Category Archives: Morality

Real Questions, Thoughtful Answers, Part 4: The Church as a Welcoming and Holy Community

A friend asked recently, “How does the church love everyone and maintain the holy standards of Jesus for believers in the church? We say, “Welcome!” and sincerely desire that everyone feel the warmth of Christ’s love through us. At the same time, when we call people to believe the gospel and follow Christ wholeheartedly, there are moral absolutes that many unbelievers think make us intolerant. What is a way forward?”

A great question, and even the most thoughtful answer will still upset some! We live in a world where meaning is malleable and morality is relative.  We live with competing world views and many looking at Christianity with hostility or indifference, seeing it in the rearview mirror of history.

It is essential that we define and integrate two key concepts so that we are loyal to the timeless faith once entrusted to the saints (I Corinthians 15:1-6; Jude 3) and timely in our presentation of truth with love, knowing that it is God’s will that the church reflect God’s glory, with women and men from all backgrounds, classes, cultures, and ethnicities (Galatians 3:28-4:7; Ephesians 2:11-21; 3:3-10; Revelation 7:9).

Hospitality to All

The first concept is the biblical call to hospitality: we welcome all seekers from any and every background to experience the love of Christ in community and discover, in the words of Augustine, “You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” Both Old and New Testaments call upon God’s people to love and serve the “outsiders” in their midst. Moses’ marriage, the stories of Naaman the Syrian healed by the Prophet Elijah and Ruth the Moabite convert, and the Book of Jonah were provocative reminders to God’s elect that they were chosen as a light to all nations (Isaiah 42-43, 49; 60-61). F.F. Bruce said it well a generation ago: God did not choose Israel to be an exclusive community, but that through them all nations would be blessed. The journeys of Jesus and the Apostles in Luke-Acts reinforce this embracing of all people. Luke 4, 7 and 19 find Jesus commending the faith of outsiders, welcoming the outcast, and challenging his fellow Jews to learn from them. The progress of mission in Acts moves from a Jewish prayer meeting to a universal faith. For almost 2000 years the church has failed deeply and at times succeeded miraculously in experiencing the new sociology where former enemies are friends and diverse classes and cultures find community in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thoughtful believers affirm the wonder of the beautiful community the Holy Spirit creates when all are welcome and we dedicate ourselves to removing all human barriers to inclusion and empowerment (Ephesians 2:11-21; 3:3-10). Even more, we aim that diversity is not symbolic but substantive, not window dressing to assuage majority guilt, but in the water of the community as faith and baptism unite believers.

Practically, this means we welcome spiritual seekers and are unafraid to answer tough questions. We see every person we encounter as both beautiful and broken: a divine image-bearer and in need of the saving grace of Christ (Genesis 1-2; Psalm 8; Romans 3:21-31). We aspire to see all gospel churches filled with all kinds of people experiencing reconciliation, redemption, and restoration through the gospel and being included in the community (II Corinthians 5:11-6:2).

The call to follow

The second concept is a companion to the first: following Jesus requires the believer to die to their sovereignty – letting go of self-will, sinful actions and attitudes – and live under God’s loving and holy rule as a new creation in Christ, a member of the Body of Christ, and one liberated from darkness and called in to the light of faith and truth (II Corinthians 5:17; Colossians 1:15-23; Ephesians 4:1-12; 22-24). Put simply, being a Christ-follower includes obedience to God’s Word and a love for the ways of God – principles and practices that are much different that the unbelieving world.

We confess that too often the church has imposed religious traditions that are not rooted in the grace and truth of the Scriptures. With humility, we must repent of sometimes either being more religious than Jesus or making excuses for our proclivities toward idolatry, immorality, and injustice (Isaiah 44; Amos 2, 4: I John 5).

