Ethical Perspective

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Earlier I wrote that if ethics is the study of moral action, then Christian ethics is the study of moral action starting from faith in God. I then proceed to outline a number of philosophical explanations of ethical behavior and decision-making. Yet, what makes Christian ethics unique and simply not a branch of philosophy is the relationship to God.

Vines and Branches

Jesus gives an analogy:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:1-5)

Today this analogy evokes the picture of an electric appliance that is perfectly useless until it is plugged in—the power is in the cord, not the appliance. As Christians, we rely not on a philosophical approach to determine our actions, we rely on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, especially as revealed in scripture.

This reliance on the Holy Spirit solves an important ethical problem for the Christian because ethical actions are contextual and, in the absence of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it is extremely hard to sort out which philosophical precedents to follow.

Ethical Perspective

Suppose a man gets shot dead. From an ethical perspective, we must immediately ask: what is the relationship between the shooter and the dead man? Was the shooting intentional or accidental, and how do we know? What led up to the shooting? What was the shooter’s emotional state of mind? Where the dead man and the shooter from the same ethnic group? What were their roles in this shooting? From a legal perspective, an public inquiry may be required to sort all these questions out before a court decides what to do about the shooting.

Notice that at least three people are involved in this example: the dead man, the shooter, and a judge. Each will have a perspective on this shooting and the community may be divided on how to interpret this shooting. Ethics always involves interpretation. This implies that the philosophical precedents guiding the shooter could be different from the perspectives of every other participant in this event. The emotional mindset of each participant has a bearing on the interpretation rendered.

In the midst of potentially raging emotions, the Christian guided by the Holy Spirit has a unique advantage in dealing ethically with a situation because God alone knows all the relevant factors to consider and the eventual outcome. Mere ethical knowledge pales in comparison as a guide to behavior because we never control all the factors influencing the ethical interpretation of an event by all the participants. 

It is as if we walk through life as in a room with four different landscapes painted on the walls. One landscape may be a beach; other a bedroom; another an office, and still another a battlefield. Each person we meet may see us against an entirely different landscape, even at a point in time. And we cannot choose which landscape they see or the emotional baggage that they carry with them. We are at the mercy of their projection of these things on us, but the good news is that God is great and his Holy Spirit is our guide.

Ethical Perspective

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Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One practical implication of being created in the image of God is that when you speak with someone, it is like speaking to God himself.  In fact, many times God speaks to us through the people around us. A second practical implication is that each and every human has intrinsic value in the eyes of God. Between the hint of the divine and this intrinsic value, everyone has an interesting story to tell—if one takes the time to listen. One only cares for something of value (Benner 1998, 21).

Dialogue in Writing

Screenwriters understand dialogue better than anyone. James Scott Bell defines dialogue citing John Howard Lawson’s Theory and Technique of Playwriting who described dialogue as “compression and extension of action.” He goes on to say that: “Every word, every phrase that comes out of a character’s mouth is uttered because the character hopes it will further a purpose.” In other words, every character has an agenda. Thus, dazzling dialogue arises from the intersection of two characters’ agendas in opposition. (Bell 2014, 12-13)

The role of compression is important. Bell (2014, 16-17) writes: “Dialogue is not real-life speech. It is stylized speech for which the author, through the characters, has a purpose.” Focusing on the character’s agenda, the dialogue must cut to the chase and reveal underlying conflict, even if in good natured banter. Bell (2014, 22) sees five functions of dialogue: reveal story information, reveal character, set the tone, set the scene, and reveal theme.

In weaving a story, Bell (2014, 25) advises the author to act first, explain later and to hide story information (exposition) within confrontation to avoid appearing too preachy. How people talk reveals their character in terms of education, social position, regional background, and peer groups (Bell 2014, 35-36). Tone is revealed in how characters talk to each other. The scene is described through how characters react to it and to each other. Theme can be revealed without being preachy by embedding it in the dialogue. (Bell 2014, 37-38)

Why do I go through all these writing tips about dialogue? When we listen to each other and to ourselves, much can be learned that might not be discovered any other way.

Dialogue in Business

Corporate lawyer Thomas Stanton (2012, 10) writes:

One of the critical distinctive factors between successful and unsuccessful firms in the crisis was their application of what this book calls “constructive dialogue.” Successful firms managed to create productive and constructive tension between (1) those who wanted to do deals, or offer certain financial products and services, and (2) those in the firm who were responsible for limited risk exposure.

