Christian ethical community

Christian ethical community. 1

A. Talking to the world (including church) about change. 1

Ontology of change. 1

B. Talking to the church about change. 5

Community of Faith. 10

Community of Love. 14

C. Talking to the church about some central ethical matters. 16

Individual Character and change. 17

Social Character and change. 28

D. Talking to the church concerning controversial ethical matters. 45

Individual Character, Abortion and sexual morality. 45

Individual Character and Homosexuality. 47

Individual Character, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage. 62

Summary: Individual Character, Human Sexuality, Christian Norms. 69

Social Character and Ecclesial Considerations of Political Power 77

Social Character and Environment 78

Social Character and Capital Punishment 83

Social Character and Pacifism.. 85

Social Character and Women in Ministry. 94

Social Character and world religions. 100


A. Talking to the world (including church) about change

Ontology of change

            As a discipline, writers all too often limit spirituality and ethics to consideration of rules for individuals. This approach forgets the importance of ethical reflection and action in the context of the structure of human life and the end or purpose of human life. This context also raises the question of a meaningful and well-lived life. The openness of human beings to an uncertain and undefined future is an important element of ethics. Ethical reflection is an integral component of who we are as human beings and is significant for our consideration of the end, destiny, or purpose of humanity.

            Ethics is a universal concern for humanity, and as such involves an understanding or philosophy of culture and society. Ethics reflects on ultimate goals and purposes for humanity. From a theological perspective, such a concern is not isolated as a phenomenon. Rather, it is part of our understanding of reality. Ethical concerns are part of the structure of a meaningful human life. This perspective is different from the pre-modern relegation of ethics to the realm of subjective and practical application, and religion to the objective realm of culture. In this presentation, what I want to avoid is that while ethics is universal, religion is a private and inward matter. I want to spend a few moments reflecting upon what a meaningful life in the context of the importance of the future from Christian theology.

            The future rule of God is genuinely future. The nature of things has not yet appeared. Yet, it involves the essence of past and present. The future as defined by God involves that constitutes the being of past and present. Therefore, that future is already in relationship with past and present. The being of things depends upon the process of time. The outcome of the process will determine whether things long since disappeared will find a place in the rule of God. Eternity constitutes being in through outcome of the historical process. Time is a process that contributes to the essence or identity of things. The ultimate future makes the final determination as to the essence of things. That future becomes the substance of things about which it decides.

            The openness of human beings to the world suggests that the essence of humanity one cannot fully know. Rather, the essence of humanity is always genuinely open to the future. Humanity will always need to orient drives toward something. That orientation occurs through experiences of the world. The physical and social world within which one finds oneself become the sources and means through which this orientation takes place. The world as humanity finds it does not bring satisfaction, so humanity continually remakes the physical and social world. Humanity transforms the world that once appeared given and static. Cultural formation, however, will never have the same significance for humanity as does nature for animals. Human questions go beyond what any culture can provide. Human questions go beyond any framework the social world provides. Humanity discovers its nature in the things at hand or in the social world as it is. Humanity itself is a question that has not yet received its answer. Human openness points beyond, to a reality that is not of the world. Yet, this openness includes this particular time and place. This openness points to an unknown reality humanity seeks, for in relationship to that reality human nature finds the fulfillment of its destiny.

            The future rule of God determines the essence the essence of humanity and the achievement of human destiny. Hope in the future rule of God anticipates the effect unknown events will have on the essence of individuals and on the essence of humanity. This combination of future with eternity anticipates truth, for simple progress is not hope if it goes nowhere. Future essence participates in eternity and therefore constitutes the ground of reality, the hidden essence of the presence. The future essence is already present in a hidden way, and one can therefore anticipate it and draw our identity from it, even if it must always remain an open present for us. A future without eternity becomes meaningless change.

            People speak of the death of God in a modern civilization because of the emphasis upon science, technology, social institutions that give people a high degree of control over their common future, and the anthropocentric nature of modernity. Hegel spoke of the infinite sorrow of a culture in which God is absent and finite reality has become absolute. He also believed this was a necessary stage on the way toward communion with God.

            The modern social world as it presently exists is not the final form human society will take. Complete neutrality in religion is an illusion. More importantly, the emancipation of the individual requires connection to a community. The loss of family and the need to form personal identity in the context of community is an important dimension of human life. Culture cannot survive if significant numbers of persons lead lives without meaning or significance. Nor can culture survive if the only connections are matters of external coercion. Internal bonds between individuals and groups need to form in order for individuality and community to find provisional fulfillment in a social world.

            The hope in the future rule of God that we experience in the present in a hidden way makes an important contribution to human self-understanding. If humanity is doomed to a future empty of essence, it means that personal and communal identity is threatened as well. We anticipate a future different from our present, doing so in hope, or in fear and anxiety. Personal and communal identity requires anticipation of eternity. Such anticipation provides a framework for orienting and committing oneself to one’s world. The accelerating pace of change within modernity requires such centers of orientation and commitment in order to preserve personal and corporate identity.

            Getting beyond oneself appears to be the principle of all life, not just human life. All living organisms gain their identity in relation to other organisms. The human mind is able to stand beyond oneself and know that one anticipates in hope or fear. One way to think of this principle of life is that of spirit. We still maintain a dimension of this meaning by the use of the word “spirited” as one who is especially lively or full of life. In this sense, the divine spirit grasps us and moves us beyond. The immanence of spirit works toward integration and identity of an individual or group, occurring through a series of movements beyond self. Transcendence of spirit is that which is beyond self, yet which the self never fully contains. Transcendence never belongs to the individual, even though the individual can participate in it. Yet, the distinction between human and divine spirit is not appropriate, for it deprives humanity of understanding spirit. The risk is always that in moving beyond self we may encounter nothing but self.

            In taking a stand beyond oneself, one already admits that one does not have the capacity to give meaning to one's own life. One looks for something beyond one's particular life to give that life meaning. One's particular setting one views in the context of larger horizon of meaning that one at least anticipates. Recognizing the limits of any social system suggests that if human life is to have meaning, one must connect to something beyond them. One never experiences that wholeness of meaning fully, but rather provisionally.

            I would like to consider why it is that Christians need to consider the future rule of God as the proper foundation for our reflection on spiritual and moral matters.

            The context of the ethic of Jesus is the soon arrival of the rule of God. Many modern persons consider this a liability. It would appear that since the end of the world as we know it did not occur quickly, the ethical teaching of Jesus and of the early church do not have continuing validity. The fact that the church formed a canon suggests otherwise, for the canon presupposes theological discussion concerning the continuing validity of certain texts. The question is whether Christian ethics needs to have a continuing connection to the Christian hope for the rule of God and the consequent of the fulfillment of creation and the wholeness of humanity.

            First, we need to acknowledge that for modern persons, certain foundations for ethics are not persuasive. One is the proclamation of ethical imperatives backed by divine command. Although some people may not steal or commit adultery because of a divine command, their number rapidly declines in a modern civilization. Of course, this is far from true in pre-modern civilizations like those formed by Islamic culture. Neither can the appeal to conscience provide a norm for behavior. Conscience is an important dimension of the structure of being human, but it is also open to the changes of cultural convention. Further, Immanuel Kant was not successful in finding a formal imperative of action according to reason. Kant and the de-ontological tradition wanted to gain the perspective of the disinterested observer. It wants objectivity and necessity as a foundation. Yet, ethics arises out of what concerns us, and usually in specific instances. One could justify many atrocities based on the idea that one should follow a universal law. One problem with the rule that one’s own actions should be suitable as a principle of general legislation is that it denies the particularity and uniqueness of this moment of ethical action that may at times require behavior that would defy formulation as a principle suitable for universal application. Finally, the foundation of ethics in an accepted authority, such as the hierarchy of the church, demands obedience to an external authority with no further reason than that it is the authority. The suggestion is that obedience now will bring reward in the future, another form of eudaemonism.

            I would suggest that we seek a foundation for ethical life in ontology. We can do this with an understanding of human action that goes beyond already existing patterns of behavior. Honestly confronting what is, ethics must point to what is to be, what can be, what ought to be.

            A good place to start is connecting ethics with what is beyond presently realized human conditions. Such was the starting point of Socrates, who defined the good as that which all people lack and for which they strive. He made a distinction between what is and what ought to be, between being and value. That good is that which humanity does not possess, that which humanity must still strive to realize. This quest for the good, seeking what is good for human beings, provides the best staring point for ethical investigation.

            The mistake of Socrates was in connecting the good with what is good for the individual. It led to eudaemonism. People seek what is good for them, yet life is ambiguous enough that they deceive themselves as to what is actually good for them. It suggests that the final concern of humanity is with humanity. Humanity is alone in the universe. When we define the good as happiness for humanity, we inescapably conclude that what matters is humanity. In fact, this was precisely Augustine’s definition of sin: individuals seeking their own happiness instead of God.

            The question now becomes how we determine the nature of the good. We can agree that the end that humanity moves toward for its own sake is God. The condition for the hope of future happiness is commitment to God. Augustine moves toward the possibility that God, the true good, has priority over the happiness that God may grant in the future. The good is the future that yet needs fulfillment.

            Unfortunately, Augustine suggested that God had quiet enjoyment of happiness in another world. We encounter the dualism and the pessimism regarding the world that induced a tendency to escape this world by looking for salvation in another. This same problem often engages the piety of the New Testament. Further, the eschatology of Augustine was transcendent, a being separate from the world who is also the goal of pious striving, leading to the desire to escape this world. God became a self-sufficient being, caught within transcendent and self-sufficient being. The idea that God is an entity that has the definite mode of being in some transcendent realm inevitably suggested that love for God moves in another direction than love for the world and for humanity.

            In correcting Augustine, we need to view God as one who affirms the world, relating to the world as creator and as the hope for its future. God is the one who comes to establish the rule of God in this world. The idea of the good is essentially related to humanity and the human world because the good is concerned with the future of this human being the world of humanity. God becomes the ultimate good of the ethical quest. The rule of God and the full revelation of the existence of God await the future, thereby connecting to the future of the good as that which humanity does not possess but which is also the object of striving. God is the embodiment of the good. This good has priority over all human striving for the good. In this sense, the rule of God defines the ultimate horizon for all ethical statements.

            If we care about anything, we are already in the moral struggle. Such care about the world is part of our ontological structure. Our openness to the world suggests continually being acted upon and acting in response to the conditions of the world. Making moral choices is always in this context of particularity from which we cannot abstract ourselves. I do not find it helpful to imagine a different setting, in which I might attain a degree of objectivity and universality in my moral choices. The modern civilization is one element of that setting, but the family, community, and the church are other elements of sometimes competing and sometimes supporting contexts of moral decision-making.

            Specifically ethical reflection has the awareness that what is, is not what ought to be. It also recognizes that ethical decisions occur in an ambiguous world, meaning that no ethical principle is absolute, but rather exist in tension with other principles and with the particular situation. Christianity encourages human beings and societies to look beyond present achievements and orient oneself toward the fulfillment of the good life in God. Christianity recognizes that a human world will never fulfill the aspirations of humanity. Such meaning and fulfillment to human endeavor we find in God. Christianity relativizes all human endeavors in light of the future God has prepared for humanity. The direction such reflection and action takes, and the contribution Christianity can make, is a process we need to consider.

            I accept myself as an agent or actor in history. I accept responsibility for my life story. I have the resources to make my life genuinely mine. I can locate myself within a community that includes a political, economic, and civic structure, as well as one of the church. Even things that happen to me that are beyond my control I can choose to make part of my story. The expectations of those with whom I associate to some degree shape my character, as they become my expectations of myself. We do not simply create by isolated will and determination character or the meaning structure of life. This orientation of self is what we understand sin to be. Rather, character and the meaning structure of life are the gift we receive through our involvement in various communities, which in turn make us aware of their limits. The limits of satisfaction and meaning we receive in human community connect us to the possibility beyond them and orient us toward god. Christian life is an attraction to Christ, to seek the formation of a Christ-like life, and to share with others the joy of that life.


B. Talking to the church about change

            The rest of the essay deals with what I would suggest are issues peculiar to the church in the way to shapes its ethical life. Portions of the ethical life as shaped in the church may be quite difficult for some persons to follow. However, the importance of Christian community is that others are present to help, support, encourage, and hold accountable. Here are a few considerations.

            The churches have a responsibility to continue the discussion that the apostolic witness began in matters related to a well-lived and reasonably happy human life. In matters related to vice and virtue, the New Testament is reasonably clear about the kind of life Christians are to develop and the kind of life they must avoid. In some areas, sufficient ambiguity exists to continue discussion. Such reading of the text requires the modern reader to listen carefully, wisely, and with discernment.                        

            We need to consider the relationship between law and gospel. I want to consider both the Mosaic Law and the natural law of conscience and their connection with the gospel.

            In pre-modern societies, religion provided justification for the order of society. Part of that order was the legal system. Pre-modern societies find it necessary to legitimate their legal system by divine authorization. With divine authorization came the inability to revise or replace. Rather, exposition of divine law became the focus of priestly activity. The law is a fixed formulation of the will of God.  The law binds one to a specific form of conduct.

            The orientation of Jesus to the future rule of God, combined with the belief that the rule of God began through the ministry of Jesus, meant that Jesus altered his approach to Torah in two directions. He could now read Torah through the fulfillment of Torah in the command to love God and neighbor. As such, any claim in Torah that did not aim toward these two commands or assist in their fulfillment he could set aside or re-interpret. Another direction in which Jesus altered his approach to Torah was that he viewed any application of Torah in light of the future and coming reign of God. In these ways, Jesus made Torah relative in its authority. He also opened up the possibility of discovering the normative value of Torah as given to Israel.

            For Christians, Jesus has meant release from the authority of Torah. Paul makes it clear that the death of Jesus on the cross fulfills the sacrificial dimension of Torah. Further, the moral dimensions of Torah find fulfillment in life by the Spirit. Paul viewed the law in the context of salvation history.  Unfortunately, as we enter the second century, the Gentile church came to view Jesus as a new Moses.  Therefore, he came to give a new law.

Augustine deepened the concept of natural law, teaching that Jesus has purified and completed it.  The continuing topic of natural law deals with the question of our common human nature, which we cannot evade.  It also addresses the basic anthropological conditions of social life.  Such mutuality between individuals is the basis for formulating standards of human conduct.  From a Christian perspective, we acknowledge our sinfulness on the one hand, and our destiny for fellowship with God on the other.  The gospel fulfills the law.  Apostolic teaching is moral guidance.  However, this does not mean their teaching becomes a new law.  They are not permanent rulings on independent apostolic authority and therefore new law.  We do not ignore this teaching.  We may do so only if authorized by the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.  However, the difference from law stands true.  If we believe the natural law or the moral law is the standard for that fulfillment, then we neglect the creative freedom and multiplicity of possibilities of life that flow from love. 

The imagination of love can create new forms that aptly meet new situations in their uniqueness.  Love has the power to give new life to what is right by developing in extraordinary circumstances.  Love develops new solutions and modes of action that do better justice to the situation.  Love, with its many creative possibilities, stands in contrast to a legal form of life that is regulated in the same way for each case.  The tendency of formulated law is to help establish a traditional order of life.  Love is more flexible and can bring new solutions to new situations.  In principle, love may develop many creative responses to the demands of situations in life. 

The New Testament contains many moral teachings.  As Karl Barth has said, they unfold the implications of the fellowship of believers with Jesus Christ.  The unity of the love of Christ holds them together.  This difference between law and gospel does not rest on any antithesis in principle.  Instead, love, aiming by nature at fellowship, also has permanence in view.  Therefore, it is inclined to protect and preserve the existing order, as well as establish new and permanent forms of social life. 

Protestant ethics begins with human freedom.  The task became that of deriving justice and law from freedom itself.  Love, as the source of lasting fellowship is the basis of what is right.  It alone perfects law.  The need for law expresses the imperfect state of human society in this world in which not all accept others and do what is right on their own.  The same is true of the political state, which makes citizens keep the laws.  The future fulfillment of human fellowship in the reign of God does not need either law or state power.  However, the church leaves room in the hearts of people and social life for the future reign of God.  The church partially mediates the reality of the rule of God today as a life free from law and power, and establishes itself in love and grace.

            I now want to consider the question of whether the Christian message of grace and forgiveness actually works against the claims of moral and ethical reflection. Some people interpret the gospel message of the forgiveness of sin as license to do as one pleases, which would destroy any Christian ethical guidance. The question is whether the message of grace itself encourages sinful behavior. The question is whether Christianity considers morality seriously, or as ultimately having insignificant place in relation to eternity.

            The mistake of the reformation was to place justification and forgiveness of sin in priority over the plan of God for the reconciliation of humanity with each other and with God. I grant that modern persons may not think they need forgiveness. My suspicion is that we need it more than we think.

            Justification and forgiveness of sin make us right with God in light of the future and coming judgment of God. We can stand before God in the future because of this act of God, and therefore not because of anything we have done. This occurs through faith, as we enter into fellowship with God through Christ. Justification in the presence of God occurs through faith apart from law, whether Torah or natural law. We are righteous before God while still sinners because we remain human, and therefore imperfect, in our walk with God. We cannot remove guilt or meaninglessness on our own. Unforgiven sin is a burden to heavy for us to carry throughout life. It leaves little room for love to grow and mature. Forgiveness requires a gracious act from God. God is the one who bears the cost of this forgiveness. The acceptance we receive from God occurs even while we are sinners. This acceptance from God is the basis of our fellowship with God. Justification is not a process, but an act that occurs by grace and through faith. Justification gives imperfect believers the assurance of present and future fellowship with God.

            Yet, this act of God in justification is not a purely external act. The intent is to open humanity to the possibility of genuine transformation into the persons and communities that God intends. This act of grace and love from God continues in the process of reconciliation, as dimensions of the human disorder of sin become open to the transforming work of the life-giving Spirit of God. Our sin is against God. However, our sin normally affects the lives of others with whom we need reconciliation. We stand before God with those against whom we have sinned, and with whom God seeks our reconciliation. Paul refers to this process as being “in Christ.” Believers become children of God in adoption, regenerate, sanctified, and have peace with God. Christian life as a whole is a life in faith, the faith that lifts us up above ourselves to fellowship with Christ and therein to hope and love. Human sorrow and pain arise out of experience of the world. The reconciliation and transformation God seeks through the Spirit influences the humanity toward the destiny of fellowship with each other and with God. Healing the sickness and disorder of humanity is a cooperative affair. The grace of God does not replace the responsibility of human action, but becomes the foundation, preserver, and goal of that action. The church does not yet see such a surplus of love in the world that it holds its message to itself. Rather, it invites others to consider the love and grace of God moving toward humanity and invites people and communities to become open to this love.

            The process of sanctification is the process of God winning back every dimension of individuals and communities to the future God has for humanity. The self-surrender of God on the cross calls for the self-surrender of individuals to God and the openness to change this requires. All of this occurs through the work of the Spirit. The structure of human life is such that it remains open to the natural and social world, in spite of many occasions for disillusionment with that experience. Our openness to God continues that human experience of openness.

            Any discussion of Christian ethic raises seems to raise the question of salvation by grace through faith and salvation through works. I do find it interesting that we spend so much time upon Romans 3:21-26.


Romans 3:21-26 (NRSV)

21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.


Yet, we tend to spend so little time on a passage like this.


Romans 12:9-21 (NRSV)

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.


            We become open to God in faith as trust in the one who guides us toward a future of which we do not have detailed knowledge, even though Christ is the foreshadowing of that future. As Christian faith, it directs us to the historical revelation of God in Christ, even though our knowledge of history is always provisional. As faith, it recognizes the contingent of every human act of trust. Faith recognizes the element of doubt and risk contained in the act of faith. Conflicting claims to truth, as well as the experience of suffering and death, will always make Christian life a mater of faith, rather than knowledge based upon clear and distinct ideas.

            We become open to God in hope of the future toward which God moves humanity. Advances in political and economic knowledge, advances in science and technology, will never be enough for human beings to place their hope in them. Even progress in curing social evils is always provisional and imperfect. In fact, hope suggests the provisional and incomplete nature of the present. It also suggests human cooperation in the work of God, a risk that God took in forming independent beings. This hope contains an element of self-transcendence in moving persons and communities beyond themselves and toward God. Hope participates in the healing work of God in the human race. The basis of this hope is the promise of God in Christ, which thus directs us away from our culture and us. Isolated, fragmented individuals will never experience the fullness of this hope. We discover individual identity as we engage in relationships with others. Meaningful and well-lived lives remain open to others, and therefore Christian hope includes the well-being of others. Yet, such connections never find fulfillment in a human world. Only God can preserve individual and social identity in reconciliation. When focused upon hopes for this world, Christian engagement with the modern social world inevitably results in frustrations with the fragmentation of special interest groups. Religion itself becomes a tool for the improvement of this culture, rather than directing humanity to the hope of what lies beyond. Christian hope recognizes the limits of any human achievement.

            We become open to God in love as the fulfillment of Christian life. God loves the world, and genuine Christian engagement with the world participates in that love. We love God in and through the other, fulfilling the love that does not seek its own, as Paul suggested in I Corinthians 13. Christians at times have interpreted love for God as a forgetfulness of the world that God loves. Such separation from the world by Christians is not what God intends. The Orthodox tradition has a valid understanding of Christian participation in the grace of God that lifts us beyond ourselves and involves us in a process of becoming increasingly like Christ. The unfolding of love and grace in the history of Jesus is the pattern for Christian understanding of the grace and love of God. Such grace and love allow us to be “in Christ,” and are the ways in which Christ is in us.

Community of Faith

            The church is a community of faith. As such, it has beliefs that form an important dimension of its life together. Even if the lives of Christians and their churches are the most important witness to those outside the church, the beliefs of the church are significant in that if discredited, the church itself will whither away. We need to consider ways in which modernity influences the formation of Christian belief.

            Christians come to their religious sources with a way of life already shaped by the modern view of the world. I would like to make an effort at bringing to light a struggle many Christians do not know they have. This contextual, historical, and cultural fact is nothing new. Individuals do not create a form of life; their parents give them birth into a form of life to which individuals react in both conscious and unconscious ways. The first Christians used the cultural material they had at their disposal to formulate their theological conceptions. The first century was imperfect in its form of life. Yet, it provided categories, models, and metaphors that New Testament authors considered adequate to communicate their understanding of the work of God in Christ. They accepted a three-tiered universe and the expected apocalyptic end of human history brought about God. They accepted the revelatory character of the Hebrew Scriptures, the importance of temple worship and the sacrificial system in understanding forgiveness, and the law as a way of life and expressive of the moral character of God. They understood the mercy and grace of God shown in significant moments in history. Their theological reflection arose out of the debate with Judaism and the spread of the movement into the Greek and Roman world through the cultural model of the household. One could add many other threads of culture that became fertile ground for New Testament theological reflection. Throughout the history of the church, this use of culture as a valid theological source for reflection has been important, suggested in the use of Plato, Neo-platonic thought, Aristotle, feudalism, the penitential practice of the Roman Catholic Church, mystical experience, and the legal system, all provided fertile material for theological reflection throughout the early church period and the medieval period. This period witnessed considerable success of the New Testament emphasis upon family as the goal of society.

            One concern is to ask about the future existence of the church. Gordon Kaufmann, a revisionist theologian who acknowledges that his community of conversation is academia, has the fear that if the church submits to the authority of its tradition it will lose the present generation because it cannot relate. He does not want the church to make an authoritarian move. He believes the church needs to adapt its practices and reconstruct the symbols it cherishes. Thomas Oden, a classical theologian whose primary conversation partner is the church, fears that if the church accepts the authority of present categories as superior to classical Christianity, Christianity will die. The point is that theologians of both revisionist and classical theologians have a fear that Christianity will die unless their theological program finds acceptance. Personally, I do not share the fear of some that the church will not exist. As has happened with past religions, history will demonstrate the truth or falsity of Christianity. Religions continue because people continue to believe in what they teach and adopt the form of life the religion commends. Many religions have died. Their sacred texts no longer inspire and challenge people today. Although we might like more certainty, I know of no other answer to the truth claims of any religion. The future will tell the story. We can make decisions in the present based upon our sense of life and the future. Such decisions are always steps of faith.

            Some Christians express their conservative, evangelical, or fundamental faith in a way that refuses to engage the modern world. They view orthodoxy as having its roots in integrated biblical teaching interpreted in the first millennia of Christianity, before the split between Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. They look for an ancient consensual scriptural teaching. They focus their energies upon classical Christianity, usually understood as scripture, the seven Ecumenical Councils, the creeds, authors of the first millennium like Augustine, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Ambrose, and since Protestant theology, the writings of “classic persons” like Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. The positive element in this approach is its insistence that the ancients longed for truth as much as moderns do, and thus classic texts are not simply instruments of power and oppression. However, they also represent the danger of being backward looking and nostalgic, attempting to keep alive outmoded and irrelevant patterns of action and thought. They focus their energies upon private prayer, meditation, and contemplation. They develop a dualistic view that encourages them to view the world as so evil that Christians need to escape or retreat from it rather than engage it. The world is darkness, ruled by demonic forces, and principalities and powers. The church accepts rule by Jesus and is a place of holiness. Such a dualistic view inevitably leads to turning from human life in the world, for it is insignificant in comparison to preparing believers for heaven. Such an approach to Christianity has the danger of isolating God into an otherworldly ghetto. The retreat from modern society is not helpful in bringing healing to others, as well as demonstrating the love of God for the world. 

Too many Christians refuse to view developments within modernity as positive sources for Christian theological reflection. They tend to view modernity as primarily something against which Christianity must react. The conservative focuses upon personal morality and the abuse of freedom. The liberal focuses upon consumerism, poverty, corporate culture, and international relations.

My contention is simple. Modernity actually allows the church to focus on what it does best in directing people toward the best life they can lead. During the Medieval and Reformation period, the church involved itself with the power institutions of society, and in so doing focused its energies on wealth, power, fame, and prestige. In a secular society, the church no longer sits with those in power, thereby freeing the church to direct individuals and culture to choose freely what is best. Modernity does not have to view itself as the end of religion, for it recognizes that its program of science, technology, pluralism, economic, political, and intellectual freedom, and so on, is not a total vision of human life. In the same way, Christianity recognizes that its classic texts do not present a totalistic view of human society and life. I hope to show that we have good reason to be Christian and modern persons.

The religious sources of Christians are classic texts: the bible, the creeds, the liturgy, and the basic doctrines and confessions of faith that Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopal, and mainline Protestant denominations received from their heritage. The creeds and other traditional statements of the churches are historical products. What I hope to do is to provide adequate grounds for speaking directly of Christian faith and action in a modern and pluralistic world, and doing so with the integrity of its own unique voice as it exists in a pluralistic culture. I do not think we can legitimately find an essence of all religion or reduce religion to a common foundation, an analogy many persons receive from science and mathematics. Such an approach is reductionism that quickly becomes totalitarian. Rather, we need to approach the variety in religion as the variety of aesthetic pleasures. Theology cannot find a universal cultural or philosophical perspective from which to conduct its reflection. Theology cannot find a public sphere from which to speak; it must speak with its own voice in a way that respects the form conversation takes in a pluralistic society. Christians need to find ways to present their reflections on Jesus and on the human predicament in the context of a pluralistic society. Some religions, such as fundamentalist Islam, reject the dialogue implied in a pluralistic society, and therefore simply restate repeatedly in the hope that this messy pluralism will one day go away.

We believe in Jesus with the apostles as witnesses to Jesus, and thereby in the tradition, that mediates that belief. The tradition mediates the reality of Jesus to us. Jesus is the one remembered by the tradition that mediates him in word, sacrament, and action. Christians know Jesus through the witness of the biblical material, which is also the witness of the church. The Jesus we know and the Jesus to whom we respond is the Jesus remembered in the apostolic witness. Our response to Jesus is at once highly personal and highly communal. This suggests that Christianity remains wherever a community takes seriously the history of Jesus, the basic proclamation (kerygma) of the church, and calls for a response to understand intellectually and to open oneself to the transformation of life toward becoming like Christ implied the texts. As classic person, event, and text converge, I am suggesting that Christianity rests upon intense particularity of what God has done in Jesus of Nazareth on the one hand with the promise of the universal significance of Jesus on the other. Christianity cannot have abiding significance without people continuing to believe this and live their lives individually and corporately according to it.

What I want to suggest is something quite simple: the bible and the Christian tradition are the wisdom of our heritage to which we direct our attention as we seek to discern directions we take today in our beliefs and values. This means that neither the bible nor the Christian tradition is adequate prescriptive texts for psychology, economic ideology, or political ideology. Although we may find helpful clues for the social influence of Christianity, we do not find a specific cultural, political, or economic program contained in the texts. Neither the scripture nor the tradition of the church arose in times when people had yet discovered an imperfect but adequate way to organize society. However, the fact that we can identify the difference in historical and cultural setting between the modern social world and the social world of the bible and the rise of Christian tradition reminds us of the underlying commonality of the human experience. Even with all the influence our social world in shaping us as individuals, we are still human beings with hope, fear, dread, capacity to deceive ourselves, anxiety, love, weakness, evil, and so on, as possibilities for our lives. As wisdom texts, the bible and tradition provide insights and clues for discerning the ways of God today and for charting a course for the future. However, the process is more like an artistic one, as over against a legal or scientific process.  Modern people, embedded so profoundly with scientific and technological expectations of the world, often must make a shift in perspective or awareness I might liken to a Gestalt experience or a leap to another vantage point from which to live our lives.

Some Christians retreat into a subculture in which they convince themselves they are the true Christians, and indeed the only reflection of genuine Christian faith. The retreat involves holding to what they think of as the literal view of the bible or of the creeds. The bible becomes the chief miracle. Such persons refuse to factor their modern world consciously into the formation of their beliefs. For them, six days means six 24-hour days of creation, and so on. My suspicion, however, is that many Christians within modernity approach their sources with the glasses of their modern world firmly in place. Consequently, when modern Christians reflect upon who God is, we go well beyond the limited tribal deity and primitive culture confronted in certain layers of biblical tradition.

A Christian open to modernity as a source for theological reflection does not turn to the bible for knowledge of science. They read about six days of creation, and quickly place such a thought in a different realm, re-interpreting in light of modern physics or dismiss it as an antiquated part of the bible that has no bearing upon Christian life today. They read about Adam and Eve and suspect it is a story rather than something literal. They struggle with what the story means for relationships between husband and wife, but most modern persons would not insist upon historical reality of the text. They read about a worldwide flood, in which God murders the human race except for one family, and re-interpret it in light of a softer view of God.

Christians open to modernity as a source for theological reflection read in the bible many disturbing stories. They read that God selects one family and one ethnic group, Hebrews or Jews, and re-interpret it quickly, rather than reflect upon why God appears to favor one group rather than favoring all persons and cultures equally. They read about the sun standing still for Joshua and may focus on the scientific miracle and omit the moral problem that God did this so that the soldiers of Joshua could kill more people. They gloss over prayers for the destruction of enemies. They read about the cross and understand it light of the love one must have in order to die for another rather than reflect too deeply on sacrificial language alien to us. They read the stories of the appearances to the disciples in light of our desire for God to recognize us at the time of our death and grant us new life, rather than engage the textual difficulties evident in reading those narratives. They read of the ascension of Jesus without putting it in the context of Jesus simply rising above the canopy that surrounds the earth. They ask God to “remember” when they know God cannot forget. They ask God to do things for them while recognizing that most of prayer consists of aligning ourselves more firmly with God and becoming channels of what God wants to do in the world. They tend to view these matters spiritually in the sense that we look for how the text engages us in our quest for what it means for us to be here, at this time and place.