With love and grace, the church does promote the clear moral absolutes of Scripture. The Bible is replete with even the heroes of faith failing miserably. This does not however, change the divine standard or allow for excuses. When we fail, we are called to repent and allow the community to restore us (Galatians 6). If someone confesses Christ as Lord, they are incorporated into the Body of Christ and called to accountability in the local church (I Corinthians). Old beliefs and habits, attitudes and actions now yield to King Jesus, who calls us to a much better way – the way of humility and joy (Mark 10:45). 

Women and men who come to our churches carry burdens and scars, histories of hurt, the strongholds of false ideologies and religions, as well as amazing potential as those for whom Christ died. We welcome all – and we call ALL to repentance and renewal, unselfish love and holiness born of gratitude for God’s grace (Deuteronomy 10:12-13; Ephesians 4:1-6). Here are some examples of what changes when Jesus is Lord:

  • Gospel grace means sexual ethics are now celibacy for singles and fidelity in biblical marriages…and the community will walk with people from all arenas of gender identity as they learn conformity to Christ (not fallen subcultural norms).
  • Business ethics change completely as all work is now for God’s glory and the good of others.
  • Relationships of all kinds change for the better as unselfish love and wisdom guide deeds and words instead of selfish advancement.
  • Political service is now for the common good, not personal power.
  • The creative arts are unleashed, exposing our deep wounds and offering hope and healing.

Compassion without compromise and patient pilgrimage are the order of the day, in a world where inversion and perversion are celebrated (Romans 1:18-32). The early church faced similar challenges and rose to the occasion well. The Acts 15 council united Jew and Gentile around a common faith and morality. Gentiles did not need to become Jews to be included in the community and Jews did not need to reject their heritage. All followers of Christ were expected to say no to any other gods, reject sexual immorality, and live at peace with each other (I Corinthians 8-10).

Historians say that the reason Christianity grew in influence in the Roman Empire was the love and morality of the believers. Julian the Apostate, a pagan Emperor in the 360s AD, lamented that he could not rally people around the old Roman gods and virtues the way Christians could mobilize their communities for good. A century earlier, Roman governors in a variety of provinces asked that they be allowed to delay persecution of Christians because the Christians were helping serve the victims of the plague. The incarnational apologetic of a changed life and virtues born of gratitude are powerful demonstrations to God’s grace.

In sum, we are called to joyful hospitality, opening our communities to people of every background. We are also called to articulate clearly the holy love expected of followers of Jesus and aspire to the obedience of faith. We will be met with opposition, declared intolerant, and often marginalized for our “backward views.” In the words of N.T. Wright, we must remind ourselves and the world around us that the ethics of Scripture are the “radical” ones and represent a departure from the norms of pagan (and 21st C. neo-pagan) culture.

May we discern well how to welcome all around us and embrace the cross in our discipleship.

Real Questions, Thoughtful Answers, Part 1:

Dear friends,
For the next several postings, I will be answering real questions from real people. In some cases, I am summarizing more than one question on the same topic. These questions have come to me from colleagues and friends, students in classes, audience members in talks, friends in my church and in my community. My aim is civil, insightful conversation that will stimulate thoughtfulness and wisdom that leads to fresh solutions that are inclusive and just, understanding that we live in a pluralistic world. People of conscience and goodwill will see issues – and even the universe itself! – very differently. In a world of instant reactions, I am pleading with my readers to think and live thoughtfully. This does not mean compromising conscience or faith-commitments. It does mean treating others according to the Golden Rule.

