Principled and Pragmatic (Part I/II)

Did you know that conversion rates for companies using custom visual content are 7 times higher than companies that do not?”

I could hardly believe my eyes when I first read these words. They were in the subject line of a message sent to our church email account. I was relieved when, upon closer inspection, I saw that it was not from a parachurch ministry, and the “conversion” to which it referred was not of the spiritual sort. Instead, the message was from a company utilized by the local school district for community organizations to promote their services and events to their students and parents.

Despite my initial surprise, I shouldn’t have felt this way. These kinds of bold promises have become quite common for people who have lived through the rise of church marketing and the digital age. Many of us have been inoculated against shock from such raw appeals to pragmatism.

Though pragmatism has become something of a bogeyman to many church leaders who seek to be biblical and principled, I believe we often lack clarity and nuance in understanding the relationship between practical concerns and biblical principles. This seems especially true in how church leaders perceive and describe the life and ministry of the church.

At least two significant errors exist in our debates over how to be both principled in our ministries and practical, or faithful and fruitful.[1] In this two-part article, we’ll consider both of these errors. It’s my modest hope that this will be the start of a healthier, more nuanced conversation about means and ends in church ministry.

On Pragmatism

At its core pragmatism is a philosophy that says, “do whatever works.” Though William James and John Dewey are often associated with pragmatism, C. S. Peirce (1839-1914) was arguably its founder. Many authors have described pragmatism as the most influential school of philosophy in America. It is also probably the most distinctly American contribution to the history of philosophy.

Pragmatism judges the truthfulness or validity of an assertion, idea or practice based on its usefulness. William James infamously dubbed this “cash value.” One would ask of a certain statement or idea, “does it have practical value?” A common gloss derived from James’ thought is, “What is true is what works.”

This sentiment relates to the present discussion in this way: As the church carries out its ministry, many questions arise concerning whether principles of Scripture or effective practical methods will be the driving forces behind ministry decisions. We could think of these questions along a spectrum which represents the relationship between decisions based on what are felt to be clear-cut, biblical principles and those made based solely on potential practical results. These are the errors we will consider.[2]

Error #1: Reducing Nearly Everything to a Principled Decision

The first error is to reduce nearly everything to a principle. Whether the question is how long to preach, which evangelistic program to implement, or which songs to sing, there is some biblical principle invoked to justify a particular church’s specific approach. Interestingly, this type of reasoning is often used to justify criticisms of other churches that do things differently.

Consider the following examples: A pastor preaches through entire books of the Bible verse-by-verse. He feels this is the best way to faithfully unfold biblical teaching in a systematic, expositional way, honoring the biblical principle of preaching the “whole counsel of God.” Along the way, he hears of a neighboring church where the pastor is preaching a wildly popular series on the theme of joy that some of his own congregants have been listening to online. When asked about this series by a curious church member, the pastor responds, “I must stand on principle. We’re not going to give into pragmatism and let popular approval steer the pulpit ministry of this church.”

A deacon board deliberates over how to form a benevolence policy to guide its handling of requests for financial assistance. They consider Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”[3] They also consider Galatians 6:10: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith,” along with the biblical instruction about widow care in 1 Timothy 5. The deacons determine that the biblical thing to do is give money to everyone who asks for it. After all, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). After six months, the church is in financial ruin.

The central issue is that, in both instances, a decision was made when a biblical verse and/or principle was equated with a specific ministry practice (preaching through books, giving to the needy unreservedly). While we can applaud the efforts of this pastor and deacons for trying to be true to what they understand biblical principles to require, some obvious concerns emerge.

First, what if legitimate practical concerns, not unrelated to biblical principles are actually being overlooked in decisions being made? Could the pastor be, at least on occasion, missing essential opportunities to address specific problems in his church? Some of the apostle Paul’s own letters—especially 1 Corinthians—seem to reflect a conscientious effort to confront timely problems with biblical wisdom. Or could the deacon board be unwisely distributing finances without any consideration of other standing commitments? What of the missionaries they have already pledged to support? What of the biblical warnings against laziness, which may be a quality evident in the lives of some of those requesting help?

Sometimes “principled” churches or leaders can err by falsely equating principles with specific practices. They may err by overlooking other biblical principles relevant to the decision-making process. They could even be guilty of smuggling personal preferences and church traditions into their decisions while still professing to be standing on principle. Many of us would acknowledge that, at times, we begin with what we know or have seen and then try to develop with a biblical justification for it.

Our ministry decisions certainly should be driven by biblical commands, principles, and patterns. However, we should also be honest when we cannot draw a straight line between a specific command, principle, or pattern in Scripture and a specific practice in our ministries. Moreover, the end goals of pleasing God and bearing fruit (a practical outcome) require more than feeling confident about a principle.

Error #2: Reducing Nearly Everything to a Pragmatic Decision

The error on the opposite end of the spectrum is the strictly pragmatic mindset that reduces nearly every ministry decision to a practical choice. People who rely on this approach are concerned about what practice or strategy yields the desired result with little or no attention to biblical principles. In the absence of a clear biblical mandate to execute a ministry a specific way, practical concerns and perceived effectiveness are what rule.

For example, the pastor with this mindset decides to develop his sermon series around a theme or topic as opposed to a specific passage or book of the Bible. He knows the Bible teaches that he is to preach the Word. Yet since the New Testament does not provide a specific set of verses about planning his preaching calendar, he chooses to use the Bible in a way that seems to best engage the interest of his congregation and intended audience. To gauge this interest, he considers verbal feedback, service attendance, apparent interest from his listeners, perceived growth, and so on.

This deacon board devises a benevolence policy, too. They recognize that the Bible has a few generic verses about helping others and a few about helping widows. However, they also recognize that providing financial support to people is a very uncertain and often messy sort of ministry. If a family has a home fire, they will be sure to help. If a biblically-defined widow comes forward and asks for help, they will act. Otherwise, they decide to let the Salvation Army and government organizations take care of these kinds of things. Since the Bible doesn’t emphasize this area of ministry as much as evangelism or discipleship, they choose to make it a minor aspect of theirs.

The pragmatic mindset is more prone to forgo a close study of Scripture, or assume that anything not prohibited is appropriate. The pragmatist then makes a quick judgment about what seems to be most effective or efficient. Remember, pragmatism at its core is about utility, usefulness, and what works. Thus, if the pastor only believes that the New Testament says to preach the Word and that preaching aims for life change, then of course he is going to adopt an approach that generates interest. A mindset and a motivation (well-intentioned, no doubt) drive the method. Meanwhile, this preacher fails to consider whether his method is truly going to supply the full breadth of Scriptural teaching, in context, to his flock over time.

The deacons’ pragmatic mindset toward benevolence sees it as something mandated in Scripture but not something well defined or emphasized. Accordingly, they hasten to move it to the margins of the ministry. They do not attend carefully to all the biblical principles about benevolence, stewardship, and service that might shape their approach to serving material needs. The only thing that might change their emphasis on this area of ministry is if they find that those who receive financial assistance start coming to church. Then an outcome or end will justify the ministry.

Part two of this two-part essay will post next Monday on the Forum.


[1] I draw this latter phrase from Tim Keller’s Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 13-14.

[2] As my colleague Phillip Morgan reminded me, these extremes or errors share significant parallels with F. Leroy Forlines’s formulation of long-list and short-list legalism as seen in his Biblical Ethics (Nashville: Randall House, 1973).

[3] English Standard Version is the Bible translation used throughout.

Author: Jackson Watts

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