The Pathological Culture

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

At this point, it is helpful to return to a question posed earlier in our discussion of proper mental function in view of culture. What if a culture evolved that, far from supporting and sustaining proper function, made proper function more costly and unlikely? Would we see more dysfunction, anxiety, and suicide as people found it harder to thrive and survive?

Proper Mental Function and Rational Culture

If as Plantinga (2000, xi, 153-154) argued proper mental function is a requirement for warranted faith, then it is also required to meet the demands of rationality, which drives our earlier understanding of culture as a deviation from perfect rationality. Much like a traditional, modern, and postmodern cultures are deviations from perfect rationality, one could argue that secular culture is a deviation from perfect Christianity.

The Apostle Paul appears to be focused on this line of thinking when he writes about God’s peace:

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…” (Phil 4:8)

We can infer from Paul’s bracketing in verses 7 and 7 of this verse with God’s peace that when we take Christ as our role model we become more truthful, honorable, pure, lovely, and commendable. I could see Plantinga adding more rational to Paul’s list.

A Breakdown in Authority

If God is no longer a transcendent reality for most people, then obviously leaders in society no longer feel accountable for their actions outside of a political context and the organizing context for political action never extends beyond law. If postmodern society is also suspicious of all formers of authority (Blamires 2005, 132-133),  then our models of proper mental function and perfect rationality start to show wear and tear.

One explanation for this wear and tear is that the vesting of authority in parents, teachers, preachers, police, and government officials offers coherence and consistency to culture that is mostly dispersed in postmodern culture. Deconstructionism, a postmodern philosophy that is suspicious of all authority figures, disenfranchises traditional and modern leaders, via lawsuits and frivolous attacks, reducing the incentive to invest in leadership roles that previously gave stability to the culture.

Another explanation is that postmodernism no longer share Christian presuppositions that gave a foundation to objective truth during the modern era. Most moderns grew up in at least a nominally Christian environment, much like Nietzsche who was the son of a Lutheran pastor. Even if they rejected Christian faith, they knew its foundations. By contrast, many postmoderns are like sons of Nietzsche who have little or no experience with Christian beliefs and, because of the politics of suspicion, are not open to learning about it.

Thus, both practical and theoretical reasons can be cited for why postmodernism is not provide a stable foundation for unified national culture. Instead, it tends to decay into the formation of subcultures (tribes) that pursue their own interests at the expense of the larger society.

Formation in the Home

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.

What happens when both spouses work, neither feels like they are in charge, and the family finds itself under economic and time pressure? The strong family model outlined here breaks down. Assuming a strong family starting out, stress shows up potentially in all six characteristics outlined as time and economic pressure are increased.

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. When television becomes the primary baby-sitter and the adults are buzzing to and from work and activities for the children, the children are not formed rationally or in the image of Christ. It is not unusual in my home town to observe children roaming in packs through the neighborhoods and to hear complaints from libraries, neighborhood pools, and church vacation-Bible school leaders that children are simply abandoned for long periods of time by their parents during the summer. 

The model of strong families clearly is being tested severely in our society.

Signs of Wear and Tear

News reports and studies showing a stagnating standard of living, drug use, declining fertility rates, lower life expectancy levels, and record levels of suicide all point to a culture under stress.⁠1 This stress leads to greater deviations from rationality because highly rational decisions require time and energy that are no longer available. In this environment we expect cultural change to occur more rapidly and, because of stress, we expect traditional subcultures to become more pronounced, as argued earlier. 

Broken Glass Theory

While the exact time-path and particular difficulties cannot be exactly forecasted, the general trends are obvious and dysfunction in one area of society increases the likelihood of contagion elsewhere. In his book, Serious Times, James Emory White (2004, 158) highlighted of the broken glass theory of criminologists James O. Wilson and George Kelling (1982). The idea is that crime is contagious. It starts with a broken window and spreads to an entire community. 

Cleaning up trash, graffiti, and broken windows and minor violations of law through increased emphasis on foot patrols by police, New York City substantially reduced crime in the 1980s. For those of us who grew up scared to walk the streets of New York, this reduction in crime was a big deal. Pushback against this program came later as not everyone was happy about the increased police presence in the neighborhoods.

