Pastor’s Musings

Embracing Biblical Ethics, Pt. 1

How do we live as Christians? What does it mean to follow Jesus in the myriad situations of contemporary life? Think with me of all of the complex issues which face us on a daily basis – social media usage, persistent racism, abortion on demand, angry rhetoric, unrestrained consumerism, and so much more. In the youth group days of my early journey of faith, we would slap on bracelets bearing the letters WWJD (What would Jesus do?); but it seems that we now need more than shallow readings of the Gospels to chart a path through the predicaments. We need fully fleshed out biblical ethics.

In an earlier post, I made the suggestion that the adjective biblical implies four types of “openness” – to the Word, to the tradition, to the community, and to God’s creation. We rightly use this word when we have a posture of submission and attentiveness in these four areas of life. To be biblical is not to simply have the right set of beliefs about a given issue. Moreover, the description cannot be the sole possession of one group of Christians, as it is abundantly clear that many Christians of many denominations are trying to live in ways broadly consistent with this designation. It should not surprise us then that biblical ethics is not about simply knowing the rules or having a certain opinion about an important social issue. This needs to described in more detail.

Biblical ethics is not a list of rules. We live in one of the most legalistic cultures in the history of the world. When congressional bills are passed, they are often so complicated and so long as to be fundamentally inaccessible to the layperson. We have rules for every area of our lives. This is what we should and should not do at work. This is what we should or should not do when we are driving. These are the state laws that we must follow. Here are the local laws (seriously, the height of my grass?) that must be obeyed. On top of that, most of us are relentlessly interested in developing techniques and processes for how to accomplish our objectives. If you want to lose weight, you look for a diet-and-exercise system that works. If you want to manage your time better, you desire someone to give you a step-by-step plan to follow. We often add the final touch by telling people if they are violating our protocols, especially focusing on those people with whom we disagree online.

But the Bible does not give us a list of rules for Christian living. Though they can be printed in a similar format, the Ten Commandments can never be treated like the “pool rules” we find down at the community center. Take the first and last commandments for example. The first commandment tells God’s people: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 NIV). To not place others before God is not less than a rule, but it is certainly more. For the question of idolatry is not about external conformity alone. It invites us to ask serious questions about what we desire and what we love. Do we love anything else before we love God? And how about the last commandment – “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17)? Coveting is an inner condition. Coveting is something that we do in the heart. To not dive in the shallow section requires no character formation. Biblical commandments call on far more than external obedience.

Biblical ethics is not the “right” opinion on contemporary social issues. In this connection, it is important to emphasize that, though the Holy Spirit wields all parts of the Word to accomplish God’s purposes in our lives, the Scriptures were writen for cultures different than our own. This by no means suggests that the Bible has no relevance for our contemporary social issues. Such a suggestion is contrary to the Bible’s 0wn witness about itself (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It does, however, mean that the Bible does not address our social concerns in a direct manner, as if it was designed for that purpose. As God’s inspired Word, Holy Scripture speaks to people of all cultures without attaching itself permanently to any one culture and its concerns.

The Bible teaches us a range of things which have a bearing on much discussed social issues. We know that human beings are made in the image of God and should be treated accordingly (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; James 3:9-10). We know that God wants his people to care for the vulnerable (Exodus 22:21-24; James 1:27). We know that the Israelites were to build safety measures into their houses to prevent needless death (Deuteronomy 22:8). In Paul’s epistles, we see that governing authorities have been given by God the authority to uphold justice (Romans 13:3-4) and that we are to pray for those in authority so that all people might live dignified lives (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Now what do all of these things (and more!) have to do with gun control policies? The Bible certainly speaks to the issue, but we can’t simply flip open our Bible and find the answer in Numbers. The alternative is to observe that biblical ethics is mostly about the way in which we go about our ethical decision making and the priorities that we have as we do so. Of course, some answers are more biblical and God-glorifying than others. Good and evil, right and wrong, are still helpful designations. But it does take some intellectual and spiritual work to get there.

