Summer is upon us and many will have enjoyed cruising across a lake or a river. If you have ever been in a high-powered speed boat, imagine the absurdity of opening wide throttle a powerful motor at night while lacking any reliable means for navigating where you are headed. The word suicide comes to my mind.
As surprising as it may seem, this may be a fitting analogy for one aspect of our American culture since the time of the late 1800’s when a spiritually bankrupt philosophy called pragmatism was introduced to our country. Pragmatism (originally termed instrumentalism) replaced the value-based guiding question of “what is right” with “what works?” Denying that any normative compass exists for determining which direction a person, company or church ought to be headed, pragmatism simply affirms that value is determined by the most efficient and productive path to your goal.
The impact of pragmatism upon the thinking of society and the church has been profound. Even if different church fellowships have not always agreed what has constituted faithful doctrine, were not the members of all churches generally concerned about doctrine and truth? But as pragmatism has permeated people’s outlook, is not value often attached to success and size instead of faithfulness? Has not the primary concern shifted to “results”? Accordingly, at least for some, indifference appears to sum up some attitudes toward doctrinal matters.
It would be overly simplistic to assert that pragmatism is solely responsible for doctrine becoming largely lost in the wake of how people think. Some may be reacting to having experienced uncharitable discussions and blamed doctrine as the culprit. Others seem to have embraced a new concept of grace which appears to make obedience and conformity to various aspects of New Testament doctrine superfluous. Still yet another source for apathy would appear to be a particular brand of interpretation where the message and practices of Scripture are viewed as simply one of the possible ways to believe, worship and respond to God. Whatever the cause, Scripture rings out a countercultural message:
“Pay close attention to your life and to your doctrine. Persevere in them, because as you do this, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” 1 Timothy 4:16
After teaching about prayer, a woman’s role within the assembly, those who should be considered worthy of serving in the church’s structure of elders and deacons, Paul wrote such things as:
“I am writing these things so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in the household of God, which is the church of the living God.” 1 Timothy 3:14-15
“I praise you because … you hold to the teachings, just as I delivered them to you.” 1 Corinthians 11:2
“As in all the congregations of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. … the things which I am writing to you are the Lord’s command.” 1 Corinthians 14:33-34, 37
“What you have heard from me, retain as the pattern of healthy teaching in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.” 2 Timothy 1:13
“The time will come when men will not put up with healthy doctrine; but desiring to have their ears tickled, they will gather around themselves teachers in accordance with what they want to hear.” 2 Timothy 4:3
Scripture underscores the importance of doctrine. To be sure, there is the need to avoid the caveat of using these texts as proof texts to buttress human doctrine. This is achieved by examining these statements within their contexts to learn their message. Nevertheless, the New Testament is clear. There are teachings and practices which should be passed on and to which conformity ought to be our goal.
Pragmatism will always offer self-gratifying solutions to get where someone wants to go. But are not the real issues: “Where should we be headed?” “What is God’s goal for my life?” “How does God want His church to be?” In short, where does the Lord’s compass reveal that our boat should be headed?