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.).