Useless Theology

 

Twenty years ago I penned the following thoughts about the state of affairs in the church.  I am posting this article because of a conviction that the need to practice what we preach is still great!

THEOLOGY AND PRACTICE

Sorting Out the Relationship between Theory and Practice

 

What Happened to Theology?

Doctrine is routinely bashed in many evangelical circles today. A standard line is that doctrine is boring or even worse, irrelevant.  "Theological study should be reserved for the professor or maybe the pastor," someone may piously remark. But in any case the average Christian should rarely be inflicted with theology! Others suggest that only the "unsuccessful" Christian workers waste time with theological interests. Real ministers are busy meeting people's felt needs while managing the business of the church. Still others observe that it really doesn't make much difference what a minister believes, just as long as his beliefs approximate some recognized statement of Christian truth and especially just as long as he is "producing." In fact, leadership gurus regularly advocate clever marketing strategies and managerial techniques which pointedly downplay doctrine. Loss of doctrinal identity or clarity is judged a reasonable price to pay for numerical growth and acceptance in the community.

Examples of this mindset in the evangelical community are abundant. One pastoral staff member at the influential Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago advocated to a class of doctoral students that formal theological training was irrelevant to successful ministry. He proposed that the busy pastor could solve most  theological or biblical problems via a quick consultation with a theologian friend or by checking five books on any given subject recommended to him by his aforementioned guru. (Don Cousins, "Revitalization of the Twentieth Century Church" class lecture, July 1992). In a similar vein another noted pastor and professor writes, "The Mission of the Church⎯More Important Than Worship, Instruction, Fellowship (although these three are still fundamental)" (Paul Borden, unpublished paper "Just When I Learned to Play the Game, They Changed the Rules", n.d.)

Alas, there is also an emerging group of "Faith teachers" on the fringe of evangelical Christianity who have nearly no discernible theological foundation or interest. Some of the teachings of these individuals are absurd at best and heretical at worst. Yet they simply illustrate the "theology is irrelevant" thinking gone amuck when consistently applied.   Kenneth Copeland for instance describes God as "a being that stands somewhere around 6'2", 6'3", that weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple of hundred pounds . . ." (Christianity In Crisis, Hank Hanegraaff, p. 121, 356). Incredibly these teachers attract thousands of followers.

This has not always been the case. An examination of American Christianity of two generations ago reveals an entirely different picture. The minister of the 1920s and 1930s was driven by theology. Theology was central.  Nearly everything he did, whether at home, in the church, or in the community, was linked to theology. Indeed, during the early decades of the twentieth century doctrinal beliefs or lack thereof lay beneath the gigantic upheavals in major denominations such as the Northern Baptists and the Presbyterians. David Wells captures the current state of affairs in the church with the following comparison:

"The difference is not that in one theology is present and in the other it is not. Theology is professed and believed in both. But in the one, theology is the reason and basis for ministry; it provides the criteria by which success is to be measured. In the other, theology does none of these things. Here the ministry provides its own rationale for itself, its own criteria, its own techniques. Theology is not disbelieved, but it does not give the work of ministry its heart and fire." (No God But God, Os Guinness and John Seel, editors, p. 186)

The problem then is not a lack of confessional statements or articles of faith. Statements abound. The widespread reprinting and updating of classic statements of faith is refreshing (such as the London Baptist Confession of 1689 as well as the production of new statements). Nor is the chief problem the general downplay of these confessions, though this de-emphasis clearly exists. Rather the issue is that there is little connection being made between what is believed and what is practiced. Various surveys have indicated that the lifestyle of the average evangelical is nearly identical to the average non-Christian. For all practical purposes, far too many of God's people move about in what amounts to a dual compartmentalized daily life. On the one hand is a set of "religious" beliefs; on the other hand are the routine affairs of life. Though this arrangement is quite unremarkable per se, it is dramatically abnormal when there is no meaningful bridge between the two. In other words, it is a thoroughly unbiblical approach to life, or to ministry or to the church or to whatever! No wonder evangelical Christianity is losing its influence in contemporary American culture.

A View of the Scriptures

The Bible is primarily God's gracious revelation of Himself to men. Man's knowledge about God, though derived from many sources, is incomplete apart from the special revelation of the Scriptures. Yet the Bible is also God's instruction regarding life. The Scriptures can sustain individuals during all times of life because they contain all one needs to know in order to know God and to live in a godly fashion. Much of the Christian world prides itself for the conviction that the Bible is the final authority for faith and practice. The classic Westminster Confession declares this concept thusly:

"The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men." (The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter I, paragraph VI, n.d.)

Therefore, the Statement of Faith of First Baptist Church rightly states that "The Holy Scripture is the all-sufficient, certain, and infallible rule or standard of the faith, knowledge, and obedience necessary for salvation and for living. God over time and in a variety of ways has revealed Himself and His will to His people . . ." (A Statement of Faith, chapter 1, paragraph 1)

Frequently, however, this same Christian world in reality affirms the sufficiency of Scripture for doctrine, but for all practical purposes denies it for life. There is often a great wall of separation between doctrine and practice. Few are asking "so what?" as a consequence of a theological affirmation. A strong voice must declare that the Bible is all the Christian absolutely must have in order to know and please God. Clever ideas are not needed to supplement God's wisdom and must never be allowed to replace it. When God's people reasonably understand and wisely apply the Bible, God can use it to provide the power and grace needed to sustain a godly life.

However, just knowing the Bible is not enough. The average pagan can know the Bible as a literary masterpiece. In fact many non-Christians have considerable knowledge of the Scripture. The gospel story of the wise man and the foolish man vividly teaches that the Bible must be both known and obeyed.

