Practically Speaking

by Ron Julian


I have often heard Christians say that for teaching to be valuable, it must be “practical.” “Application” is the key word. Teaching that emphasizes theology, abstraction, or reason is considered inadequate and even suspect. I must admit that I have never been sympathetic with this claim. Some of the most irrelevant teaching I have ever heard has tried to be very “practical.” Conversely, those teachers who deal the most with theory and abstraction (including the biblical authors) are the ones who have made the biggest impact on my life. What we call “practical” teaching today is often far from practical, while the “theoretical” can have the most lasting practical impact of all.

In one sense, of course, every Christian must elevate the “practical” over the “theoretical,” if by “practical” we mean “having a real impact on my life,” in contrast to mere head games. Our Christianity is a sham if it has not worked its way into our actions and attitudes. I am arguing against the truncated view of practicality that seems to be winning the day, where “practical” teaching is seen as that which gives me specific instructions on how to make my life better. Thus we find pastors being “practical” by instructing men to give their wives flowers, to discipline children by using a paddle, and so on. In this line of thinking, the more specific the advice the better, because more specific equals more practical.

Now let me be clear; I do not object to specific advice. It may be very useful for one man to give another the benefit of his experience in small, practical details. Maybe sending flowers is a great idea; maybe using the paddle is the most effective way to discipline (or maybe not). But if we measure true practicality by its impact on our lives, then such advice is the least practical kind of teaching we could hear. It is not by means of such life rules that the Bible transforms our lives. The Bible transforms our life by transforming our ideas. We act differently because we think differently; our actions are the children of our ideas.

Imagine that you have gone to visit a friend who lives in an unfamiliar town. Whenever you drive anywhere, your friend sits in the passenger seat and tells you exactly where to turn. “Turn right; go down two blocks and turn left.” At each corner, his advice is totally practical; if you follow his directions to the letter, you will arrive at your destination. However, if your friend should ever leave you to drive by yourself, and you should come to a new intersection, you will be totally lost. Contrast that with the seeming impracticality of sitting by yourself in his study, poring over the writings on a piece of paper. How abstract and removed from the real world. However, if that piece of paper is a map, the time spent theorizing now will have a huge practical impact later when you get back on the road. The time in the study is spent developing a mental map of the new town–its main roads and landmarks. When you go to drive alone, you may not know exactly what to do at each corner, but you have a mental map by which to get your bearings, find your way back to the main roads, and thus come home again.

The Bible is a little bit like that map; it changes the way we live by transforming our worldview. The Bible is not primarily concerned with giving us life rules (although there are some) but with telling us the truth about reality. The Bible doesn’t tell me exactly what to do if my kid is taking drugs; instead it tells me about the nature of sin, the hope of redemption, the faithfulness of God, the beauty of self-sacrificial love, and much more. To tell confused parents “Here is how you handle it” may seem like the most practical and loving thing to do. But are we so sure that our one-size-fits-all advice really is adequate to the complexities of the situation? Teach them about God’s unchanging values and promises, however, and you give them someplace solid to stand while the winds of circumstance blow and the waves pound.

Even advice that “works” is not all that relevant and helpful when it isn’t grounded in a solid theoretical understanding. Take the issue of how to teach our kids about sex. We might think that the most practical thing we could do is to scare our children about sexually transmitted diseases. This might actually “work”; that is, in the short run, it might keep them from pre-marital sex. But do a thought experiment: suppose some pharmaceutical company develops a pill that totally protects against all sexually transmitted diseases. Now your children have come to a new intersection without a map; your “practical” teaching has become irrelevant. Why shouldn’t they go ahead now and have all the sex they want?

In contrast to this, my colleague Jack Crabtree has been teaching for years concerning a biblical theory of sexuality. This involves hard interpretive work in various biblical passages as well as much philosophical reflection. But in the end all the theorizing helps us to understand more deeply what our sexuality is all about. We learn that sex is a natural language, that fornication is always wrong because it involves telling a lie with our bodies, that the true fulfillment in sex is found not in self-gratification but in the commitment of our self to another. These and other ideas give us the map that we can use to steer through a sexually confused world. Did you ever anticipate, for example, that you would have to sort out which particular sexual acts of the President of the United States count as “sex”? I’ll bet you didn’t. But if you have a good, solid, theoretical understanding of God’s design for sexuality, you are prepared in advance to know that quibbling over the mechanical details is irrelevant.