If biblical ethics is neither a rules list nor positions on social issues, what is it? I will take this up next time.

Building a Biblical Worldview

Since I was in third grade, I have worn glasses in order to correct a pernicisous case of near-sightedness. Without my glasses, my world becomes meaningless scribbles and moving blobs. With my glasses, blurry edges become sharp and dark blots become words. My glasses are the means by which I make visual sense of the world.

I became a follower of Jesus in my teenage years. From the earliest days of my discipleship, I heard pastors and leaders speaking of the need to develop a biblical worldview. Everything from public scandal to weak theology to the rise of secularism was attributed to the failure of Christians to develop a biblical view of life and the world. After many years of listening to the call to biblical worldview, I find myself both more confused about and more committed to the concept.

There is much to be confused about in the concept. In its most basic articulation, we might say that a worldview is the pair of glasses through which we make sense of the world. Things can get a little bit more fuzzy after that, and many questions abound. Is worldview primarily a thought-oriented enterprise or does it involve our emotional and pyschological shaping? Can worldviews be categorized in large, generalized categories (i.e. Marxism, secular humanism, Christianity, and other -isms) or are worldviews as unique as individuals (i.e. my way of seeing the world vs. your way of seeing the world)? Is it a list of propositions about the world or a metanarrative (a grand story) that we use to describe our experience of reality? What comes first – thoughts about the world or behaviors in the world? Many more questions can be generated, and the potential answers abound.

Yet for all of the confusion, I intuitively know that worldviews matter. We all interpret the world based on some notion of how things work. That notion or set of notions about how things work comes from our culture and upbringing and is both taught and reinforced by ritual and habit. There are big, generalized elements and personalized elements. For example, almost all Americans take for granted that food can be purchased in a store, without need to personally grow or kill what we eat. Beyond that, any given American might have had unique experiences of food in their childhood. The big picture concept (we buy what we eat) works with the personalized element (my mom made me clean my plate) to produce a way of thinking about food. I no longer conceive of worldviews as lists of propositions that are clearly held. The apologetics books of my younger days cheapened the concept by turning people into brains on sticks. Worldviews involve what we regularly do and the kind of emotional responses that we have to the world around us.

The Bible lays the groundwork for how we should think about worldviews. A biblical worldview is not primarily a list of things we think about the world but a way of living in the world that represents biblical priorities and grows out of the biblical story. In that regard, worldview is vitally connected to wisdom. Wisdom has been called the art of skillful living. To live skillfully, you have to have a grasp (not just cognitively) of how creation works and how people work and how God wants people to live in the world. This worldview-wisdom does not begin with lists of propositions but with the fear of the Lord – “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7 NIV). A biblical worldview is also about walking in the light in fellowship with God and his people – “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). And walking in God’s light changes how we see the world. As the Psalmist says, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9).

The metaphor of glasses is helpful when thinking of worldviews, but I wonder if it misses something important. After all, glasses can be put on or taken off. They are always external to us. But a biblical worldview isn’t something simply believed or disbelieved, put on or off. Instead, a biblical worldview is the way I live in the world. Maybe it is more like the muscle memory that makes it possible for me to hop on my bike and ride down the street.

When my glasses are on, I can even see the trees and houses around me as I ride.

For a good overview of the biblical story, see Michael Williams’s Far as the Curse is Found.

For a dip into the idea that worldview is more than propositions but also ritual and affection, see James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love.

Suffering for Jesus

Before I return to my series on living biblically, I would like to share a thought that has been running through my mind since the 39th General Assembly of the EPC. We were blessed to hear from missionary and former Turkish prisoner Andrew Brunson. And his message to the body was this: we need to prepare ourselves for coming persecution. He meant right here in the United States. He taught that persecution is coming because Jesus told us to expect it. You can see the video above. Seriously, stop reading this and watch it!