"Therefore every one who hears these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock; and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and yet it did not fall; for it had been founded upon the rock. And every one who hears these words of Mine, and does not act upon them, will be like a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and it fell, and great was its fall." (Matthew 7:24-27 NAS)

The Voice of Scriptures

A general overview of the New Testament clearly demonstrates that belief and practice is  inextricably intertwined with one another. The lay out of several of Paul's epistles is instructive in itself. It may not be accidental that the Apostle begins with doctrinal matters and then transitions to applications of the truths he has just taught. The letters to the believers in Colosse, Ephesus, and Rome are particularly noteworthy. At other times, such as the Corinthian epistles, there is an intricate weaving of theory and practice in paragraph by paragraph fashion.

In addition, a number of passages vividly picture this dynamic connection between what is believed and what is practiced. Paul instructs young Timothy, his representative at the church in Ephesus, "But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching." (I Timothy 1:8-10 NAS)  Here Paul is clearly summarizing men who live certain lifestyles as being opposed to healthy doctrine.  In Paul's mind sound teaching did not result in the practices to which he alludes. Rather just the opposite life would be expected from someone who embraced sound teaching! Paul is so convinced of  the importance of this idea that he goes on to exhort Timothy to, "Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you." (I Timothy 4:16 NAS)  In fact, Timothy apparently was making a valiant attempt to structure his life according to what he believed so that Paul could refer to him as a "good servant of Christ Jesus" because he was following sound doctrine. (I Timothy 4:6 NAS)

The writer of Hebrews may be alluding to the same principle in his marvelous discussion of the superiority of the Son when he turns from his statements about the Son and concludes, "For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" (Hebrews 2:1-3a NAS)  Could "neglecting" the truth of salvation encompass living the wrong life?

The aged apostle, John, in writing his brief letters to the elect lady and to Gaius uses a favorite phrase, "walking in the truth." He writes, "I was very glad to find some of your children walking in truth, just as we have received commandment to do from the Father" (II John 4). "For I was very glad when brethren came and bore witness to your truth, that is, how you are walking in truth. I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth." (III John 3-4 NAS)  The picture is that of an individual engaging in the daily round of his life so as to never go outside truth. The body of belief called the truth serves as the parameter defining and limiting daily practice. This consistency between theory and practice is a source of joy for the Apostle.

Perhaps no clearer example of this connective phenomenon exists than that found in Colossians 2 and 3 (NAS):

2:6 - "As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him…"

2:10-16 - ". . . and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over

all rule and authority . . . Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard        to food or drink"

2:20 - "If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world,

why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees"

3:1 - "If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above,          where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God."

3:12 - "And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience . . ."

Other passages such as Ephesians 3-5 show this simple bridge between believing a truth and practicing the same truth. It is an inescapable corollary.

Where From Here?

Only biblically illiteracy or outright obstinacy can be offered as reasons for failing to see the logical connection between theology and practice. Confessions of faith are not vacuum packed. Our manner of life is a direct product of what we believe. Consequently, do not be surprised when those who believe that human beings are mere animals also champion practices such as abortion, euthanasia, or social and educational behaviorism. Do not be shocked to witness violent criminals set free. Such an irresponsible approach to punishment is to some extent the logical implementation of  the tenet that man is essentially good.  It is therefore quite tragic to observe the church ignore this basic idea that what it believes should dictate its practice. For, as David Wells observes, the Church should be the agent of change as it wields the powerful Word.

"In our particular context, then, we are called to see that the Church does not adapt its thinking to the horizons that modernity prescribes for it but rather that it brings to those horizons the powerful antidote of God's truth. It is not the Word of God but rather modernity that stands in need of being demythologized." (No Place For Truth, Wells, p. 100)

Yet we watch as sundry forms of pragmatism replace theology in the engine room of the church. Theology is slowly disappearing as the center of Christian life. The church at large seems to be defining itself by its technique rather than by its theology. Many local  churches are more interested in making people feel good at their public services than clearly confronting them with the truth. Countless seminarians now train to become professional managers adept at refining the church's public image rather than pastors able to exposit the Scriptures with divine authority. Some seminaries now proudly advertise that their graduates have had a year of field experience even if at the expense of biblical studies. Soft skills such as conflict management or church marketing are frequently deemed more crucial for the graduate than hard skills such as theology or biblical languages. It is no wonder that the average churchmen often perceive doctrine from purely a detached viewpoint.

Can anything be done? If so, what? We must first clarify our theology by stating what we systematically believe to be true. This formal pursuit must then be followed by discovering the connection of this belief system to individual, institutional and community life. How should life for the community, the church, or the person be affected because a certain belief is held? Finally, after the belief is clarified and the connection to life is discovered something must happen. Theory must actually be practiced!

On three occasions Paul employs this "knowing" followed by "how to" concept to effectively convey the need to act on what is known:

Col. 4:6, "Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt,

so that you may know how you should respond to each person."

1Ti 3:15, "but in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought

to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth."

2Th 3:7, "For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you,"

In each instance the author couples oi=da indicating an intellectual knowledge with pw/j signifying the manner or means of accomplishment.

Putting It All Together

Those who are serious about consistently applying theology to practice must of necessity engage in a connective thought process. This may be a nearly unconscious process but none-the-less very crucial to biblical living. The accompanying chart is designed to aid in implementing this procedure. Examples are limited to one per major division of theology. Individuals and institutions will want to greatly expand each theological category and add multiple application statements for each.

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2015. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source