« April 2007 | Main | June 2007 »

May 2007 Archives

May 3, 2007

Are Some Virtues More Important ?

The thorniest moral decisions we make are those that involve a conflict between two moral principles. In the novel Les Misérables, Jean Valjean becomes a criminal when he steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Which is the dominant principle, respect for another's property or duty to provide for one's own family? Perhaps a more typical instance is when someone asks you to divulge a secret in such a way that to refuse to answer would be to give the secret away. Which is the dominant principle, consistent truthfulness or showing loyalty to a friend by lying to keep a secret confidential?

Christians often sense a conflict between justice and compassion. For example, a Christian professor is working with a college student who has a learning disability. Despite being given double the time for completing tests and assignments that other students receive, the student still cannot meet the learning objectives of the course. The student has passed all the other courses required for graduation; only this one is lacking. Should the teacher show Christian compassion and pass the student (even though the teacher intends to fail other students with similar test grades) or should she grade totally impartially on the basis of what the student does on the tests? Which is more important, giving the student what he merits (justice) or giving the student special treatment appropriate to his needs (compassion)?

Conflicts like these suggest to many people that moral rules (for example, "Show fairness by treating everyone alike") cannot be absolute. Utilitarians maintain that situations require rules to be modified or ignored. The basic idea behind situation ethics is that we occasionally have divided ethical loyalties. One principle, such as saving a life whenever possible, may take precedence over another principle, such as always telling the truth. In that case, the moral rule is: "You may violate a moral rule if you do so for a reason that all rational persons would accept as right were they in your position."

While hypothetical crisis situations underscore the potential for ethical conflicts, most of the ethical questions Christians face daily pertain to conflicts between virtues and personal values. For example, you have twenty dollars of discretionary income to spend, do you give it to famine relief in Ethiopia or do you spend it on a movie with popcorn and cokes? Here lies a conflict between a virtue (altruistic generosity) and a value (aesthetic enjoyment of a night out). How should a Christian choose? Can a choice be avoided without self-deception or bad faith? What should be the guiding principle in making the decision?

Sometimes Christians face moral choices that involve self-interest without overt selfishness. Suppose you are a 52-year-old man with a wife who earns no income and a child who has just started college. Your boss asks you to falsify information in a bid so your company can win a contract. You realize that, at your age, it would be difficult if not impossible to find another job that would support your family. Which virtue should outweigh the other, honesty and integrity or loyalty to your family? Christians often face choices where, although life and death don't hang in the balance, serious consequences will nevertheless result.

Virtues do conflict at times. For those who believe in absolute moral rules or laws, such conflicts can create intense agony, since one good must necessarily be sacrificed to another. For those who believe in situation ethics, such conflicts represent a powerful temptation to behave in a self-serving manner. It is where virtues come into conflict that we truly recognize the limits of rules and our need for the mind of Christ.


1.Have you or someone close to you ever faced a situation where you felt your job was threatened by an ethical question? Describe the situation and how you handled it.

2.Can you find any instances in the Bible where two virtues (for example, justice and compassion) conflicted? What happened?

3.Some Christians traveling with their families will not stop to help people stranded on the highway for fear of endangering their family members. Are Christians obliged to show compassion whenever it is called for or should concern for safety take precedence over compassion? How would you handle such a situation?

4.In Judges 4:17-22, Jael lures Sisera into her tent and drives a tent peg through his temple. In the context, would you call this an example of justifiable homicide?

5.In 1 Corinthians 13:13, Paul compares faith, hope, and love and concludes that the greatest of these three is love. Are we to conclude from this passage that virtues can be ranked in order of importance? Why is love greater than the other two?

6.Are there limits to Christian heroism or should Christians always be ready to sacrifice everything in order to retain their moral integrity? For example, should you renege on a promise if keeping that promise meant you would lose your family's life savings?

May 6, 2007

How Can You Know Right from Wrong? Part One

The Bible is a primarily a book of stories that illustrate principles. The story of Abraham teaches the principle of trust in God; the story of David loyalty to God despite one's flaws; the story of Paul courage and commitment; the story of Jesus the love of God and the power of self-sacrifice. Jesus himself told fictional stories in the form of parables to drive home the points he wanted to make. Stories have multiple levels of meanings and teach many lessons. Each of us as individual Christians attempts to relate the stories of biblical characters as well as the stories of godly parents and fellow Christians to our own life story. We try to give the stories renewed life in our own lives.

In addition to stories, the Bible also teaches morality by listing virtues and vices or by giving commands and exhortations. Because the vices seem to outnumber the virtues, critics have characterized biblical ethics as a negative doctrine composed of endless "Thou shalt nots." Careful readers recognize this criticism to be unfair since the Bible clearly promotes active good as opposed to the passive avoidance of evil. But lists and exhortations do lack the human interest of stories. Stories show how principles of courage and devotion actually come alive. Lists of virtues test our will, insight, and judgment by challenging us to remember them and to apply them as specific cases arise.

How does one take a list of virtues and apply it to the dilemmas of daily life? How does one answer the basic question "What am I to do"? Here are some tests Christians may use to make ethical decisions.

ONE -- The Scriptural Test: Does the Bible endorse or approve what I am about to do?

Biblical teaching does not cover every form of questionable human activity, but it does treat some broad categories. For example, gambling and abortion do not appear in scripture, but greed, murder, and selfishness do. The Bible does not expressly condemn slavery or racial segregation, but it does teach us to love other Christians as friends (John 15:12-17) and to seek the good of others (1 Corinthians 10:24).

One weakness of the scriptural test is that it is open to abuse by legalism. Some may distort the spirit of God's word by emphasizing the letter alone. Those who seek to justify themselves will say that unless the Bible specifically condemns something by name, it is all right to engage in that activity. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for using legal technicalities and human rationalization to subvert the spirit of the Mosaic law (Mark 7:9-13).

TWO --The Personal Test: If I do this, will it make me a stronger or a weaker Christian?

Paul writes in Colossians 3:9-10, "Do not lie to one other, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator."

If something we contemplate doing is not in keeping with our new, born- again self, we should not do it. Each of us has a Christian conscience that warns us when what we are doing is inconsistent with our duty to glorify God.

Sometimes this personal test may make us overly punctilious, as was the case of those whose conscience would not let them eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols (Romans 14:1-18; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13). On the other hand, we may manipulate our conscience by rationalizations in such a way as to silence its voice. No one can apply the personal test effectively without some degree of lucidity and good judgment.

THREE - The Fellowship Test: If I do this, will it bring reproach on the body of Christ?

Christians ethics are not solely a personal matter. As members of a body, the church, we must always consider how our individual actions will affect the body as a whole.

Some of the Corinthians were evidently engaged in lawsuits against each other. Paul is shocked that they would air their dirty linen in front of unbelievers (1 Corinthians 6:1-8), thereby bringing reproach upon the church from outsiders.

At times, ministers have shamed the churches they serve by building up unpaid debts in the community. In other cases, members have been arrested for drunk driving or taken to court for engaging in deceptive sales schemes. Elders have been known to embezzle church funds to finance their own businesses. All such practices bring shame upon the family of God.


1.Each of us needs practical wisdom to make right choices. A young man once asked an old man why he was so wise, "Because," said Uncle Zeke, "I've got good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience, and experience--well, that comes from poor judgment!" Can you think of ethical lessons you have learned from mistakes of judgment you have made in the past? Tell your story.

2.What Bible story has helped you to make a specific ethical choice in your own life? What Bible story means the most to you in terms of its practical moral applications?

3.Do you know of any cases where people have used scripture to justify immoral behavior? For example, someone may quote "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" to justify taking brutal revenge.

4.Suppose you are facing the choice of either defaulting on a debt or subjecting your family to many years of personal and financial sacrifice in order to repay it. Which of the three tests discussed would best help you make your decision?

5.Suppose your daughter has become pregnant out of wedlock and tests indicate the child will be born with a serious birth defect. Would any of these three tests help you decide whether or not to seek an abortion?

6.Do the leaders of the church have the right to tell you how you should behave? For example, if a Christian widow decides to remarry a man who is not a Christian, should the elders tell her she is making an unethical decision (based on 1 Corinthians 7:39) that is not in the interests of the body? What if it is a Christian widower who decides to propose to a non-Christian?

