This is the longest chapter in the book. Over 12,300 words. Take your time with it!
Scripture’s Moral Truths
In Chapter 1, I described the overall dilemma facing the church as this:
How much of the “not yet” is it the responsibility of the church to advance in our real world today?
And then I analyzed the biblical presentation of the gospel to split the question into four clarifying questions. In this chapter, I’ll attempt to address the first two of those subordinate questions:
Which values are central to the Christian life and which are peripheral?
Which central values are internal to the Church only and which should Christians promote in the society at large?
Now, any attempt of mine to address these questions will necessarily flow from my own biases and presuppositions, and anything I say about them will interface with your biases and presuppositions, so if for some reason you skipped over the previous chapter, you should go back to it now.
Nevertheless, I will attempt to humbly offer my perspective here by doing a brief survey of the values I see repeatedly emphasized throughout Scripture, and I will do my best to give biblical justification for why any value should be considered of central importance and morally binding on Christians. Along the way, I will also attempt to divide the values into their appropriate contexts whether they apply to individuals, to the general Christian community, or to the broader society. Afterward, I will briefly comment on a few peripheral issues that masquerade too often as central issues even though they are not. The point of all this will be to clarify which values are central, which values are peripheral, and which values should be promoted by Christians for society at large.
Values Central to All Christians
Let’s begin by creating a list of those values which should be central to the life of any individual Christian. We will start with the words of Jesus.
The Teaching of Jesus
There’s no better place to start than Jesus’ declaration of the Greatest Commandment. Notice, he mentions two of them.
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22:37-40 NIV
Jesus gives us a great starting point to help us identify our central Christian values. According to him, these are the most fundamental of all:
- Christians demonstrate a life-consuming love for God, placing him above all other things in every aspect of their lives.
- Christians demonstrate a practical love for the people around us, whether like us or not, near or far.
In the statement of the first value, I say our love for God should be “life-consuming.” By that, I mean it should flow through our heart, soul, and mind. It should be emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. Then, in the second value, I used the word “practical” and the phrase “whether near or far” because when Jesus defines “neighbor” in the parable of the Good Samaritan he demonstrates it with a cross-cultural interaction. Furthermore, when he commands followers to “go into all the world” he confirms the culture-crossing, border-crossing nature of our calling to love. Note also from the parable of the Good Samaritan that when Jesus spoke about love, he never meant we should feel love toward other people while doing nothing about their needs. Even as loving God is more than mere emotion, love for our neighbors must to be more than cordiality or a positive attitude. It needs to be pragmatic and practical. The love Jesus calls us to needs to cross lines of both category, culture and geography.
Since Jesus says that these two commands summarize everything God ever wanted, we could just leave it at that and say we only have two central values, but our problem as sinful humans is that we don’t think like God, and therefore our understanding and application of love are weak and insignificant. Thankfully, God’s Word has a lot to say about what it means to love God and what it means to love others, so let’s continue our exploration by considering more of Jesus’ words. There’s no better place to continue than The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). I’d love to expand on all the moral teaching within this beautifully challenging message, but I’m trying to keep this book short and accessible, and a synopsis must suffice for now. Were we to do a thorough examination of the Sermon on the Mount, we would see four basic themes that together encompass all the rest:
- Christians live in humility before God, realizing our spiritual poverty, our need for forgiveness and our need for spiritual rebirth.
- Christians live in holiness, keeping God’s Word in thought and deed, neither adding to it nor working around it, and not for earthly recognition but for eternal rewards.
- Christians live as agents of Christ and his Kingdom, sprinkling the salt and shining the light of God’s goodness into a dark and tasteless world for the sake of others and the glory of God.
- Christians embrace service, sacrifice and forgiveness, deferring to those around us even if they accuse us, strike us, ask of us, steal from us, hold something against us, or otherwise sin against us.
If we were making a detailed and exhaustive list, I would also mention the importance of having faith, how to give to charity, how to pray, etc. Furthermore, if we listed everything Jesus taught throughout his earthly ministry, we would add something about the need for endurance until the final judgment, the need for spiritually “abiding” in him, and more. Then, because I have my own favorite parables, miracles, and lessons from the teaching of Jesus, I’m tempted to add additional detailed items. In fact, because we all have our own perspectives, it’s likely my few bullet points above seem insufficient on first glance. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that everything Jesus taught can fit within one or more of the above values taken from the Great Commandment and the Sermon on the Mount with two lingering exceptions.
The first exception is actually the one many evangelicals would consider the most important teaching Jesus ever gave.
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
John 14:6 NIV
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
John 6:29 NIV
For evangelicals, nothing is as important as the value of “putting your faith in Jesus” because nothing can get a person saved or put a person in a right relationship with God other than that. Although I think true faith is an act of surrender in line with the value of humility above, it’s worth making this a separate value statement simply to acknowledge its fundamental importance for anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus.
- Christians embrace exclusive allegiance to Jesus himself as our only Savior, true Lord, and ultimate authority.
The second thing I need to add comes from the passage we call the Great Commission. Thematically, it falls under the “agents of the Kingdom” statement above, but since Jesus made it his parting words to his followers, I think it deserves special recognition:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Matthew 28:18-20 NIV
Our Great Commission, stated as a value statement is this:
- Christians spread the influence of Jesus around the world by sharing the gospel and leading others to follow his life and words.
Not only does Jesus call us to live lives of love for God and others, lives that are marked by holiness, humility, service, sacrifice, and forgiveness, lives that reflect the Kingdom of God, lives of dedication to him alone above all other authorities, he also calls us to spread his message and to multiply his representatives around the world.
With this list of values, I think we have adequately covered everything Jesus said regarding the moral obligations of his followers. There are certainly other ways of phrasing them or other details we could include, but these are the umbrella values. These values encompass the others and yet are specific enough that we can grasp their practical significance. But again, let’s remember we are sinful people, prone to look at these commands through lenses that benefit us. So let’s keep digging. How did the earliest followers of Jesus actually live out these values and what did they say about them? By examining the examples and teaching of the first century believers as recorded in the rest of the New Testament, we will discover a few more values that will clarify and intensify those we have already seen.
