Pragmatism and the Church

The fourth tooth of the wolf is pragmatism, and it is a real doozy. I can’t tell how many times I’ve seen people make decisions on this basis, completely ignoring what the Bible might say. Here is Sittema’s excellent definition of pragmatism: “Pragmatism means first you determine whether an act seems practical, whether its consequences bring you pleasure or pain, and by that process you determine what is right or wrong” (p. 67). What is right is what will increase my pleasure. What is wrong is what will increase my pain. Have a difficult marriage? The pragmatic approach says get out, whether or not such a divorce has biblical grounds or not. Have an unwanted pregnancy that will cramp your style? Just get rid of the child in an abortion. We don’t need to worry about what the Bible says, do we? This is the approach of pragmatism, and it is part and parcel of the world’s philosophy of life. Everything is calculated down to a nicety on the scale of pleasure and pain, or convenience, or advantage. But have you noticed what happens in such a philosophy? The Bible gets thrown out the window. All of a sudden, it doesn’t matter anymore what the Bible says. What matters is what will work. Another example: if a church is getting low on men who are willing to lead, then since we have to have leaders, why not elect a woman to fill the spot? Pragmatism over-rides the Biblical mandates. This is a very insidious philosophy, since it overturns the law of God, thus constituting a direct attack on the authority of the Law-giver, God Himself.

Sittema makes the excellent point that pragmatism is NOT practical (p. 68). We must distinguish between “pragmatic” and “practical.” They are not the same thing. Being truly practical means putting into practice what the Bible says. Being pragmatic means throwing out what the Bible says. Hard to believe as it may seem, therefore, oftentimes “practical” and “pragmatic” are actually complete opposites.

Sittema’s suggestions for combating this philosophy: 1. Ask “why” a lot as the elder visits his flock. Pragmatism is not that difficult to detect. Most of the time, it is a simple “fly by the seat of the pants” approach without any biblical considerations coming into play whatsoever. 2. Teach God’s standards as eternal, unchangeable truths. God’s unchanging law determines what is right and wrong, not what brings worldly happiness. 3. Discuss case studies with the youth and enable them to see the radically different ways that people make choices, and make clear to them what God says. I would add 4. Keep the law in front of the people often, with all the caveats that needs (distinguishing among the three uses of the law, etc.).

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7 Comments

  1. Roy Kerns said,

    July 23, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    Even worse than pragmatism governing life decisions: pragmatism governing exegetical decisions. Eg, Adam and Eve aren’t.

  2. michael said,

    July 23, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    Practically commenting, one needs to uncover some sense of what is being taught by the words of the teacher and by the Spirit of Grace within them that is inspiring that that is being taught.

    For instance, take these passages when combining them into a practice as an example of how abstract and also at the same time, how concrete or practical things become when we do what we are being taught to do spiritually:

    Php 4:9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

    On the surface, that seems like a very practical teaching, those words of Philippians 4:9?

    But, when you calibrate these Words from the Apostle Peter and then John to them, a sense comes alive within that will carry unpractical realities into our reality and experience, unpractical realities like after being stoned for our evangelism in a particular city so we would die and then dragged out to the edge of that city to die and then you gain strength enough you get right up and go right back to the very place where they just stoned you! [Acts 14].

    2Pe 1:2 May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

    2Pe 1:5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge,
    2Pe 1:6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness,
    2Pe 1:7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.

    1Jn 4:7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.
    1Jn 4:8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
    1Jn 4:9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.
    1Jn 4:10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
    1Jn 4:11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
    1Jn 4:12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

    There are some meanings to the one word “knowledge” used by Peter that we should be aware of.

    In the first citation from 2 Peter, that word “knowledge” focuses on “knowing” God spiritually. The Greek word is epignōsis.

    In the second citation one can say of that word “knowledge”, Peter now is being practical and wants us to equally be just as practical. The Greek word is gnōsis.

    But, when we read that with what Paul taught that when we learn and receive, see and hear from him we are to do likewise, and we put into practice these things he taught, we will find that we too will come face to face with God Himself in all His Glory in Peace.

    When we realize that just like God forgives us, we too ought to be of the forgiving sort toward others, and then by so doing, practically speaking, we find we are perfecting both in a practical sense and in a deeply spiritual sense God’s abiding love towards all others and ourselves, appropriately, first to the Saints, ourselves and then to the unbelievers, too!

  3. Tim Harris said,

    July 24, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    I thought pragmatism had to do with equating truth with the success-generating character of a hypothesis, not pleasure per se. The principle of pleasure is perhaps hedonism?

  4. John Montgomery said,

    July 25, 2011 at 9:35 am

    Tim, I agree. Pragmatism has traditionally been equated with successful outcomes of a decision or action. Of course, success can be defined a number of ways. For Sittema, it seems that pain and pleasure are the guiding principles for measuring such success in the world of pragmatism. However, my experience has been that success for pragmatists is measured by things such as church growth, numerical followers, increased tithing, flashy looking websites and pr materials, etc.. (the types of things that businesses look at). In our culture, pragmatic wolves want to run the church like they are CEOs instead of shepherds.

  5. greenbaggins said,

    July 25, 2011 at 9:48 am

    John and Tim, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I would agree with you. It seems to me that hedonism and pragmatism work in very similar ways, and there may be a connection between the two. Both of them seem to regard God’s law (if it even comes into the equation) as something to be disregarded in the light of “more important matters.” Success is the idol for pragmatism, whereas pleasure is the idol for hedonism.

  6. July 25, 2011 at 11:18 am

    It strikes me that what is (correctly) vilified by Sittema might better be termed “short-sighted pragmatism”. The problem with it isn’t that people want to do things that turn out well for them. The problem is that people don’t know what things are good for them: they don’t know what the goals should be. Those goals should be biblical, things like Piper’s Christian hedonism. There is always the principle of human action: people are always going to do what they think will turn out best for them. Biblical wisdom, as well as more basically, God’s Law, will tell them much better what actually is the best for them.

    So, if we had a more long-range pragmatism, maybe that would be a good thing, though perhaps the word “pragmatism” already has too much baggage.

  7. toomanythorns said,

    October 28, 2011 at 9:23 am

    Good article! Insightful.. Been doing some research on pragmatism.. My problem is that a recent conversation with a fellow about a message given by John McArthur, brought up the question “so how did you practically apply what he taught to your life?” it was a teaching on the life of Paul.. And there may not have been anything specifically applicable.. I wondered if that was an example of pragmatic thinking.. Instead of taking what was learned at face value, looking for something to apply to your life directly and if there is nothing it might be considered worthless or unimportant.


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