A Slippery Slope?: Theological Mediocrity, Pragmatism & Liberalism
I'm not sure if it's the pastor in me or the theologian, but whichever it is, a pragmatic mindset in church life annoys me. I want people to know why they're doing what they're doing, not just to be doing it because 1) that's the way it's done, and has been done since time immemorial (obviously!), 2) that's what works (obviously!), or 3) that's the latest church growth fad (obviously!). (I'm sure the 'obviously!' part of each answer is never verbally expressed, but it always comes across in the strange look on people's faces, which could equally be translated 'why on earth would you ask why we're doing this?'.) I suppose, by and large, we all do things every day without thinking too much about why, but, especially when it comes to the life of the church, I want to know, and I want people to know, the reasons for what we do. And, in church life, those reasons are often theological (and probably more often than we usually realise).
Jonathan Leeman has been thinking about the 'Long-Term Consequences of Pragmatism in the Church' and concludes that 'When one generation of Christians decides to downplay or relativize or pragmatize the local church, they just might find that the next generation no longer values the same gospel.' Leeman's thoughts were prompted in part by Albert Mohler's warning this week about evangelicals slipping towards liberalism. Mohler points out that:
'The urgency to reach people with the Gospel can, if the church is not faithful and watchful, tempt us to subvert the Gospel by redefining its terms. We are not honest if we do not admit that the current cultural context raises the cost of declaring the Gospel on its own terms.'
It's not that people suddenly want to become liberals, but more often than not, it's a case of wanting to reach people, and so, little by little, modifying the message to make it seem more appealing.
It's the subtle changes in meaning that can be fatal. The same danger was there back in New Testament times; that's why Paul warns the Corinthians:
For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it! (2 Cor. 11:4)
The cure, or rather the preventative medicine, for this, of course, is to know well the true Jesus, the true Spirit, and the true gospel. And that, then, takes us back a step further. For if we hold fast to what the Bible teaches of who Jesus is and what He has done, and to the biblical teaching on the Holy Spirit and His work in the world to bring glory to Jesus, that will guard us, not only from the liberalism of abandoning the biblical gospel, but also from a precarious pragmatism that would allow for subtly shifting meanings to gospel words.
Jared Wilson gets behind the pragmatism to what allows it to take such fervent root in the first place, what he calls 'theological mediocrity'. He points out that too many evangelical Christians simply 'have no idea there’s actually Bible verses to go to that address [a given] issue'. And his conclusion is frighteningly profound: 'Evangelicals aren’t preaching the Bible. They are putting Bible verses into their preaching. And there is a difference.'
Theological mediocrity, pragmatism and liberalism all go together. And there's a cause and effect relationship. As we loose clarity of sight of what the Bible teaches (and so become more and more mediocre theologically), we'll tend to replace our biblical convictions with pragmatic ones. And as our pragmatic orientation increases, there's the increasing danger of the temptation to accommodate our message in order to reach bigger numbers.
Reaching and teaching go together in the Bible. We are to make disciples, 'teaching them to observe all things that [Jesus has] commanded' (Matt. 28:20). To stay off the slippery slope we need to know Jesus and His Word; we need to know Jesus through His Word.