Results tagged “Social Responsibility” from Reformation21 Blog

Mr. Moral Magoo?

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I'm sure there's a generational gap when someone refers to Mr. Magoo. If you're under 30, there's a good chance that you've probably never heard of Mr. Magoo. I just so happened to have watched enough classic cartoons over the years to have seen a few episodes. Mr. Magoo is a cartoon about a legally blind man who blundered around the city, never knowing where he was going or what he was doing. And yet he always seemed to end up in the right place. By the end of the episode, Mr. Magoo had tripped off of girders only to land on another girder exactly in the right place. It made no sense, but he always seemed to survive by the end of an episode. He accidentally made it every time. He had always gone the wrong way and ended up at the right place.

I wonder how many of us have good theology and solid moral positions, but we have no idea how we got to them. Many in the Church have "Magooed" themselves into moral and theological positions that happen to be biblically sound, but we have no idea how we got there. If someone asked us why we believe or do what we do, we couldn't give an answer for it beyond our own cultural norms.

Christians, of all people, need to understand that the why of our moral and theological positions is just as crucial as the what of our moral and theological positions. Here is one example of that about which I am thinking: 

In the south, when I read Scripture that relates to human sexuality, there is very little pushback. When I read Paul's words regarding homosexual behavior in the south, I am preaching to the choir. I still never have anyone come up to me after the service and say that they need to talk about what I said - maybe people are thinking it, but there isn't any obvious pushback. For most, I hope, this is because they're been exposed to the teachings of Scripture and submit themselves willingly and joyfully to God's own revealed will about biblical morality.

However, I suspect that many have simply inherited a proclivity toward the normativity of heterosexual even though they really have never been persuaded from Scripture that this is God's revealed will. Perhaps they personally find the idea repulsive, or they've never had friends with same-sex attraction, and maybe they've spent their whole lives just never even thinking much about the struggle that some people may have. "Of course it's sinful! I find it gross!" But if you asked them why, their answer would be thin and cultural, not thick and biblical. At this point we start to see that there is a very thin line (in fact, one might argue there's no difference at all) between bigotry and culturally inherited bias against homosexuality. It's a moral position that they are correct about, but only by accident.

Another example of this "magooing" of theology has to do with the issue of complementarianism. If our view that only men should be in leadership roles in the church is culturally inherited, but we really couldn't tell you how we got there from Scripture, then that is sexism. Apart from the command and teaching of Scripture, what we end up having is a culturally inherited belief that men are superior to women and therefore that men ought to lead the church, not women.

In both of these examples, what the church needs is a theologically robust understanding of what the Scripture says about human sexuality and about human sexual behavior. We need to encourage our churches to dig down deep into the text and ask ourselves, "What has God said?"

There is a practical reason why we must do this: if our moral and theological positions are only culturally informed, then they can be devastated by a more persuasive cultural norm when it shows its face. In fact, we see this happening quite a lot right now. It seems like the last two or three years have shown that many in the evangelical community had magooed themselves into their views of human sexuality and have been just as easily moved out of them.

Their views were thin and cultural, not thick and biblical. And so when they met someone who shattered their preconceptions about homosexuality, or when they had a son or daughter that revealed they were same-sex-attracted, then of course their culturally-informed (rather than biblically-informed) views folded in the face of overwhelming pressure. I've yet to meet anyone who identified as an evangelical, who subsequently folded on this issue and said, "You know, I look at the word 'arsenakoitai' in Scripture and what it means and had my whole mind changed." The Scriptural twisting ultimately must come after the cultural pressure has been applied and yielded to.

And here is the point: if our morality is culturally conditioned, then it cannot hold up in a day and age when the cultural pressure is so acute, so painful, and so obviously intended to make evangelicals adopt the new morality. Our understanding of God, and our understanding of what it is he requires of us has to be thick, biblical, and rooted in God's self-revelation. Anything less will be blowing in the wind.

A Historic Framework for Social Responsibility

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How shall the church think about social issues of race, justice and power? It is increasingly popular for these issues to be framed and discussed in the church using the categories of social justice and racial privilege as defined by the social sciences. In secular academic settings such categories find their genesis in and are tethered to Marxist systems of analysis. These systems emphasize the struggle between oppressed and oppressor. Marxist frameworks may have surface resonances with Biblical concerns for justice, equality and the poor. However, these frameworks emphasize the ongoing Hegelian struggle of thesis and antithesis without a clear pathway for resolution. Therefore, the insights gained from such analyses are not placed within a framework adequate to provide a healthy response to the social problems posed.

Rather than relying--almost exclusively in certain sectors of the church--on categories that find their genesis in systems hostile to orthodox Christianity, the church should rediscover the corrective guidance of its own tradition and draw upon its creedal and confessional resources. One such resource is the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC), a document famous for its exposition of the moral law of God. The WLC offers a paradigm for social responsibility, a framework for robust ethical reasoning, and points toward the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A Paradigm for Social Responsibility

We don't need to rely on Marxist paradigms to teach us about social responsibility. The WLC's rules for interpreting the moral law make it clear that we are, in fact, our brother's keeper. WLC 99 states that "what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places to endeavor that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places." Similarly, rule eight sates "what is commanded to others, we are bound, according to our places and callings, to be helpful to them; and to take heed of partaking with others in what is forbidden them."