May 7, 2007

How Can You Know Right from Wrong? Part Two

Because the Bible is a book of principles and examples, individual Christians have to apply those principles and examples to their own lives. Is it immoral, for example, to drive an expensive sports car when a more sensible economy model will transport you from point A to point B just as effectively? Shouldn't Christians invest their money in good deeds and charitable causes rather than in luxury automobiles? Each of us has to make such choices.

The affluence of America challenges Christians to make moral decisions. The temptations of the good life may lead to sins of omission as well as sins of commission. In our self-indulgence we may forget the poor and oppressed, the very thing Paul was exhorted by Peter, James, and John not to do (Galatians 2:10).

Here, then, are three more tests we may use to examine our actions.

FOUR -- The Fairness Test: How will this affect the lives of other people?

Will what I do serve the good of the greatest number or will it be entirely selfish and self-serving? This is the utilitarian test. When confronted with a moral choice, we typically think first about practicality and personal self-interest. Then we agonize over whether there exists a conflict between our own well-being and the will of God.

Yet the will of God is not some abstraction. The will of God is that we be righteous, that we do what is honest, kind, and considerate, that we look to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4; 1 Corinthians 10:24). Is it right for a Christian banker to refuse a home loan to a black family that wants to buy in a white neighborhood? Is it just for a Christian executive to lay off loyal, longtime employees in order to increase efficiency and profits?

Christians sometimes act as though an inexorable economic law--and not God--rules the universe. They justify their actions for reasons Adam Smith would approve rather than for reasons Jesus Christ would approve. Ethical questions are lordship questions. Whom do we serve?

FIVE - The Universal Test: What would it be like if everyone did this?

This is a restatement of what Kant called the "categorical imperative." Would you be willing for anyone and everyone to engage in this practice if they were in your shoes? Diversity is in most instances a good thing. We wouldn't want everyone to choose dentistry as a profession; we wouldn't want everyone to have the same sense of humor or the same taste in clothing. But it would be highly desirable if we all agreed about what was right and wrong.

To a large degree, we do. As C. S. Lewis explains in Mere Christianity, human beings in all cultures believe people ought to behave "morally." They cannot rid themselves of the abiding conviction that truth is better than falsehood or that loyalty is better than treachery or that love is better than hate any more than they can change the color of their hair. The trouble with this natural moral law in human nature is that, while people recognize the law, they resist applying it to themselves personally. The Universal Test requires us to apply to ourselves the standards we expect of others.

SIX - The Stewardship Test: Will my doing this be a waste of my God-given life and talents?

God has made us free moral agents and has set within us a sense of responsibility. The stewardship test appeals to this realization that we are accountable for our time, our money, and our actions (Matthew 25:14-30).

Is it moral for a Christian to buy and use drugs? Are we free to abuse our bodies or waste our money? As servants of God, we are custodians, not owners. The claim, "It's my money (or my life) and I'll do with it as I please," holds no weight with God. Much of the evil we do could be avoided simply by remembering that we are stewards of God's grace.


1.Fairness is based on the notion of what one deserves. Everyone should get his just desserts. For example, it would not be fair to give the gold medal to the runner who finished in fifth place--just because he was your grandson. Why is it that other people "deserve" to be treated right? Can you think of instances in the Bible in which, according to this definition, God was not fair?

2.Are we really responsible for sins of omission? Is that reasonable or unreasonable? Give some concrete examples.

3.Is how we spend our money always a question of Christian ethics or only sometimes a question of ethics? If sometimes, how does one distinguish between when it is and when it isn't?

4.Suppose you had a choice between buying yourself a new dress or set of golf clubs and making a donation to famine relief in Africa, which would you probably choose and why? What would Jesus do?

5.Should you offer a bribe to a policeman in Mexico who stops you for some minor traffic violation or who delays you at the border "just because it's the way of life down there"? Is it bribery if you pay someone to let you do something that is perfectly legal? In such a case, aren’t you really a victim of extortion rather than a perpetrator of bribery? Does Scripture condemn giving bribes, taking bribes, or both (cf. Prov. 17:8, 23; 18:16; 19:6; 21:14)?

6.Are moral choices free or do you sometimes feel "caught" in a riptide of circumstances you are helpless to resist? Can you give some specific examples from your own experience?

May 8, 2007

How Can You Know Right from Wrong? Part Three

Christian ethics involve much more than simple rule-keeping. Ethical behavior requires us to seek the mind of Christ. Rule-keeping alone is inadequate for several reasons. First, rule-keeping may be done for the wrong reason, like the teenager at home who eats his vegetables just so he can have dessert but who stops eating vegetables at college when Mother is no longer around. Hypocrites are those who superficially keep rules for ulterior motives.

Second, biblical rules are often too general and too few in number to cover every ethical case that arises. Inevitably one has to use judgment to apply the rules that exist appropriately. Is abortion ever permissible in cases where the mother's life is endangered or in cases of rape or incest? Is divorce ever permissible in cases where there is no adultery but extreme physical and mental abuse? Only prayerful deliberation and sound judgment can apply biblical teaching to such painful questions.

Third, rule-keeping may degenerate into legalism wherein rules are kept for their own sake with little understanding of the principles that lie behind the rules or of greater principles that take priority over the rules. The Pharisees had made keeping the Sabbath into an inhuman rule that flew in the face of compassion, and Jesus condemned them for this mindless and mean-spirited rule-keeping (Matthew 12:1-14).

The purpose of these "tests" of right and wrong is not to create a set of rules but rather to establish practical procedures for developing the mind of Christ, which is the foundation of all Christian ethics.

SEVEN - The Influence Test: Will my doing this influence others to become Christians? Will it influence my family members and fellow Christians to become stronger or weaker?

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16).

People seem to understand the influence test better than any other because they know that actions speak louder than words and they recognize the influence others have had on them for good or evil.

EIGHT - The Publicity Test: Would I want everyone to know I have done this?

Secrets abound in human society: corporate secrets, state secrets, and personal secrets. Doing things "under the table" seems like the only way of accomplishing certain ends. But it is extremely dangerous for Christians to do anything "under the table." Paul wrote that "God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus" (Romans 2:16), and Jesus said: "For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light" (Luke 8:17; 12:2-3).

Would you want it known that you paid your female employees less than your male employees for doing exactly the same job? Would you want it known that you supplied false information on your tax return? Would you want it known that you took office supplies from work to use for a Sunday school project at home?

Privacy and the need for confidentiality preclude our telling every secret we have or know, but Christians should always behave in such a way that the cold light of publicity would only enhance their reputation for integrity.

NINE - The Reasonable Person Test: Am I behaving in a way that any reasonable person would approve were he or she in my position?

This final test is akin to the publicity test, yet with a difference. Sometimes we may do something that conventional public opinion might frown upon. For example, as an elected representative we may break a campaign promise not to vote for a tax increase upon coming to the realization, after an exhaustive study of the matter, that a tax increase represents the overall best and fairest solution. Sometimes judges have to anger the majority in order to protect the interests of the minority. This does not mean they harm the majority, only that, by showing mercy or doing justice, they may trouble, inconvenience, or simply ignite the righteous indignation of many.

Applying this test assumes that a "reasonable person" possesses lucidity, the clear perception that something is true or right even when it is unpopular, against the common wisdom, or against one's own self-interest. Without this insight of lucidity, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to make courageous moral decisions that run counter to culture.


1.Can you illustrate the limitations of rule-keeping from your own experience? For example, can you think of a situation where someone did wrong by rigidly adhering to the rules?

2.Of the nine tests discussed, which two do you personally use most often or find most practical? Do you know of some other valid tests not mentioned in these chapters?

3.Some states require that, as a matter of public record, state universities must publish the salaries of their employees. Do you believe Christian colleges should keep the salaries of their administrators and faculty members secret? Should any Christian business keep salaries secret? Why or why not? Do secret salaries ever lead to ethical abuses?

4.Who has influenced you most for good? Who has influenced you most for evil? Can you think of specific Christians, aside from family members, who have become notable examples of virtue or sinfulness?

5.In the 1950's and 60's, some white congregations refused to allow blacks to be baptized in their baptisteries out of the conviction that the races should always be kept separate or simply for fear that their white members would then refuse to be baptized in a "contaminated" baptistery. Was this unethical? Explain your answer in light of the nine tests.

6.Can people who are ignorant, emotionally volatile, or unreflective and lacking in good sense be held responsible for their acts? Is it true that a person may be "just plain stupid" instead of immoral? Give some examples.

