Tag Archives: morality

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.

Pre-Election Insights and Prayers

Regardless of the outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election, our national experiment in virtue-based liberty is in a fragile and fraying state, with unprecedented private and public anger. Thoughtful women and men are distressed that the major parties offer two such deeply flawed candidates. Journalistic bias and agitation propaganda have replaced careful research and measured writing. Lost in all of the presidential chaos are the important local and state elections that immediately affect citizens where they live.

I offer these prayers and reflections as a cri de coeur – a cry of the heart – for divine mercy and decisive repentance and renewal in all of us. Underneath the public scandals focused on money, sex and power are deep moral and spiritual ambivalence, with various elites perverting ethical values for their own ideological agendas.

There are three insights and three prayers I invite all to consider and confess as we prepare the election and the aftermath.

Insight One: We are dehumanizing and disintegrating human identity and wholeness. When we ignore biological gender, separate sexual intimacy from marriage and fostering the next generation and reduce identity to current erotic impulses, we are not progressing past religious restrictions. We are actually regressing into primordial impulses that ruin health, oppress non-conforming people and hinder productive life. When we separate “personal morality” from “public policy”, arguing that one can be messed up in private and still lead effectively, we are destroying the foundations of the common good and true liberty. Everyone should bring their whole self to their work, and allow their values to inform their actions and policies. I am not advocating religious tests or totalitarian uniformity of adult relationships. I am asserting that healthy people make better leaders.

Our prayer: “O God, Creator of heaven and earth and fashioner of humankind, forgive our pride and rebellion. Forgive our attempts to improve on your design and destiny. Help us rediscover the dignity, equality and uniqueness of each person and desire for all others the responsibilities and rights we affirm for ourselves. By your grace, empower us for work that expresses neighborly love, creates value and helps generations yet unborn to flourish. Help us to realize that your moral precepts are for our good and any restrictions of our behaviors are for our protection and ultimate fulfillment. Amen.”

Insight Two: We are so ideologically polarized that we are often missing creative solutions for seemingly intractable problems. Economic growth and opportunity include private investments and wise public policies. Rapprochement with Islam and the West must engage both the historic mistakes of colonialism and the rapacious history of Islamic empires and jihadist movements. Peace in the Middle East will never come until Muslim leaders can say the words, “Israel in the national state of the Jewish people.” We can balance the budget and pay off our national debt in a generation, if we will stop seeing wise stewardship as “starving children” and insist on best practices for all that manage the public trust. Urban transformation requires mobilizing servant-leaders from all fields and includes personal transformation and systemic change. Will we roll up our sleeves and serve, or merely keep accusing others?

Our prayer: “O Lord, forgive our arrogance, thinking we could solve every problem with human engineering. You invite us to cry out for wisdom and you promise to bestow it generously, if we come with humility. The signs of divine wisdom include peace, justice, courage and love, fostering harmony and generating hope. Lord, we need the ‘wisdom to do justice’ that Solomon requested as we navigate so many difficult issues, most of which we have generated though our varied intentions and actions. Help us seek you, listen deeply to one another and discover new ways to help people and communities flourish. Amen.”

Insight Three: We need a fresh vision of what personal, local, and national flourishing look like, especially in a global world where we are blessed and informed by so many cultures. This is not wholesale abandonment of the first principles of America’s Declaration and Constitution. In fact, a reaffirmation of the deepest values that informed our founders will help us define citizenship, national identity and liberty in a rapidly changing world. We must reaffirm the virtues of personal responsibility, healthy families, hard work, civil and religious affiliation and local civic engagement. We will not always agree on every definition and policy, but shared vision helps us forge a preferred future.

Our prayer: “Gracious and loving God, you remind us that without vision we will lose restraint and without a sense of purpose, we often compromise our principles. Forgive us, merciful Lord, for all the competing fantasies, the dystopian and utopian visions that do not align with your kind and loving desires for us. Forgive our focus on momentary pleasures at the expense of the coming generations. Transform our shortsighted lusts into loving service. Help us strive for excellence without perfectionism, and principled living with true toleration for other perspectives. How we need your help as we find new common ground for the common good. Amen.”

