The Death of Evangelical Ethics

EDIT: It was brought to my attention by one of the commenters that the tone of this post was unduly flippant, harsh, and caricaturing.  In short, I violated my anti-pontification blogging rule.  I stand by all the concerns articulated here, but they should have been voiced in more measured and moderate tones.  Given that lots of people have already seen the post, I won’t attempt to re-write it accordingly, but read it with this apology in mind.

A strange anomaly afflicts our conservative Reformed institutions of higher education.  No other institutions can be relied on to insist, at every possible opportunity, on the importance of our theology for all of life.  As the leader of one such institution often puts it, “Theology should come out of our fingertips”; another common slogan is “Faith for all of life.”  At such institutions, you will hear, nonstop, the need for Christians to “engage and transform culture,” to bring every square inch of creation under the lordship of Christ, etc., a legacy of the neo-Calvinist triumph of the last century.  The great bogeyman in such circles is “Gnosticism,” which refers to any account of the Christian life that is overly intellectualist, insufficiently “incarnational,” which is more about having the right ideas in your head than concrete Christian living.  Given all of this, you would expect such institutions to be zealous for the recovery of the lost tradition of Christian ethics, eager at every opportunity to flesh out a theological account of the moral life, as it relates to business, to politics, to family, to creation, etc.  Surely, such institutions above all would be interested in answering the question posed by Francis Schaeffer, a giant in these circles, “How shall we then live?”

Apparently not.  A consultation of the course catalogs of four leading Reformed-worldview colleges yielded very slim pickings indeed when it came to ethical subjects.  At one school, only 2 courses out of 37 in the Bible and Theology department dealt with ethics, although in fairness, some courses in the philosophy department did as well.  At another school, it was 1 of 34 (plus, again, a few philosophical ethics courses).  At a third, it was 1 of 31, with 2 other courses incorporating substantial ethics content.  At the bottom of this ranking, one school dedicated only one half of one course, out of a total of 24 Bible and theology courses, to the Christian moral life, and didn’t supplement this with any business ethics, political ethics, or philosophical ethics courses.  Of course, this is a rather rough method for determining the actual teaching at those schools, since ethical issues could be woven into other courses, even when they’re not the subject of a separate course.  However, a little leaven of ethical reasoning in a business course is no substitute for systematic and historical reflection on the Christian ethical tradition.  The dismal picture that emerges from this survey confirms, in any case, what I have found autobiographically, impressionistically and anecdotally.  And while my indictment here is focused particularly on Reformed institutions, the same could probably be said of most of American evangelicalism—we simply don’t know the first thing about the history of Christian ethics or about how to go about the task of moral reasoning.  And it shows when we look at the level of much evangelical discourse in contemporary ethical and political debates. Read More

Excommunication and Homosexuality

Nearly a year ago, in a post called “The Excommunication Dilemma,” I explored the question of how churches ought to respond to the problem of homosexuality today.  While allowing that homosexuality was a serious sin that by New Testament standards called for church discipline, I argued that it was inappropriate for conservative denominations to de facto “excommunicate” more liberal denominations for their failure to enact such discipline.  Furthermore, I suggested that in groups like the Anglican Communion, church discipline on a macro scale–say, cutting off the whole of TEC–was a much more complicated matter than simple congregational church discipline, and there were no clear and clean-cut models for how such macro-discipline should be carried out.  However, at that time I still maintained that of course individual churches ought to take a hard disciplinary line on unrepentant homosexual congregants.  But after a conversation with a good friend last week, I’m not quite so sure anymore.

Before you freak out, I am not questioning whether excommunication is a legitimate action to take with regard to homosexuality–in principle, it seems clear that it is (as it is also with a host of other sins, I should add).  I am wondering now whether it is the most appropriate action to take, from a pastoral perspective.  There is a great deal in the New Testament advising great caution in exercising judgment if those exercising the judgment are not themselves above reproach. We think immediately of Mt. 7:1-5:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Or Rom. 2:1-3:

Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?

Or of course the famous and hotly-debated passage from John 8: “Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.”


Now of course each of these contains the element, to greater or lesser extent, of concern that the judges not be guilty of the same sin as the guilty.  This seems emphasized in Rom. 2:1-3, is probably broadly present in Mt. 7:1-5, and is, some would argue, the point of Jesus’s dismissal of judgment in John 8 (I will leave aside for now the question of whether that is the only point).  On this basis many would be quick to retort that so long as church leaders are not themselves practicing homosexuals, there is no bar to them pronouncing judgment against those who are.  But this seems to me an altogether too narrow reading of the point of such passages, the sort of legalistic nicety Pharisees would love.  

Taking a somewhat broader lens, is it fair to say that the evangelical churches are, on the whole, knee-deep in hypocrisy when it comes to sexual ethics?  I don’t want to be guilty myself of pronouncing overly sweeping judgments, but from all I hear, they are.  Churches that take a very hard line on any hint of homosexuality are happy to sweep it under the rug when the guy in the next pew is having an affair with his secretary, or when half the men in the church are hooked on porn; divorce is rampant in many evangelical churches, a problem that many are just beginning to address (see, for instance, this encouraging start from the SBC).  Do we have the standing to just start excommunicating (or worse, turning away at the church door) homosexuals?  Of course, many might respond that their own churches are not guilty of this hypocrisy, but I don’t know if it’s that simple…the evangelical conservative churches, like it or not, share a common public identity, they are perceived as a common body of sorts by the watching world, and those individual churches that have their own houses in order can’t pretend to be unsullied by any of the messes of their brothers and sisters.  

