You’ve probably witnessed the tendency in people, communities, and cultures to correct one extreme by choosing the equal opposite extreme. When this happens, the equal opposite is never understood to be an extreme but the only possible solution.
For example, if the culture is eating too much for supper, then the solution proposed is rarely to limit the portion size, resist the temptation for seconds, and cut out dessert. No, the solution is to cut supper out altogether! Easier it is to scrap the whole thing, or so the thinking goes, than to daily exercise wisdom and restraint.
Undoubtedly, of course, a generation will rise up far enough in the future to not understand (or at least not appreciate) why their forefathers decided to remove the tradition of supper eating in the first place. They will stare into the famished eyes of their neighbors at 6 o’clock every evening and will slowly but surely be convinced—after long deliberation, much resistance, and heated debate—that the decision to cut out supper was extreme, a complete overreaction. With resolve, they decide to recover the once long cherished tradition by reinstating, not just supper, but an extravagant feast every night of the week.
You see the problem.
We live in a time when the pendulum swing is making its way back across to the other side. And as is usually the case, we will learn something about the blindness and overreactions of previous generations. One of the extremes identified by the Emergent church and others is how post-enlightenment evangelicals have too often assumed that spiritual growth comes through the accumulation of the "right information" or "true facts." The charge is levied that at the bottom of many evangelical pastors and theologians minds there lies a cognitive behavioral assumption, or the belief that good educating in the right information will lead to spiritual maturity. This is why, allegedly, evangelicalism is known for word rather than deed, or as one emergent type put it recently, "... more for mission conferences than mission work."
Before we take a look at the proposed corrective, it’s important that we first come to terms with the assessment. These critiques are usually so generalized that it's very hard to measure the veracity of the claim, and I'm always squeamish when someone is telling me what's at "the bottom" of another's mind or heart. We're usually not privy to such information, and in the end, we may be glad we're not. That aside, it's probably safe to say, even though the critique is almost certainly overblown and not nearly as universal as the detractors think, that it's still a critique worth listening to. In fact, in some cases in may be spot on (maybe even more than we’d like to admit).
Have we not at times forgotten that Christianity consists in more than good educating and the right information? And when we've paused long enough to doubt our own assumption on the matter, have we not often consoled ourselves by saying, “No church is perfect. If I'm going to err on one side or the other, I think I’d rather err on the side of right information (the truth!), than blind action.” There’s something in that statement that strokes my own sensibility. What good is right action after all if it’s derived from wrong belief? Isn’t that Paul’s point in Ephesians? But the postmodern reformer responds with at least an arguable point. What good is right belief, if it’s not followed up with right action? Isn’t that what James tells us? Point well taken.
Let me propose that the faulty foundation of this argument can be spotted along the “if-I'm-going-to-err-in-one-direction-or-another” point, as if the calling of a Christian is to consider which error is best (or at least not as bad) and follow it. Are we to give up on the indivisible relationship between belief and practice and just pick one side over the other? If we pay attention to the whole counsel of Scripture, we quickly find that God is not so much interested in us aiming for one error over against another error. He is interested in the truth, the whole truth.
I genuinely appreciate the renewed interest in good works and spiritual practices among some postmodern theologians and pastors. But I’m deeply concerned when Brian McLaren for instance, one of the leading emergent thinkers, suggests that our unity should be “…built less around a list of things that one professes to believe and more around how one pursues truth and puts beliefs into action through practices.” (The Last Word and the Word After That, 197). In McLaren’s mind, the "truth" is in the practice; what matters is not what we believe but how we live, not words but actions.
Don't be fooled. An equal opposite is never a corrective only an error in the opposite direction. If evangelicalism has truly believed that right information is all one needs for sanctification (a highly debateable allegation), then it deserves to be wrenched back from the precipice toward the center—not toward the other edge. We are always to "follow the pattern of sound words" (I Tim. 1:12), for in them we find the competence and equipment "to perform every good work" (II.Tim. 3:17).
A true biblical corrective emerges at the moment we determine to hold profession and practice together; when we embrace both faith and work and treat them for what they are: two indispensable, absolutely necessary parts of one pure and indivisible whole.