Toward a Complete Spirituality

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In my personal journey to understand the depth of Christian spirituality I have frequently cited the need to consider the four questions typically posed in philosophy, which are:

1. Metaphysics—who is God?

2. Anthropology—who are we?

3. Epistemology—how do we know?

4. Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)

As an author, my first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question and my third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. My fourth book, Simple Faith, examined the epistemological question. In this book, I have focused on ethics, the fourth question. While seeking a complete spirituality may seem like an arbitrary decision, serious problems arise when any one of these questions is neglected.

Neglect of Metaphysics

Postmodern culture’s almost exclusive focus on the physical world neglects the metaphysical. Metaphysics literally means above physics or, better, beyond physics. Postmodern people struggle to understand God, especially his transcendence.

Having created the known universe, God stands apart from it or, in other words, he transcends the universe. For us as mortal human beings, there is no path up the mountain, God must come down to us. As Christians, we believe that he came to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Evidence of the neglect of metaphysics shows up in the popular expression: I am spiritual, just not religious. Here spirituality is defined as limited to the human experience, especial feelings of ecstasy—great joy or happiness, even if drug induced. While this is nothing new, postmodern people seem stuck in moment of time believing that everything is new. More to the point, however, is the observation that the neglect of metaphysics is rampant in our time.

Neglect of Anthropology

For Christians, the neglect of anthropology manifests itself in the acceptance of Greek anthropology where heart and mind are separate. Emotions are more valued or thinking is more valued, depending on who you talk to, but the two are held to be distinctly different. This separation poses a problem for faith because faith requires heart and mind to be considered together.

While this subject is timely, it is not new. Theologian Jonathan Edwards (2009, 13), writing in 1746 about the effects of the Great Awakening, noted that both head and heart were necessarily involved in effective discipling. He coined the phraseholy affections to distinguish the marks of the work of the Spirit from other works and associated these holy affections directly with scripture.

More recently, Elliott (2009, 46-47) distinguishes two theories of emotions:  the cognitive theory and the non-cognitive theory. The cognitive theory of emotions argues that “reason and emotion are interdependent” while the non-cognitive theories promote the separation of reason and emotion. In other words, the cognitive theory states that we get emotional about the things that we strongly believe.

Elliott notes that the God of the Bible only gets angry on rare occasions when people have disobeyed the covenant or expressed a hardness of the heart, as in the case of Pharaoh (Exod 4:21). Our emotions are neither random nor unexplained because they are not mere physiology. Elliott (2009, 53-54) writes: “if the cognitive theory is correct, emotions become an integral part of our reason and our ethics” informing and reinforcing moral behavior.

Neglect of anthropology is perhaps the single, most important reason that the Christian faith has been hard to understand and accept in our time.

Neglect of Epistemology

The neglect of epistemology is closely related to the neglect of anthropology. Few people come to faith because of intellectual arguments (epistemology is the study of knowledge or how we know what we know), but many people who have come to faith for emotional reasons later fall away because their faith appears to lack substance. When heart and mind are not engaged together, the absence of one affects the durability of the other.

The anti-intellectualism of American culture appears like the great enigma of the postmodern age. The advances of technology that have led to the convenience of communication and the extension of life through new medical discoveries, yet the thought processes required to develop and sustain these technologies are known to a tiny number of people. Instead, youth culture, which focuses on hedonistic entertainments and moral laxity, appears parasitic relative to this great intellectual heritage.

Neglect of epistemology leaves people apprehensive of the faith that they have seen in others and makes it hard for them to understand the logic of faith and to accept the lifestyle changes required to join the Christian community.

Neglect of Ethics

The neglect of ethics is the problem that theological principles are in tension with one another and always have been, something that is so obvious that it cannot be overlooked and requires serious discernment. For example, how do you love a sinner who refuses to confess their sin and forces you to pay their consequences? How do you practice forgiveness? Ethics training may not answer the question, but it will help you frame it appropriately for further reflection and future action.

Ethics is never devoid of a context for acting out our faith, be it character formation within our own lives, being mentored within the community of faith, or learning to assume leadership. It is therefore useful to review case studies of each of these contexts both in scripture and in our present circumstances. If our spirituality is lived theology, then it is informed by our theology and, in turn, our life informs our theological reflection.

A special form of this neglect of ethics arises when people start to see the church as a holy huddle a kind of shelter from the storms of life, rather than as a team meeting of the faithful, searching together for answers in the midst of the struggles of life. This holy huddle can take the form of an entirely intellectualized faith or of a faith focused entirely on service to the neglect of the interior life. Either way, the hard tradeoffs implied in limited time, energy, and resources are overlooked and growth in discipleship remains frozen in time.

Neglect of ethics becomes obvious in the life of the church and community more widely when political views replace honest discernment and the focus on God melts away amidst senseless conflict.

Life in Tension

Considering all four of the questions taken from philosophy does not lead to a trouble-free Christian life, but it prevents the neglect of important aspects of our faith. Tension will always exist between to the life of the Christian and the culture that we find ourselves in. We need to accept this tension and learn to live with it because without tension our lives cannot be transformed into the image of Christ and we cannot be a witness to that truth.

References

Edwards, Jonathan. 2009. The Religious Affections (Orig Pub 1746). Vancouver:  Eremitical Press.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional.

Toward a Complete Spirituality

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Presuppositional Ethics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Much of our ethical training is unconsciously absorbed from our surroundings at home, in church, and in society. Even when we are given formal ethics training in our offices, it typically focuses on the minimum legal requirement for the office to escape legal liability under specific rules, regulations, or laws. The real business of ethical behavior is seldom discussed, taught, or even codified. Even the Christian faith itself is more caught than taught, as an old saw goes. In philosophy, this implicit knowledge is referred to as a presupposition.

Most of the time in philosophy and theology, we assume a cognitive approach to learning. The presumption is that human being are essentially rational and that faith itself is a rational undertaking. The Bible suggests, however, that this cognitive approach has two important limitations when we discuss ethics and faith.

Creation Influences Thought

The first limitation arises because we are created, male and female, in the image of a triune God. Being created to live and reproduce in families implies that we experience the world in community. Much as we want our independence, our thoughts, feelings, and language are not entirely our own.

