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Why I Do Not Teach Christian Living Principles

(Lisa Robinson)

Last year, an opportunity opened up for me to teach a group of very-young-in-the-faith believers.   This is not the first time I have worked with new believers but I find that I am taking a different approach this time.  You would think that one of the first things I would teach them was how to be a good Christian.  After all, isn’t that what every new believer wants to know…”how do I do this Christian thing?”  It seems reasonable that I would want to teach them Christian living principles so they can have some type of guideline.  Right?

Well, I that is not what I did nor is what I advocate to teach Christians, even believers who are new to the faith.  Instead, I wholeheartedly endorse teaching the foundations of Christianity.   Foundations of Christianity are a very different animal than Christian living principles.  Foundations start with an understanding of God, who He is and what He has provided.  Foundations establish how God has revealed Himself and His redemptive plan for His creation through Christ.  Foundations teach who Christians are according to what the Father has done through the Son by the Spirit.  Foundations teach how the individual salvation relates to the corporate entity of the church.

Christian living principles, on the other hand, provide a methodology for how to approach spiritual life.  It is basically a checklist for compliance for maintaining Christian growth.  Here are some principles that I have found common

  • Pray
  • Read your bible
  • Maintain fellowship with other believers
  • Walk in integrity and honesty
  • Get involved with serving
  • Share your faith

While this may seem like a good list to give new Christians, I do not believe that ultimately compliance with principles is what leads to authentic Christian growth.  In fact, I think this could actually be a hindrance and can ensnare new Christians as they strive to understand what the Christian life is about.  So here are five reasons I do not teach Christian living principles.

1) Christian living principles do not teach the Christian how to grow spiritually.  They only provide a standard for compliance.

2) Christian living principles can get confused for actual spiritual growth.  A believer may get the impression that they are becoming a better Christian simply because of compliance.  Conversely, they may feel they are not good Christians by lack of compliance.  Rather, spiritual growth occurs when the believer is becoming more Christ-like, trusting in the completed work of the cross, yielding to the Holy Spirit and participating in active body life. This can only happen through authentic learning and support of the Christian community.

3) Christian living principles encourage a standard by which to evaluate the spiritual status of other Christians.  This is not necessarily a good thing.  What I have discovered both through the pages of scripture and experientially is that God takes Christians through varied and individualized growth processes.  Growth should be steady but does not occur the same way with everyone.  The Holy Spirit is at work in the hearts of Christians in ways we cannot fully know.

4) Foundations establishes the Christian in their identity.  Considering that we still have fleshly tendencies and histories of how we see ourselves, authentic growth occurs by understanding who we are in Christ.  And this happens when we understand who He is and what He has accomplished according to the will of the Father.  The more we understand who God is and who we are, the more it ought to affect our reliance upon the Holy Spirit, our worship and submission to the triune God and our relations to members of the body of Christ.  We will not need to tell Christians to read their bible if they understand that it is God’s communication to us.  We will not need to tell Christians to pray when they gain an understanding of the necessity of prayer.  We will not need to be told to serve if we understand our position in relation to the church, its purpose and function.

5) Foundations encourage developing a life of grace.  If we are to believe that the grace freely given to us through Christ is unmerited and the basis of our Christian existence, then maintenance of grace is only achieved through reliance on that grace and the active work of the Holy Spirit.  Moreover, it mitigates the need for us to evaluate other Christians according to a list of things we think they should be doing.   Foundations rightly put the focus on God and how we relate to Him.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Christians do not need to live by principles.  Nor am I advocating for the abandonment of methodology.  But my premise is that what Christians need to grow in grace and true knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18) is the foundation by which they understand grace and the true knowledge of Christ.  This can only happen when they learn about God on His terms and the life that He has called them to.  Whatever methodology is needed will follow.  Whatever principles that should be the fabric of our Christian life will fall into place as we grow and develop into maturity.

So how have I approached this?  In my class, we started out with the concept of revelation and God’s intentional unveiling of Himself.  The gospel is the very fabric by which we understand what we have. We did an overview of the bible, establishing the story of revelation and how each component fits within that story.   We have been plodding through John for a few months now, which we approach holistically and theologically striving to learn about God on His terms.  To be sure, the subject of Christian living principles come up but it is only in response to what we are learning about what God has communicated to us and our Christian identity.  It is invigorating watching these guys grow.

25 Responses to “Why I Do Not Teach Christian Living Principles”

  1. Lisa, you wrote, “my premise is that what Christians need to grow in grace and true knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18) is the foundation by which they understand grace and the true knowledge of Christ. This can only happen when they learn about God on His terms and the life that He has called them to. Whatever methodology is needed will follow. Whatever principles that should be the fabric of our Christian life will fall into place as we grow and develop into maturity.

    How are we to know what God’s terms are? Do we discover this by living life apart from the word or prayer? Psalm 119, as you know, is David talking to him about the importance of meditating upon his word. Jesus often went alone to pray.