In the coming weeks, we will answer sincere questions, such as:

  • “Where does all the new money come from for government programs?
  • “Is there a compassionate and just solution for immigration and the mess at the southern border?
  • “Is there any hope for peace in the pro-choice/pro-life conflict?”
  • “I am confused. How do I navigate the gender complexities? What about my religious beliefs about sexual conduct?”
  • What is the best relationship of parents with their local schools? How much voice should families have in their children’s education?”
  • “I want to care for the earth, but are we really in danger of global catastrophe in the next decade without drastic changes?”
  • “Why is there no end to the conflict in the Middle East? Id Israel really an ‘apartheid state’?”
  • “What is true ‘social justice’? I keep hearing this phrase and some of my friends use it all the time. Other friends say it is a code word for Marxism. What do you think?”
  • And more…

As we begin this journey, let’s remember the four steps of the pathway to thoughtfulness: 1) We process our reactions. We are going to react. This is only human. Maturity is evident when we restrain our verbal and written responses and allow our emotions time to settle. 2) We take time for reflection (of course if there is tragedy, we extend our prayers and if there are celebrations of good things, we rejoice with others…the aim here is how we respond to issues affecting our culture) and go under the surface and gain perspective. 3) We do serious research beyond our favorite blogs and seek understanding of varying points of view. 4) We respond with the aim of principled consensus where possible. If our considered opinion is controversial or offensive to some, we share it as winsomely as possible.

Thoughtfulness includes gentleness and kindness (two of St. Paul’s fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23), but it is not reducible to “niceness” or moral relativism, as we shall discover in the coming months. People ready to be offended will be, regardless of our winsomeness. Our aim is making the world better, not appeasing the easily slighted. If we err in our information or express ourselves too judgmentally, we will be quick to repent and repair as we can.

In some circles, being direct and offensive is considered “prophetic.” No, this reflects personality types and often a lack of reflection. “Prophetic” in the New Testament is focused on communication that builds others, encouraging and empowering moral action. There are times for clear denunciation of evil and calling out actions that are immoral: hopefully this is done with tears and a desire for the persons and systems to change.

Thank you for joining me on this journey toward wisdom.

From Disappointment to Determination: Christian Mission Liberated from Political Ideology

As the Biden presidency and a Democratic-led Congress assumes power, it is right that we reflect on not only the new policies, but the deeper issues affecting Christian believers in the USA. The awfulness and immorality of the violent protests of January 6, 2021 forever stained what little legacy the Trump Administration may have had. There was some progress on important issues in the past four years, especially economic policies, pro-life initiatives, diplomatic successes in the Middle East, and some first steps in ending mass incarceration. At present, these forward steps are lost in the political and public reactions.

In the next six to twelve months, thoughtful Christians that voted for a Biden Presidency will be encouraged by the new tone and a few of the policy changes, especially climate change, immigration, and perhaps pandemic policies. But many of these voters will discover that voting against the previous administration or taking a “Never Trump” posture will backfire as more radical policies and continued polarization afflict our nation. The hostility of the new administration toward traditional morality, abortion, affordable energy, and people of religious faith will take its toll on many.

Here is the good news: these deep disappointments with political leaders, parties, and ideologies are a divine opportunity for Christians to engage the public square in wiser, more effective ways. For almost fifty years, there has been a split between conservative and progressive factions of Christianity, with both groups believing that the Gospel and Scripture support their perspectives. The divides have grown greater over time and the anger between the two groups is palpable: “You cannot be a Christian and vote for _____ [fill in Democrat or Republican; Biden or Trump, etc.]!” Conservatives focus on abortion, marriage, individual responsibility, and respect for America’s heritage of freedom. Progressives advocate systemic changes for gender and racial equity, compassion for the poor, and expose the serious injustices of our history. How can these groups do more than tolerate each other? Where is the common ground?  (I am speaking of serious followers of Christianity that believe in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, the inspiration of the Bible, and importance of the local church, not folks that deny cardinal doctrines or want to “remake” Christianity.)

