The West is jettisoning the Christian understanding of human sexuality at an alarming speed. It is doing so, to a significant extent, without any meaningful understanding of how Christianity shaped western sexuality in the first place. Many seem to think that by freeing ourselves from the burden of Christian teaching we will finally be able to enjoy our sexuality without hindrance, as if this is what human beings were doing before prudish Christians came on the scene and ruined everything.
For this reason, Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity is an illuminating read. Harper wants the West to better understand our inheritance. He wants us to appreciate what sexuality looked like in the Roman world, and how revolutionary Christianity’s impact was on western sexuality, for good and for ill. Harper is not a Christian, as far as I can tell. He writes as a historian who wants to get the story right….
Romans did not wrestle with the morality of sex outside of marriage or sexual activity between persons of the same sex. Rather, they wrestled with what was honorable for a free-born man or a free-born woman. It was acceptable for a free-born man to have sex with slaves, prostitutes, and boys (under certain conditions), so long as these things were done in moderation. But a free-born man must act as a man. It was shameful for him to play the passive role in sex.
The restrictions on a free woman, on the other hand, were much tighter. A woman’s modesty (i.e., sexual honor) was a fragile thing. “The sexual life course of free women was dominated by the imperatives of marriage. In a society that was never freed from the relentless grip of a high-mortality regime, the burden of reproduction weighed heavily on the female population” (39-40). Women were expected to marry at a very young age and to produce children for their husbands and for society. To commit adultery was to violate a respectable woman and so to sin against her husband. To do so was without excuse, because any man was free to have sex with slaves and prostitutes at will.
Underlying this double standard was the lucrative and omnipresent Roman sex trade, which itself was inseparable from the Roman system of slavery. The masses of slaves, prostitutes and other dishonorable persons had no claim to honor, and thus no entitlement to sexual morality. Slaves, especially girls and women, were “subjected to untrammeled sexual abuse” (26). They were utterly without social or legal protection. “The ubiquity of slaves meant pervasive sexual availability… Slaves played something like the part that masturbation has played in most cultures” (27). Prostitutes “stalked the streets. Taverns, inns, and baths were notorious dens of venal sex. Brothels ‘were visible everywhere’” (47).
When Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire during the first century it did so as a persecuted minority known for its distinctive sexual ethic. Harper argues, in fact, that it was their views of sex more than anything else that distinguished Christians in the ancient world. For Christians sex lay at the heart of what it meant to be a free person destined for communion with God. And Christians called all people, whatever their status or gender, to lives of sexual purity.
Harper refutes the notion that Christian teaching on sexuality was simply the product of Greco-Roman conservatism or even of Judaism. The Apostle Paul, he shows, developed a fresh sexual ethos and a new sexual vocabulary to go with it. The threat to human beings was not shame or dishonor, first and foremost. It was sin. In the Corinthian church Paul was faced with a libertinism that owed much to the Roman sense that sex outside of marriage, including sex with prostitutes, was simply a matter for moderation. In response, Paul called Christians to flee porneia just as they would flee idolatry. He turned the body – indeed, all human bodies – “into a consecrated space, a point of mediation between the individual and the divine” (92). Porneia, for Paul, encompassed all sex except that between a man and a woman in marriage, and it bound men and women, free and slaves, with equal rigor.
Paul closely associated sexual immorality with idolatry. “[S]exual fidelity was the corollary of monotheism, while the worship of many gods was, in every way, promiscuous.” Same-sex practice was a “particularly egregious violation of the natural order” (94). Harper observes that “any hermeneutic roundabout that tries to sanitize or soften Paul’s words is liable to obscure the inflection point around which attitudes toward same-sex erotics would be forever altered” (95). Paul’s originality, he maintains, lies in the fact that he did not reject homosexual behavior because of a logic of status, age, hierarchy, exploitation, penetration, or active and passive roles, but for the simple reason that it is not between a male and a female as intended from creation. For Paul, it is a simple question of gender difference. Natural sex, for Christians, following Paul, “came to mean, exclusively, the one configuration of body parts that has generative potential” (145).