Modernity influences the way modern people approach the biblical text. The God modern people worship and serve has its source in modernity as much as in the bible or tradition. The God modern Christians worship looks like one in which the modern world will have a greater possibility arriving at belief. What kind of God is that? Modern people recognize that the language of any human being, ancient or modern, has limitations in its ability to describe God. Yet, most modern people recognize that human language is all we have. Therefore, modern Christians can excuse the attempts of previous generations to relate God to their world. Modern Christians also accept responsibility to relate God to modern civilization.  They do so in a way that they must discover and educate themselves as to the meaning of the text for them today, incorporating the metaphors and narratives into the modern story. Christian sources inspire worship, theology, and experience, without confining theological reflections to those sources or experiencing them as confining.

One danger Christianity faces is that retreat will dominate the energy of laity, clergy, and theologians. Another danger is that Christianity will lose its unique voice. This pluralistic and tolerant society needs to hear the claims to truth that Christianity proposes. In particular, mainline Protestant denominations need to create places where its people can engage in such discussion in ways that matter. In the United Methodist Church, conferences could host sessions for the purpose of theological discourse. The Council of Bishops could offer theological guidance in how we think about the creeds today. The church is not so frail that it cannot handle such discourse. My suspicion is that many laity would welcome the openness of mind and heart it would take to engage such discussions. I would hope that the church could engage the modern world in creative and positive ways. If the image that people of our culture have of Christianity is that it believes the world is soon ending, or that it retreats behind a fortress of bible, creed, doctrine, and tradition, Christianity will increasingly become a fearful sect. If Christianity simply adopts the categories of the present to express its relationship to God, it will become something different from the church. My hope remains that the church can engage the modern world in a positive and creative way, loving people into a relationship with Jesus, showing people how they might weave their relationship with Jesus into the fabric of their lives.

Community of Love

            The church is a community of love. In this sense, the liberal theology of the 1800’s was quite right to emphasize the ethical dimension of Christianity and church. The church is an ethical community, even as it has so often fallen short of its own ideals. The fractured and fragmented life of the church is often flickering light in a sometimes dark world.

What does it mean to be a Christian today? How shall we live as Christians today? The shift from facts and beliefs toward a Christian form of life is significant. One can believe all the “right” things, and still be a difficult person with whom to deal, still have problems with depression, still have profound ethical struggles at work, and still be a thorn in the side of pastors. The bible and the traditions of the churches become mediators of sacred life, and in that sense become sacramental elements of Christian life and community. The power of the bible and tradition derive from their continuing ability to nourish people and communities. They would become dead tradition if it were not for the productive power at work in individual and communal life. The Christian open to modernity as a source for theological reflection does not turn to the bible or theology for a coherent and comprehensive philosophy of life. They recognize that Christians depend upon other sources for economic, political, psychological, and philosophical insights. No one can relieve the church or individual Christians of the responsibility for discerning the proper uses of theological sources available within modernity. This approach to theological reflection respects the ways of God in the world today, as it also respects the ways of God in the bible and tradition, and even in one’s own life. The church and Christians have an interest in the modern culture in which they live, for the institutional church itself crumbles when society crumbles. The church has an interest in being among the forces that help individuals and culture to be the best they can humanly become.

Religion is a way of engendering and forming our experience. Becoming an adherent to a religion is much like learning to speak a language. To be religious is to be a participant in a culture, a mélange of habits, words, rituals, practices, tradition, and stories that move the participant into a different world than that person would live in without the imposition of religion. To convert to a faith is not to discover something within us, but to become part of a new culture, to take up a new language that changes what is within us. Religion shapes us, and thus is not just our projection. Religion forms our inclinations, and thus does not just express them. Religion opens us to experiences we would not have had we not been taught about them. Language precedes experience. Theory shapes and evokes experiences. We must have someone tells us the story of Jesus before we can know Jesus. We must learn the habits and gestures whereby Christians have a relationship with Jesus. Christianity is a culture within a culture.

In American culture, we have much for which to be grateful: political freedom, free enterprise (economic freedom), intellectual freedom, pluralism, toleration, a secular government (not theocratic), science and technology that improves the condition of all its citizens, a nation that people illegally seek to enter (how many nations can say that?), and so on. Too often, preachers of both the left and right denounce consumerism, imperialism, materialism, capitalism, while at the same time enjoying the benefits that American culture provides. Particularism and mutuality combine in the process of institutionalization in such a way that it can suitably replace the traditional theological doctrine of the orders of creation. A purely alienating critique of America does not give the whole picture. We do not have to create a counter-culture, or even take on the overly political task of disrupting a culture that most of us would hate to leave. We do not have to take on the task of forming a world for people, as if Christians and non-Christians cannot speak to each other because they are experience different worlds. However, we do have to help Christians be Christians in a secular world that could increasingly care less about the religious quest. The tension the church experiences on Sunday is that people come from a secular culture that has become part of them that becoming open to another way of viewing the world that has Christ at its center.

I find increasing help from the church of the Protestant churches of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment church often carries with it today the critique that it was superficial. Yet, it made great advances. It recognized human rights such as freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, it abolished torture, it ended the persecution of witches, and involved itself in other human achievements. It demanded intelligible religious services, more effective preaching, and more up-to-date pastoral and administrative methods for the churches.

One of the major tasks of contemporary ecclesiology has been to obtain a fresh understanding of what constitutes community and to argue that ecclesia is intrinsically communal in structure. Schleiermacher, Hegel, and Ritschl provided an important impetus in this direction. The ethical and moral character of the church is an important dimension of its life together. One of the emphases that the New Testament borrowed from Judaism was the combination of religion with morality. The second century of the Christian era saw the defense of Christianity arise that it was similar to the philosophical schools in promoting character and morality. We forget that in the past, the separation of morality from ritual in religion was quite standard. The Enlightenment re-emphasized the importance of the ethical and moral nature and therefore the communal nature of the church. The individualism of the Enlightenment led to a perfectionist and legalistic emphasis, but we need to remember the core truth here. The church needs to show its ethical and moral quality in the way it embodies these qualities in its fellowship and institutional life. The way the church relates to its culture, the way the church structures itself, the values it upholds, the way it handles conflict and difference, the way it embodies whatever degree of unity it can embody, reflect ethical and moral concerns. The church identifies itself with quite human desires and dreams at this point, as it struggles with other human groups and governments in moving toward what is best for the human race. The church recognizes that what honors God also honors humanity.

C. Talking to the church about some central ethical matters

            My understanding of a life within a secular and modern society is that citizens of such a society receive many positive benefits. The core of that benefit is freedom. This value of a modern society embeds itself in institutional life through a measure of political and economic freedom, intellectual freedom that expresses itself in the freedom to print, speak, and persuade others, religious freedom, freedom to associate with others of like mind, and so on. Moral and ethical freedom has slowly evolved as an important addition. Further, science and technology has become an important pursuit for physical well-being, the basic comforts for ordinary people, for the defense of the country, and generally for the use of nature to advance human happiness. Modern society is the first society to raise individuality to an important social institution. Government exists to protect rights that government did not create. Rather, individuals already have the right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, as they understand it.

            I will discuss some controversial issues. Christians need to be careful the spirit in which they enter such discussions.

            First, we need to serve the church and its members. For myself, I want to strengthen Christians in their ethical life in a morally ambiguous age. The form of life the church has recommended in most denominations remains quite consistent. I think the church can have confidence that its form of life has much to commend it, even in a secular society.

            Second, we need to have present our views in a spirit of prayer. God influences me as I write and you as you read. If we are open, God will open the heart and mind of each of us. Even where we disagree, we can have prayerful spirits.

            Third, we need to live what we preach and teach. Graciousness in the midst of controversy within the church is a quality that the church needs to embody.

            Fourth, even where we disagree, we can present with modesty and firmness the portion of the truth we perceive. For me, this means taking seriously the bible as a whole, and the apostolic witness in particular.

            Fifth, the church needs to present its teaching in love toward a society that will often disagree. People within the church need to present their understanding of the Christian message with love toward whom they disagree. The Christian community now consists of separated churches. If the churches have any hope of moving toward union, it will be because they take seriously the deliberations of others. We do not have the benefit of church councils to resolve disputes. What we do have is the discipline of local churches and denominational structures. Yet, even here, the voluntary structure of modern society means that dissatisfied church members can go down to the street to a church more to their liking. Clergy can do so as well. Especially in controversial matters, denominational families need to consider seriously the deliberations of secular society as well as other denominational families. We need to turn lovingly toward others, listen to them, as well as share lovingly with others conclusions to which we have come.

            Sixth, we need to recognize the profound influence of sin in the church and in society in our disputes. Dispute often brings out of us the darkest sides of us.

            Among the many struggles for persons living in a such society is that people quickly learn that freedom is not a value. Freedom is a social condition, but no one dictates to the individual the best course of action. Contrary to the Platonic vision in The Republic, modern society does not organize itself in such a way that guides individuals toward the best human life. In fact, a modern society admits it does not know in what the best human life consists. A modern society has confidence in science and technology, the wisdom of the people to select rulers, the wisdom to form a domestic life, and the wisdom of the people to pursue their economic interests without large interference from government. Government has natural limits placed upon it by its duty to protect individual rights.

            In this context, we can readily observe that human beings often choose self-destructive forms of life. Modernity is not going to stop persons from pursuing such forms of life. The emphasis that modern persons generally place upon the future being better than today leads many to neglect the past as a valid resource for reflection upon such moral and ethical matters. In particular, the foundations of moral, ethical, and religious reflection have their beginning in pre-modern and pagan civilizations. Many modern persons will dismiss these resources.

            What I want to show is that, as modern persons, we can consult the bible in a reasonable way for its wisdom on ethical matters that we face today. I do not want to do this in what scholars call a Biblicist way. I realize that for the modern church, what the bible says does not end the discussion. I grant that mainline churches do not approach this matter with closed minds and hearts. In other words, tradition, culture and personal experience may well help us to re-examine the matters with which the bible deals. At the same time, what I want to show is that the bible has wisdom to offer the modern age.

            New Testament ethics begins as an historical enterprise. This means allowing the texts to speak as clearly as we can. In the area of morality and ethics, the struggles of human beings have not changed as much as one might think.

Individual Character and change

            The matter of personal morality has long been an area where Christians of every theological and denominational persuasion have large areas of agreement. Of course, in the past, matters like smoking, drinking, having television, going to movies, wearing certain kinds of clothes, and so on, constituted grounds for vigorous debate, and sometimes caused denominations to begin. However, none of these arguments involved a disagreement over the veracity of biblical values. For that reason, I will treat homosexuality as a separate matter. I point out that this matter has divided the church in a profound way. One reason is that the church has rarely disagreed with explicit statements of the biblical text in the matter of personal values. The second is that personal morality and character usually had a broad range of agreement. Today, the church divides over this matter, so I intend to give it special treatment.

            I would like to suggest that the church focus upon the development of virtue and character. Rules and obligations gain their significance out of the context of the social, economic, and ecclesial community, as well as the pattern of life one lives. Concentration upon virtue and character means that in an ambiguous world of often conflicting moral decisions, we entrust doing the right thing to persons and communities that have developed virtuous life. For the church, to be a Christian is to learn to be at home in God’s world. We learn about and our world ourselves in the Christian narrative of human life. If we do not find the story makes sense, we may abandon the story for another. However, for the church, the point of living as a Christian in a modern world is that the story makes sense in that it helps us to see the world and ourselves truly. We see ourselves as sinners in need of redemption. We see the development of the person God wants us to be as more important than what we do in particular settings.

            Individualism as understood by some modern Enlightenment thinkers was not an option in the first century. The Sermon on the Mount becomes an impossible ethical ideal only for those who isolate themselves from a community that seeks to live by it. Jesus intended his commitment to love of enemies and non-violence for the real world in which he lived and for the real people to whom he preached and with whom he lived. In the context of the Roman Empire, where Judaism often gave itself to violent resistance to Rome, Jesus saw the hopelessness of this strategy. Further, he witnessed the relative success of a non-violent uprising among peasants that forced Pilate into concessions. His ethic was one that encouraged oppressed Judaism to consider doing what it could to get along with such an oppressive force. In one sense, survival was at stake. However, he also recognized the need for Judaism to separate the will and purpose of God from land, Torah, and Temple, and this further separated him from the need to defend politically, militarily, and economically entities that no longer represented the will and purpose of God. Later, Paul adopted this principle in the cities of the Roman Empire by forming communities that centered their life together in an ethic of love. Household rules did not reject the hierarchical arrangement and thus accepted husband, parent, and master as in a superior position. Paul did not call for political, economic, or political revolution. Rather, he demonstrated concern for the abuse of power and encouraged those in power to be like Christ in his love. The list of vice and virtue contains nothing with which Greek and Roman philosophers could not agree. The point is Christians are to do what they can to get along. The point is simple: the moral demands of Jesus and of Paul are quite applicable to a faithfully lived human life. Jesus and Paul designed their ethic to deal with the specific moral dilemmas of their time.

            Anyone who denies that the ethic of the New Testament did not have the intention of shaping human life runs the risk of a docetic Christology, for one wonders then if Jesus lived a human life, or somehow lived a transcendent or divine life, God walking on earth, so to speak.

            This suggests (against Barth) that the role of the bible in the formation of Christian life must consider the specific and narrative character of the text. As the canon of the church, the bible relates a story of the saving, healing, reconciling, history of the dealings of God with humanity. Even the Ten Commandments are part of the story of the people of God. The specificity of this narrative to its context always needs consideration as we seek faithfulness to God in our specific and narrative situation today. Christians today do not have the luxury of pointing to rule in the bible and automatically applying the rule to a situation today. Rather, such rules and stories provide opportunity for reflection, combining dialogue with tradition and with one’s own cultural setting. I grant that this approach runs the risk of substituting personal whims and wishes for the will of God. However, if one listens carefully to the text, such a result is not necessary. This position also avoids the attempt to define beforehand what one ought to do in certain situations. To re-emphasize, ethical and moral reflection arise out of specific situations and relationships, and within a cultural context, in which a rule in the bible does not determine beforehand the result of ethical decision-making.

            I suspect that some form of consequentialism (consistent with Niebuhr) in ethical reflection is important for Christians living in a human world. Christians need to consider the practical implications of their behavior in the context of the social world in which they live. Christian ethics will look quite differently in 21st century America than in 21st century Assyria, North Korea, or China. The point is that morality and ethics arise out of the social interactions that people have in the various settings in which those interactions occur. The hope, of course, is that as one reads the New Testament one will find inspiration to move toward Christ-like ideals, recognizing that in the ambiguities of human life together we may make choices in which history proves us on the wrong side. We cannot know in advance the rightness of our course of action. We make the best judgment we can, with the apostolic witness, the Spirit, the Christian tradition, and the Christian community providing the context of our reflections.

General Principle

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 (NRSV)

16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 (NRSV)

12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.


            My intent is not to give an extensive historical study of New Testament ethics. I simply invite you to reflect with me upon some central elements of that ethics in the context of how we might use the wisdom of the bible to guide our reflections and shape our concerns and desires for our modern lives.

            The focus of Christian ethical reflection is upon the development of character toward a life worthy of God. Paul says that the human body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Our bodies do not belong to us, but to God. We dare do nothing to destroy that which God has made and honored. That includes our own bodies as well as the body of the other. We have an emobodied existence, and consequently all individual ethical reflection needs to consider how we honor God in the body.

            I realize that our reflections could become quite legalistic at this point. We could consider all the ways that modernity allows us to dishonor the body. Instead, I would like to continue with my understanding of New Testament ethical considerations as an historical study. I want to move on to a discussion of the lists of virtue and vice in the New Testament. This help us keep our reflections to the kinds of things that the New Testament considered as dishonor of the body.

            I want to focus upon the orientation of human life toward the future God has prepared for us makes all rules relative to that end.

            The specific content of moral judgment is relative to the ends that God seeks for humanity.

            In this place, I want to consider biblical notions of vice and virtue as proper guidance for personal life and behavior.


Philippians 4:8 (NRSV)

8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

2 Corinthians 6:6-7a (NRSV)

6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7 truthful speech …

Galatians 5:22-23, 26 (NRSV)

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

Ephesians 4:1-3 (NRSV)

 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Colossians 3:12-17 (NRSV)

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

2 Peter 1:5-7 (NRSV)

5 For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, 7 and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.


            One danger of isolating a list of virtue and vice in the New Testament is that we can easily forget the communal context of this guidance. The New Testament arose out of the Christian community and its concerns. Among those concerns was to lead a life worthy of living in Christ. Christian life needs to reflect the grace one has received in justification and sanctification. One can make advances in such a life in morality because one is part of a community. The New Testament has little to say one who wants to live virtuously in a strictly individual sense. If one isolates this list from their communal context, it could lead to arrogance and a holier-than-thou attitude, an attitude distant from what the New Testament intends. In fact, I would suggest the opposite. The intent of these lists is to point out the commonality the lives of Christians have with any person striving toward the good life. I would hesitate to call these qualities uniquely Christian, for most of them we can find in other religions of the world and among philosophers before Christ. In other words, most of these virtues and vices reflect what human beings desire to do and be, and desire to avoid, when they are at their best. If someone who is faithful adherent of another religion or of no religion at all, I would think that person reading this list would find little with which to disagree. The focus of the following list is from Philippians 4:8 and Galatians 5:22-23, and supplemented by a few other texts to round out the list of virtues. Although this is a small part of the New Testament, the qualities contained in these lists find their way into many portions of the New Testament.


Alhqh (true) can refer to statements that agree with facts, things characterized by reality as genuine, and when used of persons refer to persons of integrity. It refers to honesty.

Semna (honorable) refers to what is venerated for character and honorable, whether of persons or deeds. It can mean of persons august, solemn, stately, or majestic, of things as noble or wonderful. It can refer to what is appropriate, befitting behavior that implies dignity and respect. Thus, it refers to what is honorable and worthy of respect and of good character.

Dikaio~ (just) may mean in this context rendering to people their due, doing what is right and proper by others, being fair and honest with them. 

Agna (pure) refers to being without moral defect, and therefore pure, chaste, upright, innocent, often in the sense of being without intent to do wrong in a matter, and thus harmless and acceptable behavior.

Prosfilh (pleasing) refers to what is pleasing, acceptable, and lovely. It pertains to that which causes people to be pleased with something. It refers to what is agreeable. When used of persons, it refers to friendliness and being well-disposed and feel kindly toward another.

Eufhma (commendable) refers to speaking good words to another, doing what is worthy of praise, doing what is deserving of approval or good reputation, to fill the mind with things worthy of praise. It refers to what us auspicious, of good report, praiseworthy, and commendable.

Areth (excellent) refers to virtue and wonderful acts. It refers to the quality of moral excellence, outstanding goodness and virtue. It includes a good quality of any kind, including valor and prowess. As a moral characteristic, it refers to virtue, uprightness, and goodness. See II Peter 1:5 and Philippians 4:8.

Epaino~ (worthy of praise) refers to speaking of the excellence of a person, object, or event, approval, praise, and commendation. It is an expression of high evaluation by people.

Agaph (love) refers to an attitude of appreciating resulting from a conscious evaluation and choice. It refers to love and devotion. It refers to concern and interest in the other. This love has its basis in a sincere appreciation and high regard for the other.  In the plural form, it refers to the love feast shared by the early church.

cara (joy) refers to joy in something, gladness and the reason for it, even great happiness. It refers to the cause or object of joy. It refers to a feeling of inner happiness and delight.

Eirhnh (peace) refers to peace and harmony. In terms of one's relationship with God, it refers to inner rest and harmony, peace, freedom from anxiety. It can also refer to a state of reconciliation with God, which is one of the fruits of the Spirit. It refers to a set of favorable circumstances involving peace and tranquility. Writers used it often in invocations and greetings, where it corresponds to the Hebrew word shalom, health, welfare, and peace to you. It refers to a state of peace, as an agreement between persons. When it refers to the eschatological condition of the human race, it means salvation of humanity.

Makroqumia (patience) is a state of emotional calm in the face of provocation or misfortune and without complaint or irritation. It can mean a state of emotional quietness in the face of unfavorable circumstances. As patience under trial, it means endurance and steadfastness. As constraint exercised toward others, it means forbearance and patience. As referring to constraint of the wrath of God it means longsuffering and forbearance.

Crhstoth~ (kindness) as a gracious attitude it means goodness, goodness of heart, benevolence, kindness, mercy, and as moral integrity, it means uprightness and honesty. It refers to an event or activity that is useful or benevolent, that which is useful or benevolent. It often means, "To help." That which is useful becomes that which helps people or that which proves good for people.

Agaqwsunh (generosity) refers to positive moral qualities of a general nature like goodness, kindness, and generosity. As a quality of moral excellence, it means being good, goodness, and uprightness. As a quality of relationship with others, it means willingness to give or share, generosity, and goodness.

Pisti~ (faithfulness) means belief directed toward a person or thing, such as confidence, faith, trust, and reliance on. It also refers to what brings trust and confidence from others, such as faithfulness, fidelity, and reliability. It can also refer to what inspires confidence, as a pledge, means of proof, and guarantee.

Praoth~ (gentleness) refers to a quality of gentle friendliness, meekness as a strength that accommodates to the weakness of another, and considerateness. It can also refer to humility. It means gentleness of attitude and behavior, in contrast with harshness in one's dealings with others.

Egkrateia (self-control) refers to mastery of oneself and self-control. It means exercising complete control over one's desires and actions.

Tapeinofrosuna~ (humility) refers to a quality of voluntary submission and unselfishness as humility and self-effacement. It refers to the quality of humility.

Oiktirmou (compassion) refers to a motivating emotion of sympathy, compassion, mercy, and pity. It means to show mercy and concern, with the implication of sensitivity and compassion.

Anecomenoi (Bear with one another) refers to being patient with each other, in the sense of enduring possible difficulty. It refers to exercising self-restraint and tolerance, enduring patiently, putting up with, and bearing with others.

Carizomenoi (forgive) refers to giving freely or graciously, grant as a favor. It can refer to a wrong done by another with which one deals graciously, thus giving pardon and forgiveness.

Upomonh (endurance) refers to a basic attitude or frame of mind as patience, steadfastness, adherence to a course of action in spite of difficulties and testings, as in perseverance, endurance, and fortitude. It refers to a capacity to continue to bear up under difficult circumstances.

Eusebeia (godliness) refers to a manner of life characterized by reverence toward God and respect for the beliefs and practices related religion and piety, and thus piety, devout practice of obligations to the divine realm, and godly living.

Filadelfia (brotherly love) refers to brotherly or sisterly love, and in particular, affection for fellow believers.

Dokimhn (character) refers to tested and tried character. Learning the genuineness of something by examination and testing, often through actual use. It refers to having the quality of having stood the test, a mature or approved character.



Romans 1:26-31 (NRSV)

26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

1 Corinthians 5:9-11 (NRSV)

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons— 10 not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (NRSV)

9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.

2 Corinthians 12:20-21 (NRSV)

20 For I fear that when I come, I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish; I fear that there may perhaps be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. 21 I fear that when I come again, my God may humble me before you, and that I may have to mourn over many who previously sinned and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced.

Galatians 5:19-21, 26 (NRSV)

19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

Ephesians 4:17-19, 22 (NRSV)

17 Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. 19 They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 22 You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts,

Ephesians 4:25-31 (NRSV)

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice,

Ephesians 5:3-6 (NRSV)

3 But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. 4 Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving. 5 Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient.

Colossians 3:5, 8-9 (NRSV)

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 8 But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices

1 Timothy 1:9-11 (NRSV)

9 This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, 10 fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching 11 that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

1 Timothy 6:3-5, 10 (NRSV)

3 Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, 4 is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, 5 and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

2 Timothy 3:2-5 (NRSV)

2 For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them!

Titus 3:3 (NRSV)

3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another.

1 Peter 4:3 (NRSV)

3 You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry.

Romans 13:13 (NRSV)

13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.


            The list of vice in the New Testament points to those behaviors that do not reflect the grace and love of God in one’s life. The lists do not reflect formal law. Rather, they reflect the interest of the New Testament in the formation of character.


Abusive language














False witness



God haters










Inventors of evil




Male prostitutes (malakoi)


Mischief maker




Rebellious toward parents





Silly talk


Sodomites arsenokoitai




Vulgar talk



            We need to consider the moral dimension of the language of obligation. Lists of vices and virtues were common in the Greek and Roman culture, and the Christian list is not distinctive in this regard. The lists of Paul are not typically in a specific theological context. In the development of such lists, the danger already exists for branding outsiders as evil and insiders as holy. It was easy for Christians in the second century to develop the notion of the two paths, one of vice and the other virtue. Generally, the New Testament frames these lists in simple rule language, a direct imperative expressing actions one should imitate or avoid. However, the theological context of the offensive crucifixion of the Son of God and the resurrection of Jesus by God became a metaphor of patient transformation. It became a pattern by which a way of life, a claim of authority, an assertion of value. The honor that counts is that received at the end of age from God, rather than the honor that comes from the present age that passes away. As a result, the virtue of humility experienced transformation in Christian hands. The offense of the cross brought humility in the context of the world. The pervasive norms of honor and shame, norms determinative of a well-lived life, undergo some transformation in Christian community.

Social Character and change

            Further, Christian ethical reflection has some general considerations for any culture in which it finds itself. The basis of this reflection is the future reign of God. All human institutions are relative and thus not the focus of Christian activity as if one’s hope is only for this world. However, where culture is open to influence from the church, the bible gives some guidance as to the direction should take. Since Christians share the common lot of humanity, they have concerns and perspectives that may assist society in making crucial choices about our life together.

            As believers, we know we need Christ.  Yet, we do not know how to bring him into society.  We need Christ to help us do the things that vision and good will urge upon us.  We find it difficult to take even the shortest step with Christ into society.  We do not want to admit that the idea of an independent culture, nation, and economic life, for it could lead to exploitation.  Some Christians so readily see a society transformed by Christ.  They want to renew the culture in Christ.  Many liberal Christians find the reign of God in any new movement for social change.  Both perspectives want to use the thought-forms of Jesus as the law for every economic, racial, national and international order.  We may feel tired of a secular culture.  However, our being tired of it does not make it go away.  It remains an independent culture.


New Testament distance from social change

            First, Jesus and Paul do not show great interest in changing oppressive social institutions for two reasons. One is the soon appearance of the reign of God, and the other is the aggressive and hostile environment in which they lived. For that reason, their lack of interest in changing social institutions was the result of context, and is not normative.

            The lack of involvement by Jesus and the early church in political life gives some support to the political conservative.  The political liberal points out that the Old Testament prophets and their judgment upon wealth and favoritism toward the poor for support.  They also point to the “principalities and powers” that Paul mentions as if they are political powers.  I have also seen political interpretations of the Book of Revelation that suggest that America is the beast.  They refer to America as consumerist, imperialist, enchanted by power and wealth, oppressive to the world system, and so on. Both those of the Christian right and Christian left appeal to the bible for their political and economic views in a malicious attempt to block genuine dialogue on their ideas.  For both positions, if they can find divine sanction for their beliefs, they believe they can gain the high moral ground in any argument.  In reality, they have simply adopted a political stance, and sought for support in the bible.  The result is that their agenda is more important to them than the bible.  What concerns me even more is that their assumption is that their moral, political, and economic concerns are more important than those of the bible are. 

            For this reason, Christians have always found more support for political engagement in the Old Testament than in the New Testament. Yet, this prophetic emphasis has as its context a unity of religion, life, and cultural institutions that modernity does not possess. The prophets stood alone before the ruler, not seeking personal gain or political power to put into effect their declaration of the word of God. When churches imitate prophetic pronouncements, they have the ring of the inauthentic because the cultural distance is so profound. Modern political pronouncements need to have a foundation in secular knowledge of the political order, economic life, civic life, and family life. It makes a difference if such knowledge serves an ideology of nationalism, Marxism, democratic pluralism, and so on. Different philosophies will select different aspects of the evidence. Theological contributions to such debates cannot apply Old Testament prophecy directly. Jesus viewed himself as the end of prophecy, in that the prophets point to John the Baptist, suggesting that Jesus ended that phase of the movement of the Spirit of God. Christianity replaces prophetic proclamation with the life and history of Jesus. Prophecy finds its fulfillment in Jesus, as does Torah.

New Testament, Household Rules, and the use of Power (wives and slaves)

Colossians 3:18-4:1 (NRSV)

18 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.

20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart. 22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, 24 since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality. 1 Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.


Ephesians 5:21-6:9 (NRSV)

21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother”—this is the first commandment with a promise: 3 “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”

4 And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.

9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.


1 Timothy 6:1-2 (NRSV)

 Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed. 2 Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church; rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved.


1 Peter 2:18-3:7 (NRSV)

18 Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. 19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin,

          and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

 Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; 4 rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight. 5 It was in this way long ago that the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves by accepting the authority of their husbands. 6 Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord. You have become her daughters as long as you do what is good and never let fears alarm you.

7 Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life—so that nothing may hinder your prayers.


            These household rules are simple in how husband and wife, parent and child, master and slave, are to relate to each other. The point Paul makes is that those in power within the hierarchy are to use their power softly, out of care and concern for those whom they influence. I grant that I would like for Jesus and for Paul to give a rule that slavery wrong. Neither does so, although one could argue that if masters treated slaves as Paul recommends, the result would be the eradication of slavery.

            Such passages puzzle us in certain ways. Although I think I can put together some of the pieces by understanding the textual and historical context, I cannot remove the puzzle entirely. Paul was not an Enlightenment thinker. He was a person of his time and his culture. The household had a definite structure with the male head at the top of the hierarchy, wife, children, slaves, and sometimes even businesses somewhat indebted to the household. I do not find that isolating these passages from the rest of the canon particular helpful. We will need to consider the dialogue within the canon on these matters in order to discern the direction of the canonical dialogue. The place of women in the canon strikes us in light of the social context. Mary Magdalene is a faithful witness to the risen Lord, an apostolic task. Mary sits at the fit of Jesus to learn from him as if in the position of a disciple. The prophecy of Joel that the Spirit will fall upon sons and daughters in the last days receives fulfillment at Pentecost. Paul apparently had females enlisted in ministry. We can also consider such passages as this:


Galatians 3:26-28 (NRSV)

26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.


What we find is a tension in the tradition between the hierarchical social institution of the household and the egalitarian vision of baptism and salvation. The counsel for wives to submit, for children to obey, and for slaves to obey, was not radical or revolutionary. One expects such counsel. It may well be that Paul needed to assert this truisms because of hopes raised by an egalitarian message. In any case, what is revolutionary for his time was to counsel those in authority within the household to use their authority softly, graciously, and gently.

