The former British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling (he of the white hair and black eyebrows), has written a memoir of his time at No.11 Downing Street. It’s called ‘Back from the Brink’ and provides a fascinating insight into the economic and political troubles the Labour government faced from 2007 to May 2010.

Towards the end of his book, Darling charts a way forward, stressing the need for both private and public sectors to be involved in any sustainable recovery. Anticipating some criticism of this approach from the left-wing of the Labour party, he says: ‘To me, what matters is what works.’[1]

In other words, it is the end result that counts; how one achieves that result is not important. Ironically, he does not seem to realise that it is precisely this attitude which led the banks, politicians and regulatory bodies to ignore the serious weaknesses in the British economy. While the good times rolled, few questioned the shaky foundation on which those good times were built. The economy was ‘working’, delivering impressive results, and that was all that mattered.

The attitude and approach outlined above is one of ‘pragmatism’. Pragmatism has been defined as the attitude of being concerned for what is practicable, rather than theoretical or idealistic. It sounds attractive and reasonable and it is no surprise that most politicians, who want to see things done, are pragmatists. But what about Christians? Is there any room for pragmatism in Christianity?

Before we answer that question, we need to understand that underlying the practical, goal-orientated nature of pragmatism is a philosophy which rejects the notion of ‘a priori’ or absolute truth claims: consequences are the only valid test of truth. Therefore, what is deemed ethical – the right or ‘true’ way to behave – is determined by a favourable outcome. The ends justify the means and what matters is what works.

Given that, we may be tempted to say there is no room in Christianity for pragmatism. Certainly not at the deeper, philosophical level and not if it leads us to ‘do evil that good may result’. Paul rightly condemns such an attitude in Romans 3 v 8. But if there is a variety of biblically legitimate means to the same God-honouring ends, then there is room for a limited kind of principled pragmatism.

For example, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul admonishes: ‘Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all’, (Galatians 5 v 2). Nothing less than the Gospel of grace was at stake. To let oneself be circumcised was an admission that one needed to keep the law to be justified in God’s eyes, rather than put one’s faith in Jesus Christ alone. Paul was having none of it.

On another occasion, however, Paul had Timothy circumcised, presumably to stop the Jews causing trouble, given they knew his father was a Greek (Acts 16 v 3). Here, Paul knew the content of the gospel was not at stake, but the spread of it was. There is no question of Paul watering down the gospel to make it more acceptable to Jewish hearers. Rather, he makes the pragmatic decision to circumcise Timothy to remove an unnecessary barrier to gospel progress. The ends justify the means, but only when the means are acceptable to God.

How can we apply this principled pragmatism to our lives today? Well, as is often the case, there are two dangers to avoid. The first is the unbridled kind of pragmatism that leads to an ‘anything goes’ kind of attitude. The second is a suffocating stubbornness which sticks to the principles, but refuses to recognise that those same principles may be worked out in a number of different ways.

Taking the second danger first, a powerful antidote to this is found in 1 Corinthians 9 v 19 – 23. Here, Paul gives a striking account of his freedom under God to change his evangelistic approach (or ‘means’), for the sake of the gospel (the ‘ends’): ‘Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.’

This is a truly remarkable passage, and those of us who are more conservative by nature and practice, as well as in our theology, would do well to meditate on what Paul’s biblical pragmatism means for our own outreach, worship and daily lives. It might also mean we are less hasty to criticise our brothers and sisters in Christ who do things differently, for the sake of the gospel.

But it could be argued that the first danger is a more pressing one in modern-day evangelicalism. This uncontained pragmatism (‘what matters is what works’) is used to justify all kinds of strategies in order to ‘advance the gospel’ or ‘build the church’, without any thought as to what kind of gospel is being advanced or what kind of church built.

For example, in some circles, the Homogeneous Unit Principle[2] is a popular strategy for church growth. It’s popular because it works. It’s popular, because we all feel more comfortable surrounded by people who look like us, think like us and behave like us. But is it biblical? Paul’s vision of the church in Ephesians and the picture painted for us in Revelation suggests that it is not.

Similarly, particularly in the bigger and ‘broader’ denominations, it is common to hear people argue that unbiblical beliefs and practices ought to be tolerated, either for the sake of unity or for the opportunities for gospel ministry that being part of such a denomination affords. This is essentially a pragmatic approach to heresy and apostasy. But, as is becoming increasingly clear, one cannot successfully defend the bible by letting the bible slip from one’s hands.

To expand, one cannot defend biblical authority if, in seeking to do so, one ignores and thereby undermines the authority of those parts of the bible which give clear instruction as to how to handle, for example, a persistently unrepentant brother. This kind of pragmatism is ultimately self-defeating, for justifying the unbiblical means (by appealing to a positive or ‘biblical’ outcome) will ensure that the outcome is in fact far from positive or biblical. What eventually happens, to borrow Paul’s metaphor, is that the yeast spreads through the whole loaf: the situation worsens, rather than improves.

This kind of pragmatism is often presented as wisdom. But it is not a godly wisdom. It’s the kind of wisdom that tells Daniel to stop praying at his window (for the sake of his influence in the Persian empire); Jesus not to heal the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath (for the sake of keeping the Pharisees sweet); and the apostles to go softly, softly, on their evangelistic efforts (for the sake of the future of the church). We ought to be grateful that Daniel, the Lord Jesus and the apostle all knew that true wisdom is found in trusting and obeying God, regardless of the consequences!

You see, unprincipled pragmatism asks: what good is a dead Daniel, a dead Messiah or dead apostles? On the other hand, biblical wisdom asks: what good is a disobedient Daniel, a disobedient Messiah or disobedient apostles? As it happens, Daniel was spared, the apostles too for a time, the Messiah was not. But praise God it was through the death of the Messiah and the foolishness of the cross that the power and wisdom of God were made known to us in our salvation. Thank God that, fundamentally, Jesus was not concerned with pursuing pragmatism but following the purposes of God. And that, whether for the Lord Jesus Christ or those of us who bear his name, is what really matters. Not what works, but whom we worship.

Rev Dr James Torrens

  1. Back from the Brink, Atlantic Books,London, 2011, page 316
  2. The Homogeneous Unit Principle argues that churches grow more quickly if they target their outreach and evangelism on people from a broadly similar background.

This article originally appeared on reformation21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, copyright 2012 and also in the November 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now,