The Example of the Early Church
From the early chapters of the book of Acts we see the first Christians liquidating assets to prevent poverty in their midst, and we see the crowd of Christians not fighting back in the face of persecution even when that meant Peter was put in prison or that James and Stephen were killed. From this example and from teaching reaffirmed elsewhere in the New Testament we have two more values to consider, sacrifice and submission. Early Christians didn’t invent these values. They had seen Jesus live them. They saw Jesus submit to authorities even when it cost him his life. They saw Jesus live a life of sacrifice. They heard Jesus teach about sacrificial service. But for the early Christians, living according to those values was painfully difficult and it cost many their lives. Honoring their example, we add the following two statements to our list of values:
- Christians sacrifice their own resources to care for the poor… especially those in the family of God.
- Christians submit to earthly authorities in everything that doesn’t conflict with a command of Christ.
Additionally, the early Christians had to blaze new ground in certain doctrines and practices. For example, Jesus never taught directly about circumcision or how to include Gentiles in the life of the church, so when the issue came up, the early church had to use the Old Testament together with the teaching of Jesus to find their answers. Acts 15 is the record of the first church counsel, and the issue of welcoming uncircumcised Gentiles was the main topic. During that counsel, the early church leaders identified two guiding principles for applying Old Testament teaching to the community of Christ, and we can use those principles to formulate two more values for ourselves:
- Christians discard Old Testament commands that were specific to ancient Israel (circumcision) or that were superseded by Christ’s direct teaching or his example (capital punishment, kosher laws, the temple, and the sacrificial system) but do so in ways that respect the sensibilities of others (like not eating blood).
- Christians retain Old Testament commands that were confirmed by Jesus as expressing the heart of God for his people (like avoiding idolatry and sexual immorality).
Through their example, the early church helps to clarify for us even today what should be central, but their writings do even more. To be sure, there are values to be gleaned from James, Jude, Peter, John, and the writer of Hebrews, and I would love to spend chapters on each of their contributions, but the capstone of didactic teaching in the New Testament has to be the writings of Paul.
The Teaching of Paul
As the most prolific and most comprehensive writer from the early church, Paul’s letters bring clarity to these principles while also emphasizing a few new values we should add to our list. Also, because he specialized in applying the message of Jesus to various cultural contexts, and because he was committed to viewing the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus, the Apostle Paul helps us greatly in figuring out which Christian values are central for all time and how they should be contextualized. Previously, I said it was inappropriate that evangelicals have embraced Pauline morality as they have, but now I want to clarify that the problem isn’t in accepting his morality, but in accepting only his morality and only certain parts of his morality. Kept in context with the teaching of Jesus, and taken in context with how Paul lived and all that he wrote, the values we glean from Paul are wonderfully instructive. Here are a few passages from Paul that summarize his moral teaching for the church and augment what we have already mentioned.
Walking in Humility
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace…. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Ephesians 4:1-3, 29-32 NIV
Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.
Romans 13:13-14:1 NIV
Clearly in line with Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, Paul identifies practical ways Christians live out the value of humility, and we can restate his instructions like this:
- Christians reject selfishness and pride and everything arising from them—greed, sexual immorality (including divorce), un-edifying speech, foolish arguments, defending one’s own rights, flaunting one’s own liberties, and more.
The Christian Community
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
Colossians 3:16 NIV
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
1 Corinthians 12:7 NIV
So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.
1 Corinthians 14:12 NIV
From these verses, we see how the Christian family should operate when it gathers together as a corporate body, and how individuals should view themselves in light of that family. It’s directly in line with Jesus’ command that his followers should love one another, but as before, Paul makes it practical. As a value statement, we have this:
- Christians embrace each other through worship, teaching, fellowship, mutual edification, and mutual sacrifice in the family of believers.
Christians and the Surrounding World
Few Christians debate the earlier two values from Paul’s teaching, but when it comes to his teaching about our relationship with the world around us, there are a number of misunderstandings. As a result, our exploration of what he really had to say will take a bit more time. To start with, let me take you to a passage that is widely known but rarely applied.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:8-9 NIV
This admonition is unlike any other admonition in Paul’s writings. In most cases, Paul spoke of spiritual fruit, or deeds of the flesh, or acts of the church, but in this one verse, he expands his moral code into something far bigger than any spiritual ritual. Perhaps it’s not right to base a central moral value statement on this one verse, but Paul clearly stated that this is the way he lived and it’s the way he wants his readers to live. It’s an overall ethic that we can express like this:
- Christians rejoice in what is true, noble, right, pure, excellent, and praiseworthy seeing all of Creation through the lens of the Creator.
I’m pretty sure you don’t have any problem with how I’ve stated that value. I made it pretty generic there, but I won’t leave it there. As I said before, this verse is widely understood but rarely applied, and so I think it’s important to take some time to discuss what applying it really looks like.
In this passage, Paul gave a truly expansive command that he said was the overall way he lived his life (Whatever… you have seen in me…). It was an ethic that encompassed his entire life. But if it encompassed his entire life, it must be an ethic that reaches even beyond the confines of Christian tradition or doctrine. Allow me to be blunt. Christians and the Christian faith are not the only sources of what is true, noble, right, pure, excellent, or praiseworthy. These things can be found inside and outside the context of what is religiously significant, and therefore, things like beauty, truth, and justice have historically been a part of the Christian value system. It has always been godly to rejoice over a scientific discovery that is true or a work of art that’s excellent regardless of where or how it originated. Here are just three examples.
Psalm 19 rejoices in the regularity of nature’s laws:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands….
[The sun] rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.
Psalm 19:1, 6 NIV
Proverbs extols the wisdom of ants:
Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.
