Pragmatism has replaced theology in much of the house of God today.
For some, the change has been barely noticeable, while for others it is heartily welcome. After all, we are told, people in the modern age can no longer think in theological terms and therefore can’t be expected to process difficult theological language. What the man on the street wants today is something practical; something easy to grasp and guaranteed to work on his behalf. Give him simple teaching, so-called ‘practical’ instruction that he can immediately apply to his life.
Pragmatism as a philosophy is attributed to William James, although he freely admitted to having received it from his predecessor, Charles Peirce. It teaches that a value of a thing is solely determined by its usefulness, and that apart from its beneficial value, it has no intrinsic worth. The early pragmatists had no use therefore for theological abstractions; their quest was in finding what works and nothing less. They viewed the pursuit of theological preciseness as quibbling about terms and definitions of words that has little practical value.
I would have no problem with the fact that pragmatism exists since it is one of many worldly philosophies which defines modern Western thought. But I am alarmed by the fact that a form of ‘Christian’ pragmatism exists today which has little use for theology and is focused largely on what works. The man in the pew wants so-called ‘practical’ teaching; principles that he can put into use and which result in an immediate benefit. Give him two or three steps that he can immediately apply and that demonstrates that it works. Entire churches are being built on such pragmatic teaching.
Now we should say from the outset that biblical truth is immensely practical and affects our lives in every way. But that is a far cry from the adoption of Christian pragmatism, which teaches that a thing is determined to be good or bad depending on its usefulness. John MacArthur explains its inherent danger:
“But when pragmatism is used to make judgments about right and wrong, or when it becomes a guiding philosophy of life and ministry, it inevitably clashes with Scripture. Spiritual and biblical truth is not determined by testing what “works” and what doesn’t. We know from Scripture, for example, that the gospel often does not produce a positive response (1 Cor. 1:22, 23; 2:14). On the other hand, Satanic lies and deception can be quite effective (Matt. 24:23, 24; 2 Cor. 4:3, 4). Majority reaction is no test of validity (cf. Matt. 7:13, 14), and prosperity is no measure of truthfulness (cf. Job 12:6). Pragmatism as a guiding philosophy of ministry is inherently flawed. Pragmatism as a test of truth is nothing short of satanic” What is Pragmatism and Why is it Bad, John MacArthur
Because of the increase of the embrace of Christian pragmatism in the Church today, few have any use for theology unless it is deemed useful. Take, for example, a pastor who is preaching through a book of Scripture and comes upon a difficult and controversial text that he must deal with next in the series. If he is a pragmatist, he may choose to ignore it entirely, since he deems it not to be useful in reaching the ultimate goal of growing a big church. The same thing often applies to the need to exercise church discipline. Some leaders who are pragmatists may choose to ignore the practice since it may work contrary to the same desire goal to attract as many members as possible.
The issue every true Christian leader must settle is that truth is not determined by its usefulness but by the fact that it exists. It has inherent value but that value is not always immediately evident. During his earthly ministry, Jesus said some offensive things that appeared, at first, to have the opposite effect; instead of growing his crowds, it actually shrunk them (see John 6). Nevertheless, he said them because following Him requires grappling with truth no matter how impractical it appears to be.