The older I get, the more I appreciate the law of unintended consequences. It posits that every time you act, there will be a result that you anticipated and a result that you didn’t anticipate. The members of the human race tend to focus so hard on what they want to accomplish that they don’t see what they will accomplish without intending to.
I think this principle has been at work in the non-institutional churches of Christ ever since the brotherhood controversies of the 1950s and ‘60s. In that time, many preachers argued—correctly, I think—that churches are not authorized to provide for the needs of the world’s poor. As the saying goes, general benevolence is to be a work of individuals, not a work of the church.
In many churches, this preaching and teaching accomplished its end. Even now, I am part of a congregation that does not go beyond what has been written in the way it spends the Lord’s money. However, I believe it also accomplished something its adherents did not intend—a neglect of the individual Christian’s responsibility to care for the poor.
When I was growing up, I heard countless sermons on “the issues”. These sermons relied on texts ranging from the familiar (“Let not the church be burdened!” in 1 Timothy 5:16) to the obscure (“Hock their horses!” in Joshua 11:6). I learned that James 1:27 does not authorize the church to act, but I heard much less about what it meant for my actions. When it came to the poor, “If a man does not work, neither should he eat,” received much more play. I wonder if, even as brethren were careful to separate the work of the church from the work of the individual, they conflated the work of the individual and political activism.
As I have written before https://hisexcellentword.blogspot.com/2020/02/voting-and-christian.html , it is difficult to know how to apply the law of Christ in the voting booth. It is simple to know how Christians should care for the poor and vulnerable. James 1:27 is a good start. So is Luke 12:33. So is everything that the Bible says about mercy.
Honestly, this is a struggle for me, as I think it is for many Christians. I don’t want to get played by a con artist. I struggle with the extent to which many poor people are responsible for their own problems, and therefore may not deserve help (Note: if you are giving something to someone who deserves it, that is justice, not mercy). By God’s grace, though, I think I’m making progress.
I assemble with many Christians who are better at this than I am, but I think we all have room to grow here. We have to be more concerned with showing compassion and less concerned about looking foolish. We must learn to see more clearly the value that Christ places on everyone.
This has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with His call to discipleship. No, general benevolence is not a work of the church, but it has to be our work as individuals—filling the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of everyone we encounter. There are lots of ways for us to do this, but every one of us needs to be doing something. When God has been so merciful to us, we must show mercy to others.
The other day, I got a text from my brother. It read in part, “If you want a mental exercise, compare and contrast Christianity, Stoicism, and the “Dokkōdō”. See any commonalities?” I’ve read my Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, so I have a handle on Stoicism, but I’d never heard of the “Dokkōdō”. Turns out it’s a set of 21 life precepts written down by the Japanese master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi shortly before he died. It’s basically Buddhist in outlook.
There certainly are similarities between Stoicism and the “Dokkōdō”. Both are suspicious of earthly pleasure, indeed of earthly attachment of any sort, and warn that it leads people astray. Marcus Aurelius counseled that when you put your children to bed at night, you should tell yourself that they will be dead by morning. Similarly, the fifth precept of the “Dokkōdō” reads, “Be detached from desire your whole life long.” Both are essentially ascetic philosophies.
However, despite many ascetic outgrowths of Christianity through the centuries, Biblical Christianity itself is not ascetic. Instead, its perspective on both fear and desire is much more nuanced. This begins with Christianity’s understanding of the physical universe as the good creation of a good God. Though creation has been broken and marred by sin, it has not become fundamentally evil.
To the Christian, physical enjoyment is basically good as well. Every good thing given comes from God. He satisfies our hearts with food and gladness. He has provided these things so that they can be gratefully shared in by those who know and believe the truth.
Similarly, the Bible celebrates the joys of human love and relationships. Your family, friends, and brethren are supposed to matter to you. If they don’t, that’s not wisdom. It’s a spiritual problem.
This is true even of the supposed bugbear of Christianity, sexual pleasure. An entire book of the Bible, Song of Solomon, is a frankly erotic celebration of married sexuality. Sex is a good gift too!
