On Creed and Conduct (and Emergents)

There are two areas which the believer is constantly encouraged to excel in. These two areas can be developed for the glory of God, or they can be ignored or negated, resulting in apostasy and judgment. I refer to creed and conduct, or doctrine and living.

We are to watch carefully what we believe and what we do. Our beliefs and our practices are both meant to be guarded closely, and kept in line with God’s word. This means that Christians should be concerned about orthodoxy (right doctrine) and orthopraxis (right living).

Neither one by itself is sufficient. We must believe the right things and we must live the right way. The two go closely together. If we believe the wrong things, we are likely to act the wrong way. And if we live in the wrong way, that is likely to result in false beliefs and doctrines.

Several passages nicely put these two elements together. Consider 1 Timothy 4:16: “Watch your life and doctrine closely”. Here Paul ties the two together, viewing them both as equally vital. The Greek term epeche translated ‘watch’ has the sense of: give heed to, persevere, continue in, pay attention to, or persist in. Indeed, the full verse reads as follows: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” So there is a double emphasis here in persisting in these things.

The two things we must be constantly aware of and concerned about are the way we live, and the beliefs we hold to. As William Mounce comments, “The proclamation of the gospel cannot be separated from the character of the proclaimer”. The two must go together. Problems easily occur when both are not strongly affirmed and adhered to.

Indeed, we all know of people who have only one half of the equation in place. Some Christians are all head. They are heavily steeped in theology, doctrine, learning and Bible study. But they often may not reflect much of a Christ-like life. Some can be arrogant, argumentative and unloving, as they seek to zealously promote sound teaching. Mere head knowledge alone is never enough.

But some believers are all heart. They are all lovey-dovey, seeking to be good examples of Christ, but simply play down or ignore the importance of sound doctrine. They may be very loving indeed, but that love must be bounded by proper doctrine and belief, otherwise it can easily degenerate into sentimentality, emotion, and mushy morality. Such a person can easily go off into error. Christian character must be bound up with biblical teaching and doctrine.

Thus both aspects are ever so important. We must persevere in proper belief and teaching, but we must also persevere in godly living and conduct. Both feed off each other, and neither is fully possible without the other. As J. Gresham Machen used to put it, “Life is built on doctrine”. Sound living flows from sound belief. And godly living tends to keep us away from false teaching.

Similar thoughts are found in 2 Tim. 3:16-17. While often held up – and rightly so – as a major passage on the inspiration of Scripture, it also notes this connection between right belief and right living. The passage reads: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work”.

Scripture is necessary both for sound doctrine and for godly living. As John Stott comments, “the profit of Scripture relates to both creed and conduct. The false teachers divorced them; we must marry them.” Or as Philip Towner remarks, “Scripture properly understood is the standard of both holy living and teaching”.

The emergent approach

Unfortunately not all believers seem to see the importance of both sound doctrine and holy living. A whole new movement in evangelical circles has challenged much of this traditional understanding. I refer here to the so-called emergent church.

The emergent, or emerging, church leaders have made it clear that doctrine is not all that it’s cut out to be, and concerns about how we live – at least in terms of laws or rules – are really something we need to move beyond. There are plenty of quotes I could provide here. Let me offer just one representative quote.

Emergent leader Dwight Friesen, in an article entitled “Orthoparadoxy” (one of a number of articles in the 2007 volume, An Emergent Manifesto) says this: “As important as both right beliefs and right practices might be, neither was Jesus Christ’s primary mission, and neither is the primary ministry of God’s people.”

“Might be”? Not a very strong endorsement of either, it seems. So what is the big deal for Friesen, and the emergents? Well, ‘relationship’ is a term most often heard. Friesen goes on to talk about “wholeness,” “fullness of life”, and so on.

Of course all evangelicals speak about the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But that in the past always meant something specific. That is, there was a clear referent to who we have relationship with, and how that relationship is established and maintained.

In other words, right relationship with Jesus is based both on right belief and right behaviour. The entire New Testament is clear about this. There are all sorts of people who claim to have a ‘relationship’ with Jesus, ranging from New Agers to agnostics.

But biblical Christianity asserts that we are separated from God by sin, and that unless we agree with God about our predicament, and come to God on his own terms, then we have no relationship with Him. Thus the importance of right doctrine. Jesus is the only way to relationship with the Father, and there are certain beliefs that go with that.

And when relationship with God is established through Christ, that relationship is defined on God’s own terms. The New Testament is full of lists of how we are to live as redeemed sons and daughters of God. Thus the importance of right behaviour.

There is no understanding of relationship with Christ in the New Testament as some sort of antinomian experience, free of any laws or commands. Jesus made this perfectly clear. “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15; see also: John 14:21-23; 15: 10, 14; 1 John 2:3; 5:2-3; 2 John 6, etc.).