And then of course there are the deep problems in the witness the Church is presenting about homosexuality itself.  In many evangelical churches, the atmosphere that prevails is not one of a calm and steady opposition to the sin of homosexuality accompanied by a warm welcome to homosexually-inclined people, a sympathetic recognition of their struggles, and an attempt to patiently guide them.  Rather, the dominant atmosphere is often quite rightly described as homophobia, in which homosexuals are scorned, derided, feared, held at arm’s length, and in which the idea of a “homosexual Christian” is considered an oxymoron.  Because of this, we are incapable of presenting a clear and Biblical witness to the watching world, and to liberal Christians, against homosexuality.  Because so many of us have so often spoken in terms of ungodly homophobia, rather than a compassionate call to put away sin, any action that conservative churches take against homosexuality, even if itself legitimate and rightly-handled, cannot but be perceived as homophobia.  It will take a long time and a mature response for evangelicals to be able to offer an effective witness by their church discipline in this area.  (By the way, my point here about patience and sympathy should clarify that when I call on our churches to “get their house in order” I am not meaning we should start chucking people out left and right–we should be firm with the various sins in our midst, but loving at the same time.)

A third set of issues, which I will not elaborate on here, though I have mentioned it before, is the disconnect between evangelicals’ hard-line stance on certain sexual sins and their complete laxity regarding economic sins.  This too greatly compromises our witness and renders our motives suspect; however, one could easily respond that the sins are sufficiently different that our guilt in the one area is no bar to discipline in the other.

Given the first set of problems, it seems questionable whether evangelical churches even have standing to discipline homosexuals.  Perhaps some don’t, until they get their own houses in order.  For the rest, especially given the second and third set of problems, it certainly seems questionable whether, even if they have standing to enact discipline, such discipline is prudent and likely to accomplish its purpose.  It seems more likely simply to confirm false ideas of the Church that many have formed in recent years and, most seriously, to alienate the homosexuals under discipline, who will have good reason to conclude that they they are being pushed away simply out of fear and bigotry, rather than godliness, and will thus fail to repent.  Could it then be possible that, as a matter of pastoral wisdom and effective witness, evangelical churches should take a much softer line against homosexuality until they can remove the various logs from their own eyes?

I am far from convinced that the answer is yes, particularly in light of the example of 1 Corinthians.  Here is a church that was knee-deep in all sorts of problems, yet that did not keep Paul from urging them to take a hard disciplinary line against the member who was involved in incest.  Many of the factors in that situation were different, of course, so it is hard to use it as an open-and-shut counterexample; however, it does seem to suggest that we are not required to wait until our house is in order before we can take formal disciplinary action.  I am thus not persuaded either way, but I do think this is an important question to think about, at the very least so we can read the concerns of “liberals” more sympathetically, and I’m interested in what sort of input others offer.


Which King’s College?

I can always rely on Davey Henreckson at Theopolitical to post some great links, a blogosphere digest of sorts, and his recent post was no disappointment.  They were all interesting, but two in particular caught my eye.  On one, a little essay called “Love and Justice in Politics,” I have no comment, save to say: read it–it’s excellent and fascinating.  

Another, discussing the lates brouhaha over The King’s College’s, caught my interest even more.  The King’s College, an avowedly evangelical institution, turned heads and invited wide criticism among evangelicals for its recent appointment of Roman Catholic Dinesh D’Souza as their new President.  Of course, not being a Catholic hater myself, the idea of an evangelical college appointing a Catholic president doesn’t trouble me that much, and shouldn’t trouble most people given that D’Souza isn’t a very Catholic Catholic–heck, according to the article in Christianity Today, he attends a non-denominational church.  So, when Carl Trueman gets on his high horse about it, I would normally do little more than yawn.  However, Trueman made some very trenchant remarks that echoed my own initial reaction.  

According to Christianity Today,

“Trueman questioned whether D’Souza’s appointment meant that his commitment to conservative economic and social policies is the really important worldview at King’s, while disagreements over papal authority and justification are ‘mere sideshows.’ ‘If so, we can see this appointment as a certain strand of evangelicalism definitively coming clean: it is not the theological issues listed above that are considered critical; it is rather the conservative political and social vision of thinkers such as Marvin Olasky.'”

(Olasky, of course, is the provost at The King’s College.)

Trueman, I think, has hit the nail on the head.  D’Souza, of course, is one of the most outspoken representatives of the kind of right wing American Christianity that spends much more of its time (or at least, more of its radio airtime) bowing down to the gods of American liberty and capitalism than it does to the God of the Bible, and Olasky is another.  Their fundamental faith in right-wing politics and economics is a powerful enough glue to overcome any theological barriers.  This appointment will likely be taken by dissidents at TKC as a strong and demoralizing sign that the College leadership wants to continue to steer the college toward a right-wing political and economic agenda, a trajectory they made very clear last spring in their vehement opposition to visiting speaker Stanley Hauerwas.  For more about that brouhaha, see here.