            This concern for the abuse of power within a hierarchical arrangement is one that, I suspect, has normative significance for all cultures and periods. The point is that hierarchy exists everywhere animals and mammals exist, and that includes humanity. We are at the top in some settings, in the middle in some others, and at the bottom in others. If one is at the bottom, Paul suggests, be agreeable and compliant. If one is at the top, be gracious and gentle. The motive for his counsel is the abuse of power by husbands. Paul strikingly recommends a course for the Christian household that limits the power and authority of the husband. The point is that if husbands actually did what Paul recommends, the traditional hierarchy breaks down. Combined with the egalitarian vision of Paul in salvation, the thrust of this discussion is that approaching hierarchy this way removes the normal barriers between classes and opens people to relationships in which the worth and dignity of individuals finds recognition, no matter where they are in the hierarchy. My point is that I doubt if anyone can figure out how to remove the hierarchy, for such systems of authority appear across cultures and species. However, Paul recommends a porous separation, one in which individuality finds recognition by those in authority. The vision in Galatians 3 has social implications in that Jew and Gentile experience the same baptism and partake of the same food and drink. Paul makes it clear that his vision includes table fellowship between Jew and Gentile, breaking down class, ethnic, and religious distinctions.

            The Old Testament has many “You shall not” statements. From our perspective, it would be nice if it also said, “You shall not own slaves.” The New Testament urges masters to be good owners of slaves, and to urges slaves to be good slaves.  Paul gives this counsel because the time is so short between now and when Christ returns, that we must not make any effort to change the institution of slavery.  The bible does not condemn slavery. 


Leviticus 25:44-46 (NRSV)

44 As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. 45 You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. 46 You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.

Deuteronomy 20:10-11 (NRSV)

10 When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. 11 If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor.

2 Samuel 8:2 (NRSV)

2 He also defeated the Moabites and, making them lie down on the ground, measured them off with a cord; he measured two lengths of cord for those who were to be put to death, and one length for those who were to be spared. And the Moabites became servants to David and brought tribute.

2 Samuel 12:31 (NRSV)

31 He brought out the people who were in it, and set them to work with saws and iron picks and iron axes, or sent them to the brickworks. Thus he did to all the cities of the Ammonites. Then David and all the people returned to Jerusalem.


Old Testament legislation encouraged humane treatment of slaves.

            However, as we entered the 1700’s and 1800’s, good Christians argued that slavery was a sin.  In the 1840’s, a group of Methodists in American broke away to form the Wesleyan-Methodist Church over precisely this issue.  Today, most of us cannot imagine Christians ever owning slaves or supporting the institution of slavery.  We made this biblical move because of the theological move to Genesis 1, in which God created all persons in the image of God.  We also look to Paul in Galatians, as he expressed the ideal that in Christ there is neither slave nor free person.  Biblically, this could only mean that we had to rid society of slavery, although the bible itself everywhere assumes the institution of slavery and does not judge it, except in the New Testament where Christian masters had a clear requirement to respect their slaves. Of course, this leaves open the question of whether one can any longer respect the slave as person created in the image of God and thereby possessing worth and dignity, while at the same time owning them as property. One wonders if Paul did set up this tension in order to destroy the institution, if Christians had carried out his recommendation. Christians went beyond the bible, while doing so in a way that we viewed as consistent with biblical values. John Wesley objected to slavery in the 1700’s because of common decency, its lack of common justice and mercy, even if it was technically legal. He went on to appeal the universal love of God, mercy, the one Father of humanity, the design of creation, and the cost of redemption. God has the purpose of saving all persons. The point I would make here is that before much of biblical criticism formed, the church acknowledged the tension in the texts while at the same time accepted responsibility for discerning the direction of the conversation.   

New Testament, compassion, and the use of Wealth

            Third, the bible is clear that God calls us toward generosity and compassion toward the poor. We need to consider seriously the role of wealth in the context of Christian ethics. The shape this vision takes in modernity is open for debate, but the objective in terms of church social policy is clear.

            I want to state a puzzle for me at the beginning of this discussion. The many references to the Old Testament prophets some theologians use in relation to the social implications of Christian teaching has several drawbacks. One is that the prophets never proclaimed their word from God while at the same time entering into strategy to carry it out politically. Many theologians and churches enter into political power politics as if they are another special interest group. Two is that the prophets spoke in the context of the Mosaic and David covenants. To my knowledge, no one has claimed such context for the modern social world in which we live. Three is that Jesus declared the end of Torah and prophets with John the Baptist, and those who follow Jesus need to take that seriously.

            From a domestic policy perspective, modern persons live in a society in which freedom for individuals is a major theme, and in which the government recognizes that the rights of individuals is prior to the state and therefore deserve recognition by the state. Consequently, I find it puzzling that many churches, especially mainline protestant denominations, seem to adopt a policy of coercion and force to implement their vision. My point here is that tax policy is coercion, in that if one does not pay the tax, one is in jail. Tax policy does not encourage compassion or respect for others. Rather, it encourages resentment.

            The point I want to make in this section is that in the important matter of possessing material wealth, the biblical value we might state like this: have compassion and generosity toward all persons, but especially those not providing for themselves. In the rest of this section, I want to make this value clear. However, I do not want to get into the matter of the differences between the political parties. No matter what political commitments one has, this is an important value to cultivate in society. My own view is that in a modern society, in which civil society has so much freedom and voluntary association, and over which the state has little control, we best cultivate and demonstrate the values of compassion and generosity through civil society. The reason for this is that civil society recognizes the rights of individuals and invites participation, whereas government coerces participation. Frankly, the church needs to cultivate its own example of being a compassionate and generous institution. The integrity of the church is in question, as it pays for salaries and office space for people to tell the government to increase tax policy, when the church itself is a wealthy institution that must maintain itself. I have wondered what would happen if the many bureaucracies of the church engaged in compassionate ministries in their neighborhoods the kind of social change that could result. The point is that the example of the life of the church is more significant than policy pronouncements that serve primarily special political interests and usually alienate other good Christians. The church cannot put on the mantle of being prophetic when it promotes the use of power to adopt its ends. The church needs to be quite careful in placing itself on the side of coercion, even if it is for a good cause.

            Paul Ramsey makes the mistake of applying prophetic statements about justice, given to the specific conditions existing in Israel at their time, and applies them to modern Christian ethics. The same holds true of Walter Rauschenbusch.

Jeremiah 22:3 (NRSV)

3 Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.

Jeremiah 22:15-16 (NRSV)

15 Are you a king

because you compete in cedar?

Did not your father eat and drink

and do justice and righteousness?

Then it was well with him.

16 He judged the cause of the poor and needy;

then it was well.

Is not this to know me?

says the Lord.

Micah 6:8 (NRSV)

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

Amos 5:24 (NRSV)

24 But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Psalm 72:1-4 (NRSV)

1 Give the king your justice, O God,

and your righteousness to a king’s son.

2 May he judge your people with righteousness,

and your poor with justice.

3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,

and the hills, in righteousness.

4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,

give deliverance to the needy,

and crush the oppressor.

Psalm 82:3-4 (NRSV)

3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;

maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

4 Rescue the weak and the needy;

deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Deuteronomy 1:16-17 (NRSV)

16 I charged your judges at that time: “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. 17 You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. Any case that is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it.”

Isaiah 11:3-4 (NRSV)

3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

or decide by what his ears hear;

4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Job 31 (NRSV) – selected verses

13 “If I have rejected the cause of my male or female slaves,

when they brought a complaint against me;

14 what then shall I do when God rises up?

When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him?

16 “If I have withheld anything that the poor desired,

or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail,

17 or have eaten my morsel alone,

and the orphan has not eaten from it—

19 if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing,

or a poor person without covering,

20 whose loins have not blessed me,

and who was not warmed with the fleece of my sheep;

21 if I have raised my hand against the orphan,

because I saw I had supporters at the gate;

22 then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder,

and let my arm be broken from its socket.

29 “If I have rejoiced at the ruin of those who hated me,

or exulted when evil overtook them—

31 if those of my tent ever said,

‘O that we might be sated with his flesh!’ —

32 the stranger has not lodged in the street;

I have opened my doors to the traveler—

35 O that I had one to hear me!

(Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)

O that I had the indictment written by my adversary!


            Walter Rauschenbusch and the social gospel movement presented a one-sided and narrow view of capitalism and promoted socialism, as if the Hebrew prophets and Jesus himself were the foundation for his dream of Christianizing the social order.

            Walter Rauschenbusch wonders what light the prophets who tended sheep in Judea or meddled in the petty politics of the Semitic tribes might give to the troubles of America, the great capitalist republic. History is never antiquated, because humanity is always fundamentally the same. It is always hungry for bread, sweaty with labor, struggling to wrest from nature and hostile people enough to feed its children. The welfare of the mass is always at odds with the selfish force of the strong. The fundamental conviction of the prophets was that God demands righteousness. Morality to the prophets was not merely a prerequisite of effective ceremonial worship. They brushed sacrificial ritual aside altogether as trifling compared with righteousness, and even as a harmful substitute and a hindrance for ethical religion. “I desire goodness and not sacrifice,” said Hosea, and Jesus was fond of quoting the words. The Book of Isaiah begins with a description of the disasters that had overtaken the nation, and then in impassioned words the prophet spurns the means taken to appease Jehovah’s anger. He said the herds of beasts trampling his temple-court, the burning fat, the reek of blood, the clouds of incense, were a weariness and an abomination to the God whom they were meant to please. Their festivals and solemn meetings, their prayers and prostrations, were iniquity from which he averted his face. What he wanted was a right life and the righting of social wrongs:

 “Your hands are full of blood. Wash you! Make you clean! put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes! Cease to do evil! Learn to do right! Seek justice! Relive the oppressed! Secure justice for the orphaned and plead for the widow.”

Another prophet who addresses such matters is Micah:

“Wherewith shall I come before Jehovah, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with claves a year old? Will Jehovah be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shown thee, what is good; and what doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

Amos and Jeremiah even tried to cut away the foundation of antiquity on which the sacrificial system rested, by denying that God had commanded sacrifices at all when he constituted the nation after the exodus from Egypt. Obedience was all that he had required. The social problems are moral problems on a large scale. Religion is a tremendous generator of self-sacrificing action. Under its impulse people have burned up the animals they had laboriously raised; they have sacrificed their first-born whom they loved and pried; they have tapped their own veins and died with a shout of triumph. However, this unparalleled force has been largely diverted to ceremonial actions that wasted property and labor, and were either useless to social health or injurious to it. In so far as people believed that the traditional ceremonial was what God wanted of them, they would be indifferent to the reformation of social ethics. If the hydraulic force of religion could be turned toward conduct, there is nothing that it could not accomplish. This Christian ritual grew up, not as the appropriate and aesthetic expression of spiritual emotions, but as the indispensable means of pleasing and appeasing God, and of securing the favors of God, temporal and eternal, for those who put their heart into these processes. A very large part of the fervor of willing devotion that religion always generates in human hearts has spent itself on these religious acts. The force that would have been competent to seek justice and relieve the oppressed has been consumed in weaving the tinsel fringes for the garment of religion. The prophets were the heralds of the fundamental truth that religion and ethics are inseparable, and that ethical conduct is the supreme and sufficient religious act. If that principle had been fully adopted in our religious life, it would have turned the full force of the religious impulse into the creation of right moral conduct and would have made the unchecked growth and accumulation impossible. It is important to note, further, that the morality that the prophets had in mind in their strenuous insistence on righteousness was not merely the private morality of the home, but the public morality on which national life is founded. They said less about the pure heart for the individual than of just institutions for the nation. We are accustomed to connect piety with the thought of private virtues; the pious man is the quiet, temperate, sober, kindly man. The evils against which we contend in the churches are intemperance, unchastity, and the sins of the tongue. The twin-evil against which the prophets launched the condemnation of Jehovah was injustice and oppression. The religious ideal of Israel was the theocracy. However, the theocracy meant the complete penetration of the national life by religious morality. It meant politics in the name of God. That line by which we have tacitly separated the domain of public affairs and the domain of Christian life was unknown to them. The prophets were not religious individualists. During the classical times of the prophets, they always dealt with Israel and Judah as organic totalities. They conceived of their people as a gigantic personality that sinned as one and ought to repent as one. When they speak of their nation as a virgin, as a city, as a vine, they are attempting by these figures of speech to express this organic and corporate social life. Our modern religious horizon and our conception of the character of a religious leader and teacher are so different that it is not easy to understand people who saw the province of religion chiefly in the broad reaches of civic affairs and international relations. Our philosophical and economic individualism has affected our religious thought so deeply that we hardly comprehend the prophetic views of an organic national life and of national sin and salvation. Social religion demands repentance and faith: repentance for our social sins and faith in the possibility of a new social order.

            For him, progress is not just a natural thing; it is divine. The most persistent obstacle of progress is the conservative stupidity and stolidity of human nature. The chief purpose of the Christian church in the past has been the salvation of individuals. The Christian Church in the past has taught us to do our work with our eyes fixed on another world and a life to come. However, the business before us is concerned with refashioning this present world, making this earth clean, sweet, and habitable. After all, the desire for rest in heaven is not the social of hope of the reign of God on earth with which Christianity set out. The atmosphere of detachment from this world and of longing for death is not the atmosphere in which Jesus lived in Galilee. The religion for social redemption is in the Christianity of Jesus Christ himself. First, it is a religion for this earth and for the present life. The faith of the kingdom puts a new religious value on this earth of ours and on the present life. Further, the faith of the kingdom of God wastes no strength on religious paraphernalia, but concentrates it all on the real task of redemption. Religion strengthens the social spirit; will the social spirit strengthen personal religion? He concludes that business life is the unregenerate section of our social order. The economic interests of the capitalist revolve around profits, and since the capitalist class is the controlling and dominant class, the desire for profit dominates our whole industrial organization. All its efforts converge on one end, to make dividends. All the parts of the great organism of production move toward profit with an overwhelming singleness of purpose. Whenever profit has collided with the higher interests of humanity, the latter have hitherto gone down with sickening regularity. This triumphant sway of profit as the end of work and existence puts the stamp of mammon on our modern life. The speculative character of business causes enormous waste. The object of capitalism is to gain human affection or honor. It is not good sport. The selfish motives are hard at work. Business is under the one great law of profit. It is not carried on primarily to supply people with wholesome goods but to make a profit for the dealer. Almost all business people prefer to sell good and wholesome things, but if they had the alternative between selling solid goods at slight profit, or flashy goods at a heavy profit, they would console themselves that the public demands the latter, and sell them. No profit means death. Therefore, business must make profit. If possible, through respectable means. However, if the vice or ignorance of the buying public, the nature of goods to be marketed, the pressure of competition, or any exigencies of the market force profit to part company with ethics, then the ruling passion of business will put the personal character of business persons to a test from which it does not always emerge undamaged. The manifold forms of dishonesty and overreaching that we meet in business are the natural result of a relation that is based almost wholly on individual selfishness, and hardly at all on fraternity or solidarity. As far as profit is only another name for the fair reward that society owes for useful labor and service, it has a sound moral basis and we have no quarrel with it. However, as far as profit contains an ingredient that is gained without productive labor, at the expense of others, and without their willing consent, it rests on power and not on right, and Christians are under no obligation whatever to feel moral respect for it. It is one of his or her highest Christian duties to aid society in tracing this parasitic tribute to its sources and prevent its further absorption.

            I am sure that for some, this use of the biblical text is convincing. I find it interesting that many persons of liberal or liberation political leanings will adopt a Biblicist approach to these Old Testament texts, while rightly rejecting such Biblicist approaches in other areas of the text. I want to take the risk of proposing a different approach. Those who adopt a Biblicist approach with these texts will undoubtedly consider that my proposal is out of defense of my present social and economic position. I can only assure the reader that I want to be consistent in my use of the biblical text as a resource for Christian ethical reflection. For me, that means taking seriously the specific situation to which the biblical text addresses, and then considering the normative value of the text.

            The cultural context of the prophetic concern for justice lays in the abuse of power by kings, who receive their office by hereditary right. The prophet himself sought no power in society, a fact lost on the Social Gospel Movement and its quest to Christianize the social order through gaining political power. Given the emphasis of the Old Testament on covenant, the king has obligations to fulfill his part of the covenant to God and to the people. Most of the people are poor because of the economic system that keeps them poor. The system allowed little room for advancement in any modern sense of that term. As modern persons looking back, we can see the deficiency of freedom that pre-modern societies took for granted. We can also see the endless oppression due to the lack of respect for the rights of individuals that seems part of their way of life. The prophets and the Torah unite at the point of demonstrating the concern God has for the abuse of power and wealth at the expense of the masses. However, we also note several other rather conservative trends. The prophets do not call for the overthrow of the office of king or priest. With all of their concern for justice and the warning of judgment if the king fails, the prophets do not have a specific economic, social, or economic agenda other than faithfulness to the covenant. The prophets never sought political or economic gain for themselves. Although the Law demonstrates compassion toward women and slaves, neither the Law nor the prophets call for outlawing slavery or the elevation of the social position of women.

            The teaching of Jesus concerning matters of wealth has several interesting dimensions to it. One reminder modern persons need is the theological and social context. Theologically, Jesus anticipated the soon arrival of the rule of God on the earth. God would soon arrive to set matters right with the world. Many of his remarks and parables reflect this perspective. Further, he lived in an occupied land, in which the Roman government and military had a dominant and visible presence. The word and deed of Jesus reflect the harsh realities of such social life.

            As part of his ethical instruction, Jesus adopted a casual approach to economics, thereby refusing to become indebted to the economic and political system of his day.  By not feeling the need to protect what they had, Jesus took every material means of manipulating and imposing oneself on Jesus and his first followers out of their enemies' hands.  Such injunctions as follows were smart moves under the circumstances.  Such counsel is a subversive wisdom. Such a deviation from established patterns in society is an attempt to upset the social order or disorder created by these patterns of both thought and action.

            The social situation in which Jesus found himself suggested a relaxed attitude toward wealth.  The governing class, for example, was one percent of the population but received 25% of the national income.  The retainer class averaged around 5% of the population and ranged from scribes and bureaucrats to soldiers and generals.  Their function was to serve the political elite.  The upper classes viewed the peasant classes with suspicion, largely because the upper classes allowed them to have the necessities of life, and that was all.  With necessities provided, this large class, comprising as much as 65% of the population, would not rebel.  The society vested economic and political power in about 6% of the population.  There was little hope of moving into that elite.  Normally one was born into it.  Thus, what Jesus said and did in regard to wealth was a form of resistance to the dominant social institutions of the day. Jesus and his followers are not indebted to this world, opening the possibility of normally inconceivable options for dealing with evil and injustice that the Jewish people faced.

"Give to everyone who begs from you..." (Q 6:30) is a rule that if followed would lead to impoverishment.  Sparrows are cared for by God, people are worth far more than they (Q12:6). 


Luke 12:6 (NRSV)

6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.


"Don't fret about life." God provides for the birds.  God takes care of nature.  So will you be provided for (Q l2:22-28). Philippians (60-62 from a prison in Rome) 4:6, "Have no anxiety about anything ..." suggests that Paul has some awareness of the following saying.


Luke 12:22-28 (NRSV)

22 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!


The burden of wealth ought not to afflict the followers of Jesus at all.  "Sell your belongings, and donate to charity..." (Q 12:33).  Wealth gets in the way of serving God totally: "No servant can be a slave to two masters.  No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You can't be enslaved to God and a bank account" (Q 16:13).  His charge to one person was simple: "You are missing one thing.  Make your move, sell whatever you have and give the proceeds to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  And then come, follow me!" (Mk 10:21) In fact, "What good does it do a person to acquire the whole world and pay for it with life?" (Mk 8:36) In this world, there is only one way to be: "Become passersby" (Th. 42).  It happens all the time.  The rich think only of themselves, while the poor are all around them (Q 16:19-26). 


Luke 16:19-26 (NRSV)

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’


A rich person often thinks only of themselves, and rarely of their eternal destiny (Th. 63:1-3, Lk 12:16-21). 


Luke 12:16-21 (NRSV)

16 “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”


Further, "How difficult it is for those who have money to enter the kingdom of God" (Mk 10:23).  "It's easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle's eye than for a wealthy person to get into the kingdom of God" (Mk 10:25).

            Jesus has this relaxed this attitude toward wealth because his own vision of happiness is not placed in the economic hierarchical system created by Roman civic action.  Rather, "Whoever tries to hang on to life will forfeit it, but whoever forfeits life will preserve it" (Q 17:33).  "What would a person give in exchange for life?" (Mk 8:37) Death is the great equalizer.  All too many do not consider the ethical power of death.  After all, "I tell you, on that night there will be two on the couch: one will be taken and the other left.  There will be two women grinding together: one will be taken, the other left" (Q 17:34).

            We need to balance this attitude toward wealth with the many images that Jesus used from the business world of his day.  The merchant class, though it could gain enough to wealth to gain a moderate degree of power, in general was only slightly wealthier than the peasant was.  This was the one path for the peasant to get out of subsistence living.  They confronted the upper classes because of the market rather than politics or the military.  For example, A wealthy person invites people to his dinner party, but is turned down, so others are "forced" to come in so that the house will be filled (Q 14:16-23).  A wealthy man leaves three slaves in charge of money, two of whom invest their money, and of whom buries it (Qm 25:14-27).  A wealthy man gives the younger son his inheritance long before he was required to (Lk 15:11-32).  A rich man had a manager whom he accused of squandering his money (Lk 16:1-8).  A wealthy man settled accounts with his slaves, forgave one 10 million dollars, yet that same slave could not forgive someone else only $100 (Mt 18:23-34).  A wealthy Samaritan helped a Jew who was beaten and robbed (Lk 10:30-35).  The kingdom of God is like a trader looking for beautiful pearls (Mt 13:45-46), or like a proprietor who hired people at different times of the day, yet paid all the same (Mt 20:1-15).  The unexpected coming of divine intervention will be like the wealthy person who puts slaves in charge, each with a task, and each expected to keep alert (Mk 13:34-36).  That Jesus used such images suggests he was more acquainted with business dealings than some have thought.


New Testament, peace and justice, and the use of violence

            Fourth, the bible and dimensions of Christian tradition are clear that peace and justice are important ends. We need to give careful consideration here to pacifism, for if non-violence ultimately leads to the reduction of justice and to lack of peace, the church could not legitimately be church and follow such a strategy.

            For some, the counsels of Jesus toward non-violence represents a universally binding law upon Christian life. Further, the cross is the greatest symbol of non-violence in the world, and becomes a symbol of Christian involvement in the world.

            One reminder modern persons need is the theological and social context. Theologically, Jesus anticipated the soon arrival of the rule of God on the earth. God would soon arrive to set matters right with the world. Many of his remarks and parables reflect this perspective. Further, he lived in an occupied land, in which the Roman government and military had a dominant and visible presence.

            The movement of zealots wanted Jews to unite in their opposition to Rome and throw off its oppression. The result would be the possibility of apply the Torah throughout the Promised Land. Sadducees and Pharisees to varying degrees accommodated with the occupying force from Rome. The Roman response to opposition was to execute anyone and any group that offered overt resistance. The end result of this attempt at rebellion against Rome was the wars of the 60’s that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD.     

            All of this suggests the wisdom of Jesus concerning Roman occupation had some validity.

            At the same time, one can hardly deny the peaceful life that Jesus intends his followers to embody in their life together. One can also hardly deny that Jesus did not have that experience with his disciples, and that the church did not experience such peace after Pentecost.

            First, we need to discuss the ambiguities of Christian sources. This requires us to consider the tensions in the canon concerning war and peace.

            “Thou shall not kill”: one of the simple, direct commandments that points to life. Yet, most of us assume that we have a right to self-defense. God commands Israel to go to war. God has a name, Sabboath, which means, “Lord of Armies.” God destroyed, one could say murdered, the entire human race, except for Noah and his family. God even delayed the sun going down so that Joshua could kill more people in an important battle.

            Of course, some of us think we can ignore such passages, since they are in the Old Testament. Jesus had no basis for political, economic, or military power.  His counsel recognized that it was important to keep opponents off guard.

            He encouraged the people to comply with the Romans:


Mk 12:17 Pay the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and God what belongs to God!


            He encouraged his followers to love enemies (Q 6:27), even though it does not make sense.  Enemies are not generally those we love; those we love are not usually our enemies.  In addition, the saying does not assume that such love will bring about their conversion.  The assumption is that they will remain enemies.  He invites followers to love those from whom one can expect no return. He imagines the same ethical action in his rather ridiculous statement, "When someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other as well" (Q 6:29a). They are not to react violently to one who is evil (Mt 5:39a).  If someone requires you to go one mile, ask if you can go two miles (Mt 5:41).  In fact, such forgiveness of wrongs is to go to ridiculous extremes, precisely because God has already forgiven us our own wrongs (Mt 18:23-34). 


Matthew 5:39 (NRSV)

39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.

Matthew 5:41 (NRSV)

41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

Matthew 18:23-34 (NRSV)

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.


            We also read Paul, as he writes about political authority having the power of the sword in order to punish evil.[1]


Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.


Some people place Jesus and Paul against each other at this point. Yet, both the gospels and the letters of Paul are part of the text that forms of the life of the church and Christian reflection. Jesus used the strategy of non-violence because it was the most effective strategy of opposition to a corrupt and oppressive Roman system. If one examines the history of First Century AD Israel, one can see that the strategy of rebellion and confrontation did not work. It simply led to further violence. Further, people who opted for personal piety as a shield from social forces, people who opted for accommodation to the oppressive system, all found their spiritual lives compromised. We need to remember that the New Testament is not a political document. It does not lay out a political strategy required for every time, place, and culture. The same is true for the strategy of non-violence. Non-violence is not a moral absolute. Christians should use non-violence as long as it is an effective strategy for accomplishing worthy ends. Christians do not have to impose a political, economic, or religious structure upon people as they enter new cultures.

            Peaceful ways of relating to each other and to the world are important for the church to make its witness known in the world.

            We need to consider seriously the social context of the New Testament as we consider non-violence. The hostile social environment did not allow for participation in the power structures of Roman or Jewish culture. The result was the New Testament unanimously considered the world institutions as passing away, and therefore devoted themselves to the areas of life they could influence. They focused on relating people to the future rule of God in Jesus Christ. This indifference to social institutions was a pragmatic concern in that needed to do the best they could to get along with society and their neighbors or suffer persecution and death.

            The open question for the New Testament is how things would change if non-violence led to more death, destruction, and injustice.         


D. Talking to the church concerning controversial ethical matters

            Dealing with controversial ethical matters is never easy. What I would like to do is consider some controversial and divisive issues the church faces today in light of what I have described as values and ethics central to the New Testament. I want to consider whether this ancient text has some wisdom to offer people living in a modern world.

            When we consider controversial matters in the context of the church, we need to consider carefully the way we deal with the bible and the tradition of the church. I want discuss this matter briefly.

            I would suggest that we find dialogue within the canon on other matters. Jesus clearly pointed the way to a form of Judaism that made the Torah relative to the soon coming rule of God, liberated the people of covenant from the Land, and envisioned Judaism without the Temple. He did this, based upon a principle that the law and the prophets hang on the love of God and love of neighbor and the arrival of the rule of God in his ministry.

            The matter of circumcision was not an easy theological and social issue for the apostolic church. They needed a church council in Jerusalem to resolve the dispute. Paul clearly ran into significant opposition to his preaching from within the church. Peter himself did not perceive the social implication of opening up salvation to the uncircumcised. Paul appears to have applied a principle similar to that of Jesus in liberating the gospel from the boundaries of Torah that did not advance the love of God and open fellowship with the neighbor.

            This dialogical approach to the canon recognizes a variety of voices within the canon, and the responsibility of the reader to discern the direction God is moving this dialogue. The tension exists, but so does a trajectory or direction exist. My assumption is that as canon, God is the moving canonical conversation a certain direction.

Individual Character, Abortion and sexual morality

Exodus 21:22-25 (NRSV)

22 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.


Philippians 4:8 (NRSV) whatever is honorable … whatever is pure,

Agna (pure) refers to being without moral defect, and therefore pure, chaste, upright, innocent, often in the sense of being without intent to do wrong in a matter, and thus harmless and acceptable behavior.

Oiktirmou (compassion) refers to a motivating emotion of sympathy, compassion, mercy, and pity. It means to show mercy and concern, with the implication of sensitivity and compassion.

Agaph (love) refers to an attitude of appreciating resulting from a conscious evaluation and choice. It refers to love and devotion. It refers to concern and interest in the other. This love has its basis in a sincere appreciation and high regard for the other.  In the plural form, it refers to the love feast shared by the early church.






Male prostitutes (malakoi)


Sodomites arsenokoitai



            My concern in this brief segment is to offer wisdom from the bible concerning abortion, a matter that the bible did not face in the way that modern persons must face it. However, since it is so controversial and a matter puzzling to Christians, I would like to suggest a few reflections.

            A rule oriented approach to the bible is not helpful as we consider the passage from Exodus. The natural approach to this text is that the Old Testament, in this particular case, makes a distinction between killing the fetus and killing an adult. On this basis, one could legitimately argue for some sort of distinction today. With increasing technology, it does not answer the question of that distinction.

            Second, I suggest that one element of the abortion question is the proper expression of our love for another human being. The church begins with certain assumptions, among them being faithful and loving relationships between a man and a woman is the proper context for marriage. The bible places a limit on the expression of sexual love. The counsel of the bible at this point has the confirmation of many years of experience. The ability to remain faithful in the intimate relationship of marriage and family is an important indication of the kind of character one has developed. The willingness to do lie, sneak around, keep secrets, and break a promise to another human being, also reflect matters of character. The preservation of one’s body sexually for one to whom one willingly commits one’s life also reflects recognition of the intimacy of the sexual act. The emotional and physical bond that can occur in expressing one’s love sexually toward another is one that needs careful consideration. In any case, the bible appears to give a clear “no” to expressing sexually one’s love outside the context of the relationship of husband and wife. I recognize that technology has made it more likely today that one can have sex without the result of children. I would invite you to consider, however, that other matters still make the wisdom of the bible on this matter quite sound. The result of such a decision by more people would mean fewer abortions.

            Third, I would like to offer the wisdom that basic respect for life, leading a non-violent life, leading a life of compassion and love toward the other, is at stake in the matter of abortion. In saying this, I do not particularly want to deal with the matter of personhood. I have not noticed that people are even persuadable on this matter. However, technology has helped us to determine that specifically human life begins when syngamy occurs, meaning egg and sperm unite in such a way that the chromosomes of male and female unite. This occurs at about 24 hours after fertilization. These DNA strands determine species specific character of this new life. Further, the fetus registers pain at about 11 weeks. Clearly, the elements of what we typically think of as person are not present. The fetus does not experience pain until about 11 weeks. As far as we know, several activities of persons do not occur until one is out of the womb. For example, reasoning does not occur until one is out of the womb. One is not aware of external objects or aware of oneself. One slowly develops the ability to behave in ways not determined by genetic code. One needs to have the ability to communicate on a number of different topics. The question is whether the beginning of human life makes it sufficient in our minds that person exists potentially, and therefore deserves our protection.

            Technology has also provided us with the opportunity to know if the fetus will produce a healthy human being. Christians must also face the matter of rape and incest and the possible children that would result. It will not surprise anyone who has read this far that I am unwilling to make a rule. Rather, I am more interested in character, and then, faced with such boundary situations, trust them to do the right thing.


Ecclesial considerations

            I have a suggestion. Less drastic solutions are available to people than abortion. I would encourage Christians who face such decisions to consider seriously seeking those solutions. The fetus had no choice in its conception or in its DNA strands that will set many of the conditions the fetus will have as a human life. Males and females can choose to abstain from sex. One can use contraception. Given the conception of the child, and given discomfort of the biological parents to raise the child, the option of adoption exists. The fetus is the innocent one in the equation.