    I agree that we need to not become legalistic about these methods; however, in working with people young in their faith, I have too often encountered young believers who fall into the trap of “well, I just believe my way. You can believe yours” without any theological or biblical grounding. To me, that is a greater danger.

  2. And Christian living principals are the same thing as living principals.
    •Pray = Call your mother, communicate with your family
    •Read your bible = Improve your mind
    •Maintain fellowship with other believers = Have friends
    •Walk in integrity and honesty = Be ethical and moral
    •Get involved with serving = Work to earn a living and volunteer to help others
    •Share your faith = Talk with other people
    Basically be a “good” person. Most people already strive to be a “good” person by their own definition, so teaching fundamentals will help them change that definition so it is more in line with God’s definition.
    Time to dig out that magazine article on how hard it is to change one’s behavior. Some very large portion of people that get a stent are back for another within a short period of time because even though they know it will kill them they can’t modify their eating and exercise habits enough to get healthy.
    Same thing with Christians. Eventhough we want to please (if that is the right word) God, we can’t modify our behaviour enough to be “good” by God’s definition. Studying the fundamentals focuses our mind on Godly things instead of the things that make us feel good. (Not quite right since Godly things will make us feel good just not in the same way as that donut (doughnut) I’m going to have now for breakfast.)

  3. J Kanz, I think you should re-read what I wrote. Nowhere do I advocate for living separate from learning. Obedience and submission to God and his word are an integral part of the Christian life. My premise is that we get there by learning who He is and what He says. Also, I am confused by this statement

    “I have too often encountered young believers who fall into the trap of “well, I just believe my way. You can believe yours” without any theological or biblical grounding. To me, that is a greater danger.

    Foundations absolutely sets a theological and biblical grounding and counteracts the impetus to believe any way we’d like. I’m not sure how you arrive at your conclusion that I am advocating otherwise.

  4. Lisa, I need to apologize. I have been a strong advocate in my church for getting to know the word of God. I believe that the study of God’s word is the primary way we come to know God better.

    With that said, I admit I rather raced through your post this morning and in my flu-induced stupor, shot off a response. I pray that some day I will learn patience. Please forgive me for my misinterpretation.

    I think my reaction is more against the tendency I have seen among young church goers who have the “it’s just me and Jesus” mentality, by which they justify behaviors such as living with their boyfriends without practicing any of the spiritual disciplines.

  5. Don’t we really need both foundations and methodology? I agree that simply “reading the bible” or “volunteering” isn’t enough to really change / grow / save someone. But can you really get at understanding God’s nature without serving people (volunteering)? Or know God, without reading the Bible? Or grasp the trinity without being in community?

    Maybe I’m reading more of an “either / or” into this post than you intended.

    It just seems to me that you need both if you’re really to grow in your faith. And without both you either end up being all theory (foundations) or all practice (methodology). When I look at Jesus, or the disciples, or people of great faith, they are always both.

  6. Well done, Lisa.

    Foundations are the basis for behavior. The opposite is seldom true and tends to lead to a works based faith (possibly with limited depth).

    The primary purpose of man is to worship and bring glory to God. This can only proceed from a basic understanding of who God is and who we are. Christian practices do not bring that foundation.

    Further, the worship that comes from foundational understanding naturally leads to seeking out appropriate behavior that reflects these principles. So both are accomplished in the end.

    Blessings…

  7. Lisa,

    I appreciated your post. Especially as I am about to teach a foundational Christianity course in my church. But as Eric has observed, I am not sure we should pit life principles against learning doctrine. Your posting, perhaps unintentionally, implies a unnecessary polarization. Catechism in the first centuries of the church involved both. And you are correct to note that praxis should flow out of doctrine. With this being the case, perhaps our foundations of Christianity courses in our churches should be extended over a long periods of time (i.e., years versus weeks). I have observed that Christians can sometimes have their doctrine spot on, and they know their Bibles quite well, but are sorely lacking in how they put their beliefs into daily practice. In short, we must NOT separate doctrine from practice. Yet, I am not convinced that putting principles before doctrine is always a bad idea. It seems too that this matter also depends on the cultural and generational make-up of our students.

  8. Lisa excellent blog. We as leaders in the Church must always be careful that whatever we “do” or “teach” does not become cold and mechanical. Dead orthodoxy is just as serious as false doctrine.

    I’m reading a book now by Gordon Fee, Listening To The Spirit In The Text. The thesis of the book is exegsis and spirituality go hand in hand. In other words, whatever we do, we must be “abiding in the Vine,” where all of our spiritual life comes from.

    I have a blog where I discuss various topics from a Christian world view, stop and leave your thoughts:http://christianmusings-brian.blogspot.com/

    http://briansleadershipstudies.blogspot.com/

  9. For those who see me drawing an either/or distinction between foundations and principles, I am not. Nor am I advocating for Christian living principles to be absent from teaching or discussions. Rather, I am advocating for a focus on foundations and principles will flow out of that. Right living flows out of right believing and right thinking.