The broken glass theory has a familiar ring: “I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.” (Lev 11:45). If attending to the appearance of neighborhoods in New York helped reduce crime, how much more couldn’t focusing on our own sin and weakness and forgiveness in Christ improve the quality of life in our families, churches, and communities?


Bernstein, Lenny. 2018. “U.S. life expectancy declines again, a dismal trend not seen since World War I.” Washington Post. November 29. 

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

Plantinga, Alvin. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press.

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.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High.” New York Times. April 22. Online:, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

White, James Emery. 2004. Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Wilson, James Q. and George L. Kelling. 1982. “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” Atlantic Monthly. March.


1 (Tavernise 2016); Bernstein 2018).

A Pathological Culture

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Cultural Adaptation

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Up to this point, most of our discussion has focused on individual behavior and learning, but no one is an island—even Robinson Crusoe was never truly alone even before he met Friday.⁠1 We live and participate in the cultures of our families, workplace, and society that influence our thinking and behavior directly through rules, regulations, and law and indirectly by structuring the presuppositions that we use in all our decisions.

What is Culture?

Culture is term taken from sociology that is often described as the sum of a society’s traditions, especially as they pertain to literature, the arts, language, and music. A more helpful framework, however, can be built based on decision requirements in a corporate context. Far from irrelevant to spiritual formation, the culture context of work plays a key role in secular formation. The same framework for culture can by analogy help interpret personality.

Nobel laureate economist Herbert Simon defined rationality as making a choice among all possible alternatives. Economists more generally hypothesize that the firm strives to maximize its net present value assuming perfect knowledge of all future cash flows. If all decisions are rational and predictable given knowledge about technology and market prices, this theory implies that a firm has no culture (or no cultural effect) because given a set of circumstances every managers would reach the same decision.

In practice, we observe that decisions are costly, resources are limited, and decisions are frequently made based on rules of thumb and habit. For these reasons, in part, Simon extended the theory of the firm to limit rational behavior—his theory of bounded rationality (Simon 1997, 88). Culture arises because highly rational decisions are costly. Managers ration their time by applying rules of thumb based on previous decisions and known costs and benefits, not perfect information. These rules of thumb plus manager training and experience determine a firm’s decision culture. Interestingly, the more costly rational decisions are, the stronger the cultural effect.

The existence of culture implies that a firm’s history is interesting. The time sequence of decisions and their consequences predisposes the organization toward some growth paths and away from others, a concept sometimes described as path-dependence. The personal histories of leaders are important in understanding attitudes about alternatives and the speed at which decisions are made. 

Cultural Personality Types 

The existence of culture suggests why organizations develop classifiable personalities. Several widely observed types can be described. Criteria describing these types include preferred decision style, key values, primary mode for training, nature of control process, and default transaction-opportunity cost trade-off. A culture articulates key values in terms of where decisions ideally take place. 

Three cultural archetypes stand out in society today that compete for dominance: a traditional culture, a modern culture, and a postmodern culture. A fourth type, a dying culture (or culture under stress) is more of a transition phase than a stable culture. At any time, subcultures within society may favor any one of these types. Competition among these types is influenced by the resources available and other circumstances in the environment beyond immediate control. This suggests that one or the other subculture can rise in dominance and dominance can also pass back and forth. Progress from one to another is neither inevitable or expected because circumstances external to the firm dictate the ideal culture.

The Types⁠2

A modern culture delegates authority to line managers, whose leadership role is often earned through technical competence, because good decisions require the objective information they produce. A postmodern culture shares decision authority to assure that decisions are equitable. A traditional culture centralizes many decisions to adhere to senior management preferences. Training and control processes reinforce these cultural preferences. 

A dying organization is an organization in crisis. A dying organization may start with any cultural affinity but evolves toward traditional culture. This is because crises consist of a rapid series of nonstandard problems that exceed delegations and require senior management input. Cutbacks likewise strengthen the position of senior managers.

The mix of transaction costs and opportunity costs also reflects cultural affinities. Transaction costs rise with the number of people participating in decisions, while opportunity costs (the cost of no choosing the next best alternative) rise as decision alternatives are excluded. The traditional culture has the lowest transaction costs because it considers the fewest options—only senior manager preferences are consulted. The postmodern culture consults the most people, but it is not particularly reflective—only options actively advocated are considered. Transaction costs in the modern culture fall between these two extremes, but the modern culture prefers a review of all options.

