Not long ago I got an email from a Christian man who asked me, “What can I do to become knowledgable in Christian ethics?” Obviously, I think that’s a good question. Ethics is not, after all, something that only academic types or pastors have to think about. Every Christian has a mandate to be able to articulate the truth of the gospel and to apply it in every season of life.
Here are the three most important things you can do to develop a solid Christian ethic:
1) Know the Bible.
Knowing the Bible goes beyond being able to recite individual verses. There are a lot of Christians who know specific proof texts, but they don’t know how to understand the whole fabric of the Scriptures. They’re unable to inhabit the world of the Bible and see how it applies to ethical and moral issues in their life, especially those that feel new and difficult.
We live in a time when, because of everything from technology to cultural change, there are all sorts of ethical issues that we haven’t had to think about before. But we know, as the Scriptures tell us, that there is nothing new under the sun, just new applications of old principles.
For instance, one question that I get a lot from parents is: What do I do about a smartphone for my pre-teen or young teenage son or daughter? That’s the sort of question that, if you had described twenty years ago what a smartphone is and what it does, would have sounded like science fiction. And we can speculate about the sorts of questions that people are going to have to address in the church in the next twenty years, questions like “What about artificial intelligence,” or, “How do we think about that child in Vacation Bible School who was cloned?” Those are questions that may seem outlandish to us right now, but they are really dealing with very old, ancient issues being brought to the forefront in a new way.
2) Know People
Developing a Christian ethic means understanding human nature. And that means listening and developing empathy for people, especially people who are in a different situation than you.
One of the things that I miss the most since I transitioned out of full time pastoral ministry is counseling. When I was serving as a pastor, people would come to me every day in crisis situations. Counseling them through these circumstances helped me to understand and to develop empathy for people in situations that I just don’t have to face—people who have different points of vulnerability or different points of suffering than the ones I have.
I may not have experienced what a widower who is lonely after the death of his wife is experiencing, but in talking to him and ministering to him, I can enter into his life and develop empathy for others whose loved ones have gone. When I am helping someone addicted to gambling or prescription drugs, even though those aren’t my specific areas of temptation, I can no longer caricature those struggles because I’m looking for how this person can find healing.
Getting this close to people can also help us see what’s at stake in our own lives. I remember talking one time with a married couple where the husband was having an extramarital affair. He was sitting across from me as he listed all these reasons why what he was doing wasn’t wrong after all. But right next to him, they had a little six week-old baby in a car seat on the floor. All I kept thinking was, “Do you not see what your sin is doing? Do you not see what it’s costing you?” Later I found myself thinking about those areas in my own life that I don’t see—those blind spots that those around me can point out but that I can’t see.
3) Know Great Stories
Reading good literature, especially fiction, is more important than keeping up with current events. That’s not to say that it’s unimportant to keep up with current events, but reading good fiction can help you to get inside the minds of people different from you in a way that is more significant than simply knowing what this or that group of talking heads are saying.
Fiction can sometimes, like Nathan the prophet’s story of the ewe lamb, awaken parts of us that we have calloused over, due to ignorance or laziness or inattention or sin. One night, in the car on my way home, I was talking by telephone to my eighty-six year-old grandmother. She was telling me a story about the last time she saw my grandfather alive. She told me about feeling the coldness of his feet as she changed his socks in his hospital bed, about how his eyes were focused on her, though he couldn’t speak. She talked about how, when the nurses told her she had to leave, she kissed him, told him she loved him, and that she could feel him watching her as she left the room, for the last time.
I knew she had lost my grandfather. I know that people die. I know “Husbands love your wives” (Ephesians 5). But that story awakened something in me. It prompted me to hold my wife with a special tenderness when I walked in the door. I had imagined what it would be like to say goodbye to her in that way, and, suddenly, all the daily pressures of kids and bills and house repairs and travel just seemed to fit in a bigger context. Fiction often does the same thing. When I read Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illych, I gain an imaginative sympathy with something I might avoid in the busyness of life: what it’s actually like to die. When I read Wendell Berry’s stories of Henry County, Kentucky, I can gain insight on what it would be like to face losing a family farm in the Great Depression. This fiction gives a richer, bigger vision of human life.
If you want to become more well-versed in Christian ethics, start with these three things.