Being created in the image of a triune God reinforces a focus on community. The Bible portrays God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a complete community in the godhead, as Jesus references after the Last Super: “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (John 15:26) In imaging a triune God, we image a community, something we can neither fully embody nor understand. By contrast, a unitary god is fixed, stable, and offers mostly an opportunity for self-projection, where a triune God is dynamic, engaging, and alive.

In particular, the language we speak shapes our perceptions of reality in fundamental ways, not the least of which is that it reflects the culture we live and worship in. Our attitudes about gender, work, faith, and many other things are embedded in the words that we use and do not use. We are not alone in this world even in our own thoughts and feelings—we carry our community with us wherever we go.

The Hebrew Heart

The second limitation of the cognitive approach arises out of who we are. The Hebrew mindset assumed in the New Testament saw mind and body as different parts of a unified whole, whose center is the heart (cardia) while the Greeks distinguished mind and body as separate. Confusion arises when we assume incorrectly that the New Testament sees the heart as a body part and we treat heart and mind as separated, like the Greeks and most secular people.

This confusion implies that the cognitive approach cannot fully inform our faith because it is based on faulty Greek anthropology. As theologian James K.A. Smith (2016, 2) writes:

Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t inform our intellect but forms our very loves…His teaching doesn’t just touch the calm, cool, collected space of reflection and contemplation, he is a teacher who invades the heated, passionate regions of the heart. He is the Word who penetrates even dividing the soul and spirit; he judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12)

Inherent in this statement is the Hebrew view of anthropology cited above—note the two references to heart. What Greek would talk about “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”? Drawing attention to this anthropology, Smith (2016, 5) asks: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” If he had the rational mind in view, no such gap would exist but, of course, we all experience this gap.

This line of thought leads Smith (2016, 7) to observe: “what if you are defined not by what you know [the mind] but by what you desire? [the heart]” If our desires are reflected more in our actions than in our words, then this Hebrew anthropology leads us immediately into an inconvenient, but vital, discussion of ethics because our hearts are not lily-white clean as our words. It also forces us to discuss how we know what we know (the epistemology question) because our hearts are not so easily persuaded to follow even our own thoughts. Suddenly, much of the New Testament language sounds less churchy and more informed by an alternative world view, one decidedly not Greek.

Clearly, we cannot talk about thinking independent of feelings and we cannot think entirely independent of the communities that we reside and worship in. We need to proceed to treat them as interdependent, complicated as that might be. Still, as best we can, we need to understand better how we know what we know before we can even talk about our faith.

Ethical Teaching in the Psalms

An important example of ethics being taught through osmosis is found in the liturgical use of the psalms. Wenham (2012, 1-2) writes:

“It is the ethic taught by the liturgy of the Old Testament, the Psalter, that is the focus of this book. The psalms were sung in the first and second temples, and in the subsequent two millennia they have been reused in the prayers of the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church. As we will see, the psalms have much to say about behavior, about what actions please God and what he hates, so that anyone praying them is simultaneously being taught an ethic.”

Wenham (2012, 7) goes on to explain:

“This book, then, is an attempt to begin to deal with a blind spot in current biblical and theological thinking. I have called it Psalms as Torah out of my conviction that the psalms were and are vehicles not only of worship but also of instruction, which is the fundamental meaning of Torah, otherwise rendered ‘law’. From the very first psalm, the Psalter presents itself as a second Torah, divided into five books like the Pentateuch, and it invited its readers to meditate on them day and night, just as Joshua was told to meditate on the law of Moses (Ps 1.2; Josh 1:8).”

A key insight that Wenham offers is the effect of memorization and putting the Psalms to music on ethical teaching. In my own case, I can remember memorizing Psalm 23 and Psalm 100 many times through the years, even in different languages, and I prayed Psalm 8 daily as a centering prayer for about 10 years. I used to joke, be careful what songs you sing because once you get Alzheimer’s, they are the last thing that you forget—you don’t want to leave this world singing the Oscar Mayer Wiener jiggle!

Wenham notes that many Psalms are written in the first person. Repeating such psalms in prayer or song accordingly is like repeating a vow before God, yourself, and others. He writes:

“If we praise a certain type of behavior in our prayers, we are telling God that this is how we intend to behave. On the other hand, if in prayer we denounce certain acts and pray for God to punish them, we are in effect inviting God to judge us if we do the same. This makes the ethics of liturgy uniquely powerful. It makes a stronger claim on the believer than either law, wisdom, or story, which are simply subject to passive reception: one can listen to a proverb or a story and then take it or leave it, but if you pray ethically, you commit yourself to a path of action.” (Wenham 2012, 57)

Because many of us grew up singing hymns and liturgy inspired by Psalms, this tradition helped insulate us from less reflective and negative influences that seem so pervasive today—it’s not just the Oscar Mayer Wiener commercials.

References

Smith, James K. A. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

Wenham, Gordon J. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Presuppositional Ethics

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Ministerial Ethics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Pastors point people to God. Everything else they do is a means to that end.

Because God is ever-present in our lives, it takes special insight to become aware of God’s Shekinah cloud in everyday life:

“Shekinah is Hebrew word that refers to a collective vision that brings together dispersed fragments of divinity. It is usually understood as a light-disseminating presence bringing an awareness of God to a time and place where God is not expected to be—a place…God’s personal presence—and filled that humble, modest, makeshift, sorry excuse for a temple with glory.” (Peterson 2011, 100-101)

Without assistance, people are more likely to see Harvey, the six foot invisible rabbit,⁠1 which makes the pastor’s role unique. 

The insight required of pastors is ironically not unique to pastors is a Christian mindset where everything is evaluated relative to Christ. While the world around us thinks of this attitude as obsession, it is a Christian distinctive seldom tolerated even among pastors. Blamires (2005, 148) writes:

“For if the Christian faith is true, and the Christian church the authoritative vehicle of salvation in time, then it is the most urgent, inescapable need of the modern [and postmodern] world to adapt itself to the church [not the other way around].”

Elsewhere I have described this mindset this way: Jesus is my denominator—the measure of all things. Without this mindset, the Shekinah cloud becomes invisible like Harvey and salvation disappears and becomes illusive, out of reach. Pastors unable to bring it back to view morph into beggars, social workers, and purveyors of religious entertainment, depending on your default prejudices.

Pastoring by the Numbers

The bane of pastors is the paying of bills.