Proverbs 6:6-8 NIV
And Paul quotes secular philosophers to teach Christian doctrine:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands…. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.
Acts 17:24, 28-29 NIV
The Psalmist had spent time gazing at the stars and noticing the regularity of the path of the sun. Solomon had spent time studying (considering the ways) of the ant closely enough to know that ants store food in the summer to get them through the winter. Paul had literally memorized lines from secular Greek philosophers and was able to quote at will specific lines from Stoic and Epicurean philosophers! The testimony of Scripture, and the explicit instruction of Paul is that wherever truth, excellence, or right-ness can be found, it is worth treating with value, and therefore it should compose a central value for Christians. Therefore, when I say we should rejoice in what is true, noble, right, pure, excellent, and praiseworthy seeing all of Creation through the lens of the Creator, that means we should embrace things like artistic expressions, scientific discovery, and even philosophical reasoning whenever they are true, noble, right, pure, excellent or praiseworthy!
On the other hand, not everything in the world is true, excellent, or praiseworthy. In fact, there are plenty of things in the world around us that we should reject and avoid. Paul had to say a lot about that too:
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial ? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Therefore, “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” And, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 NIV
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12:1-2 NIV
A number of Christian groups throughout the centuries have used passages like these to claim the true nature of the Christian church is to be completely separate from the world, completely separate from the surrounding culture, but doing so ignores the way Paul himself lived out these principles:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 NIV
Somehow, Paul holds these two principles in tension. On the one hand, he passionately desires to fit himself into his cultural context so to minimize the hindrances to the message of the gospel to those who need to hear it. On the other hand, he declares the utter difference between the mentality of the people of the world and the proper mentality of the people of God. This is not a contradiction, though. Paul actually describes a single value that undergirds both principles. Paul is all about the gospel. He doesn’t want anything to get in the way of the gospel. He doesn’t want anything to hinder the advance of the gospel. He doesn’t want anything to distort the view of the gospel. Therefore, the Christian needs to keep proper distance from the world lest the world think the gospel lines up with the principles of the world. However, the Christian needs to keep him or herself embedded in the world so as to make sure people who need the gospel have a chance to hear it authentically. Here’s one way to phrase this value.
- Christians must be culturally astute so they can engage the culture around them with an authentic expression of the gospel without adopting, absorbing, or aligning themselves with that culture.
Finally, one of the greatest temptations that Christians have is to view their own Christianity and their pursuit of purity as somehow empowering them to be agents of judgment against the people of the world rather than agents of grace. Therefore, before we leave the New Testament and the teaching of Paul, there is one final value so important and so often misunderstood that it requires special attention.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
1 Corinthians 5:9-13 NIV
I already mentioned the opposition to sexual immorality as a component of Christian humility to the authority of Jesus, but this passage outlines a new value. It’s a value about how Christians judge other Christians and also how Christians judge the morality of non-Christians. In this passage Paul strongly commanded the Corinthians to exercise firm moral judgment regarding people inside the church but to intentionally refrain from using that same judgment with people outside the church. A Christian can share a meal with a sexually immoral unbeliever, but not a sexually immoral believer. To fellowship with one who claims to be a believer while living in unrepentant sin is to tacitly endorse the sin and will taint the gospel with license. To eat with a sinner who doesn’t claim to be a believer is to tangibly offer grace and forgiveness along with a subsequent call to holiness. We are to judge believers, but not unbelievers even over the same exact behavior. Still, whether believer or not, anyone who repents of their sin and turns to the family of believers is to be welcomed with open arms. It’s possible that the immoral brother the church should expel in 1 Corinthians 5 is the same person who later repented and Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 2, but regardless, when it comes to a repentant person, Paul says this:
Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.
2 Corinthians 2:7-8 NIV
Putting these concepts together as a value statement, we have this:
- Christians should not judge outsiders, but should reserve moral judgments for only those who claim to be believers, and should always offer forgiveness and reconciliation to any sinner who repents.
At this point, we have pretty well summarized all the moral teaching for Christians recorded in the New Testament. To be sure, there are details we are leaving out like some specifics regarding mutual submission in the life of a church or how to exercise charismatic gifts. However, all those details whenever they show up in the New Testament are given in the larger context of another value we have already listed, so I’ll move on to the Old Testament.
Old Testament Principles
There are at least two values expressed in the Old Testament that we haven’t seen yet because they aren’t explicitly mentioned in the New Testament. However, in light of Acts 15, we need to recognize that some Old Testament commands will remain in force even if not explicitly re-affirmed in the New Testament. The principle from Acts 15 was this: we disregard Old Testament commands that were specific to ancient Israel or that were superseded by Christ, and we retain Old Testament commands that were confirmed by Jesus as expressing the heart of God for his people. However, in between, we have the values that were neither specific only to Israel nor were they specifically re-affirmed by Jesus. What should we do with them? Well, I think there are two values in the Old Testament that fall into this middle ground, but are also obviously foundational to the will of God, are fully in line with the rest of the New Testament, and also bring something new to the table. Because these values exist in harmony with everything else we have seen, and because they contribute something new and unique to our understanding, I consider them ongoing central values as well. Nevertheless, because they fall into that middle ground, they each need additional justification.