Read the rest of this review at Reformation 21.
In his article, “Not Two Kingdoms, But Two Ages,” Jonathan Leeman proposes a doctrine of two ages as a helpful paradigm for understanding the relationship between the church and the world. Building on the political theology of Oliver O’Donovan and recent developments in New Testament studies, Leeman offers this as a helpful corrective to various “doctrines of the two” at play in church history, including that of the two kingdoms, which Leeman identifies with Martin Luther.
In fact, there’s good precedent for Leeman’s proposal, and it comes from none other than the 16th-century reformer John Calvin. Ironically, though, Calvin presented his theology in precisely the terms that Leeman opposes: two kingdoms. As I show in my forthcoming book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church, Calvin’s two kingdoms theology was nothing if not a two ages eschatology. It was his attempt to explain how the future kingdom of Christ (the age to come) breaks into the present age even while the present age continues. The two ages overlap, and Christians inhabit both at the same time. As a result, Christians are subject to a “twofold government,” to two different kinds of authorities, which Calvin called two kingdoms (Institutes 3.19.15).
Calvin often described these two kingdoms by distinguishing between what’s earthly and what’s heavenly in human beings, or between what’s inward and what’s outward. But Calvin didn’t use these terms to denote a dualistic view of humans any more than the apostle Paul when speaking of the contrast between flesh and Spirit.
Rather, Calvin used “inward” and “heavenly” to refer to the age to come, which breaks into this age through the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers—even as from an outward and earthly perspective things seem to go on as they always have, under the shadow of death and decay.
Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2)
That’s what the Apostle Paul wrote to a church riven with ethnic, cultural, economic, and, yes, political divisions. That’s what it meant for a church to practice the truth that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).
The voting patterns of Christians in Tuesday’s elections reveal that this practice did not guide Christian political engagement in 2016. The best predictor of how a Christian voted was not his or her theological beliefs or denominational membership. It was his or her ethnicity. Black and Latino Christians voted for Clinton by massive margins, though not as much as they did for Obama in 2008 and 2012. And white Christians voted for Trump in even stronger numbers than they did for McCain or Romney in years past.
But the biggest indictment of the state of the church following election 2016 is not that the church voted differently based on ethnicity. Indeed, if you are a black Christian who voted for Trump (and I know some who did), or if you are a white Christian who voted for Clinton (and I know some who did), you have no basis for pride, as if by going against your ethnic group you somehow fulfilled your responsibility of bearing your neighbor’s burden.
No, the bigger indictment of the church is the way in which we have castigated and even demonized one another across the political aisle, the way in which we have turned away from one another in anger and in bitterness, the way in which we have refused to do the hard work of understanding one another’s political concerns and so seeking to bear one another’s burdens.
Are you an evangelical Republican who cannot fathom why African American and Latino Christians fear a Trump administration? Then you have a lot of work to do. Are you an evangelical Democrat who cannot understand why poor and middle class white voters feel alienated in twenty-first century America without attributing that alienation to racism or bigotry? Then you have a lot of work to do.
Let me put it this way. If you cannot understand why your fellow Christian voted for the opposite candidate, if you cannot sympathize with his or her vote – even if you strongly disagree with it – you have not loved him or her in the way that Christ has loved you. Jesus was able to pray from the cross for those who tortured and murdered him, “Father, forgive they, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). There was sympathy in that statement. Jesus had the capacity to sympathize with his enemies, even in their demonic act of crucifying the Son of God, because he grasped that given what they knew and believed, they thought they were doing the right thing. And he loved them enough to forgive them for that, and even to take the burden of their sin on himself as he died for them on the cross.
Many Christians are feeling bitterness and anger today. Some are relieved that a person they saw as a grave evil and a threat to American democracy was not elected to the White House. They cannot fathom how so many of their brothers and sisters could have voted for someone who wants to expand abortion rights and fund abortion with federal taxpayer dollars. How can one claim to be a Christian and support such a woman?