There are four keys that can unlock a new unity among believers, with enormous impact for the common good of society:

  • First, all Christians must recognize that “ideology is the enemy of theology” (Donald Bloesch) and carefully examine whether they are cherry-picking their favorite Bible passages to fit their political beliefs.
  • Second, all Christians and church communities must stay engaged in the political arena with prophetic distance (encouraging and critiquing both friends and opponents) without capitulating to the lust for power. 
  • Third, churches and Christians from all traditions can unite for the common good, affirming the integration of spiritual and social vitality, compassion for the vulnerable, ethical free enterprise, support for families, and peacemaking, one zip code at a time.
  • Fourth, Christians want for all neighbors the liberties they desire for themselves. Living peaceably with those that have a different view of the universe is the genius of a free and virtuous society.  One can desire the conversion of a friend while working together for the community. Our faith was born in the midst of pluralistic empires, and it thrives when its institutions are not coercive, but persuasive.

We can begin a new chapter of unity without uniformity, of community with a conscience, and a Table where very different people are welcome. Our nation needs voices free of rancor and filled with wisdom.

Pastors and Politics, Part 2: Hidden Issues of Love and Justice

Our divided American political world offers peacemaking opportunities for local churches. As leaders and congregations committed to Biblical authority and the timeless moral and spiritual convictions of historic Christianity, we will never please everyone or always win over our opponents. This is why compassionate, intercession-infused courage and wisdom are vital for leading God’s people in to maturity and kingdom influence.

The obvious “hot-button” economic, moral and social issues must be confronted: divisions of class, gender and race, abortion and infanticide, marriage and sexual ethics, peace and war and many more. These require deep study, discernment and humility.

There are, however, hidden issues of love and justice that the local church is uniquely equipped to address. Convening partners and confronting particular barriers to flourishing will enhance peace among diverse groups and offer a shining witness of Christ in a world darkened by moral inversion and spiritual confusion.

One day in Nashville, TN, a group of pastors met to learn more about connecting Sunday faith and Monday work and infusing integration into their worship service, discipleship plans and outreach efforts. In the midst of a lively conversation of church and community flourishing, an African American pastor stood up and spoke, his voice trembling and full of pathos: “I am not an angry man. I have been a pastor in my church and neighborhood for over thirty years. Your church [here he pointed to a young church-planting leader] just set up your franchise two blocks away. No one called me. No one thought to talk to the people of the neighborhood. What you call gentrification and opportunity we call exile. Aren’t we supposed to work together? Where will my people go when they can’t afford to live in their neighborhood?”

There was a holy silence. The church planter humbly apologized and with tears, both leaders agreed to work together. The hidden issue? Gentrification. What some see as a positive transformation of blight is often displacement of generations of residents. What can the local church do?

Pastors and church have unique convening ability. Creating space for shared vision, dialogue and forging alliances among business, cultural, educational, social service, religious, and political leaders for the common good is a prophetic opportunity. Asking the question, “What does a flourishing neighborhood look like…and how can everyone be a part of the future?” and hosting people with the influence, skills and wisdom to forge a just answer is part of our calling as a church. One of the great critics of the early church in the 2nd and 3rd century was a man named Celsus. He was particularly indignant that the communion table welcomed all classes, cultures, races and both genders. Pastors can bring wise believers and people of conscience in all domains so that a community can improve without scattering generations of residents.

The second hidden issue is deeply connected to the first: How can we help foster true equity and create opportunities for sustainable work so that all classes and cultures flourish in a rapidly-changing world? Put another way, how do we empower folks that are left behind in the name of “progress” or the “gig economy”?

The local church, in cooperation with other churches and agencies, can shine brightly as she empowers congregants and the community with the spiritual, emotional, relational, vocational and occupational support and wisdom people need. Immediate emergency aid is good, but long-term, relational investment in people will yield much better results. The 21st century global economy demand workers with clarity and stability in their vocations and great flexibility and nimbleness in their daily occupations. Pastors can help create disciples able to understand and respond to the local and global changes. Local churches can convene forums for community growth that is inclusive and just.

One growing local church recently sold some property. Instead of either building a bigger church building or sitting on the funds, the congregation fostered ten new initiatives that help the community flourish, including new business incubation, life skills training and compassionate outreach programs offering hope for many.