My basic thought is that one of the greatest tests of true Christian unity that we will ever experience will be whether we are willing to suffer with and for our brothers and sisters in Christ. In our congregations, will we suffer with and for sisters and brothers? Even the ones that we don’t always get along with?

And what about the wider church? Will mainline Christians suffer with and for evangelicals? Will evangelicals suffer with and for fundamentalists? Will Presbyterians suffer with and for Pentecostals? Will Protestants suffer with and for Catholics? Though I certainly don’t want to suffer, I can’t help but imagine that the surprising configurations of mutual consolation and encouragement born out of persecution could be one of the greatest testimonies to the vitality and beauty of the Christian faith that our nation has yet seen.

On Being Biblical

Evangelical Christians often use the adjective biblical to sort and categorize various arguments and practices. You may hear us say things like, “I am going to a biblical counselor now” or “I am a part of this church because the preaching is biblical.” To be biblical is to be acceptable and good. To be unbiblical is to be unacceptable and bad. “Don’t go to an unbiblical church.” “Stay away from her books – her ideas are unbiblical.” You get the point.

The challenge is that our use of this word is often contestable. What does any given person mean when they use the word biblical? I am afraid that, often enough, our use of the word is really just a way to hide our own preferences and views behind a whitewash of righteous language. I do not think that we should abandon the use of the word biblical; nor do I think that we should give up on the quest to pursue biblical expressions of the faith. In fact, in the next few blog posts, I will be discussing the pursuit of a biblical worldview, biblical community, and biblical ethics. But the easy abuse of this term causes me to think that we should slow down and consider what it means to be biblical.

In general, I think that being a biblical Christian is more about cultivating a certain way of life than maintaining a certain list of propositions. It is more about a posture before God and neighbor than it is a certain affilation or denomination. In particular, I would suggest that being biblical is about four types of openness.

  1. Openness to the Bible. At first glance this seems obvious. But it is surprisingly easy to be perfectly orthodox and yet closed to the teaching and power of Scripture. A biblical faith is always oriented to what the Spirit is saying through the Word of God. It is always listening and striving to hear the Word. When instruction is clearly given, a biblical faith receives the instruction. When instruction is not clearly given, a biblical faith seeks to apply scriptural principles and scripture-soaked imagination to the problem at hand. Openness to the Bible is not about mastery of the text. If one thinks that the text can be mastered, then one has missed the message of Scripture. The Bible is a weapon wielded by the Spirit of God to accomplish the purposes of God. Mastery of the text is not realistic. Instead, a biblical faith is constantly seeking to be mastered by the text within the context of our present situation. Because of the limits of our knowledge and the reality of our sinfullness, there will be diversity of views and interpretations among those who consider themselves biblical. What unites these people is not a list of propositions or a certain brand affiliation but a fundamental orientation towards the Word of God as authoritative and the Spirit of God as active and present.
  2. Openness to the tradition. If we are open to the Bible, then we are also open to the apostolic teaching which has been passed down from one generation to the next. There is a “faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3 NIV). The Bible witnesses within its own pages to the beginning of this tradition. You cannot consider yourself biblical and ignore the great tradition of the Christian faith. The Trinity. The two natures of Christ. The deity and personality of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, women and men throughout history have been listening to God’s Spirit speak to them through Holy Scripture. So biblical Christians want to hear from Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin and Billy Graham precisely because these people tried to listen to the Bible. Encountering the great women and men of Christian history leads us back to an encounter with the Bible. There have been times in Christian history when the “just me and my Bible” approach have led to heterodoxy and disorder. Learning from our collective past is a sure mark of a biblical faith. Again, it becomes clear that just as the great tradition of the Christian faith does not belong to a single denomination, so the the adjective biblical does not belong to one branch of the family tree.
  3. Openness to the community. If we are open to those who have gone before us in the faith, then we must also be open to the views, arguments, and well-being of those who currently share in this faith with us. In evangelicalism, relationships and doctrine have sometimes been set in opposition to one another. Relational-emphasis Christians have called on us to avoid divisive conversations and focus on joint works of mission. Doctrinal-emphasis Christians have called on us to take seriously the intellectual nature of the faith and to join together in opposition to false teaching. But I am not sure that it is possible to have sound community without sound doctrine or sound doctrine without sound community. A biblical faith is always interested in the well-being of the community of God’s covenant people, precisely because God’s Spirit tells us in Scripture that a fruitful faith is a faith that grows in the soil of healthy relationships. The fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self control (see Galatians 5:22-23) – are expressed in relationships with others. After all, what kind of kindness or forbearance is only practiced in isolation? And just as biblical Christians take seriously the people near to them, we also take seriously the testimonies of believers of every nationality, language, and culture. We accept that we are not the only faithful ones in the world and that the Holy Spirit is present with many other people in many other places. So biblical Christians will be interested in ecumenical and cross-cultural perspectives.
  4. Openness to the world. Finally, biblical faith is interested in what is actually present in the world. Biblical faith takes seriously that God is the creator and lord of all things, and so therefore his truth is present in all things. The Bible is not just spiritual truth but true to what actually exists in creation. The biblical Christian is free to learn from what God has made known in history, science, and art. If God is our creator, then our world is his creation. A biblical faith cannot, therefore, ignore the findings of rigorous exploration in many fields. Our faith is not properly biblical if it proceeds as if the Bible provided “spiritual” truth that somehow exists independently of the “facts” of day-to-day living. When we learn from other fields, we are not abandoning the Bible but engaging God’s world (with our Bibles in hand, of course).

