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Pragmatism is basically the idea that positive results are sufficient criteria for determining value, even truth. In other words: if it works, use it. One of the most famous pragmatists was a man known as Nicollo Machiavelli. For Machiavelli, the goal of a strong and controlled kingdom was worth whatever it would take to get it and maintain it. So he taught that any means was acceptable for the Prince, as long as it would accomplish the goal. That freedom, even responsibility, would include means considered wrong for others to use for their personal gain.
For example, the Prince could lie and should lie without compunction for the good of the kingdom. While lying would still be a wrong action for the regular people, the goal would make it acceptable for the Prince.
It was Machiavelli who coined the phrase, “The end justifies the means.” Specifically, he meant that the goal of the strong kingdom justified any means. However, again, this same formula was not available for all to use. If everyone did what the Prince did, the kingdom would suffer. The Prince’s goal was above all others because it was for the “greater good.” Suffering, deception, manipulation, abuse — all were acceptable for the goal. The value and legacy of the Prince would be defined by how well he accomplished and/or maintained the goal.
Today if you call someone, “Machiavellian,” you are referring to something negative. Machiavelli would not think of his philosophy as a way to hurt others or a way to serve personal passions. He would think of it as a higher level of good, where means normally unacceptable become not only acceptable, but mandatory.
I would submit that Machiavellian thinking has been in broad use among church leaders for a long time. Some of the easiest examples would be found in fundraising techniques or in maintaining doctrinal control. Whereas deceit would be unacceptable in other areas, it seems almost common among religious fundraisers. Whereas separation and unkindness would be negatives within the church community, they become almost mandated in cases of doctrinal deviance.
Teachers who seem able to compromise for the sake of their ministry may see that ministry as a Machiavellian good, with value beyond normal work or ministry, and thus not limited to the same moral standards. Financially inappropriate practices are rampant within churches and ministries. Abuse and perverted behavior is overlooked or handled within the system. Ineffective products or formulas are promoted for the image, rather than their real value. All for the good of the ministry.
Politicians, community workers, seminary directors, business managers, military leaders — all can be servants of the gospel of pragmatism, the Machiavellian goal. How many times have we heard the phrase, “If it saves one life, it will be worth it all.” The goal sounds noble, far above other responsibilities and worthy pursuits. If the rules of the community are bent in the process, it is argued that the “greater good” was served.
Consider this: Many years ago, the teacher received what he believed was a call from God to build an army of young people who would change the world. His part was to train these young people to avoid the compromises of life and prepare them to stand against the culture with the message of the gospel. He dedicated his life to that goal.
If a spiritual formula didn’t work but still generally moved the ministry toward the goal, it was acceptable for use. If the Scripture had to be twisted to fit, it was good to do so for the sake of the goal. If people had to be used and discarded, that was not too high a price to pay for the goal. Finances were necessary. Loyalty was necessary. People were necessary. Control was necessary. Anything necessary for the accomplishment or maintenance of the goal justified any means. The goal is everything.
I have always thought that Gothard actually believed his own promotions. For well over thirty years I have heard or read of his many gimmicks, formulas, and tools that are “documented” to bring success. I watched people spend huge amounts of money trying to keep up with each new idea, never willing to admit that the previous ideas hadn’t done what was advertised. But it didn’t really matter that they hadn’t worked, as far as Gothard was concerned. As long as some would report desired results, the promotion was a success. If one out of a hundred moved closer to the goal or was held back from compromise, then it was worthwhile.
Reading the Sonic Bloom article and discussion on Recovering Grace has illustrated this idea that the end justifies the means. A product like Sonic Bloom would never be an end in itself. Its only value was to serve the goal. Think of it as a simple logical process. If the goal is to gather an army of uncompromised young people, and rock music compromises, then anything that promotes “godly music” would be good.
I remember hearing it taught at an Advanced Training Institute seminar (perhaps Knoxville?) that playing melodious music in the house while the family was away would somehow be spiritually beneficial or keep evil forces away from the home. Same thing. If anyone reported more peace, less rebellion, better health, or less attraction to rock music and attributed that to playing music which the family never heard, then it was worthwhile to promote the idea. And with several thousand obedient and trusting families, someone was sure to announce that the idea had worked for them. (Especially if there was a chance to give a testimony in front of others.)
The gospel of pragmatism has caused the fall of many Bible teachers, from television evangelists to pastors, even seminary and denominational leaders. The continual focus on the call or the goal, causes a blindness to foolish decisions, deceptive marketing, even sinful behavior.
So what is really wrong with this? It sounds right to be dedicated to a call. But no disciple of Jesus is bound to a call. We are bound to our Lord. He is the focus of our hearts, not the call He has given us. In fact, a case could easily be made from Scripture that the call of God would happen almost naturally for the person who follows the Lord. The call is never the important part; the relationship is what is important.
When a believer receives a call and focuses on the goal rather than the Lord, the implementation of the call is left to the flesh. The person’s background and values interpret the call. If the person has good memories of faithful and effective young people from the fifties, who stood against the music and hair length and clothing of their day, then that image of a “godly” young person may become the desired norm. All kinds of personal preferences can become “principles” when the flesh interprets the call.
The goal for any believer is to walk with the Lord. The call or goal for an individual life will be accomplished in that process. The call is not the Lord. The Lord is the master of the call.
Dr. David Orrison has been a pastor for over 30 years and is now the Executive Director of "Grace for the Heart," a ministry dedicated to proclaiming the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for all aspects of the Christian life. Dave has served in the Evangelical Free Church and in the United Presbyterian Church, and he holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Trinity Seminary. Dave has unique insights into the struggles of what he calls “performance spirituality,” as he has worked extensively with people who are unsure of their relationship with Jesus because of the burden of legalism and the hopelessness of a “works-based Christian walk.” David has lived in Loveland, CO for 25 years and is happily married to Alice. They have eight sons. David blogs on a regular basis at http://graceformyheart.wordpress.com.
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