The Unintended Danger of the Principle-Driven Life

The Unintended Danger of the Principle-Driven Life

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One of the downsides of dividing the Bible into chapters and verses is that it can create a principle-driven discipleship methodology. What I mean is that we can turn the Bible into nuggets, snippets, and tips that are not in the context of the passage or motivated by the Gospel. Besides this eisegetical approach to Bible study, it leads to behaviorism. One of the downsides is no heart transformation.

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A Call to Stop Swinging

One of the things I hope you will ponder as I talk about the “principle-driven life” is how we can have wide pendulum swings when practicing concepts. For example, the world says that we are to love ourselves. And the Christian will react by saying we are not to love ourselves. The worst case of this is a “woe is me,” sin-centered, worm theology.

Another example is how some biblical counselors are so adamant about their cause that they won’t call themselves Christian counselors because there are some Christians who use un- and sub-biblical ideas and practices. Can you hear what these overreacting biblical counselors are doing? They are Christians who do not want to use the word “Christian” when Christian is who they are.

One more example is what I call the (wrongheaded) “grace crowd.” It’s the person who came out of a legalistic familial or religious situation and finally learned of the doctrines of grace. Some of them make the mistake of shunning obedience and holiness. Sadly, they only have one worldview for righteousness, and it’s not a good one. But rather than seeing the necessity of living an obedient life, they make the “grace mistake,” which means, “I can live however I choose.”

So while I am speaking about a potential error of fixating on the principle-driven life, I am not saying that principles are wrong. Principles, like many things in our lives, can be useful. Or they can get in our way. It would help many of us to tap the brakes a bit, don’t overreact, and seek the Lord’s wisdom for gray matters.

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The Danger of Missing the Context

I have wondered at times what the writers of the New Testament would think about how we have separated the Scriptures into verses and in some cases, isolated them from the contexts in which they wrote them. Chapters and verses are vital because they help us find things quickly in our Bibles. How hard would it be to be sitting in a small group, and the leader says, “Turn to page 763 and start at paragraph thirteen, reading the next three?” Weird, right?

But with every good idea comes a backside liability (if not a bucket of them). One of the most significant problems is when the unlearned isolate verses from their contexts and uses those snippets as principles to model their lives. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pattern our lives after God’s words, but we may become only a slightly better version of what our culture offers through their self-help gurus.

Ironically, many of those who do not know the Lord take our Bible principles and use them for personal prosperity agendas and other desired outcomes. Like the novice believer, the Bible becomes a self-help book for them. Here are five examples that make my point.

  • Judge not, that you be not judged (Matthew 7:1).
  • Do not let the sun go down on your anger (Ephesians 4:26).
  • God is love (1 John 4:8).
  • For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you (Jeremiah 29:11).
  • All things work together for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28).

Always Target the Heart

Of course, the Bible is a self-help book since it has helped millions of people. But my point here is that if a person pulls a verse out of context and uses it for personal purposes, though there can be a quick benefit, they should be cautious about this habit. The worst case of this practice is the individual who uses scripture to manipulate and control someone.

Besides taking a verse out of context, the principle-driven lifestyle tends to target the behavior of the individual. Jesus wants to make sure that we know all actions connect to our hearts (Luke 6:45). Cutting off any bad practice is wise, ethical, and humble (Matthew 5:30). But if you do not address the ruling motive of the heart, that behavior will reappear.

It may surprise you to know that the most typical form of discipleship that folks ask me to do comes from a principle-driven methodology. Rarely will anyone say it as I have framed it, though. I suspect most of them aren’t aware of what they are asking.

In our school, it’s a pleasure to train our Mastermind Students about this problem while helping them gain more insight on how to address the root and fruit. Thankfully, there is a new generation of biblical counselors and disciple-makers who don’t make this error. These transformers want something more than a Christianized version of behavioral modification.

Jesus Is Our Principle

Paul did not intend for us to turn his epistles and paragraphs into isolated principles that we divorce from the original intent. No writer wants their work extracted from its context to live an isolated life of its own. Paul’s primary point for writing was to teach his hearers about Christ, who is the Gospel. Christ is the total solution to our problems, inside and out.

