Theology 101

Doctrine, Charisma, or Action? Why the Church Needs All Three

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Are you in the doctrinal, charismatic, or activist “camp” when it comes to your faith?

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, one problem in the modern and post-modern world, including the church, is the failure to see the connection between what we do, what we think, and what we feel. In other words, we don’t understand the relationship between knowing, feeling, and doing. This is an issue not only for our personal faith but also the church at large.

Becoming One-Sided in Your School of Thought

If we look at today’s church, we can discern three schools of thought, each centered around knowing, feeling, or doing:

  • Doctrine (knowing)
  • Piety (feeling)
  • Reform (doing)

The “Doctrine” school is (rightly) critical of the lack of truth in the church, the superficial piety, and the flurry of activity that is often uninformed by biblical priorities.

The “Piety” school is (rightly) critical of those who are ivory tower scholars who only want to dot their “i”s and cross their “t”s but lack a passion for God.

The “Reform” school points (rightly) to the great needs in society and is very critical of those who just want to theologize or pray but not act in culturally redeeming ways.

In each of these orientations, by defending their particular stance, a one-sided excess creeps in.

  • “Doctrine,” rather than enriching and motivating our lives, becomes “Dogmatism.”
  • “Piety,” instead of producing passionate action, can become isolated from others.
  • “Reform” can gradually become weary, bitter, and cynical, leading to a kind of “Activism” without love or joy.

Each needs the other two. In fact, if you leave out one, you, in effect, lose all three.

Tim Keller in a speech to the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) General Assembly develops the conflict between what he (and historian George Marsden) call the doctrinalist, pietist, and culturalist impulses. These categories correspond to the knowing, feeling, and doing or Doctrine, Piety, Reform motifs discussed above.

Although Keller develops his argument with respect to different movements within the PCA, we can see representatives of these schools in other denominations and para-church ministries in evangelicalism. Keller discusses the tension between these branches:

The doctrinalists are always worried there are ‘stealth liberals’ in our midst and the social engagement emphasis of some churches will inevitably lead to doctrinal compromise. Those in the social justice branch are afraid that others in the denomination are becoming culturally reactionary, and may, in their phobia against social involvement, become as blind to injustice as the Old School has been in the past (e.g. slavery). Those in the pietist branch feel that a lack of evangelistic fervor is a serious sin, and they doubt the spiritual vitality of the other branches. Then along comes an issue and the pent-up energy (the fear and frustration) is released.

Even though there is an important biblical insight that each branch puts forth, they tend to have their own unique weaknesses. The critiques of each branch are usually on the mark.

Keller observes,

The doctrinalist branch can breed smugness and self-righteousness over its purity…the pietist branch is very pragmatic and results-minded, and it is resistant to enter into processes of discipline or theological debate…the culturalist branch becomes too enamored with modern scholarship [with a corresponding] erosion of orthodox theology.

The Health of the Body of Christ Depends on Its Diversity

Keller argues that when a church tries to purge one of these branches, it finds that in a generation or two, its younger leaders are drawn to the lost branches. Each branch needs the others to counter its own tendencies. Each has its own blind spots. Keller says,

Richard Lovelace used to say doctrinalists are like white corpuscles that are better at defending the faith (against heretical ‘infections’) than propagating the faith. The pietists and reformists are like red corpuscles that in their pragmatism do a better job of propagating the faith and yet often lay it open to doctrinal indifference or decline. Too many white blood cells over red blood cells is leukemia; too many red blood cells over white blood cells is AIDS. We need each other. We can’t live comfortably with each other, but we are much less robust and vital apart from each other.

Not only are all three branches rooted in biblical ground discussed in my earlier posts on this subject, but each needs the others to correct its own excesses or blind spots. In the real world after the Fall, it is difficult (if not impossible) to maintain the proper proportion or balance for long. We need to keep studying the scriptures and learning from each other.

Keller suggests that we read each other’s reading lists (which are often quite different), have regular discussions in communities (like presbyteries), and set aside time to work through our differences before they become raging controversies or judicial complaints (church courts).

The unity between knowing, feeling, and doing is simpler to lay down in biblical terms than it is to live out in real life. The reality, because of the Fall, is that we all tend towards one of these schools and need to be nudged gently (or not so gently) to a more full-orbed emphasis on all three areas.

Above all we need to preserve in this generation the importance of truth (knowing), a passion for God (feeling), and a view of life that leads to cultural transformation (doing).

Editor’s Note: Save $15 when you order all three of Art Lindsley’s books—Love, the Ultimate Apologetic, True Truth, and C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christ—from the IFWE bookstore

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