Tag 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.

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.