When Is Pragmatism Prudent?
As Bible-believing Christians, we insist that everything we do be based on the Bible. And yet I’ll bet that of the decisions you made today, 99 percent of them were not direct applications of Scripture, but were pragmatic in nature. What color should you paint the church? Should you have lunch with Joe or with Tim? What words will best serve your wife when you walk through the door?
Does that make us hypocrites? No: one of the greatest gifts each of us has received from our creator—and for which we will one day give account—is our minds. “Pragmatism” can refer to an anti-supernatural philosophy, but it can also be just another word for “wise judgment,” which is commended in Scripture in the strongest terms. And with poor judgment, it is quite possible to root what we do in the Scriptures and still fail to serve God well.
If we decide that to be biblical means we must never be pragmatic, we are essentially rejecting the role of wisdom in the Christian life. And that’s just not how God has ordained things to be. He has given in his Word everything we need for faith and practice. But working these things out will often require a good deal of sanctified judgment. Or, to use that other word, a good deal of biblical pragmatism.
So how can we steward our pragmatism well? I think in two ways: (1) when we are pragmatic, we should ensure our pragmatism is biblical; and (2) we rightly discern when the Bible expects us to use wise judgment, and when we are commanded to simply trust and obey.
HOW DO WE MAKE OUR PRAGMATISM BIBLICAL?
First, how do we make our pragmatism biblical?
Pragmatism is not a problem until it begins to replace instructions that God has already given us. As a friend of mine puts it, we often approach decisions like we approach an empty whiteboard, entirely dependent on our good judgment to chart a path forward. But if we know our Bibles we know that there is already writing on that whiteboard, especially when it comes to leading a local church. God has given us guidance both about what we should do and how we should do it.
So how do we make sure that we don’t ignore what God has already written? Here are three ideas for you:
1. Examine Your Goals in Light of the Scriptures
First, examine your goals in light of the Scriptures. Wrongly pragmatic thinking often begins when we take a good and maybe even a biblical goal and use it to displace another biblical goal.
Let’s say you are a youth pastor who feels a biblical burden for your youth to hear and believe the gospel, but it is not happening through the families in your church. So you build your youth ministry to provide “full service discipleship”—from evangelism to biblical instruction to fellowship to mentoring.
This is a good goal, even a biblical one. The problem is that the Bible has another goal that you have ignored: Ephesians 6 implies that families, not youth ministries, are to be the primary disciplers of children. So in essence, your youth ministry is an elaborate system to help families evade their God-given responsibilities.
If you had thought more carefully about the biblical goal of a youth ministry—to assist families in discipling their children—you would have designed it very differently. And then all your good pragmatic thinking would have been aimed at a better goal.
One way we can help our pragmatism to be biblical is to think carefully about whether we are basing our goals on Scripture’s goals.
2. Explore How Specific Scripture Is—Whether Explicitly or Implicitly—about How you Do Things as a Church
Second, explore how specific Scripture is—whether explicitly or implicitly—about how you do things as a church.
If Scripture was utterly explicit that replacing the sermon with interpretive dance is evil (“Thou shalt not…”) then I hope we wouldn’t have much debate on this point. But the problem is that while some Christians see this as an obvious implication of biblical teaching, others aren’t sure that the Bible says much about what we do in our weekly gatherings.
So how do we determine how specifically Scripture speaks to our ministry methods? How do we know when God has already written something on the whiteboard? Obviously, we should become careful students of Scripture. But in addition to that, we can make use of disagreements with other Christians to pressure-test our thinking regarding how specific Scripture really is.
For example, not being a fundamentalist, I profited significantly by listening to a 9Marks interview on “Fundamentalism and Separation” with Mark Minnick, pastor and professor at Bob Jones University. Having had little exposure to principled fundamentalism, I was surprised at how carefully Dr. Minnick argued from Ephesians 5:7 (“do not be partners with them”) for what he termed the “doctrine of separation”: a biblical prohibition against partnering in any way with those who themselves partner with those who compromise the gospel. I’ll admit I wasn’t finally convinced by his argument. But hearing a brother defend the principle from Scripture has sharpened my thinking significantly as I lead my own church to partner with others.
So search out Christian friends or authors who see more binding principles in Scripture than you do, who see more black and white than shades of gray, who defend decisions from Scripture that you think are purely pragmatic. They will help pressure-test your own understanding of how precise Scripture is in its prescriptions—which will make your pragmatism more biblical.
3. Work from What Is Clear in Scripture to What Is Less Clear
Third, work from what is clear in Scripture to what is less clear. Sometimes we look at an impending decision, fail to see a corresponding command in Scripture, and decide the Bible has nothing to say about it. This is foolish. The Bible is not silent on your decision simply because it doesn’t speak to it directly.
Take a young man considering how to conduct his dating relationship. “Dating” doesn’t have an entry in his concordance—nor does “courtship.” So other than making sure he and his girlfriend don’t have sex outside of marriage, is there anything else in the Bible they need to pay attention to? How many conversations I have had like this as a pastor! What the Bible is clear about is marriage—which is the hoped-for destination for every dating relationship. And to be sure, Scripture’s clear guidance on within marriage (gender roles, imagery of Christ, communication, etc.) have many implications for dating.