Problems arise when these pleasures, basically good as they are, begin to lead us away from God. Sin is never an invention but rather a corruption and a distortion. Sex is a blessing in marriage, but outside of marriage it becomes an expression of selfishness that harms all involved. It’s good to enjoy the fruits of our labors, but when we forget God and are unwilling to help others, those gifts have become a trap.
More fundamentally, any blessing becomes a trap when we set it up as our god. This distinction is most apparent in Ecclesiastes. The Preacher spends the last ten chapters of the book encouraging his readers to enjoy themselves: let your clothes be white, don’t let oil be lacking on your head, and so forth. However, in the first two chapters, he describes all earthly pursuits as the height of vanity.
The problem is not pleasure. It’s trying to make your life about pleasure. In the end, such efforts will prove to be empty.
Interestingly, the Bible says the same thing about human wisdom. It too has its place (the Preacher notes that all proverbs are given by one Shepherd), but it doesn’t provide the answers to existence either. Death proves human wisdom to be vain (Is dead Musashi any better off than a dead medieval peasant?), and such wisdom also is likely to dismiss the spiritual wisdom of the gospel as foolishness. Biblically speaking, asceticism is no better than pleasure-seeking because it too is focused on the wrong things.
Rather than focusing on severe treatment of the body, Christianity focuses on Christ. He is the lens through which we see everything else. With His help, we can savor what is good and shun what is not. However, our hope is not in the savoring or the shunning but in His promise and His mercy. We look for new heavens and a new earth, set free from this present corruption, and we anticipate the resurrection of our bodies into conformity with the body of His glory. Once all these have been purified from sin and its consequences, only what is holy will remain.
Last Monday, I posted a bulletin article in which I argued that we should understand the “elder texts” in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 as elder portraits rather than elder checklists. Not surprisingly, I collected some pushback. Primarily, it came from those who were concerned that I had converted requirements into recommendations and muddied the clear truth of the text.
I will acknowledge that applying the elder portrait to a man requires a great deal of judgment from the congregation. Unless he flatly does not possess a character attribute (the lifelong bachelor cannot be said to be a one-woman man), analyzing his spiritual strengths and weaknesses is not a black-and-white matter. Instead, we ought to consider all of them in order to determine whether he rises to the overall standard of blamelessness.
Philosophically, I’m OK with that. God calls us to develop and exercise wisdom and good judgment, and brethren frequently are too quick to convert the judgment calls in Scripture (modesty is one example of such, but there are others) into bright-line rules. We too often prefer clarity to uncertainty, even when clarity is the result of us seating ourselves in the chair of Moses.
Additionally, I believe that whatever brethren may teach, in practice they make all kinds of judgment calls when appointing elders anyway. Even if we read these passages as binary checklists, where’s the breakpoint between Y and N? Is a man who lost his temper on Facebook five years ago still self-controlled? Does a man who has strangers in his home twice a year qualify as hospitable? And so forth.
This is true even of the “math qualifications”. Take “husband of one wife”, for instance. In theory, this seems simple and straightforward. In practice, it proves to be anything but. It can mean A) married, B) married, and not a polygamist, C) married only once, or D) known to be faithful to his wife.
I believe D) is correct because it’s the only interpretation that speaks to a man’s blamelessness. However, short of adopting the elder-portrait position, I’m not aware of any way to distinguish among the four. There are no relevant Scriptures, and the extrabiblical evidence is a morass. There’s even a case to be made for C); the Romans believed it was virtuous to have only one spouse throughout life.
In short, we are forced back on intuition in interpreting “husband of one wife”, and if our intuitions are not influenced by our convictions about a man’s overall character, we’re probably not human. Of course, this is to say nothing of “faithful children”. Entire forests have been slaughtered in vain efforts to prove what that means!
What we are left with, then, is not a contrast between confusion on one side and clarity on the other. Instead, it is between one judgment call about blamelessness and a whole bunch of judgment calls about every item on the two lists, any one of which can mean the difference between qualified and not. We have a great deal of inspired guidance in determining whether a man is blameless; we have very little in determining what “faithful children” means. 2/2? 2/3? 1/2? 1/1? Not necessarily Christians, but personally devoted to Dad? We can claim any of these answers for our own, but once we start insisting that it is the only right answer, we run into that chair-of-Moses problem again.