The importance of quality dialog within the firm or government agency arises from the simple observation that no single individual, no matter how bright or experienced, could understand the totality of the highly technical financial environment that now exists. Having an open-minded executive is accordingly insufficient; the firm culture must embrace active learning and open communication.

Good Dialogue is Increasing Rare

If dialogue is important in caring for people, in communication, and in risk management in a corporate setting, why has good dialogue become so rare? These days we are used to commentators and politicians shouting at each on television with virtually no one listening. We are also accustomed to interactions on social media that share information not expecting a response and, if one is given, the person responding is de-friended. 

It seems that our egos have become so fragile that we cannot hear anyone providing an alternative view. We even have a word for this fragile-ego syndrome: micro-aggression. A micro-aggression can be perceived by the smallest slight, like not paying enough attention to all members of a group.

In this context, it is hard for people to hear information inconsistent with their self-image or preconceptions of an issue. Dialogue dies.

Context for Dialogue

For authors (PGMS) collaborated in 2012 to write a book, Crucial Conversations, that became a popular in business circles. One tip worth the ticket of admission is the author’s breakdown of a dialog into four stages: presenting facts (see and hear), telling a story, feeling, and acting. They observe that once emotions take over actions get locked in. The formation of productive stories presents the last best chance to channel a dialog towards useful action.

An infinite number of stories can be told, but not all comport well with the facts or are organizationally helpful.  Three kinds of unproductive (clever) stories—victim, villain, and helpless stories—arise that are usually counter-productive (PGMS 2012, 116-119).  Claiming victimhood means accepting no responsibility for what happens next or even offering to help turn things around.  The same is true for pointing a finger at a “villain” or claiming a lack of power to change things.

Dialogue is Transactional

Most dialogue is transactional in the sense that even when we disagree, we both have a stake in talking and are willing to talk to reconcile our differences. This does not imply that the discussion will be easy, but the outcome of the discussion is presumably open-ended. In the framework given by PGMS, this is a sharing of facts and a comparison of stories that explain the facts.

When we start off talking in terms of unproductive stories—victim, villain, or claiming helplessness, we shutdown dialogue with an expression of feelings in the PGMS framework and try to force the other party into surrendering to our interpretation of events. This sharing of feelings signals that the dialogue is over and a digging in of the heels. This all-or-nothing negotiating strategy is likely to produce resentment and risks a violent response. It is unlikely to produce compromise because it is a strategy that shuts down conversation.

A Biblical Example

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus exhorts us to be reconciled with our neighbors before going to church to worship. The example he gives is of a man who has failed to pay his debts. Jesus says:

Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. (Matt 5:25)

In today’s context, a lender may extend payments or settle for less than full payment for someone unable to pay a debt for reasons like illness or unemployment, but the debtor must be willing to dialogue with the lender, as Jesus has recommended. Claiming victimhood or having been cheated by a villainous lender will obviously not end so nicely. 


Bell, James Scott  2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press.

Benner, David G. 1998. Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Patterson, Kerry Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler (PGMS). 2012. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York:  McGraw-Hill.

Stanton, Thomas H. 2012.  Why Some Firms Thrive While Others Fail: Governance and Management Lessons from the Crisis. New York: Oxford University Press.


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The Color Purple

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Moderation. Balance. How do we live out these admonitions in a world that paints everything in stark extremes of black and white?

Jesus tells a story:

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:4-7 ESV)

This story is laconic. We are not told why the sheep became lost, only that it repented. From the context, we know that the sheep is loved enough to be pursued at great cost until it is found. This is probably the Bible’s most important lesson in dealing with sinners, even with the color purple. God really does love you, enough to send his only son to die for you.

But, what if the sheep in this story pretended to repent just long enough to be rescued? And when restored to the flock, this sheep danced around bragging about how special it was. Perhaps the sheep then started its own television show where the sheep commended its at-risk, lifestyle and suggested how viewers could join it in becoming special. In our black and white world, craziness like this happens but it is inconsistent with our laconic sheep story where repentance is assumed to be heart-felt and life changing.