May 9, 2007

Why Do Ethics Need Christianity? Part One

Fear and reason provide the chief motivations for not doing wrong. You hesitate to cheat on your income taxes because you might be audited and fined. You avoid sleeping around because you could contract a venereal disease or AIDS. You don't steal because prisons are not ideal places to spend one's life. The young girl who exclaims, "If my boyfriend got me pregnant, my mother would just die!" is appealing to her fears as a rationale for avoiding teen pregnancy.

Reason gives another, more sophisticated, justification for avoiding bad behavior. Self-actualization and personal fulfillment require me to lead a good life. I can ensure a higher quality of life both now and in my old age through temperance (refusing to smoke or take drugs), moderation (eating less fat and sugar), and self-discipline (exercising regularly or losing weight). I can promote democracy and the American way by exercising the virtues of citizenship, tolerance, responsibility, and fairness. I can win the confidence of customers and succeed in business through honesty, generosity, trustworthiness, self-reliance, and perseverance. I can avoid guilt, loss of self-esteem, and interpersonal conflict by abstaining from premarital sex. The many good reasons to do right will outweigh any motivations I may have to do wrong.

With fear and reason at our side, do we need Christ in order to lead ethical lives? Do we actually need the revelation of God in scripture, since most of what we learn in scripture about ethics serves merely as a confirmation of the lessons fear and reason have already taught us? Reason instructs us to respect life and property ("You shall not murder or steal"). Fear reminds us that those who steal and murder may themselves be robbed or killed. To what extent are Christian ethics distinctive? Where is the need for Christ in ethical decisions?

One crucial problem with fear and reason is that they don't work. Despite the menaces of the penal code and appeals to logic, people still persist in committing crimes and immoral acts. Fear and reason do not seem to have much control over the human impulse to do evil. Furthermore, neither fear nor reason can motivate anyone to engage in selfless virtues like laying down one's life for a friend or spending one's life caring for an invalid. It is something beyond the power of fear or the plausibility of reason that has the potential to make people truly good.

Paul argues in Romans that law, while well-intentioned and good, cannot save us because, ironically, law only serves to increase sin as its regulations provide a convenient foil for the perverse human will (Romans 5:20-21; 7:7-25). Telling a little boy not to step in a puddle seemingly makes him only more intent on doing so. Adults behave similarly. Salvation comes only through the grace of God that enlightens and transforms our perverse will to sin. By the same token, true virtue is a by-product of the salvation that gives us a new life, a new spirit, and a new will (Romans 6:1-7).

Paul contrasts the letter (that is, law with its carrot of reason and stick of fear) and the Spirit. The letter brings death while the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:3-6). It is no wonder, then, that the cardinal Christian virtues are represented as the fruit of the Spirit and that living virtuously is called living by the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25).

Paul does not tell Titus to justify his moral teaching through appeals to reason or by threats of damnation in hell. Instead, he tell him to remind Christians that they have been saved by grace. He justifies ethics and morality by pointing Christians to the sacrificial death of Jesus in the past, to renewal through the Holy Spirit in the present, and to the hope of eternal life with God in the future (Titus 2:1-15; 3:1-8).


1.Suppose you are in the check-out line at the store and the clerk forgets to charge you for an item. Would you call it to her attention? Why or why not? Would fear or reason adequately motivate you to do so?

2.Can you think of anything besides fear, reason, or grace that might motivate you to do the right thing? What about feelings of benevolence, empathy, or conscience? Do these provide sufficient motivation to do right or avoid wrong?

3.If fear and reason are inadequate to deter wrongdoing, is grace any more effective? Is grace too abstract to provide much motivation to the average person? Tell what motivates you the most to do right instead of wrong.

4.A preacher once said, "The only thing that rules can do is remind you that you are lousy at keeping rules." What do you think he meant? Do you agree? Was he implying that rules are totally without value?

5.In the first half of the twentieth century, activities such as going to movies, "mixed bathing" (going to a pool or beach with members of the opposite sex), playing cards, and dancing were considered immoral behavior. In what way, if any, should our "new birth" affect our thinking about these activities? Can you think of similar activities that were once condemned but that Christians now engage in without the same degree of guilt?

6.In what sense do you think the "gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38-39) has made you a better person? How precisely do you feel the Spirit working in your moral life?

May 10, 2007

Why Do Ethics Need Christianity? Part Two

The Christian view of ethics is at once pessimistic and optimistic (1 John 5:19). It is pessimistic because it holds that neither fear nor reason nor conscience nor benevolent feelings nor empathy can consistently motivate the average person to do good. Selfish interests and passions play too great a role in influencing our ethical decisions. But the Christian view is optimistic because it stresses that, by the grace of God, our sinful minds can be enlightened so that we can know what is good and desire to do it, even when we may not actually do the right thing (Romans 7:22-25). And beyond this enlightenment of the mind, there is forgiveness for the incidental sins we invariably commit (1 John 1:8-10).

Can an atheist be an ethical person? All of us know of or can imagine atheists or agnostics who give generously, who behave honorably, who show kindness and consideration, and who are eminently likable people. From Antiquity to the present, certain individuals, as Paul implies in Romans 2:14-15, have followed a natural law of morality that broadly squares with the revealed will of God. In this sense, yes, atheists have the potential to be ethical. On occasion they even demonstrate more sensitivity and humanity than do Christians. But these atheists who display a high standard of personal morality by Christian standards are frankly rather rare, and many of the principles they follow have been "caught" from the Christian culture in which we in the West have all lived for more than a millennium. Studies show that when religion is taken seriously, it influences people's attitudes in all areas of ethics. Churchgoers are typically more involved with charitable or service activities than non-churchgoers, and, according to polls, they donate more money to charity.

One has to go back to Plato and Aristotle to discover the distinctiveness of Christian ethics. While the ancient Greek philosophers praised and practiced temperance, courage, justice, and prudence, they basically ignored or rejected the virtues of humility, sacrificial love, compassion, forgiveness, faith, and hope that characterize the Christian way. Their society thought nothing of slavery, infanticide, and ruthlessness. When one Greek city conquered another, it was standard procedure to kill all the males and then sell the women and children into slavery. After centuries of Christian influence on our society, one may easily forget that non-Christian ethics had serious shortcomings, many of which are still powerfully at work in the world and have yet to be overcome.

Someone has said that the only remedy for history is forgiveness. Two thousand years of exposure to Christian ethics has obviously not made the world into a utopia. The fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden still governs to a large extent the course of world events and individual choices. Without forgiveness, Christians would by now have abandoned the quest for ethical excellence as a futile if not laughable project. Instead, we find the courage to struggle against our sinful natures because there is forgiveness and because we have the first fruits of salvation through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

Forgiveness in Christ binds the Christian view of ethics into a coherent whole. Christians enjoy the security of being saved by grace instead of works. Far from dulling our sense of moral responsibility, this realization gives us fresh hope to struggle on against the powers of evil that daily threaten or defeat us. Ethical standards alone may condemn us, but God's mercy brings newness of life that springs up in our hearts like living water (John 7:37-39). We love others because God first loved us, and this remains the cornerstone of Christian ethics (1 John 4:11-12).


1.Do you feel burdened or liberated by your faith in Jesus Christ? That is, do you feel that Christians can or cannot live their lives as freely and fully as non-Christians?

2.Do you think a committed Christian could live a nearly sinless life if he or she really tried? Explain what you mean.

3.Have you ever known a "noble unbeliever"--a non-Christian whose conduct was, as far as you could tell, basically blameless? Describe this person. What do you think motivated his or her model behavior?

4.Some claim that Christianity is merely therapeutic: It makes us feel better about ourselves without actually changing our fundamentally selfish behavior. How would you answer this charge? Is Christianity primarily a salve for our guilty consciences or does it convict us to change our self-indulgent lifestyles?

5.Suppose that one day you find a paper bag with $500 dollars in it and no identification. No one would ever know what happened if you keep the money. Would you take it and simply ask God to forgive you? Would it make a difference if it were $5, $50, or $50,000?

6.Has God forgiven the sins of America's past (for example, the betrayal and conquest of the American Indians, the exploitation of human beings through slavery, the aggressive appropriation of land from Mexico through war and intimidation, the violent abuses of racial discrimination)? Does the passage of time confer legtimacy upon what was originally acquired by violence and aggression? Do contemporary Christians have a moral responsibility to in some way atone for or remedy these sins of the past?

May 11, 2007

Are Christian Ethics a Barrier to Success?

