Posted by: Ken Brown | August 23, 2007

"Practical" Christianity

A common reason people reject or abandon Christianity is a feeling that it simply isn’t practical. For many in the average church, there is no obvious connection between what is preached on Sunday morning, and what they actually do the rest of the week. Talk of grace and eternal salvation, however uplifting, is often perceived as irrelevant to everyday life.

The problem is that we have shied away from the one aspect of Christianity that really is applicable – its moral teaching. Actually, that isn’t quite correct. The church hasn’t abandoned its moral teaching, but too often it has distorted it. Publicly, at least here in America, we have focused ever more attention on berating the surrounding culture for its sexual practices and selfishness, while paying ever less attention to the state of our own lives. Thus, the non-Christian world sees in Christian morality only a collection of harsh and unnecessary rules, because that is how many of our loudest advocates announce it.

Privately, countless churches do a wonderful job of living out the love of Christ, but as a whole, the Church in America has done a poor job of expressing its moral viewpoint to the outside world. How rarely do non-Christians hear that the heart of the gospel is actually a call to die to yourself, that you might live? How often do we show this by our actions?

The trouble is that we too often accept the assumption that the value of a thing lies in its utility. Dying to yourself is not practical; it doesn’t pay the bills or get you ahead on the ladder of success. Quite the contrary, it might even mean paying other people’s bills and letting them go ahead. In the long run, this results in community, love, and mutual encouragement, but in the short run, it is hard, so we avoid it. Instead of dying to ourselves, we rest content in our cheap grace or pile harsh condemnation on those around us. In all that, we forget that Christian morality is intended to be a lively and liberating way of life, the outlines of what it means to be truly human. As N.T. Wright puts it in Simply Christian (by the way, Matt, I’ve changed my view of this book; the second half is excellent):

Only when we have set all that out quite clearly can we ever speak of “rules.” There are rules, of course. The New Testament has plenty of them. Always give alms in secret. Never sue a fellow Christian. Never take private vengeance. Be kind. Always show hospitality. Give away money cheerfully. Don’t be anxious. Don’t judge another Christian over a matter of conscience. Always forgive. And so on. And the worrying thing about that randomly selected list is that most Christians ignore most of them most of the time. It isn’t so much that we lack clear rules; we lack, I fear, the teaching that will draw attention to what is in fact there in our primary documents, not least in the teaching of Jesus himself.

The rules are to be understood, not as arbitrary laws thought up by a distant God to stop us from having fun (or to set us some ethical hoops to jump through as a kind of moral examination), but as the signposts to a way of life in which heaven and earth overlap, in which God’s future breaks into the present, in which we discover what genuine humanness looks and feels like in practice. (pg. 224-25)

If we want to change our culture, we must start by changing ourselves.

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Responses

  1. Great post, Ken. The testimony to its truth is that when we’re at our best we don’t want to ‘break the rules’.

  2. That’s a good point, Matt. The rules follow and give shape to a deeper attitude of service; they do not replace it. This is both easier and harder than any kind of legalism.

  3. Christian pragmatism? Probably a four letter word to a lot of people, but I think I am only satisfied with it. It’s about creating habits of mind and heart to become a better person in the world who can actually love the neighbor. When those “rules” become part of your heart, they are no longer rules, but the structures that regulate how you live with others. Those who still see them as mere “rules” that constrict rather than create freedom have some maturity to develop I think…

  4. Drew, your comment sums up my view exactly!


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