First, on two separate occasions, Jesus confirmed the importance of the first chapters of Genesis. When asked about divorce, he quoted from Genesis 1 and 2:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ ? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Matthew 19:4-6 NIV
Elsewhere, he made a shrewd reference to the image of God present in humans by saying this:
“Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Luke 20:24-25 NIV
These are two explicit references by Jesus to the first and second chapters of Genesis, and by making these references, Jesus confirmed the importance of those early chapters in understanding the moral obligations of humans in this world. Therefore, we should consider what else the Creation account has to say about humans. Looking at one of the verses Jesus quoted with the context, we find this:
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Genesis 1:27-28 NIV
God created human beings to bear his image, to represent him on the Earth, and even to have massive authority over the Earth. Now, environmentalism didn’t exist as a concept in Jesus’ day because no one back then could have conceived of the immense power human beings would be able to exert over the entire planet. However, God is the one who specifically gave us that power, he commanded us to have that power when he used the word “subdue.” In ages before, we had the potential to significantly influence the Earth, but in this age, we are finally achieving our original God-given potential to completely control the planet. But if we are now able to achieve our potential, we must remember the purpose of this potential, the purpose of this power. God created us to bear his image in the way we subdue the Earth. Therefore, even though the Bible doesn’t give any explicit commands regarding how to care for the Earth, the command we had from the beginning, to subdue it in His image, is still in force. We need to add it as a value:
- Christians exercise dominion over the Earth not for our own benefit but as those who bear God’s image and value both what and whom he has made.
Yes, I am claiming that environmentalism should find a central place in Christian morality. No earthly agency can explain why we should care for the planet or why we have such power, but Christians know both answers.
Finally, there is a second value present in the Old Testament and heavily implied by the words and the life of Jesus. It has to do with something we often call social justice, and it arises as a combination of us being image-bearers, other people also being image-bearers, and the direct teaching of Jesus himself. Remember Jesus launched his ministry quoting Isaiah 61.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 4:18-21 NIV
Not only is that a passage promising a Messianic answer to the condition of the oppressed and the poor, it is also an endorsement of the work of the ancient prophets and their efforts as activists for the cause of justice. Here are a few of those prophetic statements:
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
Isaiah 58:9-10 NIV
“So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.
Malachi 3:5 NIV
According to Jesus, his Messianic work includes bringing fulfillment to these proclamations of the prophets, and whether the fulfillment ever gets fully realized on this earth, the endorsement of the message is abundantly clear. The life and words of the prophets express a righteous activism that Christians should still embrace regarding the needy and oppressed among them. Let’s state the value like this:
- Christians bear the burden and take up the cause of the needy within our sphere of influence especially orphans, widows, foreigners, and others who are impoverished or oppressed, whether like us or not, near or far.
This is a good and mostly safe way of phrasing the value, and it is fully in line with the direct teaching of the Bible, but I think it’s important for us to realize there are categories of oppressed people in our society today who are not mentioned explicitly by the prophets mostly because those categories didn’t exist back then. When we speak of the cause of the needy today, we also need to include the unborn, the unjustly incarcerated, the elderly, refugees, people of color and more. Plus, because our society today is a global one, we should extend this principle to include people around the world, not just in our own city, state, or country.
Again, I’m sure I have missed a specific command that is important to someone. I didn’t say much about the evils of divorce, the problems with deception or violence, and I have spoken often in general terms, but for the most part, I’m convinced these values adequately encompass all the relevant teaching from Jesus, the New Testament writers and even key portions of Old Testament teaching that are still applicable to Christians through today.
I also want to affirm that in making this list, I have tried my best to be governed only by clear biblical teaching and not by any modern political perspective. Although shreds of modern political positions might overlap with these values, these values themselves as outlined above are first and foremost biblical, and more specifically, Christian. I also want to reiterate that what we have considered so far is really only about the morality God desires for his own people and not what he desires for a society at large. To that, I turn next.
Values Translatable to Our Society
Christians frequently attempt to translate our values directly from the people of God to the wider society because if God is the same God over all people then his moral code should apply equally to all people too, right? It’s an attractive thought; however, it fails to account for many things. We need to realize that many of the Christian values we’ve mentioned only make sense within the sacrificial framework of a Jesus-follower. We also need to remember Paul’s prohibition against judging outsiders according to standards of Christian morality. Therefore, we have to acknowledge that perhaps only a few of the above values can be directly translated from the church to the society.
Complicating matters, all the values mentioned above were given in contexts very different from today. These values were initially given in contexts where the recipients of the command had very little social power to affect a broader secular society. In fact, in the days of the Old Testament, there was no such thing as a secular society. The commands to Israel were given to “God’s people” who were forming an entirely new theocratic society—a “holy nation.” The Israelites and their national structure belonged to God. The other nations belonged to other gods. At that point, all societies were religious societies. The idea of a secular society just didn’t exist, and therefore, applying the teaching of the Old Testament uncritically to the experience of modern day living is a project doomed to fail. Understanding the commands of the Old Testament requires us to remember God’s commands were for God’s people in the specific society where God was directly in charge and where he was specifically attempting to distinguish his people from those in the wider world.
In the New Testament, however, the relationship between God’s people and the surrounding society was dramatically different. From one perspective it was an antagonistic relationship similar to that of the Old Testament—the Romans were antagonistic toward the Jews, the Jewish people were antagonistic toward Gentiles, and the Roman society was often antagonistic to Christians as well. However, Jesus never spoke of the surrounding society as if it were an enemy to be fought or opposed. When Jesus talked to his followers about their role in the broader society, he taught them to be salt and light—sources of flavor and illumination. Jesus gave his commands to his followers regarding how they were supposed to behave but said nothing about controlling the behavior of others. They were supposed to have influence in their society as agents of a different Kingdom, but he never told them to wield control over that society. Jesus wouldn’t even allow Peter to defend him with a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane. For the first followers, all of this made sense because they had no societal power anyway. In fact, all of the New Testament commands were given to people who were essentially powerless to directly influence the workings of their society, i.e. the Roman government.
However, Christians today hold a much different position in society, especially in the United States of America. This world is unlike the Old Testament because we have a secular, pluralistic society. This world is unlike the New Testament because in our society individual people, both Christians and not, have immense social and political power. Therefore, translating biblical values from the original context to ours is a difficult challenge. Making matters worse, neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament give instructions about how one should use political and social power because none of the people of God in either Testament ever had secular political or social power. But all is not lost. The Christian values themselves give us clues. In them, we get a very clear picture of how God wants people to treat each other in general, at all times, and without regard to religious perspective. So it isn’t that much of a stretch to also conclude how he wants a society to operate. We just need to remember the distinction between what God expects of all people and what God expects of his people.
