The task of making disciples has been given to the church from God for His glory and the world’s salvation. Paul commands Timothy to “entrust [“what you have heard from me”] to faithful men who will be able to teach others also, (ESV).” That is the primary concern of making disciples, but Christians must be cautious when it comes to church and her God given task. If the believer is not aware and on his guard, then he could end up counteracting the very goal he came to accomplish. One of the most urgent issues that faces Christianity in the culture today is the pragmatic approach to church and evangelism. By and large, pastors and church leaders across the spectrum of evangelicalism are becoming increasingly pragmatic, who reproduce pragmatic parents, who reproduce pragmatic children. This mindset results in a misplaced preoccupation with numerical growth while tragically neglecting a spiritual emphasis. Consequently, nominal Christianity will be more prevalent, leading to syncretism and an unbiblical understanding of Christianity.
John MacArthur defines pragmatism as “the notion that meaning or worth is determined by practical consequences.”1 Pragmatism essentially teaches that whatever works is the right method; even if you have to do something wrong so that good may come out of it. This has been the philosophy of secular humanists for years2 — as long as the greater good is achieved, it does not matter how it came to be. This philosophy is set in clear opposition towards the advance of God’s kingdom, yet it is the driving force behind many churches today.3
Exactly how are modern day churches pragmatic? Often times, churches will sacrifice doctrine and theology on the altar of church growth. Doctrine, with its intrinsic tendency to divide or offend people, is often jettisoned in favor of church growth. Thus in order to succeed (or what looks like success) a pastor must focus on church growth strategies, programs, etc. that emphasize a felt-needs approach and less and less on doctrine. The pastor is the designated spiritual leader of his congregation, so if he is seeking pragmatic church growth strategies that involve getting a higher number of baptisms and church memberships, then that will be heart of the laypeople and the other church leaders as well. Thus, a superficial and sub-biblical standard of success is promoted among the body of Christ. This will result in catastrophic consequences as missionaries are internationally sent out from among the congregation; they will inevitably reap the harvest of their carnal methods.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon and A.W. Tozer both saw the decline of Christianity in their times and warned their contemporaries and those who would come after them about the dangers of pragmatism. Robert Shindler, a friend of Spurgeon’s whom he endorsed, wrote a series of articles in Spurgeon’s monthly magazine The Sword and the Trowel. These articles were called “The Down Grade” in which he traced the state of evangelicalism from the age of the Puritans down to his own era.4 Shindler found that about one or two generations after every revival, evangelicals drift away from sound doctrine which, if left unchecked, will eventually lead to apostasy.
Shindler asks himself what was the reason that evangelicalism lost its conservative beliefs during those times of apostasy. He answered by stating that they have “a want of adequate faith in the divine inspiration of the sacred Scriptures.”5 Shindler states that Christian’s appeal concerning every doctrine should be “To the law and to the testimony,” as Isaiah proclaimed in chapter eight. They will not entertain any sentiment that contradicts the teaching of Scripture. Robert continues by explaining “when, on the other hand, reason has been exalted above revelation, and made the exponent of revelation, all kinds of errors and mischiefs have been the result.”6 These articles were written during the final four years of Charles Spurgeon’s life leading up to his death in 1892.7 Spurgeon and Shindler lived over one hundred years ago and saw the pragmatic philosophy in evangelicalism in their day. A.W. Tozer saw it in his day as well.
Tozer said that the church “surrendered” her high concept of God exchanged it for “one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshiping men.”8 He continued to say that this low view of God is the cause of “a hundred lesser evils everywhere among us.”9 He saw the correlation between many problems in his day and the lack of theological conviction. Tozer stated in God Tells the Man Who Cares, “a very large part, of the activities carried on today in evangelical circles are not only influenced by pragmatism but almost completely controlled by it.”10 He called it “consecrated pragmatism,” meaning people discover something that works and then find a text to justify themselves – they “Christianize” worldly methods. A.W. Tozer lived in the early 1950s and died in 1963. If he saw these things over fifty years ago, one can see that not much has changed for the better in many churches and Evangelical Christianity as a whole since Tozer made these observations.
It would seem that history has repeated itself. The Southern Baptist Convention had a revival of doctrinal convictions back in the 1980-2000’s. The issue at hand was predominantly the inerrancy of the Scriptures. Many things changed during this time due to many faithful men who stood up for the truths of Scripture, but it would seem that something similar to what Shindler found in his studies on pragmatism after revivals might be occurring again.11 If one looks at modern evangelicalism, he will see many areas that “entertain low views of the inspiration and authority of the Bible, and [they are] without chart to guide [them], and without anchor to hold [them].”12 Modern churches are becoming more pragmatic and less grounded on the inerrancy and authority of the Scriptures. As John MacArthur states, “Nevertheless, philosophical pragmatism has never been more popular in evangelical churches. The church growth movement, which for years was a major factor in world missionary activity, is now having enormous influence in the backyard of Western evangelicalism.”13 But what exactly are the effects of pragmatism in missions? We will look at these in Part 2.
- John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1993), xii.
- Ibid, 80.
- Ibid, 197-225.
- Ibid, 202.
- Tozer, A.W. (2012-08-12). The Knowledge of the Holy . Fig. Kindle Edition.
- Tozer, A.W. God Tells the Man Who Cares (Harrisburg, Penn.: Christian Publications, 1970), 71.
- I am not stating anything definite, but if the results Shindler found are accurate at all, then it looks as if evangelicalism today might be on another “down grade.”
- John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1993), 202.
- Ibid, 80.