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Reframing pragmatism: Why obedience is the best choice

Pastor Andy Stanley speaks during Catalyst Atlanta at the Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth, Georgia, on Oct. 6, 2016.
Pastor Andy Stanley speaks during Catalyst Atlanta at the Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth, Georgia, on Oct. 6, 2016. | Catalyst

There is not and will never be a better strategy for dealing with the difficulties we face in the broken world than obedience. Obedience is practical. It is also more than an option for Christians. As Johnathan Tran puts it in The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory: “Christians charged with nothing but obedience are freed for obedience, and in this way for Christian theology, freedom prescinds as obedience.”

While “obeying God” might seem to be a relatively straightforward concept, well-meaning (and I assume some not-so-well-meaning) Christians have often disagreed about what obedience looks like. The Bible can be used to justify sinful practices and to shout down necessary reform. Even appropriate Christian practices carry, as Lauren Winner notes, a “propensity for violence, for curvature, for being exploited for the perpetuation of damage rather than received for its redress.” While we may be “charged with nothing but obedience,” understanding how to obey is not trivial.

As Christians seek to navigate a broken world, they will likely face the challenge of being faithful (obeying Christ and God’s word) when obedience seems less-than-practical and brings negative social consequences that may include turning others away. There are times when obeying God, speaking truth, or refusing to compromise Christian convictions will not be palatable to others. We may try to follow Paul’s example of being “all things to all people,” yet we will still find ourselves in conflict with those who desire to be Christian on their own terms. We will likely feel pressure to seek the approval and acceptance of others. We will feel the pressure to pursue our solutions to the problems of the moment even if those solutions draw us away from living faithfully.

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For instance, after anointing Saul as king of Israel, Samuel gives Saul an outline of the events that are going to happen in the near future (1 Sam 10:2-8). Having seen what Samuel describes come to pass, Saul is to do two things. First, he is to “do what your hand finds to do, for God is with you” (10:7). This likely refers to the various battles Saul fought in the following chapters (11:1-11; 13:3-4). Second, Saul is to go to Gilgal where he will meet Samuel who will a. offer burnt and peace offerings and b. “show you what you shall do” (10:8). 

Saul comes to Gilgal and “all the people followed him trembling” (13:7). He and the people wait for Samuel as the Philistines regroup to do battle against Israel. However, “Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him [Saul]” (13:8). Seeing that the people are beginning to lose heart and that the Philistines were prepared for a fight, Saul decides to make the sacrifices himself. Not wishing to go out to battle without seeking “the favor of the Lord” (13:12), Saul oversteps the boundaries he was given and seeks (ironically) God’s favor through an act of disobedience.

Saul’s choice seems practical at the moment. Saul does not sacrifice because he no longer believes Samuel is coming. He sacrifices because, as he sees the Philistines rallying and his people scattering, he no longer believes obedience to be a winning strategy. Instead, Saul believes the people are more important to winning the battle than God. Obedience might have left Saul with a smaller force, but God is fully capable of doing more with less (cf. Jud 7:6-22).

Unfortunately, we are often quick to act like Saul. We see people scattering (though for different reasons than we find in 1 Samuel). The number of people disaffiliating with Christianity (the so-called “nones”) is growing. We are right to be concerned when we see people walk away from the Church. It is appropriate for us to consider whether people are rejecting Christ because we are not representing Him well. Yet, whatever legitimate concerns we may have about people rejecting the faith, it would seem unwise not to encourage obedience.  There is a cost to following Jesus. All those who become disciples of Christ commit to following Him on His terms, not on their own

In the wake of the Unconditional Conference held at Andy Stanley’s Northpoint Church, it seems necessary to underscore the practicality of obedience. In response to Al Mohler’s critiques of the conference, which Mohler describes as “a departure from historic normative biblical Christianity,” Stanley responded saying, “His [Mohler’s] version, this version of biblical Christianity, is why people are leaving Christianity unnecessarily.” He goes on to suggest that Mohler’s Christianity “… causes people to resist Christian faith because they can’t find Jesus in the midst of all the other stuff and all the other theology and all the other complexity that gets glommed onto the message …” 

While I have a number of questions about what Stanley means by “this version of biblical Christianity,” I am primarily concerned with the pragmatic orientation of the response. We should be concerned if we are getting in the way of the message. Yet, we must also recognize that we can only seek to influence the way people respond to us or the Gospel message if we do so on Christ’s terms. While it is appropriate for us to talk about various strategies and approaches (many of which may be faithful), we should not assume that drawing a crowd or being attractive to a certain type of individual is a sure sign that what we are doing is countenanced by God. 

Jesus included everyone in His ministry. He sought out the lost and the marginalized. He proclaimed the Good News to them. He did not, however, suggest that people could follow Him without committing to a radical change in lifestyle. Jesus included everyone in the proclamation of the Gospel. One did not need to be of a certain status to hear of the Good News. However, Jesus did not include everyone in the Kingdom. Not everyone who heard His message was part of the new body He was forming. We would do well to remember the distinction so that we recognize the practicality of obedience.

Dr. James Spencer currently serves as President of the D. L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization inspired by the life and ministry of Dwight Moody and dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel and challenging God’s children to follow Jesus. He also hosts a weekly radio program and podcast titled “Useful to God” on KLTT in Colorado.  His book titled “Christian Resistance: Learning to Defy the World and Follow Jesus” is available on He previously published “Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody,” “Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind,” as well as co-authoring “Trajectories: A Gospel-Centered Introduction to Old Testament Theology.”

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