Williamson (1981, 1564) sees both organizational costs constrained by market prices. The implication is that cultures evolve to reflect competitive conditions in the markets that firms serve. The dominant culture type may evolve with both market pressures and leadership changes, which may over time lead to overlapping cultural attributes. An office evolving from a modern to a postmodern type, for example, may begin to exhibit more group decision making, place less emphasis on academic credentials in assignments and promotions and rely less on peer review of work products. As Alchian (1950) argues learning process is likely a combination of trial and error, imitation of successful firms, and deliberative planning because uncertainty makes it unlikely that future market conditions can be fully anticipated.

Behavioral Weaknesses Impede Learning

Cultural types describe attributes at a point in time. Changing circumstances, however, force organizations to learn and adapt. Learning behavior is therefore a key measure of risk management performance. We observe behavior problems when incentive structures disrupt normal learning processes, create logical traps or exacerbate normal organizational inertia.⁠3

An organizational culture mirrors its environment because decisions and rules evolve over time to deal with environmental challenges. Rewards of money, power and status within an organization accrue to leaders that facilitate this evolution. When prior decisions and rules need to change, a conflict arises because those changes may threaten the social position of those leaders.

Consider the case of a firm in a growing business. Suppose the firm starts out as a specialized firm in a competitive market. As it grows and acquires competitors, it takes market prices as given. As market share grows, however, it eventually becomes the market and can set price. Further growth requires that it diversify into new markets. At each stage in the firm’s growth, the rules for success and risks change (Porter 1980, 191-295). If the organizational culture adapts with a lag and a threat grows quickly enough, firm solvency could be threatened before adaptation is complete.

Christian Culture

Although the Christian faith encourages rational decisions, Christian culture should not be confused with any of the cultural types outlined above. Christian culture differs from these types because the objective of Christian culture is conformity to Christ rather than conformity to the rational model. Still, the above cultural types are also evident in a Christian context, as when dominations employ different polities.

The term, polity, refers to how a denomination or church is governed. A denomination managed by bishops is likely organized with a traditional culture while a church managed through direct voting by the congregation likely has a postmodern culture. Meanwhile, a church managed by elders and professionally trained clergy likely has a modern culture. Each of these polities can operate differently in practice, but the formal structure of the polity clearly shapes the culture of churches and denominations.

Just like no perfectly rational firms exist, Christians cannot obtain perfection in this life but Christ is the standard, our sacred North Pole, and the Holy Spirit to guide us. With our compass set on north, we are not easily led into darkness, but focus on the light. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we normally avoid logical traps and quickly repent when we fall into one. The basic ideal is that in Christ we have the perfect guidance system even when our lives are not perfect.


1 The name of a characters in a novel (DeFoe 1719).

2 Adapted from (Hiemstra 2009).

3 Inertia is the physical property expressed in Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of motion: a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Inertia leads organizations to resist change and discount low-probability events.


Defoe, Daniel. 1719. The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. United Kingdom: William Taylor.

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2009. “Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?” pp 51-54 of Risk Management. Society of Actuaries. Issue 16. June.

Porter, Michael E. 1980. Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors. New York: Free Press.

Simon, Herbert A. 1997. Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organizations (Orig pub 1945). New York: Free Press. 

Williamson, Oliver. 1981. “The Modern Corporation: Origin, Evolution, Attributes.” pp. 1537-1568 in Journal of Economic Literature. December.

Cultural Adaptation

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God’s Immutability

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

“God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”  (Num 23:19)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

God’s unchanging character, his immutability, is not revealed in scripture in the creation accounts directly, but it is implied by his status as creator. In order to create, one needs to stand outside of that being created. When God created the universe, he stood outside of the time and space of the universe. While the universe had a beginning and will have and end, God is eternal. While God’s internal nature is veiled to us; his character is immutable relative to his creation. 

God’s Meekness

God’s immutability is also implied by his attribute of being omniscient.  Because God is omniscient, he does not need to learn like us to be humble or meek.

