When we started Providence back in 2008, we wanted to be a church where doctrine matters. It seemed that with the spread of seeker-driven methods in the evangelical church, many congregations shied away from theological teaching and deep exposition in favor of a simpler, more pragmatic approach to doing church. It was our conviction that the church needed to be solidly biblical in order to glorify the Lord as the church was intended to do.
We still hold this conviction. But in this post, I’d like us to consider a couple of perilous extremes that can easily overtake us if we are not careful. I have seen both of these in myself and in the congregation in the last four years, so it might be profitable to give them some thought.
These extremes are found on either end of what I would call “the learning vs living” spectrum. Probably the first extreme that a person will visit when coming to a church where theology matters is an over-emphasis on learning, or gaining knowledge. Obviously, we are to be students of the Word. The psalmist was passionate about coming to a greater understanding of the Scriptures: Your hands have made and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn your commandments (Psa 119:73). He directly asks God to teach him the word no less than 11 times in one chapter (Ps. 119:12, 26, 29, 33, 64, 66, 68,108, 124, 135, 171).
Paul exhorted Timothy both to stay in the Word himself and to preach the Word in season and out of season (2 Tim 3:14-15; 4:1-2). In Titus, there is taught the necessity for an elder to teach sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it (Titus1:9). Throughout the New Testament we find the exhortation to beware of false teachers bringing in vile heresies (Matt. 7:15; 24:11, 24; Mk. 13:22; 2 Co. 11:13; Gal. 2:4; 2 Pet. 2:1, 3; 1 Jn. 4:1).
These things are true and important, but our sinful hearts can tend to hold them in a vacuum and go to the extreme of making the study of Scripture and theology an almost purely academic endeavor and an end in itself. Sermons can start to sound like college lectures, small groups resemble formal debates, and an inordinate amount of conversation is spent discussing prominent pastors and writers who are peddling bad theology. It is possible to begin to feel as if my identity as a believer and my value to the church is found solely in how much I know and how well I can articulate it. In other words, the Christian life can become all about learning and debating to the exclusion of application and serving.
When people begin to realize what is happening there can be an attempt to correct the situation. If the problem is an over-emphasis on learning/knowing, the common remedy is a new focus on applying/doing. We realize that simply knowing what we know has not automatically made us more like Christ, so we start to concentrate on sanctification. When studying Scripture, we try to keep our eyes on what the text requires of us.
This is a very good thing. But like any good thing, we can take it to an extreme as well. There are two dangers that can result from over-correcting in this area. The first is something I mentioned in the message on Sunday – morbid introspection. Introspection is necessary for application – we must ask ourselves if we are being obedient to God’s Word. But it’s possible that we can become so intent on applying God’s Word that we spend a great deal of time examining ourselves, asking ourselves questions to try to nail down every motive for everything we do. We can become preoccupied with such questions, unable to lie in bed at night without fretting over the state of our own hearts. Our attention is trained on ourselves with such intensity that we do not think of Christ and others.
A second danger that can come from an over-emphasis on applying/doing is that we are turned off by hard study and theology. We deem such things impractical and give ourselves to topical studies that may be light on truth and heavy on pragmatism. Or we don’t study anything – we just serve.
But there is a middle way. There is a way to be balanced in our approach to the Word and application. The key is to note the context of each of the above Scripture references related to Biblical teaching and sound doctrine. What those passages either explicitly or implicitly show is that the knowledge of the Word is for the purpose of applying it to our lives. When the psalmist asks God, “teach my your statutes,” he means so that he can be obedient. Consider the first verses of Psalm 119:
1 Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!
2 Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart,
3 who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways!
Psalm 119 shows that David wants to know the Word so that he can live righteously. He doesn’t separate study of the Word from living the Word. They go together, so we must consider them inseparable.
Paul’s teaching shows the same thing. When he exhorted Timothy to stay in the Scriptures, it was because they “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2Tim 3:15). One verse later, we find the crucial statement on the inspiration of Scripture, which includes what it is inspired to do: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2Tim 3:16-17). The entire book of Titus is based upon the truth that sound doctrine cannot be divorced from godly living.
So we cannot shy away from Bible study and biblical theology, AND we must not engage in biblical and theological study without seeking to apply it in our lives. We must learn the Word so that we can live the Word. May the Lord help us to keep this also in balance for the good of the church and for His glory.
Posted by Greg Birdwell