A 3-legged stool – 1 leg ≠ a 3-legged stool : why doctrine matters

“When you stand before God at the end, He’s not going to give you a doctrine test, He’s going to ask you what you did with the life He gave you!”

How many times have you heard (and perhaps even been convinced momentarily) by this specious line of reasoning?  As if things like doctrine and propositional truth and orthodox teaching are, at best, peripheral things to God, and what really matters to Him is how we live out our lives.  Additionally, it’s important to see that such reasoning assumes that our ability to stand before God at all is not about belief in anything in particular, but solely in our ability to work for Him.

This is a pervasive issue facing evangelicalism today, particularly amoung proponents of the social/activist gospel, and dealing with such an issue requires examining more critically the logic behind such a line of reasoning.

To begin, when does 2 + 2 not equal 4? Or, to draw from the example in the title, when does 3 – 1 not equal 2?  Without digressing into philosophical meandering, the simple answer is never! And when you take a leg away from a three legged stool (by accident or choice) what you have is no longer a stool at all, but maybe, perhaps, a funky looking ladder?  The point is that a stool without all its legs can no longer serve its purpose as a stool.

But however natural or obvious these simple math equations may seem, somehow, there are occasions when these rules do not seem to apply with regard to scripture, or so one is led to believe.  This is usually seen where doctrine is removed from praxis as it relates to the Christian life.

One such place where the laws of mathematics and logic (and physics i suppose) are mysteriously not applicable (again, by accident or choice) is the oft quoted passage James 1:27 (ESV),

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” 

In sum, the three legs, if you will, that make up this stool of “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father,” are as follows:

1: visiting orphans (in their affliction?)

2: visiting widows in their affliction

3: keeping oneself unstained from the world

Plain reading and basic literary skill show us three legs, and yet often when this text is quoted – particularly when it is ripped from its cosy, contextual home, and used as a proof text of some kind – it magically becomes only two legs: visit orphans and care for widows!  All that “extra stuff” about keeping yourself unstained from the world is either sawn off completely as irrelevant to the thrust (*ahem eisegesis) of the message, or is barely given more than a nod of affirmation by including it in the reading (which it often is not).

*See above description again for what happens when we remove a leg from a stool.

Yes, and amen, one of the general thrusts of the book of James is faith worked out in action or the orthopraxy of orthodoxy.  But look at what happens when we remove one of James’ (and thus the Holy Spirit’s) descriptions of what this stool requires: beyond being unable to stand or support anything, it removes the sin problem from the life of the Christian.  “Pure and undefiled religion before God” now becomes, not about how Jesus came into the world to save sinners (of whom we are a part) and how we should live in light of that grace, but simply about helping poor/destitute people.  This is one of THE thrusts of social gospel activists who take a reductionistic view of this passage and make following Jesus working for the Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity.  The biggest thing to note from such an understanding of James 1:27 is that suddenly you don’t need Jesus to follow Jesus!!   To put it another way, such a reading of James 1:27 removes the power of the gospel, as well as its motivating force, to live out such lives of service and holiness.  This is the (again typical of the social/activist gospel proponents) overemphasis on Christ’s example (Christus exemplar) while ignoring or minimizing the other aspects of Christ’s life, death, burial and resurrection.

Quite simply, it should be evident that any idea of following Jesus that doesn’t even require you to know about Him (let alone be rescued by Him) to do it, is not following Jesus.   Removing the call to personal holiness (doctrine) reduces James 1:27 to a two legged stool (praxis void of doctrine).

This is seen elsewhere when, in similar circumstances or sermons (see below 1), Matthew 4:17 is read as, 

“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'”

What’s missing from that?!? Well, nothing really except the whole imperative of repentance which is Jesus’ entire reason for even saying that the kingdom is at hand.  Such a reading then makes Jesus’ first words of ministry simply an announcement and removes the warning that gives this announcement its context.  I guess in this case, we now have a ladder with only one beam? Or a swing with only one chain?

The end is this: when we seek to remove doctrine from what it means to live out the Christian life, we rob the teaching of scripture of its power to carry out what it teaches.  James (and all of scripture) teach that our works for God are to be the evidence of a true faith working itself out within us (James 2:14).  But faith in what?!? Working itself out for what purpose and by what power?  As said in the beginning, a stool without all it’s legs can no longer serve its purpose as a stool.  In the same way, our works in service of God will no longer serve their purpose when pulled from the context of doctrine because, in so doing, we remove the very motivation to do them.


“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that no one may boast.  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uasjRvevFFo

5 thoughts on “A 3-legged stool – 1 leg ≠ a 3-legged stool : why doctrine matters

  1. I see how truth and justice work together. Though I also know I grew up in a culture much more concerned about one than the other.
    It definitely seems like you are attacking a foe here – maybe a few quotes of what you are fighting against might be helpful for context.

    • Appreciate your interaction as always bro. I would say that “focusing on a particular teaching” is a more apt description of what i’m trying to accomplish than “attacking a foe” but i’ll take the criticism at face value if that’s how it’s coming across. I was also not seeking to name-drop or make the post about certain people per se, but more a generalized critique of the teaching itself (and not its proponents explicitly). That said, i have added a few footnotes to the post to at least illustrate one or two of the many places where i’ve seen this. Hope that’s helpful in giving it more context.

  2. Do you think that Tony and others really drop doctrine to focus on the poor? Maybe there is a bit of a pendulum swing for many going from pietism to justice, but there is doctrine in both camps, and perhaps relationship to God and others becomes a little more important than getting beliefs ‘right’. That sounds like Jesus. 😉

    • I don’t know Tony personally and/or all his ministry well enough to say he (or anyone else in that camp) “drops doctrine” to focus on the poor, namely because, the whole point of my post is that service/justice/etc. should flow naturally out of doctrine. So i’d like to believe that what they do is related to doctrine. And yes, absolutely there is an inordinate pendulum swing in both directions, but i truly believe there is a third way that is truly the message of Jesus, viz. that having right beliefs about God and how He relates to us will naturally flow into acts of service for others in piety towards Him. Piety (though we don;t use that word often today) is not about doctrine divorced from praxis or some caricature of a self-rightoues pharisee, but rather it’s about serious devotion to God and striving after personal holiness. There’s more i could say but why don;t we just grab a pint some night and dig into it more?
      The question i would leave you to consider is this: based on your last statement, “relationship with God and others becomes a little more important than getting beliefs ‘right'”, how does one have a relationship with God w/o right beliefs about Him? Even at a human level that doesn’t work. If you think a girl you like loves sushi and keep bringing it to her believing you’re showing your love for her, when all the while she hates sushi, you are not building that relationship; if anything, you’re creating distance.

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