The attribute of meekness appears in the Third Beatitude only in Matthew and in the Greek, the language of the Old Testament, meek means: “… Not [being] overly impressed with a sense of self-importance, gentle, humble, considerate” (BDAG 6132). Meek is like “poor in spirit”, which we find in the First Beatitude, and at least three other times in Matthew (e.g. Matt 11:29; 21:5; 26:62-63).  These three events—the invitation of Jesus to be disciple, his humble entrance into Jerusalem, and his silence during his trial—demonstrate the humility of Christ. The humility of Christ is also observed in the writings of the Apostles—Peter, James, and Paul.

From this evidence, it is obvious that humility is important to Jesus in the New Testament. But, no one normally wants to be humble—we have to learn to be humble. Is it possible that God also learned to be humble? 

No. God did not learn to be humble and we are told at least twice in the Old Testament that God does not change (Num 23:19; Mal 3:6).

More specifically, God looks meek and gentle. For example, in Genesis before “God sent him [Adam and Eve} out from the garden of Eden” (Gen 3:23), “God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Gen 3:21) like a mother prepares her kids for the first day of school. God had every right to kill them both and create new people, but he did not do that. He did not do that because he had compassion on them and made provision for them, in spite their sins and against his own rights and power. In this context, God seems meek both in the Old and New Testament because he does not change and has no need to learn.⁠1

God does Not Change like Us

Tozer (2014, 63) writes: 

“To say that God is immutable is to say that He never differs from Himself…[He never goes] from better to worse or from worse to better…[or] change within himself.”

Again, standing outside of time and space God sees all of human history before him. We change and grow but God’s character remains immutable. By contrast, confronted with an unmovable, immutable Holy God, we must change. This is why every divine appointment transforms us.

We Care A Lot About God’s Immutability

It is fashionable to argue that God somehow learns like we do. Frequently, it is said that the God of the Old Testament is full of wrath and vengeful while the God of the New Testament is loving, but this interpretation inconveniently suggests that God could continue to change. What if God decided that he made a big mistake in creation, forgot about his promise to Noah, and sends another flood? (Gen 9-17) Or what it God decided that the atonement of Christ was a mistake? (I Cor 15:2-3) Clearly, God promises are tied to his immutable character (Exod 34:6). Otherwise, we are without the assurance of salvation.


1 God also shares his meekness with Moses (Num 12:3) and is prophesied in Zechariah 9:9 to be meek.


Tozer, A. W. 2014. Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God. North Fort Myers: Faithful Life Publishers.

God’s Immutability

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Proper Mental Function

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think⁠1 about these things.” (Phil 4:8)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

As alluded to in earlier posts, many questions about information, learning, and decision processes have a core concern about proper mental function. This is especially true in view of the unity of feelings and thinking that we see throughout the New Testament, as when the Apostle Paul writes: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:7)⁠2 Similar concerns arise in criticism about the reasonableness of faith.

Modern Complaints about Faith

Plantinga (2000, 136-142) observes that atheologians (Freud, Marx, Nietzsche) have criticized Christian belief as irrational but not in the sense described above—Nietzsche, for example, referred to Christianity as a slave religion. Freud described Christianity as “wish-fulfillment” and as an illusion serving not a rational purpose, but serving psychological purposes. In Marx’s description of religion as “the opium of the people” suggests more a type of cognitive dysfunction.

Plantinga (2000, 151) concludes:

“when Freud and Marx say that Christian belief or theistic belief or even perhaps religious belief in general is irrational, the basic idea is that belief of this sort is not among the proper deliverances of our rational faculties.”

Plantinga (2000, 153-154, 163) accordingly concludes that the real criticism of “Christian belief, whether true or false, is at any rate without warrant.” Plantinga’s strategy in analyzing the atheologian complaints accordingly is to discuss what they are not saying—not complaining about evidence, not complaining about rationality in the usual sense, not offering evidence that God does not exist—to eliminate the non-issues. What remains as their complaint is a twist on rationality—actually more of a rant—you must be on drugs or out of your mind—which is not a serious philosophical complaint except for the fact that so many people repeat it. 