So a biblical faith is a posture in which we are constantly listening to God’s Spirit speaking in the Bible, learning from the saints that have gone before us, loving the saints that are with us now, and engaging the world which God has made. In the posts that follow, I will be applying this vision of biblical living to the formation of worldview, community, and ethics. I hope that you can join me in the study.

Led by the Spirit, Pt. 3

Pentecost mosaic in the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis. Picture retrieved from http://www.romeofthewest.com/2014/06/pentecost.html.

There are at least two more issues that need to be discussed as I conclude my thoughts on being led by the Spirit. The first issue is the nature of living in Spirit-led community. The second issue is the nature of spiritual gifts. On the first point, it is fundamental to our faith to recognize that, though our faith is personal (i.e. taking each of us seriously as unique persons in relationship with a personal God), our faith is not individualistic. Reformed Christians believe and teach that God has a covenant with his people, best expressed in the biblical statement, “They will be my people, and I will be their God” (Jeremiah 32:38 NIV). This covenant forms the reality in which we exist. This covenant includes commands, promises, stipulations, vows, love, mercy, and grace. We do everything that we do from our location within God’s covenant people.

And so we exist in this community, and the other members of this community are also persons in whom the Spirit is dwelling. They too have the privilege of being led by the Spirit in the way described in previous posts. They sense the Spirit guiding them through their thoughts, feelings, intuitions, and other personal characteristics. Problems arise when two or more Spirit-led persons seem to crash into one another through disagreement and difference of opinion. How do we sort out the mess of being seemingly out of step with other persons in whom the Spirit dwells? “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33a).

Several things might be said, but it is important to remember a few key ideas about the Christian life. First, the Christian life is a humble life. We accept that we are finite persons who can get things wrong. Every time that we disagree with a sister or brother is an opportunity from the Lord to personally disclose ourselves to that person and to be honest before the Lord about our own finiteness and frailty. Second, the Christian life is a submissive life. Our first submission is to our God. But we also submit to other persons within the church. In a Presbyterian congregation, this is beautifully demonstrated when elders vote on a matter and those who voted in the minority agree to abide by the decision of the whole. Third, the Christian life is a teachable life. Teachable persons know they need to learn, and they accept that others will be placed by the Spirit in their path to provide them these learning moments. Fourth, the Christian life is a loving life. We never go wrong when we try to love and serve others across our disagreements.