A quick aside: I have spoken to many Christians who firmly believe there is no distinction between what God wants for his people and what God wants for society at large. I have spoken to Christians who firmly believe that the exact same value system should be employed inside and outside the church. It should be obvious so far that I do not share that sentiment nor do I think it can be supported biblically, but I will delay addressing it until a future chapter when I discuss the false idol of Cultural Conservatism.
For now, I’m going to revisit the value statements from above to identify which statements apply beyond the confines of the Christian community. I’ll list them and do some exploratory work with them, but I’ll save the work of application to the next chapter.
The Oldest Value
Let’s return to the list of values mentioned above. Scanning through them, you should see that some were given in contexts that predate the nation of Israel or in contexts that specifically cross contextual lines. Recall that the first command God gave to any person was the command to steward the Earth, and that command was not tied to nationality or faith but to the mere fact all humans were created in the image of God. Therefore, this responsibility exists for all humans of all time, not just believers, and we can state it as a universal value:
- All people should value the care of the Earth.
The First Cross-Cultural Value
Let’s keep going. Again, staying with the Old Testament, God commanded that his people should care for the poor and oppressed, as we have seen, but this was actually the first cross-cultural value for the ancient Israelites. I say that because the law was given by God to the people of God for the sake of the foreigners living in the land. In Israel, foreigners (even if legally enslaved at times) were to be treated with as much dignity and concern as other Israelites, and in most cases, whatever economic benefits were provided to needy Israelites should likewise be provided to needy foreigners. Therefore, not only were these commands for meeting humanitarian concerns, they were also explicitly cross-cultural and should be considered applicable to us today.
Earlier in the chapter, I quoted from the prophets, but here, I’ll quote from Moses himself:
” ‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
Leviticus 19:33-34 NIV
Do not eat anything you find already dead. You may give it to the foreigner residing in any of your towns, and they may eat it, or you may sell it to any other foreigner. But you are a people holy to the LORD your God …
Deuteronomy 14:21 NIV
Notice from these two passages, that the benefits were to be applied equally to both Jews and foreigners, but the requirements were often not. Many of the moral requirements God issued for Israelites were supposed to be also upheld by foreigners, but ceremonial commands like dietary restrictions were not. In similar passages, we see foreigners were to reap the benefits of living among the Israelites even though they didn’t have to maintain all the same standards of the Israelites. That is, social benefits should cross social lines even when responsibilities do not. This, plus the prophets’ call to aid the poor and oppressed, yields two concepts summarized in the modern world by the words dignity and equity, specifically, economic (the power to fully participate in a society) equity. As a universal value, then, we have:
- All people should value human dignity and economic equity.
The Most Compatible Value
By “compatible” I’m saying that there is one value Jesus taught us to embrace that is literally compatible with the value system of the world. In fact, Jesus tells his followers that they are to behave in such a way that the world around them judges their behavior to be good. It comes in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus tells us we are salt and light.
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
Matthew 5:13-16 NIV
Now, there are many ways Christians have misunderstood or misapplied this passage. For my part, there was a time when I thought the job of a Christian was to be a “preserving” agent in the world because salt can be a preservative against rot. In other words, the world has a tendency to rot, and Christians were the salt that the world needed to slow down that process of rotting. Likewise, I used to think that being light involved acting like a spotlight pointing out all the ways the world was failing to live up to God’s standards. However, even though both of those ideas can be drawn from the metaphors Jesus used, neither of those things fall in line with the actual application Jesus gave for his own metaphor.
When Jesus told us we were the salt of the world, he referred to our “saltiness” as the indicator of good salt. He didn’t make any reference to anything preservative or preventative. When Jesus told us to let our light shine, he wanted the people of the surrounding society to see and rejoice over our “good deeds.” Now, this should be obvious, but the only way a society can rejoice over our good deeds is if our deeds somehow line up with something the society considers worthy of praise, something the society considers “good.” In other words, according to Jesus, sometimes and somehow the activity of Christians should coincide with the world’s existing perception of “good deeds.” Being salt and light isn’t about restraining the progress of the world or being a spotlight on sin; it must be about being tasty and pleasant in this world.
This concept is so often ignored that I want to say it again: The only way our society can rejoice over our good deeds is if our good deeds somehow line up with something our society will rejoice over. There must be some compatibility between at least a portion of the Christian ethic and the ethics of the world, and Jesus isn’t the only one who taught this. Paul did too.
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
Colossians 4:5-6 NIV
…and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 NIV
Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,… He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
1 Timothy 3:2,7 NIV
According to both Jesus and Paul, the Christian ethic includes having a good reputation with unbelievers, but according to many Christians these days, that doesn’t seem possible. Christians have so often focused on the verses that draw lines of division between us and the world that we completely ignore this deep compatibility between the Christian value system and the value system of the world. Where does that compatibility lie? Well, I think something from Paul really helps. It’s a passage we looked at before, but it’s even better to look at it now.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Philippians 4:8 NIV
Paul never isolates those words to Christian values only. The Christian idea of truth, nobility, excellence, etc. should often if not always line up with the world’s idea. And therefore, there should be many times where the values of good, noble, true, right, pure, etc. translate from the Christian world to the secular world. Put into a value statement, we have this:
- All people should value what is true, good and noble, and Christians should often find common ground with the world on these matters.
What about the others? Our list of values translatable to the world is far shorter at this point than our list of Christian values. But this is the way it should be. Review the list of Christian values above, and we have the value of winning people to faith in Jesus, but that’s a value about helping people translate from the secular society into the family of God, not a value for the secular society itself. There is a value of holding allegiance to Jesus himself above all other things, but that’s a value that can only apply to people who have declared allegiance to Jesus. There are the values of submission and sacrifice, living in holiness, and loving God, but again, these values can only apply to a person who is standing under the authority of Jesus who lived and taught these things. No, the list of values to translate from the Christian world to the broader society must end with these three: caring for the Earth, promoting human dignity and equity, and valuing truth, goodness, and beauty. To reinforce this, let’s consider two ways that Christian values definitely can not translate to the surrounding secular society.