If you take the Jewish concept of a minion and combine it will the tithe, you get an interesting transition into the Old Testament answer to financing a Rabbi. In order to hold a worship service in the Jewish tradition, a Rabbi needed ten adult men—a minion. If each of these men paid the tithe (which was an obligatory ten percent of income), then the Rabbi would enjoy the same living standard as the average person in his minion.

In a typical American church, people given an average of about one person of their income. This implies that a pastor’s minion is about a hundred families, which is coincidently the size of a typical church. This source of mathematics then suggests why we have seen the growth of mega churches who host a large pastoral staff and can offer numerous programs and quality music in worship.

The problem with this arrangement is that pointing someone to God requires intimate knowledge of the person in question, acquired only through spend time with them. This was entirely likely for a Rabbi with this minion, but seems far fetched for a pastor with his minions. Intimate communication cannot be one-way communication.

Other Duties as Assigned

The Book of Order 2007/2009 of the Presbyterian Church (USA) describes the duties of a pastor in these terms:

“The permanent pastoral officers of ministers of the Word and Sacrament are pastors and associate pastors. When a minister of the Word and Sacrament is called as a pastor or associate pastor of a particular church or churches, she or he is to be responsible for a quality of life and relationships that commend the Gospel to all persons and that communicate its joy and its justice. The pastor is responsible for studying, teaching, and preaching the Word, for administrating Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for praying with and for the congregation. With the elders, the pastor is to encourage the people in the worship and service of God, to equip and enable them for their tasks within the church and their mission in the world; to exercise pastoral care, devoting special attention to the poor, the sick, the troubled, and the dying; to participate in governing responsibilities, including leadership of the congregation in implementing the principles of participation and inclusiveness in the decision making of the church, and its task of reaching out in concern and service to the life of the human community as a whole. With the deacons the pastor is to share in the ministries of sympathy, witness, and service. In addition to these pastoral duties, he or she is responsible for sharing in the ministry of the church in the governing bodies above the session and in ecumenical relationships.” (PCUSA 2007, G-6.0202b)

The responsibilities unique to pastors are in practice the administration of the sacraments. Other responsibilities, including preaching, teaching, leadership, and pastoral care, are shared with others in the church.⁠2 

Note the bureaucratic nature of the above pastoral definition. First, terms are defined. The office of pastor (and associate pastor) is defined as permanent. Assistant pastors are neither called nor permanent. Second, the call is focused on modeling a quality of life and relationships of the Gospel (not God). Third, responsibility include studying, teaching, and preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and praying for the congregation. God himself is not mentioned until the fourth sentence where God appears in the phrase: “the worship and service of God.”

The point of discussing other duties as assigned is that the ethics of pastoring requires a clear focus on God in all that we do that can sometimes be hard to maintain within the institution of the church.

Case Studies in Ministry

While ministry is often treated as something of a mystery, it is a skill that can be learned and improved upon with practice. One way to improve on ministry practice is to work as team and to encourage the team to reflect on and discuss events that do not go as planned using a case study approach. 

In their book, Shared Wisdom, A Guide to Case Study Reflection, authors Jeffrey Mahan, Barbara Troxell, and Carol Allen (MTA; 1993, 12-19) see the goal of case studies is to equip a presenter of the case study to return to ministry with greater insight and confidence in themselves and in God’s provision and protection.

Case studies are most helpful when they assist participants in learning from their mistakes, but, of course, focusing on mistakes requires that one first admit to them. In a world in which politicians and celebrities daily lose their jobs over a single mistake, even in the church it is totally counter-cultural to admit to and talk about mistakes. The need for confidentially is accordingly multifaceted—both those studied and those bringing forth the study need to have the process treated confidentially.

MTA (1993, 116-117) recommend a case composed of five parts:

1. Background. Usually a case study focuses on a specific event that requires some context be provided.

2. Description. In describing the event, usual dialogue is given to illustrate what happened and how the presenter responded.

3. Analysis. “Identify issues and relationships, with special attention to changes and resistance to change.”

4. Evaluation. The presenter assesses their performance–what worked, what did not work, and why.

5. Theological Reflection. How does our faith inform this event?

A case is about two pages single-spaced and the presentation should run about an hour.

While the ideal setting for discussion of case studies is with a ministry team, a modified case study can also be useful in writing about ministry. Clearly, the choice of events to study is critical in revealing strengths and weaknesses in ministry. In writing about actual people, however, the case study may need to be recast as a study of a biblical or fictional character in such a way that identity of the persons involved is maintained. In preaching, this often ends up being an “I know a person who” story that frequently is a circumlocution for the pastor giving the talk (Savage 1996, 89-92).

1 This is an allusion to a movie called Harvey about a man who sees a six-foot, invisible rabbit and is committed to an insane asylum until others start seeing the rabbit for themselves. Harvey is a 1950 American comedy-drama film based on Mary Chase’s play of the same name, directed by Henry Koster, and starring James Stewart and Josephine Hull (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvey_(film)).

2 Note that because the Book of Order is frequently amended, the title includes a date and the terminology often changes, even for the title of pastor. I cite this polity document as an example primarily because I am familiar with it and not because it is a model for other denominations.

References

Blamires, Harry. 2005. The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Orig Pub 1963) Vancouver: Regent College Publishing.

Mahan, Jeffrey H., Barbara B. Troxell, and Carol J. Allen (MTA). 1993. Shared Wisdom: A Guide to Case Study Reflection in Ministry. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Peterson, Eugene H.  2011. The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 2007. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part II: Book of Order, 2007/2009. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Savage, John. 1996. Listening & Caring Skills: A Guide for Groups and Leaders. Nashville:  Abingdon Press.

Ministerial Ethics

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Election, Judgment, and Reluctant Prophets

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

No two doctrines of the church are further from the hearts of Americans than the doctrines of election and judgment, as Richard Niebuhr (1937, 137) characterized liberal Protestant theology: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross.” Without judgment there can be no election because the two doctrines are mirror images of one another. Still, election is misunderstood as a kind of holy huddle, when it is at the heart of salvation and the antithesis to judgment.