As for the matter of spiritual gifts, it is enough for the time being to say that our spiritual endowments operate in ways consistent with the leadership of the Spirit as described in the last post. God can extend his grace in remarkable and extraordinary ways. Yet more often than not, I think there are thin boundaries between natural talent, personal development, and spiritual endowment. For example, Paul mentions the word of wisdom as a spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 14:7). It is possible that the Lord will give members of his body a sudden bolt of wisdom. We may with a flash know what word to speak to the person before us, and know in a manner resembling the conversational intimacy of with relationships. But we may also know the wise thing to say to a person, and know this based on years of experience and reflection. I once was meeting with a seminary professor. He listened to me share about some things in my life. And then he spoke a few sentences to me which were perfectly suited to the situation I was facing. They felt like a revelation to me. But I know that he said this “word of wisdom” because he had years ago set out on the path to acquire wisdom and had honed his thinking and pastoral sensitivity after much practice. And yet there is no doubt in my mind that what he shared came from the leadership of the Spirit. I know this, not because he received a word in some dramatic moment, but because of the way his words seemed crafted to speak to my heart in that precise situation.

Craftsmanship may be an excellent way to think of the gifts of the Spirit. Think about Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:16: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Spiritual gifts exist for the building up of the body, and each bearer of a gift is, therefore, a builder. Just as Bezalel was empowered by the Spirit to craft the tabernacle, so Christians are empowered by the Spirit (through ordinary and extraordinary means) to build the community of God’s people. And when the church is built up in faithfulness to God, we know that the Spirit is leading.

Led by the Spirit, Pt. 2

In my last post, I suggested that conversational intimacy – two or more persons disclosing themselves to one another in close proximity – is a significant part of with relationships. Because of this, we often long for it to be a part of our relationship with the Holy Spirit. But to have this kind of intimacy with the Spirit would actually place a limit on our relationship with him. Instead, Jesus tells his disciples that the Spirit will be in them. There is a deeper relationship in view, and the good news is that Christians – by God’s grace at work within them – are already experiencing this relationship. The task remains for us to learn how to recognize the Spirit’s leadership and grow in our relationship with him.

Jesus’s words in John 15 are crucial in understanding the nature of this relationship. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5 NIV). Now the vine and the branches are distinct – a branch can be removed from a vine without diminishing the vine. And yet it would be inappropriate to speak of the life of the branch as somehow different than the life of the vine. Instead, we see that the vitality of the plant flows up from the roots through the vine and comes to expression in the individual branch. This must be something close to the relationship that we have with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit expresses his personal qualities (will, desire, thought, etc.) in us. You might even say – to borrow an expression from Lutheranism – that his personal qualities are expressed “in, with, and under” our personal qualities. He interpenetrates our being in such a way that he thinks through our thoughts, feels through our emotions, and senses things through our intuition. To say this all with a Pauline slant – “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). So we must work, and even as we are working God is working in us to bring about his purposes.

We might adapt from C. S. Lewis an analogy from music (he used it to discuss the moral law and our impulses in Mere Christianity). Imagine that all of our personal attributes (will, emotions, habits, and the like) are the keys of a piano. Now think of the Spirit as a master performer. He comes along and engages the right keys in the right tempo to bring about a beautiful peace of music. We are bringing forth the sounds – these are truly our thoughts and emotions and intuitions – and yet they are sounding out because of the personal intentions of the Spirit. He is leading us. If we grieve him with our ongoing sin, then we find that he permits us to try and play the music on our own. We might with great effort ape his performance for a time, but eventually we will begin missing notes and falling out of tune. To ignore the Spirit’s work is to play discordant music. Hence there is a contrast between the acts of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21) and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

