Article Apr 8, 2016

The life and doctrine connection: It’s complicated

Paul’s injunction for Timothy to keep a close watch on his “life and doctrine” in order that he might save his hearers has rung in my ears ever since I was called to the ministry (1 Tim. 4:16). Life and doctrine go together: What the mind and heart believe, the hands perform. This is why sound doctrine leads to sound living. When we understand the truth of the world, ourselves, and God, how we live in the world will begin to be aligned and attuned to this realities.

Except when it doesn’t.

The rational actor theory

While I still believe that doctrine and life go together, I think there’s a bit of confusion more broadly about the connection between believing and living. People seem to have bought into a popular version of what economists call “rational actor theory,” where people make their decisions in a goal-oriented, reflective, and maximizing way. In other words, there’s something of a clean link-up between beliefs and behaviors. If you know one, you should be able to draw a straight line to the other.

This is the kind of folk theory you see at work in a lot of our conversations around politics, theology and so forth. Joe believes in penal substitution, and he just punched Lou in the face, so clearly it’s his violent ideology at work. Jenny struggles with anxiety, so that must be her Arminian theology of providence crushing her with stress. Jake has been flirting with progressive theology lately, so we can expect him to acquire a harem soon. Or, we’re shocked when someone who believes as we do acts in a manner we never would.

Four reasons for our inconsistency as humans

But the more I watch people, the less that seems correct. Beliefs matter, but humans aren’t consistent, believing machines. Here are several things I’ve realized.

1. Not all of our beliefs are consistent with each other. Talk to the average person on the street (even the well-educated ones) for very long, and it’s easy to find unresolved tensions and contradictions in their thought. They might act in such a way that deeply contradicts one belief they hold, because it is perfectly consistent with another, different belief. They just haven’t connected the dots yet.

2. Even when people do have consistent beliefs, they don’t always live them out consistently. This is the point of talking about weakness of will, or akrasia as Aristotle termed it. We know that people often consciously act against their best or conscious beliefs under pressure, temptation or desire. Or, we rationalize and note the way we are exceptions to what we generally expect for others.

3. We forget that there are usually a number of different conclusions you can draw from your collection of beliefs, especially if you’re evaluating someone else’s position from the outside. If you can’t even keep all of your own beliefs straight (as is likely), it’s not surprising that you might have trouble with others’ beliefs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain, “No, point B is not what I believe, nor does it even plausibly follow from point A,” to various non-Christian friends over the years on any number of issues.

4. We forget the way various psychological, emotional, social and historical pressures influence us from moment to moment, in surprising ways. Traumas (or graces) from the way we were raised might create residual behavioral patterns at the level of habit in a way that isn’t simply dislodged by a good syllogism and a few propositions being switched around in your grey matter.

Theologically, a lot of this makes sense, right? Yes, we were created in the Image of God but that’s been broken such that all of our faculties (reason, will, etc) are damaged by sin. They don’t always function or connect up properly. Even after the grace of Christ comes into our lives and the Holy Spirit is at work to restore us, it’s still a progressive process. This means that there will be many times when our beliefs don’t match up with our living.

This is why Paul spends so much time reminding people of what they believe, but then also trying to connect the dots between what they believe and how they live. Whether out of folly or rebellion, they weren’t drawing proper conclusions for living from the doctrine that they were intellectually believing.

More positively, this is part of why people will surprise us with how much better they live than we imagine their beliefs would lead them to. Tim Keller talks about the way the Holy Spirit’s work of common grace in the lives of unbelievers leads many to live more wisely and graciously in some respects than believers. Some of that happens, I think, by a happy disconnect between some of the more corrosive beliefs a person may hold and their instinctive behavior. There are great behaviors produced by odious or harmful beliefs.

Three ways we can respond

There are a number ways understanding this can help us with patience toward others.

1. It can slow us down from drawing too straight a line between the behaviors of our intellectual opponents and the beliefs of theirs we despise. Yes, I do think there is a connection between life and doctrine. There are beliefs that, held in the right way, change us for the better or for the worse in the long run. But in the mess of history, unless they come out and explicitly explain their behavior, it can be very difficult to interpret just what led someone do the dastardly thing they did. Or it could be that someone—under the pressure of desire, peers, etc.—actually betrayed their beliefs. I’m not saying we can’t draw the line between behaviors and beliefs; I am saying we need to be a lot slower and take more care with that argument.

2. We should be less surprised when large chunks of the population don’t behave according to the model we think they should in our head. This is true when we’re thinking of the evangelical electorate or any other group. We need to be careful about the kinds of causes or explanations we accept for behavior or the beliefs of people we disagree with. Single-cause/single-belief explanations are almost always wrong. People are complicated, so we need to slow down and weigh a variety of complementary or competing explanations for these sorts of things. Give the other side the kind of charitable interpretation you’d love them to give you when people on your team are being terrible.

3. On a personal, ministry level—realize that each person is their own person. You’re almost never dealing with a cookie-cutter version of the last person you talked to. Sure, you can begin to create “types” or “patterns.” Stereotypes usually have some basis in fact. But as soon as you’re sitting across the table from one of those types, the mold will start to crack. Before you begin “dialoguing” with the robust arrogance of knowing “exactly who this guy is,” try to slow down and listen to who he actually is.

There are more conclusions we could draw. But, while doctrine and life are definitely connected, the important thing to remember is that it’s a complicated affair, which is why the spiritual life and gospel ministry isn’t a simple matter of formulaic truth-dispensing. With patience, preaching and teaching must take their place in the church—a web of social and historical relationships in which the Spirit works on a person’s heart, mind, body and soul over time.

Thankfully, the Spirit’s got plenty of it.

Soli Deo Gloria

The article was originally published here

ERLC2018