The WLC does not envision a Christian unconcerned with the moral obligations of their neighbor. Loving your neighbor as yourself includes helping them obey God. In the WLC's exposition of the Ten Commandments, this concern extends to the physical welfare of our neighbors too (see WLC 141-142). Pietistic isolation is not an option. As human beings we are knit together in social relationships which incur moral obligation.

However, the WLC pushes past the simplistic collectivism of Marxist paradigms which posit blanket responsibility or victimization in collectives of race, class and gender. Accordingly, moral guilt or a claim to justice will accrue to these same collectives. The result is a powerful, yet vague and ultimately unhelpful, angst. By contrast the WLC goes further, providing a framework that has the capacity to yield particular pathways for repentance, obedience and advocacy. The WLC teaches that our moral obligations will also be informed by our places and our callings.

On the one hand this is freeing. The single mother working two low-wage earning jobs does share the same kind of moral responsibility as the wealthy CEO for her neighbors, but she does not share the same degree of moral responsibility as the wealthy CEO. On the other hand, it is morally challenging. True righteousness is measured by deeds not by angst. Marxist paradigms that call for awareness, angst and protest allow us to rest content with awareness, angst and protest. The WLC pushes further, calling for actual righteous deeds to be done according to your place and calling. When we stand before God we shall not be judged for how we felt, but for what we have done. Therefore, we need theories of social responsibility that provide particular guidance for obedience.

A Framework for Robust Ethical Reasoning

Pastors and historians alike can tell you that evil deeds are often justified through painfully atomistic readings of Scripture. Our sinful hearts are prone to suppress obvious moral implications from Biblical texts. Jesus summarized the ten commandments with two great laws of love. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind soul and strength. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:29-31). Jesus reasons even as he appeals to the heart.

The WLC follows Jesus and embraces a well-reasoned use of the law of God. Good and necessary inferences are drawn from the commandments, always with a view to the whole counsel of Scripture: "where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded: so, where a promise is annexed, the contrary threatening is included; and, where a threatening is annexed, the contrary promise is included." The WLC encourages a robust moral reasoning intended to give expression to the spirit of the law, lest our sinful hearts rest content with the letter of the law. Both the WLC's exposition of the commandments and the type of moral reasoning it encourages offer resources to fashion a Biblical response to issues of race, justice and power.

The Hope of the Gospel

The WLC makes it clear that the moral law of God binds all people at all times (WLC 91-93). It is the ethical standard that defines what Christians labor for in the public square as much as in the home. For example, the WLC reminds us that we are not to exercise "undue silence in a just cause" (WLC 145). We should "endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others" (WLC 142). In these matters the moral law of God will be our guide.

And yet, the WLC reminds us that ethics and morality are not social goods with which we can rest content. For love of God and neighbor we pursue earthly righteousness. But we accept that "none is righteous, no not one" (Romans 3:10). Therefore, there is no lasting hope without Christ. The law that guides our vision for justice will, if handled rightly, at the very same time convict us of our inability to keep it. For the regenerate this means that the law will "show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule to their obedience" (WLC 97). Here we see that the law moves us to worship and adore Christ when we realize that he kept it for us when we could not and bore its curse in our place. The WLC would have the law move our hearts to love Christ, and from that place of love to obey Christ.

For the unregenerate, the moral law is of use "to awaken their consciences to flee from wrath to come, and to drive them to Christ" (WLC 96). The law serves salvation by driving the unregenerate to Christ. We can never rest content with social transformation or the alleviation of earthly suffering. We will always be burdened to see spiritual transformation and the alleviation of eternal suffering. This is not to deny the God glorifying, neighbor loving value of alleviating temporal suffering. It is simply to remember that temporal suffering is temporal. Of course, to lean on the temporality of suffering as an excuse to ignore our neighbor's pain is wrong. But to forget that our neighbor faces eternal suffering is equally heartless, and with even greater consequences.

This understanding of the usefulness of the law for the unregenerate will inform how we exercise co-belligerence as Christians. Augustine famously coined the phrase City of Man to describe that realm of civil society where Christians labor with unbelievers for the common good. But, those with whom we labor in matters of social concern must take us as we are. We cannot make common cause with those who would demand we lay down the cross of Christ in order take up another cause. We cannot be silenced, for we must save both ourselves and our hearers.

Conclusion

In the spirit of avoiding what C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery," just because the Westminster Larger Catechism is old (1648) does not mean it is old-fashioned. It remains relevant today. Nor should we presume that because it was not heeded in earlier days that it did not speak clearly enough to be heard. Hearing was not the problem, heeding was. Chad Van Dixhoorn has noted that in the late 18th century the American Presbyterian church removed the word "depopulations" from the WLC's exposition of the eighth commandment. This ban "was embarrassing given the ongoing European settlement of territory once belonging to native Americans." One might wonder whether 19th century Presbyterians were not similarly embarrassed by the prohibitions against manstealing, defrauding one's neighbor and enriching oneself unjustly.

The WLC is not our only Biblical resource to address concerns over race, justice and power, but it is an important one. Our forebears seemed to have heard the WLC without heading it in these areas. We may find that tomorrow's embarrassment is not that we deleted a word from the WLC because it made us uncomfortable, but that we never bothered to read it seriously in the first place.

   

1. The Westminster Larger Catechism: With Scripture Proofs. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

2. Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2014), xxii.