Others are fearful that a person they view as a grave evil and a threat to American democracy was elected to the White House. They cannot fathom how so many of their brothers and sisters could have voted for someone who is explicitly racist and misogynist and seems manifestly unfit to govern. How can one claim to be a Christian and support such a man?
These divisions run deep. We cannot move on in the church as if none of this ever happened. Many Christians are wondering how they can remain united in love and Christian friendship with those whose political choices seem so patently offensive.
Let’s be clear about one thing. Big issues were at stake in this election. The disagreements that divide Christians are serious. They are not trivialities that we can lightly set aside. We cannot simply dismiss political concerns as if they have nothing to do with the life of the church.
And yet, Christians who voted for Trump did not do so by and large because they are racists and misogynists. Likewise Christians who voted for Clinton did not do so by and large because they support abortion. Christians who voted either way did so because they felt that only that candidate understood their deepest fears and anxieties. They did so because they were fearful that the other candidate did not have their deepest concerns at heart. Most Christians voted the way they did because they trusted that one candidate had their backs and the other candidate didn’t.
Few Christians took the time to understand how their own brothers and sisters could see things so differently. Few of us practiced the gospel sufficiently to take the time to listen and learn. Few of us were willing to set aside our own fears and anxieties so as to genuinely carry each other’s burdens.
As Jon Foreman wrote in the Huffington Post before the election:
Fear gives birth to fear. Hatred gives birth to hatred. Violence gives birth to violence. “Love is the final fight.” I sing these words every night. They were inspired by a hero of mine named Dr. John M Perkins, a man who refuses to respond to hatred with hatred. A man who understands that the fight for freedom is larger than just one story. It’s a small, fearful mind that refuses to hear any narrative other than their own.
But love ends that cycle. Love chooses to allow someone else into your story. Love listens to a stranger’s story, and allows that story to mix and dance with your own. Dr. Perkins chose to show love knowing he might receive nothing in return. It’s a dangerous, costly response to hatred and violence. But love alone can end that cycle of hatred, violence, and retaliation. Our stories are different, you and I. And we will disagree. But love chooses to listen. Chooses to care. Chooses to acknowledge that your story has the same weight and value as my own.
Can we do this as Christians? We didn’t do it leading into the election. Can we do it under the presidency of Donald Trump? Will Republican evangelicals who see their sisters and brothers – their political opponents – wounded and beaten on the other side of the road and cross over to take up their need as their own, in the spirit of the good Samaritan? Will they stand with them in solidarity, pleading their cause as if it were their own? Will Democratic evangelicals who feel beaten and betrayed accept such an effort at reconciliation and love in a spirit of gospel hope? Will they stand in solidarity with their evangelical opponents, pleading their cause as if it were their own? Do we have the humility to recognize that our own political judgments might not reflect the whole picture, that they might even be wrong?
Many see in times such as this only cause for discouragement and despair. Those whose hope is rooted in the gospel rather than in princes (Psalm 146) must instead see opportunity. Never has it been so clear how much we, as Christians – not to mention our neighbors – need the gospel. Never has it been so painfully evident how little we are practicing the gospel across ethnic, economic, and cultural boundaries.
But therein lies the opportunity. The opportunity to repent and recover the gospel with a degree of faithfulness and clarity we have not known up to this point. The opportunity to exemplify before a deeply divided country a determination not only to be reconciled in the gospel but to practice the gospel in our political engagement. The opportunity to demonstrate in our politics that we will only support policies that genuinely serve the needs and concerns of all of God’s children, white or black, rich or poor, male or female, Democrat or Republican.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
Christians – like the rest of the country – are deeply divided heading into tomorrow’s election. While African American and Latino Protestants feel an existential threat from Donald Trump and his supporters, many white evangelicals fear that if Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party win tomorrow the pro-life cause – not to mention the cause of religious liberty – will suffer irreparable damage. And of course, religious voters are motivated to vote for or against these candidates for many other reasons as well.
If Christians are so divided, is there any sense in which Christian political engagement can be Christian in Election 2016?