Blessed to be a Blessing

McDonald (2010, 190-191) observes that the holy huddle is a modern myth writing:  “…election is the expression of—and the chosen means to further—the triune God’s purpose of blessing.” The interpretative verse arises in the covenant of God with Abraham:

“Now the LORD said to Abram, Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:1-3)

Notice how this covenant begins with a stipulation: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house.” In modern parlance, Abraham, grow up and stand on your own feet. If Abraham is willing to take the risk of becoming an independent adult by leaving his father’s protection, connections, and wealth, then God says he will bless him to become a blessing to others. Even before the establishment of the Nation of Israel, God has laid out his plan to evangelize the world, anticipating the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20) . 

It is interesting that the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-15) depicts the son that “took a journey into a far country” as the son who eventually comes to love and appreciate his father. Thus, the inward looking church—the “holy huddle”—appears more like the spiteful, older son who stayed home and, in terms of the covenant, refused to be a blessing to others.

Sodom and Gomorrah

It is interesting that in our generation, the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is interpreted primarily in terms of the judgment of God on these two cities for their sexual sin, including homosexual sin. Yet, the context of the story is a dialogue between God and Abraham that begins with: 

“The LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (Gen 18:17-18)

While the judgment of the cities is certainly topical, the focus of the story is on Abraham’s handling of God’s disclosure. What does Abraham do? Abraham immediately begins to intercede for Sodom and Gomorrah knowing that his self-absorbed nephew, Lot, lives near Sodom. 

The key phrase in Abraham’s intercession is: “Will you [God] indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen 18:23) God does not spare the cities, but he does send his angel to rescue Lot and his family.

What is interesting about this passage is that God reveals his judgment to Abraham, a stand in for the rest of us, to see how Abraham will react. In this example, Abraham passes the test when he exhibits compassion for the cities and engages God in intercessory prayer. 

The Reluctant Prophet

How many of us would pass Abraham’s test? In scripture the counter-example to Abraham arises in the story of the Prophet Jonah. In this short story, we read:

“Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:1-2)

God’s disclosure to Jonah is similar to that of Abraham. Nineveh is another evil city that God that God has basically hinted to Jonah will soon be destroyed. But unlike Sodom and Gomorrah, God offers the city an alternative by means of Jonah who is sent to “call out against it.” 

Knowing that Nineveh was the hometown of Sennacherib king of Assyria who had seized all of Judea, except for Jerusalem (Isa,. 36:1), Jonah hated the Ninevites and, instead of going to preach God’s mercy to them, he got on a ship to escape from God and his mission. Then, as every Sunday school kid knows, a storm came up, the sailors tossed Jonah overboard, and he is swallowed by a whale who, after three days, spits him up on a beach. God then repeats his request for Jonah to go to Nineveh. Listen to why Jonah refused to go:

“And he prayed to the LORD and said, O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jon 4:2)

In this response, Jonah recites Exodus 34:6, which recounts God’s character traits. Knowing God is merciful, Jonah refused to preach repentance to the Ninevites, but later does so reluctantly and they do repent, averting God’s wrath, much to Jonah’s consternation.

Judgment and End Times

Knowing that we are blessed to be a blessing and that God shares his plans for judgment with us through scripture and revelation, our attitude about those under judgment has to change. Judgment of those outside the community faith comes as a test of the hearts for those inside the community. Think about John’s prophecy about the end times:

“The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.” (Rev 11:18)

Do we cheer on the destruction of sinners, like Jonah, or intercede in prayer, like Abraham? Scripture is clear that God’s heart runs to mercy quicker than ours.

References

McDonald, Suzanne. 2010. Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others & Others to God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1937. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper Torchbooks. 

Election, Judgment, and Reluctant Prophets

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Relational Ethics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Humility is one of the Christ’s defining characteristics, which we know from the first three Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew. In these Beatitudes, Jesus focuses on tension within ourselves and honors disciples who live humbly, mourn their fallen state, and embody a spirit of meekness. Such disciples will receive heaven and  earth,  a merism⁠1 meaning everything (Matt 5:3-5). While we normally talk about humility in individualistic terms, the biblical context for humility comes in relationships with our families, churches, and communities.

The Christian Family

In Christ, we honor each individual regardless of status or age as being created in the image of God. The Apostle Paul’s writing is particularly clear on this point. He writes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) No ethic group is better than any other; no economic class is better than any other; and no gender is better than any other. But Paul goes further in his household codes:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Eph 6:1-4)

He is essentially saying that because we are all created in the image of God, no age group is better than any other. Neither a new born nor a senior standing at the gates of heaven is better than one another. Christians are to value life stages equally, honor the stage you are in, and not cling to any particular stage as if it were intrinsically preferred. 

In this sense, Christianity is a holistic faith that values maturity and embraces each stage of life with equal joy. This makes particular sense in a Christian context because our faith is rooted in history. Creation is the beginning and the second coming of Christ will be its end. Knowing the end is in Christ, we can journey through life in Christ meeting the challenges of each stage in life without fear.

Family Function

Consider the problem of raising children. Research by Stinnett and Beam (1999, 10) reports six characteristics of strong families:

  1. Commitment—these families promote each other’s welfare and happiness and value unity.
  2. Appreciation and Affection—strong families care about each other.
  3. Positive Communication—strong families communicate well and spend a lot of time doing it together.
  4. Time Together—Strong families spend a lot of quality time together.
  5. Spiritual Well-being—whether or not they attend religious services, strong families have a sense of a greater good or power in life.
  6. Ability to Cope with Stress and Crisis—strong families see crises as a growth opportunity.

Here we see humility being worked out in a family context. A key point in unifying these different models of behavior as it pertains to raising children is that adults are present and fully attentive to the children. 

The Family as an Emotional Unit

Family systems theory focuses on “the family as an emotional unit” rather than on particular individuals (Gilbert 2006, 3). This focus runs counter to most counseling approaches which assume the clinical model where the individual is treated as autonomous. Problems with their origin outside the individual obviously cannot be solved by treating the individual alone but that is the common practice. Family systems theory is often applied to other emotional units, like offices, churches, and groups, where relationships are intense and span many years.

The emotional unit is sometimes compared to the plumbing system in your house. If the water pressure rises to the breaking point, the leak will show up in the weakest link in the system. For families, the weakest link is usually a child so when parents quarrel continuously, it is often a child that starts acting out (nail biting, bed-wetting, fighting in school, teenage troubles, etc). If the child is sent to a therapist alone, the problem is not resolved, but when the parents stop quarreling, the child often stops acting out (Friedman 1985, 21).

