.

Both define success by outward or visible change, and therefore they subject their methods to any number of metrics for measuring visible fruit.

Both depend upon human ingenuity to get the job done. They rely upon brains, brawn, or beauty to accomplish their ends. One strong-arms. The other strong-charms.

In the area of Christian ministry, unlike authoritarianism, pragmatism does not assume there is a “right way” to get things done but that God has left these things to us. So it sheepishly concludes, “My way is as good as any, I suppose.” But this, ironically, is not totally unrelated to the authoritarian’s “My way or the highway!” Both can overlook “God’s way.”

Listen to either the pragmatist’s sermon (“Seven Steps to a Healthy Marriage”) or the authoritarian’s sermon (“Repent or Else”). What might you hear?

  • Both exploit the flesh (whether through fear or appealing to appetite) in order to motivate action instead of appealing to the spiritual new man in the gospel.
  • Both start with the imperatives of Scripture, not the indicatives of what Christ has accomplished.
  • Both loom heavily over the will, doing all they can to make the will choose rightly, apart from a consideration of where the will has its roots planted—in the heart’s desires. Shame and moralism are the favorite tools of both methodologies.
  • Both require outward conformity rather than repentance of heart. In so doing, they create only Pharisees.
  • Both overstep the boundaries of where the Bible has given us permission to go, whether by expanding the scope of corporate worship and Christian mission or by laying down commands where none exist. Both routes bind the conscience where the gospel does not.
  • Both are impatient, and want to see decisions made “today!” Since they do not recognize that decisions have their ultimate foundation in the heart’s desires, they feel successful whenever they produce a right decision, whether or not that decision was forced or manipulated.
  • Both rely on their own strength, rather than leaning on the Spirit by faith (see John 3:6; 6:63).

Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with relying upon human wisdom and strength for some ends, particularly when there is a lack of divine revelation. How do you promote your coffee shop? How do you win football games? How do you keep your teeth healthy?

But when it comes to Christian ministry, the chief error of both pragmatism and authoritarianism is their reliance upon natural methods to accomplish supernatural ends. To borrow from Paul David Tripp and Timothy Lane, they staple apples onto trees instead of watering and feeding the trees.


How do you feed and water the trees? That takes us to the third way. Christian ministry must rely fully on God’s gospel Word and God’s Spirit.

Gospel ministry has the following attributes:

  • It is by faith. It believes that God’s Spirit always has the power to change, and that he will if he so determines.
  • It relies on God’s gospel Word. True change happens when the eyes of a person’s heart open to the truth of God’s gospel Word, accepting and embracing it. They see its truth for themselves. It’s not beauty or brawn that entices them, it’s God and his Word.
  • It recognizes the role of authority: Jesus has authority; Jesus’ gospel word has authority; Jesus’ church and its leaders have authority. But each of these authorities is different, possessing different mandates, prerogatives, jurisdictions, and sanctions. And gospel ministry is very sensitive to these differences, never confusing one authority for another.
  • It helps people to consider what they truly desire before telling them what they must do.
  • It appeals to Christians on the basis of their status in the gospel, not on the strength of their flesh. A Christian pastor or counselor should not say things like, “I expect more from you” or “You’re better than that.” Instead, he will say, “Don’t you realize that you’ve died and been raised with Christ? You’re a new creation. Now, what should that mean?” A Christian authority will give commands (e.g., 2 Thess. 3:6, 10, 12), but these commands will be issued by virtue of membership in the gospel. It appeals to the new realities of the Spirit. The imperatives should always follow the indicatives of what Christ has given.
  • It is exceedingly patient and tender, knowing that only God can give growth (1 Cor. 3:5–9). An immature Christian may need to walk a hundred steps before he arrives at maturity, but a wise pastor seldom asks for more than one step or two. Our example in this is Jesus. “Take my yoke and learn from me,” he says (Matt. 11:29). To take his yoke is to become a disciple. It’s to learn. But he is gentle and lowly in heart, and his yoke is easy and light (11:29–30).
  • It is always carefully measured or calibrated to where a person is spiritually. The godly elder and church seldom, if ever, make spiritual prescriptions without asking questions and doing the exploratory work of a good doctor.
  • It is also willing to draw lines and make demands that it knows cannot be met. A good doctor not only asks careful questions, he identifies cancer when he sees it. Likewise, a church or an elder should not use its authority to obscure God’s gospel realities but to illumine them. The power of the keys, for instance, is to be used exactly to this end.

In short, Christian ministry works by the power of the Spirit and the Word, not by the power of the flesh.

Like a pragmatic approach, it makes appeals to people. It asks for their consent. It recognizes that a true act of faith cannot be coerced.

But like an authoritarian approach, it recognizes that Jesus is king and possesses authority.  True actions of faith do not proceed from autonomous but manipulated actors. Rather, people must lovingly submit to his royal word.

Christian ministry loves and confronts. It honors and challenges. More than anything, perhaps, it speaks…and waits…

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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