In a recent email from Ligonier Ministries, R C Sproul writes about “Principle vs Pragmatism“. When I finished reading it I thought, “there seems to be something missing.” It did not seem reasonable to think the only task of the Board at a Christian institution “was to guard the priority of the doctrine of the institution.” It seems the priority of the Board would be to guard the truth.
Truth is often both principled and pragmatic. Truth is many times at odds with doctrine. Even Jesus recognized that when he admonished his followers to exhibit a righteousness that exceed that of the religious teachers of the day (Matt 5:20). They may have had their doctrine correct, but it was far from the truth of what God was expecting.
Both Jesus and the apostle Paul were pragmatists. Jesus was fond of using very pragmatic ideas and illustrations (parables) to get his point across regarding truth and the kingdom of God. Paul, when necessary, found it both expedient and practical to become “all things to all men (1Cor 9:22).” Principles are great and it is wise to have them as life guides as we grow and develop. However, being pragmatic has its place as well. Holding to a truth without understanding why or what that truth means has little if any value. Seeking truth, even when it seems at odds with longstanding traditions/doctrines, means we are open to what God is saying – then, now, and perhaps in the future. That does not mean that God changes what is true, it simply means our understanding of what is true changes.
In a recent group discussion I introduced the concept of women in ministry. I asked the question why Southern Baptists are unwilling to have women in key positions of leadership, ministry, or teaching. One member of the group said rather bluntly, “they are legalistic.” Now that may be so. I, to some degree, suspect it is. However, other Baptist churches and other evangelical denominations have women in key positions of ministry. So is one position true over another? Or has one simply succumb to pragmatism – not enough men to serve, so recruiting women solves the problem.
I read recently regarding one man’s definition of philosophy – “everything is more complicated than we originally thought.” Truth is often more complicated than we think. Indeed, truth is truth but that does not mean that everyone or anyone possesses the foundation of truth. It might be true, that God created, but did he in fact create only as we understand it in the Genesis account? Did he create mankind or a man and a women? If we hold to one position and new and credible information comes along, are we open to making a new decision regarding that truth? Do we hold to a position regarding the age of the earth as young, 10,000 years or perhaps less, when science seems to dictate that earth is much older than that. Is science contrary to God? Will everything fall apart if the evidence is believed and the earth is a million years old or older?
Holding to principles is a good thing. Being pragmatic, when required, is also a good thing. If our principles are shielded with blinders and we cannot see new “truth” when it presents itself, does that mean the principle is flawed, our thinking is flawed, or there could not be “new truth”? Or, has the doctrine been set. Growing in Christ and in the “knowledge of God” does not mean we hold to truth even when it is no longer true. Paul and Barnabas had that discussion with the leadership of the Church of Jerusalem regarding circumcision (Acts 11-15). Where would we be today if the Jerusalem council would have said, “We have principles! We cannot abandon circumcision and other aspects of the Law, it would be a violation of the truth.” I suspect the Christian landscape would have looked much different and Paul’s journeys scuttled. Instead, pragmatism was the order of the day, not in violation of the truth, but in furtherance of the truth.
High-horses might be good for riding over others, but getting bucked off is no picnic.