What if you never told convenient white lies? What if you always kept your word, even when it cost you significant sums of money? What if you always put your loyalty to Christ first and refused to work on Sunday or at other times when the saints met? What if you consistently put the interests of others ahead of your own? What if you put family and church priorities ahead of professional priorities? Could you survive in the real world? Could you be a success?

Four out of five Americans say selfishness is a serious national problem, but four out of five also say having a high-paying job, a new car, and a beautiful house is important to them. This type of thinking can be styled as compartmentalization: What concerns society as a whole and me as an individual are two different things. I'm okay, but society is not. This curious lack of introspection leads to self-satisfaction and complacency on the one hand and to an angst about the decadence of American civilization on the other.

Compartmentalization distinguishes between public morality and private morality. I can berate the criminal justice system yet mail all of my personal bills using stationary and stamps taken from the office. I can decry the rising tide of sex and violence in American society yet watch "R" rated movies, MTV videos, and soap operas all week. I can become indignant at the social injustices perpetrated by a "corrupt" congress yet feel no compunction about divorcing my wife.

Making the walk consistent with the talk is the challenge Christians face. Desires and aversions that overwhelm fear, reason, and the Spirit's guidance often drive smart people to make dumb moral choices. Desiring prosperity, we have an aversion to wearing unfashionable clothes or to driving an old car. Desiring freedom, we feel an aversion to being tied down by responsibilities. Desiring novelty or adventure, we develop contempt for the routines of tradition or daily existence. Desiring prestige and success, we pursue self-interest and avoid any threat to our self-esteem or financial security.

Contemporary culture teaches us to put our individual desires and aversions on the throne. What is more, culture justifies yet another form of compartmentalization by claiming that there is no one single moral standard to live by but instead many different standards, some of which apply to family, some to business, some to sports and recreation, and some to politics. According to this view, what is right or wrong for an individual will depend on the standards of the arena in which he or she has to make the decision. Right and wrong for society as a whole are ultimately determined by election results, jury decisions, public opinion polls, consumer surveys, and market forces.

Because ad hoc standards are nebulous and because the results of polls change on a monthly basis, modern morality resembles a will o' the wisp that can never seem to decide which of its desires or aversions should take priority. People make moral decisions inconsistently, almost whimsically, depending on which of the confusing ad hoc standards appeals to them most at the moment of decision. Even Christians, influenced by this cultural mentality, will do what they know is wrong simply because they "feel like it."

True and authentic Christian ethics challenge us to transcend the values of our culture by incorporating the eternal values of God into our lives in a consistent manner, regardless of the personal cost. In this sense, Christian ethics are profoundly counter-cultural, and it takes courage to stare their implications straight in the eye inasmuch as our comfort, convenience, and material well-being may lie at risk. Thanks be to God his grace is sufficient even though our own spiritual fortitude may not always be!


1.Is scorning worldly success the first step to an ethical Christian life? Why or why not? Is it true to say, "It's a lot easier to be moral if you don't mind being poor"? Comment on Proverbs 30:8-9.

2.Are Christians who patronize "R" movies or watch steamy soap operas hypocrites when they decry the evil influence of sex and violence in society? To what extent does art influence and eventually shape personal morality?

3.Do you know of Christians who compartmentalize their ethical lives? For example, they act according to one set of values at work and another at church or at home. Describe what you have experienced.

4.In what practical ways do we let the Spirit control our moral lives and bear spiritual fruit? How can we ensure that it is Christ and not self or culture that directs our choices and actions?

5.The politics of morality usually keys in on private issues like abortion, homosexuality, and pornography. Why not address public issues like economic policy and the redistribution of wealth? Can you point to examples of how people separate private and public morality? Does the Bible make any such distinction? What does scripture have to say about the morality of society as a whole?

6.In the O. J. Simpson criminal trial of 1995, lawyers asked the jurors to right the wrongs of a racist criminal justice system on the one hand and to heed the evidence, the voice of reason, and the cries of justice on the other. When values conflict in modern society, to what standard do people turn when making serious decisions?

May 17, 2007

Is "What Would Jesus Do" a Good Question to Ask?

Although this may seem to be a legitimate question, there are several problems involved.

1.Many if not most situations don’t require this question to be asked.

Question: Would Jesus choose onion rings or fries?
Answer: Jesus would have chosen what he personally preferred and so should you.

Question: Would Jesus admit to defrauding the IRS?
Answer: Jesus wouldn’t have defrauded the IRS to begin with.

2.Sometimes there is simply no clear answer to this question.

Question: Which of my two job offers would Jesus accept?
Answer: Probably neither.

Question: Which of these two women would Jesus choose to marry?
Answer: Perhaps Jesus could make a good marriage with either one.

Question: Would Jesus square dance?
Answer: I have no earthly idea.

3.It fails to recognize that I am not Jesus. I am a radically different person.

·Jesus could perform miracles. I cannot.
·Jesus was a spiritual giant. I am a spiritual pygmy.
·Jesus did not make mistakes. I make lots of mistakes, so how can I ever be sure what he would do in my place?
·Jesus was both human and divine. I am only human.
·Jesus came to die for our sins. I have a different role.

Question: Would Jesus protest the death penalty?
Answer: Well, he didn’t when it was imposed upon him. But, then again, my role is not to die unjustly for the sins of world.

Question: What would Jesus do about hunger in the world?
Answer: Perhaps he would perform a miracle and feed the five billion. I cannot do that.

4.It tempts us to project our own biases and assumptions onto Jesus.

Question: What would Jesus drive?
Answer 1: Jesus wouldn’t drive. He would walk or take the bus to preserve natural resources and to limit pollution of the atmosphere.
Answer 2: Jesus would drive whatever made his ministry more effective.
Answer 3: Jesus would drive a hybrid car in order to set a good example of concerned moderation.

Question: What would Jesus say about the homosexual lifestyle?
Answer 1: He would harshly condemn it as against the law of God and nature.
Answer 2: He would express love and compassion for those trapped in situations over which they have no control.

5.The question may be interpreted as inherently judgmental and divisive.

·It implicitly judges anyone who fails to ask the question;
·It implicitly judges anyone who gets a different answer from mine.

Question: Would Jesus serve as a bomber pilot and bomb innocent civilians in order to win a war?
Answer 1: Absolutely not. He was the Prince of Peace.
Answer 2: Yes he would, if that was what it took to preserve our freedoms and those of innocent people who are being tyrannized.

6.It does not take into account a holistic view of Jesus.

·Answering the question “What would Jesus do?” is not simply an intellectual exercise in moral judgment.
·To answer the question correctly, one would have to consider Jesus’ personality, generosity, warmth, wit, creativity, compassion, and divinity. How can anyone do that?
·What would Jesus do? He would almost certainly do something I did not expect, almost certainly something surprising. Remember Isaiah 55:8-9. For example, consider this:

Question: Jesus, what should I do about paying taxes? (Matthew 17:24-27)
Answer: Go catch a fish and look in its mouth for your tax money.

Better Questions to Ask:

1.What did Jesus tell me to do in the New Testament?
2.What do I think Jesus would want ME to do? Given all I know about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, which option should I choose?
3.How can I glorify God in this situation?

May 18, 2007

Why Do Some People Not Believe in God?

1.Belief in God is a superstition that arose over time based on human fears and hopes, fears of the unknown and hopes for protection against both those fears and the forces of nature. The idea of God was the human imagination’s attempt to explain the unknown and the inexplicable. Now that we understand the world better, we do not need to imagine God as an explanation.

2.Religious belief has been, and still is, a source of hatred and strife. The competing claims of the various religions cannot all be correct. Indeed, they tend to cancel each other out. If there were a God, he surely would have revealed himself more clearly and convincingly.

3.Religious belief has obviously evolved like everything else. Monotheism is a fairly recent phenomenon. Ancient peoples were animists or polytheists. They didn’t believe in one God so why should we? Indeed, why should we, who are no longer primitive and barbarous, believe in any God at all?

4.Most belief in God is founded upon “proof” supplied by miracles. Real miracles, like "the sun standing still," are violations of the laws of nature and are, as such, impossible. People believe in miracles because human nature enjoys the agreeable emotions of surprise and wonder. Nevertheless, there are no undisputed miracles recognized by the scientific community. It is strange that, if such things as miracles really are possible, we never see them happen in our own day.

5.Belief in God is not necessary to establish good government or good morals. The existence of pedophile priests, adulterous preachers, and active church members who embezzle money, deal drugs, or commit serial murders proves that belief in God is no barrier to unlawful and indecent acts. Society can develop a system of laws and morality independent of religion.

