What Matters More—Belief or Behavior?

by Martin Thielen

February 1, 2022

In my recent novel, An Inconvenient Loss of Faith, Reverend Paul Graham finds himself in a devastating crisis of faith. In one scene, he writes down the phrases of the Apostles’ Creed, the historic affirmation of faith that he and his congregation recite together every Sunday morning. It begins, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Paul carefully divides the ancient words into twenty-one specific faith affirmations. Then he asks himself, Which of these theological affirmations do I believe without any reservations or doubts?

Ten Percent Christian

In a painful moment of ruthless honesty, Paul finally admits to himself that he only believes two of the twenty-one theological statements found in the creed. He thinks, According to historic creedal Christianity, I’m 9.5 percent Christian—10 percent if I round it up. The scene concludes with Paul saying to himself, I’m in deep trouble.

After reading that scene, many people would likely conclude that Paul is no longer a Christian. And, at that particular moment in the story, even Paul wonders if he can still call himself a believer. However, a careful reading of Scripture calls that assumption into question. It may startle you, but throughout the Bible, God seems surprisingly disinterested in doctrinal beliefs.

Jesus and Doctrine

Over the past several months, I read all four Gospels. However, I focused primarily on the earlier Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), often called the “synoptic” Gospels. Scholars consider these to be more historic in nature, while John—the last Gospel to be written—is far more theological and confessional. Although I’ve read through the Gospels many times before, this reading brought an important epiphany. Upon completion of my reading, I realized that Jesus cares little about what we believe. He cares deeply, however, about how we behave.

For example, Jesus’s “Great Commandment” (Mark 12) says nothing about holding correct doctrines. Instead, it calls us to love God and neighbor. Jesus’s “Golden Rule” (Matt. 7) doesn’t mention orthodox theology. Rather, it encourages us to treat other people the way we want them to treat us. When a young man asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life (Matt. 19), Jesus didn’t say a word about religious beliefs. Instead, he said, “Keep the commandments, sell your possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow me.”

In his famous parable about the good Samaritan (Luke 10), loving behavior, not religious beliefs, is what Jesus commended. When Zacchaeus (Luke 19) promised to give away half of his assets to the poor, Jesus responded, “Today salvation has come to his house.” Not a word was spoken about “the Roman Road,” “the sinner’s prayer,” “the Four Spiritual Laws,” or “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7), the most extensive collection we have of Jesus’s teachings, he doesn’t even mention religious beliefs. Instead, he talks about proper living. And in his parable about the last judgment (Matt. 25), Jesus tells us that people will be judged not on doctrinal beliefs but on how they respond to the poor, the sick, and the stranger. Theological doctrines didn’t interest Jesus. Loving behavior did.

The Bible and Doctrine

Other New Testament writings confirm that same theme. For example, in the book of James, we read, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27 NRSV). It’s interesting that when James defines pure religion, he doesn’t say a word about doctrinal beliefs. Instead, he talks about caring for the marginalized and living an ethical life.

We see the same preference for behavior over beliefs in the Old Testament. For example, the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20) say absolutely nothing about religious doctrines. Instead, they call for ethical living including not stealing, not lying, and honoring our parents. The Old Testament prophets did not demand pure beliefs but pure living. As Micah said, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8 NIV). In short, Jesus and Scripture clearly teach that God cares far more about ethical behavior than religious beliefs.

“Little House” Doctrine

Last week my seven-year-old granddaughter sat in my lap on my La-Z-Boy recliner as we ate popcorn and watched an episode of Little House on the Prairie. (Grandparenting is the best gig ever!) Near the beginning of the episode, on a Sunday morning, the circuit rider pastor chastised his congregation because so few of the men in the community attended worship services. He told them the only way to be forgiven of sins and go to heaven was to attend church.

The primary storyline of the episode involved the main character (Charles Ingalls) bartering for a plow and seed to plant his first crop in Plum Creek. Having no cash left after purchasing his farm, he agreed to do several major jobs at a local business to pay for the crucial supplies. The catch was that if he didn’t finish the work in exactly three weeks, he not only had to return the plow; he must also forfeit his team of oxen. After working night and day, he was just about to complete his tasks in advance of the three-week deadline. However, at the last moment, he suffered a serious accident, including breaking four ribs, and was unable to complete the final duties before the deadline arrived. The business owner refused to show any mercy or grant an extension and proceeded to confiscate the oxen. Loss of the oxen meant the loss of his crop and ultimately the loss of his farm. Right before the deadline, the men of the community (the ones the preacher condemned for not attending church) rallied on his behalf and finished the job, saving his oxen and his farm.

After the show my granddaughter and I discussed the plot. I asked her, “What do you think is more important—going to church services or helping your neighbor?” In other words, I asked her, “What matters most in faith—belief or behavior?” She responded with the obvious answer, “Helping your neighbor.”

“All That Will Remain Is Love”

Of course, many of you are thinking, both are important. Christianity includes both belief and behavior. And you are right. But if you had to choose what is most important—the answer (at least according to Jesus and Scripture) seems obvious.

Years ago, I wrote a book called What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? (The short answer is Jesus.) I’ve thought about writing a sequel to that book called What’s the Least I Can Do and Still Be a Christian? However, it would need to be a short book because the answer to that question is only five words long: live a life of love. That’s it.

In the final sentence of his engaging book, Religious Refugees, Mark Gregory Karris said, “After religion is no more and all of the hay and stubble of humanity’s religious creations are burned up, all that will remain is love.”

Jesus would concur.


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