Jeff Greer, senior pastor of Grace Chapel in Mason, OH (in the Cincinnati metro area) has articulated a vision he calls, “Biznistry.”  The local church can be an incubator of economic, social, and spiritual transformation as she empowers and equips men and women in creating sustainable enterprises that in turn contribute resources for future entrepreneurs.

The third hidden arena of love and justice concerns the unseen populations often overlooked in our conversations on flourishing. These include ex-prisoners and their families, and people with disabilities. Our neighborhoods and our nation are missing out on these divine image bearers that have much to offer as opportunities for meaningful work and service are made available.

People coming out of incarceration need the social capital of the local church so that they can grow in self-worth, learn needed skills and find open doors for sustainable work. Women and men with disabilities can be productive workers, not just objects of charity. These hidden groups can be participants in the more that 600 churches with some form of “job club.” Helping people find sustainable work in a rapidly changing economy is integral to the local church’s mission.

Whether it is the Career Actions Ministry of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (now helping older people find and keep work in a “gig economy” that favors the young), Jeff Greer’s Biznistry for entrepreneurs or the efforts of restauranteur Tom Landis in Texas who employs men and women with autism and Down Syndrome, local churches can foster a creative and innovative vision offering hope and wisdom.

Navigating political issues will never be easy. Pastors need love, courage and wisdom as they equip God’s people for engagement – not just in voting – but in being part of the solution. Pastors can also help church and community look past the obvious issues and create fresh pathways forward so all can thrive, without capitulating to ideological extremes and the paralysis of partisan politics.

Hour of Decision for the USA: Will the Experiment Continue? Part Three: The Moral Economy

In this special series, we are focusing on foundational principles essential for sustaining the American Experiment in virtue-based liberty. Part One articulated the essential moral principles necessary for flourishing. Part Two offered a clarion call for human dignity, cherishing life from conception to coronation and championing care for all persons, especially the vulnerable.

In 1992, Bill Clinton ran for President with the famous tag line, “It’s the economy, stupid.” He recognized that most people spend most of their waking hours working. America’s future depends upon a robust economy with opportunities for all.

Economics is a moral science. Until the 20th century it was a subset of moral philosophy in most schools. Then the “scientific” and “technological” folks took over and separated markets from morality, trade from truth. Today we are left with polarized positions, with some advocating unrestrained free trade and others desiring even more federal control, taxes and programs.

For any economy to run well – local or global – there must be certain moral and practical principles in place. Our world is a beautiful one with opportunities for all to flourish and resources for value and wealth creation. We do not have too many people on the planet. Our economic woes are not for lack of resources. We struggle because of unjust people and systems; in other words, breakdowns in the moral economy.

Economies are moral and social systems of exchange. Here are some of the ingredients necessary for a flourishing economy:

  • Personal responsibility and virtue that leads to mutual trust
  • An entrepreneurial ethos
  • Fidelity to verbal and written covenants and contracts
  • Personal property opportunities and rights protected by law
  • Access to markets
  • The rule of law and a legal system marked by integrity
  • Focus on value creation, not just profit

When all or most of these principles are in place, there is greater prosperity. The perversions of these are found in Marxist-influenced systems of central control or the related crony capitalism where the powerful and wealthy control markets and stifle creativity and competition.

The USA is at a socioeconomic tipping point, with a lower percentage of adults working to sustain a higher percentage not working. A flourishing future demands that this ration change as quickly as possible. Tax and welfare policies, regulatory agencies and local and state governments must partner with business and community leaders to re-empower entrepreneurship, offer incentives for welfare recipients to work and develop public/private partnerships to repair and rebuild the infrastructure needed for that 21st century global/local economy.

It is time for solutions, not soundbites, for accountability and wise management of public resources. Balanced federal, state and local budgets will help. Fair tax policies, ending favors to elites and pathways from welfare to work will forge a preferred future.

The economy is a moral system. Let’s put “moral” back into “economics” and watch our nation and world enjoy unprecedented prosperity.