Doctrine and Life Go Together–Mostly, but Sometimes Not


Why Indiana Jones? Why not?

Paul’s injunction for Timothy to keep a close watch on his “life and doctrine” in order that he might save his hearers has rung in my ears ever since I realized I was called to the minsitry (1 Tim. 4:16). Life and doctrine go together–what the mind and heart believe, the hands perform. This is why sound doctrine leads to sound living. When we understand the truth of the world, ourselves, and God, how we live in the world will begin to be aligned and attuned to this realities.

Except when it doesn’t.

See, while I still believe that doctrine and life go together, I think there’s a bit of confusion more broadly about the connection between believing and living. People seem to have bought into a popular version of what economists call “rational actor theory”, where (on my dummy definition) people make their decisions in a goal-oriented, reflective, and maximizing way. In other words, there’s something of a clean link up between beliefs and behaviors. If you know one, you should be able to draw a straight line to the other.

This is the kind of folk theory you see at work in a lot of our conversations around politics, or in theology, and so forth. Joe believes in penal substitution, and he just punched Lou in the face, so clearly it’s his violent ideology at work. Jenny struggles with anxiety, so that must be her Arminian theology of providence crushing her with stress. Jake has been flirting with progressive theology lately, so we can expect him to acquire a harem soon. And so forth. Or, we’re shocked when someone who believes as we do acts in a manner we never would.

But the more I watch people, the less that seems correct. Beliefs matter, but humans aren’t consistent, believing machines. For one thing, not all of our beliefs are consistent with each other. Talk to the average person on the street (even the well-educated ones) for very long and it’s easy to find unresolved tensions and contradictions in their thought. In which case, they might act in such a way that deeply contradicts one belief they hold, because it is perfectly consistent with another, different belief and they just haven’t connected the dots.

What’s more, even when people do have consistent beliefs, they don’t always live them out consistently. This is the point of talking about weakness of will, or akrasia as Aristotle termed it. We just know that people often consciously act against their best or conscious beliefs under pressure, temptation, or desire. Or we rationalize and note the way we are exceptions to what we generally expect for others and so forth.

Or even further, we forget that there are usually a number of different conclusions you can draw from your collection of beliefs. Especially if you’re evaluating someone else’s position from the outside. I mean, if you can’t even keep all of your own beliefs straight (as is likely), it’s not surprising that you might have trouble with others’. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain that “no, point B is not what I believe, nor does it even plausibly follow from point A” to various non-Christian friends over the years on any number of issues.

Finally, (and we could keep going) we forget the way various psychological, emotional, social, and historical pressures influence us from moment to moment, in surprising ways. Traumas (or graces) from the way we were raised might create residual behavioral patterns at the level of habit in a way that isn’t simply dislodged by a good syllogism and a few propositions being switched around in your grey matter.

Theologically, a lot of this makes sense, right? Yes, we were created in the Image of God but that’s been broken such that all of our faculties (reason, will, etc) are damaged by sin. They don’t always function or connect up properly. Even after the grace of Christ comes into our lives, the Holy Spirit is at work to restore us progressively. In which case, there will be many times when our beliefs don’t match up with our living.

I mean, this is a lot of why Paul spends so much time reminding people of what they believe, but then also trying to connect the dots between that and how they live. Whether out of folly or rebellion, they weren’t drawing proper conclusions for living from the doctrine that they were intellectually believing.

More positively, this is part of why people will surprise us with how much better they live than we imagine their beliefs would lead them to. Tim Keller talks about the way the Holy Spirit’s work of common grace in the lives of unbelievers leads many to live more wisely and graciously in some respects than believers. Some of that happens, I think, by a happy disconnect between some of the more corrosive beliefs a person may hold and their instinctive behavior. Or, there are great behaviors produced by odious or harmful beliefs.

There are a number ways this can go.

One, I think, is to maybe slow us down from drawing too straight a line between the behaviors of our intellectual opponents and the beliefs of theirs we despise. Yes, again, I do think there is a connection between life and doctrine. There are beliefs that, held in the right way, change us for the better or for the worse in the long run. But in the mess of history, unless they come out and explicitly explain their behavior, it can be very difficult to interpret just what led someone do the dastardly thing they did. Or it could be that someone–under the pressure of desire, peers, etc.–actually betrayed their beliefs. I’m not saying we can’t draw the line between behaviors and beliefs–I am saying we need to be a lot slower and take more care with that argument.