6.Religion tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. It allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not. Many aspects of religious morality have nothing to do with suffering and its alleviation. On the contrary, religious morality sometimes inflicts unnecessary suffering on innocent human beings or animals.

7.The order, beauty, and seemingly wise arrangement of the universe do not necessarily point to a supreme and benevolent intelligence called God. If God created the universe, who created God? To say that God, by definition, is uncreated simply begs the question. In point of fact, when we look at the natural world, we see extraordinary complexity, but we do not see optimal design. We see redundancy, regressions, and unnecessary complications; we see bewildering inefficiencies that result in suffering and death. For example, children sometimes choke to death because the human respiratory and digestive systems are connected at the pharynx.

8.To infer that every effect in the universe has one and the same cause is illogical. Experience teaches us that separate effects have separate causes. One cause does not produce a multitude of varied effects. A cause is limited and proportioned to its effect. One cannot repeatedly go back to a specific cause to find new or additional effects. God may be a hypothesis, but there is no proof God is the ultimate cause of all we see. Other hypotheses exist as well that are just as logical if not more so. Furthermore, the design of the universe is no sure foundation for religion because it tells us little or nothing about the character or will of God separate and apart from his power and intelligence.

9.Religious dogma and science often disagree. To read many parts of the Bible as literally true (like Genesis 1) is simply preposterous from a scientific standpoint. Religious belief has often stood in the way of scientific progress from the time of Galileo (the truth that the earth revolves around the sun) to the present (the potential benefits of embryonic stem-cell research).

10.The sacred books of the various religions are not credible. The Bible, for example, is not scientifically credible (Joshua 10:12-14); it is not historically credible (Luke 23:44-45); it is bloodthirsty and odious (1 Samuel 15:3; 32-33; Joshua 6:21; 8:25-26; 11:20; Leviticus 27:29; Numbers 31:7-17; Deuteronomy 3:6; 7:2). Furthermore, the Bible contains many internal contradictions (for example, the attribution of a quote from Zechariah 11:12-13 to Jeremiah in Matthew 27:9-10) and inaccuracies (for example, the inaccurate estimate of the number pi in 1 Kings 7:23; 2 Chronicles 4:2).

For all these reasons and others, some people do not believe in God.

May 20, 2007

When In Doubt About What Is Ethical

When I was a teenager, I would sometimes read dangerous books. What do I mean by “dangerous” books? Well, I mean books that I thought had the potential to destroy my Christian faith. For example, I read Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, the famous philosopher and mathematician. I read The Philosophical Letters of Voltaire in which he makes a scathing attack on the Christian apologetic writings of Pascal. What I discovered, to my great surprise, was that neither Russell nor Voltaire really had any understanding of what genuine Christianity was all about. Their criticisms, far from shaking my faith, seemed to me rather ridiculous because I realized that, unbeknownst to them, they were attacking a straw man and not Christianity itself.

Another dangerous book I remember reading was Situation Ethics by Joseph Fletcher. It was a book on that touted a new morality, and I read it with trepidation lest it destroy the foundations of the Christian morality on which my life was built. Fletcher maintained that ethical decisions should depend on the situation in which they arise rather than on some eternal principal. Although the new morality caused quite a stir in the 1960’s, the old foundation of Christian morality still remains. Meanwhile, the book Situation Ethics is no longer in print.

What struck me as unconvincing about Situation Ethics was Fletcher’s constant appeal to highly unusual, exceptional situations rather than to what we generally encounter in ordinary life. For example, he asks, “Would you lie if Nazi storm troopers knocked at your door demanding you hand over any Jews you were sheltering?” At the time, it seemed highly unlikely that would happen to me, and, sure enough, it never has. But I am confronted day by day with very ordinary situations that require a decision on how to act. Often, there is no specific directive in scripture that tells me what I should do. Sometimes I find myself in doubt as to what exactly a Christian should do it such a situation. What do Christians do when they are in doubt?

Let’s begin with an example drawn from Randy Cohen’s book, The Right, the Wrong, and the Difference:

"One rainy evening I wandered into a shop, where I left my name-band umbrella in a basket near the door. When I was ready to leave, my umbrella was gone. There were several others in the basket, and I decided to take another name-brand umbrella. Should I have taken it, or taken a lesser quality model, or just gotten wet? -I. F. S., New York City"

All right, what should someone do in this situation and why? Notice that the person is in doubt. She doesn’t want to get wet on a rainy night, yet someone has either purposely or mistakenly taken her umbrella. What should she do?

Randy Cohen agreed with her action of taking an equivalent umbrella. He added that, to be on the safe side, she might have taken a lower-quality umbrella, thus ensuring that no one will leave the shop shortchanged. His answer, however, is based on the assumption that no theft had taken place, only the mistaken switch of one umbrella for another. This seems to me like a convenient assumption that allows you to rationalize taking something you know isn’t yours. If, indeed, a theft had occurred, someone will eventually leave the shop without any umbrella at all.

What should a Christian do in a dubious situation like this? Are there any principles to guide? As a Christian, I disagreed with Randy Cohen’s answer. I thought the lady should have left the shop without an umbrella, even at the risk of getting wet. Of course, she should have given her name to the shop keeper in case her umbrella was returned or in case one was left over at the close of the day, but she should not have taken an umbrella she knew for certain was not her own. After all, if someone had stolen her umbrella, then she in turn, by taking an umbrella herself, would have been stealing another one from someone else. But on what biblical teaching do I base such advice?

I think there are four general principles that apply in dubious situations:

1.The Principle of Self-Sacrifice: Jesus left us the supreme example of self-sacrifice by his death on the cross (Phil. 2:4-8). Peter says that as Christ suffered, so we should expect to follow in his suffering steps (1 Pet. 2:21). This passage pertains to persecution, but I think it applies equally to the suffering that comes from putting the interests of others above your own. Paul alludes to this principle in 1 Cor. 6:7, where, instead of endorsing lawsuits against fellow Christians, he says, “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” The principle is this: It is better to suffer an unjust wrong than to do wrong yourself. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Therefore, it is better to get wet than to take an umbrella you know is not yours and risk making someone else suffer.

2.The Principle of Surprise. In 1901, Mark Twain spoke these words to a church group: “Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest.” Christians should surprise people by their self-sacrificial behavior. One notable characteristic of Jesus’ teaching is that people were surprised by it, even his own disciples (Mk. 1:22; 6:2; 11:18; Mt. 19:25). They were surprised by its originality, by its authority, and by how radical and challenging it was. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, if effect, that if you behave in conventional ways, how can you be considered a holy and peculiar people (Mt. 5:46-47).

3.The Principle of the Extra Mile. In his teaching, Jesus emphasizes going beyond what is expected (Mt. 5:40-41). This is an elaboration of the surprise motif. I think Jesus means that Christians can gain the attention and respect of non-Christians only by exceeding their normal expectations. In their ethical behavior, Christians should not be calculating the minimum they can do and yet still be considered ethical. Rather, they should go beyond the minimum, thereby making a statement of their commitment to ethical excellence.

4.The Principle of Noblesse Oblige. This French phrase expresses the idea that special people have special obligations and duties that derive from who they are. Peter says, “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Our status as saints or holy ones obliges us to behave nobly. Noble behavior exceeds ordinary expectations or assumptions. It calls us to holy living, not simply moral or ethical living.

To my mind, following these four principles would lead a Christian to say: “When in doubt, take the high road—and by 'high road' I mean the road of holiness and self-sacrifice."


1.When an ethical situation involves personal gain or loss but has no clear and easy answer, the temptation is always to rationalize the situation in our favor (in other words, avoid getting wet). Do you agree or disagree that the Christian approach, on the contrary, is to be self-sacrificial? Can you give an example?

2.Telemarketers offered us a free weekend at a fabulous ski resort if we attend a one-hour sales presentation. I’d love to go, but my husband thinks it would be unethical since we have absolutely no intention of purchasing a time share. What should we do?

3.My dad takes me to a lot of baseball games and always buys the cheapest tickets in the park. When the game starts, he moves to better, unoccupied seats, dragging me along. It embarrasses me. Is it okay for us to sit in seats we didn’t pay for?

4.I’m a university professor, and I often get unsolicited copies of textbooks from publishers in the hope that I’ll adopt them for my course. They clutter up my shelves until book buyers come through, offering cash for review copies. Is it wrong for me to sell them and pocket the money? Should I donate them instead?