The Good Shepherd Context

Luke’s story about the Good Shepherd focuses on God’s attitude about the lost, which we know because he immediately tells two other stories about something lost— a woman who lost a coin (Luke 15:8-10) and a father who almost lost his son (Luke 15:13-32). But Luke wrote like a journalist interviewing eye witnesses to the Gospel stories; he was not himself an eye witness. For an eye-witness to the context of the Good Shepherd, we must turn to John’s Gospel.

Jesus declares himself to be the Good Shepherd in John 10. The context before and after the story of the good shepherd discloses the tension between good and bad shepherds. Sheep recognize good shepherds. The man born blind in John 9 recognizes Jesus and comes to faith. Bad shepherds show up in John 10:19 where Jesus enters into a nasty debate with Jewish leaders.⁠1

So how do we recognize a bad shepherd? We read:

Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? (Ezekiel 34:2)

In Jesus’ context, the bad shepherds in view were the Sadducees who controlled access to the temple and the sacrifices being offered, and the Pharisees who were jealous of Jesus. More generally, the bad shepherds are those “feeding themselves,” earning a paycheck while avoiding unpopular teaching.

The Testing of Abraham

A lot of ink has been spillt over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but the destruction of the cities is not the focus of passage. The story begins with these words:

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)

Without delving into details about the nature of sin and its appropriate punishment, God wants to know Abraham’s response to his disclosure—this is a test. To put this in a modern context, its like President Truman calling a good friend into his office and telling him that he has decided to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima—what would you say? In Abraham’s case, he begins a lengthy negotiation (a prayer) over the lives of the people in the cities (Gen 18:23-32).

Curiously, it is God that destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, not Abraham, even though Abraham had ample opportunity. Abraham captured the cities as a prize of war (Gen 14) and later interceded with God not to destroy the cities (Gen 18:20-33).  If Abraham is our model of faith, then we are to leave judgment to God and pray for those caught up in sexual sin.

The Ethical Problem

An ethical problem arises when two theological principles come into conflict. On the one hand, we are instructed “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). Yet, we are also told:

not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler– not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor 5:11)

Setting aside the finesse of who is and is not a disciple and when, these two admonitions are obviously in conflict.

In this context, the words of Jesus in John 8 seem most appropriate. In addressing the woman caught in adultery, Jesus says:

Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, No one, Lord. And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more. (John 8:10-11)

When the Bible teaches something that bothers us, our role as Christians is not to dismiss the biblical teaching, but rather to find creative ways to honor it and bring glory to God.


1 The timing of this debate reinforces the chapter focus on bad shepherds. The healing of the blind man occurred during the feast of Tabernacles (or booths, John 7:1), while the shepherd discussion takes place during the feast of Dedication (Hanukkah; John 10:22). Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabees in 165 BC. Previously, the Maccabees led a rebellion against the Hellenization of Israel and desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanies, a very bad shepherd! While we might read this chapter in light of Psalm 23 (good shepherd), John’s context suggests that this story is better read in light of Ezekiel 34 (bad shepherd).

The Color Purple

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Equal Pay

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Equal pay between men and women in the workplace is impossible in the current cultural environment because they face different social expectations both inside and outside the workplace. Cultural expectations of women disadvantage them especially in the area of unpaid work that directly affects current and future salary expectations.

Christian Perspective on Equality

Although a diversity of opinion exists about Christians should relate to each other within the family, little diversity of opinion exists about the need for Christians to live in and value family life. We are created male and female equally in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and we cannot fulfill God’s command to “be fruitful and multiple” without working together (Gen 1:28). The Apostle Paul underscores this equality of the sexes when he writes about our equality in Christ (Gal 3:28)

The diversity of opinion arises from the division of labor between husband and wife stated in Biblical accounts. For example, after eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God curses Eve saying: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing” (Gen 3:16). Meanwhile, God curses the ground to bear “thorns and thistles” increasing Adam’s labor in the fields to grow food (Gen. 3:18). The implication that Eve is to be busy with the kids while Adam works the fields.

While this division of labor is often viewed as prescriptive for husbands and wives today, even in rural settings in the developing world today women also work the fields. Reading more closely in the Genesis account we also see that this division of labor is not ideal—it only comes after the fall. The Biblical ideal is better read as we are equal under God and we do what we must to be faithful servants. We must look elsewhere to explain the disparity in men and women’s wages, but be sensitive to the divine intention.

