The church’s struggle to relate Christian teaching with Christian practice—theology and missions—is nothing new. After all, it was almost two thousand years ago that St. James famously quipped “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” What does this dilemma look like today? Perhaps you’ve heard something like this:
“What the church needs most today is better teaching. Bad theology has infiltrated our pulpits, and until truth abounds, the Lord’s people will be ineffective workers for his kingdom. When Christians understand what God has done for them, the fruits of Christian love are evident in their lives as a result.”
“What the church needs most today is more action. The church has grown complacent and needs to get busy with kingdom work. How can we sit inside reading books when children in our very city are hungry and homeless? Do the details in our atonement theories really matter when people around the world are dying without knowing Jesus? Christians have been given a commission, and if they don’t get to work, what’s the point?”
The Drama of Doctrine
This is not a classic “ditch on either side of the road” scenario. In fact, these two viewpoints represent more-or-less the same mistake. They have both misunderstood the purpose and place of Christian doctrine. Though each represents a different reaction, both understand doctrine to be a cerebral discipline; the first embraces the mental game, and the second rejects it.
Looking at Scripture this way leaves you with a fragmented mess of competing maxims. Both Scripture and its history of interpretation within the church confirm that doctrine (the teaching of the church) is not simply a list of truths, but a way of following Jesus, the way “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Doctrine and practice are not separate categories to be balanced. Neither can rightly exist without the other.
Both scripture and its history of interpretation within the church confirm that doctrine (the teaching of the church) is not simply a list of truths, but a way of following Jesus.
Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer offers a helpful metaphor here. He argues that doctrine is like an actor’s script. Of course any script must be studied and even memorized by the actors, but the point of the whole operation is not the rehearsal of lines. I’ve read the script for Shakespeare’s Hamlet—thanks to twelfth grade English class—but I have not seen Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet is a play, not a script.
Likewise, the apostles did not hand down the faith to us so that we could sit and talk about it. It is a script for the church to live out in the world. Vanhoozer wrote, “Doctrines are not simply truths to be stored, shelved, and stacked, but indications and directions to be followed, practiced, and enacted. Christian discipleship is a practice of doing truth, of learning the way of life that is in Jesus Christ.” That way is the content of Christian doctrine. Truth is to be not only spoken but also performed.
God’s Mission, God’s Word, and Our Lives
The grand story of the Bible is simple: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. God created a perfect sanctuary in which to dwell with his people, sin brought separation and death, and now, God is reclaiming, redeeming, and remaking the universe in Jesus Christ. This is the gospel. Jesus is alive, he is victorious, and he has redeemed his people. And, as preposterous as it sounds, he has decided to accomplish this mission through those people, his church.
This bizarre phenomenon permeates scripture. God’s people have been chosen to display his love and justice to the nations (Ex 19:5–6). He has used the weak—the dead, in fact–to accomplish his purposes (Ezek. 37; Eph. 2). He has given his redeemed people, those he made new, a new role in his kingdom. We are ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:17—20). The God who spoke galaxies into being is building his kingdom through his Spirit-empowered church.
Because Christian doctrine is the history of God’s salvific action on behalf of his people, and because we, the church, have been drawn into that story as participants, we cannot separate ourselves from it.
Here’s my point: because Christian doctrine is the history of God’s salvific action on behalf of his people, and because we, the church, have been drawn into that story as participants, we cannot separate ourselves from it—neither the doctrine nor the activity. Being the “hands and feet of Jesus” is not (just) a cheesy line from an Audio Adrenaline song. It’s the way that our Lord is building his new creation.
The Stage is Set
Just as James reminded the first-century church, to make a choice between doctrine and practice (or to seek some arbitrary balance of the two) is to miss the point. First of all, you are not a “brain-on-a-stick.” For all the wonderful things that the Enlightenment gave us, the idea that people are the sum of what they know and believe is not one of them. You are right to understand the importance of God’s Word and the church’s need to continually hear it, but God’s Word is living and active (Heb. 4:12). The testimony of scripture and the two-millennia witness of the Lord’s church are the method for God’s people to display redemption history for the world to see.
On the other hand, you have to understand salvation history well in order to actively participate in it. The world is broken, and you are called to do something about it; but in reality, you can’t. “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1). It is God who is building his kingdom. Listen to his Word, bring yourself under the loving authority of his church, and pray that the Lord would empower you through his Spirit to live and work for the coming of his kingdom. By all means, stay on the stage, but you have no excuse not to know your lines.
Ryan Martin is a Teaching Fellow on the Theology Faculty at the Université Chrétienne Bilingue du Congo in Beni, DRC. He earned his Master of Divinity from Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, and has a passion for theological education and pastoral formation. He and his wife Aubrey have been married for six years.
All scripture quotations are ESV.