5.I frequently carry a can of soda or a package of snacks into the movie theater. Does the theater have the right to insist on “No Outside Food”?

6.The mandatory meal plan at my college allows you to eat as much as you want but prohibits taking food out of the dining hall. However, I think it’s okay to slip a sandwich in my backpack for an afternoon snack. My sister believes this is tantamount to bringing an extra-large purse to a Holiday Inn buffet. What do you think?

May 21, 2007

When I Say, "I Am a Christian"

When I say, “I am a Christian,” I’m not bragging.
I’m admitting I am flawed and need help.

When I say, “I am a Christian,” I don’t think I know it all.
I’m searching for truth with an open heart.

When I say, “I am a Christian,” I’m not claiming to be perfect.
I share the shortcomings of all humanity but trust they can be overcome.

When I say, “I am a Christian,” I’m not shouting, “You are lost.”
I’m saying, “I think I see a way out of this mess. Let’s go together.”

When I say, “I am a Christian,” I don’t think life is a bed of roses.
I have my share of sickness and heartache, which is why I need hope.

When I say, “I am a Christian,” I’m not pretending to be superior.
I’m confessing I can’t make it on my own.

When I say, “I am a Christian,” I do not wish to judge.
I have no authority; I know only that I am loved and forgiven.

My adaptation of the writing of Carol Wimmer (1988)

May 22, 2007

The Bible as Literature

1.People are fair only to those whom they love. --Nicholas de Chamfort (1741-1794)

Those of us who love literature tend to be gentle with it and give it the benefit of the doubt. I think of the Bible as literature. It makes a great deal of difference whether one sees Genesis 1 as a poem or as a scientific treatise. Likewise, Jonah read as religious satire is different from Jonah read as history, and Revelation seen as apocalyptic literature reveals something other than Revelation understood as precise prognostications.

2.Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes. --Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

The Bible is messy. It was composed over a period of 2000 years—and that was 2000 years ago. Few books are like it. It is not politically correct. One reason it has lasted so long, I think, is that its grand themes are remarkably consistent and not contradictory. The Bible can always answer its critics by saying, “I have been influential now for 4000 years. What have you done lately?”

Reading the Bible well requires the perspective of centuries. One temptation is to read it anachronistically by viewing it only through the lens of contemporary literary theory, contemporary science, or contemporary progressivism. But the worst temptation is to read it at once ideologically and prosaically.

3.A poem should be equal to: Not true. --Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)

Literature by definition requires the suspension of disbelief. If we attend a play or movie and do not suspend disbelief, we will soon say to ourselves, “This is ridiculous,” and walk out.

The suspension of disbelief does not imply that literature is a pack of lies. It means that in order to appreciate its truth and benefit from it, we must approach it as it is.

Like all good literature, the Bible has the ring of truth: Abraham is a liar, David is an adulterer, Moses has anger issues, Jesus sweats blood at the thought of his impending death. If the Bible is occasionally violent and harsh, it is also brutally honest and even-handed.

There is more to the Bible than meets the eye. It is subtle, surprising, and difficult to pigeonhole. It speaks to the human condition and the wisdom of the ages. That is why, as I write, it is being studied in graduate classes at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton—as well as at Bob Jones, Liberty, and Oral Roberts.

Is the Bible sometimes odious (Joshua 6:21; Psalm 137:7-9; 2 Kings 2:23-24; Leviticus 20:9-10, 27)? Perhaps. But far more often it is uplifting and inspiring. Those who find the Hebrew Bible too violent and cruel may choose to read the New Testament as an “amendment” to the Old.

Yet ironically, Jesus in the New Testament, to the dismay of some modern Christians, acts like too much of a pacifist—more willing to die than to fight.

Believer or skeptic, we cannot make the Bible over in our own image. It is what it is—equal to and, in that sense I think, profoundly true.

May 23, 2007

The Bible as Literature: Questions

1.Is the Bible really literature?

If the Bible were put on trial for being literature, there is ample evidence to convict. Psalms, the longest book of the Bible, is pure poetry. Certain books of the Bible must have left their original readers scratching their heads like a college freshman reading Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Just read Zechariah, Ezekiel, Isaiah 53-55, or Daniel 10-12.

2.Was the Bible originally intended to be literature?

Yes, it was intended to be read as sacred literature. Why use poetic structures, meter, metaphors, similes, imagery, dramatic dialogue, irony, elaborate wordplays, and a host of other literary devices so abundantly if one intends only to write informative prose? Newspaper reporters don’t write that way.

3.Is it a mistake to read the Bible as literature?

No, since that is what it is. To read it otherwise makes it something it is not and often leads to huge misunderstandings.

4.Was the Bible intended to be taken as truth?

Yes, but as literary truth—as poetic truth—not simple prosaic truth. Sacred literature can be authoritative and true without being simplistic.

5.Is the Bible consistent or contradictory?

Let’s put it this way: It believes itself to be consistent. The biblical writers see themselves as complementing each other, not contradicting each other. Each of them knew and revered the biblical texts that had come before. They had no intention of contradicting what they believed to be inspired.

To the extent we see contradictions, we may be missing their point or reading what they wrote in a way they did not intend.

Does the Bible contradict itself or complete itself? Jesus himself feels free to take issue with the Hebrew Bible of his day (Matthew 5:21-48), yet without denigrating it. The reason is, I think, that he saw himself as fulfilling its original spirit, while dismissing as inadequate the literal letter (see Matthew 5:31-32).

Three final comments about reading the Bible:

1.One must be careful not to attribute guilt by association

A book is not liable for the sins of those who misuse it. Just ask Karl Marx. If theological lunatics have used the Bible as their happy hunting ground, that does not make the Bible a bad book.

Human beings have a tendency to pervert and abuse the good. Some criminals lure “good Samaritans” in order to rob and kill them. That does not make being a good Samaritan a bad thing. Being misread by fanatics is a cross the Bible has to bear, in a manner of speaking.

2.One must be careful not to attribute guilt by categorization.

The Bible is not defined by other books it may be compared to. You cannot say Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Libertarians, and Monarchists are all the same because they talk politics.

The Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad-gita are all different and must stand or fall on their own merits.

3.One must be careful not to attribute guilt by presupposition.

When discussing the nature of the Bible, it is always tempting to beg the question. It is easy to create a straw man (for example, by presupposing what the Bible intended) and then burn (or idolize) the straw man.

Whether the Bible is “The Good Book” or “The Bad Book” often depends on the mindset of the person reading it. The Bible reads differently through the eyes of faith than through the eyes of doubt. And yet ironically, the presuppositions of both faith and doubt can turn out to be erroneous.

May 24, 2007

Biblical Literacy

What biblical background should a young Christian graduating from high school have? I have divided this list into three categories: Knowledge (facts and skills to master), Comprehension (concepts to understand), and Application (integration of faith and daily life). These suggestions are meant to be representative and not exhaustive or narrowly prescriptive. Many fine substitutions could be made in the memory work list, for example, but the passages mentioned give an idea of the quality and quantity of what young Christians should know.


FACTS: Young people should know. . .

·The books of the Bible in order, including the number of books in each testament.
·The primary characters and events of the Bible in chronological order.
·The 10 commandments (Exodus 20).
·The beatitudes (Matthew 5).
·The names of the 12 apostles.
·The names of the 12 sons of Jacob.
·The types of biblical literature (for example, history, poetry, prophecy).
·The basic outline of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection.
·The key elements of Bible geography (for example, the names of the main countries, rivers, bodies of water, cities, and mountains).
·The names of at least three translations of the Bible.
·The known authors of the New Testament books.
·The steps to salvation—what one must do in order to be saved.

SCRIPTURE: Young people should be able to locate and quote. . .

·Genesis 1:1.
·Psalm 1.
·Psalm 23.
·John 3:16-17 (the Golden Text).
·Galatians 5:22-23 (the Fruit of the Spirit).
·Matthew 6:9-13 (the Lord’s Prayer).
·Matthew 7:12 (the Golden Rule).
·Matthew 22:36-40 (the Great Commandments).
·Matthew 28:18-20 (the Great Commission).
·2 Peter 1:5-8 (the Christian Graces).
·Acts 2:37-39.
·Hebrews 11:1.
·1 Corinthians 13:4-7.
·Philippians 2:3-8.
·Philippians 4:4-7.
·Ephesians 2:8-10.
·John 14:6.
·2 Timothy 3:16.

