In a response to the dialogue between Jeff McQuilkin and me, Alan Knox raises a crucial –and possibly the crucial–issue in the alleged distinction between the theory and practice of ecclesiology: it is a false distinction.
In reality, it is impossible to have a biblical theology that is not practical. A biblical theology is a practical theology…This distinction between theoretical theology and practical theology is a false distinction as far as Scripture is concerned. According to Scripture, it is impossible to know God (theology) without it affecting your life (practice). So, a biblical theology is a practical theology. A theoretical theology that does not affect a person’s life is not a biblical theology.
The False Distinction is Actually a False Separation
Alan correctly notes that theology is always practiced: an unpracticed theology is an inadequate theology. While theory and practice cannot be separated, they are not the same thing, for we can distinguish between the two.
So, why distinguish between them? Praxis.
Praxis can be defined as reflective practice, in which theory informs practice, practice informs theory, and both are improved. Below, I will unpack the three elements (theory, practice, and practice) and suggest some responsibilities for each.
Theory includes intellectual knowledge of the identity of our master, the content of his criteria, and the cost (e.g., suffering) that can accompany our following. him. Having this knowledge, we are responsible for maintaining our relationship with Jesus (our end, not his), translating our knowledge into culturally appropriate behaviors, and teaching this knowledge to our fellows.
Practice involves obeying our master, implementing his criteria, and willingly experiencing the associated costs. In doing all of this, we are responsible to rely on Jesus, to live as his people in our ordinary lives, and to exhort one another with both encouragement and correction.
Praxis involves taking feedback from both theory and practice and improving our relationship, our responsibility, and our obedience. As we live in a reflective manner, we are resonsible for helping one another grow up into him (Eph 4:15) by continuously aligning our theory and practice (as persons and as community) with the working of the Holy Spirit.
So, what is the purpose of this “false distinction?” This distinction serves as a tool for exposing false theology by revealing inadequacy, whether in theory or in practice.
Life, unlike this blog, is not so articulated, for the deep beliefs behind our behaviors are quite often hidden to us and to our fellows. The Spirit uses our reflections on and understanding of God’s truth to rewire and reprogram our hearts, for our thoughts, affections, and behaviors flow from our hearts.
In sum, the theory and practice of ecclesiology can and must be distinguished, for this is an important part of our growth, but they must never be separated. Both theory and practice are inadequate when standing alone.