Our presidents, governors and majors are not messiahs. The finest laws fail without personal and community virtue. The best of our human nature is often corrupted by the worst of our fallen state. All of these insights and prayers are mere words without a thorough spiritual awakening rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ. When confessing Christians repent of compromise and begin compassionate service for their neighbors, such integrity overflows and blesses those that do not have the same religious commitment. When the common good is understood, alliances are formed and people of conscience find ways to work together. Even while we (with civility) argue about our differences (and they do make a difference!), we can act sacrificially for our neighborhood and nation.

May God grant us courage, love and wisdom in these days. Today’s discipline is tomorrow’s destiny, for by divine design, our decisions matter.

Hour of Decision for the USA: Will the Experiment Continue? Part Two: The Dignity of Every Person

Pro-Choice. Pro-Life. “A woman’s right to choose.” “Protecting unborn human beings.”

The debate over abortion speaks of a foundational issue concerning the future of the USA: the dignity of each human life. Underneath this issue is another one: is human life a gift from God or Nature or simply a given that the stronger can dispose of at will?

For over four decades, the debates about abortion have raged, with pro-choice advocates defending the woman’s right to choose and their pro-life adversaries advocating the protection of innocent unborn children. Pro-choice adherents focus on the economic, psychological and social harm to the mother. Pro-life camps argue for the protection of unborn children as fully human from conception.

I am pro-life, with some (still tragic) allowances for victims of rape and incest (though with support these survivors may choose adoption or rearing). There is not any way to define the unborn as anything but a human being in formation. And when sexual intimacy in voluntary, the “choice” has already been made.

Throughout history, the Judeo-Christian ethos has protected the broken and vulnerable, in the midst of societies indifferent to suffering. From the Greco-Roman practice of exposing (disposing) of unwanted infants to ending widow burning in India, courageous women and men have defended human dignity. Care for the physically and mentally challenged is another sign of civilized society. Every person matters, whether they are “normal” or not.

For the USA, the hour of decision is here: will we welcome every human being as a gift from conception to coronation? Will we place ethical limits on genetic research and champion two-parent, monogamous households nurturing the next generation as the ideal? In a nation with 10 major family systems and numerous others vying for acceptance, the answer to this question will determine our future.

If we welcome the unborn, protect the vulnerable, respect the aged and revere the mystery of life’s beginning and end, we establish the foundation for all social norms and thoughtful legislation. If we redefine the unborn as disposable and the terminally ill as burdensome, human dignity is displaced by scientism and autocratic notions of productivity overtake compassion – and we are the poorer for this.

Let’s welcome every life as a gift and recapture our God-given rights.

Hour of Decision for the USA: Will the Experiment Continue? Part One: The “One Thing”

We have unsustainable National Debt accumulating by the nanosecond.

There is gender confusion with ten family systems operating in our nation.

Anarchy reigns concerning citizenship and voting.

Porous borders.

Academic, media and political elites despise “flyover country” with its folks “clinging to their guns and religion.”

Reliable allies are disdained and “outreach” to terrorists yields displacement for millions and martyrdom for thousands.

Islamist neighborhoods grow in the midst of urban blight and suburban apathy in the USA.

Conservative Jews and devout Christians are open season for scurrilous attacks while even feminists rarely confront radical Islam.

What is America’s future? Will her two-and-a-half centuries of self-correcting representative government continue? Will the freedoms of conscience/religion, assembly, redress and speech continue or will current prosecution of dissent devolve into chilling restraints of investigative journalism and open access to information? Will citizenship cease having meaning?

This is the first of several posts articulating the values, vision and particular personal and public actions needed for the American Experiment to continue and thrive.

The USA is at a historical tipping point. Then next decade will determine whether or not this unprecedented experiment in human liberty – founded on first principles affirmed by most people of conscience – self-corrects to descends into anarchy and totalitarianism. Amidst all the (necessary) debates on debt, foreign policy and immigration, there is one crucial factor that if ignored, will be the undoing of a great (if quite imperfect) nation.