Two Limits on Christian Influence
First, as we have noted already, Christians are commanded to avoid passing judgment on those outside the church, but it’s also important to note the context in which Paul gave the instruction. When Paul tells us not to pass judgment on the world, he specifically mentioned the sins of sexual immorality, greed, swindling, and idolatry! Why is it, then, that Christians today frequently bring up the sexual ethics of the world around us? Why is it, then, that Christians regularly pass judgment on the world for the sexual ethics in the world? We are quite willing to obey Paul’s guidance when it comes to overlooking greed and idolatry in our society, but when it comes to sexual ethics, we somehow feel the need to stand up and be the voice of truth against the evils of the world.
But we should never let our failures become our standards. Despite our failure to abide by Paul’s instructions here, we must remember the principle. Christians are not to judge the sexual ethics of the people in the world. In fact, I think we can say that sexual ethics as well as many other core Christian ethics are not translatable to the broader secular society, and therefore, in light of Paul’s clear teaching, it is absolutely not part of the Christian mandate to enforce sexual ethics and other aspects of Christian morality on the broader world.
Paul doesn’t stop there. In one of the most misunderstood and therefore disregarded passages in the New Testament, Paul encouraged the Corinthian Christians to embrace certain aspects of their surrounding culture even in their worship gatherings. Specifically, he actually commanded Christian men in Corinth to cut their hair and keep it short. I’ll tell you why that’s so interesting in a moment, but first, let’s take a look at his words on the matter.
Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
1 Corinthians 11:13-16 NIV
This passage has confused Christians for centuries especially because it is part of a section in 1 Corinthians that discusses other gender norms in the Christian church. Now is not the time for me to discuss all those gender norms. If you are curious about the practice of veiling in the ancient world and why Paul would encourage women to cover their heads, others have done a better job than I could (e.g. Paul and Gender, Cynthia Long Westfall). However, in simplest terms, according to the NIV translation of this passage, Paul is claiming that “the very nature of things” teaches us how glorious it is that women have long hair and that long hair is itself a kind of covering for her. Paul also says that long hair is disgraceful for men, but where did he get that idea? What does Paul mean when he talks about “the very nature of things”? The answer comes in understanding three very important cultural realities.
First, Paul was extensively trained as a Pharisee in Jerusalem, and in the Jewish religious context, only men did public praying, and when they did so, they would often cover their heads with a scarf or shawl of some kind. In other words, Paul’s command to the people in Corinth goes directly against the Jewish tradition he had practiced for most of his life. Against tradition, he was allowing women to pray in public worship, and against tradition, he was also saying they should cover their heads while the men should not. Therefore, Paul’s command is not coming from the background of any Jewish religious practice, nor is it coming from anything in Jewish Scripture.
Secondly, in the Jewish culture, it was actually quite common for men to grow their hair long. In fact, the story of Samson reminds us that long hair for men could be a symbol of their dedication to God! I bet some Jewish men would have allowed their hair to grow long even when they weren’t in the midst of a vow just to get the social capital that would come from it. Therefore, once again, we have clear proof that Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 11 is not based on any Jewish cultural norms either.
These first two points let us know that Paul’s statement about hair length for men and women has nothing to do with his own Jewish context, but there is a third cultural reality that helps us see what Paul was really getting at. It is not a coincidence that Corinth was a city steeped in Greek history but thoroughly eager to represent Roman cultural values and Roman society was perhaps the first society in the ancient world to have clear norms regarding hair length for men and women. Consider Roman statues of men and women from the time, especially compare the representations of the Roman emperors to the Greek gods and the differences are readily apparent. Greek gods, male and female alike, have long flowing hair. Statues of Roman emperors, on the other hand, have tightly trimmed, short hair while Roman sculptures of women retain the long flowing hair. The people of Corinth, receiving this letter from Paul, were living in one of the first societies to really associate hair length with gender norms, and this is the only time Paul ever wrote about hair length. Again, it is not a coincidence that his only letter to mention hair length went to this very Roman city. Paul gave the people of Corinth the instruction to accommodate their public worship to key cultural norms of their society. Even though Paul himself was a Jew, he encouraged Christians in Corinth to willingly adopt (even during worship) cultural norms that didn’t violate Christian faith. Rather than telling the church to spread its norms to the surrounding society, Paul encouraged the opposite (at least sometimes).
Therefore, in light of Paul’s command to Christians to accommodate their worship to the cultural norms of their society, we have to conclude that it is absolutely not part of the Christian mandate to prescribe our cultural norms on the surrounding society, nor is it part of our mandate to preserve cultural norms that are beginning to fade from society. So long as the cultural norms are outside the aforementioned translatable values, they are effectively outside the Christian mandate altogether.
Proper Christian Activism
I want to conclude this chapter by laying the foundation for future application. As we have seen, very few Christian values are translatable to the surrounding society. Christians are supposed to stay hands off when it comes to judging the morality of the world outside those translatable values, and the role of Christians in the world is to accept (some) expressions of culture and not to control them. But as we have seen, some Christian values are translatable to the society, and all Christians are called to be transformative agents for the sake of the gospel and the Kingdom of God in the world around us. Therefore, great care must be taken as we consider what it means to be transformative in this world. To disengage from the world, to live disconnected from the world, or to interact with the world only in the effort to get people saved, would be to miss out on our call to be transformative agents of reconciliation. However, to embrace full-throated activism promoting all things Christian to the broader society and working toward the development of a Christian Kingdom in the here and now would be to reject our biblical limitations.
