Pragmatism is the philosophical idea that something is true if it works. Likewise, we might say it states that something is good if it works.
Pragmatism is a results-driven way of viewing reality. If a particular course of action brings about desired results, then pragmatism states that that course of action was good and right.
This style of thinking can be seen in the business world.
For instance, if my toy company desires to make a larger profit, I may use cheaper components to make my toys. If this decision brings in a larger profit, then the decision was good and right according to pragmatism.
The Ends Do Not Always Justify the Means
To be sure, there is a time and place when we should make our decisions based on the results. For instance, let’s say, out of love for my neighbor, I do not want bad breath. How do I determine what course of action to take to achieve such an end? Through experience, I know that brushing my teeth is the means to achieve that end. Furthermore, through experience, I know that not brushing my teeth will not achieve that end. It is good and right for me to brush my teeth if I do not want bad breath. A results-driven approach does have its proper place.
However, pragmatism is unable to be the ultimate authority over what is good and true.
Just because something brings about certain results does not make it good and true. For instance, the ever-cheapening quality of products to bring about corporate profits has not necessarily been good, even though many have profited. Furthermore, just because something is viewed as useful to the whole of society does not make it good. For some, a consistent buy-in to the pragmatic approach has led to the support of euthanasia (which is clearly not good). These people argue that the older, disabled portion of the population drains societal resources; thus, it is useful for them to live no longer. Pragmatism consistently wielded is a tool men use to call good evil and evil good.
The Pragmatic Church
Unfortunately, pragmatism is often the assumed approach for churches. This reality is particularly seen in how some make church ministry decisions. How do we determine the best course of action for structuring church ministry? What will bring about our desired results? Pragmatism is the go-to sage to answer these questions.
Pragmatism, with its time-tested wisdom, replies:
“Heed my wisdom! If it draws many people into the church, it is good and true. If it brings in better finances, it is good and true. If it produces a more satisfied church membership, it is good and true. If it meets the felt needs of the body, it is good and true.”
Under this sort of pragmatic logic, next Sunday, we will host a monster truck showdown in the auditorium (it really resonates with the 8–36-year-old male demographic).
This type of thinking, of course, is absurd.
The ends do not always justify the means.
Furthermore, many have the wrong ends in mind for the church. The ultimate end of the church is not drawing people in, acquiring more “kingdom resources,” producing a satisfied church customer, or meeting felt needs; the chief end of the church is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
The Only Infallible Rule of Faith and Practice
How do we pursue such an end? Scripture alone is the authority of authorities because it has God as its author. It alone is the ultimate authority that tells us what is good and true; it alone tells us how we can glorify God and enjoy him forever. As the Second London Baptist Confession states:
“The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving Knowledge, Faith, and obedience.” (2LBCF 1.1)
This statement is merely a summation of what Scripture itself teaches.
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17, ESV)
Because Scripture is God-breathed, it is the only infallible authority for what we ought to believe and do. Furthermore, it is sufficient. It is sufficient to make the man of God complete and equipped for every good work. In matters of faith and practice, Scripture does not need to be supplemented with a smidge of pragmatism.
Do you believe this?
When we seek to structure church ministry based on Scripture alone, and it does not draw in people, it does not bring in resources, people are not more satisfied, and their felt needs feel unmet, will you still believe that Scripture is sufficient?
Sufficient Scripture, Insufficient Sinners
Some things Scripture commands us to do in church life are to:
- Commit ourselves to the public preaching of God’s Word (1 Tim 4:13)
- Sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19)
- Take the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23-26)
- Baptize (Mat 28:19)
- Pray (1 Thes 5:16)
- Speak the truth in love to one another (Eph 4:15)
- Discipline unrepentant sin (Mat 18:15-20)
If our goal is more people in church more happy, these commands probably won’t bring immediate results in our cultural context. However, if our goal is to glorify God and honor him in church life, these commands are sufficient.
As we pursue these commands, one thing becomes clear. Though they are sufficient, we are insufficient.
As a pastor, I am woefully ill-equipped to preach the full counsel of God in the way the Word of God deserves. As a body of believers, we do not revere God the way we ought to when we come to worship him. As a member of Christ’s body, we fall short of speaking the truth in love to one another the way we should. We do not pray without ceasing and often take the Lord’s Supper flippantly.
God’s standard of church ministry reveals our utter insufficiency. Our insufficiency should cause us to cry out to the one we depend on to make us sufficient.
Perhaps this is one reason pragmatism is so alluring. Just like a works-based righteousness system, it shifts our focus from God’s law that we cannot keep to a law of our own making that we can keep. It gives a standard that we can be successful at.
It is far easier to accomplish church success when I determine what success is. If success is large church attendance, I can devise a strategy to be successful. On the other hand, if success is handling the Word of God the way I ought to, I am confronted with my insufficiency.
If success is satisfied church attendees, I can work to accomplish such an end. On the other hand, if success is speaking hard truths in love to people, I am confronted with my insufficiency.
If success is professions of faith, I can manipulate people to accomplish results. On the other hand, if success is possession of faith, I am confronted with my insufficiency.
Thanks be to God that though we are insufficient, he is sufficient to take weak, sinful vessels and use them to his glory! Though we are insufficient, let us pursue a church ministry built upon the commands of God’s Word and not pragmatism. Though we are insufficient, let us remember the righteousness that we have in Christ through faith alone. Let us not forget our gracious God who uses sinful men to accomplish the building up of his Church.
May we build our lives and churches around this sufficient, certain, and infallible rule revealed to us by our forever-reigning Ruler and Rescuer. May we confidently stand on the unshakable ground of the Word of God and the Grace of God even when desired results do not come. We glorify God by resting in the sufficiency and certainty of his Word instead of our own experience of the results.
May God’s glory and the enjoyment of him be our chief end, not visible results.
Stephen Duarte (ME, National University; working on MTS, Reformed Baptist Seminary) is a pastor at Parkside Bible Fellowship in Fallon, NV. He is husband to Debbie and father of three.
Note: The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other contributors on this site.