One Thing

All of America’s institutions, liberties and prosperity are grounded in a virtuous citizenry. A Republic with democratic principles requires enormous amounts of personal responsibility and implied consent on what constitutes the common good. Until the past half-century, most Americans – people of all faiths or none – held tacit agreement on the precepts needed for ordered liberty. These God-given or Natural Rights are the foundations for ethical expectations, reasonable legislation and enforcement of the rule of law. The “one thing” was not a particular religious affiliation or ethnic heritage. It was implied agreement on the timeless ideals that inspire the discipline, hopefulness and sacrifice ensuring opportunity for the next generation.

A First Step

The road to renewal begins asking the most important question: What are the principles for sustained flourishing? From this one questions comes one more: On what basis do we affirm these principles? Are they merely subject to elite agitation-propaganda or momentary majorities?

The answer lies in distinguishing timeless truths from timely opinions. Our Founders and Framers believed that God Almighty was the Source of human rights and responsibilities. Human failure was not a reason to reject standards that engender humility and service. It is time again for open public discussion of the cornerstones of a free and virtuous society. In between theocratic control and secular totalitarianism lies the golden mean of freedom rooted in a moral consensus.

It is time for a civil, lively and open discussion for the sake of future generations.

Becoming Human: Agape, Eros and Gender Confusion

I have a special request of my readers: please read the entire essay before assuming certain conclusions. This is one of my most vulnerable pieces. I offer these thoughts as a fellow-learner, the judge of no one’s heart and the (moment-by-moment) recipient of God’s mercy in Christ.

“Gender is a social construction.” (A 1970s and 1980s mantra on most public universities)

“[Heterosexual] Intercourse is socially-sanctioned rape” (Andrea Dworkin)

“A woman is only complete when serving her husband.” (Amish saying)

“Gender is fluid and our laws should reflect changing preferences.” (A California legislator commenting on a law that allows students to choose any bathroom based on their current perception of gender.)

“I have a right to sex without consequences.” (A Silicon Valley entrepreneur to author in 2008)

“How dare you deprive any person of a loving relationship! Your are a symbol of hate.” (A stranger speaking to the author in a forum supporting traditional marriage in California Proposition 8)

“Christianity has not been tried an found wanting. It has been found difficult and rarely tried.” (G.K. Chesterton)

A Culture of Confusion

From employment applications to income taxes, from plane tickets to passports, DNA tests and the “gender assigned at birth,” there are two categories that traditionally categorize humankind: Female and Male. Yet the Western (and increasingly, the globally connected) world(s) are locked in fierce battles over gender identity. Without exaggeration, we are moving toward “50 shades of gender.”

Anyone affirming the “simplistic” position of one humanity-two genders is now publicly denigrated. LGBTQ activists, drawing upon previous generations’ marginalization (and terrible persecution) of their preferences, have capitalized on their oppressed status and created a climate that marginalizes the deepest convictions of many religions and societies. Biblically thoughtful Christians find themselves in crossfire between compassion and conviction, pluralistic public policy and principled ideals in the faith community. (And why does Islam get a “pass” from Western progressives for their misogyny and oppression of gays?)

Biblical anthropology affirms the egalitarian unity and uniqueness of women and men (Gen. 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Gal. 3:28ff). The Bible’s narrative descriptions of the functions, roles and status of women and men are not theological prescriptions. Too often in church history, the stories of fallen human cultures have perverted the Creator’s intent (Mt. 19). Conversely, the Scriptures are replete with inspiring poetry, prophecy and story extolling the virtues of women and men that fear the Lord and serve their neighbor.

Gender confusion is part of the fall. As such, it calls for compassion and courage, holiness and humility as we sort out godly responses. It is vital for thoughtful followers of Jesus not to be swayed by either narrow Biblicism (in which our interpretation of texts fails to unlock the richness of those texts) or facile scientism that declares, “the debate is over” while referencing very biased studies.1

We must discern the difference between Scriptural precept, pastoral care and public policy. Christians are deeply divided concerning the church’s strategies for public influence. They often alternate between fundamentalist and progressive disengagement and conservative and liberal activism. Gender identity and the correlating issues of family structure, the nurture of children and the roles of church and state are critical to the future our communities and the planet. A mediating prophetic position allows for moral and spiritual suasion on legislation while accepting “internal exile” when the culture refuses to listen to truth.