Plantinga politely calls this complaint a charge of cognitive dysfunction. More recent critics are even less formal in their criticism.  Ganssle (2009, 4) observes that the New Atheists⁠3 do not bother to valid their hypotheses and maintain a deliberate strategy of innuendo that he describes as a Nietzschean genealogy—a genealogy given not to prove that one’s family includes royalty, but to discredit the family (Ganssle 2009, 136-137). This pattern of arguing dysfunction and innuendo makes it important to clarify what proper mental function looks like.

A Model of Mental Function

In outlining a proper mental function, Plantinga (2000, xi) defines: 

“warrant is intimately connected with proper [mental] function. More fully, a belief has warrant just it is produced by cognitive process or faculties that are functioning properly, in a cognitive environment that is propitious for the exercise of cognitive powers, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at the production of true belief.” 

He goes on to explain: 

“…a belief has warrant only if it is produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly, subject to no disorder or dysfunction—construed as including absence of impedance as well as pathology.” (Plantinga 2000, 153-154) 

We accordingly care a lot about the mental state of society when in comes to faith, as cited above in Philippians 4:8.

Education and Goodness

In this argument about proper mental function is a hint of the age old belief that faith and education are related. In developing the  discipline of study, we become are more open to truth, including the truth of God and God’s goodness. However, discipline is a necessary but insufficient condition for faith. Faith is an act requiring emotions and the mind working together. The mind alone cannot bring about faith.

Rational Thinking and Sin

Implicit in Plantinga’s concept of warrant is a preference for rational thinking, much like an economist would argue consumers consider all competing products, features, and prices before making a purchase. Proper time and effort are taken to consider all the facts pertinent to a purchase and assesses these facts independent of other consumers—no mandates from leaders or fads influence the ideal purchasing decision. Obviously, the economist also assumes that the consumer is not high on drugs, not subject to impulses brought about by psychiatric dysfunction, and able to afford the products under consideration. 

The point is that Plantinga’s model of proper mental function is a common feature in many fields of inquiry.

Interestingly, Plantinga cites the Apostle Paul in his rebuttal of atheistic critiques:

“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Rom 1:20)

Paul goes on to share what is essentially the God’s curse for rejecting salvation under the new covenant in Christ. The curse is that the disbeliever is “given over to” (become a slave of) the desires of their own heart which has, of course, been corrupted by original sin. Paul’s assessment here is that disbelievers have specifically fallen into the sin of idolatry (Rom 1:22-25).  

Sin appears in Paul’s argument as a generic mental dysfunction that obscures rational decisions and destroys relationships by cutting us off from other people and from God. Stealing, adultery, lying, and disrespecting our parents all obviously undermine relationships oftentimes for selfish reasons and are irrational in an atmosphere of full-disclosure in a highly interdependent society. Even if the Ten Commandments are not displayed in every courtroom, many court proceedings could be avoided if everyone took the commandments seriously.


1 The Geek word for think, λογίζομαι, means: “to give careful thought to a matter, think (about), consider, ponder, let one’s mind dwell on “ (BDAG 4598, 2) The word also carries a mathematical connotation as with the word, reckon (BDAG 4598,1).

2 Thompson (2011, 107) characterizes the entire Letter to the Philippians as focused on developing the proper frame of mind (φρονέω e.g. Phil 1:7)

Ganssle (2009, 1-2) views the New Atheists as: Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Their work shares three things in common:  passion, belief not only in atheism but the danger of believing in God, and their status as public intellectuals speaking outside their fields of experience.


Ganssle, Gregory E.  2009. A Reasonable God: Engaging the New Face of Atheism. Waco: Baylor University Press.

Plantinga, Alvin. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, James W. 2011. Moral Formation According to Paul. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Proper Mental Function

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

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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 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.


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.


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:, Publisher site:


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Overview of Epistemology

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Our post-Christian, Western society challenges faith, strips life of meaning, and leaves us to sort what we know for ourselves, an epistemological problem. Much like the Great Recession created a need to learn more about personal finance, the postmodern crisis of faith has created a need to learn more about epistemology, the study of how we know what we know.