            I have stayed away from the political debate. I find it rather ridiculous that some who oppose abortion will do violence to those doctors and nurses who do the procedure. The inconsistency in respect for life is large. Further, I do not find it helpful to the witness of the church to have Christians protesting outside places that permit abortion. Too often, such demonstrations reflect hatred toward the medical persons and hatred toward those having those having the procedure. These persons are our neighbors. There are other ways to demonstrate genuine Christian caring for both the life of the parents and the fetus. In addition, I have great hesitation to use the power of the political state to enforce a Christian understanding of respect for life. It brings the church into the matter of power politics and special interest groups in Washington DC. The church needs to do what it can in its local ministries, and perhaps occasionally through media, to encourage respect for sexuality in the community, and given pregnancies that biological parents do not want, provide options. The church needs to be persuasive in civil society and voluntary behavior, both by its teaching and by its behavior, to lead the way in such a matter.

Individual Character and Homosexuality

            I am not comfortable with how mainline churches have carried on the conversation concerning sexual orientation. We pigeon hold each other so quickly. What I would like to grant to both sides of the matter of whether homosexual practice is consistent with Christian teaching is that both sides have concern for and love for those who engage in the practice.

            Among my many hesitations on this topic is that I think the church should be a place where are all persons are welcome. In particular, persons in any community who experience for alienation for any reason, including sexual preference, are still persons of sacred worth and dignity. They are persons whom God loves. The church needs to reflect the love God has for the world. All too often, the church has given the impression that it views itself as holier than others are. If any community of persons ought to recognize the profound depths of sin in us all, it is the people of the church. Whether one views same sex relationships as acceptable Christian behavior or not, we ought to agree on the need for the church to open its doors and its heart. To my knowledge, the bible does not call upon Christians to love their neighbors only if they qualify. The call is love, and therefore to regard our neighbors as persons of worth and dignity, as persons of sacred worth, as children of God.

            At the same time, I identify with the church in this struggle. As far as I can tell, Christians generally unite on matters of personal morality. Our disagreements over matters like length of hair, whether women should wear genes, smoking, drinking, television in the home, eating in places that serve alcohol, going to movies, and so on, caused vigorous debate in some circles. However, none of these matters could go back to specific prohibitions in the bible. Everyone tacitly recognized the attempt to interpret biblical principles and values. Consequently, the present situation of the church introduces yet another wedge issue for Christians. Instead of dividing over matters related to baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Christology, and church government, the churches could potentially divide over the matter of whether one can express his or her same-sex sexual orientation in the context of the fullness of Christian life and character. The person who says no believes that the homosexual act, by its nature, is an unjust and unloving act; everything we know about Christian values and behavior prohibits it.

            For example, the United Methodist Church has a clear stance that while persons of homosexual orientation are of sacred worth, homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. The denomination prohibits clergy from officiating at services of marriage for same-sex couples and prohibits the appointment of clergy who are practicing same-sex orientation. Those who seek a revision of the Church’s position believe that the prohibitions against homosexual practice in Scripture and Christian tradition should be placed in the context of Israel’s rejection of sexual practices in the pagan temples of the ancient Near East and the Christian church’s rejection of permissiveness and pederasty in the Graeco-Roman world. They believe that a covenant of fidelity by a same-sex couple is a different practice than the homosexual practices prohibited in Scripture and tradition. They view the present position of the Church to be cruel, unjust and exclusionary. They do not want the church fifty years from now to look back and wonder about how we could have been Christians today, just as we might wonder how Christians in the past could have supported slavery and racism. Those who support the Church’s position believe that one should place the prohibitions against homosexual practice in Scripture and tradition in the context of the whole teaching of Scripture that affirms that the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness are the best wisdom of the ages for the sexual life of human beings. They believe that the Church should continue to practice this ancient wisdom rather than accommodate to ideas and practices acceptable in Western societies. They point out that in matters sexual, society often pushes the limits of what a healthy community can take, and must then return to traditional boundaries. They do not want the church in fifty years to look back and see the wreckage of human life that the church did not do its part to stop. They support justice for homosexuals in civil society and hospitality toward all homosexual persons. However, they also believe that the public teaching and moral guidance of the Church about human sexuality should be faithful to the witness of Scripture and consistent with the teaching of the transcultural historic and global Christian community. They further have concern for the unity of the global church, where many cultures practice family values that do not include homosexuality as an ideal. These different assessments of homosexuality amount to rather fundamental disagreements about the interpretation of Scripture, the relationship of church and culture, and the meaning of human sexuality in light of divine revelation. 

            Part of what I show in the rest of this section is that another important dimension of this struggle in the church is that it calls into question an explicit statement of New Testament ethic or value. That being the case, the veracity of the biblical text becomes an issue. The “no” that the New Testament gives to this expression of our sexuality suggests that the New Testament considers it impossible to engage in the behavior with the blessing of God or the church. If the church can set aside a value like this, it suggests the New Testament is not accurate in addressing matters related to human hopes and dreams. While many of us can live with the antiquated science, politics, and economics of the bible, and while many can live with historical error, when it comes to matters of explicit statement of values like this, we draw back.

            Well, let us take the plunge into this puzzle of the modern church. I invite you to explore the matter with something of an open mind and heart. If you disagree, please know that I do not write you out of the church or out of fellowship in eternity. My claim is that the biblical text and the Christian tradition concur that the practice of homosexuality is not the ideal expression of Christian spirituality and ethical norms in the matter of human sexuality. The concern in the bible and Christian tradition is for the attainment of the best human life as individuals and the best form of family life.

Biblical texts that address homosexual practice

            I need to take a moment and refer to the texts that refer to homosexual practice. What I have to share here is an attempt to move us toward understanding the biblical text.

            To begin, I emphasize that the bible has an extensive dialogue within it about the way we express sexual desire. The bible and the tradition of the church are quite clear that one can express the love one has for another human being in ways that express the perversion of our human nature rather than express our individual worth and dignity as well as the dignity of another. Any reading of Old Testament convinces us that impurity can suddenly come upon any of us, but especially women, and especially in matters related to sexuality. Many of these laws reveal gender bias from our perspective. Such concern for right ordering has a broader basis than the priestly class, given the concern for sexual expression in the J and E document. However, rejection of the prostitution accepted in the worship of Canaanite deities and rejection of prostitution in general suggest the wide spread acceptance of these practices. Israel wanted to mark itself off from such practices. It wanted to be a distinctive people.

            Genesis 18:16-19:38 does give our language the term “sodomy.” It is an offensive term for anal sex, and even a term applied to sex with animals. It comes from a Latin word that simply means, “The sin of Sodom.” The references to this event in the New Testament are also instructive:


Genesis 19:5-11 (NRSV)

5 and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” 6 Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, 7 and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. 8 Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” 9 But they replied, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. 10 But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. 11 And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.


2 Peter 2:6-10 (NRSV)

6 and if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the lawless 8 (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by their lawless deeds that he saw and heard), 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment 10 —especially those who indulge their flesh in depraved lust, and who despise authority.

Bold and willful, they are not afraid to slander the glorious ones,

Jude 7 (NRSV)

7 Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.


A form of sexual depravity is a concern in these texts. E. A. Speiser in the Anchor Bible refers to this possibility. I also have no problem with the suggestion of von Rad that it refers to breaking hospitality customs at Sodom. The condemnation of homosexual gang rape is quite clear, of course. In any case, the fact that human beings can enter into disordered sexual relationships is an important one to remember as we consider what the bible says about sexuality. As we consider these matters in the Old Testament, I would like remain focused upon sexual boundaries. I do not consider it appropriate exegesis to consider what the Old Testament says about slaves or keeping the Sabbath as relevant to the matter of proper sexual relationships. The fact that God has someone killed for breaking the Sabbath in Numbers 15:35 is not relevant to the matter before us.

            The Holiness Code of Leviticus 17-26 is an ancient text from Israel. I agree that we need to be careful with any ancient text in terms of interpretation and application. It requires discernment. I would not want to apply this legislation to the life of the church in a direct way. However, I think it would be helpful if we examine briefly the content of this code. If we are to discern properly, we need to be aware of the context.

            The code begins with offering with sacrifices. It makes it clear that since the life is in the blood, one ought not eat the blood. It has concern for sexuality in the context of the family, with members of one’s immediate family and with the extended family. Then it has an interesting paragraph:


Leviticus 18:19-23 (NRSV)

19 You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. 20 You shall not have sexual relations with your kinsman’s wife, and defile yourself with her. 21 You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. 22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. 23 You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor shall any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it: it is perversion.


The text goes on to suggest that everything just written is an abomination and pollutes the land of Israel. This concept of solidarity of individual and community is not one that our culture shares. We understand that individuals are responsible for their behavior. However, it underscores the seriousness of these forms of behavior to the author. I would suggest that, using discernment, many of these forms of behavior ought to remain concerns.

            The code goes on to command respect to parents, keeping Sabbath, nor worshipping idols, and not making images. They are to eat their whole sacrifice of well-being on the same day. They are to care for the poor by not harvesting the field to the edges so that the poor may gather some of the fruit of the land. They shall not stead, deal falsely, or lie. They shall not swear falsely or use the name of the Lord in a profane way. They shall not defraud or steal, and shall pay daily wages. They shall not treat the deaf or blind with contempt. They shall render just judgment and not favor the poor over the rich. They shall not slander others. They are not hate in their hearts a member of the family. They are to correct their neighbor when needed. They shall not love their neighbor as themselves. They are to breed their animals in the right way.

            The code comes back to sexuality, only this time between a man and his female slave. They are not to eat the fruit of the land for three years. They are not to practice augury or witchcraft. They shall cut their hair properly. They shall not mark their bodies. Back to sexuality, they shall not allow daughters to become prostitutes. They are not to turn to mediums or wizards. They are to respect the aged. They shall not oppress the foreigner. They shall not cheat in business. They shall not offer their children for sacrifice to God. Back to sexuality, they are not to commit adultery under penalty of death, a man is not to have sex with his mother or mother-in-law, or sister. Here is an interesting paragraph:


Leviticus 20:10-16 (NRSV)

10 If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. 11 The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. 12 If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death; they have committed perversion, their blood is upon them. 13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. 14 If a man takes a wife and her mother also, it is depravity; they shall be burned to death, both he and they, that there may be no depravity among you. 15 If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the animal. 16 If a woman approaches any animal and has sexual relations with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.


The text continues with a description of the holiness of priests. It also prescribes what constitutes an acceptable offering, making it clear that the priest has the power to declare an offering acceptable or unacceptable. It describes festivals for the Sabbath, Passover, and Unleavened Bread. It describes offering of first fruits. It describes the festival of weeks and the festival of trumpets. It describes the Day of Atonement and the festival of booths. It describes various sacred objects: lamp and bread of the tabernacle. We also find an unusual story in which they took one who blasphemed Moses outside the camp and stoned him to death. It then added these brief laws:


Leviticus 24:17-21 (NRSV)

17 Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. 18 Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. 19 Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered. 21 One who kills an animal shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death.


It institutes the sabbatical year, in which the law repealed debts garnered during the previous six. The Holiness Code concludes with a list of rewards and punishments for the nation, depending on whether they keep the commandments or disobey them.

            Most scholars agree that the statements “You shall not …” have a special place in the sense that their form suggests a boundary beyond which the people of the covenant are to cross. Here are such statements related to sexuality.


Chapter 18

None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness: I am the Lord.

7 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness.

8 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father.

9 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether born at home or born abroad.

10 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your son’s daughter or of your daughter’s daughter, for their nakedness is your own nakedness. 

11 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister.

12 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s flesh. 

13 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, for she is your mother’s flesh. 

14 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt. 

15 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law: she is your son’s wife; you shall not uncover her nakedness. 

16 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.

17 You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter, and you shall not take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter to uncover her nakedness; they are your flesh; it is depravity. 

18 And you shall not take a woman as a rival to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.

19 You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. 

20 You shall not have sexual relations with your kinsman’s wife, and defile yourself with her. 

22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. 

23 You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor shall any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it: it is perversion.

Chapter 19

29 Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, that the land not become prostituted and full of depravity.


My suspicion is that such boundaries beyond which the people of the covenant are not to cross contain commandments with which most of us are quite comfortable. They represent proper boundaries of sexual behavior. We have a problem with one, related to homosexual behavior, but we simply need to admit that this prohibition creates a problem. I do not think explaining it away is helpful to the biblical argument.

            In fact, I would consider the boundaries established by the other short, You shall not statements represent some good guidelines of behavior.


Chapter 19

4 Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God.

10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

11 You shall not steal;

you shall not deal falsely;

and you shall not lie to one another. 

12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.

13 You shall not defraud your neighbor;

you shall not steal;

and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. 

14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

15 You shall not render an unjust judgment;

you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 

16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people,

and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin;

18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

26 You shall not eat anything with its blood.

You shall not practice augury or witchcraft. 

27 You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.

28 You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.

35 You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity.


I grant that verses 19:13c, 26a, 27, 28 appear to have a cultural context modern people no longer share. I would not imagine that we would have much problem with other prohibitions. The point is that this code attempts to recognize boundaries between the behavior of the people of the covenant and the behavior of neighbors. My further point is that many of these boundaries, and in particular with sexuality, remains quite proper. These prohibitions are not simply casuistic or legal. They are moral boundaries in our relationship with people. They express a portion of the covenant relationship people have with God and their covenant obligation toward each other.

            I realize that in some places of biblical interpretation, one simply needs to admit difference. What I would suggest, however, is that the boundaries of sexual practice in this code are part of the continuing dialogue within the bible about what is proper sexual expression within Israel and in the context of its covenant with God. I do not think that regulations regarding priests and sacrifices carry the same weight from the standpoint of the church. Further, I would suggest that penalties recommended go directly against the command of Jesus. However, this does not remove the priority that we need to give to the discussion the holiness code on moral behavior. I would suggest that recommendations for caring for the poor and for canceling debt call for far more attention than churches have given in the past. Consequently, I am sure you would agree that other regulations concerning sexual expression, such as not having sex with close family members or the spouse of one’s neighbor are abiding rules for the people of God. I am not convinced that the brief “you shall not” in reference to homosexual behavior should be isolated and treated in a different way when we consider what the biblical tradition teaches about homosexual practice.

            The Christian tradition has its roots in the strong Jewish opposition to this practice.  Wisdom of Solomon 14:26 refers to sexual perversion.  The Epistle of Aristeas (175 BC) in 152 refers to men who defile themselves in their relationships and procure the males.  Philo in Abr. 135-137.  Spec. Leg. in 3.37-42.  The Sibylline Oracles (164 BC) have several references.  3:184-86.  764.  594-600 refers to intercourse with male children.  Ps. Phoc. (30 BC-40 AD), in 3 refers to not arousing homosexual passion.  190-192 refers to homosexual practice and lesbian practice.  213-214 refers to intercourse with boys.  Josephus, in Ap. 2.273-75 (90 AD in Book II. 25), says the laws of marriage in Jewish life abhor mixture of male with male.  In the Testament of Levi 14.6, 17.11 and in Testament of Naphtali 4.1 there are references to Sodom.  Homosexuality is often linked with idolatry, for both demean people.  Link with the Fall and with sexual perversion is also typical.

            I would now like to consider the reference to Romans 1:18-32.


Romans 1:26-27 (NRSV)

26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.


Some persons argue that if a person honored God, they could engage in same sex relationships and not fall under the judgment of Paul. We may simply have to differ here. Paul assumes a volitional element to homosexual practice. His reference to “natural” assumes the unnatural and disordered nature of homosexual practice. Many modern persons would disagree with this assessment, but we can agree that Paul gives a clear “no” to same sex unions. What I see is that one of the consequences of failing to honor God is all kinds of degrading passions, and homosexual expression is one among many:


Romans 1:29-31 (NRSV)

29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.


I Corinthians 6:9-11 and I Timothy 1:9-10 are also interesting verses:


1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (NRSV)

9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

1 Timothy 1:9-10 (NRSV)

9 This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, 10 fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching


arsenokoi is a word for which Arndt and Gingrich recommend “male homosexual, pederast, sodomite” as translations.  The Anchor Bible translates as “male homosexual.” According to Louw-Nida Lexicon says arsenokoi is a male partner in homosexual intercourse - 'homosexual.' It is possible that arsenokoi in certain contexts refers to the active male partner in homosexual intercourse in contrast with malakoi, the passive male partner. The Freiberg Lexicon defines it as an adult male who practices sexual intercourse with another adult male or a boy homosexual, sodomite, pederast. Our language uses sodomy as an offensive term for anal sex, and even a term applied to sex with animals. Our language uses pederast as a term for a man who has sex with a boy. My understanding is that this form of sexual expression did not include anal sex in the ancient Greek context. I share this because the preponderance of scholarly study supports reference in these words to same sex practice. Further, the caution is appropriate here as to the nature of the act rejected by the bible. What our culture knows in terms of sexual orientation is unknown to the New Testament authors.

            As far as I can understand it, the behavior to which Paul and the author of Timothy refer to is any kind of same sex contact. The New Testament at that point is quite consistent with the Holiness Code and with Jewish sexual practice. It also distinguishes Jewish and Christian sexual behavior from Greek and Roman behavior, which accepted homosexual behavior among bathhouses of the cities. Platonic dialogues assume the value of philosophers having same sex relationships as a way of bonding males to each other. The natural acceptance of this behavior was alive and well in Palestine in the time of Jesus, for the Romans built a city within easy observation of Capernaum. Jesus would have seen this same sex contact, and did not endorse it. The same is true of Paul.

Concerning homosexual practice and the biblical text: dialogue or monologue?

            The bible invites those who take it seriously to continue the conversation in many matters of our ethics and values. Christians continued the dialogue on slavery, and rightly concluded (finally) that the best situation was to prohibit slavery, because as an institution it trended toward abusive relationships. Many churches have re-thought the role of women in the ordained ministry of the church on the same basis. A close examination of the biblical text on divorce reveals a trend from absolute forbidding of divorce and remarriage and toward affirmation of divorce and remarriage in certain circumstances, such as adultery and an unbeliever leaving the believing spouse. The Christian tradition continued to discuss the proper grounds for divorce, such as violence done by one spouse to another, and so on. My point is that when the bible initiates such a conversation within the text, it is quite appropriate for the church to continue the conversation. My intention in sharing the examples of divorce and remarriage after divorce is to suggest that the bible itself carries on a dialogue about such matters. The early tradition of the church in its ecumenical councils continued that conversation with the text. We need discernment of the biblical text and the tradition of the church to continue the conversation. The tradition has often considered this conversation and has developed it on various topics, such as marriage as a partnership rather than marriage as hierarchy and women in ministry. Further, we could also apply this principle of conversation and moving beyond the biblical text to the modern development of democratic institutions and the modern economic system of free enterprise, both of which are contrary to the political and economic assumptions of the bible.

            What I found the most persuasive perspective from which to understand sexuality in the bible and Christian tradition is to view it as a concern for proper personal sexual expression and for the preservation of the family. We have already noted that the reference in Genesis is to male and female in sexual union. The theological references to God and Israel are to that between husband and wife. Jesus refers to a man leaving his parents and uniting to his wife, suggesting, I think, the intent of God at creation for the ideal pattern for marriage. Paul refers to marriage as that between husband and wife and with children. His counsel for the Christian household assumes such a structure for the family. I would suggest that if one takes his counsel seriously, the traditional hierarchical arrangement of the family transforms into a mutually giving and receiving partnership of love, respect, and grace. He also refers to the marriage between Christ as the husband and the church as the bride. With all that the bible discusses concerning “You shall not …” with sexual expression, we must not forget what it positively says about marriage and sexual expression by the people of God. The bible assumes marriage means a life-long, loving and sexual relationship between a man and a woman.

            The struggle I have with the biblical portion of the discussion on homosexual behavior as a Christian expression of sexuality is that the bible does not have a dialogue about it. The bible carries on a monologue about several matters concerning sexuality. It forbids intercourse among close family members, with the spouse of a neighbor, with animals, and it forbids same sex sexual relationships. It seems to me that we need to be honest at that point. Such an observation does not end the discussion. It does not necessarily determine what the church should do today. If the church accepts homosexual behavior as a valid expression of sexuality, it would have to do it on another basis than the biblical argument.

Ecclesial Considerations on moral and spiritual guidance today

            I would suggest that the bible is cultural throughout, which is simply to say that human beings can only hear and discern within space and time. The church is cultural throughout its history. The formation of the canon was a theological process in which the church considered that texts addressed to a specific time had normative significance for the church. We search for timeless, eternal, absolute, and universal truth. What we discover is that any truth we find has human boundaries with which to contend. Human beings stand somewhere, and because of that, we always have a perspective that determines what we see and do not see. We can see things only from a human perspective, which means imperfectly and from personal and cultural perspectives. The unity that the Holy Spirit provides over the ages is an energy that we can trust to lead us. Whether the church of Jesus Christ re-affirms the boundaries on sexual expression set within the bible, or moves in a different direction, only the power of those beliefs and practices in the hearts and minds of the Christian community will determine which course of action will prove true. This openness of truth to the future is an important awareness for us because the power of truth in moral matters is the power to persuade people to live by the values they teach. That spirit is one I would wish the church could have to carry this discussion forward. We need to consider seriously whether homosexual practice has the potential of being a genuinely loving and just relationship. The alternative is to suggest that something about the relationship is inherently unjust and unloving.

            We cannot carry the discussion forward if we continue to divide over this matter. The church needs this discussion for a simple reason. We need each other. People whom I know reasonably well would disagree with my understanding of the biblical text. I need conversation with them in the context of this denomination. We do not need mainline denominations dividing over this matter. I urge those who want to change this value of the New Testament and the church to re-consider their drive toward division, schism, and sectarianism. This is a serious matter in that you are asking the church to move against the view of Jesus on marriage and Paul on the matter of vice and virtue. If the church needs to move this direction, (clearly, I do not think so), it needs to do so as much as possible in a conciliar way. This does not mean simply within a denomination, but in conversation with other denominations with whom one has relation. We have had denominational antagonism for too long. Even if Protestants do not have a pope to decide these matters, we do have the choice to enter into dialogue with other denominations who may disagree, and to have dialogue with global Christianity in ways that can enrich each other. I cannot agree with the way the proponents of this change have promoted their vision.

            Peter J. Gomes, in The Good Book, 1996, has presented in popular format the reasons why he believes the church needs to change its views regarding homosexuality. 


            We must change our position on homosexuality if that position is based upon a prejudicial and uninformed reading of scripture.  Our fundamental stance on biblical authority ought by no means to be an absolute; that is a form of Protestant idolatry.  Indeed, our core view of sexuality ought to change, and must, and the “meaning and character of Christ’s call on our lives” thus is not merely changed but enlarged to reflect a dynamic and inclusive gospel. 

            What is at stake is not simply the authority of scripture, as conservative opponents to homosexual legitimization like to say, but the authority of the culture of interpretation by which these people read scripture in such a way as to lend legitimacy to their doctrinaire prejudices.  Thus the battle for the Bible, of which homosexuality is the last front, is really the battle for the prevailing culture, of which the bible itself is a mere trophy and icon.  Such a cadre of cultural conservatives would rather defend their ideology in the name of the authority of scripture than concede that their self-serving reading of that scripture might just be wrong, and that both the bible and the God who inspires it may be more gracious, just, and inclusive than they can presently afford to be.

            The biblical writers never contemplated a form of homosexuality in which loving, monogamous, and faithful persons sought to live out the implications of the gospel with as much fidelity to it as any heterosexual believer.  All they knew of homosexuality was prostitution, pederasty, lasciviousness, and exploitation.  These vices, as we know, are not unknown among heterosexuals, and to define contemporary homosexuals only in these terms is a cultural slander of the highest order, reflecting now so much prejudice, which it surely does, but what the Roman Catholic Church calls “invincible ignorance,” which all of the Christian piety and charity in the world can do little to conceal.  The “problem,” of course, is not the bible, it is the Christians who read it.


            I quote Rev. Gomes at length because he represents the depths of sin to which the church has taken this discussion.  His book is quite readable and, in most cases, excellent.  He deals more honestly than most pastors in discussing the place of the bible in the formation of our beliefs.  I am offended by his description of me as having a “prejudicial and uninformed reading of scripture.”  His statement that I have “doctrinaire prejudices” offends me.  I do not want to defend my ideology.  Nor are my beliefs simply a “self-serving reading of that scripture.”  Further, we can all agree that the homosexual is our neighbor, and that God calls us to love them and treat them justly.  His reference to me as having “invincible ignorance” is particularly offensive.  From one Christian to another, he tells me that I am the “problem,” that, I assume, must go away in order for the church to advance.

            My personalization of what Rev. Gomes says is my way of stating what I think is the obvious.  The church cannot sit down and rationally discuss this issue with each other.  We can only question the motives of others.  We call each other names.  One of the favorite ways to win an argument today is to impugn the intentions and character of the other side.  We resort to such tactics because our argument is weak and ineffective.  We are not really after truth.  We are after power.

            I want to share some of the timidity I feel in dealing with the issue that the Episcopalian Church has brought to center stage in the consecration of a bishop.

            First, my discomfort over discussing these matters is that the church has so many pressing issues facing it. Mainline churches have focused upon this issue as if it is the only issue. We have matters relating to strengthening families that needs the attention of the church. I am increasingly concerned that the witness of the church in a secular society experiences great harm because faith in Christ does not bring Christians together, as denominations cling to their distinctive traditions.

            Second, my discomfort over discussing these matters is that it leads to the impression that homosexual behavior is somehow worse than other sexual sins. I am uncomfortable with making any set of sins “worse” than another is, for the temptation is for those who do not do it to have a sense of superiority to those who do. Theologically, every human being is a sinner. Human beings unite in this experience. No one has the right to feel superior to another or to behave in a superior way toward another. No one has the right to condemn another.  I can see where someone may read the bible differently on this matter, but it does appear that the bible is quite concerned that we appropriately express our sexuality. I realize that we can slip into thinking that sexual sins are somehow worse than any other sin is, but that is not my point. The point is that this area of sexuality and the family is quite important in the biblical text.

            Third, my discomfort is that Christians have too often used this discussion as a reason to deny the sacred worth and dignity of other persons. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors. We do not ask what religion they are, what denomination they belong to, what color of skin they have, what economic class to which they belong, or what sexual orientation they have.

            Fourth is a matter unique to the United Methodist Church. In matters of ordination, we have what we call open itinerancy. It means that the bishop has the right to appoint any ordained member of the church in good standing to any church the bishop chooses. The Annual Conference must place such persons in a ministry setting. This matter of church polity, in my mind, heightens the matter of ordaining persons who engage in homosexual behavior. With a church polity in which the local church hires the pastor, and the bishop simply is part of the process, the situation would be quite different. Denominations agree that no one has the right to ordination. Ordination is not a graduation service. The church must confirm the call individuals sense in their lives. Part of that confirmation is that the minister leads a life worthy of that calling.

            Fifth, I have much concern over the way mainline churches have considered this matter. We have approached it as a matter of church politics and law. The reality is that this is not simply a technical change that some Christians want. It is a change in our beliefs and values. The church needs to have ways of engaging this conversation with the body of Christ in a way that invites full participation of those affected by such changes. The United Methodist Church has shown it has the capacity to do this. It has produced a set of social principles. It has also produced a wonderful document on baptism. It will presumably pass a document on the Eucharist in 2004. The church has the capacity to address important matters biblical and theologically. The church needs to consider such an approach in the matter of human sexuality. It needs to give spiritual guidance in matters with which many church members struggle today. This matter is not limited to homosexuality. Heterosexual persons also struggle with matters of adultery and divorce. I am not astute enough to figure out how that conversation can take place. I do know that if a change is to take place, the church will need to do it at a level different from parliamentary procedures, church law, and political power. As I have suggested, I am not convinced a change needs to take place. If it does need to happen, if that is the direction God leads the church, we need to engage the discussion in a different way than we have. The point is that we need to be open to each other in the discussion and in discerning the direction God leads the church. That means those who want to be faithful to the bible in this matter need to be in a mindset of openness to hear why other Christians still want a change. It also means openness on the part of those who want change to consider the possibility that the bible has good, healthy, and mature reasons for maintaining that human beings will find a lasting, loving relationship between a man and a woman as the best means to a genuinely happy life.

            Sixth, I would like to suggest that, given the monologue that scripture and tradition have concerning homosexual practice, (both scripture and tradition have a simple answer: You shall not), the only possible basis for change is that our culture experiences something previous cultures have not. The argument would suggest that our culture has seen the arrival of homosexual practice that is loving, mutually supportive, and just in its relationship, and therefore deserves the blessing of the church. Because one might consider this possibility as new, and therefore something the Old Testament, Jesus, Paul, the apostolic churches, or the tradition of the church, did not encounter, one could argue that the church needs to adapt. My personal experience in this area is limited enough that I do not feel competent enough to make a definitive judgment. I also admit that I am quite hesitant to move against the wisdom of 3000 years of consistent biblical and church teaching.  However, I am open enough to realize that the conversation needs to take place.

            Seventh, the scientific and biological matters ought not to carry too much weight, for sexual expression proper for a Christian is primarily a matter of moral and spiritual guidance that the church offers its members and its culture. Psychologically, many persons have same sex orientation because of a disordered home life, even if this statement would not apply to all persons. In mature sexual relationships, sexual intimacy binds partners together in profound ways and many levels. For this bond to occur between the sexes means that we enter into relationship with one genuinely other from ourselves. The experience of the genuinely other helps us grow in our sense of humanity. Further, from a biological perspective, without going into too much detail, man and woman fit together physically quite naturally. Another biological perspective is that our genes seem hard-wired to reproduce themselves. I refer here to the work of Robert Wright, The Moral Animal and to Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. People can do this most naturally in relationships between men and women. I recognize that science may progress to a point where one does not need the opposite sex to reproduce, but that is not a prominent way of reproducing at this point. If human genes are hard-wired to reproduce, one ought to have no fear in making sure that those who pursue same sex relationships have all the civil rights of any other citizen. Same sex relationships will never become widely spread because it goes so much against nature.

            Eighth, when it comes to our culture, I think the church needs to understand that a free, democratic, and secular society will follow paths the church cannot follow. It does not mean the church should oppose those paths politically. It does mean that Christians in that setting need to have the strength to be who they are, in contrast to the culture. In other words, we are in a situation similar to that of the first Christians, who lived in a society that had no Christian influence. The church needs to support full civil rights for persons who engage in homosexual behavior. To refuse this is to suggest that somehow this behavior is worse than any other behavior is.

            Ninth, as an outsider to the Anglican Communion, I have so little knowledge of the inner workings of the system that anything I say may have little relevance. The question I would offer is a matter of discerning the direction God is leading the church. Discernment requires some sort of sifting process, dividing wheat from chaff, so to speak. As one looks at the response of the worldwide Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Pope, does it make anyone in the Episcopal Church in America want to go back and re-visit its decisions? I do not mean the decision was wrong. The kind of questions I would have is these. Did the denomination move ahead of itself or move too quickly? Is the denomination concerned that this direction will harm ecumenical relationships with other denominations? Is it really willing to risk division internally and with the world Anglican churches over this matter? Could it be that American Anglican bishops need to engage the bishops of other lands as to why they think this is the proper direction for the church? The failure to have some openness to re-consider suggests an elite approach to truth in which the American Episcopalians offer a pronouncement on high. Once again, we are dealing with the beliefs and values of people. It seems to me that the church needs to have a different process than simply power politics on either side.