SKILLS: Young people should be able to demonstrate how to. . .

·Locate a passage of scripture quickly.
·Use a concordance or marginal reference.
·Locate and label key points of biblical geography on a map.
·Word a short prayer.
·Plan a personal or public devotional.


CONCEPTS: Young people should understand and be able to explain. . .

·The meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross (the atonement).
·The difference between the Old and New Testaments.
·Key biblical terms (for example, law, covenant, holiness, repentance, righteousness, gospel, faith, grace, mercy, love, redemption, church, baptism, hope, sin, forgiveness).
·Words describing the various types of biblical literature (for example, psalm, proverb, prophecy, parable, gospel, epistle, apocalyptic).
·The purpose of concordances, commentaries, atlases, and Bible dictionaries.
·The meaning and importance of the church.
·The differences between different translations, including the strengths and weaknesses of three in common use.
·The essence of great New Testament teachings (for example, the Sermon on the Mount, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, the qualities of church leaders in 1 Timothy 3, the marks of a true Christian in Romans 12, the importance of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13)
·The content or distinctive theme, briefly stated, of at least half of the books in the Bible (for example, Genesis—Adam to Joseph; Exodus—the story of Moses; Job—suffering; Psalms—poetic expressions of faith and praise; Jeremiah—the destruction of Jerusalem; Haggai—rebuilding the temple; Acts—the spread of the early church).


APPLICATIONS: Young people should be able to apply biblical principles in everyday life in order to. . .

·Explain to a friend how to become a Christian.
·Influence peers by setting a good example of personal morality.
·Serve others and show God’s love.
·Establish personal priorities and make good choices.
·Relate well to family, friends, and other people in general.
·Distinguish between Christianity and culture.
·Bear the fruit of the Spirit and grow in spiritual maturity.

May 25, 2007

What are Parables?

Jesus often spoke in riddles so his enemies could not entrap him (Mark 4:11-12, 33-34). These riddles we know as parables. The writer of Proverbs refers to "the words of the wise and their riddles" (Proverbs 1:5-6), that is, wise sayings couched in figurative language that cannot be understood at first glance. You might compare the lesson of a parable to a diamond engagement ring hidden in some everyday object to surprise and delight the bride to be.

The word "parable" is an English transliteration of the Greek word parabole from which we also get the mathematical term "parabola." The Greek word refers to setting two things side by side for the sake of comparison. A parable is essentially a comparison, couched in figurative language, that has religious or moral significance. In Luke 4:23, for example, Jesus classifies the proverbial taunt, "Physician, heal yourself," as a parabole. It is a parable inasmuch as it makes an invidious comparison: Jesus to a quack doctor.

A parable, therefore, can take several forms (taunt, proverb, riddle, wise saying, or story), but it always involves some sort of comparison. When Jesus asked, "Can a blind man lead a blind man" (Luke 6:39), he was speaking in parables just as Ezekiel did when he said, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (Ezekiel 18:2).

When the people of Jesus' day first heard his parables, they apparently did not understand them as readily as we do today. After all, the parables have been analyzed and explained for 2000 years. It is easy to forget that, on first hearing, their meanings often seemed mysterious. In his parables, Jesus compared the familiar (everyday objects or experience) to the strange (his revolutionary teaching about the kingdom of God). His enemies certainly sensed they were being attacked in the parables, but it was difficult for them to pin him down (Luke 20:19).

The most familiar parables are those twenty or so comparisons that Jesus developed into stories (for example, the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son). Interestingly, not one of these story parables is recorded in the Gospel of John. Most of them appear in Matthew and Luke. Intended no doubt both to teach and to delight, these story parables represent complex comparisons that may have multiple levels of meaning.

One danger in studying the parables is that the reader may over-interpret by reading too many comparisons into the story. Parables are normally not allegories. In an allegory like John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, virtually every detail of the story represents a point of comparison, whereas in a parable, Jesus usually has only one main point to make. The interpreter of a parable must eat the meat and discard the bones. Misunderstanding a parable generally involves mistaking bones for meat, that is, making something major out of a minor detail.

Jesus used his parables to disarm his listeners much as Nathan did with David (2 Samuel 12:1-15). The indirect comparisons deflected the anger of his enemies while clothing his message in the power of human interest. The ordinary objects compared—wineskins, vineyards, mustard seeds, fishing nets, shepherds—are no longer as familiar to us today as they were to their original audience. Ironically, while the literal meaning of a parable may require some explanation for modern readers, the figurative messages remain clear and true because people themselves have changed less inwardly than their surroundings have changed outwardly. To read a parable is to read literature. The parables of Jesus call us to imagine an ancient time, to look beneath the surface, and to experience the affective power of story.


1.How many main points does Nathan's parable have in 2 Samuel 12:1-4? Is Bathsheba the little lamb?

2.In 2 Kings 14:9-10, Jehoash, king of Israel, sends a parable to Amaziah, king of Judah. What point was he trying to make about the thistle and the cedar? Why do you think he used a parable to make it?

3.Do you believe in the power of stories? What is a fictional story that has had significant meaning for you or that has directly influenced your life?

4.Do you know any modern parables you can relate? Have you yourself ever used a parable to make a point?

5.Although John's gospel does not have any story parables, it nonetheless contains several examples of metaphorical language (John 3:8, 29; 4:35-38; 5:19-23; 8:12, 35; 10:1-5, 7-9, 11-13; 11:9-10; 12:24, 35-36; 14:6; 15:1-2; 16:21). Pick two of these passages at random and explain why they are parables or why they aren't. Is every comparison a parable? If not, what turns a comparison into a parable?

6.Jeremiah 10:3-4 has sometimes been called the "Christmas Tree" passage because some readers have seen it as a attack on Christmas trees. What do you think this passage is talking about? Is it a parable? Why or why not?

May 26, 2007

What is Gossip?

A recent newspaper article cites a British study as saying men gossip as much as women. I have often wondered what people really mean by the word "gossip." Is gossip any conversation that refers to an absent third party? Is history merely gossip about the dead?

Obviously, people are interested in other people, both dead and alive, and talk about them frequently. Is gossip any chatty talk or is it, by definition, always critical and negative?

Here is what seems to me to be the biblical view of gossip.

·Gossip is sensational speech about the private, personal lives of other people. (Proverbs 11:13; 20:19)

As a famous socialite was reputed to say, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”

·Gossip is usually unsubstantiated speech based on rumor and hearsay. (see Proverbs 17:9)

As one gossip said to another, “I’ve already told you more than I know.”

·Gossip is covert speech, typically comprised of tales whispered behind a person’s back. (see Proverbs 18:8)

·Gossip is unnecessary speech, often amounting to foolish and idle chatter. (see 2 Timothy 5:13)

·Gossip is unflattering and unkind speech whose intentions are dubious at best. (see Romans 1:29-30)

One form of gossip is discussing other people’s character flaws. Another is listening to such talk and discussion.

·Gossip is generally harmful and hurtful speech, harmful to reputations and hurtful to feelings when discovered. (see 2 Corinthians 12:20)

·Gossip at its worst is deliberately malicious, untrue speech, the essence of slander. (see 3 John 10)

Gossip, I would conclude, is unverified information about a person’s private life that he or she might prefer to keep hidden. To avoid gossip, we should apply the Rotarian test to what we say:

1.Is it the truth?

2.Is it fair to all concerned?

3.Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

4.Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

May 27, 2007

How to Justify a Materialistic Lifestyle

·Materialism as Sport: “The money is just a way of keeping score.” “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.”

·Materialism as Style: “You can never be too rich or too thin.”

·Materialism as Achievement: “Those who say that money is the root of all evil are those who don’t have any.”

·Materialism as Self-Esteem: “A man is worth as much as he has and has as much as he is worth.”

·Materialism as Therapy: “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”

·Materialism as Security: “Money isn’t everything--as long as you have enough.”

·Materialism as Happiness. “Those who think money doesn’t buy happiness don’t know where to shop.” "It's easy to be content with your lot if you have a lot to be content with."

·Materialism as Success: “Make enough money, everything will follow.” “Money is good, more money is better.”

·Materialism as Self-Reliance: “God helps those who help themselves.”

·Materialism as Civic Duty: “The more I buy, the more jobs I help create.”

·Materialism as Christian Duty: “A man who does not provide luxuries for his own is worse than an infidel.”

·Materialism as Philanthropy: “The more I have, the more I can give.”