Last week I had the privilege of speaking on Christian political engagement in a multicultural context with Ekemeni Uwan at Calvin College. Ekemeni is a graduate of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia who speaks and writes regularly on matters ranging from racial injustice and police brutality to Christian cultural-political engagement.
Together we wrestled with the choices facing Christians in 2016. We focused particularly on why different Christians are approaching this election differently, and on how the political barriers that divide Christians might be overcome through the gospel.
You can listen to the audio here. Ekemeni speaks first. I begin at about the 21 minute mark. Q&A begins after that.
Needless to say, I have received many critical responses to my blog post of October 10, in which I warned that evangelicals should not publicly support Donald Trump due to his consistent track record of misogyny, racism, divisiveness, and demagoguery. Although I received much more support than criticism, I believe the critics deserve a response. Many of them are genuinely distressed. They are being bombarded with the argument – implicit or explicit, rational or emotionally manipulative – that as Christians they must vote for Trump.
To be sure, I was very careful not to say that a person should not vote for Trump, and most readers understood that. A vote for a presidential candidate is highly complex. There are so many issues at stake, so many factors that should inform a thoughtful Christian’s decision, that we can be sure intelligent Christians will disagree here. Each will follow his or her own conscience. And we need to be careful not to judge one another. I have thoughtful Christian friends who are voting for Trump, others who are voting for Clinton, and others who will vote for someone else entirely.
At the same time, many of my critics seem to think that to criticize evangelicals for publicly supporting Donald Trump requires me to criticize Hillary Clinton too – as if the mark of a good moral theologian is to spread moral criticism in as balanced and politically fair a way as possible. Why do they assume this? Is it because they think evangelicals who don’t support Trump must be enamored with Clinton and the Democratic party? I for myself, am well aware of the Democratic party’s flaws and of the flaws of its nominee as well. Yet somehow I’m not worried that most evangelicals have too rosy a view of Clinton. I certainly don’t think they need a warning from me on that count.
The real reason, I think, that many of these critics want to see me criticize Clinton at least as much as Trump is that they actually think there is only one faithful way a Christian can think about this election. There is one primary issue at stake – who will receive the power to make appointments to the Supreme Court, with their consequent significance for matters such as abortion and religious liberty. Beyond this simple calculation of power, in this view, every other issue pales in significance. Since only two candidates have a realistic chance at attaining power, then all votes for other candidates are wasted. We must choose between the lesser of two evils.
Note how much the power calculus drives Franklin Graham’s Facebook argument in defense of Trump (Graham’s post has received nearly 200,000 Facebook shares):
A lot of people are slamming evangelicals for supposedly giving Donald J. Trump a pass. That’s simply not true. No one is giving him a pass. I’m certainly not, and I’ve not met an evangelical yet who condones his language or inexcusable behavior from over a decade ago. However, he has apologized to his wife, his family, and to the American people for this. He has taken full responsibility. This election isn’t about Donald Trump’s behavior from 11 years ago or Hillary Clinton’s recent missing emails, lies, and false statements. This election is about the Supreme Court and the justices that the next president will nominate. Evangelicals are going to have to decide which candidate they trust to nominate men and women to the court who will defend the constitution and support religious freedoms. My prayer is that Christians will not be deceived by the liberal media about what is at stake for future generations.
Note how Graham’s argument goes. First of all, he naively treats Trump’s boasting about sexual assault as a merely moral problem, as if it did not reflect the character and track record he will take with him into the executive office (and as if it will not really affect women in this country). In Graham’s view, Trump said bad things and Trump should apologize for the bad things he said. Once he has done that, we should all forgive and forget.
Second, to Graham neither Trump’s behavior, nor, for that matter, Clinton’s track record of behavior, are relevant issues in the current presidential election. This election is about one thing: power. What is at stake? Power. Who do we trust to use the presidential power to choose judges in a way that serves our objectives? Who do we trust will use power to preserve our religious liberty? To keep us safe so that we don’t have to suffer? Nothing else matters.
Is this sentiment anything other than a lust for power? Is this Christian political engagement?