Individual Character, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage

            Many proponents of a change in the stance of the church toward homosexual practice use the example of the church has already made concerning divorce and remarriage after divorce. I know that what I have to say here is far longer than it should be, but it will give an example of what I would consider as continuing a dialogue on matters of divorce and remarriage after divorce that the bible started and the tradition of the church continued. I want to suggest that the dialogue makes all the difference as to how we treat divorce and homosexual practice from the context of the teaching of the bible.

            To my knowledge, monogamy is a marriage practice that the church slowly recognized as the only way in which the people of God ought to honor each other. I grant that in cultures that practice polygamy, the church allowed people who convert to Christianity to remain in their style of marriage out of compassion. However, the hint in Genesis that a man shall leave his parents and cling to his wife is suggestive.


Genesis 1:26-28 (NRSV)

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”


Genesis 2:20-25 (NRSV)

20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh;

this one shall be called Woman,

for out of Man this one was taken.”

24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.


The way Jesus uses this text is also suggestive in Mark 10: 2-12 .


Mark 10:6-9 (NRSV)

6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”


            To shift the argument from Paul for a moment, Ephesians 5 speaks of mutual submission to each other. 

Ephesians 5:21-25 (NRSV)

21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her …


Paul goes on to speak of the responsibility of marriage partners.  We tend to focus upon the submission of wives.  However, he also speaks of the kind of love the man is to have for the wife.  It is a sacrificial love, the kind of love that brings forth service.  My questions are these.  What happens when marriage falls short of that ideal?  What happens when marriage, far from fulfilling God’s purpose for the partners, becomes a degrading and abusive relationship?  What happens when marriage, instead of helping the partners move toward their highest good, brings out their darkness and sin?  What happens when the marriage, instead of helping the partners to become more like Christ, fails to do so? Is there room for Christian couples to admit that they have failed to fulfill the purpose of God for the marriage? Who has the authority to make such a decision? 

            I grant the strangeness of a cultural mindset that could argue for faithfulness in marriage and assume multiple wives and concubines for those who could afford them. However, we need to acknowledge that in societies that allow polygamy, monogamy is the pattern. The pattern of monogamy developed into the life-style of Christians over time. It appears to me that one of the reasons for monogamy is theological.

            As I understand it, Hosea is the first prophet to use the image of husband and wife as an analogy of the relationship between God and Israel. In any case, he clearly believes that God has one wife, namely, Israel, and that Israel has one husband, namely, God. We find the same imagery in the New Testament, suggesting the church is the bride of Christ. This choice of exclusive marriage relationship in the relationship between God and the covenant people is a reflection of what God intends in our human marriage relationships. Further, such texts are important in considering the biblical ethical ideal concerning sexual expression. When Jesus goes back to creation, he considers the intention of God for humanity. The intention of God is that humanity find sexual expression in the life-long, loving relationship between a man and a woman. This ethical ideal reflects on personal development as a human being. Entering into relationship with someone significantly different from me challenges me to grow in my experience of humanity. We are human beings only as male and female. When we take the risk of entering into partnership with someone that different from us, we discover dimensions of ourselves that we would never have known had it not been for that relationship. We also discover dimensions of the other that we would not have known. In addition, faithfulness is an important virtue to develop. When we make a promise to another person in marriage, living up to that promise says much about character and values.

            I would suggest that the church has not changed this positive evaluation of marriage. If anything, the church has elevated the status of marriage in its tradition. This positive view of marriage is the background out of which we can understand the discussion within the bible about divorce.


            First, let us examine material in the Old Testament. 

            I begin with the only piece of divorce legislation, contained in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.  Biblical scholars believe that the writers completed the Deuteronomic history, including Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, during the time of exile, in 586-540 BC.  However, we cannot date this particular legislation, for it could come from much earlier.  The text reads like this:

(Deu 24:1-4)  Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house {2} and goes off to become another man's wife. {3} Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); {4} her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the LORD, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession.


The many laws concerning marriage show a careful safeguarding of this area of human life.  The grounds for divorce here are finding something “objectionable,” “disgraceful,” or “scandalous,” in the woman.  Note, however, that the court system has nothing to do with the divorce.  Ending the marriage is between the man and the woman.  Over time, Jewish law limited divorce so that it was not just at the whim of the husband.  In the Code of Hammurabi, #137-140, we find no such requirement upon the husband.

      Malachi 2:13-16 comes from the period between 500 and 460 BC.  The text reads like this:

(Mal 2:13-16)  And this you do as well: You cover the Lord's altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. {14} You ask, "Why does he not?" Because the LORD was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. {15} Did not one God make her? Both flesh and spirit are his. And what does the one God desire? Godly offspring. So look to yourselves, and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth. {16} For I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel, and covering one's garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.


People have used the saying “I hate divorce” toward me several times, indicating that I have done something that God hates.  It has been an important awareness of grace that what God hates divorce, God loves the person who divorces – including me. I invite you, however, to look at the context.  God does not hear their prayers or accept their offerings because they have been faithless to the companion of their youth.  Though they express great emotion in worship, their moral wrong hindered access to God.  The use of “companion” in reference to the wife is the only time this Hebrew word is used in this context.  Hebrew used this word only for close friends with shared interests.  He focused upon loyalty and faithfulness within the marriage covenant.  He wants husbands to remain true to their first wife.  However, the Hebrew text is not intelligible.  Older men deserted their first wives to marry younger, more sexually attractive women.  Men broke partnerships forged by years of shared struggle and joy.  Some early Hebrew texts try to bring the passage in line with Deuteronomy, where God permits divorce.  This text makes it clear that God hates divorce motivated by lust and the abandonment of women who have been faithful and loving partners over the years. 


Ezra 10:10-16 is the final text from the Old Testament to which I direct your attention.


(Ezra 10:10-16)  Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, "You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. {11} Now make confession to the LORD the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives." {12} Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, "It is so; we must do as you have said. {13} But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for many of us have transgressed in this matter. {14} Let our officials represent the whole assembly, and let all in our towns who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every town, until the fierce wrath of our God on this account is averted from us." {15} Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levites supported them. {16} Then the returned exiles did so. Ezra the priest selected men, heads of families, according to their families, each of them designated by name. On the first day of the tenth month they sat down to examine the matter.


      Here is a situation where Ezra required divorce under the circumstances he describes.  Ezra discovered a widespread practice of marriage with foreign wives. As a Persian official, his summons for people to come together carried a lot of weight.  He wanted the removal of foreign wives.  However, the fact that immediate action was not practical shows how widespread it was. 

      I would now like to share with you the Jewish position on divorce in the context of the first century AD.  Divorce had long been legally permissible by Jewish law. In that tradition, only the man could divorce the woman.  Mark interprets the motive of the Pharisees as a test, either for a fine point law, or to bring Jesus into conflict with Herod.  Herod imprisoned and executed John the Baptist because he denounced the marriage practices of Herod Antipas and Herodias (6:17f). When these Pharisees, who had earlier joined forces with the "Herodians" (3:6), confront Jesus on this topic, the location is in Perea ‑‑ within the tetrarch's jurisdiction. Jesus' pronouncement is an obvious comment on the divorce and remarriage of these rulers. The only continuing debate about divorce in first‑century Judaism existed between the followers of the more conservative Shammai School and the more liberal Hillel school. Shammai taught that the "objectionable" behavior that could give a husband just cause for divorcing his wife was adulterous behavior or the wife's extreme failure to observe Jewish law. Hillel, however, allowed that any behavior that caused the husband annoyance or embarrassment was legitimate grounds for giving the wife a bill of divorcement. There also was a general rejection of divorce in Qumran.  In Judaism, ordinary divorce was intended to make a remarriage possible.  The Jewish command to the husband to pay the marriage bond at a divorce, meant at the same time practicable and effective protection for the woman. 

            As we move to the New Testament, the context in which both Jesus and Paul address themselves to marriage is the soon arrival of the end, so the possibility that of living a long period without the blessing a happy marriage, even a second one, did not realistically occur to them. Further, the early centuries of the church developed increasing asceticism, to the point where celibacy became valued more so than a happy marriage. It stands to reason, in such contexts, that remarriage after divorce would not find acceptance. Yet, pastoral concerns led to considering human brokenness as a regrettable reality in Christian marriages.


            I suspect that the saying of Jesus in Luke 16:18 is the teaching of Jesus concerning divorce.


Luke 16:18 (NRSV)

18 “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.


Under the supposition of many scholars that when there are multiple versions of a saying of Jesus in the gospels, the hardest saying is likely the saying of Jesus, we can assume that this saying is closest to what Jesus taught concerning divorce. It contains an absolute prohibition of remarrying after divorce. Jesus likely applied the rule against priests marrying divorced women in the Holiness Code to the community he formed. The early church struggled with the pastoral application of this saying of Jesus to the new setting several decades after the death of Jesus. The early church, rather than adopt a rule oriented approach to a saying of Jesus, sought to apply the teaching of Jesus in the same spirit that Jesus understood the Torah and prophets. Out love for God and neighbor, it considered that adultery would be an occasion when the offended party could divorce remarry.


Matthew 19:9 (NRSV)

9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”


Paul finds a further reason to refuse a strict rule oriented approach to the saying of Jesus as he considered another pastoral situation and came down on the side of love:


1 Corinthians 7:15 (NRSV)

15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you.


He suggests that if a non-Christian spouse divorces the Christian spouse, the Christian should be at peace with the decision and the implication is that remarriage is acceptable.

Ecclesial Considerations

I invite you to consider the pastoral approach of the church to the human brokenness expressed in divorce.

            Divorce and re-marriage is a rather clear example of the dialogue that within the biblical tradition and within the tradition of the church. The church tradition assumes from a theological perspective that human beings cannot dissolve marriage. Yet, the direction of the bible and the tradition on this matter, the allowance for divorce and remarriage became a pastoral necessity. In later tradition, the death of the person from one is divorced becomes another sufficient allowance for remarriage. The Orthodox Church has taken this path before the church of the west did in that it considered the possibility of two divorces as allowable. It also considered that after the second divorce, the church would not remarry, for the person ought to consider the possibility that marriage is simply not for him or her. The ecumenical councils of the church deal with second marriages in a variety of ways, all stressing the seriousness of divorce. They give guidance on what happens if a man marries a divorced woman, and then wants to become clergy. They give guidance on the procedure for penance if someone divorces. Just as the New Testament considered proper grounds for divorce, the tradition continues that discussion, as well as grounds sufficient for a second marriage. In the context of sexuality, ecumenical councils defended marriage against attacks from the growing celibate community. The growing Christianizing of European culture led to less tolerance of divorce and even more so of remarriage. If one assumes that both partners of the marriage are Christian, they receive the blessing of the church, and the culture supports Christian teaching and values, one ought not to be surprised that divorce and remarriage have less tolerance. However, the church continued its struggle to identify proper grounds. This means that the church is not against divorce. Rather, from a pragmatic perspective, it seeks to give spiritual and moral guidance as to the proper occasion for it.

            God takes the act of divorce seriously.  Anyone who has been through a divorce knows that there is plenty of sin to go around.  We also know it represents a human failure and falls short of God’s intent in marriage.  The value of commitment and fidelity, the value of raising children, and the value of entering into relationship genuinely other in terms of sexuality, helps us to experience the good that God intends.  Marriage and family are the primary ethical and moral training ground for us as human beings.

            Jesus and Paul both developed their ethics and morality out of the vision of the soon arrival of the kingdom of God.  I suggest that the context within which Jesus and Paul gave their counsel concerning divorce and remarriage no longer exists.  I also suggest that the context of the tradition of the church, namely, asceticism, a sacramental view of marriage, and a Christian culture, no longer exist.  Further, we dare not interpret as church law that which Jesus gave as ethical ideal.

            In the matter of marriage, we can all agree that the ethical ideal of Jesus to a life-long marriage is clear.  We can agree that Paul’s vision of a life-long marriage relationship of mutual support and love between a man and a woman is in line with God’s ideal as expressed in Genesis.  However, we can also observe the reality that human beings fall short of that ethical demand.  Ought this observation to surprise us?  We are, after all, sinners.  We must remind ourselves that, no matter how moral and righteous any of us might be we are not perfect.  All of us fall short of our own ideals, let alone those that God has for us.  Those who have had happy marriages may pride themselves on doing so, and wonder why not everyone can be as good as they are.  However, I would also suggest that they are nowhere near as good as they think they are.  Further, I would also suggest that people who experience the pain of divorce are not as bad as others may think.  I say all of this to suggest that we all depend upon grace for our happiness in life.  We live by grace, and we are in constant need of forgiveness.  As for me, I am on the side of the church being a means of grace to all sinners – like me and like the reader of this text. Divorce is a public matter.  However, the good person often has secret sins they allow to themselves.  We often excuse those private sins of thought or desire, excusing our own sin, while judging the sins of others.  We separate ourselves from another person whom we believe not to be as good as that we are. 

            I have suggested an ethical and pastoral interpretation, rather than a legal interpretation, of the prohibition on divorce and remarriage.  We all need grace.  We have become new persons in Christ.  As God continually makes us new persons, and shapes us into the image of Christ, the church needs to accept that new creation.  God takes the covenant of marriage between two persons seriously. God treats divorce seriously.  God treats it as the ethical, moral, and spiritual issue that it is, rather than as an item of law.  Therefore, the bible does not mean that divorce and remarriage are unforgivable.  Whatever sin we experience in divorce, God is fully capable of forgiving that sin.  Further, as God forgives, God forgets.  The same needs to become true of the church. We have the obvious biblical emphasis upon our need for grace and forgiveness because of sin.  Therefore, a view consistent with the dialogue the bible began would be that divorce is permissible, even if it is not a righteous choice.  In an imperfect world, people sometimes make choices that are the lesser of evils. Further, I suggest that remarriage is not an adulterous condition.  Sexual relations within the second marriage are holy. 

Summary: Individual Character, Human Sexuality, Christian Norms

            A culture that prizes the value of the individual is a good culture in which to live. Such a culture encourages in individuals the discovery of the unique gift that each individual can offer to others, and then encourages individuals to offer that gift. The challenge that such a culture presents is that as one matures, few institutions or individuals tend to have the type of influence upon individual members that would give practical guidance in leading a happy a meaningful life. Individuals receive guidance in their families, although that guidance may be quite strong in some families and quite weak in other families. Religious institutions also provide spiritual and moral guidance, usually relying upon the wisdom of their sacred texts and their traditions. In adult life, listening to such authorities becomes a optional and voluntary. Modern society tends to put such traditional wisdom into question. Just as science and technology improve the everyday lives of individuals and families, people living in modern societies often assume that they can put behind them the wisdom of the past.

            The respect that modern society offers to individuals has the effect in many individuals that freedom means being able to do whatever one wants to do. Yet, this is an illusion. The first human community to which most persons relate is their biological family. They learn to relate to authority figures and too often to siblings and the extended family. They learn to relate to neighbors and playmates. In the process, they discover that they cannot do whatever they want. They learn to discipline their desires and discern courses of action and behavior in relationship with others. In fact, they discover their sense of self in relationship with others. Although modern society gives valued individuals the impression that only the individual matters, individuals find both unity and diversity in the context of human community.

            Human love calls people to move beyond themselves and involve themselves in the lives, hopes, and dreams of others. The experience of such love is a feeling for others and their importance in one’s life. This love is not morality itself, but rather prepares the way for moral discourse. Considerations of morality and ethics have their source in love. Love causes us to de-center self and find our fulfillment in caring for another. Individuals find their fulfillment in relationship with others. Our encounter with persons different from us calls us out of ourselves and into new discovery of the potential person we can become. For the Christian, this means shifting focus from self and toward Christ. Love also points people beyond morality. Moral and ethical discussions center in behavior that expresses love, both toward God and toward people. Such discussions help people reflect upon the best human life. Therefore, any discussion of human sexuality must reject legal or casuistic approaches. The test of this discussion is whether it is consistent with loving God and loving the neighbor. The same love that God has for the world the church must share. The guidance the church seeks to give in the area of human sexuality arises out of its love for its members and for the world. This perspective shapes the participation of the church in the public square. The church seeks dialogue as a participant and beneficiary of modern society. Through its participation in societal dialogue and debate, the church seeks to offer its wisdom, to learn from others, and in the process to improve our life together.

            Modern society often has an unhealthy focus upon sex. Our sexuality is an important dimension of who we are. Sexual desire affects our view of self as well as the other. People in modern society seem to talk more about sex than anything else. Modern people seem to expect so much from sex as well. The more sex one has, with as many partners as one can, seems to lead toward a life of happiness. Sex is a disappointing answer to the riddles of human life. This path has also led to the wreckage of many lives. This grasping at sex for a meaningful and happy life is asking sex to have a place in our lives that it does not deserve. People who devote their lives to unrestricted sexual satisfaction do not attain happiness. Sex has become almost too available. Detached from consideration of the best human life, sex loses its potential for human fulfillment. In such a setting, any sexual partner will suffice. People appear to have so much sex and so little meaning, fun, passion and feeling in having it. People have become more concerned about technique rather than passion, meaning, or pleasure. Compulsive preoccupation with sex is part of our struggle for identity. We also want to overcome our solitariness. We desperately endeavor to escape feelings of emptiness and the threat of apathy. Human fascination with sex is also understandable in that the sexually other fascinates us. We long for the completion of our humanity in one sexually other than us. Yet, we can become bound to the other, who can become a god or devil in that role. We cannot be godlike to and for others. Contrary to the experience of elevating the sexual partner into the position of a god, we cannot offer others redemption, just as others cannot offer us redemption.

            Modern society seems to find the expression of sexuality particularly difficult for the establishing of proper boundaries of human behavior. Some of these boundaries seem rather obvious. Parents do not make children the object of their sexual desire. Adults do not make children the object of their sexual desire. Siblings do not make each other the object of sexual desire. Such boundaries seem rather obvious for healthy families even in modern societies. Yet, many other relationships seem up in the air. Where do modern people go to receive wise counsel in the matter of sexuality? Where do Christians go to receive guidance?

            I want to begin with a simple ideal that finds its foundation in the bible, Christian tradition, and finds much support in every culture. Family involves the joining of a man and a woman in affection and commitment, reserving sexual expression for each other and normally involves raising children together. When sex is part of faithful and loving relationship, it becomes beautiful. The church celebrates gender diversity as a gift of God. True love enables us to see. Love permits us to see the spiritual core of the other, the reality of the potential of the other. Becoming openly intimate with another becomes a window toward genuinely loving relationships with others. Genuinely loving another helps us become loving people, loving in a way that shares love with others as well. We grow in our love for humanity and in our love of life. Such love implies care, the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love. Many people have a nagging suspicion that nothing matters; we cannot do anything to make changes. Therefore, we become apathetic, uninvolved, and grasp for external stimulants. Care suggests that something does matter. Care is the opposite of apathy. Care is what we need to heal such sickness. We tend toward another; we have inclination toward another and give attention to another. Such love implies responsibility, our response to the needs of another human being. Such love implies respect; the ability to see the unique individuality of the other, separating the others growth from any purpose in serving us. Such love implies knowledge of the other, transcending simple concern for us. Isolated individuals are little more than fragments, while a meaningful life experiences the profound connection each life has with another. Love is the royal road to genuine knowledge of another and us. It is the way to genuine union, answering our quest to escape the prison of our aloneness. In genuinely discovering another, we find ourselves. The act of love transcends thought and words.

            Many people in modern society return to the traditional wisdom concerning sexuality after discovering the way one can degrade others and oneself through the perversion of sexual desire. The church recognizes that this path is an illusion. Genesis 1 and 2 make it clear that a man shall leave his parents and create a new bond with his wife. Jesus made clear that this ideal remains the pattern for his understanding of family. In the Old Testament, we find the pattern of relationships in the families become a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel. God is the parent who loves the child, must often discipline the disobedient child, and can even feel pain with the child disobeys. God is the husband or lover who continues to love, even as Israel pursues other lovers. In the New Testament, the metaphor continues, as the church becomes the bride of Christ. Such biblical metaphors and images continue in the history of the church. The ideal relationship between God and the people of God, between husband and wife, is one of mutual love and faithfulness.

            The New Testament continues with its assumption that the household consists first of the relationship between husband and wife, parent and child, and master and slave. I would emphasize that the New Testament focuses upon the soft use of power required from the one in authority. Given the hierarchical structure of first century Roman and Greek civilization, the New Testament encourages those in authority to use their power in nurturing ways that model the serving character of Christ and the fruit of the Spirit.

            This pattern for the proper expression of human sexuality has good grounding in common sense. Many scientists will say that our genetic structure drives us to reproduce the genes in another. Yet, most of us recognize that more is at work than genes desiring reproduction. We are not human beings in general, but only as male and female. The single life is a valuable and worthwhile contribution to human community when it involves a full dedication of oneself to God and to some form of ministry. Yet, when we have the capacity to enter into an intimate, faithful, and sexual relationship with a member of the opposite sex, we discover dimensions of our humanity that we would not otherwise discover. Every constitution of the family is worthwhile, whether as single persons, married without children, single with children, and married with children. However, we recognize the importance of children to develop their identity in relationship to both the same sex parent and the opposite sex parent. These early relationships are important for the development of healthy adults.

            The matter of human sexuality particularly falls under the injunction of Paul to honor God in the body and to consider our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. What we do with our bodies is important to God. Our bodies are the only bodies we will have in this life. Scientifically, we know that this is the only time that this set of genes has ever existed or ever will exist. We have a unique gift to offer, and we can offer that gift only with this body. We will only be in these bodies a brief time. The same is true as we come face to face with others. They are unique gifts who will live a relatively brief time. We need to honor them as temples of the Holy Spirit.

            The bible also recognizes that human beings cross these boundaries regularly. The Holiness Code of Leviticus 17-26 is one example. It gives guidance on many matters, but the guidance it gives on human sexual experience is my focus. Males are the object of most of these prohibitions. The text gives a clear no. Men ought not to have intercourse with a woman in her menstrual cycle, commit adultery, have same gender intercourse, or have intercourse with an animal. Sons ought not to have intercourse with their mothers, nor fathers with their daughters or daughters in law, or have intercourse with his wife and mother in law. The text gives a general prohibition of sexual relationships with anyone who has a close family connection, such as nephew, niece, aunt, and uncle. Brothers and sisters are not to have intercourse with each other.

            Although not quite as specific, the New Testament also offers its list of sexual activities that transgress the boundaries of acceptable Christian behavior: Adulteries, Fornication, Impurity, Licentiousness, Male prostitutes (malakoi), and Sodomites arsenokoitai.

            When it comes to sexual boundaries in the biblical tradition, the apodictic argument is typical: “You shall not.” This form of argument assumes that what it prohibits is self-evident. The statement does not require rational argument in its favor, for the writer considers its truth as obvious. It does not consider the possibility that its opposite might be true. Of course, modern society no longer considers the sexual boundaries I have discussed as self-evident. In that setting, the church will need to consider whether it can arrive at satisfactory reasons for continuing these boundaries, or making reasonable adjustments. The modern church will have to persuade others in ways other than apodictic statements. My own approach is to suggest a form of argument that lays before others our core convictions, the vision of a form of life among Christians and within the church, and determine those places where we can be together and where we must separate.

            Modern society offers individuals great freedom to find what they believe to be the best human life. Consistent with this value of the individual, the church recognizes that all persons have sacred worth and dignity grounded in the divine origin of their lives. All persons deserve love and respect as children of God. Yet, the church recognizes that the abuse of freedom actually makes one a slave to passions and desires that inhibit one from leading the best human life and Christian life they could lead. Even modern society recognizes that many of the prohibitions that date back to the Holiness Code remain in effect. Far from wanting to put people into bondage, the church offers its wisdom in the area of human sexuality out of love for others. In particular, people may sincerely believe that their sexual desire is God-given, even where it moves in territory outside the boundaries established in the bible and in the teaching of Jesus. In other words, the perversion of sexual desire is possible. As with any gift of God, human beings can become confused emotionally or downright evil in the exercise of God-given desire.

            What has been the effect of the abuse of freedom in the arena of sexual expression? Let us consider a few controversial topics.

            Our society has seen the explosion of abortion as a means of birth control. Regardless of what society does with the legal of abortion, this does not determine the moral and spiritual issue facing the church. The formation of new life for human beings is not only a biological event, but a moral and spiritual event as well. The church recognizes the tragic choice in abortion at many levels. Yet, respect for life is an important principle that the church must uphold. The spiritual guidance the church gives is simple. Please confine the expression of sexual desire to the context of the marriage relationship. Please use modern means of birth control. Please respect life enough that you will bring the child to term. If you cannot adequately love and nurture this child, please place him or her into the loving hands others who can. Of course, the decision to abort, as serious as it is, does not place one outside of the love and care of God. In the same way, the church models the love and forgiveness of God by welcoming all persons into its family.

            Our society has seen an explosion in sexual experimentation, beginning increasingly early and continuing increasingly late. When we treat intercourse in such a casual way, we also treat others and ourselves in casual ways. This emphasis upon sexuality shows itself in sexual harassment as well. Harassment is about the abuse of power as much as it is about the perversion of our sexual desire. We degrade each other along such paths. The church extends love and forgiveness to all persons, regardless of their sexual history. The church extends the same love and forgiveness to those of its own membership who become confused in this area of life. Yet, the Christian ideal remains that of preserving sexual expression in the context of the faithful and loving relationship of husband and wife.

            Our society has seen the explosion of divorce. The fact that two people unite in marriage based upon some level of affection and commitment makes us aware of the slender threads that keep two people together. The public act of uniting in marriage in the presence of minister and congregation can strengthen those bonds. The Christian ideal or norm is the faithful and loving relationship between a man and a woman. When two people can maintain this relationship, and mentor others in it by their example, they become powerful witnesses to what God intends for marriage.

            However, human will and human feeling often fail. In such circumstances, the church encourages couples to seek psychological, marital, and spiritual counsel. Even when two people are Christians, they may find that what they thought they had at the beginning of their marriage was not truly there or could not survive. The church does everything it can to provide a loving and supportive community for couples who face such options. God may hate divorce. God continues to love divorced people. The church encourages couples to minimize the negative influence of divorce upon their children. The New Testament struggles with the proper conditions for ending a marriage in a way that frees the individuals to re-marry. The New Testament does not speak with one voice. Luke 16:18 declares that any remarriage after any divorce is adultery. Matthew 19:9 offers the exception that if one of the partners has committed adultery, remarriage is allowable. I Corinthians 7:15 says that if a non-Christian spouse departs from the marriage, the Christian has the right to re-marry. The tradition of the church continues this discussion by considering other proper conditions for divorce, such as physical violence against the wife. The church recognizes that people may exploit each other in marriage.

            The church continues the discussion of the New Testament and the tradition in a modern context. Average life expectancy of individuals has increased from 45 to 75. Increased opportunities for women to support themselves economically have given them greater freedom to make choices of whether to remain with a partner. None of these realities justifies an easy divorce for Christians. Children suffer in most divorces. Yet, they may also suffer in the marriage. The couple needs to consider prayerfully the impact of divorce upon their children. Christians often fall short of what God intends in marriage. Instead of fulfilling the purpose of God for them, the marriage becomes degrading and abusive. Instead of encouraging the couple toward their highest and best life, it brings out their darkness and sin. The marriage fails in helping the partners become more like Christ. This abuse of the marriage relationship dishonors the intent God has for marriage and disrupts the social order. The church recognizes that Christian couples may in fact fail to fulfill the purpose of God for them, for their children, and for their marriage. The external and legal act of divorce is recognition of a divorce that has already happened in their hearts. They have already broken the covenant of marriage that involves loving, honoring, and cherishing each other. Breaking this covenant is serious. Couples need to give prayerful attention to restoring their covenant and finding new life with each other. However, if a couple makes the decision to divorce, the church does not pass judgment, for only the couple and God know the actual workings of their relationship. The church continues to offer a loving and forgiving community, even while it continues to uphold the ideal of faithful and loving married relationships.

            Our society has seen the potential for re-defining what constitutes family. Society has done this in the past. It often experiments with polygamy, with mistresses, and with prostitution. It encourages “free love,” as if sex without commitment and affection is an ideal toward which individuals should strive. Most immediately, this has meant defining marriage and family to include same-gender relationships. We might also wonder if society will also accept as family units polygamous relationships as well. Two questions society must raise is that if there are boundaries in terms of sexual expression, where will society draw them? What context is best for children? Since one of the areas the church has always exerted its greatest influence is the family, such societal changes affect the life of church. They are important discussions because they affect core beliefs and values of those involved. The position of the church is reasonably simple. The best family context for children is where husband and wife remain together faithfully and lovingly. In this situation, children have the greatest possibility of maturing in reasonably healthy ways into adult life. The proper place to express oneself sexually is in the relationship of husband and wife.

            The well-being of individuals and the manner in which human society finds itself linked together has its source in the human community called family and marriage. The family is an intimate community, a school of deeper humanity. It needs a generous communion of minds and hearts and deliberation between spouses and deliberation between parents and children. Children need the kind of education that will help them engage society in a meaningful and responsible way and form families of their own. Various generations often come together in the family. They help each other grow in wisdom. They help harmonize personal rights with responsibilities to a community. Political and economic leaders have an interest in recognizing the dignity of the family, protecting it, and promoting it. The advancement of the well-being of domestic life enhances broader human society.

            Our society has witnessed increasing awareness of the nature of sexual orientation. Questions of sexual orientation bring one beyond biblical awareness or the discussions in the traditions of the church. The bible and church tradition know only the practice of heterosexuality or homosexuality. Matters of genetics and biology do not resolve such matters. The philosophical tradition has determined that in moral discourse, what is naturally does not determine what ought to be. If a particular gene determines an inclination toward same-gender sexual desire, we also know that genes want to be reproduced. We may also discover genes that will tend a person toward violence, although society will still hold such persons accountable for what they do with that tendency. Doctors fight against diseases instilled in the genes. Nature may give every individual a tendency in certain directions. However, family, community, culture, and personal responses to these factors, hold individuals responsible for the form their life takes. The argument from biology rarely gives answers in such matters because they involve the quality of our relationships with other persons. Biology cannot solve moral dilemmas. Human beings will still have to face each other, consider how they treat each other, and offer reasons for their behavior.

            For some persons in the church, this awareness of sexual orientation suggests that faithful and loving same-gender relationships constitute a Christian ideal for individuals and families. They argue that the Old Testament, Jesus, and Paul, did not know of such relationships, and therefore did not address this possibility. They further compare the homosexual experience to that of slavery and racism, suggesting that normalizing homosexual practice is a matter of social justice. The church must also face the reality that some of its members believe their same-gender sexual orientation is a gift from God to them. Learning from this view, the church reaffirms the sacred worth and dignity of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation. The church rejects discrimination solely because of sexual orientation, recognizing that some positions in some organizations will have moral reasons for making such hiring distinctions. The church rejects any form of physical or verbal abuse of persons with same-gender sexual orientation. Any church that makes homosexual persons uncomfortable in church has not modeled the compassion Jesus showed to the crowds. Consequently, lovingly embracing those whom we know as homosexual is simply another way of loving our neighbors. Christians love others, not because they believe the same or act acceptably, but because all persons are of sacred worth and dignity.