Presuppositions and Discrimination

In human capital theory, economists have two working definitions of discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made both types of discrimination illegal, but it is helpful to distinguish these types in order to come up with effective policy alternatives.

The first type of discrimination is based on preference (Becker 1957). If I find a group disagreeable, then I will be willing to pay a penalty to avoid associating with them. 

The prescription for dealing with this type of discrimination is to raise the legal penalty for disobeying the law. Thus, someone alleging discrimination has a legal right to file a lawsuit and ask for penalties to be assessed to recoup losses accrued on account of the discrimination.

The second type of discrimination is statistical discrimination (Thurow 1975). Statistical discrimination occurs when observations from past experience with members of a group are applied unreflectively to new individuals. The calculus would be something like in the past people from group A were worth $10 a hour while those from group B were worth $15, so I will pay individual A+1 $10 and individual B+1 $15 without bothering to explore their actual work experience.

The prescription for statistical discrimination is assign the search costs to evaluate work experience to the individuals applying for work because this removes the incentive to discriminate on the basis of rules of thumb from the employer’s past experience. Other prescriptions have included the use of quotes in hiring.

Market Observation

If women’s work is equal to men’s work, then companies could hire only women and drive the discriminating companies out of business on account of their misogyny. The observation that we seldom see this sort of behavior suggests that discrimination against women is not based on preferences so much as statistical experiences being applied to individuals. The real question is why does past experience continue to justify these sorts of rules of thumb being applied?

The Nature of Work

Aspects of wage determination seriously disadvantage women. Returning to the ideal of human capital, when an employers pays an employee a wage, part of the wage pays for today’s work and part pays for future work that may well change in ways that cannot be anticipated. Consequently, employees in skilled occupations constantly need to learn new things to keep up. We would expect therefore that if women are disadvantaged in learning new skills on the job, then we would expect them to earn less in proportion to the amount of skill required in a particular occupation.

The key disadvantage in this context arises in the area of unpaid work. Unpaid work occurs when an employee works sixty hours a week, but is only paid for forty hours. Unpaid work is a significant portion of  the work done in most salaried positions today and it has increased with the almost ubiquitous availability of cell phones and laptop computers.

Unpaid work has two important outcomes that affect wages. Unpaid work lowers the effective wage and it increases the job-related training that employees engage in. Unpaid work is sometimes required but more normally it is at the discretion of the employee. If women as a group engage in less unpaid work than men, then wages ought to reflect that difference.

Policy Alternative

If social obligations make it impossible for women to engage in as much unpaid work as men, then wage differences reflect a reality well-known to employers. Given this reality, forcing employers to paid men and women the same wage will naturally result in fewer women being hired, which is an anticipatable yet unintended effect.

Recognizing that unpaid work is the source of the wage discrepancy suggests, however, that employers could level the playing field by severely limiting opportunities to engage in unpaid work both inside and outside the workplace. Because employers are unlikely to give up unpaid work, government regulations could change the treatment of salaried work to make it more like hourly work where overtime regulations apply. Requiring overtime to be paid irrespective of employee classification turns unpaid work into paid work and would discourage employers from encouraging excessive unpaid work.

Regulations could also be developed to require employers to pay employees for time spent reading emails and doing work-related studies. The problem with taking this policy too far is that a vibrant economy requires that companies innovate and workers learn and evolve with changing circumstances. Unpaid work is a component of economic adjustment and in that context should be encouraged. This implies that true gender equality in the workplace is but one among many policy goals.

A Christian Response to the Workplace

Facing an increasingly competitive global work environment, Christians like everyone else are constantly given choices among undesirable alternatives outside our control. Having women compete with men in the workplace invariably devalues family life by making children an expensive option. Falling fertility rates among American women show that in the absence of immigration population levels will decline, which is a measure of the stress currently being placed on families.

In our family, my wife and I had children in our thirties and my wife stayed home for ten years while our threes kids were young. The kids were born about sixteen months apart to minimize her time at home. Although my wife is trained as an engineer, she found that teaching mathematics and chemistry in the local high schools was more compatible with family life and she enjoyed teaching. Having her work was not so much an income maximizing activity as an effective hedge against uncertainty in my own employment prospects.

What is the Christian response to a difficult workplace? We are called to live in and value family life. Other considerations are secondary.