Publication date: May 16, 2016
Last night the New York Times reported that the Obama Administration would issue a decree directing every public school in the nation to allow bathroom access on the basis of self-identity, not biological sex. I’m quite aware of the White House's place in our culture wars, and even I am surprised. If anyone had suggested in 2009 that the new President’s administration would seek to target children’s bathrooms for the sake of transgender ideology, the White house would have ridiculed it as a crazy conspiracy theory. So, for those suggesting that state legislatures seeking to define such questions were working on “solutions without a problem,” well, here’s your problem. So why is this important, and what should the church do?
First of all, we should recognize what’s really happening here, and it's much bigger than the symbol of the bathrooms. The Department of Education’s actions here mean that "gender" itself in terms of admission for all colleges accepting federal funds is ultimately a matter of identification, not biological sex. The state here wishes to use its coercive power not simply to stop mistreatment of people but to rescript the most basic human intuitions about humanity as male and female. How, after all, does one win a culture war against one of the most basic facts of science and life: that there are two sexes? One does so by withholding the funds and recognition necessary to operate in public space, unless institutions get in line. Children, then, become pawns of the state for the state to teach what is ultimately a theological lesson, not a scientific one.
This, ultimately, won’t work. There are good reasons to put boys and girls in different bathrooms and locker rooms and sometimes sports teams, reasons that don’t impugn the dignity of people but uphold it. Sex-differentiated bathrooms and sports teams and dormitories for men and women aren’t the equivalent of, say, a terrorist Jim Crow state unnaturally forcing people apart based on a fiction, useful to the powerful, that skin color is about superiority and inferiority. Every human being knows that there are important, and necessary, differences between men and women. Without such recognition, women are harmed and men are coarsened.
Moreover, the move here toward severing self-identity from biological reality will hardly stop at “gender.” If anything, there’s much more of a case to be made that one can feel to be a different age than one’s doctor’s exam or birth certificate would show. That’s relatively indifferent if all that this means is “You’re only as old as you feel” or “I’m a Millennial trapped in a Gen-X body.” It’s something else entirely if chronological self-identity is mandated for military service or the drinking age or the age of consent. People and neighborhoods and nations and cultures cannot live this way.
In the meantime, what should the church do?
First, we must bear witness to the goodness of what it means to live as creatures, not as self-defining gods and goddesses. God created us as human, and within humanity as male and female (Gen. 1:27). We are all sinners, so we chafe against having ourselves defined by a Creator, and not by ourselves or our ideologies. Our nakedness shames us, because our physical difference reminds us that we are not self-contained. Man needs woman, and woman needs man. I really do not contain multitudes. My maleness and your femaleness aren't about us at all. They fit us within a much larger stream—of a species by nature and of a communion by grace.
The church must teach God’s good creation design of male and female, yes. But, beyond that, the church should teach a Christian anthropology that shows us that living within creation limits is never easy for anyone. We are all seeking to transcend our limits in various ways. The way of discipleship is to settle on the fact that we serve a God who knows more about humanity, and more about us personally, than we know about ourselves.
At the same time, the church should not see everything through the grid of gender. The Sexual Revolution, chaotically, wants to tell us that gender means nothing and that gender means everything. Neither is true. We should recognize that unbiblical caricatures of masculinity and femininity were always harmful, but now are potentially deadly. The little girl in your church who doesn’t like princess movies or dolls, and who would rather spend a Saturday in the deer stand, increasingly now is told by the culture around her that maybe she’s not a woman at all. Only a church that defines its vision of masculinity and femininity from the Word of God, not from cultural tropes, can speak to her. If you don’t have a category for a rough-and-tumble woman, like Jael, or a harp-playing man, like David, your church is handing over your children to the gender ideologies of the moment.
The truth is that the male/female sex difference is objectively real. Biological science is built off of this reality. More importantly, the mystery of Christ tells us that the male/female binary points us beyond nature to the gospel itself (Eph. 5). We must tell the truth about this. John the Baptist lost his head for saying that Herod could not have his brother’s wife. Some now will be targeted as culturally unacceptable because they tell Herod he can’t be his brother’s wife. That will take courage and compassion and, above all, it will take Christ.
Publication date: May 13, 2016