            For other persons, the church best preserves its sacred text, its traditions, and its wisdom, by continuing encouraging the norm and ideal of faithful and loving relationships between husband and wife. These persons consider that homosexual practice opens itself to abuse of sexual desire: promiscuity, the violence of the sex act in male homosexuality, and the tendency toward eliminating sex in female homosexuality. In the matter of homosexual practice, neither the biblical tradition nor the Christian tradition contains any discussion on the matter of whether homosexuality is consistent with the Christian sexual ideal. In fact, homosexual practice receives a clear prohibition: “You shall not.” In this fact, homosexuality differs from the matter of divorce, where the bible begins a consideration of the proper conditions for divorce and the Christian tradition continued that discussion. It also differs from the social justice issue of slavery, where the New Testament begins a discussion of the role of the slave in the Christian community. The common basis of salvation is clear: In Christ, there is neither slave nor free. The experience in the Christian community that united believers at the Lord’s Table and in baptism was a sign of the future unity of humanity, regardless of economic class. Such considerations legitimately led the church to denounce slavery, even if such statements were entirely too late in history.

            For these persons, the wisdom of the church concerning homosexual practice is consistent with the Christian and Jewish traditions, other religious traditions, and with many other cultures, in a way that makes it difficult to abrogate the prohibitions as easily as some appear to do. The church commits itself to open and honest dialogue on this matter. However, out of concern for its ecumenical relationships, it concern for its sacred texts and traditions, its concern for the global Christian community, and its love for those who sense same-gender sexual orientation, the church cannot set forth any kind of same-gender relationship as an ideal toward which any Christian should strive. Further, the church continues to uphold as the Christian ideal the family of husband, wife, and children. The church embraces those families of divorce and single parent homes, providing a supportive and loving community. The church recognizes that Christians may well engage in same-gender relationships. The church recognizes that all persons sin and fall short of the glory of God. The church also recognizes that all of the vices listed in the New Testament direct themselves at the church and its members. If members of the church did not experience temptation to do them, and in fact practice them, the writers would hardly need to encourage their avoidance. All persons are of sacred worth and dignity, including those who commit any of the vices listed in the New Testament. The church remains hesitant to lift out one of the vices listed, homosexuality, and declare that the apostles got this one wrong, even while they got all the others right.

            The church reminds all persons that in matters of human sexuality, as with all matters related relationships with other human beings, we remember these words of Paul:


Philippians 4:8 (NRSV) Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.


Social Character and Ecclesial Considerations of Political Power

I would now like to offer a few comments on the involvement of Christians in the political power structures of modernity. Considering that even today, many pre-modern societies do not allow such involvement, the church and Christians ought to begin with some gratitude for modernity and its openness to the church at this level.

We find ourselves perplexed by the issue of church and society.  Christians of all political perspectives have become nervous that the faith and their scripture apply to so little of the concerns that we face as a culture.  The bible and much of Christian history existed within cultures that deserved a counter-culture or sub-culture, or a desire to overthrow that culture. One wonders if the secular culture of the west, as it orients itself around freedom, pluralism, and democratic institutions, deserves overthrow, an alternative culture, or, as I would suggest, people working within it who move toward responsible use of the precious gift of freedom that we have. Culture continues to differentiate and specialize through its institutions. No institution provides a central organizing authority. In such a society, the church does not have the role of providing a foundation for the culture, or even an alternative culture. The bible makes us uncomfortable with its focus upon God and upon Christ.  Politics and economics seem so much more exciting and important than matters like meaning, purpose, values, helping experience God and become followers of Jesus Christ.  The bible concerns itself with matters that embarrass us. 

            We can observe the power of liberal and conservative political ideology by their willingness to subsume matters of religious faith to that ideology.  The interaction of religion and politics has taken a dangerous turn.  People with liberal and conservative political ideology have used religion to advance their own power.  Theologians speak of a desire to change social structures.  However, which vision of social structure will they implement?  On the religious left, we have many black religious organizations and liberal Protestant denominations.  They use the language of compassion to advance the cause of increased power to Washington.  Political or liberation theology castigates liberal Protestantism as a theology of the middle class and calls for an overthrow of modernism. Christianity is about compassion to the poor and the marginal persons of society.  However, many have stooped to the level of using political power to gain that which we can accomplish only through transformation of heart and life.  On the religious right, we have certain evangelical groups who use the language of morality and standards to advance their political cause.  They rightly judge that the moral standards of our culture have declined.  However, they also want to use the power of Washington to force external compliance to those values.  To mention the most controversial of issues, religious organizations need to focus upon a change of heart and behavior in the matter of abortion. 

Unfortunately, many people who genuinely care about their culture end up using religion simply as a means for improving culture. People often want to use religion as a means of propping up some perceived weakness in culture. This functional view of religion is far from what any devout participant in any religion would consider as the purpose of a religious community. This failure to recognize religion as helping culture to determine proper ends, rather than making culture itself the end, is an important distinction to make. The mistake is that divine presence is not limited to religious institutions. The church becomes demonic when it limits divine activity to the realm of the church. The secular cannot avoid the move toward the holy, just as the holy cannot avoid the secular. For me, one of the gifts of Christianity is that it makes relative any social order in which it exists. It recognizes a life-giving power and meaning from beyond cultural values and institutions. The church is a force within society moving against power concentrating into the hands of a few and implementing its absolute ideological vision. Morality depends upon sufficiently vital communities that can produce well-lived lives. Christian ethics calls us to learn what it means to live rightly in the world.

            My concern is that the quest for power by both political liberals and political conservatives to control the future of the nation forces religious institutions to serve a political ideology.  However, those who value religious institutions know that the believer owes allegiance only to God. 

            For people of faith, the force of law and politics will not bring the desired moral transformation of our culture that our religious institutions seek.  That kind of transformation can only come from within.  The church needs to address the needs of the human heart and behavior.  When churches expend too much energy toward political power, they lose moral authority.  Politics is messy business.  Anyone who has been involved in political power struggles in the church knows how unchristian the Christian community can become.  The church throughout history has been at its best when it directs its attention on the moral and spiritual renewal of the human heart and life.  The nation needs the liberal message of compassion and the conservative message of moral standards addressed to the free choice of individuals rather than political power.  The nation needs a compassionate people.  The nation needs a moral people.  However, the needs of the nation do not motivate religious institutions.  The allegiance of religious institutions is to God, not the nation.  The nation may not value such contributions by the church. However, the church continues faithfully to carry out its mission. Such goals are worthy and important.  Precisely because of their importance, the nation also needs the federal government to stay out of the way.

People who have liberal or conservative principles believe strongly in what they believe.  They are willing to call themselves moderates, when they are, in reality, liberal or conservative.  They are willing to use religious faith to advance their desire to determine the future of the nation.  The moderate must decide in a case-by-case basis what they believe.  Religious institutions must decide if they want to be a pawn the quest for power. 

Social Character and Environment

            Like most Americans, I have some of my most powerful experiences in nature.  I have surrounded myself with so much that human beings make.  When I break out of that mode and appreciate all that we have available free in nature, I find myself increasingly grateful for the world God has made.  Most of us support groups like the Audubon Society, either with dollars or at least in their objectives.  We have a moral obligation to care for our environment.  We know that we are part of nature.  We can live in reasonable harmony with nature by fulfilling natural desires. Ownership of property means that people have responsibility for their limited piece of the world. Too many persons do not take this responsibility seriously. However, many persons find ways of expressing their sense of self-worth and dignity through what they own. They recognize the opportunity that ownership brings in creatively expresses the uniqueness that belongs to each person.

            I want to do justice to both the biblical witness concerning the constancy and order of the universe and the modern scientific understanding of ongoing creative activity in nature. Evolutionary theory suggests a theology in which we see the both preservation of order and bringing forth new life as part of the creative work of God. The world is the handiwork of God. In creation, wherever we turn we meet the work of God. We need to reflect upon God’s intent and design in creating it. Contemplation on the fact that God has provided humanity with everything necessary for a meaningful, happy life leads us to consider the architect and our confidence and thanksgiving toward God. Human beings are in intimate part of nature. Human beings are not alien to the ongoing creative process of God as seen in evolution. This world, this universe, is the only home people will know in these bodies.

            Understanding the universe as created suggests that the universe finds its completion beyond itself. The affirmation of life has biblical roots in that God is the creator of heaven and earth. The use of spirit, soul, which in Hebrew and Greek refers to the wind or breath, suggest the image of life as well. We see this in Genesis 2, Ezekiel 37, and Acts 2. The world God created is good. The world is a home for humanity. The bible calls those who believe to love the world God created.

            God had only one reason to create the world.  God graciously conferred existence on individuals.  God gave others existence alongside God's own divine being.  The very existence of the world is an expression of the goodness of God.  God is free in this act of love.  Creation can only be the work of the love and goodness of God.  God loves this creation perfectly.  This means that we do not need to win independence from God.  God has graciously granted humanity an independent existence.  That is the goal of the creative work of God.  The creation of a reality distinct from God, one that is not an echo of God, and a reality that God affirms and with whom God desires fellowship, requires a universe of things God has made.

            The preserving work of God makes possible the independence of the things God has made. The concept of preservation implies that what is to be preserved does not owe its existence to itself. God reaches the goal of the original creative action with producing creatures that persist and that exist independently from each other and from God. God sustains the world through relations of the parts to each other, and not just in isolation from each other.

      The freedom and independence of the world suggests genuine social existence of the world, whether in the community of atoms and cells, or in the interdependence of human beings. God enters into dialogue with rebellious and free human beings. God is the gardener in the vineyard of the world, fostering and nurturing its continuous evolutionary growth throughout all ages. This view of the action of God in the world is consistent with the traits of the patience and kindness of God in dealing with human beings as related in the bible. Having called individuality into existence, God respects their independence through persuasion rather than force. Such action is divine because have their source in the love of God, who willed free and independent persons.

Human awareness of finitude, as relation to other finite creatures while remaining oneself, does not mean that humanity accepts this finite condition. Humanity often seeks unlimited expansion of existence. Human beings seem unaware of the source of all things in the world as found in God. Their everyday dealings with the world, their routine, and their utilitarian approach to reality, trend toward dullness concerning the divine foundation of all things in God. We seem dull to the genuinely astounding fact of the order of nature, its regularities and its enduring constructs.

            The theology of creation suggests two important dimensions of the relation between God and the world. The first is that the tragic character of human life does not define human life, for creativity and life is the essential nature of things. The second is the natural necessity of death and the potentiality of the tragic, for not existing is a real possibility. The question with which this teaching confronts us is what it means to be a finite person, and what it means for us to have some sense of accountability of our lives to God. To know ourselves in this way is to know ourselves as interdependent individuals, answerable to the call toward the fullness of human life. Humanity itself, as created in the image of God, has potential for this fullness of life. Even though humanity has its origin in God, just as the rest of the universe, humanity does not find satisfaction of desire in the things in the world. The heart seems restless until it finds rest in something beyond humanity. Frustration and illusion arise if people try to find satisfaction and happiness in the natural and social world.

            Humanity often works with nature to make the world increasingly like a home. In particular, modern society seeks the improvement of daily life for the masses. Science and technology provide opportunities that previous generations could hardly have imagined. Yet, such advances occur because of increased knowledge about the world, especially about atoms, cells, and chemical reactions. For the sake of our life together, science, communities, and religious communities, need to remain in dialogue with each other to determine proper courses of action. Simply because science describes a process whereby human beings can do something does not mean that human beings should do it. Such decisions require the involvement of all participants in modern society. The churches need to have a place at that table. Many advances have unintended effects. The improvement of daily life has brought increased life expectancy, increased challenges of old age, and increased population. The use of natural resources to improve human life has unforeseen effects upon other species. Humanity even becomes a danger to itself, as the problems of pollution and over population show. Proper harmonization of human need with nature is an important way for human beings to increase their awareness and care for what is beyond them. Human beings do not stand aloof from nature, but rather are in intimate communion with it. Even surrounding oneself with things constructed by people still recognizes the web of natural and human relationships that brought produce them. The recognition of this web of relationships leads us to care for all living things in their proper sphere. Agriculture is that form of life that seeks to meet the nutritional needs of the population in connection with ecosystems. Plants and animals sustain human life, as do human beings often sustain the lives of plants and animals. The nurture and care for the natural environment has led to preservation of many species that might normally have died out long ago. Over the centuries, human beings have also generated new breeds within species. In many ways, science has speeded up the process of evolution. Processes that may have taken millions of years human beings have understood and implemented for the improvement of life. We see this early on in breeding of animals, and has continued with the profound impact of understanding the structure of the gene. Although we need much care in the implementation of human knowledge, such advances are important for the improvement of human life. For example, eugenic and gender choices with such knowledge is path down which human communities ought not to go. Germ-line therapies, such as using undifferentiated embryonic cells for research, are highly questionable in this context. The growth of world population is primarily among pre-modern societies. What we can notice is that the most advanced nations in terms of liberal democracy, science, and technology are also the ones in which population increases are modest. Consequently, the best control of population is to encourage increased acceptance of the value of individuals as well as the value of science and technology. Such acceptance would lead to increased respect for the role of women in society, better health care, and increased literacy.

            Unfortunately, elitist thinking in relation to the environment has sought to use this moral concern for the environment to advance a political agenda.  That agenda assumes that the masses of Americans cannot care for the environment without the guidance from them.  It also assumes that an active and expansive federal government must protect the environment from the masses of people in this country who are, apparently, out to destroy the environment in which they live. In particular, it assumes that businesses people who must live in this world and in communities do not mind destroying the natural environment upon which they depend. The attack upon private property becomes rather obvious. Some persons seem to assume that ownership of property means exploitation of natural resources as well as others. The United Methodist Church seems to assume this in paragraph 162 of its Discipline, in which it calls for the “equitable” use and control of resources.

            At the first Earth Day in 1970, leaders predicted that by 1980 city dwellers would need gas masks to breathe, rivers will have reached the boiling point, animal life in the sea will be extinct and the country will have to evacuate large areas of coastline because of the stench of dead fish.  1975 would be our last year to preserve any quality of life.  The primary concern was global cooling.  They wanted government action to stop the coming ice age.  Paul Ehrlich called the American people "a cancer on the planet." 

            Global warming is the issue for the environmental elite.  We can look at this concern from several perspectives. In one sense, the planet has been warming for thousands of years.  The small polar icecaps of the today were once as far south as the Ohio River.  During the past 100 years, we can document that the earth has become 0.5 degrees warmer.  We can also document that the sun has become 0.7 degrees brighter.  The greenhouse model cannot explain the rise in global temperature before 1940.  Nor can it explain the cooler temperatures between 1940 and 1970 even while CO2 emissions had been increasing.  A study by the federal government that took 10 years and $500 million said that acid in lakes and streams are primarily the result of rocks and natural phenomena.  It said the problem was minor and correctable.  96% of the gases said to create global warming are created by nature.

            I fail to see any danger to planet earth.  It has been here for two billion years.  Scientists tell us it will be here for another two billion.  The earth is not a fragile planet. Only a romantic view of nature, even a somewhat sexist one (Mother Nature) could conclude that it is fragile. It has withstood meteors and other forms of devastation in its history.  It has an amazing ability to re-create itself.  For us to assume that we could do anything to harm this planet is the height of arrogance.  If we harm anything on this planet, it will be ourselves.

            For this reason, we need to seriously consider the form of social world that best uses the environment for the improvement of ordinary human life as well as protect the environment. The environmental destruction that we saw after the Berlin Wall fell and the environmental damage created by Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War of 1992 suggest that the best way to advance toward clean environment is liberal democracy, for the technology generated by that social world will preserve the natural world. We do not face a crisis that is of such a nature that we must “save creation,” for the only part of the earth under threat at all is humanity. The earth will go on, no matter what humanity does to itself. Humanity did not bring the universe into existence. It cannot bring even this tiny planet to its death. Although some environmentalists have accused Jews and Christians of forming the theological background for the abuse of creation with its vision of humanity having dominion over the earth, we find far greater polluters and over-population among primitive cultures and military dictatorships. The increase in food production requires the increase of freedom and thus of liberal democracy. The same is true of birth control, for the dependence of liberal democracy upon the nuclear family trends toward smaller families as adults make decisions about what is best for them.

            Some people condemn Christianity for the ecological crisis that they sense in the world. However, only in the 1700’s did the commission given to human beings in Genesis 1-2 come to represent to scholars unlimited power to dispose of nature. This happened at the time when modern humanity in its self-understanding cut off its ties with the creator God of the bible. It is incorrect to charge Western Christianity as a whole with this distortion of the biblical commission of domination, this failure to recognize the role of human beings as fiduciaries. Only the emancipation of modern humanity from biblical revelation that turned the biblical commission of domination into a subjugation of nature to human beings on their own authority and for their own arbitrary use. The high value that the bible places upon human life does not necessarily lead to contempt for nonhuman nature. In fact, the modern principle of human autonomy guarantees nature far less protection against its limitless exploitation by human beings than does a Christian understanding of humanity.

            Technology has led to fewer acres suffering erosion and larger forested acres today than in the mid-1800.  Yet, many environmentalists continue to believe that technology is destroying the environment.  They refuse to face the fact that the more economically advanced a nation is the cleaner is the environment.  Totalitarian regimes and poor countries live in greater environmental crisis than the industrialized West.  Wealthier is healthier.  Wealthier means the ability to provide for large families, live suburban lifestyles, use goods requiring long haul transport, and otherwise act in ways deemed wrong by many environmentalists. 

            If we are concerned about the environment, the church needs to favor the expansion of liberty in government and economics. Unfortunately, that is the not the conclusion of environmental leaders.  Maurice Strong said that "Economic growth is not the cure, it is the disease."  The political agenda involves expanding government control over the economy, including businesses and consumers.  They do not trust the masses to make wise decisions to protect themselves and their environment.  The elite must guide them through an increasingly activist government.    Any opposed to them are not just wrong.  They are immoral.

            Churches have become part of the political debate.  Protestant denominations, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis, all advocate proper stewardship of the environment.  No one opposes that.  Such theological language, however, disguises the motive of expanding the role of government in business and personal life.  I suppose that some would argue that if God wants us to care about something, then, we must put that something under government control.  That is not my position.

            The debate has even shifted to the concept of animal rights.  I have several problems here. One is that the Constitution guarantees rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Anyone who eats meat knows that an animal does not have the right to life.  Anyone who owns a pet knows that an animal does not have the right to liberty.  Anyone who has a pet knows that the happiness of the owner is before the happiness of the pet.  Humanity is the only part of life on earth that has a history that can be chronicled and which can be said to improve over time.

            My own solution to the concept of the endangered species is the free market.  In southern Africa, for example, elephant herds are increasing at a rate of 5% per year.  The reason is that it is legal to sell elephant products.  If people are given a profit stake in preserving them, species will be preserved.

            We share the moral concern for our environment.  What we do not share is that an expanding and activist federal government will be an adequate response to this concern.  We need to recover the art of moral persuasion.  We need to recover a trust in the masses that they also have wisdom to deal with such moral dilemmas.  The solution may not always by an activist government.  The solution may be less government, and more responsibility assumed by the people.

            The use of natural resources that accompanies modern growth protects that which creates income. Thus, it protects farmable land, it will protect air and water, and it will protect renewable resources (whether trees or animals) as long as they continue to have value. We can observe this in the difference in ecological care taken in the USA, Canada, and Western Europe on the one hand and the Iron Curtain nations and the Russia on the other. Improved technology brings greater care for the environment. As a part of nature, humanity recognizes its dependence upon keeping the earth friendly to human habitation. The coming of private property helps preserve the earth as well. As we own anything, we care for it and seek the increase of its value. Pride of ownership encourages proper use of all the resources we have, including the land. Interestingly, the will to both compete and cooperate form the foundation of this economic and ecological behavior.


Social Character and Capital Punishment

Mark 15:33-40 (NRSV)

33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.


Matthew 5:43-44 (NRSV)

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

Romans 12:17-19 (NRSV)

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

1 Peter 3:8-9 (NRSV)

8 Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.

Matthew 5:23-24 (NRSV)

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

John 8:1-11 (NRSV)

 1 while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”]]


            This issue is a good example of one in which the only way the church can give any response is through political institutions. I do not want to give a full exposition on the issue. Rather, I want to offer some hints of a possible way to treat the apostolic witness.

            The selection of texts suggests the direction I would move on this matter. I do not find the Old Testament helpful in considering matters of Christian ethics. In particular, I would consider capital punishment as quite inconsistent with the New Testament. Jesus made it clear that the law and prophets hang on love toward God and neighbor. This suggests that if a behavior is not consistent with such love, Christians need to set it aside, even if commanded in the Old Testament.

            I find it rather difficult for us as Christians to consider capital punishment as a just use of government power, while at the same time we honor Christ, whom government killed through unjust legal proceedings. Further, the value of every individual life ought to be primary on the agenda of the church. The fact that Jesus does not recommend the death penalty for an act punishable by death also ought to be normative.

            However, such considerations do not address the true concerns of many in our society and many in the church. I have had members of the parishes I serve have children murdered, and the murderer is free to engage in communal life. When I see men who abduct children and then murder them, what I want is for that person to die immediately. When authorities arrested that person several times for robbery, rape, and other crimes, and finally murders, I want American justice to have radical surgery. I also want the church to be angry about the loss of innocent life that criminals perpetrate upon our neighbors.

            The question is whether the justice system will protect society from violent persons. Frankly, I think the church on this point needs to stand strongly with the victims of crime. Our love for our neighbors needs to extend to putting a barrier between the neighbor and those who have no moral problem with doing harm. If the church were to stand firmly against taking a human life through execution, it must also stand for isolating violent criminals from the rest of society. I would argue that opposition to capital punishment and standing with potential victims of crime must go together in terms of the witness of the church to society.

            I write these things, recognizing that many Christians would find profound disagreement with me at a political level.

Social Character and Pacifism

            The matter of non-resistance on which Jesus insisted has a specific social and cultural context that we need to consider before we can discern the norm for Christian behavior it suggests. Ambrose and Augustine suggested this meant that no Christian could defend oneself from violence, for this would harm genuine love toward the neighbor. However, one could act to defend one’s neighbor. A further problem arises when abstracting the non-resistance taught Jesus to another cultural setting, the matter of pacifism arises as a national policy. When we recognize the teaching of Jesus as a strategy for dealing with the specific circumstance of the occupation of Rome, we can see better the norm suggested. I think I could make a strong case that had Judaism in the first century accepted what Jesus taught in this matter, the terrible destruction of the Temple and of the city of Jerusalem would not have occurred. Of course, Jesus noted that it was unlikely his contemporaries would follow this path, leading to the destruction of the Temple. The point is that non-resistance was a form of life designed for a particular setting. God clearly called Jesus to a form of life that led to resistance to the oppressed and oppressor system established by Roman and Jewish authorities. The cross is an example of what happens to people who live in such a system, even when innocent of the charges brought against them. It was a strategy of courageous resistance to a violent system, a way to get along that had the potential of helping one survive in a difficult setting. Jesus wanted to avoid the immense loss of human life and culture that he foresaw if Judaism in Palestine continued down the path of active military resistance to Rome. He foresaw the expansion of evil, and believed the principle of non-resistance in this setting would reduce that expansion. If the setting changes, the discerning follower of Jesus at least needs to consider if non-resistance remains valid or if non-resistance leads to the expansion of evil.

            We need to consider whether anything can justify the response of war. Can the other be so violent that it justifies violence, with the promise that on the other side we will get to a more peaceful place? My assumption is that the pacifist would answer in the negative, tacitly suggesting the moral equivalency of all violence. The pacifist elevates non-violence into a moral absolute, applicable to all times, places, and cultures. My assumption is that those who answer in the positive do not want peace less than the pacifist does. Rather, they believe that certain occasions require a violent response in order to get to a peaceful and just place, and thus assume that we can make moral distinctions in the use of violence. Non-violence may actually increase the potential for lack of peace in a land, and thus becomes an ineffective means to accomplish its worthy end. Pacifism wills the demise of the State in which the pacifist lives. That demise will occur through the emergence of violence. Consequently, one needs to make the judgment of whether one’s society is one for which one willingly fights.

            I want to be quite clear on one point. It matters what type of system one defends. While no system embodies the future rule of God, a modern culture is not simple principalities ruled by demonic powers. In a provisional way, modernity allows for the flourishing of enough respect for individuality, freedom, equality, fraternity, peace, and justice, that I believe many Christians justly defend it. We might say that democratic societies are in principle non-violent and therefore represent the redemption of principalities and powers. However, if one defends an oppressive state, a communist state, a dictatorship, a fascist state, one may well simply be caught up in an evil system and have few options. However, one still participates in that evil by defending it. I would suggest that pacifism would be a legitimate response if one lived in such a political system. The question for pacifism is whether any social system is worthy of defense. Such a position assumes the moral equivalency of every social world. God is on the side of all humanity, and desires the best for humanity. In God, humanity has a partner in moving toward the best possible human life. Clearly, we need to deal with whether some systems of social organization move us toward that best possible human life, and whether some systems of social organization bring us further from that purpose. My position should be clear. Anyone who would deprive the modern social world, and democratic society itself, of the tools to defend itself in the world in which we live today, does not have any love for their country. They want its destruction. Anyone who promotes pacifism for a democratic society in this human world hates the system and the country in which he or she live.

            Many things should chasten and temper the pride that I hope we can have, but nothing a nation has done should make it impossible for a constitutional democracy to regain self-respect. One of the gifts of modern civilization is its capacity to change. Civilizations once given to colonialism no longer practice it. The same is true of slavery. To say that certain acts do make this impossible is to abandon the importance of our being agents of history and those who shape our future. We would place ourselves upon the sideline of history. No country ever has been pure.

            Suppose that America had done things one could not have imagined doing, and finds that one is still alive. After all, any of our lives has the possibility of genuinely tragic choices. At that point, we could commit suicide, we could lead a life of bottom-less disgust and self-resentment, or we could attempt to live so as never to do such a thing again. In the last instance, we continue to be an agent within history. Self-loathing is a luxury that agents of history cannot afford. On a national scale, such a resolution toward a better future is a political decision. In liberal democracy, this means using democratic institutions and procedures to conciliate various needs, and thereby widen the range of consensus about how things are. In liberal democracies, people get things done by compromising in order to form alliances with groups about whom you have grave doubts. The political Left and the political Right have accomplished much in America by doing that.

            The modern democratic, pluralist, secular, political state is not just a set of institutions. It represents regard for the worth and dignity of individuals in such a way that each individual may pursue his or her best plan of life. It represents the ideas of liberty, pluralism, and justice. Patriotism toward this kind of government is how we internalize the common good toward which the government strives. We participate in the public discussion of political affairs, pay taxes, and serve in the military. We identify with the common ends of the social world as embodied in the modern political state – in particular, its promotion of freedom.

            People do not always exercise power for the sake of domination. People also exercise power as acting in concert, acting together, as a consensus. Power can operate in the realm of inter-subjectivity and common action. Together people have a capacity for power that they would not otherwise have. This exercise of power supposes common understandings between the partners engaged in dialogue. As we actualize ourselves as individuals and as social members, we experience community at more profound levels than we may know consciously or intentionally.

            War presupposes peace; it does not represent the first event of the encounter. The status of the human implies fraternity and the idea of the human race. Human fraternity has two aspects. First, it involves individualities whose logical status is not reducible to the status of ultimate differences in a genus, for their singularity consists in each referring to itself. Second, it also involves the commonness of a Father, as though the commonness of race would not bring together enough. Society must be a fraternal community to be commensurate with the straightforwardness in which the face of the other presents itself to my welcome.

            Further, the international situation with independent and competing nations remains a dangerous place.  Intellectuals have long had the dream that the various nations could abide by certain principles.  We have not yet discovered principles, consistent with human nature, to bring peace and justice between nations, outside of encouraging every nation to become a liberal democracy.  We justly ridicule the utopian hopes for a world government or league of peoples that will bring perpetual peace, along with the moral improvement of the entire human race.  We can achieve world peace, but only as individual governments respect the rights of their citizens and institute participatory democracy.

            The advent of the modern political state has brought the horrors of war on a massive scale. War is a normal feature of the modern political state, for it is a permanent part of human existence. The principle of pluralism and self-determination dismisses the idea that a world state could prevent the outbreak of war. Individual states and movements will always have the possibility of using their freedom to resolve disputes violently. The plurality of national peoples in whom the human desire for worth and dignity has actualized itself precludes the existence of a true world state. Individual states actualize themselves by distinguishing themselves from each other and attain recognition as to their independent status in relation to each other. Nations face each other as sovereign powers with no higher power between them capable of enforcing the peaceful settlement.

            The possibility of war arises out of the natural course of international relations. War is a failure of human social life. Each nation has its separate and particular interests that will conflict with those of other states. Contingencies will arise that lead to war. War has a way of uniting citizens involved separately in their private interests toward their common citizenship in a nation. Such external threats bring a people together. The reality of their shared life becomes clear. It becomes something for which they will fight. The social bond of a people, often not perceived in time of peace, becomes clear when others attack their nation. From a somewhat pessimistic perspective, history may suggest that war appears necessary to maintain the internal life of the state. However, this would not consider the possibility of that one day, the people of every nation will live in a nation that respects their right to form their basic plan of life.

            War is not good. It is not, however, an absolute evil. War is an evil with which we can and must live. The good of preserving individual freedom, family, free association in civil life, and political freedom transcends the relative evil of war. We cannot preserve the benefits of freedom in any other way.

            I have immense respect for the pacifist position of groups like the Amish. They refuse to participate in what I perceive to be the benefits of liberal democracy. They also refuse to defend a society in which they do not participate and which they reject.

            The story of Dan and Laish in Judges 18 educates us in a graphic way about the realities of the world.


Judges 18:7-10 (NRSV)

7 The five men went on, and when they came to Laish, they observed the people who were there living securely, after the manner of the Sidonians, quiet and unsuspecting, lacking nothing on earth, and possessing wealth. Furthermore, they were far from the Sidonians and had no dealings with Aram. 8 When they came to their kinsfolk at Zorah and Eshtaol, they said to them, “What do you report?” 9 They said, “Come, let us go up against them; for we have seen the land, and it is very good. Will you do nothing? Do not be slow to go, but enter in and possess the land. 10 When you go, you will come to an unsuspecting people. The land is broad—God has indeed given it into your hands—a place where there is no lack of anything on earth.”


From my perspective, this story illustrates that the aggressive use of force determines world-historical matters. Dan could have decided that since Laish set a good example of peace, quietness, and reasonable wealth, and that it could learn from them and peacefully reside together as neighbors. However, the aggressor sets the terms of engagement. When the opponent, in this text the tribe of Dan, determines that it wants your land, and that it willingly uses force to attain it, the peaceful tribe of Laish had the option of having been prepared to defend their land or to hand it over to their opponents. What happened to Laish will happen to any nation that adopts the principle of nonviolence as a national strategy.

            Non-violence is not a good strategy unless it is effective in accomplishing a worthy end. Let us suppose for the moment genuineness in being against any violence individually and on the part of a nation. The aim of such a position is a world of peace. What I suggest is that nonviolence, understood as an absolute moral principle, is not effective in accomplishing the aim of peace. In the end, it results in the victory of oppressive dictatorships.

