It has often been rightly observed that what we truly believe will outwork itself in our way of life. The following extracts from the excellent article by Brother Islip Collyer in his book The Guiding Light explores this principle. Brother Collyer, of course, wrote close to one hundred years ago but it is a fact that many of the things he foresaw have sadly eventuated in our time.

Doctrine really means teaching. The word can be used in a much wider sense than is generally recognized. The doctrines that a man holds are really the principles that guide his conduct. If his doctrines are well-balanced with a just perception as to which are the most important, his conduct will probably be well balanced too. If he holds some false doctrines, or if his strongest convictions and most persistent thoughts centre round something of little value, the ill effect will be seen in his conduct.

Beliefs may be of all shades of strength, from a slight inclination of opinion to a confidence indistinguishable from absolute certainty. If a Christian has real faith in his religion and if he attaches the proper importance to Christian doctrines, he not only has a strong hope in life but his conduct is guided at every point. As the Apostle expresses it, he “believes with the heart unto righteousness”.

Effects do not follow causes at uniform speed. If the foundations of a building are knocked away, the superstructure will fall in a few seconds. A subterranean tunnel might last for many days or even weeks with inadequate supports. Gradually the pressure from above would force the roof to give way, and eventually the aperture would close completely, but it might take a long time. In the complex human mind, the effects of changed thought may be still slower in manifesting themselves. Habit may persist and the old course of conduct be pursued long after the foundation has been destroyed. Still more time is needed for great changes in human society as a whole. There are so many cross currents and eddies of opinion to retard the general trend and thus still more to delay the final effects…

The truth, surely, is that very grave effects would follow the death of Christian faith, but they would follow slowly. There is surely no need to argue the matter; we can see the changes that have taken place already and the gradual effects of those changes. We can hardly believe that any competent observer would deny that this is true… There is less belief now in the foundation of the Christian religion, and there is a corresponding change in moral conduct. There is less regard for duty, a greater demand for pleasure, not such faithful service, a looser conception of the marriage tie, and in many ways less honesty…

If we desire to trace cause and effect in connection with the matter of Christian ethics, we need to take note of all the facts just mentioned, and at the same time take care that we do not vitiate our judgment by changing our own standpoint. We have a nation with Christian ideals, Christian hopes, and a Christian code of morals. A few people are fully persuaded as to the foundations of their religion, the conviction being so strong that it is a hearty belief unto righteousness. A few at the opposite extreme have rejected Christianity entirely, and would like to destroy the faith of others. In between the extremes there are men and women of all grades. The man whose faith is not strong enough to keep him from sin, but quite enough to make him miserable with self-reproach. The man who holds to religion with the idea of being on the right side in case there should be anything in it. The man who does not fear God but fears public opinion. The man who is mainly indifferent but who has a measure of fear and a measure of love for God and for the devil, for the Church and for the World. The man who swings from one extreme to the other, sometimes responding to the call of ideals and sometimes to the call of the flesh. Finally, there is the man who lives on the animal plane and seems unable to escape from it even for a little while…

We can illustrate this law of cause and effect in a lower plane where its operation may be followed more readily… Take two subjects in which the immediate interests of human beings are vitally affected: the sanctity of the marriage tie, and honesty in the ordinary transactions of life. From the Christian point of view these matters are both covered by the two major principles of obedience and love. They are also the subject of many practical exhortations designed to drive home the lessons of the main principles. From the point of view of temporal human interests, both subjects are of such importance that here, if anywhere, we might expect to be able to knock away the foundation of doctrine without any effect on human conduct. If men have good homes they desire to preserve them, even if they might in certain circumstances be willing to wreck the homes of others. Men always hate dishonesty in other men, even if they practise it themselves. Society may, therefore, be expected to set up defences in these matters, and here the influence of Christian teaching might be regarded as negligible.

In point of fact, however, anyone who has had opportunity to make a contrast is conscious that there is a great difference even here. In the matter of marriage, the majority have always fallen so far below the Christian ideal that there never has been any true Christian society with which to make effective comparison. Nevertheless, it is clear that the decline in faith during the last fifty years has already had its effect even in this. The general standard of honesty was always deplorably low judged by Christian ideals, but surely everyone will admit that in this pleasure loving Christ-rejecting age, it has fallen lower. On every hand we hear the same complaint and, unless we are exceptionally fortunate, we share in the loss and vexation.

If we can make a contrast between the real, whole-hearted Christian and the whole-hearted rejecter, the effect of doctrine on conduct is unmistakable. To get light on the Christian point of view regarding these two subjects, read the fifth and sixth chapters of the letter to the Ephesians… The principle laid down in chapter five has been little heeded even by believers. Many readers, both men and women, have formed the strange notion that the Apostle puts the woman in a position of subjection and demands much from her, while requiring little from the man. As a matter of plain fact, the command to husbands is far more searching and drastic than the command to wives. The husband is called upon to love his wife “even as Christ loved the ecclesia, and gave himself for it”. “Even so”, says the Apostle, “ought men to love their wives.

Christ gave his life for the ecclesia while it was full of imperfections. He loved the ecclesia so well that he was willing to die in agony for it while it was quite unworthy. If a man makes even an honest endeavour to live up to this ideal, it is very improbable that his wife will be unwilling to fulfil her part of the contract. No rules devised merely by the prudence of man can take the place of this Christian ideal. It is anti-Christian thought that makes unhappy homes, whatever name the faulty ones may bear. Where the Christian rule is remembered and recognized as the law of God, disciples may find their way into a temple of domestic joy, the very existence of which is unknown to others. It is possible even on this blighted earth to experience an Edenic happiness, marred by nothing except the dreadful law of death, and to a Christian even death is not so dreadful as the wreckage of homes so often seen when Christ is rejected.

Perhaps it is still easier to perceive the difference made by Christian doctrine in connection with the other subject we have mentioned—honesty. At first sight some readers might think that here at least we have a principle of right conduct so fundamental that Christian ethics would make very little difference. The interests of society and the philosophical sense of justice would alike seem to insist that this ideal must be maintained even though Christ should be rejected. Study the teaching of the Apostle Paul and note the specific instructions showing what is involved in the Christian idea of honesty. The disciple of Christ must be honest in the sight of God and man. He must give the just weight and just balance and good service, all rendered as unto the Lord and not unto man. As a servant he must serve well even though his master is unworthy. The Apostle Paul is not alone in this teaching. Christ emphasized the same fundamental principle, and the Apostle Peter also presents the thought in language equally emphatic.

If some should ask, rather bitterly, “What of the masters?” we find that the instruction is equally definite (Eph 6:9). Very severe condemnation is passed on masters who fail to realize their obligations (James 5:1–6). The essence of Christian doctrine in this matter is that we must “give, hoping for nothing again”, rendering the honest service as unto the Lord and not waiting for the other man first to show himself worthy…

We have yet to see what results may follow the abandonment of the Christian ideal in a world linked together as now, with such widespread knowledge and such potentialities for good or evil.

Whatever results follow, we may be sure that doctrine and practice will always be related to each other as cause and effect. Sometimes the effects come quickly; sometimes they are long delayed, but they inevitably come at last. The conduct of men may often be inferior to their doctrines, their actions fall below their ideals. We must not ever expect their works to be better than their faith.