Pragmatism, Blasphemous Pragmatism

October 22nd, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Not too long ago I made the comment that pragmatism in ministry amounts to blasphemy. My interlocutors thought this characteristic overstatement—I’ve been known to state ideas in the strongest possible terms on more than one occasion!—and dismissed me with a merry round of justifiable laughs. But the more I thought about the issue, the more I agree with my initial assessment. Pragmatism in ministry really is blasphemy.


I should probably define my terms before I move on to the argument. By pragmatism I mean the philosophy championed by John Dewey that assesses the truth of a belief or opinion on the basis of its practical success.[1] In other words, we answer the question Is it true? by answering the (synonymous?) question Does it work? Applied to ministry, pragmatism involves determining a philosophy of ministry based on the success of that ministry.


Blasphemy, on the other hand, has to do with belittling God—treating him with irreverence, usurping his place, etc.—and thereby maximizing something or someone else. For example, when Jesus heals the paralytic lowered through the roof, he also forgives the man’s sins, prompting the religious leaders to charge him with blasphemy (Luke 5:2-21). Jesus claimed to act in God’s place, and the religious leaders rightly denounced this as blasphemy, had Jesus not in fact been God.


Now we can see what makes pragmatism blasphemous. When we allow pragmatic concerns to shape our ministry—when we ask What works? instead of What is right?—we claim to do God’s work, to be acting in his place, which is blasphemy. Jesus said he forgave sins, which only God can do, so he was either God or speaking blasphemously. We are manifestly not God, so if we claim to do what only God can do, there is only one option left to us.


An example will help put some flesh on this skeletal argument. Many ministries today set quantifiable goals for themselves. There is nothing inherently wrong with goals, and, frankly, most of the goals worth setting need to be quantifiable. The danger comes when what quantify is no longer input variables but output goals. We may set a goal of having one evangelistic conversation each week; this is a worthy goal—and blessedly quantifiable. So far, so good. But sometimes another goal creeps in unexpectedly: we want to lead 52 people to Christ in a given year. Now we’ve slipped into blasphemous pragmatism. You see, we cannot effect the salvation of anyone; that work belongs to God alone. To set a goal for ourselves or our ministry or someone under our oversight that includes conversion growth is to claim that we can act in God’s place. That is blasphemy.


The pervasive appeal of pragmatism evidences in our language of building/growing the kingdom/church. Make no mistake: I long to see the church grow, the kingdom come in power, and I labor to that end. Nevertheless, I must be careful not to deceive myself into thinking that I can build the kingdom or grow the church. Jesus was clear: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18, emphasis added). He commissions us to make disciples—going, baptizing, teaching—but the building of the church he takes care of himself. Paul affirms as much elsewhere: “I  planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6, emphasis added). We labor, yes, but God brings about the growth. Without his quickening presence, our ministry would be as effective as planting rocks: no matter the care we take in watering them, we will see no fruit!


This is not to advocate a complacent, lazy, “let go and let God” approach to ministry. The master harshly condemns the servant who took that approach with the talent he was given (Matthew 25:26). He commends faithfulness to our commission—but a humble faithfulness. Paul says it well: “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2). We must prove faithful in our ministry—and our goals should hold us to account in this regard—but faithfulness needn’t degenerate into pragmatism.


The added danger in this blasphemously pragmatic approach to ministry is a descent into consequentialism. Consequentialism is an ethical system that evaluates an action based on the consequences of that action. We cannot know if an action is right or wrong until we see what comes of it. One cannot say, for example, “Thou shalt not murder,” because the person we murder may be the next Adolf Hitler. So even though we killed him to steal his wallet the consequences of our actions were positive, so the action was good. There is a certain appeal to this system, undoubtedly, but the Bible points us in another direction: what God says is good is good, and what God says is evil is evil.


If, however, we resort to pragmatism, we will soon slide imperceptibly into consequentialism. The two are linked in an unholy union. Pragmatists determine a philosophy of ministry based on what works, and consequentialism then tells us that this is right. That this sounds the death knell for faithful ministry seems evident enough. Consider, for example, how to preach. What works in preaching? Jeremiah thundered the Word of God for decades, but just about no one listened to him, and he spent a good portion of his ministry in a cistern. Pragmatically speaking, then, he was unsuccessful, and probably should have been removed from his ministry. Heretical preachers, on the other hand, usually draw large crowds—witness the prosperity preachers (they’ve even got their own reality show now!) and the self-help preachers. What they are doing seems to work better than faithful exposition of the text. They are growing their churches (numerically, anyway). So, in order to meet our artificial and blasphemous goals, we distort true gospel ministry into an ungodly perversion. Satan smiles as we tickle itching ears.


Enough of this. Let us labor faithfully and humbly until the day Christ calls us home—and then says to us “Well done, good and faithful servants.” He’ll take care of the rest.

[1] There is a soft definition of pragmatic that means something like “practical.” We might make a pragmatic decision about how to handle overcrowded parking lots, for example. What I am critiquing, however, is the hard definition given above.