            Does violence ever solve world-historical problems? Clearly, the answer is yes. The American Revolution gave birth to a nation free of colonial rule and with a focus on individual rights. The civil war removed the horrendous practice of human slavery and the denial of individual rights to persons because of the color of skin. World War I helped end the violence of colonialism. World War II ended the Nazi terror in Europe. The Cold War ended the terror that the Soviet Communist perpetrated upon the world. The objection to the Vietnam War had a moral purpose. One could object to that war while still maintaining that the fight against the expansion of Soviet communism had a moral purpose. When liberal democracies use violence for a moral purpose, and do so as a last resort in that the enemy allows no other course of action, they help advance humanity toward civilizations that respect the worth and dignity of individuals. In such situations, war becomes a great act of love for neighbors who cannot defend themselves against the force of a dictator or other violent leaders. Defending those who cannot defend themselves is an act of love and justice.

            Let us consider the possibility that the principle of nonviolence is not a genuine strategy for a peaceful world. Let us consider the possibility that for some individuals and groups, the objective is the downfall of liberal democracies in general and the United States in particular. Let us consider the possibility that the United States is a target of those who desire the creation of chaos and barbarity so that, out of the ashes of modern civilization, will arise a new order, generally a communist one. In such cases, the target of the principle of nonviolence is not peace, but the downfall of the social world called democracy and the downfall of America.

            The principle of nonviolence that many persons on the political Left suggest is hypocritical. Such persons participate in the benefits of modern society. They experience the freedom, they enjoy the economic benefits, they raise families and have jobs, and so on. They enjoy these benefits through the willingness of others to fight for their country.

            What I propose is that the principle of nonviolence is not a moral absolute in the human world. I will grant that, if there is a heaven, nonviolence will be the order of the day. In a human world, we must discern the proper moral uses of violence. In the real world of human choice, the act of killing an intruder into one’s home is not morally equivalent to the killing that the intruder would bring if not stopped. On the world scene, the violence perpetrated by the dropping of atomic bombs to end World War II, combined with the agony that Harry Truman went through to make that decision, is not morally equivalent to either the violence of the Japanese empire or the cool order by Hitler to slaughter more Jews in concentration camps. The violence had a moral purpose. I trust that the result for both Japan and Germany in the years since World War II demonstrate this fact to any open-minded person. War is a plague upon humanity. However, we also need to consider the plague in prevents. If we assume the basic goodness of people, war is always wrong. However, when we recognize the presence of evil, we understand that war becomes a last option. People need as much commitment to freedom and justice as we do to peace.

            My own suggestion is that liberal democracies need to have a league of nations of their own to improve their relationships and the practice of liberal democracy. The failure of the historical League of Nations and the United Nations to provide collective security is the result of its failure not to abide by Immanuel Kant’s recommendation that such organizations acknowledge the moral superiority of liberal democracy to other forms of organizing their social world. What liberal democracies do not need is military dictatorships and communist states within the United Nations telling them what to do. If any kind of world government arises, it can only be through the principles of respect for the rights of individuals. So far, the only states that do so are liberal democracies.

            The end of the Cold War has raised another question. Does the end of the Cold War mean that the United States should relinquish its power so that humanity moves from a uni-polar world to a multi-polar world? I hear this question from the United Nations as a whole, as well as France and Germany in particular. I also hear the question from some Americans who fear that that the amount of power America has will corrupt it. Such fears are valid only if America stops seeking the actualization of the ideal of valuing individuals and their worth and dignity. Frankly, the fact that the United States, in all of its relative youthfulness, remains the sole superpower in the world is one that should give the world great hope and comfort. What would the world be like if the old Soviet Union had this kind of power? The problem is not the fact of one nation possessing this much power, but the moral problem of how to use of it. That moral problem faces American leaders at both political and economic levels. Generally, Americans are far from self-righteous about their country – most have a lover’s quarrel with it. Americans reluctantly go to war and reluctantly use their massive weapons.

            Does the United States need to moderate national sovereignty and increase global loyalty? It sounds reasonable and even sounds like a humble thing to do. However, have you considered that such a proposition assumes the moral equality of all social worlds? Would you want representatives from Libya judging American action in the world? What moral basis would such military dictatorship have in judging what the United States does, given what they have done to achieve power and to keep power? I invite you to consider what military dictatorships do to the citizens within their countries, and then tell me how you can agree that such leaders have any right to sit in judgment of the United States.

            I hope you will agree with me that the assumption of the equality of all social worlds is not one with which those living in liberal democracies can hold. We must not pretend the moral equality of all social worlds. We need to have confidence in the nobility that democratic institutions and freedom brings to any country.

            Moral confusion leads some thinkers to propose that the United Nations is similar to the Articles of Confederation. The difference is that each of the states that accepted the Articles of Confederation accepted liberal democracy. The United Nations is an organization that includes brutal regimes and dictators who need to pass from the scene of world history. The call to submit to organizations within the United Nations is a call for the justification of our actions on the world stage to brutal dictatorships. For a liberal democracy to surrender sovereignty, even in a world facing the possibility of nuclear confrontation, would be a truly immoral act against its own citizens. Only the United States can judge the justice of its own cause, because this nation has experienced the value of the social world called liberal democracy. No military dictatorship has the right to judge what the best interest of any liberal democracy is. Military dictatorships do not have valid interests, for they do not stand upon respect for the individuals that live within them. Although the United Nations may provide a place for all nations to talk, the illusion that its existence creates of equality among the social worlds represented in it is hardly helpful.

            For this reason, the World Court at The Hague should not abrogate domestic law.

            For this reason, the peacekeeping forces of the United Nations must remain small, while the United States continues to have the strongest military in the world.

            For this reason, an international police force is not an option for liberal democracies.

            For this reason, an international income tax that supports the agencies of the United Nations is preposterous in that it supports military and communist dictatorships in the oppression of their people.

            Jesus once said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God."[2]

            First, I think our nation and the church itself needs to be honest about its own failing, weakness, and sin. In a war, it is easy to claim that evil resides in the enemy, and that our church and our nation have escaped the influence of evil. We live in an imperfect nation and we are part of an imperfect church. We value freedom for all, and yet in our history have denied freedom to women and African-Americans. We value justice, and yet have had to deal with our own biases in reference to race and gender. We value peace, and yet have involved ourselves in wars that clearly were unjust. I reflect here upon wars such as the Indian wars and the Mexican-American wars, which at least from what I read were not America at its best. We might include, with more debate, the Vietnam War in that list. We value goodness, and yet we have our obvious moral failings in the misuse of our freedom. We are not angels or demons. Those whom we fight in this war are not angels or demons. We are human beings who help shape a nation every time we go to work, raise families, spend our money, volunteer in our community, and vote for leaders. We even run for office.

            Second, I think we need to realize that some people will not live in peace with others. Some people will not allow us to embrace them in friendship. We need to do our part in the ministry of the church to model the embracing love of God to the world. That love is inclusive of all persons even those to whom society attaches some stigma. Realistically, however, we need to consider that some persons will not allow us to embrace them. This fact should not surprise us. The love of God embraces all persons. Yet, not all people experience the blessing of that embrace because they do not turn toward God and receive that embrace. On a national scale, I think our nation desires peace with all nations. Sometimes peace comes after we defeat governments who do not want to live peacefully with others. We learned this in World War II, as our nation defeated the Japanese Empire and Nazi Germany.

            Third, I think that Christianity has already exerted its influence anytime this nation goes to war. You see, in its better moments, the church urges the leaders of a nation not to provoke war with another nation. War is the last option. We act primarily for self-defense and sometimes, as in Bosnia, for humanitarian purposes. We use a minimum amount of force. If you listen carefully to the plans for war, America will do everything it can to avoid civilian causalities. The Christian concern for individual life brings us toward that moral decision. We do not set up an empire and impose our will upon others. If you doubt that, witness the behavior of the French and Germans, whom we liberated in the 1940’s, and who now express themselves against American policy. Such an approach is the opposite of the terrorists, who hide in civilian neighborhoods and target malls, buses, and other civilian meeting places.

            Fourth, I think some Americans need to recover a genuine love of country. Of course, I do not mean our nation is perfect. The church is not perfect either. Do you love the church of Jesus Christ, even as you recognize its faults? Do you love yourself, in spite of all your faults? Even if we have done horrendous things in our past, the hope of the gospel is that people can repent, receive forgiveness, and move on to a new life. Yet, both church and nation consist of human beings and therefore we will have plenty of reason to find fault. One reason we can be so discouraged is that our nation has set such lofty ideals that it is easy for us to fall short. When a regime such as Nazi Germany slaughters millions of people, it simply fulfills its horrendous mission. When the United States falls short of its ideals, a certain tragedy occurs. Yet, just as we forgive others and ourselves, maybe we can find a way to forgive our nation as it corrects such past actions and sets a new course.

            When do we become anti-American? I have come to think the answer is simpler than we might think. If we think that America is the primary threat to peace and justice in the world, we have crossed the line. We have become anti-American. The world has terrorists willing to blow up trade towers. The world has terrorists who act in cowardly ways, hiding among civilians and killing unarmed civilians. The world has military dictators who have murdered to get to their positions, terrorize to stay there, and seek weapons of mass destruction in order to expand their power. Such groups also know that the United States is the greatest threat to their violent way of life. The United States has to do no more than respect individuals to become such a target. The thought that if the United States lay down its military might it would cease to be such a target is utopian.

            I have been quite direct and blunt on this point. You see, I have confidence in a possible world. I think that one day every person in the world will live in a nation that respects his or her rights, worth, and dignity. They will have the right to pursue their basic plan of life. If that day comes, it will be because the United States discerns the proper and moral use of its power. That power includes both soft power of its free culture and economic life, as well as its military power.


Ecclesial considerations

            Every human life matters to God. Comparing how many people die in certain situations is hardly helpful, for one death that arises out of sinfulness is an offense to God.

            I would find it helpful if the church itself would practice peacefulness. I do not find it credible that the church, supposedly a place of peace, recommends the use of coercion to take from one group in society and give to another. Considering that there are ways in modern society for churches to advance their concerns peacefully, persuasively, and voluntarily in civil society, the use of coercion through public policy hardly seems in the spirit of prophets, Jesus, or apostles. The point is that the use of coercion – if you do not pay taxes, you will go to jail – is not appropriate use of the government as general principle, let alone in the hands of those who honor the crucified one. Of course, some government action is necessary on behalf of those alienated from the economic and political benefits of modern society. I find it rather incredible that those churches with the largest denominational budgets call for government to do so many things for the poor, while at the same time spending their money on salaries and buildings for denominational executives. The church needs to model the peacefulness about which it talks. Becoming another special interest group, sitting at the table with those in power, and seeking to gain a measure of power through political victory, somehow does seem fitting for the church of Jesus Christ.

            Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, suggested that the view that any justification of war is a false gospel and of fleeting popularity. “The invasion of Iraq is wrong. It is unjust, unnecessary and too uncertain. I write those words with the full confidence that Jesus Christ would assert the same.” (May/June 2003) The bishops of the United Methodist Church, in their November 9, 2001 pastoral letter, state, “Violence in all its forms and expressions is contrary to God’s purpose for the world. Violence creates fear, desperation, hopelessness and instability.” Such absolute moral positions do not help to advance genuine discernment of the will of God. I find discernment of the will of God far more difficult than Mr. Winkler and the bishops suggests. I may not be as close to God as either Mr. Winkler or the Bishops, for I find that I do not have that much certainty about many things. Another way to look at this is to reflect on the level of arrogance to which one must ascend to be at a place where one can make such pronouncements. Further, they neglect Par. 164 G, in which the United Methodist Church recognizes occasions when peaceful alternatives fail, and force becomes necessary. The failure to recognize that some violence ends fear, desperation, hopelessness, and instability does not appear to enter into the discussion.

            The matter of pacifism raises many questions concerning the normative nature of the New Testament as well as the practical and pastoral matter of ministering in a culture that respects the church enough to allow it to worship and serve freely. Many Christians in modern culture appear to have little thankfulness for living in such culture. We would do well to pause and consider the many Christians who lived in cultures that persecuted them, killed them, and shunned them. We take so much for granted.

            Further, we need to consider that modernity has created a social world in which people like Socrates, Jesus, the first martyr Stephen, Paul, Peter, and many others, the state would not execute for what they said and did. As we look at the world at the beginning of the 21st century, we need to realize how rare of a gift this is for the government to offer its people.

            Next, we need to realize that we will have a peaceful and just world when every nation has respect for the rights of their citizens and defends those rights. When dictators invade other countries, they do to others what they have already done to their people.

            On a personal level, stopping someone from doing violence to oneself may have the effect of stopping future violence by that person to others. Some vocations of modern life involve one in complex situations, such as police and fire fighters, as well as soldiers, which require discerning Christian involvement.

            On a national scale, the recognition that some political leaders embody violence to such a degree that love for one’s neighbor calls one to act in their defense and thereby lessen the expansion of evil is an important possibility for consideration.

            To complicate matters further, one needs some discernment as to the form of life embedded in a culture that one defends. In a brutal military dictatorship, non-resistance may well be the courageous act. In a culture that values individuals and freedom, non-resistance on a national scale may well mean the expansion of violence and evil. The point here is that one cannot responsibly apply any teaching of the New Testament, including that of Jesus, without carefully discerning the normative value of the text.

Social Character and Women in Ministry

Ordination arises out of our common baptism, which carries within it a commission to engage in the ministry of reconciliation. Our common baptism, whether male or female, is the foundation of the call to ministry. It is time to move beyond the old arguments about women in the church.  The culture conditions much of what the Bible says about women.  At the same time, women gained prominence.  We have the example of Ruth and Esther in the Old Testament.  In the New Testament, women were around Jesus.  Women were there at Pentecost.  Women had a significant role in the growth of the church.  However, the culture did not allow women to fill official capacities within the organizational life of the church.  Men did admit them into the corridors of power.  This may well have been appropriate for that period.  It is a failure of justice to continue that practice today.  It is a way to oppress.  This is a prime case of when the church needs to move against much of the bible and tradition in order to remain true to the vision of the bible.  If we are to move toward just societies, we must do away with some of these unjust practices.  It will take prophetic action in some cases, yet this is where the church needs to be.

One of those places where I find myself embarrassed is that I must address the theological issue of the ordination of women.  Some have even argued that, because of the sexual drive in men, women ought not to preach.  Such an argument, based as it is on the weakness of men, has the merit of recognizing the power of sexuality in our relationships.  We ought not to overlook this fact.  Nor ought we to allow that weakness to determine eligibility of ordination. 

The Decree of Gratian excluded women from all ordination to spiritual ministry.  In their 2000 convention, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a statement declaring that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”  They refer to I Timothy 2: 9-14 as evidence for this position.  Southern Baptist rules restricting the role of women in churches "[don't] have any negative ramifications at all for women in the work place," Southern Baptist President James Merritt said. "I'd have no problem with the president of the United States being a woman," he told the Dallas Morning News. The denomination amended its statement of faith to say that Scripture prevents women from being pastors. .... Many Southern Baptists believe women can supervise men in the work place, the Morning News reported. "The Bible says women should be submissive only to their husbands, not to other men," Gary Sheets, a retired Air Force colonel and Southern Baptist layman said. The church has stayed largely silent on the issue of women in the work place because the Bible does not address it, Merritt said. ...."The church's teaching on women isn't meant to prohibit me from reaching my full potential at work," said Venia Robinson, 36, a Southern Baptist. She oversees nine men as director of logistics at Omniflight Helicopters Inc. in Dallas. Although the aviation industry is ruled by men, "Venia is competent, strong, personable, and gets results. What better witness could there be for the faith?" said Jim Briley, a coworker.

John R. Rice, one of the leading evangelical teachers of the early 20th century, wrote in 1941 that women ought not to teach in the church or on the mission field.  He did not believe in sissified churches, and that God is a masculine God, not effeminate.  Yet, he also taught his daughters theology and Greek and encouraged theological discussion at home.  Billy Graham argued, “the biological assignment was basic and simple: Eve was to be the child-bearer, and Adam was to be the breadwinner.  Wife, mother, homemaker—this is the appointed destiny of real woman-hood.” (Billy Graham, “Jesus and the Liberated Woman,” Ladies Home Journal, December 1970, 42). His wife also said, concerning the ordination of women, “I personally am ‘agin it.’  For one thing, I do not feel that we have much of a shortage of men.  For another thing, I believe that it basically goes against the principles of Scripture.  I think if you study you will find that the finest cooks in the world are men (probably called chefs); the finest couturiers, by and large are men; the greatest politicians are men; most of our greatest writers are men; most of our greatest athletes are men.  You name it, men are superior in all but two areas: women make the best wives and women make the best mothers.” (Ruth Graham, Christianity Today, June 6, 1975, 32).

The primary biblical support for this position is from I Corinthians 11:2-12, 14:33-35, Ephesians 5:21-33, Colossians 3:18-19, and I Timothy 2:9-15. 


1 Corinthians 11:2-12 (NRSV)

2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife,and God is the head of Christ. 4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. 7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflectionof man. 8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head,because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.

1 Corinthians 14:33-35 (NRSV)

33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.

(As in all the churches of the saints, 34 women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

1 Timothy 2:9-15 (NRSV)

9 also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, 10 but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man;she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.


We can also assume the patriarchal context of the Old Testament.  It everywhere assumes the priority and superiority of the male.  Even single women were under the authority of a man.  Yet, upon closer examination, the position is not so clear.  The creation narrative in Genesis means that God created male and female equally in the image of God.  The early church baptized men and women equally, a weighty matter in that culture.  Paul in Galatians 3:28 makes it clear that baptism erodes the social divisions that human beings establish. 

In I Corinthians 11:2-12, Paul assumes that women will in fact pray and prophesy, that they will speak on important matters in the public.  The text focuses on deception and false teaching; it does not focus upon women.  The only question was whether they should be veiled.  This is the position of Bengel, who said, “Therefore women were not excluded from these duties.”  We must disagree with Charles C. Ryrie when he says that women prophesying in church were unusual and limited to Corinth.  Paul K. Jewett, in his Man as Male and Female, argues that this passage makes the subordination of the woman to the man is an essential part of the hierarchy that God established to insure a proper order in the relationships of life.  Just as the first woman owed her existence to the man, every man since owes his existence to woman.  This mutual dependence is also part of the divine order. 

I Corinthians 14:34-35, refers to a unique and specific situation at Corinth, and ought not to apply to the whole of New Testament teaching. 

Ephesians 5 stresses that husband and wife alike are accountable to God.  The kind of “head” Paul refers is that of the self-sacrificing love that Christ had for the church.  That is the kind of “head” the husband is to be, and not an oppressive force in the home.  Further, the context suggests the subjection of master and slave.  Yet, few Christians today suggest that slavery is a viable option today.  Many of us would help slaves become free, knowing what we know today.  Yet, we do not consider what this analysis might mean for the subjection of wife to husband.  If the implication of freedom in Christ is that we must abandon slavery, then surely this same freedom suggests itself to the marriage relationship. 

In I Timothy 2:9-15, we have the strange assertion of the gift of childbearing.  Nowhere else is this done.  A. J. Gordon points out that, “in like manner,” assume the repetition of the word pray.  Therefore, this passage does not exclude women from praying but assumes that they do.  He mentions Chrysostom in support of this position.  Paul K. Jewett says that in this text, women are to take a subordinate role to men in the teaching office of the church.  Just as God created man first, so God gave men priority over women.  The focus is deception and false teaching; the focus is not women. 

In the Roman Catholic tradition, Jesus and the apostles are one type of ministry, while Mary is another.  One is the model for the men and the other for women.  In the same line of thought, since Jesus was male, all ministers must be male.  The problem with this is the scandal of particularity.  Jesus was a male because he had to come as man or woman; he could not come as both.  He was also a Jew, and not a gentile.  He was born in Palestine and not Norway. 

By setting aside distinctions that the fellowship of the kingdom of God shall set aside, the church becomes a sign of that future.  The exclusion of women from the church's ordained ministry for what are now outdated reasons does not sit well with this principle.  The calling of women to a leadership ministry ought not to encounter a fundamental obstacle.  God is not either male or female.  We do not find the exclusion of women from orders in any of the early Christian confessions.  It has never been included in the regulations of the faith.  Full participation of women in the sacramental life of the church reflects the actual worshipping community.  Clergy can come from a larger pool of qualified persons who hear the call of God. 

If one takes a purely textual approach to this matter, it appears biblical and Christian to place women under men in marriage and to deny them full participation in the ministry of the church.  The woman is subject to the man because the man, created first, is directly in the image of God, whereas the woman, and she was created in the image of man.  Therefore, she was weaker and gave in temptation.  She could never aspire to the same authority of the man in spiritual matters.  She must learn from the man in quietness, silence, and humility. 

The right of women to preach the gospel and conduct the sacraments is not a matter brought up by the modern feminist movement and liberal theology.  Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, for example, states, “Religion sanctions women’s self-love.  But, above all, it confirms the social order; it justifies her resignation by giving her the hope of a better future in a sexless heaven.”  Mary Daly, writing in 1968 in The Church and the Second Sex, and influenced by de Beauvoir, wrote that Roman Catholicism needed to be purified of its anti-feminism.  She also wrote, “Christian ideology has contributed no little to the oppression of women.”  Rosemary Radford Ruether in “Feminist Theology and Spirituality,” stated, “The sexist bias of patriarchal theology must be evaluated as blasphemous ratification of sin in God’s name.  Feminist theology engages in a systematic reconstruction of all the symbols of human relation to God to delegitimize sexist bias and to manifest an authentic vision of redemption as liberation from sexism.” 

We in the church can only confess the historical fact that the church has erected many barriers, socially, legally, spiritually, and psychologically, against the advancement of women.  We have argued that we ought not to educate women, based on I Corinthians 14:35, that she can ask the man at home what she needs to know.  We have argued that the use of anesthesia in childbirth was wrong because Genesis 3:16 taught the necessary pain of childbirth.  We argued that women ought not to have the right to vote because, in I Timothy 2:12, they ought to keep silent and not usurp male authority.  The church cannot dodge its relationship to women. 

If we are created in the image of God as a fellowship of male and female, it is as a fellowship of equals under God. The church has always baptized women equally with men; the foundation of the general ministry of Christians is baptism; the foundation of the call of God to preach is also baptism.

Limiting the role of women in the ministry of the church is far from universal. For example, David Yong-gi Cho, pastor of the largest church in the world, could say: "Don't be afraid to empower women. If you ever train the women, and delegate your ministry to them, they will become tremendous messengers for the Lord.”.... Most leaders at Cho's Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea, are women. The 700,000-member congregation is divided into 50,000 cell groups that meet in homes, and about 47,000 cell leaders are women, he said. Of the church's 600 associate pastors, 400 are women. "In ministry they are equal with men," he said. "They are licensed. They are ordained. They become deaconesses and elders.”.... Cho adopted the cell church principle in 1964 after he collapsed from exhaustion trying to minister to his then 3,000-member congregation. His male leaders balked when he told them to divide the congregation into cells that meet in their homes. "They said, 'Fine, but we are not trained to do that and we are not paid to do that. Why don't you have a long vacation?' This is the Korean way of saying 'Why don't you resign from the church?' “.... When he asked the women leaders to do it, they said, "Teach us, pastor. We will do anything for you," he said. The church grew from 3,000 to 18,000 in the next five years. The cell churches started new cell churches and more lay leaders got involved in ministry, Cho said. "It is the will of God to have a growing church."

Donald W. Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (1976), paints a different picture of the church. Charles Finney refused to back down in 1827 when, in the New Lebanon Conference, in order to have peace, he could have backed down on the issue of the ordination of women.  He refused.  Asa Mahan, president of Oberlin College, was proud of his school’s record of being encouraging the education of women.  Luther Lee, one of those who started the Wesleyan-Methodist Church in the 1840’s, had strong views in favor of the ordination of women.  He preached the ordination sermon of Antoinette Brown, the first woman fully ordained, even though she was a Congregationalist.  Phoebe Palmer, an important Methodist evangelist, helped lead the revival of 1857-1858.  She published a 421 page defense of the right of women to preach, called The Promise of the Father.  This book, arguing from Acts 2 and the language of Pentecost, became a text for the rest of the century for the ordination of women.  The Church of God and the Church of the Nazarene had substantial portions of their conference delegates as women.  They freely ordained women in the 1800’s, long before the Methodist Episcopal Church did in the 1950’s.  A. J. Gordon, after whom Gordon-Conwell Divinity School is partially named, argued strongly in 1894 for the ordination of women.  He argued that, based upon Acts 2, the Holy Spirit coming upon both men and women to preach suggests a new covenant that included the full right of women to preach.  The holiness movement of the latter 1800’s also had a strong emphasis upon the ordination of women.  The emphasis upon experience made theological discussion and history less important than is the experience of conversion and holiness.  They willingly experimented with new roles for women.  In the Salvation Army, Catherine Booth agreed to marry William only after he agreed with her feminist convictions that all women lacked was opportunity.

Many leaders have taken the approach that women can be ordained, but never deal with the bible or the tradition of the church that might lead one to the contrary position.  In the process, we have failed to instruct the people of the church in the use of the bible as formative for their lives and beliefs.  God has called both women and men to this ministry.  This view is deeply embedded in Christ’s own intention for the church and in major strands of the early Christian tradition.  We must confess, however, that Christian tradition is male dominated in its ministry and has not recognized the call of God upon women.  Women have always been more ready to serve than the church allowed. 

Ordination is not a civil right.  Rather, it is a solemn rite of the believing community.  It exists by divine calling and the outward confirmation of that call by the community.  Therefore, the ordination of women requires a biblical and theological response, rather than a legal response.  Nor is this a question of psychology or sociology.  We are not asking political questions. 

Groups of elders led local churches.  Given the social context that we have already discussed, women were extraordinarily active in the leadership of the church.  Among these elders was Phoebe, who was a deacon and elder in the church, according to Romans 16:1-2.  Her role included preaching, teaching, and presiding over the Eucharist.  A. J. Gordon emphasized that the Greek word is used as minister when applied to Paul and other men (see I Corinthians 3:5) and deacon when applied to Phoebe.  He asks, “Why discriminate against Phoebe simply because she is a woman?  Junia, also in Romans 16, was an apostle, having the function of preaching, teaching, and evangelizing.  For this activity, the Romans arrested her.  Yet another was Prisca (Romans 16:3-5), whom Paul labels as a “fellow-worker” in Christ, and the congregation that meets in her home.  He mentions Mary in v. 6, and Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis, who toil in the service of the Lord.  He mentions in Philippians 4:2-3 of Euodia and Syntyche, whom Paul identifies as women who shared his struggles in the cause of the gospel.  Such women shared the ministry and struggle of Paul.  We ought not to assume subordination, but rather full equality in the way he approached men and women in ministry. 

I. Howard Marshall re-affirmed the earlier statement of A. J. Gordon that the New Testament has no counterpart to the minister or pastor.  In terms of biblical interpretation, he also argues that the real trajectory is not through the pastoral letters and on to restrictions upon women to preach.  Rather, Jesus and the early letters of Paul suggest freedom in this regard.  The historical fact that the church progressed slowly in this area, for largely cultural reasons, ought not to obscure the early freedom concerning women.  Today, we can move more rapidly.

What I have again done is to use a dialogical and canonical approach to the New Testament. The text has carried on a conversation about the role of women in the ministry of the church. I hope I have given sufficient reason for the church to be both true to its apostolic witness, to its love for God and neighbor, and to the present witness of the church, in opening ministry to women.

Ecclesial Considerations

            I would like to encourage the churches to recognize the worth and dignity of the role of women in the ministry and witness of the church. I would also invite the churches to consider such a position is consistent with the principle of Jesus in the interpretation of Torah: Torah and prophets “hang” on their consistency with love of God and neighbor. I would suggest that such a position fully honors God and the women God has made and called into ministry. I would further suggest that the churches in ecumenical dialogue refuse to surrender this important direction in ministry.

Social Character and world religions

            I have already suggested that theological reflection in Christianity needs to take lace in the context of the pluralism presented in world religions. I also suggest that all theological reflection by the adherents of all religions need to have the same character.            Robert Bolt developed a play about Thomas More called A Man For All Seasons. There is a powerful moment when Thomas explains to his daughter, Margaret, why he cannot take Henry VIII’s Oath of Supremacy, even though his refusal means his own death. He says to her, “There comes a time in a man’s life when he holds himself like water cupped in his hands, and if he lets his hands part and the water falls out, he will never get himself back again.”

            We are at one of those junctions in history when we are holding our past, our future, our integrity, and ourselves in the palm of our own hands. This is a moment when if we allow that integrity to fall out, we might never recover it in the same way.

            Religion has been implicated since September 11, 2001, and many would say it was discredited by it. We see religion at its worst, in which God and religion dedicate themselves to hatred, murder, and violence.

            The great sages of religion have always said that you do not start out deciding metaphysical questions about God. You first live in a certain way. You devote yourself to certain practices of meditation, to certain forms of ethical practice, and in the course of that, you will begin to understand and know in your heart what we mean by God. You will awaken within yourself a sense of the sacred.

            One of the things we look for in religion is transformation. We look for a call to move beyond ourselves, to lose the confines of our own selfishness and our own limitations for a moment. I think we are wired to find meaning and happiness in moving beyond ourselves in a compassionate way. Further, we look for religion to make us better people. We have a feeling that there is some better way of being human.

            Religion should not do harm in the world; it should make a positive difference. We should be working now to make our religion and our faith effective in this lost, suffering, and terrifying world.

            My hope for America is that we will discover a truth within Buddhism that I think Christians share. Life is duka; life is unsatisfactory and difficult; unless we realize that and let that uncomfortable truth become part of us, we cannot begin our transformation.

            Suffering has broken into the American experience in a terrible way. For the first time, Americans have been attacked on their own soil. The great oceans no longer perform the kind of protection that we always thought. However, can we see this as the beginning of an opportunity. America could come out of this better transformed and stronger. Such suffering can give us a start; it can shake us up, make us re-think our paradoxes. Suffering can also make us hard.

            Compassion is the key. When we give ourselves up, we give ourselves away in compassion. We pour ourselves out on other people, put other people in the center of our world instead of enthroning ourselves as the center of the universe. We may need to defend ourselves. However, we cannot transform the world and make our religions work for us unless we are ourselves a haven for loving kindness in the world. That is what the religious person should be. Very often, we see religious people on television protesting and complaining, and horrified about something, even full of rage. Should the church not be a haven from violence and fearfulness in the world?

            The violence of the world goes on.

            Here is a prayer that may go back to the time of Buddha:


Let all peoples be happy, weak or strong, of high, middle, low estate, small or great, visible or invisible, near or far away, alive or still to be born. May they all be entirely happy. Let nobody lie to anybody or despise any single being anywhere. May no one wish harm to any single creature out of anger or hatred. Let us cherish all creatures as a mother her only child. May our loving thoughts fill the whole world above, below, across without limit of boundless goodwill toward the whole world, unrestricted, free of hatred and enmity.


            Ninian Smart has suggested several ways that one can compare religions in the world.