Families matter more than normal (individualistic) intuition suggests. A death in the family may leave one person with chronic migraine headaches; another may develop back pain or experience a heart attack; a third may exhibit psychiatric dysfunction. While pastors and chaplains may not be surprised by this observation, standard medical and counseling training and practices focuses almost exclusively on the individual.

Humility as Emotional Maturity

Humility is not shyness and is not a natural trait—it is a learned trait that often comes with emotional maturity. It can also often healing within emotional units because anxiety is infectious ( Gilbert 2006, 7).

Anxiety transmission is more rapid and intense in tightly “fused” groups where individual are relatively close and unprocessed emotions run wild, so to speak ( Gilbert 2006, 21). Anxiety transmission is less rapid and intense in groups with individuals who are “differentiated” where individuals are able to separate feelings from thinking and emotions are less readily shared (Gilbert 2006, 33). Gilbert’s grandfather, who farms, attempts to be a “calming presence” when he is working with his cattle; otherwise when spooked, cattle will stampede (Gilbert 2006, 22).

Friedman (1985, 27-31) describes differentiation as the capacity to be an “I” while remaining connected. Differentiation increases the shock-absorbing capacity of the system by loosening the integration. The ideal here is to remain engaged in the system but in an non-reactive manner—a non-anxious presence. Great self-differentiation offers the opportunity for the entire system to change by reducing the automatic resistance to change posed by homeostasis (a tendency to resist change).  Family leaders (including pastors in church families) who develop greater self-differentiation can accordingly bring healing in the face of challenges in dysfunctional organizations.

1 Another famous merism is:  “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8)

References

Friedman, Edwin H. 1985. Generation to Generation:  Family Process in Church and Synagogue.  New York:  Gilford Press.

Gilbert, Roberta M. 2006. The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory:  A New Way of Thinking about the Individual and the Group. Front Royal (VA):  Leading Systems Press.0

Stinnett, Nick and Nancy  Stinnett,  Joe Beam, and Alice Beam (Stinnett and Beam). 1999. Fantastic Families: 6 Proven Steps to Building a Strong Family. New York: Howard Books.

Relational Ethics

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Problem of Boundaries

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Boundaries define who we are and who we are not. Undefended boundaries are an invitation to abuse and thievery. Whenever pain shows itself, we need to establish a new rule and defend it.

If our primary identity is in Christ, then we emulate Christ in all that we do, our duties in life are defined by Christ, and we act in all things expecting Christ’s return. Our boundaries reflect this life process both in our emotions and thinking.

The Good Samaritan

Cloud and Townsend (1992, 25) explain boundaries in these terms: 

“Just as homeowners set out physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t.”

Cloud and Townsend apply their concept of boundaries in interpreting Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus tells this story in Luke’s Gospel:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back (Luke 10:30-35).

Why is this story about the Good Samaritan rather than about the Great Samaritan? The Samaritan did not walk on the other side of the road like the priest or the Levite, but he also did not drop everything and nurse the man back to health. Instead, the Samaritan focused on what he was able to do. Then, he delegated further assistance to the innkeeper and continued his trip (Cloud and Townsend 1992, 38-39). In other words, the Good Samaritan saved the man’s life and, still, displayed healthy boundaries.

A Personal Audit

Cloud (2008, 69) suggests that a good place to start working on boundaries is with an audit. The purpose of this audit is to measure where you spend your time, disconnects between time spent and personal values, and what personal issues contribute to the problem.  This method of analysis is reminiscent of what Miller and Rollnick (2002, 38) referred to as gap analysis—highlighting the discrepancy between present behavior and broader goals and values.

Christian Boundaries

The concept of boundaries sounds a lot like law which raises a deep theological controversy about the relationship between law and Gospel, particularly when Gospel is defined in highly licentious terms. In parsing this controversy it is helpful to recognize that in the Gospels the Pharisees are pictured presenting a narrow interpretation of law to make it doable while Jesus normally widens the interpretation making compliance impossible without God’s divine intervention. More generally, Jesus speaks about principles while the Pharisees speak about rules.

When law in the commandments are expressed in principle, sin is also a violation of the principle of love in relationships with God and with neighbor (Matt 22:36-40).  Matthew outlines Jesus providing five cases where Mosaic Law is enlarged by considering underlying attitudes rather than technical compliance:  murder, adultery, the taking of oaths, application of lex talionis, and love of neighbor.⁠1  Each is introduced with an expression:  “you have heard it said.”  The case of murder is illustrative:  

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” (Matt 5:21-22).  

In other words, the act of murder starts with an attitude of anger.  It is, therefore, sinful to become angry for the wrong reasons because it leads to murder and, implicitly, violates the attitude of love.

In this context, it is clear that Jesus is not relinquishing the law or diminishing it in any way, as Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5:17) In this context, fulfilling the law implies a more stringent condition than the law, not a more lenient one, where three states of nature are possible: noncompliance with law (transgression), technical compliance (Pharisee position), and fulfilling the law (Gospel). Contrasting law and Gospel would be to compare the latter two states.

By widening the law, Jesus makes it obvious that we must make room in our lives for God and live within his healthy boundaries. The Ten Commandments cannot therefore be abandoned; mere compliance is an indication that we have not centered our lives on Christ. The point is not to try to become the “Great Samaritan,” but rather to lean on the Holy Spirit to guide on what to do and what not to do.

References

Cloud, Henry.  2008. The One-Life Solution:  Reclaiming Your Personal Life While Achieving Greater Professional Success. New York:  HarperCollins.

Cloud, Henry and John Townsend. 1992. Boundaries: When to Say YES; When to Say NO; To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Miller, William R. and Stephen Rollnick. 2002. Motivational Interviews: Preparing People for Change. New York: Guilford Press.

1 Matt 5:21, 5:27, 5:33, 5:38, and 5:43.

Problem of Boundaries

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Tradeoffs, Desires, and Temptations

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Bibles teaches ethics through commandments, lists, proverbs, parables, prophecies, colorful stories, and admonitions, which renders any summary incomplete. Some of the more important  lessons can, however, be subtle. 

