“Not What Do You Believe, But What Do You DO?”

It was an unlikely place for a theological discussion! I was undergoing a medical test that required a lot of waiting and interaction with a technician.

Noting a book I was reading by Walter Brueggemann and having seen on my chart that I had taught at Duke, he asked, “Are you a liberal or conservative?”

“I don’t  really like labels. I’m liberal on some things and conservative on others,” I responded.

“Well, what do you believe?” he retorted.

“Believe about what?” I asked.

“About God, Jesus,  and the Bible,” he said.

“Wow, that’s a lot to cover. I have lots of beliefs about those topics, but I’m not sure that what I believe about them is the most important thing.”

“Oh? Then, what is most important about being religious?” he inquired with interest.

I replied, “I think a more important question is, What do you do? What do you practice? How do you behave, treat people?”

There followed several minutes of conversation about treating people with respect, dignity, compassion, justice, and hospitality.

“But beliefs are important, aren’t they?” he pushed.

I responded, “Definitely! They should motivate, form, and guide what we do. The validity of our beliefs is what kind of persons they produce. The test is what’s in our hearts more than what’s in our heads.”

Continuing, I added, “You asked me what I believe about God, Jesus, and the Bible. Here it is in a nutshell. I believe God is love and that love became flesh in Jesus who shows us what it means to love and empowers us to love one another as God loves us. The Bible is the story of the unfolding of that love.”

With calmness, he reflected, “So, you’re more concerned about what I do than what I believe? Right?”

I remarked: “I’m interested in both, but our actions reveal our true beliefs. Your kindness, respect, and compassion indicate to me that you know God as love, kindness, and justice. You may not even call that “God” but to practice love, generosity, hospitality, and justice is to “believe” in God as I understand the term.”

As the tests and wait continued, the conversation turned to our shared concern for loved ones living with dementia. He was no longer curious about whether I was “liberal” or “conservative,” and I still don’t know what his religious formulations are.

I do know that in that brief exchange two people treated one another with mutual respect, compassion, and dignity. In so doing, we pointed to what the Lord requires: “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NRSV)


9 thoughts on ““Not What Do You Believe, But What Do You DO?”

  1. Bishop, you constantly exemplify for me how we can respond in difficult situations. I’d love to be able to “think on my feet” as you did in this instance.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And John Wesley offered his take: Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, by all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can. Thank you for your witness, Ken.

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  3. This is what I too believe, but I fear that in discounting belief or dogma in favor of emotion and action, we dilute what it means to be fully in the mind and mode of Jesus who was Jew and Messiah in One, Are there to be no standards of thought and belief, no right or wrong beliefs, just affirmation of those who find it within themselves to do good by others, no matter the selfish or selfless motivation?


    • Thank you for your thoughtful response and probing questions. Doctrines and intellectual propositions are very important and clarifying and teaching the church’s doctrines has occupied my adult life. Doctrine serves various roles, one of which is formational. There is often a disconnect between intellectually and verbally affirmed doctrine and the character and behavior of those affirming the doctrine. Doctrine relegated to intellectual propositions apart from the embodiment of those doctrines is a form of Gnosticism. Furthermore, in my ministry among people with cognitive impairments, I see the Risen Christ present and within those who have forgotten or never intellectually knew any of the doctrinal formulations. Does this make sense?


  4. It makes a lot of sense, and thanks for sharing. You have for a long time been my favorite United Methodist thinker. I struggle with the place of doctrine in a time when doctrine, objective standards, and rules seem out of favor, replaced by emotivism and individual preference. I struggle too, as I should as a disciple, with just what the Risen One inaugurated as a new era ruled by love. In fact, my present mental project is pondering the question, “What does it mean to love another?” I am using Roberta Bondi’s fine book, To Love as God Loves, as my curriculum. I tend to find the question and possible answers intimidatingly complex, when in all probability what Jesus is and means is pretty direct and simple.

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