In fact, it’s an astonishingly thin and naive argument coming from such a prominent evangelical leader. It reveals how little he has learned from his father Billy Graham, who was so manipulated and embarrassed by Richard Nixon. And it reveals just how enslaved many evangelicals remain to the ideology of the Religious Right.
According to Graham’s logic, it does not matter how toxic and divisive is Trump’s effect on America’s political and moral culture. It does not matter that his demagoguery is wrecking the Republican party before our very eyes (because of Trump the Democrats may win both houses of Congress in addition to the White House). It does not matter that vocal support for Trump has so blackened the image of right-wing white evangelicalism that it has shattered its potential effectiveness for Christlike gospel witness. It does not matter that Trump’s rhetoric is tearing the moral, social, and political fabric of our country to shreds. As deplorable as all of this is (and I take Graham and other evangelicals at their word that they think this is deplorable), when a simple calculation of power is at stake, we must make that grab for power. So the logic runs.
It is this sort of logic that requires people like me to warn evangelicals about Trump in a way that we don’t have to warn them about Clinton. We are not in danger of exchanging our gospel witness for lust for power when it comes to Clinton. But we are in grave danger of doing just that when it comes to Trump. Christianity Today recently put it quite well:
[T]here is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.
Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.
Again, the point here is not that you should not vote for Trump. I am not so much concerned with who Christians are voting for as I am with how they are arguing – and thinking – about this election.
As Christians we are called to witness to the lordship of Christ in everything that we do. And as Paul makes quite clear in Philippians 2, that does not mean seizing power and lording it over our neighbors, whatever the cost; it means humbling ourselves, taking up the form of a servant, and seeking justice and peace in accord with love. It doesn’t mean doing whatever it takes politically to make sure that we won’t suffer in the future. It means suffering at the hands of power as the very way in which Christ has called us to serve.
What does this mean in terms of voting? For one, it means that we need to be wary of all “lesser of two evils” calculation. The logic of the lesser of two evils argument assumes that power is our primary objective. Yet for Christians, faithful witness to Christ’s lordship is the ultimate concern. Sometimes fidelity to Christ means that we choose the path of less power, the path of greater suffering, because that is the path that love for our neighbors demands, and because that is the path that Christ himself took. You can indeed vote in good conscience for a candidate who has no realistic chance of winning. Perhaps that precisely what Christlike citizenship demands.
Second, lets at least be honest with ourselves. If you vote for Trump you are voting for Trump. If you vote for Clinton you are voting for Clinton. You are supporting that candidate, with all that he or she stands for, in light of who that candidate’s track record shows him or her to be, for the office of president. You may not personally like it, but that’s what a vote means. That’s how it is legally registered. Enough with all of the rationalization that says – I’m not voting for Clinton, I’m just voting against Trump, or vice versa. If you can’t look your neighbor in the eye as a Christian and defend your positive vote as an act of love, then you probably can’t defend your conscience before God either.
Finally, pace Graham (has he learned nothing from the last forty years?), political power is not the primary thing at stake for Christians in this election. At stake is the simple question of whether or not we will love and serve our neighbors faithfully, as befits those who claim to be followers of Christ.
But even so. Even if power was the primary concern, there are many thoughtful Christians – especially Latinos, African Americans, and women, but many white evangelical men like me too – who somehow doubt that identifying ourselves with Donald Trump and dogmatically, even stubbornly, supporting him for the highest office in the land (and the world) genuinely advances any of the causes we really care about (life, human dignity, the rule of law, prosperity, religious liberty), let alone the kingdom of God. And to paraphrase Paul, I think that we too have the Spirit of God.
Last night’s presidential debate opened with the Republican candidate for president apologizing for boasting about sexual assault, while in the same breath claiming that it was just words, mere “locker room talk.” “I’m very embarrassed by it,” he admitted, “but it’s locker room talk.”
That’s all. Nothing to worry about. This is just how men talk when they are together having fun. People just say these things.
That’s what Trump would have us believe.
I have heard much “locker room talk” over the years and I have never, ever, heard someone even come close to bragging about sexual assault without being called out on it by any man with any self-respect whatsoever.