Be a Good Example

Consider the admonition Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount, right after presenting the Beatitudes:

“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.” (Matt 5:14-16)

This admonition alludes to: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) We are to model God’s own behavior for the benefit of those around us. This makes perfect sense because we are created in God’s image (Gen 1:27), but for whose benefit are we doing this? As an inducement to live a holy life, keeping one eye on God and the other eye on how we appear to other people is a great motivator—if nothing more was said about behaving ethically, this is a great starting point.

Balance is a Virtue

The Ten Commandments are frequently a starting point for discussing community ethics, as they should be. But after giving Moses a second set of stone tables, after he broke the first set, we read:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”  (Exod 34:6-7)

Here God instructs Moses on how to interpret the Ten Commandments in view of God’s own character—God is merciful, gracious, patient, loving, and faithful. So if two commandments come in conflict, remember who God is and how he would deal with this conflict—one list (the commandments) is balanced by admonitions of a second list (the character traits). Another way to look at these two lists is that the commandments speak to the mind, while the character traits talk about the heart.

Start with the Heart

Jesus’ teaching also balances the heart and the mind. Consider this passage from the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that  everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:27-28)

Actually, Jesus places priority on the desires of the heart as the source of sin. In other words, do not consider yourself righteous simply because you have not yet had the opportunity to sin—manage your desires.

Dealing with Temptation

After his baptism but before he began his ministry, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert  where the Devil tempted him as recorded in the synoptic gospels.⁠1 Much like Adam and Eve are tempted with food, the devil starts by goading a hungry Jesus into turning a stone into bread. The devil tempts Jesus three times. Jesus cites scripture in response to each temptation. In the final temptation, the Devil’s temptation starts by misquoting scripture, but Jesus corrects the deception and resists the temptation.

Each temptation Jesus faces is a challenge facing all Christians, particularly leaders. Nouwen (2002, 7–8) summarizes these leadership challenges as the temptation to be relevant (provide food), to be spectacular (show your divinity), and to be powerful (take charge).

Family Tradeoffs

One of the defining characteristics of the Christian faith is honoring each individual regardless of age as being created in the image of God. The Apostle Paul’s writing is particularly clear on this point. He writes:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)

No ethic group is better than any other; no economic class is better than any other; and no gender is better than any other. But Paul goes further in his household codes:

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph 6:1-4)

He is essentially saying that because we are all created in the image of God, no age group is better than any other.  Neither a new born nor a senior standing at the gates of heaven is better than one another. Christians are to value life stages equally, honor the stage you are in, and not cling to any particular stage as if it were intrinsically preferred. 

In this sense, Christianity is a holistic faith that values maturity and embraces each stage of life with equal joy. This makes particular sense in a Christian context because our faith is rooted in history. Creation is the beginning and the second coming of Christ will be its end. Knowing the end is in Christ, we can journey through life in Christ.

The ethical example of family life in Christ is especially important because the family is the model for ethical behavior in the church. We are all brothers and sisters under one father, Jesus Christ.

1 Mark 1:12-13 gives a brief overview while Matt 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 are longer. The Luke version has the most detail. The second and third questions posed by Satan appear in different order in Matthew and Luke.

References

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2002. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company. 

Tradeoffs, Desires, and Temptations

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Identity, Duty, and Planning

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

What motivates us to act? 

We can act out of identity, duty, or planning (telos), but many times we fail to act. This is particularly true when our motivations are unclear or we are unprepared to make a decision.

Rational versus Behavioral Decisions

Consider the case of shopping for toothpaste. If you routinely buy a particular brand or always buy the cheapest, you are purchasing out of habit and no independent decision is made on particular purchases. However, your habit may have begun with a thorough review of alternative brands or research that suggested the brands were equally effective in preventing cavities. The investment of time and effort on that first purchase may then have convinced you to use your current rule of thumb—buy the brand or buy the cheapest. Thirty years later, you may have forgotten the motivation and only remember your rule of thumb. 

Illustration Described

In this illustration, the original decision involved a rational decision process, while using the resulting rule is more of a behavioral decision process (a path of least resistance). Ethics focuses primarily on rational decision processes where we weigh the pros and cons of a decision before deciding and we need to think through our motivations. Behavioral decisions, where we simply respond to positive and negative stimuli, are not unethical, but they may pose occasions when we are not fully aware of our motivations. 

Incentive to Procrastinate

It may be difficult to make a decision when our habits are disrupted and we need to make a rational decision on how to proceed. Rational decisions require more information, skill, and effort than we may be comfortable with, which may motivate procrastination. Typically, we are invested in our previous decisions which suggests that decisions to change those precedents, even in the case of really bad habits like addictions, require an equal or greater investment in the new decision.

If you took up smoking in high school, for example, your habit may be closely associated with a person or experience back then with great personal meaning, even if that meaning has since been forgotten—each puff is like a walk down memory lane and something especially hard to give up if life has not treated you well since then.  Miller and Rollnick (2002, 10) ask whether we are “ready, willing, and able,” which suggests that we frequently are not ready, willing, or able.

Identity and Character

We are created in the image of God, the core of our identity:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27)

The context here is important. We are in the first chapter of the first book in the Bible so every implied by these three verses about what it means to be created in the image of God has to appear in the prior verses. How does the text describe God?⁠1

Divine Attributes

Consider these four attributes:

  1. Verse one tells us that God is a creator who, being eternal, sovereignly stands outside time and space. 
  2. Verse two shows us that God can through his spirit enter into his creation. 
  3. Having created heaven and earth, verse three describes God speaking to shape the form of creation beginning with light Note the exact correspondence between what God says (“Let there be light”) and what he does (“and there was light”)—God is truthful, authentic. 
  4. Verse four tells us that God judged to be good and he separated it from darkness—God discriminates good (light) from the not so good (darkness). 

God is sovereign, authentic, and ethically minded. If God has these attributes, then as image bearers we should aspire to them too.

Consider the question of God’s sovereignty. Do you think that God is reluctant or afraid of making tough decisions? For us, sovereignty could mean having the courage to commit the time and energy to make good decisions.

Identity

Identity motivates us particularly in our careers. You can always identify the fire fighters—those are the folks running into burning buildings when everyone else is running out. It part of their identity and training as firefighters that they act out every day. 

Similarly, as Christians we act out of our identity as image-bearers of a Holy God.

