Friday, July 29, 2011
Correct Theology or Correct Practices?
It seems that there are some out there in evangelical circles that believe that you cannot go out and evangelize, or even really serve, until you have your theology or doctrine just right. Now, I know that none of these groups or persons would admit that they felt this way, but I have noticed that in many circles they are acting this way. They get into deep theological debates and gather like-minded individuals to argue their cause with them. Once their position is clearly established, they denounce anyone who may teach something even slightly different as a false teacher, or heretic, or worse.
Now before you denounce me as a post-modern relativistic heretic, let me say that I do believe that theology and doctrine are important; I even once believed that I, or at least some of the men I was following, had figured this whole theology thing out.
I believe that we should study the scriptures and that we should try to understand as much about God and what He is up to as we can. I just do not believe that any one of us can do that perfectly, or realistically, even near-perfectly. Most theologians would agree that no one can understand perfectly. I suspect, however, that most feel their particular understanding is at least better than anyone else's.
What About Practice?
While there is not an agreement on what exactly believers should be doing, it is widely accepted that once a person becomes a believer they should be doing something. Some groups feel that the single most important thing we can do is evangelize, so they teach their followers to go out and get as many people to agree with their understanding of the Scriptures as possible. Some groups feel that incarnating Christ is the most important thing, so their followers are taught to go out and serve, often in the worst places possible in order to "show the love of Christ". Still others believe that it is important to effect political change and spend their time focused on petitioning and lobbying for new "moral" laws.
All of these are good things, all of them can and sometimes do accomplish the will of God. Unfortunately, all of these can also be done with the wrong attitude, all of them can become an end unto themselves, and all of them have the potential to do more harm than good. God has undoubtedly given work for the believer, James 2:10 and many others show this to be true. How then is it even possible to know what we should be doing, much less which think is most important.?
Which is more important; Theology or Practice?
So is it possible to determine which is more important, and if it is, how much does it matter? I believe it matters a lot, but maybe not for the reasons many would think this. My current understanding is somewhat circular in its reasoning, but bear with me.
Theology is most important inasmuch as it informs us of who God is, and what He is up to(miseo Dei). Doing that is not informed by at least a good understanding of these things is is in danger of falling into one of the pitfalls described earlier. An example of this can be seen in the varying styles of evangelism that reduce coming to Christ down to a series of facts. We get a person to assent to a list of truths about Jesus and then pronounce over them "salvation" but the bible reveals that relationship is one of God's primary attributes and by reducing God to a list of facts we rob people of the opportunity to develop a deep and personal relationship with God on their own. This is nearly always done with an eye to getting as many "notches" on our spiritual belt as possible.
But in a way, practice is also more important than theology. One place where people look to scare anyone away from theological error is James 3:1. James warns that people not seek to be teachers as they could be subject to stricter judgement, but how do we reconcile this with the great commission where all believers are called by Jesus to "make disciples, teaching them all things that I have commanded you". Kinda hard to fulfill the great commission without teaching, but who wants to teach if you can receive condemnation or judgement if you get something wrong.
Well what if James isn't pronouncing condemnation on all teachers here, what if there is something deeper. After making the pronouncement in verse 1, James goes on to say no one can get it all right, not in practice (speaking things that offend) or theology (that which controls the speaking), in fact, he makes it sound pretty hopeless. But then we have v 13-18 and the glimmer of hope returns. James is not telling everyone to be afraid of teaching, he is not saying make sure you get everything right before you dare to teach anyone, he is not even pronouncing judgement on teachers who may not have everything right. James is saying that we know that we will in fact NOT get everything right, that we will offend, and get things wrong, but that we would operate out of wisdom. Wisdom from above that operates in the humility of knowing we do not have everything right and does not act in hypocrisy to condemn those who just like us may also not have everything right. Wisdom that seeks gentleness, and mercy and peace, not earthly wisdom that is displayed in condemnation and envy and strife.
Theology is important, we should try to have as accurate an understanding of God and His mission as possible so that we can accurately portray Him to those around us who are lost. We should let this understanding inform our practices rather than trying to make a God who fits neatly into our lists of facts or truths. But practices are equally important. We need to be out showing God to the world and telling them of His love, and we should not be afraid to get it wrong, we all do and we all will continue to. Another beautiful aspect of grace is that God is able to accomplish His eternal purposes and mission even while using messed up people like you and me. In fact, 1 Cor 1 tells us He delights in using messy, foolish things to accomplish His purposes,. He doesn't condemn us for failing at perfection, He revels in the fact that our imperfection increases His Glory.
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