The calling of Christians is to live in this world as agents of a different world, a different Kingdom. Some of our values are translatable and some are not. We are called to be transformative, but not to establish an earthly kingdom. Therefore, the extremes of disengagement and Christian Nationalism are equally erroneous and we must find a middle way. This middle path I call Proper Christian Activism, and we can begin to define it by reminding ourselves what our translatable values are. Here they are again, rearranged not in chronological order but in order of Biblical prominence:
- All people should value human dignity and economic equity.
- All people should value what is true, good and noble, and Christians should often find common ground with the world on these matters.
- All people should value the care of the Earth.
Wherever Christianity has spread throughout history, these values have followed, and because the modern western world was built largely in tandem with the growth and spread of Christianity, each of these values already broadly exists in our society. These values began with people who followed Jesus, but they continued even when people divorced them from their original motivations. The world largely holds these values without any of the original motivation, but Christians still have the original motivation intact, and therefore, Christians should be overjoyed to join the broader society in promoting these values. This is what I mean by Proper Christian Activism, but giving it a name is not enough. The Christian Church in America has a chaotic and stained history when it comes to social engagement, frequently falling to the errors of disengagement or awkward nationalism, and so we need to be much more specific about what Proper Christian Activism really is. We do that by turning each of our translatable value statements into a call to action for Christians in their engagement with the world.
The Activism for Human Dignity
Because all people should value human dignity and its related economic equity, and because Christians have the strongest motivation for it:
Christians should use whatever voice or influence they have to take up the cause of the weak, marginalized, disregarded, or oppressed in their society to ensure all people are treated with dignity and justice without regard to the moral condition of those people.
The Activism for Truth and Beauty
Because all people should value what is true and beautiful, and because Christians have the strongest motivation for it:
Christians should use whatever voice or influence they have to promote what is true, noble, right, pure, excellent, or praiseworthy, including art, science, journalism, and social policies even if it includes promoting something unfamiliar or unpleasant.
The Activism for Environmental Stewardship
Because all people should value the care of the Earth, and because Christians have the strongest motivation for honoring God in this way:
Christians should use whatever voice or influence they have to address the environmental concerns that reflect our stewardship of this planet and unjustly impact the weakest members of our world both now and in the future.
The Boundaries to Our Activism
Finally, because Christians are tempted to use our influence to go beyond these values, we need to remember our boundaries:
Christians should not waste their influence to advocate for or against any cultural trends, social groups, political worldviews, or public personalities unless such advocacy is required by one or more of the previous points.
What About Proclaiming the Gospel?
In my description of Proper Christian Activism, I haven’t said anything about witnessing or proselytizing. I haven’t mentioned the need for Christians to live out the Great Commission and make disciples, but there’s a reason I haven’t. Sharing the gospel doesn’t fall in line with what I’m calling Christian Activism. To be sure, some Christians think that the job of a Christian in the public sphere is to promote the name of Jesus and the salvation in his name at any and every opportunity, but that has been a constant tension among Christians throughout the centuries. As just one example, take the issue of a starving person, should the Christian share Jesus first or food first? Most Christians will agree in principle that sharing food is sharing Jesus by living out the principles of the Kingdom, living out the life of Jesus himself, and that living the life of Jesus is of equal priority with teaching the words of Jesus. This same principle can apply much more broadly than when dealing with starvation.
So, is there ever a time when Christians should be activists for the gospel message? Should Christians use their political and social power to promote a uniquely Christian worldview knowing that it is the right worldview and the worldview most likely to get people saved? My perspective is informed by the teaching and example of Jesus. In nearly every story of healing, Jesus offers healing before offering any call to spiritual or moral transformation. In one case (the paralytic lowered from the roof) he actually offered forgiveness before the healing and never addressed repentance at all. My perspective is that Christians should definitely use whatever voice or influence they have to share the message of the good news of Jesus, but such proclamation should come after Christians have earned the right to speak such words, after Christians have demonstrated the good news of the Kingdom. That is, before advocating for Christian morality, Christians should be demonstrating the exceptional goodness of that morality!
“Activism is too Political”
As I talk about Christian Activism in light of environmental concerns, social equity, and the pursuit of truth and goodness, I am frequently misunderstood by people to be talking about politics, or that I have decided to be a political activist. By labelling me “political” they give themselves permission to disregard my perspective. This is because for many evangelicals, “political” is a pejorative term. If you were not raised in the North American white evangelical tradition from which I come, you might not know this connotation of the word “political,” but for many evangelicals, “politics” is the label used to dismiss any divisive topic that hasn’t become accepted evangelical dogma. It was the word used by antebellum Christians to dismiss the abolitionists. It was the word used by Christians all over the country in the 60s to dismiss civil rights efforts. Simply put, politics is the label for anything potentially divisive that we don’t want to talk about right now. Still, it’s worth noting that the word “politics” is employed with great hypocrisy among North American white evangelicals. For example, among evangelicals, talking about welfare expansion is political, but talking about reducing government spending is just being moral. Talking about granting immigrants a pathway to citizenship is political, but talking about “enforcing the laws” at the border is a moral issue. Talking about government sponsored healthcare is political, but talking about government prohibited abortion is moral. The line between political and moral is drawn wherever the evangelical culture deems it convenient even though each of these issues is obviously both. The process of convincing a wider society to live by your morality is intrinsically political, and the decisions made by politicians always have truly moral implications.