When we go to the Bible, we find that biblical teaching is heavily weighted towards the theoretical. I don’t mean that its teaching is removed from real life; I mean that its practical teaching is always grounded in ideas, theology, logic, and reflection on reality. Does Paul respond to the fighting among the Corinthians by simply telling them to stop? No, he hits them with a highly theological rumination on the wisdom of the world, the power of the cross, the revelatory work of the Spirit, and the responsibilities of Christian ministry. The author of Hebrews is responding to Jewish Christians who are on the brink of rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. In response to this very practical problem, he writes a letter filled with biblical exegesis and theological arguments. The eternal destiny of his readers is on the line, and yet he finds no problem in approaching them with abstract and challenging intellectual arguments. I can’t help wondering whether Paul and the other apostles would be accepted in our pulpits today, or would we reject them as being too intellectual?

My fear is that the church’s preoccupation with “practical” teaching is a symptom of a profound misunderstanding of the biblical message. (In other words, our “practice” is bad because our “theory” is bad.) We seem to reason like this: “The biblical authors are writing to Christians, so we know that salvation is not the issue. They must be writing to give them practical advice on how to find God’s blessings, avoid suffering, and so on.” We emphasize “practical” teaching because we think that our greatest need is to be informed on the techniques which will make life better. We have problems; we’re told the Bible has answers; the best teaching, therefore, would be that which translates and directly applies biblical teaching into our current situation and tells us what to do.

This line of thinking is a mistake, however. Salvation is nearly always the issue in the biblical writings. The biblical authors are telling us a story about what God is doing in creation, a story which has many implications for our view of God, ourselves, and the world. Our eternal destiny depends on whether we will accept this story and its implications–whether we will “believe.” But this acceptance, this belief, shows itself over time in the midst of life. Over and over again, the implications of the gospel confront us in our day-to-day lives. Will we still believe when the rubber meets the road? That is the preoccupation of the biblical authors.

The best sort of teaching, therefore, is the kind that we find in the Bible: deep and profound theological teaching about reality, which we are urged to think about, understand, believe, and embrace. Am I having problems in a relationship? Rather than telling me specifically what to do, the Bible is just as likely to urge me to remember the judgment seat of God or the cross of Christ. That is because each unique circumstance in my life is another opportunity for me to think about and embrace the truth of the gospel. It is another opportunity for me to ask whether I am steering my life by the right map. The question is always the same: are you fighting the truth or submitting to it? The gospel is profoundly practical and life-changing, but by its very nature it is a set of ideas. We need to be reminded of those ideas over and over again. The specific details of our behavior are worked out as our new worldview confronts the world in specific situations.

In the Bible the theological/theoretical is the basis on which all practical issues are settled. For example, Paul says of himself:

More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8)

On the one hand Paul is speaking of the most practical sort of “rubber meets the road” issue: he has willingly suffered the loss of all things. (He is writing as a prisoner from Rome.) And yet this practical personal decision is based on very abstract theological ideas: a righteousness through Christ and not the law, the power of Christ’s resurrection, and so on. Paul has thought deeply about these theological truths; he knows what they mean and why they are crucially important to him. He is willing to face death rather than lose the inheritance the gospel has promised him. It is hard to get more practical than a life-and-death decision, and yet in the end Paul’s decision is all about theology.

Am I saying that Christian teachers should never give specific real-life examples and advice? No. All I am asking is that we let the Bible convince us that true practicality is deeply rooted in the theoretical. Let’s not demand of our teachers that they “tell us what to do.” Instead, let’s search out the deep ideas of the Bible and let them speak to us. The next time you hear (for the hundredth time) that we are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus,” stop and think it over; it may be the most practical thing you have ever heard.

Copyright April 1999 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Ron Julian