Now it is true that sometimes the thoughts or the intuitions we have will be so startling and so seemingly other than the normal course of our experience that it will feel like the with relationships we know so well. In thinking of my own call to ministry, I remember experiencing in a time of prayer a thought that entered my mind with such force that it seemed audible. I understood this to be the Lord calling me to serve His church. Or we might experience the sudden urge to pray for someone, only to find out later that they were experiencing a significant event at that very time. But more often, I think, we will think and feel and sense things in perfectly ordinary ways. We will be doing some type of inductive Bible study, and grasp hold of the meaning of a passage. We will hear a prayer request spoken out loud and simply pray for the person because we were asked. How do we know this is the work of the Spirit? Because the fruit of our lives will be love, joy, peace, and the other things identified in Scripture as the signs of God’s work. Our life will have a sense of integrity and rightness that is deeper than circumstances and passing moods. But if things start to go out of tune, if discord and impatience and strife mark our path, then maybe we need to take the time to personally disclose ourselves again to the Spirit who lives within us. Remember – “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). So the “full” life which Jesus promises is a sign that our personal qualities are being guided by the Spirit. The loss and devastation of life (which is different, in this case, than external suffering) is a sign that we are not cooperating with the Spirit in his work.

Therefore, be free of the burden of pursuing the elusive with relationship with the Spirit. Instead, work out your salvation (which you did not or could not earn) and trust that God is at work within you. Study Scripture. Pray. Do acts of mercy. Worship with God’s covenant people. The Spirit is leading you in these things, and he will continue to do so. As we consider the matter of being led by the Spirit, there are at least two more issues that need to be taken up. We will consider them in the next post.

Led by the Spirit, Pt. 1

Friendship by Pablo Picasso. Accessed at hermitagemuseum.org.

What does it look like and feel like to be led by the Holy Spirit? If we believe Paul’s writings, then we find that this question is crucial to living the Christian life. He writes in Romans 8:14, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” (NIV). Moreover, we find these words in Galatians 5:25, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” So how do we experience this walking with the Spirit? Are we concious of this leading or does it run in the background of our lives? Does this involve audible voices or sudden eureka moments? Is being led by the Spirit different than other expressions of God’s providence?

If we are going to get a sense of the Spirit’s leading, we must begin by affirming that the Spirit of God is personal. He is a Person of the Trinity, fully possessing the Divine Nature. What is a person? A person, at least in my simple explanation, is a unique center of will, emotions, thoughts, and habits. A personal relationship involves two or more such unique centers disclosing something of these thoughts, emotions, desires, and habits to one another. So to be led by the Spirit means that we are in a personal relationship with the Spirit. We would expect then some type of personal disclosure from the Spirit, reciprocated with our personal disclosure to him.

But our relationship with the Spirit is unlike our relationship with other human persons. In a relationship with another human person, the other person remains outside of us, and we are never able to fully know the other person (as if we could fully know ourselves). Yet Jesus says, “But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:17b). So the Spirit is not merely with us but in us. Though we often think of intimacy with the Spirit as something like the conversational intimacy we have with loved ones, it is clear that this image doesn’t do justice to the nature of this relationship. Conversational intimacy – or even the deep intimacy pictured in Picasso’s Friendship – is ultimately only an expression of a with relationship. But we have an in relationship with the Spirit.

There is power in realizing this simple truth. If you are like me, you have wondered why you do not have the kind of conversational intimacy with God’s Spirit that you have with other friends and family members. You consider your faith deficient, and you probably look for experiences that you think will finally make your relationship with the Spirit evident. Is there a prayer practice, a charismatic service, a practical manual, or something else that can finally satisfy your longing and assuage your guilt? Be relieved of this burden. The truth is that a relationship with the Spirit is too intimate and too unique to be contained within conversational, with relationships. We may think that we desire this, but God is already working within us in deeper ways. We need to have our vision enlarged to see the work he is already doing. Next time we will explore what it looks like to be led by one who lives in us.