1. Ritual or Practical dimension - worship, meditation, pilgrimage, sacrifice, sacramental rites, healing.

2. Doctrine or Philosophical dimension -

3. Mythic or narrative dimension - stories that provide significance to the history.

4. Experiential or emotional dimension - enlightenment, conversion, meditation, vision.

5. Ethical or legal dimension - Torah, ten commandments, Paul's injunctions, virtue,

6. Organizational or social dimension - sepecialists, class system, etc

7. Material or artistic dimension - icons, sanctuaries, mosques, temples, cathedrals, etc.


What is the nature of the ultimate - Doctrine or philosophical dimension

How may the human predicament be best described?

What is the character of salvation or healing?

How is salvation appropriated?

I want to begin this essay by sharing the perspective that I bring to the examination of religions in the world.

The perspective I bring to world religion consists of the following principles.

First, Christianity needs to reflect upon the diversity of world religion in the context of its own denominational diversity. The difference between Roman Catholic and Orthodox, and Protestant, and then the difference with many sects in Christianity, helps us realize how difficult it can be to define Christianity.

Second, we cannot simply assert the reality of "our" God. It is not enough to assert that the bible says something when they do not share one's own trust in the apostolic witness.

Third, religion reflects both human imperfection and its quest for what is good, true, and beautiful. What is humanity? What is the meaning and purpose of our lives? what is goodness? What is sin? What gives rise to our sorrows and to what intnet? What is the path to true happiness. What is the truth about life in the context of eternity? Religion has an awareness of the infinite and eternal context of our finite human life. Frankly, if one experiences life only in isolated or disconnected pieces, one will find it difficult to connect with the religious quest. Religion is not a subjective feeling, but focuses upon a force, a will and intelligence, outside of me. Religion is not something we add on to human life, but arises out of the questions and concerns of human life. If we turn against this dimension of our lives, we will be less than we could be. The secular person does not acknowledge that our experience of the finite world is carved out of the infinite. It denies that our experience of historical time is embraced by eternity. Finite and temporal things have are objects we use. This means that for the religious person, questions related to meaning and purpose in human life have a broader context than the secular person will admit. Hegel accurately defined religion as an awareness of the difference between human finitude and divine infinity. Overcoming the distance is what religion is about, both through its teaching and its worship. Humanity seeks participation or fellowship in the divine.

One obstacle for Christianity to give a positive evaluation of religion is in Romans 1:20ff, where Paul adopts the polemic of Judaism against pagan religions with a view to turning the judgment upon the Jews. Paul does not have, as an independent goal of his argument the condemnation of pagan religions. This does not alter the fact that he does adopt here the verdict of Jewish polemic. Yet, it is doubtful whether we should read the statements as an exhaustive evaluation of the phenomenon of non-biblical religions. The total biblical material on this subject is much more complex. We find milder sayings in Acts:


Acts 14:16-17 (NRSV)

16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; 17 yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.”

Acts 17:22-31 (NRSV)

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”


We also find that Jewish belief did not involve a total rejection of all other gods, for Yahweh takes over the characteristics of El, the Persian God of heaven, and the function of Baal for the fruitfulness of the land. In Romans, Paul in a one-sided way stresses the perverting of the incorruptible God into the image of corruptible things. It is a true aspect of religion that Barth emphasizes.

The criticism by Paul is that we depict the power of God according to the image of corruptible things and thus confuse God with finite things:


Romans 1:25 (NRSV)

25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.


In general, religions have distinguished quite well between the deity and the worldly reality in which its power manifests itself. This leads me to consider the possibility that behind the Jewish and Pauline polemic against paganism is a confusion of religion, magic, and myth. In the prophetic tradition, the criticism turned inward against the religious practice of the Jewish people and the related sense of security. Misusing the relation to God to gain control over God with a view to self-security is always a perversion of faith.

Fourth, the religious pluralism of our time should make us reflect upon the Christian faith in different ways. We need to become aware of our imperfections, especially our contribution to anti-Semitism and to the Crusades against Islam. Christians also need to re-consider the way they express their doctrines in a religiously pluralistic society. Some teachings make sense when everyone is on the same page, but in our religious context, we need to consider the language we use to express our beliefs.

Fifth, every religion results in a universal claim. This means that, although religion may provide some of the internal connections that a society needs to hold it together, such social and psychological functions do not exhaust what religion means to its adherents. Every religion has to face the test of meeting the needs of individuals living in this world. A religion needs adherents to prove itself vital. Religious statements about the divine are attempts to thematize an indefinite experience that we have of the divine. We cannot suppose some pre-ordained progress in a certain direction, for we have multiple experiences of the divine. Decision as to the truth of a religion or as to whether the gods in whom its adherents believe prove to be gods, is first taken up in the process of experience of the world and the struggle to interpret it. The adherents of a religious fellowship and worshippers of deity bring the confirmation or non-confirmation of religious assertions through their experience. If the expected confirmation does not eventuate, people will not immediately forsake deity. They will first experience and suffer this contesting of belief. Second, the question of confirmation or non-confirmation of belief in a deity often stands under the competitive pressure of the truth claims of other deities that claim the same sphere of experience of the world as proof. The challenging of the competence of a deity by another deity and its alternative interpretive potential is not everywhere, perhaps, an everyday problem of religious life and religious tradition. It occurs especially where different cultures meet, mingle, or clash, but also as an expression of friction within the same culture. Third, the demand of faith that a deity should prove its power in relation to changed experience of the world leads in the positive instances of confirmation to a change in the understanding of the nature and working of the deity. I would further suggest that the second criterion for testing religious truth is nothing less than the open-ended process of human history. Where belief in the one God proved to be true in the experience of adherents, we can speak not only of an interpretive achievement on the part of believers, but also, even if only provisionally, of God’s own demonstration of deity to them. There are gods that disappear in the process because their impotence is evident. Monotheistic belief disputes the reality of other gods. The truth of faith in the deity of the one God is in question face-to-face with world experience and the rival truth claim of other gods. I assume that the history of religion is not just a history of human ideas and attitudes. I further assume that the issue in religion is instead the truth of divine reality in the deities of the religions.

Sixth, psychology and sociology need to take seriously the fact that religious people direct their attention away from themselves and to the origin and goal of life. Deity has priority over humanity. The participant is concerned with God. The observer is concerned with religion. Religion is always a social experience, in that others teach us about the God we believe.

Seventh, the unity of religious experience corresponds to the unity of the divine. Religious people meditate, pray, worship, and apply some concept of goodness, to their lives. This means that monotheism is a sound basis for the unity of humanity, and the fraternity of human beings as having their source in on Father of humanity.

Eighth, the unity of humanity and culture has its foundation in one God.


Christianity must have the confidence to share with others the truth claim of the revelation on which it rests.  Christians have the opportunity to show humanity what genuine community is like.  If they can do this, they will demonstrate its power. Christianity competes for the hearts of people. Christianity has not fulfilled its mission consistent with its own principles. It has used force, manipulation, and power to fulfill its mission. However, at its best, Christianity arms itself with the spiritual power of moral persuasion and conversion.  In this, it is similar to its ancestor, Judaism, which has remained "weak" in economics and military might, but strong in character and community life. It contends with others for ultimate truth about the world, humanity, and God.  We cannot close our eyes to the legitimate differences or claim they worship the same God.  For example, monotheism has had the power to persuade people wherever it has gone.  Can we identify the Christian God with Truth, the Infinite, the Eternal, and the Absolute?  Should we identify the Christian God with the true God?  Christians claim that Jesus of Nazareth reveals the nature of the one God to all people.  It is the starting point of the Christian mission to the world and the source of its power. At the same time, the church has shown a willingness to learn from other religions.  It has adapted to new cultures and periods of history.  It has adapted to the modern world. It is one of the great missionary religions.  It has withstood the tests of history for 2000 years. Are Christians ready to demonstrate the power of community?

One way to test such claims is to test the answers religions give to the following questions. What is the nature of the ultimate? How may one describe the human predicament? What is the character of the healing offered by the religion? How does one receive this healing?

The various religions have profound perceptions of God and truth contained in their heritage, sacred texts, institutions, and ethical values. The religions do not say the same things. In an increasingly global setting, people need to develop some tools to weigh and evaluate the separate truth claims. I would suggest that we move beyond simple taste or opinion as adequate criteria, and that the pragmatic and even evolutionary view criteria are sufficient. Therefore, the power of any religion will find embodiment in personal life, religious institutions, and deal with the modern social world.

Before I go down this path, I need to share with you a little about the major religions. I know you think they are all problems that you wish would go away. However, would you consider this with me for a few moments?

Hinduism numbers around 786 million people.  It has tradition that dates from 1500 BC.  They define their community as those who believe in the Vedas.  They also define themselves as those who follow the way (dharma) of the four classes (varnas) and stages of life (ashramas).  They define themselves more by what they do than what they think.  They have no official doctrinal authority.  However, its intricate hierarchy of the social system, which is inseparable from the religion, gives each person a sense of place within the whole.

            In terms of sacred texts, they rely upon the Rig-Veda, composes between1300 and 1000 BC.  The Yajur-Veda (sacrifices) and the Sama-Veda (hymnal) supplements it.  The Atharva-Veda, is a collection of magic spells from 900 BC.  The Brahmans were composed around 900 BC has well.  The Upanishads were composed around 600 BC as mystical and philosophical meditations on the meaning of existence and the nature of the universe.  The Mahabharata (contains the Bhagavad Gita as the most important text in Hinduism) and the Ramayana were composed between 300 BC and 300 AD.  Most of northern India was under the Gupta Empire from 320-550 AD.  Hindus codified their sacred laws, built great temples, and preserved their myths and rituals.

            Most Hindus have reverence for Brahmans and cows.  They abstain from meal.  They accept marriage within the caste with the hope of producing male heirs.  Most Hindus chant the gayatri hymn to the sun at dawn.  Most worship Shiva, Vishnu, or Devi, though they will also worship other gods.

            Hindus are divided into two groups.  One seeks the sacred and profane rewards of this world, such as health, wealth, children, and a good rebirth.  This is the way represented in the Vedas, religion of the Brahmans, and the caste system.  One's caste helps define the specific job, marry specific persons, and eat certain foods.  The other seeks release from the world.  The Upanishads define this pat of renunciation, but also is part of the ideological beliefs of most Hindus.  It accepts the unity of the individual soul or atman with Brahman, the universal world would or godhead.  Full realization of this releases one from the cycle of rebirth.  Devotional movements like Shankara and Ramanuja accepted practices like Yoga. 

In the 1800’s, important reforms took place under Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and the sects of the Arya Samaj and the Brahmo Samaj.  They sought to reconcile Hindu beliefs with needed social and political reforms.  The same is true of Arrobindo Ghose and Mohandas Gandhi.  He used passive resistance to gain new rights for the Untouchables and remove the British from India.

            Buddhism has around 362 million members. It is divided between Theravada and Mahayana sects. The major councils define it.  The Dhammapada is a collection of 423 aphorisms intended to provide ethical guidance.  The Lotus Sutra had a profound and lasting impact upon Chinese culture.  Japan proclaimed it the state religion in 594.  It entered Tibet around 600's AD.  It remains strong in Thailand.  Zen advocated the practice of meditation as the way to a sudden, intuitive realization of one's inner Buddha nature.  The Indiana monk Bodhidharma founded it in China in 520.  It emphasizes practice and personal enlightenment rather than study of scripture or doctrine.

            Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Buddha, lived in northern India.  He was born in 563 BC. He rejected significant aspects of Hindu teaching.  He challenged the authority of the priesthood, denied the validity of the Vedas, and rejected the sacrificial cult based on them.  He opened his movement to members of all castes, denying that a person's spiritual worth is a matter of birth.

            Buddha taught the four noble truths.  First, life is suffering; human existence is essentially painful from the moment of birth to the moment of death.  Second, all suffering is caused by ignorance of the nature of reality and the craving, attachment, and grasping that result from such ignorance.  Third, overcoming ignorance and attachment can end suffering.  Fourth, the path tot he suppression of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.  That path consists of right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right-mindedness, and right contemplation.  They are divided into three categories that form the cornerstone of Buddhist faith, morality, wisdom, and samadhi or concentration.

            Karma consists of a person’s acts and their ethical consequences.  Human actions lead to rebirth, wherein good deeds are inevitably rewarded and evil deeds punished.  Nirvana is the release from the world of suffering.  People must be released from the fires of greed, hatred, and ignorance to achieve this state.  It involves cultivating loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

            Speculation about the eternal Buddha began in 383 BC.  The liberal group believed Buddha was a manifestation of the eternal Buddha, while the conservative group believed he was a enlightened person who achieved Nirvana.  The liberal concepts prepared the way for Mahayana.  They developed concepts of divine grace and ongoing revelation. 

It focuses upon individual rather than congregational experiences.  It has adapted to changing conditions and a variety of cultures.  It is the largest example of applied metaphysics. 

            Judaism has about 12.8 million adherents, about 40% living in the US.  It began out of the experience of exile in 593 BC, and the return to Jerusalem and its surrounding lands in 527 BC.  During this time, the Mosaic Law achieved its present form and status.  The histories of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, and Kings, were all brought together during this period.  These histories trace themselves back to Abraham and his journey to Palestine, and to Moses as the one who led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt and into a new land.  They re-affirm the importance of belief in one God, the Law, the land as a gift from God, the city as a holy city, and the temple as central to Jewish faith and life.  The continuing Jewish experience of domination under Greeks and Romans shaped a theology that looked forward to liberation through the Messiah.  Different schools of thought, such as Essenes, Sadduccees, Pharisees, Zealots, apocalyptic prophets, and messianic liberators, became part of the Jewish experience.  After the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, they experienced separation from land, city, and temple.  This led to the victory of the rabbinical school.  The result was a rich oral tradition that re-interpreted the Law for every facet of life.  They viewed the Law as a gracious gift of God that showed them the way to live ethically as well as how to relate to God.

            As of 2000, about 33% of the people of the world are Christians.  Church members total 1.9 billion, and attendees include 1.3 billion.  Christianity originated in the period of 30-100 AD.  Jesus himself wrote no books.  However, he initiated a movement that treated the Jewish law with indifference.  He seemed to believe that, as long as Judaism remained tied to the Law, the land, and the temple, it would never be free to spread the good news of its belief in the one God.  He also believed that violence and politics was not the way to spread this dynamic faith.  After his death, those who followed him most closely saw him.  They believed God raised him from the dead, and that he was therefore the promised Messiah that Judaism preached.  The apostle Paul began the process of taking away the Jewish commitment the Law, especially concerning circumcision and the remaining elements of the Jewish ritual tradition, away from the adherents to their newly discovered faith in Jesus.  This eventually led to the anathema pronounced in 90 AD against believers in the Nazarene that Judaism instituted in the synagogue prayers.  Eventually, the church went on to convert the gentile world to its faith in the God of Jesus Christ.  The first 300 years of its existence provided a social context where becoming a Christian required careful consideration of the cost.  Later, from 900 to 1500, the western version of Christianity was the dominant form of religious expression, as well as an important power economically, politically, and intellectually.  The disruption between Protestant and Roman Catholic brought not only a division, but new attempts to relate to the intellectual, economic, and political challenges of that period.  The 1700’s saw the rise of evangelical and revivalist traditions that sought a personal and lively relationship with God.  The 1800’s saw the rise of liberal Protestantism that sought to relate the Christian faith to the intellectual, scientific, and social needs of the period.  The result was Christian faith that learned, over time, to appreciate free cultures in which churches could seek new adherents, while at the same time relate to a wide variety of beliefs that the church could not accept.  The church learned to live diversity, free enterprise, and democratic institutions.

In 2000, Islam has about 1.2 billion members in 40 Muslim countries.  The word means submission to the will of God.  The follower of Islam is a Muslim, which means "one who surrenders to God."  It lifts up the majestic transcendence of God and emphasizes God as judge. It describes the human predicament as a failure to submit to the will of God as revealed in the Koran. One experiences healing as one submits to the demand of God for obedience. Islam has a forensic vision of the relationship between God and humanity, for healing comes in obedience. Large numbers live in the Middle East.  However, the largest Muslim population is Indonesia, followed by Pakistan and Bangladesh.  Large numbers also live in India, Nigeria, and the republics of the former Soviet Union.  Children are automatically considered Muslim.  Any non-Muslim can convert to Islam by declaring themselves to be Muslim.

            Muhammad was born in 570 AD.  He taught that God was one, and that he was the last in a series of prophets and messengers.  The system of laws that began with the Hebrew Scripture, which gave to the New Testament writings culminated in the Koran.  The first two scriptures developed over time and were distorted.  God preserved the Koran from such distortion.  Islam provided humanity with the means to know good from evil, through the Koran.  God would therefore hold people accountable on the Day of Judgment.

            They adhere to the five pillars of Islam.  First is the profession of faith that "I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet."  Second is the five daily prayers, in which they are to stand, bow, and prostrate themselves toward Mecca.  Third is giving alms as an act of devotion to God and to provide for the poorer sections of society.  Fourth is fasting, especially during Ramadan, the month when the Koran was first revealed.  Fifth is the pilgrimage to Mecca.  Some Muslims consider Jihad as the sixth pillar.  It means "to struggle," or "to exhaust one's effort."  One can do this toward living a virtuous life, helping other Muslims through charity, and fighting to defend Muslims. 

            God is one, unique, and transcendently other.  Humanity can discover the wisdom and power behind nature.  They prohibit representations of God, the prophets, and human beings in general.  This monotheism, they teach, continues that of Judaism and Christianity.  Moses and Jesus were commissioned by God to preach the essential and eternal message of Islam.  They believe Mosaic Law and the Christian Gospels are the same doctrine as that contained in the Koran.  They also believe that Jews and Christians distorted those teachings.  God sent Muhammad with the last and perfect legal code that balances he spiritual teachings with the law, and thus supplants the Jewish and Christian codes. 

            They believe humanity has a privileged status given by God.  God appointed humanity as caliphs or vice-regents on earth, even above the angels.  Islamic theology developed out of debates with Jews and Christians.  Then, they debated free will, predestination, and the concept of the Koran as eternal or created in time.  The 900's saw the views of al-Ashari, which became assimilated into the Sunni Muslim faith, become predominate.  This group de-emphasizes minor differences and emphasizes the consensus of the community in matters of doctrine.  Another dispute centered on whether Muhammad was sinless during his prophetic career.  Moses and Jesus were also sinless during their prophetic careers.  God protected them from committing sins and excruciating suffering.  Therefore, they believe that God took Jesus to heaven and replaced him with someone who looked like Jesus.  He also worked miracles, the greatest of which was the Koran.

Sufi tradition is mystical and emphasized personal piety.  In contrast, the legal approach within Islam, it emphasizes spirituality as the way of knowing God.  It developed during the 800's AD.  They extended Islam beyond the Middle East to Africa and East Asia.  This success was due to their humanitarianism, combining ministry to spiritual needs and helping the poor. 

These religions have survived the challenges of history. That suggests the truth is strong in them. At the same time, they face challenges in the future.  Out of 5.7 billion people in the world, 3.1 billion believe in the God of the Jewish people; that is over half of the people of the world. 

Now, in my analysis of this situation, please consider the possibility that the modern social world, the world that values science, democratic institutions, limited government, individual rights, freedom, and tolerance, is the best social world that humanity will have. All of the religions of the world must adjust to this secular reality. Religions will need to give up the arrogance that sacred texts provide a prescription for how secular rulers should rule a country. All religions will have to focus upon respect for each other, freedom of conscience, and the persuasion of minds and hearts. All religions need to renounce coercion and violence to pursue their ends. I want to suggest that such a secular culture is the best hope for the world. In that context, is there a religion that could operate within that framework?

Hinduism will have the most difficulty relating to the modern, technological, secular society. Its polytheism, social caste system, and vegetarianism, will limit its appeal.  Clearly, however, its longevity gives some reason to be cautious here.

Islam will have a difficulty adjusting to democratic institutions and to intellectual pluralism. Its militaristic beginnings will always be a hindrance.  Its sacred text already tells modern Muslims that Jews and Christians distorted the truth in their sacred texts. It took Mohammed and the revelation to him to correct both Jews and Christians. The difficulty of having genuine dialogue in such a context should be obvious. It will seek belief in one God and one culture.  Such views do not lend themselves to living in diverse, free, and peaceful cultures.

Buddhism has some potential. It is the best example of applied metaphysics, which is the way it seeks to make itself credible to others.  Thus, Buddha gave his doctrine to the world.  Its focus on individual enlightenment may appeal to an increasingly inward focused age.  Its focus upon teaching people to achievement personal enlightenment and peace provides an interesting touching point with our post-modern culture.

Judaism has the same problem today that it did during the lifetime of Jesus. Its adherence to Law, the land, the city, and the temple, will always be a hindrance to mission activity.  It creates an insider and cloistered mentality.

Christianity has adjusted to the enlightenment, democratic institutions, and science and technology. It has accepted a humble role in society. It has shown a heart for evangelism and mission. It has shown power to address the modern age.  This religion seeks anew a metaphysic; in every generation and every culture.  This gives it flexibility in relation to cultures and historical periods that Buddhism does not have.   The reference that Christianity makes to religious moments in history is the way it seeks to make itself credible to others.  Thus, Jesus gave his life to the world.  It is for Christians to discern the doctrine.  The life of Christ is not an exhibition of over-ruling power.  Its glory is for those who can discern it, and not for the world.  Its power lies in its absence of force.  It has the decisiveness of a supreme ideal.  The church will perish unless it opens its window and lets out the dove to search for an olive branch. 

The image I have is that of various schools of religion seeking to apply their vision of reality to their school, seeking adherents through moral persuasion, and bringing influence into society in subtle rather than direct ways. The global context of the world today, the connection established in culture and technology, suggest that the religions have to figure out ways to do more than co-exist on the same planet. They will need to discover the truth that all human apprehension of truth is provisional. No matter how convinced we are of the truth of our beliefs, they are still beliefs. They do not constitute knowledge. The future remains open to verify or falsify the truth that one sees today. Religion will always require faith. Such awareness ought to give all religions reason for humility as they share life together. They may even find themselves enriched by the encounter with religions making significantly different and even strange claims.

In the midst of many religions, I invite you to consider Jesus. I will not ask you if I have persuaded you to accept my view of religion.

Though I have tried to be clear in my presentation, distortions and misinterpretations are possible.  I might even say that they are likely, given the nature of human communication.  I will not ask if what I have said so far has stimulated you to give more attention to religion than you have so far.  I will not even ask if you have a higher view of religious persons than you had before you read this article.  I leave such matters to your private judgment. 

In the concluding portion of this essay, I invite you to consider Jesus.  He has always been the obstacle. Most Jews of his time rejected him, though some did come trust him and his message. Muslims keep trying to convince us that God does not have a Son. Both Jews and Muslims keep telling us that we worship him as an idol, and both tell us that we worship three gods. Such statements only show how little they have even tried to understand why Christians have found in him something more than a good man or teacher. He is more than the one who established Christianity, which in fact he did not do. The establishment of the church did not occur until his followers began sharing the good news.  They taught that the forgiveness of sin and the grace of God gave the possibility of new life through Jesus.  They taught that he was the promised Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures.  They taught that he was the Divine Wisdom taught by the prophets and wisdom literature of the Hebrews.  They taught that he was the Son of God of which many religions spoke.  They taught that his death and resurrection meant that Jesus is a unique and universal communication from God to humanity. Along with all monotheistic religions, we believe God loves humanity enough to communicate who God is and what God intends for humanity. We believe Jesus, in his form of life, teaching, death, and resurrection, is that communication from God toward which all religions point.

I assume the multiplicity of religion.  In fact, I doubt that given the variety of human history and the nature of individuals, there will ever be one common religion.  Christianity itself assumes the existence of other religions in its bible.  The saying of Jesus concerning loving our neighbors and our enemies assumes that the whole world will not agree with us.  Nor can any one person who commits to any religion discover the fullness of that one religion, let alone the multiplicity of all religions.  The sum total of all religions gives us an accurate picture of religion.  Therefore, no particular religion can adequately bring together the genius and experience of all religions.  As I have said before, the only way to develop that natural human drive toward the Infinite is to become part of a specific religious community.  Only those who have pitched their tents in a specific community earn the right to consider themselves as part of the religious world.  Only these persons can claim to help us make progress in the religious sphere of life.  Of course, in America, if none of the existing forms of religion satisfies, you can always start your own.  I hope, however, that you will not consider those of us who have mentors in the spiritual life from specific religious communities less desiring of our own experience with God.  I remind you that unique individuals who have a lively experience of God began most religions.  Please do not hold such heroes of religion to the standards of perfection.  After all, they were human, like you.  Yet, the fire of God was in them.  They shared that fire with others.

My intent in this part of the essay is to commend to you the community that seeks to follow Jesus. However, before I do, I want to direct you to a popular approach to the development of our religious nature.  If my essay only confirms this vague idea of religion, then I have wasted my time.  Most surveys suggest that this is true of over ninety percent of the American population.  Yet, only about one-third are part of a religious community.  The majority of Americans are content to have a private religion that they accept in the abstract, but do not believe a community of faith will help them in that journey.  They do not consider it important enough.  Religious communities have hurt them.  They believe they have advance beyond the need for them. Such religion is most likely natural for you.  I understand your desire for a religion that does not require anything from you.  From my perspective, the pious person seeks to see the divine in all things.  Even your belief in a religion without demands is one of the many hints we have that God exists.

            Further, I do not want to draw attention to the many failings of the church to live out of the life and teachings of Jesus.  The church falls short.  Humanity has a way of corrupting everything it touches, even that which is most holy.  The basic beliefs and values of the church call it to continual self-criticism.  Piety is not satisfied with the present.  Rather, it always looks forward to new ways to experience closeness to God and greater service to God.  Piety does not rest.  Christianity tries to keep a balance in its insight into the nature of humanity.  Humanity is both sinful and corrupt, and at the same time reflects the image of God.  Therefore, Christianity recognizes that it will not rule the earth in the matter of religion.  Nothing would be more contrary to the spirit of Jesus than to force obedience to the church and its beliefs and values.  People are far too self-willed and diverse for that.  However, Christianity will not cease to make converts and love people into a relationship with Jesus.  We shall not cease to make every effort to persuade the minds and hearts of our neighbors on this planet that they need Jesus.

Most Americans have met Jesus before.  They heard about Jesus as children, whether they grew up in the church or not.  He is part of western culture. They have some impression of Jesus, no matter how vague.  For many people, that early image of Jesus remains with them into their adult life.  Some hold to it with deep conviction, combined with personal devotion or rigid doctrinal positions.  Others developed problems with that image.  That early image of Jesus no longer made sense.  No alternative image could replace it. Such reflections often led to indifference or rejection toward the Christian faith of their childhood.

            I grant that only the end of history reveals truth. The temporary success of evil always makes history ambiguous. The gods of the Babylonians, like Marduk, claimed to have great power.  The success of the people who believed proved such power.  Marduk had to prove to be who he claimed to be in the experience of those who worshipped him.  Yahweh, God of Israel, became a questionable deity because of the exile of Judah.  In both cases, God must confirm God’s power.  The fact that Marduk disappeared, while Yahweh continues to have adherents among Jews and Christians, is testimony to the power of this God.  This conclusion is clear from the standpoint of universal history, which continues to be open to future verification or falsification of Yahweh as God.  Only the continuing nature of our experience in the world, and its openness to the future, can verify the truth of religious statements.  The gods of the religions must show themselves in our experience of the world to be the powers they claim to be. First, the adherents of the faith verify the religious assertions they make. Second, the competitive pressure of truth verifies the truth of claims of religious and secular persons alike.  Third, the continuing progress of world experience puts its own unique pressure upon the truth claims of any assertions about God.  As one studies the history of religion, many gods proved their impotence.  Monotheism has shown its power.  The history of religion is the unfolding nature of inadequate human views of the reality about which religion seeks to understand and experience. 

            Monotheism is a powerful idea about God.  Polytheism, animism, and other forms of religion fall away when people proclaim this view of God. This fact contributes to the concept of one humanity, a universal fraternity in which we need to respect the lively differences between us. Unfortunately, it can also lead to the idea of one culture ordained by one religion. Yet, the possibilities of belief in one God who is the source of all culture and the variety of ethnic groups and traditions suggest that the one God enjoys the diversity of human life. This historical reality suggests that a belief in one God is a fundamental concept for any religion to maintain if it hopes to gain a fair hearing in the present time as well as in the future.

            The monotheistic religions are few: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Judaism has not shown itself able to maintain a missionary zeal. Islam has not shown itself comfortable with pluralism and democracy and free enterprise, as well as modern technology and science.  It seems to desire the use of the power of the State to enforce Islamic culture.  Therefore, it has not shown an ability to tolerate other beliefs when it is in the majority. Humanity seems to experiment and learn along the way as a community.  Deeply held beliefs in the past no longer exist, as in the areas of religion (Marduk, Mythra, etc.) or in science (alchemy, earth is flat), or in government (divine right of kings) or in economics (feudalism, socialism).  Such past "truths" no longer capture the imagination of our time.  History becomes the final arbiter of truth.  History is the record of human experience, testing hypotheses and discovering what works. Humanity has made progress from primitive beginnings.  Progress is obvious in the areas of science, technology, mathematics, philosophy and religion.  Humanity has made vast improvements in such areas that transcend cultures and periods of history. We can only assume that such advances will continue, beyond our wildest dreams.  We recognize in ourselves that beliefs deeply held at one period of life change over time.  We form perspectives early in life, yet we can alter them later through experience and changes of perspective.  Our lives are open to the unfolding realities of our own personal histories.

            Truth, however, transcends culture and transcends periods of history.  If we view history as revelation, then there are some provisional conclusions we can draw now about Truth.  God is one.  Pluralism has replaced tyranny and absolutism in belief.  We acknowledge today the superiority of competition in the marketplace of ideas.  Democracy has replaced totalitarianism and dictatorship.  There is a liberation of the people from the tyranny of the church and the tyranny of the political and military state.  Free enterprise has replaced feudalism and socialism in economics.  The economic marketplace has replaced the strictures of a hierarchy and patronage.  Society has a responsibility to the poorest of its members, rather than increasing their misery by oppression of the helpless. Personal responsibility for providing for one self, one's family, and ethical action toward one another, and a recognition of social responsibility.  Such truths transcend culture and time.

            In this context, I hope you will consider Jesus. The statement by Josephus has more insight than many might suspect; "those who had loved him previously (that is, before the crucifixion) did not cease to do so." Being a Christian may be as simple as continuing to love Jesus.  In the end, the personal decision to follow Jesus will always be a matter of faith.  To see God at work in Jesus of Nazareth will always be a risk.  To see Jesus as significant for my happiness and way of life today will always be a risk.  To see Jesus as significant enough to share the good news with others, will always be a risk.  In Jesus, Christianity invites people to look at life in a new way, shift their way of behaving and thinking, and adopt a new center for their lives.  His parables invite us to see the kingdom all around us, and yes even in Jesus.  His sayings point the way to challenging our own values, as well as those of our culture.  His healings and exorcisms challenge us to experience the power of God directly, rather than through safe institutions.  His death invites us to live with the consciousness of our guilt and sin forgiven by God.  His death invites us to live sacrificially, in service to others.  His resurrection invites us to see the work of God where others do not and to experience explosive power.  1,968 years have passed since he died.  They are testimony enough that he was a holy man, deserving of the many that love him and follow him.



[1] Romans 13:1-7


[2] Matthew 5:9