When “Either-Or” Is a Lousy Alternative


According to The Center for Progressive Christianity (TCPC), the fifth defining feature of progressive Christians is that they “…know that the way we behave toward one another and toward other people is the fullest expression of what we believe.” 

There is much wisdom in this, and it is a truth that needs to be heard in the evangelical community, where so much attention has been placed on correct formulas and personal confessions of faith, and too little placed on obedience to biblical commands.  With trenchant analysis, the TCPC website declares, “The reality is that it is much easier to debate theology, Christology, creeds or to memorize scripture than it is to follow the teachings of the Compassionate one. For most of us, this would require a significant change in our behavior.”   We evangelicals must take this to heart.

Having said this, however, I must take issue with one underlying premise of Point 5.  What we are told in the TCPC explanatory section under this point is that actions are what count; beliefs are of little import.  Progressives seems to set up an either-or dichotomy rather than a both-and synthesis.

For example, they say “Many New Testament scholars have argued that we can learn more about the Jesus of the scriptures from the things that he does rather than from the words that he speaks. The Jesus we meet in the gospels is a man of action; he heals; he forgives; he demonstrates compassion; he takes a stand against injustices; he shares; he weeps; he loves unconditionally. He then tells his disciples and interested followers to go and do likewise.”  Certainly no one could take issue with this as far as it goes.  But of course it does not go far enough.  People regularly referred to Jesus as “Rabbi” or Teacher.  Crowds followed him to listen to his teachings as well as to benefit from his other ministries.  As Karl Barth and so many other theologians have recognized, in the ministry of Jesus we see both word and works fused seamlessly together.  The Gospels make this abundantly clear.  Works by themselves are not enough.  Words by themselves are insufficient.  This is true not only of the Incarnation of the Word, but also of life in more prosaic settings.

Take for example a troubled marriage relationship.  The wife’s complaint: he never tells me he loves me.  The husband’s response: Of course I love her — I provide for her needs, I repair what breaks in the house, I take her on vacations. What more could she want.  Or take the reverse scenario, where the husband is always proclaiming his love verbally, but rarely demonstrates by sacrificial action what he speaks so facilely.  His wife breaks in the next time he proclaims his undying love, “I don’t want to hear it.  I want to see it.”  What both parties long for is not just actions or just words, but the melding of them both into a unified whole. 

Liberals wish to emphasize that the Word became flesh.  That is, he took action to show us how to live — to love God and one another.  This is undeniably true.  But it is equally true that the Word became flesh.  That is, the One who is Truth, who defines reality and makes sense of this creation, came into the world to reveal to us who God is and what life in Him means.  If Jesus had just come, lived, died and rose again without ever interpreting to us the meaning and purpose of his actions, we would never have responded in faith.  If he had come and taught us God’s will, but never died and rose on our behalf, we would despair in our clear unrighteousness.  As the Word Incarnate, Jesus came to exegete the Father (see John 1:18) — to unpack the mystery of God’s heart for us — as well as to act salvifically for the human race.  Humanity needs both the words and the works which belong exclusively to Jesus.  We should be supporting a “both-and” rather than an “either-or” approach to word and works.  This seems like such a no-brainer that I am led to ask why progressives want to downplay beliefs so intently.

You may think I’m reading too much into this Point.  So here’s what TCPC says: “Nowhere in these important passages [such as the parable of the Good Samaritan] do we find Jesus suggesting that before we extend ourselves on behalf of another or before we love our neighbor, that we should first expound a theology, or a belief system. Nor does it appear that there was ever a “litmus test” that Jesus used before he befriended someone or helped him or her. Progressive Christians believe that our actions of love are more important than the expression of our beliefs.”

What this statement fails to consider is that Jesus acted and taught the way he did because he had a particular belief system.  Actions do not happen in a vacuum, but are prompted by our values and convictions.  These in turn are learned from others as we grow.  For some reason, liberal Christians have concluded that the example of Jesus is the best one to follow, that his teaching on loving God and neighbor is of ultimate importance.  My question is why?  They must have come to some conclusion about the uniqueness of Jesus in order to determine that his example and teachings have priority over the teachings and examples of others.  Doesn’t this indicate then that in at least some cases, belief precedes action in importance?  The claim that Jesus never expected a certain faith or never applied any litmus test before helping others is not exactly true.  It is more fair to say that Jesus expected those who came to him to already trust in the promises which God had made through His prior revelation to the world.  Our Lord is dismayed when Jews show little or no faith (because they should know better), and he is amazed when Gentiles (who should be excused due to ignorance) show unmitigated faith in God to meet their needs.  Jesus does apply a litmus test of sorts to many who come to him.  He asks the man at the pool of Bethesda, “Do you want to be made well?”  To the father who pleads with Jesus, “If you can, please heal my son,” Jesus replies, “If you can!  All things are possible to him who believes,” in response to which the father cries, “I believe, help my unbelief.”  Jesus then heals the boy.  In John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6) the crowds search high and low for Jesus the day after he has miraculously fed them.   When they finally find him, they hope of course that he will serve as their cosmic vending machine and continue to offer them food without cost.  Unlike the progressive Jesus imagined by TCPC, the true Jesus refuses to do as the people ask.  “You seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for that which endures to eternal life…”  He refuses their request, not because he is uncaring, but because they are looking for the wrong thing.  When they subsequently ask him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”, Jesus’ very non-progressive response is, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom He has sent.”  It sure seems as though Jesus sets one’s trusting relationship with him at the pinnacle of importance, even claiming it to be the primary “work” which God calls the human race to. 