Faith Not Optional

The need for confidence that what we know is true also arises because life is too short to test every assumption for ourselves. Imagine a world in which we argued about the definitions of red, yellow, and green every time we pulled up to a stoplight? In this ad hoc information age, it is important to examine basic assumptions in our thinking much like it is important to build a house on a solid foundation. Faith is not optional; neither is the epistemological task.

Anthropology and Epistemology

The need to have confidence in our assumptions about what we know is contingent on who we are as human beings. The New Testament teaches that the heart and mind are inseparable. Confidence is not a mind-game; it also depends on our emotional response.  Our epistemology accordingly depends on our interpretation of anthropology.

Anxiety due to Uncertainty

Anxiety arises when we depend on knowledge that we cannot evaluate for ourselves. Our emotions reflect our assessment of threats to our being, social position, and livelihood. Who could concentrate on studying Einstein’s theory of relatively if you worried about the roof collapsing? Living in a complex, technological world where the consensus on basic values has broken down is an anxiety-generating event because we can no longer trust that the experts we rely on to share our values and to value our lives more than their own economic interests. The risk of loss increases our interest in the  epistemological task.

Meta-Narrative is Participatory

Being part of a cause greater than ourselves provides security and meaning to life that cannot be obtained as individuals, a source of comfort that what we believe to be true is also in our best interests in view of our human vulnerability. By contrast, opportunities garner attention mostly when we feel secure. We care about the grand story of humanity, the meta-narrative, which we have no choice in participating in. Because, as postmoderns, we no longer believe in objective truth, which can be distilled easily into simple concepts, we want to know: who tells the best story of who we really are?


Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

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The Church as an Authority

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Earlier I wrote about the importance of authorities in our own decisions. Each Christian has Christ as a mentor, but we also have human mentors within our families, church, and community. Because I have talked already about the transition from a modern to a postmodern culture, let me turn to discuss the church context. Again, I will speak about authorities in personal terms because I am not a church historian able to address the wider experience within alternative Christian traditions.

Upbringing in the Church

The Hiemstra family has over the past hundred years been associated with the Reformed Church in America (RCA), a church strongly associated with the Dutch immigrant communities in New England and the Midwest. I was baptized in an RCA church and my uncle, John, is a retired RCA pastor who has been a lifelong mentor. When my family moved to Washington DC in 1960, no RCA churches could be found within driving distance and we attended a number of Presbyterian Churches in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUSA), where my dad and I both have been ordained as elders. My mother grew up in the Baptist tradition associated with Scotch-Irish communities, but in marriage she became a Presbyterian.

Denominational Identities

Both the RCA and the PCUSA arise out of the reformed tradition which has historically focused theologically on confessional faith. Both denominations affirm these confessions:

  • The Apostles’ Creed
  • The Nicene Creed
  • The Heidelberg Catechism

The RCA uniquely affirms these confessions:

  • The Athanasian Creed
  • The Belgic Confession
  • The Canons of Dort
  • The Confession of Belhar⁠1

The PCUSA uniquely affirms these confessions:

  • The Scots Confession
  • The Second Helvetic Confession
  • The Westminster Confession of Faith
  • The Shorter Catechism
  • The Larger Catechism
  • The Theological Declaration of Barmen
  • The Confession of 1967
  • A Brief Statement of Faith– Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)⁠2

Theologically, the RCA is the more conservative denomination having little or no change to their confessional statements or polity in the last hundred years, adding only the Confession of Belhar, while the PCUSA has amended its polity (the Book of Order) almost routinely every two years and affirmed three confessions written in the twentieth century (the last three on the list).Coming into the twentieth century, the primary confession of churches now affiliated with the PCUSA was the Westminster Confession.

Confessional Wunderlust

It is widely recognized that the RCA takes its identity primarily in its reformed confessions while the PCUSA’s identity is vested in its polity. This observation is, however, a twentieth century development.

For about three hundred years,  the Westminster Confession united Presbyterians in the Americas.  It was written in 1640 and was adopted early on as the primarily confessional document among Presbyterians  and remains in use today. However, the attitude about the confession changed dramatically in the 20th century. Serving first as a bulwark against liberalism in the early part of the century, but the 1930s the General Assembly passed a resolution forbidding any part of the denomination from offering an authoritative interpretation of the Westminster Confession. Later, a Book of Confessions (cited above) aggregated a number of confessional statements leaving the Westminster Confession simply one of many by the 1970s (Longfield 2013, 15, 126, 142-143, 196).

