A Disturbing Trend in Evangelicalism

I am by no means new in noticing this trend. It has been noticed by many before me. However, I thought I’d just mention it, because it explains quite a lot of what is happening today in what I am loosely calling evangelicalism. The term “evangelicalism,” by the way, is rapidly losing its meaning, if it hasn’t already. If Mormons can be called evangelical, then the term has lost its meaning.

The trend I see is in a particularly narrow definition of what is practical. Modern-day evangelicals have defined practicality as something that helps them at 10:15 AM to do a particular action. If what they hear on Sunday does not help them at 10:15 AM on Monday morning, then it is impractical, in the clouds, esoteric, useless doctrine. I would suggest that this is not a particularly helpful definition of what is practical.

On the one hand, all doctrine must be practical. However, in saying this, I want it clearly understood that my position is that all true doctrine is by definition practical. Doctrine that is impractical is therefore not true doctrine. What I am getting at is the artificial rift between doctrine and practice that is so rampant in churches these days.

I well remember an incident when I was about fifteen years of age. For some inexplicable reason, someone had actually allowed me to teach a Bible study at this ridiculous age. We were going through 1 Corinthians at the time, and I was set for chapter 14. So, I prepared by reading all the commentaries I had access to at the time. The time came to teach this Bible study. For the most part, it passed off without a comment. However, at one point, one of the members of the Bible study asked a question that implied that we were not really dealing with the application of the text, and that we needed to focus more on that. I replied that we had not really gotten to the stage of understanding the text. This is not an extreme example, of course. And I am not advocating a lack of application in sermons or Bible studies. What I am pointing to is a rush to practicality that seems to want to bypass understanding the meaning of the text. This sort of “practicality” isn’t practical, because how does one know that one is applying the text correctly? Applications from texts are not always right.

What I am advocating is a practicality that knows it must be based on doctrine. It is a practicality that is never severed from doctrine. It is a practicality that realizes that there are many kinds of practicality, ranging from what we believe about God (which will change the way we worship and pray) to the nitty-gritty of the everyday. There is long-term practicality and short-term practicality. There is practicality regarding how I treat my neighbor, and there is practicality in how I treat my God. There is practicality in how I view the world as a whole, and a practicality in how I view one small part of that world. One particular practicality that gets overlooked is the practicality of what one believes. We are naive in the extreme if we think that what we think doesn’t affect our behavior, sometimes in very subtle ways. Even that erroneous belief has a strong impact on our behavior! Belief and behavior can never be separated. All these practicalities are to be based on solid, Christian doctrine found in the Bible. We need to resist rushing to application and practicality without first establishing the proper basis of said practicality. There is an order to these things that we must follow.

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12 Comments

  1. May 11, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Amen! Evangelicals truly have fostered a false dichotomy between “doctrine” and “practice,” in the same way they’ve fostered a false dichotomy between “head knowledge” and “heart knowledge.” If you consider the name of my own personal blog, you will realize that this issue is close to my heart–head–whatever (jk). Just as it’s wise to be slow to take action when all the facts aren’t in, so is it wise to be slow to make application when thorough exegesis hasn’t been done. But I believe an entire generation of ministers have been taught to study and preach this way, the way you criticize, and I believe it will be a generational shift before something like this would make a widespread improvement.

  2. May 11, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    [...] Practical Application, Theological Issues by John D. Chitty on May 11, 2009 Go read “A Disturbing Trend in Evangelicalism” at the blog Green Baggins. It deals with an issue that is very close to my heart: what is [...]

  3. Lauren Kuo said,

    May 11, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Premise – Principle – Particulars
    Word – Doctrines drawn from the Word – Application of Biblical Doctrine
    Head – Heart – Feet and Hands
    All three should be the building blocks of biblical teaching and preaching.

    Knowledge and understanding should bring conviction and change of heart which should bring a change in the way we live.

    Doctrine without the 18-inch journey to the heart is useless because it only results in spiritual pride. Practical application without guiding principles from the Word or without spiritual conviction in the heart leads to works righteousness.

  4. Jeff Cagle said,

    May 11, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    This is a larger issue for learning in general. (Some of) my students have a natural resistance to learning math unless they can see “when they will ever use it.”

    Then when I show that vectors can be used for computer graphics or tracking motion or keeping track of inventory, they roll their eyes. What *they* wanted to know what how to apply vectors to their lives as they know them right now: iPods, lacrosse, GPAs, prom.

    What’s missing is an understanding of how to take a general idea and make it real in a particular situation. The lack is the fruit of our transition to a “visual” society — which means, “image-based, not word-based.” Words are no longer conveyers of powerful ideas, but sound-pictures that provoke feelings or give short, simple instructions.

    I’m speaking in statistical generalities, of course. Many of my students still enjoy using words as a medium for thought. However, the trend is definitely away from the power of the word and over to the power of the image.

    The trend against words actually poses a danger to the church, in that many have become inoculated against the power of words to convey theological truth that becomes real in their lives. We must, I think, consider the peril lest we retrace the steps that led to icons.

    Jeff Cagle (prophet of doom and gloom?)

  5. Roberto said,

    May 11, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Pragmatism at the expense of sound doctrine, timidity instead of boldness, consensus over conviction…Although we are in this together, leaders such as pastors and teachers haven’t been as effective at stemming the rising tide of various sub-christian deviations from truth over the last decades as purveyors of false doctrines or practice have been at promulgating their message. It’s almost as if our leaders detect various departures from truth in their early stages, but say or do little until the problem is big enough to write a series of books on the subject, which happens to be years too late.

  6. Reed Here said,

    May 11, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Interesting “practical” application Roberto. :) I tend to agree.

  7. drollord said,

    May 12, 2009 at 10:18 am

    “What I am pointing to is a rush to practicality that seems to want to bypass understanding the meaning of the text. ”
    Are the words “credenda” and “agenda” (things to be believed, things to be done) valid in this discussion? I maintain that we believe because of what Christ has done, which is not what we’ve done. Our faith in Christ is the result of what what he did. Fruit.

  8. drollord said,

    May 12, 2009 at 10:20 am

    BTW Lane,
    Rev. Kevin Carr was over at my house with Steven. He was telling me that he knew your father when he was a prof at Covenant(?). Neat.

  9. greenbaggins said,

    May 12, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Yes, Drollord, that’s correct. My father taught (from ’70-’84) math, physics, logic and…(of course)…judo! ;-)

    Jeff, I think you’ve been reading too much Neil Postman recently. ;-)

  10. May 14, 2009 at 6:00 am

    [...] post on the relationship of the disciplines of systematic and Biblical theology, and another on the demand for the practical, the relationship between faith and life, doctrine and practice, orthodoxy and [...]

  11. May 15, 2009 at 7:00 am

    [...] A Disturbing Trend in Evangelicalism The trend I see is in a particularly narrow definition of what is practical. Modern-day evangelicals have defined practicality as something that helps them at 10:15 AM to do a particular action. If what they hear on Sunday does not help them at 10:15 AM on Monday morning, then it is impractical, in the clouds, esoteric, useless doctrine. I would suggest that this is not a particularly helpful definition of what is practical. [...]

  12. Robin said,

    May 15, 2009 at 8:23 am

    Very well said! Yes, way too many pastors and pew sitters are looking for relativity and practicality and skim over the doctirne.


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