  10. Excellent Post Lisa;

    Your teaching philosophy is something that I have been trying to get established at my church for a long time.

  11. The book of Hebrews (Hebrews 6:1) reflects your approach, Lisa, which is foundational doctrines and understandings first and not practices per se.

  12. Gosh, I wish someone had told me all this when I became a Christian. That would have spared me from heck a lot of trouble.

  13. I agree with Leslie J! There was a time where I thought that I should leave my faith in Christ because I could not live up to “Christian Principles.” The other interesting thought is that sometimes what we think as “Christian Principles” are really cultural. For example in certain parts of the USA if you are a Christian you do not do certain things (ie. dance, watch movies, drink alcohol). As we (my husband and I) learned when we moved from Alaska to Texas 3.5 years ago there is a BIG cultural difference between the two places! When one teaches as you stated, then one can learn to apply their lives to sound biblical truths rather than cultural norms. I have naturally changed in both my actions and my thinking when I read the word, pray, and rely on the Holy Spirit to guide me. It has changed me so much more than the nervous new-believer I was trying to follow a set of earmarks or principles that I could not live up to on my own!

  14. Truth Unites... and Divides January 13, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    Lisa Robinson: “Right living flows out of right believing and right thinking.”

    That’s a good creed.

    ;-)

  15. Amen my sister in faith. How can one ever truly stand if he has not been rooted and made firm in true-solid foundation. Continue faithful in Christ Jesus.

  16. There really is no need to push Christian living principles upon others. If we can just encourage others to fall in love with Jesus, they will seek him for themselves, which in turn, will pull them into living a sound Christian life.

  17. “The law is written upon our hearts.”

    We already know what to do. We just flat out refuse to do it, so much of the time.

    And then St. Paul told us how it works, also. “When the law came in, sin increased.”

    So why feed people a steady diet of the law to ‘make them better’? It can’t make us better. Not in the long run, anyway.

    The law (‘what we do’) ought be used to point out our sinfulness, and the need of a Savior (not a life coach).

    Thanks.

  18. Lisa,

    Great post. This is why we are currently doing The Discipleship Program (shameless plug) as one of our Sunday school classes. Last year we went through The Theology Program (another shameless plug) as one of our Sunday school classes. Both are fantastic and do just what you are suggesting. Give believers (new and old) a theological foundation of who God is, who we are, and how to live in light of that. Here is to making a theology and doctrine welcome words again in our churches again.

    Don

  19. William R. Ferguson January 18, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Lisa,

    I agree as I understand a good understanding provides the basis for proper living. My question is that even with the best intentions wont the focus on “foundations” end up like what was done in the past with the Catechism? People move through a course and those who are more predisposed to such studies are excited about it while others become more apathetic toward God because they were bored with such academic studies.

    I will always support what your article encourages us to do, but I sometimes get frustrated with using such because of some of the apathy that I get from most church members.

    Will

  20. Serving as the student ministry director in a growing church, this topic comes up frequently… we need to be teaching the youth more _____; they need to learn more scripture; they are not prepared to graduate; can they do inductive Bible Study. ALL of these are important, but I do believe that we the church have come to focus too much on these measurable steps while neglecting relationship between the generations, passion and awe for the Holy God, and a hunger to see the Kingdom grow. Thank you for your articulate article. It helps me put words together to encourage our leaders and families!

    Blessings, Sharon

  21. I agree that right living flows out of right beliefs and thinking. And I agree with giving foundations the priority when teaching. I also agree that this is not an either/or proposition that should exclude teaching Christian principles (prayer, Bible reading, etc). My question is, how does this look like in practice when teaching? Do we teach only foundations and let principles take care of themselves? Do we teach foundations and only address principles when someone asks? Do we teach both, but put foundations first? I would lean towards the latter because it seems to follow the pattern of Paul’s letters. Thoughts?

  22. I see it as either giving a man a fish or teaching him how to fish. Teaching him how to fish is a foundation to help him now and in the future.

  23. And 2 1/2 years later……After having a discussion with a pastor that was advocating a certain law from the Old Testament as being a Principle in The New Testament, I went “Googleing” for some input and came across yours. I agree wholeheartedly that Principles comes after….You say “Right living flows out of right believing and right thinking.” That is true, and right believing comes from a right relationship with Jesus Christ. After all, the Bible is a revelation of Him. He is the Word. Reading the Bible is not a principle, it is an act of participating in the relationship with Jesus and as the Holy Spirit makes that alive in our hearts, it will change our lives into becoming more and more like HIM. The Holy Spirit was sent to reveal Jesus to us and out of that process will come right living. Some might call that principles, but it is only as a result of the foregoing, not the other way around. II Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” That’s the foundation.

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