The Scot’s Confession of 1560, which is included in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA), outlines three conditions for a true church.⁠3  A true church is one where the word of God is rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline rightly administered. 

When the PCUSA removed its ordination requirements centered on the five fundamentals of the faith in 1925 and then moved away from the Westminster Confession in the next decade, it effectively lost the ability to practice church discipline on the basis of common doctrine and to distinguish itself as a true church as defined in the Scot  Confession. The boundaries between church and society were fuzzed because of doctrinal diversity and with the passage of time the fuzz grew as elders were elected and pastors ordained that held increasingly diverse views.  In effect, Presbyterians began a transition from being a reformed, confessional church to being a church united primarily by a common polity.

Ecclesiastical Authority

The authority of the church is vested in scripture and the witness of the Holy Spirit, given on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). The confessions of the church likewise derive their authority from these two sources. When scripture is clear on a subject, the church’s role is to teach scripture, When scripture is silent on a subject, the church’s role is to interpret scripture under the mentorship of the Holy Spirit. At no point should the church’s teaching violate the clear direction of scripture, which is why church discipline is critical to retaining the vitality of the church.

The focus on the authority of scripture has been a distinctive of Protestant churches since the Reformation period of the 1500s while the Catholic Church affirms the authority of tradition in addition to scripture (Sproul 1997, 42-43). The admission of authorities other than scripture, such as new cultural insights, tradition, and philosophy, into Protestant churches represents a return to controversies that led to the first Reformation schism.

In denominations unable or unwilling to maintain church discipline, individual churches are left to themselves in navigating a faithful witness. In churches unconcerned about faithful witness, the members themselves must navigate on their own, placing a burden on families to discern for themselves what to believe and how to act on their belief. Consequently, the absence of church discipline has facilitated the rise of individualism within the church.

While God can sovereignly use unfaithful denominations and unfaithful pastors to prosecute his will, we all strive to remain among the faithful at a time the church is less helpful than it could be in its mentoring role.


1 (as of 16 November 2018).

2 (as of 16 November 2018).

3 “The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished.” (PCUSA 1999, 3.18)


Longfield, Bradley J.  2013.  Presbyterians and American Culture: A History.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. 

Longfield, Bradley J.  1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Sproul, R.C. 1997. What is Reformed Theology? Understanding the Basics. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

The Church as an Authority

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

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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.


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).


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 

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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?


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.


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.


Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:


Continue Reading


Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“Then he poured water into a basin and 

began to wash the disciples’ feet and 

to wipe them with the towel 

that was wrapped around him.” 

(John 13:5)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Leadership creates what previously did not exist and in leading we most nearly reflect the image of a sovereign God in which we were created. In its purest form, Christian leadership displays the kingly, priestly, and prophetic characteristics of the Messiah, revealing its its origin in the godhead and formation in the community of faith. It is sovereign in the sense of being free to create; spiritual in the sense of embodying unseen power; and Christlike in living into a sacrificial character.  As such, Christian leadership never strays far from the cross; even demonic leadership never strays far from advancing the will of God.

What is Leadership?

In scripture, we see many images of leadership, but no clear definition. One definition of Christian leadership is:

“Good leaders are fervent disciples of Jesus Christ, gifted by the Holy Spirit, with a passion to bring glory to God. They use their gifts of leadership by taking initiative to focus, harmonize, and enhance the gifts of others for the sake of developing people and cultivating the kingdom of God.” (Plueddemann 2009, 15) 

Stepping back from the tendency to spiritualize leadership or to use the word, leader, as synonym for pastor, it is helpful to identify the unique role of leaders in decisions. 

Role of Leaders

The scientific method is a familiar decision tool often employed in science and management. The method consists of these steps:

1.Felt need

2.Problem definition





7.Responsibility learning.⁠1

In the problem definition step, an hypothesis is formed out of a felt need. Observations about this hypothesis are collected in the second step. In the third step, these observations are analyzed in view of other discoveries. In the final steps, a decides is made whether to accept or reject the hypothesis, take action, and bear responsibility for that action. Here the inactive voice is used intensionally in this description to avoid presuming who undertakes each step.