How do we properly interpret the Bible and listen to the Spirit concerning kingdom understanding of gender?

Sorting it out

We are human beings made in God’s image with a job to do. We fulfill our calling as men and women. The most important thing about a person is their dignity and worth as a human being. This is prior to their current perceptions of orientation! One of the tragedies of the past 40 years is reducing human persons to their erotic proclivities and missing all the other facets of their being that make them gifts to God’s world.

The Scriptures are not ambiguous about gender identity and sexual behavior, even if they do not address in detail why people feel the way they do. From Creation to Consummation, sexual intimacy is ideally experienced in an exclusive, heterosexual, life-long monogamous relationship that is symbolic of God’s deep love for his people (Hosea; Eph. 5:18-33; Rev. 19). Simply stated, single men and women are called to celibacy and married couples to fidelity. Singleness is not a defect or deficiency, but a state of being that itself anticipates the fullness of the kingdom, where traditional marriage gives way to the Bride and Bridegroom in unity and sisters and brothers forever worshiping and working with joy.

Apart from very rare biological/genetic factors in some people, there are no natural markers that determine lesbian, gay or bisexual orientations. This is not to dismiss the 2-4% of the adult USA population that testifies to lifelong same-sex attraction. (The best research features adults over 25 due to adolescent development and experimentation). The moral and social ambiguities of those that reject biblical norms are not based on either timeless truth or empirical data, but personal passions and psychosocial needs. These must not be dismissed or distorted.

The Heart of the Matter: Agape and Eros

Gender confusion, apart from the amoral and immoral satisfaction of momentary lusts (heterosexual and homosexual immorality), arises from ignorance of the distinction between two human “loves” – Agape and Eros.

Joined with Phileo (sibling affection and loyalty), Agape and Eros are divinely given dimensions of human affection and action. Agape is self-donating loyal-love, rooted in the Hebrew concept of hesed – Yahweh’s covenant loyalty to his people and call for reciprocation in response to grace (Hosea). Eros is the love of mutual attraction and need and it drives sexual urges toward fulfillment, though it is more than a sexual drive. Within marriage, Eros brings mutual delight to covenant partners (Prov. 6-7; Song of Songs 4).

Agape is the word that best describes the entire Christ-event – God’s ultimate self-donation and revelation. “God so loved, that he gave…” “We love him, because he first loved us…” “For the joy set before him he endured the cross…” Agape is affection and action for the best of others. It is the fullest expression of the Triune Life of God, who forever exists as a divine dance of joyous self-donation.

Agape shapes all facets of Christian discipleship. From the Great Commandment of Mt. 22:38-40 to the New Commandment of John 13:1-6, 34-35, Agape love calls forth service that is rooted in the security of God’s affection and action. Luther once said that because of God’s justifying grace, believers now love their neighbors from the heart, because they are secure in Christ’s love.

Both of these loves, like all divine virtues, are perverted by sin. Even Agape can devolve into co-dependent and self-destructive pathways. Eros inverts from marital joy to one-night stands, from attraction to narcissism.

Concomitant with these disturbing trends is the “serial monogamy” that affects much of modern culture. Partners are kept one at a time, but left when they “grow apart.” When gay activists advocate for marriage laws, they hold out a monogamous ideal that does not reflect their own practices and, alas, the practices of much of the West’s post-Christian heterosexual culture. Notions of self-fulfillment focusing on present needs rather than the good of future generations often subvert even professing Christians.

What we must NOT do

As Christians wisely navigate these turbulent waters, there are particular attitudes and actions that must not characterize a kingdom approach. While we reserve the right to disagree with the choices people make, the following are serious missteps we should avoid in and out of our church communities:

  • We are not attempting to reify any “good old days” or prosecute adults for private behaviors we disagree with.
  • We are not reducing people to their erotic passions.
  • We refuse to caricature or stereotype maleness or femaleness.
  • We are not against adults having legal protections forming partnerships.
  • We are not denying how people feel.