When you’re struggling with a decision that is more specific than Scripture’s clear teaching, it is important to keep in mind the situation closest to yours where Scripture is clear.
DISCERN THE LINE BETWEEN COMMAND AND JUDGMENT
But being a good steward of pragmatism goes beyond simply making our pragmatism more biblical. We must also avoid making Scripture more absolute than it intends to be. In other words, we must discover the line between a direct biblical command and sanctified judgment.
For example, Hebrews 10:25 tells us to not give up the habit of meeting together. Does that mean that we excommunicate a brother in the military because his job takes him away from Christian fellowship for several months? Wouldn’t that be a clear implication of this passage of Scripture? To say “no” to this admittedly absurd question clearly depends on some level of pragmatic reasoning—on sanctified judgment.
Yet pragmatism, unbridled, can also lead too far.
So how do we discern where direct Bible application ends and judgment begins? Here are three suggestions for you.
1. Pay Attention to Context—Including Genre
First, pay attention to context—including genre. How many young married couples have argued themselves silly late into the night in an attempt to obey Paul’s command in Ephesians 4:26, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry?” Sometimes you need to simply get to a good stopping point, get some sleep, and then reconvene your discussion when rested minds can remove the heat from the argument.
Paul offers this statement in Ephesians 4 in the form of a proverb: something that’s generally true but that requires judgment to apply. That is clearly different from a categorical command, like “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14).
2. Carefully Determine when a Scriptural Example Is Normative.
Second, carefully determine when a scriptural example is normative. Very often, the way Scripture speaks to a situation—especially regarding how we conduct church life—is not through direct imperatives but through example.
In these cases, determining what is unique to a first century situation and what is normative for us today can be challenging. For example, I would argue that the biblical model is for churches to have multiple elders—because that’s the example I see in the New Testament. And yet I don’t insist on baking one massive loaf of bread for our church of 1,000 people to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, even though 1 Corinthians 10:17 seems to assume the idea of a single loaf in the Corinthian church.
How can we make sense of all of this? Because Jesus promised that his Holy Spirit would guide the apostles “into all truth” (John 16:13), we must believe that we can learn from what they did in addition to what they taught. Here are some questions to help you improve your application of biblical examples.
First, how consistent is an example across Scripture? For example, plural leadership in the local church shows up all through the New Testament, which gives us confidence that it is intended to apply to our churches as well as those first congregations.
Second, does the example you’re looking at affect the essence of the thing in question? For example, some Christians baptize immediately, as soon as a person converts. But I would argue that the speed of baptism is not essential to what baptism is. A few days or weeks of conversation about a convert’s understanding of the gospel doesn’t change what baptism is. And, in fact, that elapsed time can protect us from wrongly baptizing someone who hasn’t actually come to faith—which would make baptism into something it isn’t. On the other hand, it’s entirely appropriate to argue from scriptural example regarding whether we should baptize infants—because whether or not the person being baptized currently professes faith does change the essence of what baptism is.
Third, do you see any clear counter-examples in Scripture? Take the “one loaf” example of 1 Corinthians 10:17 that I referenced earlier. One might argue that “one loaf” is essential to what the Lord’s Supper is, because it symbolizes our unity in Christ. And yet we see evidence that the post-Pentecost church in Jerusalem shared the Lord’s Supper together (Acts 2:42), which would have been impossible to do with a single loaf of bread and more than 3,000 Christians. So it’s safe to assume that Paul’s “one loaf” language is not normative across all churches.
THE WAR, NOT THE BATTLE
A final component of biblical pragmatism is patience. Focus on winning the war, not the battle. Even when Scripture is clear on what goal we should pursue, pragmatic patience in getting there can be wise.
For example, perhaps you’ve been convinced that the right practice of church discipline is an essential part of what it means to be a church—and your church doesn’t practice church discipline. As a result, you’re confused by an article on the 9Marks website entitled “‘Don’t Do It!’ Why You Shouldn’t Practice Church Discipline.”
Is 9Marks advocating that we disobey Scripture? The point of the article is that the goal of church discipline is the purity of the local church—and if we destroy the church in the process, we’re not accomplishing anything of value. It’s like killing the patient to cure him of cancer. Far better to teach patiently about church discipline until the church is ready for this step—so you end up with a church that is pure and alive.
To be sure, one could abusively apply this principle so as to completely jettison Scripture in favor of mere pragmatism. And there are times when a principle is so clear and important that it’s worth splitting a church over. But generally, we should keep the long view in mind.
Here are a few guidelines for when pragmatic patience may be wiser than a principled “hill to die on”:
- When a principle stems more from biblical example than clear biblical imperative, one should generally lean more toward pragmatic patience.
- When a principle depends more on an implication of the gospel and not the heart of the gospel, one should generally lean more toward pragmatic patience.
- When one has a clear plan to move toward greater biblical faithfulness, one can have more confidence that exercising patience is being wise and not lazy.
Some of us have far too strong a confidence in our own judgment, ignoring Scripture while we pursue what is “wise in our own eyes.” Others flee their responsibility for exercising judgment in favor of cut and dried “rules” because they fear that relying on judgment may lead toward unbiblical pragmatism. As is so often the case, we must understand which error we are most prone to, and we should work with other brothers and sisters to chart a course that is both faithful and wise.