The point of all this, of course, is not to set actions and beliefs in opposition, or to declare one more important than another, but to uphold them both in their proper relation to each other.  Soteriologically speaking, faith in Christ is preeminent — our salvation depends on trusting in what God in Christ has done to rescue us from our just condemnation.  But as James reminds us, faith without works is dead — the tree which does not produce the fruit of righteousness was never rooted through true faith in the soil of grace.  Yet if faith without works is useless, so are works without faith in Christ, for they mislead the doer and observer into a false gospel of human activism and self-justification.  Both roads lead to hell.

So why do progressives insist on actions of love without regard for beliefs?  Why this division where there should be a union?  The answer has to rest in the long-standing liberal agenda to include as full members in the church those whose lifestyles and beliefs run contrary to orthodox Christianity.  Since we are called to act with love and acceptance, that means we welcome all into our midst whatever their theological stance or moral persuasion, because after all what matters most to God is that we love our neighbor, not that we pursue biblical truth which may exclude somebody.  So they affirm, “progressive Christians do not demand that new members change to mirror the existing core beliefs of the membership of a church.”  In fact, they seem to believe that the call to love means never setting standards which would offend anyone except those who hold to the enduring truth of biblical standards.  We are not to ask what God’s truth is, but simply to “love” others according to the definition we make up for ourselves. In their own words, “By putting behavior ahead of belief in a hierarchy of values, progressive Christians are insisting that followers of Jesus are bound to treat their fellow human beings with kindness and respect.”  Kindness and respect, of course, are biblical values, but they must not be equated with love.  Kindness and respect may lead us to hold our tongue when people around us are engaging in various kinds of evil, but love will not.  It cannot.  Love cannot sit idly by while its object is hurtling toward destruction.  Love cannot allow its beloved to live a lie without trying to argue passionately for the truth. 

When it comes to being the Church, we cannot put “behavior ahead of belief in a hierarchy of values.”  The two must remain yoked side by side.  Belief must inform behavior so that we don’t act wrongly.  Behavior must confirm belief so that we don’t live hypocritically.  Let’s learn what we can from the liberal critique of orthodox Christian practice, but let’s not fall for the self-serving lie that what we believe is not as important as how we live.

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3 Responses to When “Either-Or” Is a Lousy Alternative

  1. Jim Berkley says:

    Mateen,

    Thank you for such careful and helpful explanations! What a gift you give us!

    One other thing about words and works is the content of the works. I may THINK I am doing something loving that may, in truth, result in something highly unloving.

    Say I see a progressive in his car beside the road and determine the loving thing to do would be to pull in behind the car and give it a push, supposedly to get it started. But the guy is stopped in the car in order to quickly inject insulin and then be on his way. As I nudge his car, I cause him to stab himself, break off the needle, and waste the injection. Now he is in a world of hurt–because I wasn’t wise in what “loving” thing I set out to do. Words, ideas, and beliefs count. Thinking counts. Actions follow.

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    • mateenelass says:

      Jim, thanks for your help in thinking more deeply about the content and quality of our works. In the end, we are not the arbiter of their quality, and are safe only when we act in accordance with the word and Spirit of the Master. Then we can hope to hear one day, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

      Like

  2. Deborah Milam Berkley says:

    Thanks for clarifying that progressives actually must have some prior beliefs in order to arrive at their claim that actions come before beliefs. It is just, I believe (!), that they have a different hierarchy to their belief structure. To them, one of the highest priorities goes to the belief that inclusiveness is all-important. Therefore actions follow it, and other beliefs that conflict with it must be discarded.

    Where they got the belief that assigned high priority to inclusiveness, I’m not sure. There’s a long history there, I know, involving educational trends throughout many decades, that you are probably more informed about than I am.

    They are, I believe, sincere in their beliefs, unfortunately.

    Like

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