Of course we do not keep God’s commandments in order to procure salvation. That is the free, unmerited work of Christ, offered to us in grace. But it is out of gratitude for what he has done that we seek to live a life which is pleasing to him.

As Thomas Schreiner writes, “The glory of the new covenant is not that God’s people are freed from keeping God’s law, but they are empowered to put it into practice.” And Israel was saved in the very same way. God delivered, or saved, Israel from Egyptian bondage first (see Exodus 1-19). Then, after the exodus, Yahweh gave Israel the law (Exodus 20ff). They were already God’s people by grace, but the law was given to show them what it meant to live as God’s own people.

Relationship with Jesus is of course fundamental. But it is not a vacuous, contentless relationship. It is defined by both theological boundaries (right beliefs), and expressed in moral outworking (right behaviour). The New Testament throughout speaks to the importance of both.

While some may want to emphasise relationship, but at the expense of both sound teaching and sound practice, this is not how the NT presents relationship with Christ. It is not a question of either relationship on the one hand, or doctrine and practice on the other, but both, simultaneously.

Trendy movements in the church which seek to improve on the means by which God establishes relationship with his people are perhaps well intentioned, but are in the end often misguided and in fact dangerous. We need to be careful not to be swept along with every new trendy fad and fashion in the Christian world. What we find in the New Testament is more than sufficient for all our needs as believers.

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7 Replies to “On Creed and Conduct (and Emergents)”

  1. I have recently and sadly left a church which seems to be drifting, like an unwary sunbather, asleep on a lilo, as it gently floats further and further away from the sight of land.

    According to its teaching, being a Christian is not just a case of keeping a lot of rules and regulations, such as not sleeping around, getting drunk having a good time, it is “so much more.” Instead, what marks the Christian off from all others is that we have a relationship with God, that we experience acceptance, belonging, security, wisdom and many more things, the list of which “could go on and on.” There is no mention of receiving or needing forgiveness and that we are sinners saved by grace until the day we die.

    The word “relationship” like the word tolerance, discrimination, equality, inclusion, has also become a casualty to word warp, where the contents of words, whilst retaining their familiar packaging, have been replaced by something altogether different.

    Sex Education is now placing emphasis on teaching children “relationship” which sound perfectly reasonable on the surface but in reality means teaching children how to depersonalise sex and do it without experiencing too many negative consequences. We need to rescue the biblical meaning of this, which is to do with the fact that a personal relationship is only possible where total transparency and hence intimacy and vulnerability are possible. Relationship can only occur where we sacrifice our own autonomy and rights.

    Tertullian, one of the early church fathers wrote this to his wife:

    “How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice. They are as brother and sister, both servants of the same Master. Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in Spirit. They are in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit. They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another, they never shun each other’s company; they never bring sorrow to each other’s hearts… Psalms and hymns they sing to one another. Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. Where there are two together, there also He is present, and where He is, there evil is not.”

    How would this go down in sex education?

    David Skinner, UK

  2. First I to apologize for my poor English, my first language is French… I also want to express my appreciation for your comments; light is so delightful in a world of darkness…

    I consider that the Christian life have three main aspects that can’t be separated: belief (doctrine), action (what you do) and experience (relation with God). If you have only belief you tend toward an intellectual Christianity; but if you lack of it you are tossed here and there.
    If you have only action you are legalist, but if you lack of it you are antinomian.
    If you have only experience you are mystic, but if you lack of it you’re having only a formal religion.

    I think that we need a balance, biblical and Christ-centered approach on those three aspects of Christian life. Unfortunately, the emergents seem to emphasize only the experience aspect without consideration for the two other. In doing so they don’t have 1/3 of the real Christianity, they don’t have Christianity at all because Christ said: I am the way (action), the truth (belief) and the life (experience). If you drop one you have a false Christ because your doctrine of Christ is no more accurate as your deeds for him as your experience of him (2 Cor. 11:4 ; 2 John 1.9).

    Pascal Denault, Qc, Canada

  3. Thanks for the great comments Pascal. And your English seems pretty good to me – better than some of my English-speaking commentators! Well done.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. Bill, your articles are a breath of fresh air in a spiritual climate of drift and apathy. Thanks.

  5. As Thomas Schreiner writes, “The glory of the new covenant is not that God’s people are freed from keeping God’s law, but they are empowered to put it into practice.”

    Indeed, we are saved from the impossible burden of trying to keep the law in our own strength.

    Now we receive the power of Jesus Perfect Life through our connection with the holy Spirit, which enables us to obey the holy and righteous law of God. (Err, Romans, maybe? Yes, Romans).

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