·Materialism as Calling: “Money is the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling.”

·Materialism as Inevitability: “All economic behavior proceeds from self-interest.”

May 28, 2007

In the Bedroom: Christianity and Sex

In November of 2001, a small film entitled In the Bedroom received critical acclaim. It is the story of a college-age student who has an affair with a young woman who is separated from her abusive husband. The husband finds out about the affair and kills the student. But the central characters in this movie are really the young man’s parents. We witness their terrible grief at the loss of a talented and beloved son, a grief that threatens to destroy their own marriage. Finally, another murder occurs as the father, a mild-mannered physician, decides to take the law into his own hands and exact vengeance on the man who murdered his only child.

The title, In the Bedroom, suggests many things: First, the sexual intercourse itself that entails terrible consequences; second, the murder stemming from the abusive husband's discovery of the student in his estranged wife’s house; and third, the final scene as the father returns home and climbs into bed after taking his vengeance. Everything of significance is connected to a bedroom. The title underscores the theme of privacy. All these events happen in secret or behind closed doors, yet we see how private acts may publicly and permanently damage the lives of so many people.

From a Christian viewpoint, one obvious moral of the movie is that there is no such thing as safe sex if it is illicit sex. Curiously, though, most critics reviewing the film never talk about sexual immorality as precipitating the tragedy. Rather, they choose to see the student’s murder by a jealous husband as the crucial event that unleashes all the ensuing misery.

I believe the greatest gulf between Christian ethics and secular ethics lies in the realm of sexual morality. Christian ethical behavior demands sexual purity and holiness (Ephesians 5:3-5; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; Matthew 5:27-28; 31-32; 15:19-20). Sexual holiness restricts sexual intercourse exclusively to marriage (Hebrews 13:4) and demands that the marriage be heterosexual as well as monogamous (1 Corinthians 6:9). Following Old Testament teachings, it also limits the choice of a heterosexual marriage partner by, for example, excluding close relatives (Leviticus 18).

Secular ethics, on the other hand, sees Christian sexual taboos as unnatural, psychologically unhealthy, and unrealistic. If ethics asks the question, “What ought one to do?,” secular ethics concludes, “All other things being equal, one ought to do what comes naturally; one ought not repress the natural inclinations of human sexuality.” For secular ethics, sex before marriage is not wrong in and of itself, nor is homosexuality. Secular ethics respects the marriage vows, of course, but the wrong it sees in sex outside of marriage is disloyalty or imprudence, not adultery. And disloyalty or imprudence, while regrettable according to secular values, may sometimes be justified by one’s personal quest for self-fulfillment and by one’s individual pursuit of happiness. Secular values may compensate for secular shortcomings, just as the Christian virtue of love "covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

For Christians, fornication and adultery count among the worst of sins and can never be justified. The very words “adulterer” and “adulterous” are used in scripture as insults, as one-word encapsulations of an evil, wicked, sinful, and depraved society (James 4:4; Matthew 12:39; 16:4; Mark 8:38). When the Christian leaders met in Jerusalem to decide what should be required of Gentile converts, only four demands were made, one of which was to abstain from sexual immorality (Acts. 15:19-20).

Secularists tend to dismiss Christian views on sex by labeling them Puritanism or Victorianism. In part they do this, I think, because they are wary of attacking Christianity (and Judaism, for that matter) head-on, something that would be politically incorrect in a nominally Christian country. But they also do it because they realize consciously or unconsciously that so-called Puritanism and Victorianism are distortions of true Christianity and therefore easy targets. Christians need to be careful about giving their opponents ammunition by succumbing to the faults of Puritanism and Victorianism such as pettiness, hypocrisy, reductionism, self-righteousness, and authoritarianism.

Non-Christians may well ask, “Why is the Christian God so hung up on sex? It is natural, it is enjoyable, it is cool and sophisticated, and, if properly conducted, it is harmless.” Some of the Corinthians were saying much the same thing to Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. The way Paul answers them is interesting. He doesn’t argue against sexual immorality pragmatically by making a list of its dangerous consequences. Rather, he talks about Christian integrity--what it really means to be a Christian.

To the argument, “It is natural,” Paul replies that one day God is going to destroy all things that are natural. To the argument, “It is enjoyable,” Paul replies that we can become enslaved by our pleasures and lose our dignity. To the argument, “It is cool and sophisticated,” Paul says that, in reality, it is degrading because it compromises the Holy Spirit of God within us.

In Christian ethics, what you are determines what you ought to do. Genuine Christians do not behave well mainly because it contributes to the greater good of humanity; they do not behave well to avoid contracting a disease. Rather, they do right because they believe they share the divine nature of God. Their bodies are meant for God (1 Corinthians 6:13), that is, meant to be inhabited by God. Their bodies are the members of Christ and dwellings of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:14, 19). Already, to that extent, Christians are divine beings and, as such, should live holy, divine lives. That is why, Paul says, “the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18). The purpose of sexual purity, and indeed of all Christian ethics, is summed up by Paul’s conclusion, “So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20).

God confined sex to marriage because marriage was intended to be a faithful and committed relationship, a proper place for the intimacy and powerful emotions involved. Faithfulness is an essential quality of godliness. The Bible describes God as faithful (Deuteronomy 7:9-11), and clearly implies that those who want to be like God will shun sexual immorality and the selfishness it embodies.

Much of the modern world, however, does not acknowledge God, and consequently sees no ethical problem in the pursuit of sexual pleasure so long as it does no obvious and irreparable harm. But in all intellectual honesty, we all are well aware that sex outside the bounds of faithfulness often leads to pain and hurt. Films like In the Bedroom send a message to society, whether the critics care to admit it or not. If you think sexual intercourse outside of marriage is harmless, see the movie.


1.When I was a teenager, it frustrated me that my mother would watch her favorite soap opera every day. I considered her daily dose of trash TV, with all its adulterous affairs, to be inappropriate viewing for a Christian. Was I right or was I a little priggish prude?

2.Is polygamy adultery? Should an African with four wives who is converted to Christianity be compelled to divorce three of his wives?

3.Victorianism has the reputation of lumping any and everything remotely associated with sex (dancing, shorts, mixed swimming, even flirting) into the category “sexual immorality,” effectively putting a hedge around the sin. What do you think about this?

4.What would you say to a granddaughter if she told you she was moving in with her boyfriend without the sanction of marriage?

5.Is a marriage ceremony necessary to beginning a sexual union? Is a faithful common law marriage acceptable in God’s sight?

6.Sometimes an elderly man and woman will move in together and, for reasons pertaining to their estates, decide not to marry. Is it right for unmarried couples to live together, even if there is no sex involved?

7.If you were to see a good friend’s husband or wife romantically involved with another person, should you tell your friend about it? When should one get involved in other people’s sexual sins and when should one keep silent?

8.Would it be morally acceptable for two Christian homosexuals to live together as a couple if they were sexually faithful to one another?

May 29, 2007

Christian Approaches to Work and Money

1.Choose voluntary simplicity: Deliberately live on as little as necessary so you can spend your surplus time and resources on altruistic pursuits rather than on making money.

“Frugality is good if liberality be joined with it. The first is leaving off superfluous expenses, the last bestowing them to the benefit of others that need.” –William Penn (1644-1718)

Biblical Example: John the Baptist (Matthew 3:4; 11:8, 18)


*Financial discipline and independence
*Time to work exclusively for good causes


*Simplicity without creativity easily becomes penury.
*You may be unable to help others monetarily.

2.Earn all you can, then practice “radical philanthropy” by giving away 50-90 percent of your income.

“Work as hard as you can to make all the money you can, and spend as little as you can in order to give away all you can.” –John Wesley (1703-1791)

Biblical Example: Zacchaeus (Luke 19:8)


*Satisfaction of living an altruistic life
*Sense of being able to make a real difference in many human lives


*You find that all your time is spent in the process of making money.
*You are sorely tempted to keep more and more for yourself and your family.

3.Practice moderation: Deliberately choose a lifework that will provide you with a decent but not extravagant living.

“I am indeed rich, since my income is superior to my expense, and my expense is equal to my wishes.” –Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)

Biblical Example: Agur (Proverbs 30:8-9)


*Time for church, family, and other people
*A sense of balance in one's life


*Moderation may lead to mediocrity and regret.
*Modest means do not allow for grand dreams. You will never be able to do as much good as you would have liked.

About May 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Trite but True in May 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

April 2007 is the previous archive.

June 2007 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35