Three points in the scientific method require executive action: defining the problem, making a decision, and bearing responsibility for the decision. If the problem being addressed is inconsequential, then these three steps and all the others can be delegated to professional managers. But, if the problem being addressed threatens the existence of the organization or requires the firm to re-imagine itself,⁠2 then only executive leadership can undertake these three steps because big risks and substantial resources are required for implementation. 

Spiritual Leadership

Spiritual leadership is particularly important in taking felt needs and turning them into problem definitions because this is where organizational cultures are defined and defended. Even in the daily tasks of individual staff members, this need for spiritual leadership is a key to organizational success because organizations that promote active learning at all levels of the organization adapt more rapidly to a changing environment. 

Beyond the usual role of leaders in organizations, the spiritual component of leadership arises because leadership embodies the multiplicative effect of joint action. An organization is more than the sum of its parts. When leaders humble themselves before the Triune God, even just privately, a tone of humility is set for the entire organization and they make room for God’s sovereign will to act within the organization.

Timing is Crucial

A popular business communication book recently broke conversation about a problem into four stages: presenting facts, telling a story, feeling, and acting.  These authors observe that once emotions take over a discussion, actions get locked in. The key point in influencing an organizational decision process therefore arise as people begin to tell stories about presumed facts.

The authors describe these discussion as “crucial conversations” because stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.  Responses to these white-knock conversations include: avoidance, handled badly, and handled well.  High-performance professionals earn their pay by telling supervisors discretely what they do not care to hear when silence is the more typical response. Organizations where employees are able and willing to engage in constructive conversations about sensitive matters respond quicker to crises, have fewer on-the-job injuries, save money, and reduce workplace bullying (Patterson and others 2012, 3-13).  

Leadership Challenges

In his book, In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen writes laconically about Christian leadership focusing on the three temptations of Christ in the desert before he starts his ministry (Matthew 4:1-11) . These temptations were: be relevant (turn stones into bread), be popular (throw yourself off the temple), and be powerful (lead rather than to be led). 

Be Relevant

Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant—turn stones into bread (Nouwen 2002, 30). Writing about his experience at L’Arche—a live-in community for special needs patients, Nouwen notes his new friends had no interest in his accomplishments or his network of distinguished colleagues. He writes:

“This experience was and, in many ways, is still the most important experience of my new life, because it forced me to rediscover my true identity. These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.” (Nouwen 2002, 28)

If you strip away the degrees, titles, and robes, who are you really? 

Be Popular

Jesus’ second temptation was to do something spectacular to draw attention to himself (Nouwen 2002, 53). The Gospel of Matthew records it this way:

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” (Matt 4:6)

Jesus responds, saying: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matt 4:7). For Nouwen, the temptation to engage in heroic leadership is blunted by ministering in teams and, as a member of the L’Arche community, the need to bring along a companion from the community when he was asked to speak (Nouwen 2002, 58-59). 

Be Powerful

The third temptation of Jesus was to be powerful (Nouwen 2002, 75). He observes: “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.” (Nouwen 2002, 78) After re-commissioning Peter, Jesus prophesies his death: 

“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18)

Whether we like it or not as Christian leaders, we frequently find ourselves led. Nouwen (2002, 88) sees theological reflection as the primary antidote to the temptation to be powerful.


1 In class, unlike his book,  Johnson (1986, 15) add a felt need as the first step following Dewey (1997).

2 A key insight in Heifetz and Linsky’s (2002, 14 and 18) work is to distinguish technical from adaptive challenges.  In a technical change, authorities apply current know-how to solve a problem while in an adaptive change people with the problem must learn new ways to solve the problem. A technical change typically requires nothing more than additional budget while an adaptive change requires an entirely new approach.


Dewey, John. 1997. How We Think (Orig Pub 1910). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Heifetz, Ronald A. and Marty Linsky. 2002. Leadership on the Line:  Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Johnson, Glenn L. 1986. Research Methodology for Economists: Philosophy and Practice. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

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

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

Plueddemann, James E. 2009. Leading Across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.


Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:, Publisher site:


Continue Reading