Charting a Course for the Church
Part I: Examining our Assumptions

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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The manner in which we live is determined by what we truly believe about life and the world we live in. That is why what we believe is so important, especially in the area of values and spiritual things. Those who try to devalue the importance of Christian "doctrine" have an impossible task. The Greek word that we translate "doctrine" (didaskalia) in our Bibles actually means "teaching," "information," or "instruction." Everyone has basic beliefs - which for them are their "doctrines." Even those who oppose "too much emphasis upon doctrine" often spend a great deal of time teaching their own beliefs in one manner or another. One of the most profound ways that Christianity impacts individual lives is by changing beliefs through Christian teachings; doctrine shaped by God's revelation as given in Scripture.

Often the beliefs that we most need to examine are the ones we tend to exercise without being conscious of them. Although we can develop them on our own, they are usually shared with others. Within a culture they frequently become "mores," the equivalent of moral laws; standards which, if violated, bring ridicule, strong disapproval, and sometimes rejection from the community. Three assumptions commonly made today should be of particular concern to us.

First Assumption:
American Pragmatism

The most commonly held, if not the deepest value of contemporary America, is "American pragmatism." According to this belief, the goodness of anything is directly related to visible success. Whatever is successful is "good." Whatever appears to fail is "bad." In the Christian community this translates to "whatever is successful has been blessed by God." Today this belief is applied in every part of life and at every level of life as the ultimate determinant of good or evil.

Although identified as "American pragmatism," this view has been held by many throughout history and throughout the world. It can be recognized in the old saying "Failure is an orphan, but victory has many fathers" and "money talks." It is more common in the United States today because of this nation's success in many endeavors, especially in technology and commerce.

It is important to notice that in Christianity there is nothing inherently wrong with success. Nor is failure ever seen as desirable or morally superior. The problem with American pragmatism is not that it promotes success. It is that it judges the moral or spiritual value of anything solely by its success - where success is determined by winning a contest, or by earning a great deal of wealth, or by gaining a large following. By this system, people who cheat, steal, or are immoral can be judged to be acceptable if they profit from what they do - people to envy and emulate.

In contrast, we should measure the moral or spiritual value of anything by how it measures up to God's holiness, His commandments, His teachings, and His plan. The "Kingdom of God" in this age is the rule of God in the hearts of Christian believers. In the Christian community we should judge things by how valuable they are to mankind in the sight of God. He and His ways should govern us. What is happening today is that pragmatism is finding its way more and more into Christian thought and practice. More than one spiritual teacher on the national scene today is saying that Christians should determine their theology (their understanding of God and spiritual things) by what "works."

But Christianity teaches that success in the eyes of the world is not always success in the eyes of God. Jesus said, "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:). Paul told the Galatians, "If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ." (Galatians 1:10). It is not a matter of favoring "failure" over "success;" it is a matter of measuring success by what pleases God. As Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount, "seek first His (the Father's) kingdom and His righteousness" (Matthew 6:33).

Second Assumption:
The Certainty of Upward Progress

The belief that humanity is on an upward course in every area of life has become common in our culture, especially in the universities. Where once it was believed that universities were responsible for the preservation and transmission of knowledge as well as for the progress of knowledge, that belief has been all but abandoned. There is an underlying assumption that all fields of knowledge must progress by leaving old knowledge behind and replacing it with innovation.

This is not to say that we should continue to hold beliefs that have been proven wrong. For instance, when astronomers were first able to observe distant galaxies, they believed that solar systems were forming right before their eyes. They believed that they saw dust, drawn together by gravitational force, coalescing into stars and planets. When they were able to gain enough information to conclude that these were really galaxies, each made up of millions of stars rather than of clouds of dust, they rejected the belief that they were solar systems in formation. In this case, progress in understanding the nature of our universe required the complete rejection of what was previously accepted as true.

However, the assumption that something like this is involved in all fields of human knowledge is just that, an assumption. Innovation may move us away from truth as well as towards it. In many disciplines, among them art, science, philosophy, and theology, no progress in the refinement of knowledge can occur without a good understanding of what came before; and without preserving that which has been established before that is valuable.

The assumption of the certainty of upward progress causes people to reject anything that is old and to accept anything that is new. Change becomes the watchword - not necessarily change from something to anything specific, but change in and for its own sake; since it is assumed that anything new is better that anything that came before. The rejection of what is old solely because it is old is simplistic - often an expression of arrogance and ignorance - or sin.

Christianity is faith that God has revealed Himself through sacred history, in His written Word, and supremely through Jesus Christ. Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away" (Mark 13:31). The author of Hebrews wrote, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). Paul argued that his ministry should be respected because he did not alter God's Word (II Corinthians 2:17, 4:1-2) and counseled Timothy to take care not to deviate from the established pattern of sound teachings (II Timothy 1:13-14). Our understanding of God's revealed truth may be refined, but never in the sense of contradicting the clear teachings of the faith already understood.

Third Assumption:
Reality is Directly Related to Feeling

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there has been a dramatic change in the way people relate to their world. The end of the 19th century was a time of unbridled optimism in the ability of science and technology to solve all human problems. The giddiness based upon the rise of knowledge and technology contributed, among other things, to the tragedy of the Titanic. However, the optimism outlived that event, not really waning until after the mid-twentieth century. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes was not simply the embodiment of an ideal detective, he modeled, in many ways, the savvy scientist - a keen observer of the world who, by accumulating evidence and reflecting upon it, is able to understand the secrets of the world that remain hidden to everyone else. Holmes dealt in hard, cold facts. Scientists became the "high-priests" of secularism, for they "understood" the mysteries of life.

However, if the ideal person of the late nineteenth century looked carefully at the world around to find reality, the average person of the twentieth century looks within. In our time, both Christianity and science find themselves "out-of-step" with most people, who reject both revelation and scientific investigation as the means to understanding their world. The most common method of determining reality today is to look within. It if feels good, it must be good. If it feels wrong, it must be bad. If it feels like God is with me, I must be experiencing God! Prejudice replaces knowledge. Like the popular song says, "It can't be wrong if it feels so right."

Allan Bloom, then a professor at the University of Chicago, wrote a best-selling, and controversial, book about American universities called The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster. Copyright 1987 Allan Bloom). What fascinated and disappointed Bloom was the manner in which his students had changed over the years. Early in his career, Bloom had students in his classroom who pressed him for answers and eagerly studied the classic works of the past. Over time, the enthusiasm of his students changed into complacency. Once they believed they could determine truth for themselves, they stopped looking for objective truth. They felt they were right, so they believed they were right.

Our feelings tell us something about ourselves, not necessarily something about reality or the world. Paul challenged, "So then, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is" (Ephesians 4:17). Scripture gives us many examples of self-confidant, self-assured people who were, nevertheless, wrong about the world and spiritual truth. "For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God," Paul said of some, "but not in accordance with knowledge" (Romans 10:2).

The Christian community needs to be especially alert today. The three assumptions stated above, so prevalent in our time, are being used to bring new and dangerous practices into the Christian church. Criticizing and departing from these assumptions is not popular, but it is necessary if we are to avoid the pitfalls that stem from them. Jesus said that if salt loses its saltness, it is no longer good for anything, and must be thrown away. If we are to preserve our uniqueness, we must examine the teachings that are brought to us for these false assumptions -- especially in determining how best to serve our Lord in this age.

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume VI, Part 4, April 1998.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.