“Whatever Works Is Right”—The Danger of Pragmatism

Ideas have consequences. You and I are often influenced unknowingly by various philosophies and ideologies. One faulty worldview that subtly impacts the lives of many Christians is pragmatism. Many church members have embraced this philosophy, and may have been led into this way of thinking by preachers of today and the recent past.
In a column featured in a popular Christian magazine some years ago, a well-known preacher was venting his own loathing for long sermons. He mentioned that one of his New Year’s resolutions was “to do better in the coming year in regard to sermon preparation.” Further explaining himself, he was planning on investing less time preparing long sermons and much more time preparing short ones. He continued, “People, I’ve discovered, will forgive even poor theology as long as they get out before noon.” This article may have been written “tongue in cheek,” but to claim that people need less theology or poor theology is not humorous since it is happening all the time in pulpits across America. The pulpit is sacred and no place for worldly philosophy such as pragmatism.
Unfortunately, this man’s article perfectly sums up the predominant attitude behind much of ministry today. Bad doctrine is tolerable; a long sermon most certainly is not. The timing of the closing prayer is of far more concern to the average churchgoer than the content of the sermon. Feeding ourselves at Sunday dinner takes precedence over Sunday school lessons and the nourishment of our souls. This is a great illustration for the infiltration of pragmatism into our churches. The view that it is acceptable to water down theology in order to keep the pews filled is a dangerous pragmatic ideology.

I. Definition of Pragmatism

Consider the definition of pragmatism. The idea is that the way is not as important as the result. Pragmatism is the belief that the end result is all that matters, or the end justifies the means. It doesn’t matter how you get from point A to point B, as long as you get to point B. The method or form you use is of no importance, as long as you achieve your goal. Whatever works is the best choice. Thus, meaning or worth is determined by practical consequences. It is closely akin to utilitarianism, the belief that usefulness is the standard of what is good. If a technique or course of action has the desired effect, it is good. If it does not work, then it is wrong.
We can look in the annals of history and find a progression of this mind-set. This philosophy became prevalent at the end of the 1800s. A philosopher named William James and other men such as John Dewey and George Santayana made this philosophy popular. In 1907, William James published a collection of lectures entitled Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. Pragmatism has its roots in Darwinism and secular humanism. It rejects the idea of absolute right and wrong, good and evil, and truth and error. Pragmatism ultimately defines truth as that which is useful, meaningful, and helpful. Ideas that don’t seem workable or relevant are rejected as false.

II. Problems with Pragmatism

This idea may look good on the surface, but in reality it isn’t Biblical, and it doesn’t work in a Scriptural setting. For instance, we would agree that we should have common sense. If a leak in your water pipe stops after you replace a section, then you fixed the problem. If the medicine prescribed by your doctor heals your illness, it must be the medicine that cured you. As you can tell from the two examples listed above, the problems in plumbing or in our physical well-being may have been fixed. However, even in these two practical applications, we don’t always find that fixing the leak or taking the prescribed medication is the cure for the root problem. We have to be careful in Biblical areas not to claim that because something worked it is God-ordained. Let’s consider a few examples from Scripture.

“For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (I Corinthians 1:21-23).

“But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Corinthians 2:14).

Notice what Paul is saying to the Corinthians. The unsaved folks that he was preaching to did not agree with the “foolish” idea of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection being needed for a soul’s redemption. They thought it was unlearned and ignorant. In fact, Paul was accused of heresy, and worse lunacy, when he faced the Roman rulers and tried to present Christ. They told Paul that much learning had made him mad. If the end justifies the means, or if we are only result-driven and not theology-driven, then reasoning and intellect will be our driving force. The Bible tells us that we need to be careful of following our hearts, our minds, or our own feelings. He that trusts in his own heart is a fool by Biblical standards. We often find that Satanic ploys and means do find some evidence of success. The devil’s ways often seem to work. Notice a couple of passages in the Gospel of Matthew.

“And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened. Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (Matthew 24:22-24).

“Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).