Do you need a principle to live by when you have a Savior to imitate? (See 1 Corinthians 11:1) I talked about this “isolating and selecting idea” in my article, “A Good Goal for Husbands: Stop Trying to Be a Good Husband.” The point of that piece was to talk about those who target one sphere of their lives to the exclusion of others. The example was about the husband who strives to be stellar on the job but is a dud at home. The better answer is to be a good Christian (Christ-follower).

Principles are like that; you pick one, isolate it, amplify it, but have a blindspot for other areas of your life that need attention. After you master one, you choose another and strive to excel with that aspect. After a while, you have a massive bag of marbles that becomes unwieldy. The principle-driven life can be cumbersome. I know it’s a trite and well-worn expression, but it works here: “What would Jesus do?” (See 1 Peter 2:18-25) Let Jesus be your principle.

Imitate This!

In Ephesians 4:1, Paul said, “I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Notice, in that verse, he made an intentional division in his letter to the Ephesians. Paul divided the Ephesian book into two main parts that look like this:

  • Chapters 1-3 tell us about the Gospel, which is the “works and life of Christ.”
  • Chapters 4-6 tell us about how to live because of the Gospel.

Paul wants us to live a life based on chapters 1, 2, and 3, the Gospel (Christ). He did not begin the book of Ephesians by giving us a bunch of rules and principles to live by; those came later in chapters 4, 5, and 6. What he did first is talk about our “Gospel foundation” for why we should live the Christ-life. Our hearts must be affected first of all.

If we do not root our behaviors in the Gospel, we run the risk of being a behaviorist, even a Gospel-centered legalist. The New Testament Pharisees are the worst illustrations of how this happens. The one thing you must make sure of is whether or not your motivations for all you do flow out of the “person and works of Christ,” who is the Gospel.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matthew 23:25-28).

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Pragmatic Christians

Some Christians are content to have a changed life without living a Gospel-centric one, which means better circumstances. Here are a few ways that you may see this worldview acted out among fellow believers. (I realize that few folks would be so bold to say these things out loud, so these are not direct quotes, though they do describe a pragmatic, results-oriented perspective.)

  • “I just want my husband to stop being the way he is.”
  • “The church is an excellent place for children to learn moral behavior.”
  • “We need some tips on how to get along.”
  • “I have found that practicing Bible principles at work helps me succeed.”

Like what I mentioned at the top of this article, we don’t want to be one of those wild pendulum-swinging people. We all want spouses and children doing well morally. We want to learn how to get along. And it is wise to be like Jesus in the workplace. But from a “conscience perspective,” no Christian discipler should settle for a principle-driven teaching method alone. We have to guard against providing preferred outcomes to people without connecting all we do to the Gospel (Christ).

Your Root May Bite You

I cannot exclusively teach communication principles to anyone, which is one of the more frequent requests from marriage partners. They don’t get along, which means they are choosing not to get along. Any couple can get along; it’s a choice. If you look into their history, you’ll see a time when they did communicate well and got along with each other.

Like most issues similar to this, it’s not an “I can’t” problem but an “I won’t” issue. I could and should give them some communication tips so they can start breaking down those walls that they have been building for a decade or more. My mistake would not be giving them tips but not discerning their unique relationships with Christ.

If God has not regenerated them, then they have no “gas” and will not get far down the road before they break down or blow up at each other. “Tip-only counseling” is nothing more than a secular counselor teaching them habits and tricks that may make for better behaviors in the short-term but not transform hearts.

Some of our Christian discipleship has not evolved past the “change the situation, rather than the person” methodology. We must give our brothers and sisters more than what our culture provides because we can. Tips, tricks, and techniques are useful to a point, but the Gospel is more significant and transformative.

Call to Action

  1. How would you describe yourself: Are you more principle-driven or Gospel-driven?
  2. What evidence could you point to that demonstrates how the Gospel (Christ) is your motivation for what you do?
  3. One of the keys you’re looking for with the previous question is your affection for Christ. How tender is your heart toward Him as you reflect upon His gift to you? Has Christ affected you to where you don’t want to grieve or quench the Spirit of God? (See 1 Thessalonians 5:19; Ephesians 4:30)
  4. Would you say that the transformation of Christ in you is proportional to the Christlike behaviors that others see in you? If not, why is it not so? What is wrong inside of you?

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