I am well aware that many men say these sorts of things. Many men commit sexual assault too. Indeed, one out of every five women in America has been the victim of rape or attempted rape, and half – half – of women have experienced sexual assault.
And I wonder if you can find anyone who knows anything at all about Donald Trump who actually believes his claim that he has never sexually assaulted a woman. These are not random comments from a distant past.
Hillary Clinton put it quite well in last night’s debate:
Donald Trump is different. I said starting back in June that he was not fit to be president and commander-in-chief. And many Republicans and independents have said the same thing. What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women. And he has said that the video doesn’t represent who he is.
But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is. Because we’ve seen this throughout the campaign. We have seen him insult women. We’ve seen him rate women on their appearance, ranking them from one to ten. We’ve seen him embarrass women on TV and on Twitter. We saw him after the first debate spend nearly a week denigrating a former Miss Universe in the harshest, most personal terms.
So, yes, this is who Donald Trump is. But it’s not only women, and it’s not only this video that raises questions about his fitness to be our president, because he has also targeted immigrants, African- Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, POWs, Muslims, and so many others.
So this is who Donald Trump is. And the question for us, the question our country must answer is that this is not who we are.
I get it. Politics is complicated. There are many people who loath just about everything about Donald Trump – who feel sick to their stomach by the sorts of things he has said and done – who will nevertheless vote for him because they fear Hillary Clinton even more. I suspect more Americans than not will hold their noses when they enter the voting booth this November. And many will vote for a third candidate, or not vote at all.
I am not a political scientist or a political activist. I am a moral theologian. And so I’m not going to tell anyone how to vote. But I will say this. Trump’s record of speech and action with respect to women is no sideshow to who he really is and who he will really be as the president of the United States. His track record is one of consistent misogyny. Voting for Trump is supporting a man who has publicly objectified women while boasting that he has long been able to assault them sexually – forcing himself on them, groping their genitals, and manipulating them for sex – with impunity.
Where does women’s dignity as human beings made in the image of God rank on your hierarchy of moral and political concerns? What about sexual assault?
Many of Donald Trump’s supporters claim that Christians should support him in order to protect religious liberty. But it was Hillary Clinton who was defending religious liberty in last night’s debate. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how associating the cause of religious liberty with the darkness that is Donald Trump will do anything but damage the cause.
The same could be said for the pro-life movement. Perhaps Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said it best:
The life issue can not flourish in a culture of misogyny and sexual degradation. The life issue can not flourish when you have people calling for the torture and murder of innocent non-combatants. The life issue can not flourish when you have people who have given up on the idea that character matters. If you lose an election you can live to fight another day and move on, but if you lose an election while giving up your very soul then you have really lost it all, and so I think the stakes are really high.
And I think the issue, particularly, when you have people who have said, and we have said, and I have said for twenty years the life issue matters, and the life issue is important… When you have someone who is standing up race baiting, racist speech, using immigrants and others in our communities in the most horrific ways and we say ‘that doesn’t matter’ and we are part of the global body of Christ simply for the sake of American politics, and we expect that we are going to be able to reach the nations for Christ? I don’t think so, and so I think we need to let our yes be yes and our no be no and our never be never.
Abortion is a horrific, deeply rooted moral problem. Terrorism and violence seem to claim more lives every day. But every two minutes in this country another woman – or a child – is sexually assaulted. These are our wives. These are our children. These are our neighbors. What else do we have to say? Who else are we going to throw under the bus while claiming that all of this somehow helps us save the lives of the unborn? And can we really say with a straight face that hitching our wagon to Donald Trump is good for the cause and credibility of religious liberty?
Even aside from the principle of it, common sense itself dictates this conclusion: If evangelicals publicly support Donald Trump, the chief result will not be the advance of the sanctity of life or of religious liberty, let alone of family values. The result will be the collapse of any evangelical credibility on moral issues whatsoever.