Duty within Community

The Apostle Paul makes image theology explicit when he writes: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” (Eph 5:1) Paul draws this theme out in more detail in Galatians 5:16-24, where he contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruits of the spirit echoing God’s self-revelation:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, the LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Exod 34:6)

The Apostle Paul alludes to this verse when he writes about putting off of the old self and a putting on of the new self in Christ (Eph 4:22-24).

Context of the Ten Commandments

Still, the context for Exodus 34:6 is that God has just given Moses the Ten Commandments for the second time (Exod 20). God disclosed his character aa an aid to interpret the Commandments, should anything be unclear. The Commandments themselves served as a thumbnail sketch of each person’s duty to God and to the Nation of Israel⁠2 under the Mosaic covenant. 

Duty or Identity?

While many people see the Ten Commandments as their duty under the covenant, another way to look at the Commandments is as describing the characteristics of people who make up the covenantal community. Similarly, Christians can be described simply as the people who follow Jesus and obey his commandments (Matt 4:19-20). 

Do we act out our duty as members of the Christian community or simply out of a deeper sense of identity?

Planning and Leadership

If there was ever a man on a mission, it was Abraham, as we read:

“Now the LORD said to Abram, Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  (Gen 12:1-3)

Abraham became a leader among men possessing his own private army that conquered all the known powers of his day in retrieving his kidnapped nephew, Lot (Gen 14:11-17). But most of his actions were defined by the mission that God gave him: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Gen 12:1)

Great Commission

God has also given us a mission in the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Matt 28:19) What is interesting is that when we act out of our mission, we also gain an identity.

It is also important to recognize the importance of having a vision. Knowing that Jesus rose from the dead and will return for us (John 14:3) means that we know the future. It is like having tomorrow’s newspaper today—we can buy the best stocks without any risk of loss. 

Future in Christ

Knowing the future is in Christ frees us from worry allowing to act boldly and take risks to advance God’s kingdom today that would otherwise seem foolish.

Like Abraham, we are blessed to be a blessing to others.

Footnotes

1 Hoekema (1986, 1) turns the discussion of image around. Instead of asking who is God? He asks: who are we?

2 In his survey of the areas of continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments with respect to the Mosaic law, Thielman (1999, 2) observes: “Everywhere that Christian thinkers such as Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, or John Calvin attempted to explain the entire Bible within a insole, coherent theological system, it became essential to ask what role the Mosaic law played in the system.” Thielman asks whether the Christian duties outlined in the New Testament were not themselves based on the same Jewish sources, as many (myself included) assumed was the case.

References

Hoekema, Anthony A. 1994. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Miller, William R. and Stephen Rollnick. 2002. Motivational Interviews: Preparing People for Change. New York: Guilford Press.

Thielman, Frank. 1999. The Law and the New Testament. New York: Crossroad Publishing.

Identity, Duty, and Planning

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Advent_Mas_2018

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Ethics Defined

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“He has told you, O man, what is good; and 

what does the LORD require of you 

but to do justice, and to love kindness, and 

to walk humbly with your God?”

(Mic 6:8)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What is Christian ethics?

If ethics is the study of moral action, then Christian ethics is the study of moral action starting from faith in God. 

Bonhoeffer’s Ethics

Because only God can ultimately determine what is good and evil, Bonhoeffer sees ethics as originating in original sin:

“The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.” (Bonhoeffer 1976, 17)

If only God knows good and evil, then ethical knowledge shows separation from God and is the source of human shame. Our conscience originates in learned morality and offers no help, being more a measure of the ethical gap among people than closeness to God (Bonhoeffer 1976, 17-25).

Bonhoeffer sees the  Pharisees of the New Testament as archetypes of human conscience, judging good and evil from a religious perspective, not from God’s perspective. In reconciling us with God, Jesus allows us to return to God and know God. Jesus’ problem with judging (and with Pharisees) arises from the apostasy of original sin—knowledge of good and evil (Bonhoeffer 1976, 30-33).

Context for Christian Ethics

In looking to Jesus Christ as our divine role model, Christian ethics is often classified as a branch of  virtue ethics. One author writes:

“According to virtue ethicists, actions aren’t right because of their results [e.g. consequentialism] or because they follow from some hard-and-fast rule [e.g. utilitarianism].⁠1 Rather, they are right because they would be done by someone of true virtue. This person is a moral exemplar.” (Shafer-Landau 2018, 257)

Virtue ethics has a long history that is attributed to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The focus here is on practical wisdom, emotional maturity, and sound judgment rather than hard and fast rules.  As King Solomon observes: 

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)

As such, in virtue ethics the belief is that moral training, experience, and practice are required both for life and leadership (Shafer-Landau 2018, 258-261).

The Ethical Dilemma

The need to study ethics arises and is unavoidable because principles often come in tension with one another. Bonhoeffer (1976, 367) cites this example:

“…a teacher asks a child in front of the class whether it is true that his father often comes home drunk. It is true, but the child denies it. The teacher’s question has placed him in a situation for which is is not yet prepared. He feels only that what is taking place is an unjustified interference in the order of the family and that he must oppose it.”

In Bonhoeffer’s example, the student is presented with an ethical dilemma and must choose between the Commandments to tell the truth (Exod 20:16) and to honor your parents (Exod 20:12). Which Commandment is more important?⁠2 How do you decide? The split in the church today over how to respond to homosexual behavior poses an ethical dilemma that is not easily resolved.

The Ten Commandments provide theological principles outlining good and bad behavior. It is helpful to distinguish good and bad principles from right and wrong actions (Johnson and Zerbi 1973, 12). In Bonhoeffer’s example, it is good for the student to tell the truth and to honor parents, but it is wrong for the teacher to pose the question about the father’s drunken behavior (and embarrass the student publicly) and wrong for the student to verify it in public. 

Distinguishing principles from actions helps preclude dogmatic responses to ethical dilemmas when dialogue is the preferred response.

Principal Agent Problem

A principal agent problem arises when a leader makes organizational decisions based on personal benefits rather than organizational benefits. In the Bonhoeffer example, suppose that the teacher is a sadist who derives pleasure from tormenting students. By putting the student on the spot to verify the father’s drunkenness in public, the teacher derives sadistic pleasure at the risk of opening the school up to a potential lawsuit from the student’s family. In doing so, the teacher’s interests and the school interests deviate demonstrating a principal agent problem, a special kind of ethical dilemma facing leaders.

