Let’s start with a question: Should we start a parent murdering ministry?
This may seem like an extremely odd, severely misguided question. So, let’s fill it out with some context…
It comes from a point in yesterday’s sermon at The Village Church that Matt Chandler was illustrating. The point being that arguing from pure pragmatics is misguided when it comes to spiritual growth and development. As he put it, he knows of several young people whose lives were changed dramatically for Christ by the sudden death of their parents in a car crash or other accident. But, he says, we aren’t running out to start parent murdering ministries.
It seems to work pretty well, so the question then is, why not?
If you respond that murder is wrong/immoral/unethical, I would agree wholeheartedly. But the issue revolves around whether or not something that is wrong/immoral/unethical is ok if it produces good results. It is just a different way of framing the question of whether the end justifies the means.
To beat a dead horse, this is the argument most people revert to when presented with the gross heresies with The Shack. I am only picking this book because to me it seems like an obvious example, I could list others though (like anything by Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, or John Eldredge each with varying degrees of error in essential content). Because of its perceived merit in their eyes, it is somehow vindicated of any charges of distorting the doctrine of God (or any other key doctrine). Or worse, the distortions are granted, but the worth of the book is still championed.
Every book you come across to read on spiritual growth, Christianity, or theology in general, is flawed in some way. God in His wisdom and providence can use flawed books as a catalyst for growth, just like He uses flawed humans to that same end. That being the case, God can still use poor reading choices to move you toward Christlikeness. This is the promise of Romans 8:28. All things, after all does include our reading activities.
Because of this, it is tempting to think that you get a free pass on discretion and can therefore “get something good” from anything no matter flawed it might be in the end. For some people, their approach to reading selection revolves either in forward or reverse around the pragmatic principle:
- The merit of a book is to be judged by the positive results it brings to my life.
Working forward, this results in an approach to reading that seeks to find the redemptive elements of any book. We should give the author the most charitable reading possible, and try to glean what spiritual insights we can. As a principle among many, this has its place. But it is certainly not the sina qua non of Christian reading.
Working in reverse, this usually plays out as an after the fact realization. I am sure that for most people who read The Shack and were moved/enlightened by it, it is a hard pill to swallow later on that maybe much of the enlightenment about God is actually darkness when compared to the Scriptures. Because the book had such an emotional impact on them, they run to its defense, and in doing so, invoke the pragmatist principle.
Now I can see how this is easy to do in either direction. I am reluctant to admit a book that I really liked may be proved to have a false central thesis (which is the case of The Shack). If the book really changed the way I looked at life, it is even harder. In that case, what will prove helpful is to re-frame what you think about belief.
While most people routinely do not think of it this way, believing things is an activity. It is something you do. As something you do, it is subject to ethical evaluation. That means that holding certain beliefs is an ethical activity. From that, one could easily argue that knowingly believing false doctrine is unethical, or we could say it is immoral. We could extend that further and say that unknowingly believing false doctrine is also unethical/immoral. And if this is the case, we are all guilty to some extent and all in need of diligence in making sure our doctrine is true.
This principle is foundational in Paul’s epistles to Timothy. I would encourage you to read them carefully to see the Biblical warrant for the idea that everyone is responsible to pursue sound doctrine primarily and not only practical results. Sound doctrine and practical results are really not antithetical. In fact, the best practical results, when measured over the course of one’s entire life, are to be found in believing sound doctrine. Case in point, those who truly believe that Jesus in God and Savior are then indwelt by the Holy Spirit and given the gift of communion with God in heaven for eternity. Talk about something that truly brings positive results to this life and more importantly the next one!
If we return now to the original example, it should be clear that choosing to believe things that have been shown false is analogous in some ways to other wrong activities. Murder is on the far end of the spectrum, and I am not arguing for murder being on par with believing false doctrine. Maybe in some ways it is, as they are both sin, but murder seems to have a little more gravity to it. The point though is that both are ethical/moral activities and the ends they achieve does not justify them as means.
In the end, it comes down to this: Just because God can use certain things redemptively does not make them ok. In the case of a kid’s parents dying in a car crash, the fact that it may bring him to faith does not make the car crash less insidious. It is still an awful thing to lose ones parents abruptly and in that way. Good may have come out of it (as defined as growth in Christlikeness, i.e. Romans 8:28), but that is not the same as saying the car crash was therefore good.
The car crash was a result of living in a fallen world, and a car crash of a book like The Shack is the same. Just because God may use it for good, does not mean you are less responsible to correct the errors it taught you when given the opportunity to do so later. To refuse to do so is unethical and may eventually lead the car crash happening in one’s own soul.