As a pastor or one who leads in your church or ministry, do you find sometimes that discouragement overwhelms you because no one seems to listen or follow God’s way? The Bible tells us that this will be true. We need to be faithful to God’s way. We love reading biographies of those who were faithful to God in spite of circumstances or results. Sadly, in our own lives, as the pressures of day-to-day life come upon us, we are tempted to steer away from sound doctrine so that we can have temporary results.
The passages above indicate to us that signs and wonders will be performed by FALSE prophets. I stressed false because we sometimes just see the signs and wonders and forget that they are a result of false doctrine. Be careful of heading down the broad way and forsaking the straight and narrow because few people are following. Christ told us that this would be the case. The devil offers temporary results for the pastor just as he promises a season of joy to the sinner. We need to be careful of sacrificing the sound Bible doctrine that is so dear to the believer for the false gospel and false ideology of the devil.

III. The Practice of Pragmatism

In Scripture, we see many examples of pragmatism and its results. Consider a few examples. King Saul (a consummate pragmatist) decided that a sacrifice needed to be made to God, and he didn’t need to wait around for Samuel. The main point was to make a sacrifice, right? Or consider Moses who struck the rock instead of speaking to it. Wasn’t the water coming out all that mattered? Or what about Simon the sorcerer, who wanted to buy the Holy Spirit from the apostles? Does it matter how one receives the Holy Spirit, as long as he ends up having His power?
These men experienced the loss of a kingly dynasty, failure to see the promised land, and a threat of damnation, all because they thought the end justified the means. The means is very important to God. It matters to Him what we do, not just what gets done.
As recorded in II Samuel 6 and I Chronicles 13, the Philistines took the ark of the covenant. King David wanted to bring the ark back to God’s people. The first act of pragmatism was to assume that God didn’t care how they brought the ark back, as long as it came back safely. A clue to their mentality is found in I Chronicles 13:4, “the thing was right in the eyes of all the people.” Disregarding the specific Levitical instruction for the priests to carry the ark, the people loaded it on an ox cart and led it along. Along the way, the oxen stumbled, and the ark appeared ready to fall. Uzzah “pragmatically” decided that the most important thing was to steady the ark so it didn’t fall. No one wanted the ark of the covenant to be destroyed. It was a good motive, right? The end justifies the means, doesn’t it? To the surprise of everyone, Uzzah was instantly struck dead. The end result seemed good—to bring the ark of the covenant back to its proper place and in the process keep it from falling. However, God did care about the methodology and the process of transporting the vessel.

IV. The Pathway from Pragmatism

God is always concerned about the pathway that a Christian is pursuing. Let’s consider a few Scriptures in regard to this fact.

“Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Psalm 16:11).
“Teach me thy way, O LORD, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies” (Psalm 27:11).
“Make me to go in the path of thy commandments; for therein do I delight” (Psalm 119:35).
“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105).
“My son, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path” (Proverbs 1:15).
“Then shalt thou understand righteousness, and judgment, and equity; yea, every good path” (Proverbs 2:9).
“Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not in the way of evil men”
(Proverbs 4:14).
“Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established” (Proverbs 4:26).
“The way of the just is uprightness: thou, most upright, dost weigh the
path of the just”
(Isaiah 26:7).

I have listed just a few passages in regard to God’s concern of a Christian’s pathway. As you can see, God is not only concerned about the end or the results that we are getting; God is concerned about our steps or pathway. Faith is the opposite of pragmatism. Sometimes, we must simply TRUST God and leave the outcome to Him! We don’t always have the results, the offerings, the attendance, the church facilities, or the great health that we want; but God is concerned about our pathway. Learn to live by faith.
My challenge is to those leaders who are discouraged because of the constant touting of revival fires breaking out in some church meeting, the thousands that are reportedly saved, the hundreds saved in one hour of soulwinning, the millions raised for debt reduction, and you have seen none of it. Keep at it. God still meets with the individual, cares about the sparrow, and knows the very number of hairs on our heads. Our paths and individual lives are important. Don’t let the temptation to compromise in your theology, standards, separation, or family practice wear you down. Stop dwelling on those that are reporting signs and wonders falsely, while denying the power thereof. Keep faithful to the old paths.

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