Some ways forward

A kingdom response to this confusion and conflict calls us to consider three arenas of concern. The first is clarity about Scriptural teaching and our willingness to obey even when it is hard. There is no ambiguity about the biblical ideal of celibacy for singles and heterosexual, monogamous marital fidelity. The Bible is replete with stories of the fallen behaviors of even its greatest heroes, but this does not change the standard. We must also affirm masculinity and femininity biblically, not with cultural icons. As a church, we woefully fail to present the full spectrum of expression blessed by the Creator. Without homogenizing everyone or forgetting that it takes two to make a baby, we can liberate people toward their full humanity.

Second, we must exercise great compassion and wisdom in our pastoral care and discipleship of women and men seeking to please Jesus and wrestle with their deepest passions. Our aim is always loving, holy and joyful conformity to the image of Christ, with deep appreciation for the ways of God. 2 We have non-traditional households and children of LGBTQ parents, divorced and remarried heterosexuals and all manner of personal past sins and traumas present in our communities. Our calling forth celibacy and fidelity within biblical norms must remain while we nurture love for Christ, healing for hurts and a theological anthropology offering a new identity in Christ.

Third, in our prophetic public role, we must lead a discussion for the common good with three questions in mind:

  • What principles and practices must be prohibited for safety and well-being?
  • What principles and practices are permitted, even if people differ deeply?
  • What principles and practices should we promote for human flourishing?

Prohibit, permit and promote. It is time for robust debate with civility and humility. Christians should expect persecution the moment they affirm truth in any category (Mt. 5). We should embrace persecution for obedience, not obnoxiousness. Even when many radically differ with us, they should recognize the spirit of love in our actions and communications.

Concerning non-traditional gender identity, gay marriage and alternative lifestyles, believers can present a nuanced and uncompromising public stance. We can uphold our understanding of truth while affirming liberty (this is the permitting category) for those that make other choices. The problem today is that anyone that does not promote alternatives as acceptable is considered “heterosexist”  “intolerant” or worse. It is interesting that the LGBTQ activists never attack the other great religions; they only criticize Christians and some Jewish traditions. Practically speaking, allowance for domestic partnerships and civil unions make prudential sense in a pluralistic society. We do not need to agree with such arrangements as equal to our biblical ideal, but living with our deepest differences is the cost of liberty.

What prohibitions should be part of our public stance? Will we continue to stand against incest, adult-minor sex, polygamy, pornography, serial monogamy and one-night stands? Will we partner with people of conscience against all forms of dehumanization and exploitation?

Finally, what should we be promoting? Beginning with our own communities, we must reaffirm the joy and seriousness of biblical marriage and childrearing. We must disciple better all that desire marriage and family. We must not capitulate to quick divorce and remarriage when life is hard (apart from abuse, adultery and utter abandonment, of course). Promoting healthy singleness and weaning all believers from hyper-eroticism are important tasks. In public we work with all people of conscience to nurture the next generation with healthy male and female role models. Let’s celebrate women and men of diverse gifts and personalities, interests and skills.

In writing this piece, I am vulnerable to misperception. Yet these issues must be examined in a spirit of humility and love. I have worked with and am friends with people of all orientations and persuasions. They are my sisters and brothers in the human family. I have seen many find freedom in Christ and change their orientation. Others love Christ and choose celibacy (both heterosexual and homosexual men and women), with varying levels of struggle. I must make a covenant with my eyes and heart each day and walk in agape toward all persons. I am the judge of no one’s salvation or sanctification. With hope and tears, I pray that we can all move toward personal wholeness and community shalom as we await the fullness of God’s reign.

Notes

  • Sound summaries of recent research may be found in Stanton L. Jones (January 2012) “Sexual orientation and reason: on the implications of false beliefs about homosexuality,” digitally published at www.christianethics.org; an abbreviation of this essay was published as “Same-sex science” in First Things, February, 2012, pp. 27-33. Jones is the Provost and Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College, IL (USA).
  • For some challenging and comforting pastoral reflections, examine Kent Paris, Means of Grace. College Press Publishing Company, Inc. 2010. Kent’s insights are found at www.nehemiahonline.com.