I highlight this issue now because it is the primary evangelical accusation against my line of reasoning throughout this chapter, and it is based on an evangelical double-speak when it comes to the word “politics.” Even as the word “love” has many different meanings, so too does the word “political” and the evangelicals who use it as a pejorative term (as I myself used to do) are empowered to do so because they are mixing categories. On the one hand, “political” is a narrow word that applies only to the machinations around getting elected, staying elected, or getting your way in the assembly of the other elected people. From this perspective, the power-brokering of political activity is irrelevant to the Christian church. However, “political” can also be a broad word that applies to the overall way a society operates and the way changes take place in that society. From that perspective, the process of politics is absolutely relevant to the Christian church. The evangelical church has been happy to leverage political power to achieve their “moral” aims while accusing efforts they don’t like as being “political.” It’s time for Christians to recognize this hypocrisy and simply call everything both. All issues that affect groups of people are simultaneously political and moral. The process of accomplishing moral goals for a group of people is a political process, and the political processes governing society are themselves moral or immoral and have moral or immoral implications.
Therefore, I claim that the activism I propose is not political in the narrow, insignificant, and easily dismissed meaning of the word, but this activism is definitely political in the broad sense of the word, the sense where Christian morality intersects with the broader society, and the sense where being moral involves taking into consideration how the actions of the society affects the people in that society. The concern for a Christian shouldn’t be whether something is “political” or not but whether something needs to be informed by Christian morality. For example, although my activism about stewardship of the Earth might sound the same as a non-Christian politician who uses the language of climate-concern to win votes, there is a category difference between what the two of us are attempting to do morally.
Still, because I have heard so often that I am being too political, I want to take the time to highlight just a few ways white American evangelicalism is guilty of hypocrisy when opposing those who, like me, are attempting to embrace a more biblical activism. In fact, it’s more than hypocrisy. It’s a form of syncretism, absorbing certain aspects of the current political landscape into the faith as if they are central tenets of the faith. This awkward syncretism leads to the rejection of clearly biblical moral responsibilities by simply calling them “political.” Here are three examples of that syncretism, that hypocrisy, in the form of three evangelical thoughts commonly expressed as moral values that are nothing more than narrow political opinions with no direct relevance to Christian morality.
“Capitalism is Good & Socialism is Bad”
Capitalism, socialism, and any other economic system are purely political perspectives that are peripheral to the Christian faith. Inasmuch as capitalism champions individual freedom, responsibility, and the potential for advancement, capitalism can be a tool to promote the dignity of individual people, but the same can also be said about other economic systems. Inasmuch as socialism champions the cause of the many, it can be a tool to promote the equity of people. Christian morality requires us to be champions of both dignity and equity, and therefore neither economic system can be considered purely Christian. Furthermore, like all systems of power, any economic system can be used as a tool by the advantaged to take advantage of the disadvantaged. Christians must remember that we advocate for the human dignity derived from the image of God and not for the systems that may or may not at times protect that dignity.
“Secularization is Bad”
Although the United States of America enjoyed nearly 200 years where Christianity was the assumed worldview held by nearly everyone and where Christian quotes, principles, and behaviors were displayed in the public square, it should never be assumed that the nation was ever a Christian nation. The perpetuation of slavery and segregation, the massacres and forced relocations of indigenous peoples, the internment of the Japanese during World War II, and our continued systems of racial injustice prove that the country as a whole has never been “Christian” in any way Jesus would endorse. Even the First Amendment, by guaranteeing freedom of religion to all people, proves that the USA has never been a specifically Christian nation. Furthermore, no New Testament writer ever encouraged Christians to create such a Christian nation or even to advocate that the broader society embrace uniquely Christian morals or behaviors. The apparent secularization of our society is entirely not our concern as Christians. Even if the surrounding society were to become overtly hostile to Christianity, we are still not instructed by anything in Scripture to ever “fight” against such a turn. Christians must remember that we are called to make disciples not nations.
“The Political Parties are Morally Distinct”
The specific interests of political parties and their platforms are completely peripheral to the Christian faith, and the idea that one party is more righteous than another is simple naïveté. The proper amount of taxation, the size of the government, the amount of freedom afforded to states, the existence of or height of a border wall, the number of immigrant visas granted in a year, the level of regulation regarding guns, etc. are all political issues adopted by parties for their own aims and are, in their details, peripheral to the church. Each of these issues may touch on an issue of concern to Christians because each of them may touch on an aspect of a central value like defending the cause of the weak or embracing truth over falsehood, but the issues themselves as phrased by political parties are peripheral to the church. Furthermore, even if one party has a platform that violates a principle of Christian morality, such a violation doesn’t make the entire party platform evil nor does it make rival parties righteous. No political party deserves Christian loyalty.
As one example, let’s consider the issue of immigration. In the United States, our political parties are relatively strongly divided on the issue. One side argues for better enforcement of the laws to protect the rights of citizens while the other side argues for more humanitarian treatment of the immigrant. Christians should find themselves in the middle. Proper Christian activism says we should concern ourselves with the issues of human dignity and equity on both sides, both the plight of those fleeing hardship or oppression in their own country and also the plight of those who might lose jobs because of expanded immigration in this country. Simply put, neither party is entirely morally right about this issue. Now, policies proposed by the parties will have varying degrees of compatibility with Christian morality, and each Christian has the right to advocate for or against a specific policy according to that morality, but we must remember that the policy details and especially the party platforms are peripheral to Christianity. Christians should bear no loyalty to any party, platform, or politician.
Sometimes, Political Issues ARE Moral Issues
Finally, some public policies do directly conflict with a central translatable value and should therefore be addressed by Christians using their voice and whatever influence they have. I have just commented on the moral implications of immigration policies, but for a more stark example, consider slavery. The chattel slave industry in this country was a legal public policy that was an affront to human dignity and therefore deeply immoral. It should never have been accepted by or even ignored by Christians. Also, the dehumanizing policies of the Jim Crow South or the economic disenfranchisement of Black people throughout the nation should never have been considered acceptable or even peripheral. These are but two examples, and there are many more. The line between peripheral and not peripheral when it comes to specific policies is often blurry, but Christians should not be afraid to label unjust public policies for what they are even if it means other Christians accuse them of being political.
There are a few other issues Christians should consider peripheral, but I will revisit them later in my discussion of idols in the church. Before then, let’s take a chapter to further apply these concepts.