I’ve been working my way through a series entitled “The 10 Commandments of Progressive Christianity.” It’s an examination of 10 core tenets of progressive (or liberal) Christianity offered by Richard Rohr, but really based on the book by Philip Gulley.
Now we come to the fourth commandment: “Gracious behavior is more important than right belief.”
Upon a first reading, there is room here for some common ground. We certainly would agree that gracious behavior is something that should characterize the church (though there may be disagreement about what exactly that entails). But, at a minimum, we could say that the church (and Christians) should be patient, gentle, kind, and loving to everyone–even those who have different theological convictions.
However, there are also a number of concerns that arise with the way this commandment is phrased, and with the way Gulley fleshes out the specifics.
Is the Pursuit of Good Theology the Problem?
The prioritization of behavior over theology will sell well to our modern world because they already have the idea that people who care about theology are divisive, narrow, dogmatic, and even mean. What matters instead, we are told, is that we are just kind to people.
Gulley drives home this stereotype by comparing people who care about theology with the Pharisees. The the problem with the Pharisees, argues Gulley, is their “fixation on orthodoxy” and their “misguided quest for theological purity” (67).
Translation: If you care about orthodoxy you are probably just another Pharisee.
Leaving aside the ungracious (!) nature of this comparison, we can simply observe how historically inaccurate it is. Jesus never said the problem with the Pharisees is that they are too concerned with orthodoxy. The problem with the Pharisees was legalism (putting man-made laws ahead of God’s) and hypocrisy (saying one thing and doing another). And the two often went together.
To put it another way, the problem with the Pharisees was not that they cared too much about good theology, but that they cared too little! Their theology was a mess. It glorified man, twisted God’s own priorities, and selectively followed God’s law.
And this raises an important point. Teaching people good theology is actually a way to care for them. Rather than viewing theology as something that harms and oppresses people, we should be reminded that good theology actually comforts and liberates people. The Pharisees harmed people precisely by teaching them (and modelling for them) bad theology.
Is Behavior More Important than Theology?
The other issue with this fourth commandment is the dichotomy it creates between behavior and doctrine. The former is just more important than the latter, we are told.
But the problem here is that the two cannot be so easily divided. Indeed, any declaration about right or wrong behavior is a theological declaration! One cannot determine how to behave unless they employ theological categories and concepts. Behavior is only “right” if it fits with God’s law and God’s character.
So, there is a rich irony here. The statement “Gracious behavior is more important than right belief” is itself a statement about what we should believe! Apparently “right belief” matters after all.
Do We Get More “Grace” by Prioritizing Behavior?
Gulley’s push to prioritize behavior over doctrine is driven by a simple conviction, namely that this leads people to be more gracious. He claims, “Jesus knew ungracious behavior often had its roots in a misguided quest for theological purity” (67).
In other words, good theology won’t produce gracious behavior. Instead, argues Gulley, we get more gracious behavior from people by focusing more on, well, their behavior.
It is here that Gulley has come full circle and returned to the first of his progressive commandments, namely that Christianity is more about morality than about worshiping Jesus (see my critique of that commandment here).
Simply put, Gulley argues that we get more gracious behavior from people through moralism.
Of course, the sad reality is that it was actually the Pharisees, not Jesus, who were committed to moralism. And their moralism did not, in any way, make them more gracious.
So while on the one hand Gulley critques the ungracious nature of the Pharisees, on the other hand he advocates the Pharisees’ own moralistic methodology.
And this is what happens when doctrine and theology are disparaged. All you’re left with in the end is a religion of being “nice” to other people.
If we really want to become people who are more gracious, the answer is not to focus on our behavior and “try harder.” Instead, the answer is to focus on Jesus Christ, the son of God, who gave his life to pay the debt of our sins, and empowers us by the Spirit to live a new life. It is then that we can really love others selflessly.
Again, J. Gresham Machen sums it up well:
“The strange thing about Christianity was that it adopted an entirely different method [for how people change]. It transformed the lives of men not by appealing to the human will, but by telling a story; not by exhortation, but by the narration of an event . . . The lives of men are transformed by a piece of news” (47-48).
But, of course, this approach requires that we think theologically.
In the end, is not the case that behavior is more important than right theology. Both are important. And the latter is the foundation for the former.