Becker, Gary S. 1957. The Economics of Discrimination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thurow, Lester C. 1975. Generating Inequality. New York: Basic Books.

Equal Pay

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Value of Life

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The value of human life has been neglected in many controversies in recent years. Once believed to have infinite value because we are created in the image of  God, the chipping away of this value has been dramatic during our lifetime.

The Lord’s Prayer reminds us to honor God’s name in keeping with the Third Commandment—do not take the Lord’s name in vain—because all the other commandments are leveraged on it (Exod 20:7). Why keep the other commandments, if we dishonor God’s name?

Intrinsic versus Market Value

The practical implications of honoring God arise because we are created in God’s image. Because we are created in the image of God, human life has intrinsic value—value in itself that does not change with life events. Because life has intrinsic value, we cannot accept discrimination, injustice, abuse, mistreatment of prisoners, weapons of mass destruction, euthanasia, abortion, designer babies, and a host of other detestable practices. Our human rights—a concept based on intrinsic value—exist because we are created in the image of a Holy God.

Our capitalist society focuses, not on intrinsic values, but on market values. Market values change with circumstances that are volatile. Your market value as a person implicitly depends on your productivity. If you are young, old, or unable to work, then you are a dependent and a burden on working people. The focus on market values inherently disrespects God’s image. When God is not honored; neither are we.

The strong influence of market values on our self-image explains, in part, is why depression rates tend to be highest among population groups—like young adults and senior citizens—who are unable to work. The rate of depression, suicide, anxiety disorders, addictions, and divorce appear to be correlated, in part, with changing job prospects.

Honor and Idolatry

When God’s name is dishonored, we also become more prone to idolatry (Rom 1:21-23). Why worship the God of the Bible when my income and status in society depends more on my family legacy, education, and hard work? So I naturally run to all sorts of substitutes for God that work, like insurance, to manage the ups and downs of life. Alternatively, I can obsess about the security of my home, spouse, and family.

The implications of honoring the name of God come together in the debate over euthanasia—the right to die. If my self-image and my dignity in society are both increasingly subjected to the same market values, then I will surrender myself to assisted suicide precisely when I need support from my family. And, of course, they will agree because I have become a burden both financially and emotionally. Consequently, euthanasia is evil masquerading as compassion. We are created in the image of a holy God who declares that life is good and sacred (Gen 1:31).

Link to Ethics

The question in ethics is on what you do about your faith.

When someone is speaking, do you honor them by listening or go to that happy place in your mind? Do you know the name of the janitor in your office or only the names of your supervisors? How do you show that the people in your life, including those really annoying people, are created in the image of God? 

Ethics is about who we honor and the choices we make.

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Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Most of this book, Simple Faith, has focused on information, learning, and decision making in view of faith in God. Having created the heaven and earth, God stands outside of time and space as we know it. This is what it means to be eternal and it defines our own mortality because we are confined to time and space—we are not eternal.

As the psalmist observes: “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” (Ps 103:15-16) Yet, we live in a time and place where people fixate on the grass and ignore God, as if spiritual matters do not exist and have no place in our lives.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

According to Wikipedia:

“The second law of thermodynamics says that when energy changes from one form to another form, or matter moves freely, entropy (disorder) in a closed system increases.”⁠1

In some sense, the second law of thermodynamics is a modern translation of the psalm cited above. Grass is subject to the disorder created by the seasons, death, and the wind. What does this have to do with spirituality? Spiritual matters are eternal—the second law of thermodynamics does not apply; physical matter is not and remains subject to the second law of thermodynamics.

Youthful Ignorance

In a physical sense, youth is a stage in life dominated by growth and increasing maturity. When I am growing and learning new things in the springtime of life, I laugh at decay and death as being irrelevant to my own experience. 

Surely science will find a cure for disease and death before I need to worry about it. I am smarter than my parents, I will not make the same mistakes that they made. Besides times have changed. I think to myself.

I remember walking down the streets of Washington DC one morning and thinking to myself—look at these brick buildings, why will they still be there when I am dead and gone? It does not seem fair that I need to work so hard.

The reality is I will probably not outlive those buildings, but they will crumble to dust a long time life itself passes away. Think about it. Our relationships are eternal, young or old, alive or dead, I am still going to be my father’s son and we are both sons of our Heavenly Father.



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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.


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.


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 (

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.


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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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.


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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