If you aren’t doing it already, you need to be paying attention to what Mika Edmondson is saying during this election season. The pastor of New City Fellowship, an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation in Grand Rapids, and a graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary, Edmondson is bringing a fresh, desperately needed voice into Reformed public discourse. He grew up in the black church and wrote his doctoral dissertation (and forthcoming book) on Martin Luther King’s theology of suffering. He brings together Reformed theology and the theology of a suffering, striving minority church in ways that few people are able to do.
Thoughtful Reformed people, indeed, thoughtful Christians, cannot afford to ignore Mika’s voice.
Here is an excellent talk on biblical principles for Christian political engagement given at the Jesus and Politics conference Edmondson hosted at his church:
Mika also recently delivered an excellent speech on Martin Luther King’s concept of the beloved community while serving on a panel on race at Calvin College. I’m still looking for online audio or video for that, but if you can find it, it is well worth your time.
Also, here is a helpful article Mika wrote for the Gospel Coalition comparing Black Lives Matter to the civil rights movement: Is Black Lives Matter the New Civil Rights Movement?
During the late medieval period there was a significant shift in the nature of Christian moral teaching. Since the time of the apostles moral instruction had centered on the Sermon on the Mount and the writings of the apostles, but in the later part of the middle ages the emphasis shifted to the law, especially the Ten Commandments. I’ve written on the causes of that shift here and here.
The result was that both Catholic and Protestant ethics came to characterize the Christian life as being fundamentally about duty and obligation. Classic Christian teaching on happiness and virtue was left undeveloped, if not ignored entirely. Even the concept of charity, or love, in principle understood to be the essence of Christian morality, was in practice often reduced to a theoretical abstraction whose true content simply consisted in the commandments of the law. And Immanuel Kant’s hugely influential ethics raised the significance of commandment – of the categorical imperative – to a whole new level, while secularizing it at the same time.
Eventually, and inevitably, this led to a reaction. Utilitarianism – with its emphasis on consequences, happiness, and the ends justifying the means – came to dominate western ethics. And Christian ethicists – including both Catholics and liberal Protestants – called for a return to the ethics of love.
In his book The Sources of Christian Ethics Servais Pinckaers describes the way this worked out in Catholic moral theology.
On the one hand, traditional ethicists find it hard to set aside their instinctive mistrust of love and passion … Today an opposite reaction can be observed among ethicists and Christians. There is a strong attraction for love and spontaneity, without due regard for the demands of integrity and truth. For some, love has become the ‘Open, Sesame,’ the cure for all problems. They misapply St. Augustine’s magnificent expression, ‘Love, and do what you will,’ as if warmth of emotion liberates a person from all commandments and restraints. For St. Augustine, however, the greater the love the greater the adherence to commandments, for they are the expression of God’s love. Without the rectitude ensured by the commandments, love will not be true, will not survive.
We are faced, therefore, with a kind of sickness induced by the morality of obligation. The symptom is allergy to all obligation or authority in the name of the primacy of a naive and confused love.
So we have gone from one extreme to the other:
A moral theory of obligation depicts God as an all-powerful legislator issuing his law in the midst of thunder and lightning… The contemporary reaction to such a picture has the advantage of highlighting the goodness of God. Yet there is a risk of devaluation. In removing from God all power of judgment and punishment, and in focusing exclusively on his universal pardon, we are left with a soft and spineless God. Here we encounter one of the major problems of Christian ethics today: how to reconcile God’s love and justice.
The answer, of course, is in the gospel of Christ, and it is only being Christ-centered that Christian ethics can really be truly Christian. This is what far too many traditionalists who imagine that the need of the hour is a return to the law of God fail to understand.
On the other hand, what characterizes modernity’s (and much of contemporary Christianity’s) “naive and confused love” is a failure to grasp “one of the conditions for authentic love”: renunciation and sacrifice. In the gospel, Pinckaers reminds us, “radical self-renunciation is a necessary condition for love of Christ.” And it is that sort of love, a love shaped by cross-bearing discipleship in conformity to the image of Christ, that is so desperately needed today.
If you would be my disciple, Jesus tells us, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me (Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23; Mark 8:34). It’s a hard truth, but that is what Christian ethics must be all about.