Sexual harassment, pedophilia, taking bribes, and narcissistic leadership are all potential manifestations of the principal agent problem.

Moral Training Not Optional

Behavioral learning starts with a simple idea: do more of activities that bring pleasure and do less of activities that bring pain. By contrast, rational learning starts with making comparisons: activity A brought more pleasure than activity B so let’s do more of activity A. Such comparison require pattern recognition and memory not required in behavioral learning. Success in implementing rational learning also requires patience that many people lack.

This simple distinction between behavioral and rational learning lies at the heart of many ethical controversies, because behavioral learning can lead to logical traps. For example, the fish that grabs every tasty worm is likely to end up the fisherman’s dinner.  In a study of such traps, Cross and Guyer (1980, 3-4) write:

“The central thesis of this book is that a wide variety of recognized social problems can be regarded from a third view [Not stupidity; not corruption]. Drug use, air pollution, and international conflict are all instances of what we have called ‘social traps’. Put simply, a social trap is a situation characterized by multiple but conflicting rewards. Just as an ordinary trap entices its prey with the offer of an attractive bait and then punishes it by capture…’social traps’ draw their victims into certain patterns of behavior with promises of immediate rewards and then confront them with [longer term] consequences that the victim would rather avoid.”

In both smoking and education, conflicts in patterns of short-term and long-term costs and benefits lead those specialized in behavioral learning into ethical dilemmas that cannot be avoided without considering the entire sequence of costs and benefits. The need to study and learn patterns of costs and benefits involving ethical dilemmas provide the inherent motivation for most ethical teaching and for avoiding an exclusive reliance on behavioral learning. 

Part of the task of Christian leadership is to anticipate ethical dilemmas and take steps to avoid them.

Footnotes

1 Consequentialism is “an action is morally required just because it produces the best overall results.” Utilitarianism, which stands behind many economic theories, is a form of consequentialism. This theory is attributed to John Wesley and Methodist social activism owe much to this theory. (Shafer-Landau 2018, 120-123) Potential problems with consequentialism arise because of measurement problem and because maximizing benefits sometimes leads to cases of injustice, such as cases of vicarious and exemplary punishment. (Shafer-Landau 2018, 151)

2 From the context of Bonhoeffer’s life, we can infer that the unethical teacher is a stand-in for the German secret police, the Gestapo, who did not immediately know after his arrest that had participated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler (Metaxas 2010, 423-431).

References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1976. Ethics (Orig pub 1955) Edited by Eberhard Bethge. Translated by Neville Horton Smith. New York: MacMillan Publishers Company, Inc.

Cross, John G. and Melvin J. Guyer. 1980. Social Traps.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press.

Johnson, Glenn L. And Lewis K. Zerby. 1973. What Economists Do About Values: Case Studies of Their Answers to Questions They Don’t Dare Ask. East Lansing: Michigan State University.

Metaxas, Eric. 2010.  Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile versus the Third Reich.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson.

Shafer-Landau, Russ. 2018. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ethics Defined

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

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Isness

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

“The earth was without form and void, and
darkness was over the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God was hovering
over the face of the waters.” (Gen. 1:2 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

How do we know that we exist?

Pre-Existence

My memoir, Called Along the Way, begins by recounting a childhood dream:

“As a child, a dream returned to me over and over where I felt suspended, neither awake or asleep, but paralyzed as if lost in time and place. Everything was fuzzy: neither light nor dark, hot nor cold, silent nor voiced. My limbs had a tingly feeling, like an arm that had fallen asleep or a leg that refused to support your weight. To describe it as a dream suggests that I might wake up, but this dream lingered refusing me the opportunity to stir, as if I faced a decision. Yet, what decision?”

Hayaski (2016) describes such childhood dreams as memories from the womb.

Glimpses from the Edge

The idea that we exist implies a change in our state of being and some awareness of it. When I work out, some mornings I run through my routine doing mat work with little thought about it, requiring a bit more effort on some days than others. Other days the same routine becomes impossible, not for lack of strength but because my mind is distracted—it is as if I were watching a video of my body and lost all connection to it. 

At one point, I reflected on my frequent experience of depression on Saturdays. Why was Saturday evening frequently the most difficult period during the week? Then, it occurred to me that after a hard week of work I almost always found myself physically exhausted on Saturday. I was not depressed; I was tired. 

Descartes famous dictum—Cognito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) could not be true—because my awareness of existence does not depend entirely on my physical or cognitive state.

Identity Formation

The meta narrative of scripture offers an interesting interpretation of who we are. We are created in the image of God. Almost immediately thereafter, we sin, breaking the only commandment of God—do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The rest of scripture is the story of our reconciliation with God. 

This brief sketch, often repeated, is a coming of age story. A coming of age story, like the Parable of the Prodigal Son, describes creation, the need to establish an identity independent of our parents, and, then, a lifelong desire to reunite with them. The Prodigal Son is ironically a narrative about becoming an adult.

The older son in Luke 15 provides insight into the postmodern dilemma. The older brother never established an identity independent of his father and, as such, became a biblical example of co-dependency. He serves his father out of fear and resents both his younger brother and his father. He never attains true maturity as an adult and never learns to love his father. The older brother’s failure to launch leaves him immature, bitter, and unable to function as an adult.

Existence as a Continuum

Existence exists in a continuum from physical being to fully formed adult. Our parents are the immediate instrument of our creation and maturity by God. Alive or dead, awake or sleep, young or old, we are created beings, but our awareness of existence comes through relationship. This awareness starts with intimacy, then grows through tension and re-establishment of intimacy in independence. 

For the Christian, in relationship existence has a qualitative aspect that defines who we are and forms the foundation for all that we do. Being created in the image of a sovereign God means that we have almost limitless room for growth into that image. Because God is good, our growth into the image has an inherently ethical trajectory.  Because relationships are fragile, the need for the mentoring of the Holy Spirit through prayer, scripture, and the church is intensive and ongoing.

This is the foundation of Christian ethics.

References

Hayasaki, Erika. 2016. “Traces of Times Lost: How childhood memories shape us, even after we’ve forgotten them.” The Atlantic. November 29.

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2017. Called Along the Way: A Spiritual Memoir. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Isness

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

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