Good Doctrine or a Good Life?

Not that I’ve done any hard and fast research on this, but at least anecdotally it seems to me that one particular approach to the Christian faith has become more common recently. It’s a perspective that can roughly be summed up by the following statements: “My goal is not to be an expert in the Bible. And I don’t want to get caught up in a bunch of complicated theology that doesn’t have much practical use. What I really care about is following Jesus. I just want to love God and love my neighbor.”

To put it another way, those expressing such thoughts would seemingly be happy to choose orthopraxy (i.e., right living/practice) over orthodoxy (right belief/doctrine).

Now let me say at the outset that I have no doubt that many people with this viewpoint have a very real desire to do exactly what they’re saying: faithfully follow Christ. My problem, however, is that the issue is often framed as some kind of either/or proposition, i.e., your priority is either theology—a concern often characterized as tedious head knowledge devoid of everyday significance—or it’s actually following Christ and being of some benefit to those around you.

But this is very plainly a false dichotomy, one that the Bible itself refuses to acknowledge. While there are many passages that could illustrate the point, I’ll point out just one, a portion of Paul’s prayer in Colossians 1:

9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. 10 And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.

Note that Paul is praying for the Colossians to be filled with knowledge of God’s will in order that they may live a life worthy of the Lord. In other words, a right understanding/belief, according to the apostle, is instrumental for living in a manner that pleases God. And where do we find true, reliable knowledge of God’s will? According to God himself, we find it in his word (see, for example, 1 Peter 1:20-21).

To put it another way: I couldn’t agree more that Christians are called to love their neighbors. But when we actually have to go and do it, what pattern are we to follow? Do we form our own ideas (translation: allow various cultural influences that we find compelling in some way to shape our viewpoint and our actions)? Or are we to take our cue from thoughtfully considering the scriptural accounts of Christ’s own concrete expressions of love, or plumbing the depths of Paul’s vibrant commentary in 1 Corinthians 13, or wrestling to understand John’s simply profound “God is love” in a way that does justice to the entirety of what the Bible reveals regarding God’s character, actions, and purposes?

My hunch is that if we were to spend a bit of time in these pursuits, our picture of what it means to love someone actively, tangibly, and faithfully might be radically altered from what it otherwise might have been. And that, in turn, might drive us to our knees to ask God for the grace to live out that truth in increasing measure.

It’s only incomplete or fundamentally faulty theology that has little or no positive impact on how one lives his or her life. Show me a Christian whose life is predominantly characterized by God pleasing action and I’ll show you someone who—whether that person realizes it or not—has a good grasp of some significant biblical truth.

But that must be the theologian in me talking…

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