Second, I think we need to be less surprised when large chunks of population don’t behave according to the model we think they should in our head. This is true when we’re thinking of the Evangelical electorate or any other group. We need to be careful about the kinds of causes or explanations we accept for behavior or the beliefs of people we disagree with. Single-cause/single-belief explanations are almost always wrong. People are complicated, so we need to slow down, weigh a variety of complementary or competing explanations for these sorts of things. So, give the other side the kind of charitable interpretation you’d love the to give you when people on your team are being terrible.

Third, on a personal ministry level–each person is their own person. You’re almost never dealing with a cookie-cutter version of the last person you talked to. Sure, you can begin to create “types”, or “patterns”. Stereotypes usually have some basis in fact. But as soon as you’re sitting across the table from one of those types, the mold will usually start to crack, so before you begin “dialoguing” with the robust arrogance of knowing “exactly who this guy is”, maybe slow down and listen to who he actually is.

There are more conclusions we could draw, but all this to say that doctrine and life are definitely connected, but it’s a complicated affair. Which is why the spiritual life and gospel ministry isn’t a simple matter of formulaic truth-dispensing. Preaching and teaching must take their place in the Church–a web of social and historical relationships in which the Spirit works on a person’s heart, mind, body, and soul over time.

Thankfully, the Spirit’s got plenty of it.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 thoughts on “Doctrine and Life Go Together–Mostly, but Sometimes Not

  1. “I’m not saying we can’t draw the line between behaviors and beliefs–I am saying we need to be a lot slower and take more care with that argument.”

    True enough. Go slow, but please go! The “roots and fruits” paradigm is directly biblical. Chaos theory makes for bad piety–“I just did it” and “I don’t know why” might be true enough in the sense that we have limited knowledge. But, unless we come to terms with the ways our thoughts, feelings, and inclinations lead to our behaviors and new thoughts, feelings, and inclinations, I don’t think we are going to move forward well as Christians.

    Also, in regard to outcomes, God directs us numerous times to look not only at the content of teaching to see if it lines up with Scripture but also to look at its fruits in those who teach it or hold it. Are our straight lines always entirely accurate? No. But where there is smoke, there really, really is fire.

    • Ya, this isn’t a total rejection of that link , but just a suggestion that we slow down and be careful about the way we connect things. I am very much a Doctrine guy. I just think that we need to be realistic about human persons and the slow and sloppy way these things actually work.

  2. Thank you for such a good article. It articulates a lot of what has been confusing in the past and gives a common sense way of explaining why simply getting people to believe good doctrine may not be enough to really transform behaviour.



  3. Derek, thanks for this thoughtful post, which I believe is accurate regarding what we believe and how we live—there are levels of complexities and variables that don’t always move from point A to B in a logical sequence (as we understand it, from our limited and biased perspective. As they say, everyone has a view from a point…). As Christians I think we know deep down that while doctrine is important and can never be jettisoned (even though the progressives want to challenge us at least at the level of doctrinal priorities when compared to how we serve others around us) that on a very practical level, a life of following Jesus is one based on behavior, ethics, and discipline. Or maybe stated more simplistically, loving God and neighbor takes priority of what we believe about God and neighbor. A Calvinist, Arminian, and non-theist can all love their neighbors in self-sacrificing, self-denying ways and hold very different theologies when it comes to God and their duty to their fellow human beings, but in the end if they are loving their neighbor and caring for their well-being are they not fulfilling the law of Christ (whether they acknowledge it or not)? Thanks for your efforts and keep up the good work!

  4. As a Christian Counselor, I studied these issues carefully and finally developed what, for me, was a satisfactory model. It comes from my idea of how we as Christians understand life and growth in light of our Fallen Nature. I found the writings of James Kallas to be key. He says that there are three streams of theology about Fallen Nature: Bondage, Rebellion, and True Moral Guilt. I added a fourth stream, Shame. I look at these streams as issues that impact us every day and we need a a doctrine that leads us to carefully analyze a person’s behavior to discern whic of the four is most at work behind their patterns of behavior.
    BRGS are, in my imagination, intertwined much like a negative DNA. In Counseling it helps me better understand addictions, and missing the mark as well as the power of confession and forgiveness. It also helps us understand the critical difference between how to deal with Shame versus Guilt.

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