Americans pride themselves on their ingenuity and know how. We’re a country that likes to think of itself as being able “to get things done.” There’s a significant blessing in such a self-image. It motivates. It stirs. It drives and propels. Thinking of ourselves in this way inspires us to think of possibility, invention, and creativity. Those are good things.
But, like everything else in a fallen world, good things also have unintended and sometimes unforeseen consequences. Usually there’s a soft underbelly to ever superhero, an Achilles’ heel to every ideal. The American cultural ethic is no exception.
Starting with the Wrong Question
Here’s one significant problem with our tendency toward ingenuity, know how, and getting things done: It prompts us to ask the wrong starting question. We begin by asking “How?” and very seldom ask “Why?” And because the church exists in this milieu, the church and her leaders often exhibit both the strengths and weakness of the American cultural ideal. We don’t often see it, or stop to ponder it. But it’s at work in us all.
Therefore, the most necessary first-order question for pastors and people to ask and answer when it comes to living out the faith is “Why?” Why do we do this? Why don’t we do that? Why does the Bible instruct us to think this way and not that? Why does this example inform our practice or this precept prohibit that practice? Why do we believe certain teachings and reject others?
Not asking the why question and delving for a rock solid answer, leaves us open to pragmatism. Pragmatism is that philosophy, crudely stated, that says “Do what works.” It is an answer to the “why” question, but it comes in the form of a “how.” It says, “We do this because it works this way.” There’s a place for that; it’s just not at the level of first principles. Pragmatists assume that a satisfactory answer to “how” provides a self-evident reason for “why.” That’s the problem. And the pragmatist is genuine when they say “they don’t see the problem with their practice” when the critic says, “But why?” They really don’t see the problem with their practice or decision because they’ve chosen to allow “how” considerations to drive all the other questions. (By the way, “I don’t see it” is not a good retort in disagreement. It’s a statement about our vision, not about the merits of an argument)
Too Much Attention to “How”
That’s what I fear I see in the discussion about multi-site churches. They’re not from the devil, but they’re not clearly from the Bible either. And it seems to me, their adoption reflects the pragmatic concerns of “how to handle growth” in some cases, or “how to plant churches.” A really big “how” squeezes out careful reflections on “why.” Why intentionally organize bodies of believers in such a way that pastor-teacher leadership remains absent? (I know that’s not every multi-site, but that’s the one I’m addressing). Why choose the strategy of broadcasting video interstate and sometimes across national borders when the NT clearly establishes the pattern of local congregational leadership? Why not raise up a “good enough” preaching pastor to serve that body and “particularize” (if I can borrow language from my presbyterian friends) that body as soon as you can and as soon as is healthy? And are the answers to the “why” questions so compelling that we can set aside biblical precedent? If not, we’re pragmatists of the worst kind, even if we’re theologically orthodox on so many other important issues.
Here’s how the “why” questions help us: They root us to the text of the Bible (assuming one uses the Scripture to answer the questions) and drive us toward faithfulness. How questions really turn on the principle or value of effectiveness. We all want to be effective at preaching and spreading the gospel and making disciples. Nothing wrong with that. But the primary principle for evaluating Christian ministry and Christian life is not effectiveness; it’s faithfulness (1 Cor. 4:1-3, for example). ”It is required of stewards that they be found faithful.” Required.
Our Lord’s parable of the talents does not overturn this didactic principle from the epistles. They lie in harmony. And the parable of the talents, which seems to require fruitfulness (which we all want), actually depends on faithfulness. Did the servant prove faithful to employ or unfaithful in burying the stewardship entrusted to him? The Lord produces the increase. We must be faithful.
Asking tough why questions and pursuing rich biblical answers keeps us from becoming unfaithful to our Lord. And asking “Why” also has this happy benefit: It then informs the “how.” It’s possible to get effective how answers while completely missing the why; but it’s more difficult to miss good how strategies when we’ve nailed the biblical why. When we’ve nailed a biblical why and chosen a suitable how, we sleep like the farmer who planted his seed and new the harvest would come in God’s time. We sleep; we don’t cast around anxiously or aimlessly looking for the next great “how.”
“Who” Is on Third
Now, the other way pragmatism rears the ugly side of its head is by prematurely asking “Who?” That’s what I fear I see in the Elephant Room invitation of Jakes and others. In the course of last week’s events, the stated purpose of the Elephant Room morphed. It changed from a conversation among Christian brothers to a conversation among leaders. In all honesty, I think that was a decision made with the best of intentions in order to make comfortable the most people–a potentially embarrassed Jakes who might be uninvited, potentially uncomfortable panel members who might not wish to endorse Jakes, and a potential viewing public that might view the Jakes invitation as an endorsement of Jakes as orthodox. I think the ER folks were trying to serve multiple important needs.
But what’s the real problem? It wasn’t their earlier purpose statement. The real problem was asking the “who” question before really taking heed to their original “why”–to foster unity among Christian leaders who differ methodologically. Had the organizers of the event stuck firmly to that why, rooted in a careful articulation of biblical command and precept, the “who” would have been dictated by the “why.” Jakes would never have appeared on the short list because a historically orthodox definition of “Christian” would have required clear adherence to the Trinity. But the pragmatic “who” superseded the foundational “why” with the resulting controversy that followed. We might also argue, as others have (here, here, here, and here), that a robust biblical answer to the why’s of pastoral ministry might have pre-empted the invitation of Noble and Furtick, whose ministry philosophies appear to depart significantly from biblical pastoral practice.
As I stated in another post, MacDonald and Driscoll may invite anyone they wish to their events. But isn’t that a rather pragmatic, free-wheeling answer to a problem caused by pragmatic free-wheeling decisions? It would be better that all our invitations be rooted in our Master’s instruction (Titus 3:10; 2 John 9-11). Why invite a man to share your platform who could not be an elder at a biblical church? Notice we’re back to “Why?” not “who?” Our deepest problems are settled by faithful answers to “Why?” When those answers ring true to the Bible, the follow-on questions of “how” and “who” get so much easier and serve only to strengthen, not change, the “why.”
A Parting Prayer
Now, some may wish to interpret this as an attack on MacDonald and others. Such an attack is the farthest thing from my mind and heart. I’m not judging MacDonald. Each man stands or falls with his own Master. The Lord knows us all, and He will reward us properly and graciously. This isn’t written to ridicule or embarrass. It’s written with the prayerful hope that we all might grow in faithfulness to our Lord. It’s written in the recognition that we all need help in growing in faithfulness; I know I do.