Rather than heading down such a fraught path, we should frankly admit what we’re doing. We’re deciding whether it would be a good idea to make a man a leader over the local congregation. What do we know about this guy’s character? What do we see in his family? Does he have flaws that will crack wide open under the stresses of eldership?
The elder portraits are meant to guide and shape our inquiry, but they do not make the decision for us, and we should not pretend that they do. We would be fools to ignore the Holy Spirit, but neither does the Spirit deprive us of the opportunity to be wise. Is a man blameless? Once we answer that question rightly, we have what we need.
There is nothing in the Bible about masks or vaccines. However, the Bible does discuss submission to the government and liberty of conscience, and both of these principles lead to some straightforward mask-and-vaccine applications. If the government tells us to do something, we do it (unless it asks us to disobey God’s commandment). Similarly, we respect others’ judgments about masks and vaccines, especially when we don’t agree with those judgments.
By contrast, the interaction between conscience and government is harder to sort out. What if I am conscientiously opposed to masks/vaccines, but the government requires me to mask and/or vaccinate? Does submission to the government come first, or does my conscience?
Many brethren have adopted the latter position. They point to Scriptures such as Romans 14:23, which reads in part, “Everything that is not from faith is sin.” Because they feel like masking/vaccinating would be sinful for them, they must not do either, even if the government requires it.
I presume that these Christians are reasoning in good faith, but they don’t take into account the context of Romans 14:23. Romans 14 isn’t a passage about how to handle God’s law; it’s a passage about the role of the individual conscience in areas where God has given us liberty.
We are at liberty to eat meat. However, if we think it’s wrong to eat meat but eat meat anyway, we sin against our conscience. In areas of liberty, what is not from faith is sin. When we move outside the realm of liberty, though, we also move outside the realm of Romans 14 and apply Romans 14:23 where Paul does not.
This is a fraught step. Once we start using our conscientious conviction to override one of God’s laws (His commandment to submit to the government), we open the door to others overriding God’s other laws because of their conscientious convictions.
Consider, for instance, the feminist who believes in absolute equality between the sexes and thinks it would be morally wrong for her to submit to her husband when she strongly disagrees with him. Such women certainly exist. We come to her with Ephesians 5:22, but she replies, “I can’t submit to my husband because my conscience won’t allow it.”
If we refuse to submit to the government because of our conscience, how can we tell her that she must submit to her husband despite her conscience?
Through this open door, anything can and will come. There are people who feel morally bound to set the words of an earthly religious leader as equal to the word of God. There are others who are utterly convinced that it is right for them to marry and have relations with someone of the same sex. All of these people will argue against keeping divine commandments because of conscience.
If we disobey divine commandments because of our conscience, what do we have to say to any of them?
Defying the government because of our conscientious convictions sounds very noble, but it really amounts to defying the law of God. It is nothing more than the old rule of Judges 21:25 beneath a veneer of American individualism. Once we start doing what is right in our own eyes, we must grant others the license to do what is right in their eyes too.
I originally wrote the following as a comment on a Facebook post by Tony Mauck. Having written it, I decided to give it wider distribution. I believe it correctly restates the Biblical principles that should govern our speech and behavior when it comes to masks, vaccines, and discussion of the same.
- In areas where we are given liberty by man and God, we must respect the liberty of others. We must not judge or show contempt toward those who use their liberty differently. (Romans 1:1-3)
- When we talk about these things, we must speak graciously and in a way that edifies everyone. Speaking in a contentious, self-righteous, angry way is ungodly. (2 Timothy 2:23-25)
- Elders must not lord it over the flock but rather lead by force of example. (1 Peter 5:3)
- Christians under elders must obey, submit to, and follow them, so that their conduct gives the elders joy rather than grief. "Am I making the elders' work harder or more unpleasant?" is a very important question for all of us to ask. (Hebrews 13:17)
- Christians must obey the government, saving only the times when it commands us to do something that directly contradicts the law of God. (Romans 13:1-3)
- We must not confuse our personal convictions, whether based on conscience, our understanding of the Constitution, or anything else, with the divine commandment. If we do, we likely will fall into serious error. (Acts 26:9-10)