How does God want us to make moral choices?
How do we know what is the right thing to do?
Scripture clearly informs us of certain universal moral transgressions:
- Hoarding wealth without giving to the poor (Ezekiel 16:49).
- Worshiping idols rather than the Creator (Exodus 20:4-6).
- Failing to honour our father or mother (Exodus 20:12).
Yet the list of prohibitions is insufficient to guide our moral choices today. For there are many moral choices today that simply did not exist in Bible times.
Here are some examples:
- Today’s law treats companies as legal people, and requires officers of companies to pursue financial return above all else. What is our responsibility to people, when companies demand to be treat as people? What is our responsibility to the environment, when environmental care and profit-seeking are at cross-purposes?
- What are the responsibilities of citizens as voters within the modern nation state? Given that the Australian government, as a modern nation state is responsible for locking people up in horrendous conditions—which appears to be the opposite of loving our neighbour—what is our responsibility? After all, we determine who gets to govern Australia.
Fortunately, God goes well beyond giving us a series of “don’ts”, He also gives us a series of precepts — principles — that explain His will:
- Love the Lord your God with all your heart, might, strength and will (Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37; Luke 10:27).
- Love your neighbour as yourself (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31).
- Love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).
So, we have a list of things not to do, and a list of positive principles. How are we to use this information to make moral choices? Why do we make the moral choices that we do?
How do we know what is moral?
Let’s explore some possibilities.
The greatest proportion of people claiming the name of Christians have been taught that Tradition guides us; taught that the Church government, or councils of her elders, will define what constitutes righteousness.
Yet church traditions have historically proven so corruptible that the church has Christianised idolatry, obscured the gospel, distorted the message of salvation, obscured God's sabbaths, and lied and distorted the truth.
There are many apparently sincere Christians who argue that experience should be a guide to Christian conduct.
Yet there is a significant issue with using experience as a guide to morality—we all have different personalities. Some of us are oriented to a very strict interpretation of morality; others of us show a lot more understanding of context and empathise with people a whole lot more. Who is to say what is right and what is wrong?
So while some Christians appear to detest sodomy and all forms of homosexuality—some so vigorously that they seem to hate homosexuals; others seem to condone it, even celebrate it. Yet both these results flies directly in the face of clear teaching of scripture (Mark 12:31; Romans 1:26, 27). So it appears that experience on its own is not a safe basis for making moral choices.
Some will, of course, argue that we simply need to follow what the Bible says. If we simply just do what the Bible says, we’ll be okay. Yet a close examination of our choices says that while we may think that's what we do, and we tell each other to do exactly that, we don't really.
Here’s the proof that we don’t strictly do this.
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12).
This is a plain statement of scripture, and yet we have women who preach and teach within this congregation. Either we are egregious sinners in this church, or we don't strictly believe that if it’s in the bible, we should and must obey.
Clearly, our practice doesn’t match this one simple rule. We need a better explanation for what and why we do what we do.
Then there are those who say we need to be guided by the Spirit. That if we listen to the Spirit of God, He will guide us into all truth (John 16:13).
Indeed, the New Covenant promise is that the Spirit of God will manifest itself in the life of the believer such that the believer will experience a renewal of the heart, and transforming of the mind, a strengthening of the inner being so that the believer's being and behaviour is brought into line with God's instructions (Jeremiah 31:33-34; Ezekiel 36:26, 27; Hebrews 10:15–18; Romans 8:9, 10, 14; 1 Corinthians 15:42–49; 1 John 3:2).
Specifically, the New Covenant promises that there will be no need for teachers. For all who accept God's New Covenant promise will know God—for the Spirit of the Father strengthens our inner being, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:16).
Yet there are many Christians who claim to be guided by the Spirit who argue for opposite teachings.
- For some claim that speaking in tongues is a required sign of the baptism of the Spirit; others claim that there is only one baptism, and that is the baptism into Jesus.
- Some claim that the Lord's day of rest is the weekly Sabbath; others Sunday; while others argue Sabbath is a shadow of eternal rest in Christ.
If the Spirit is to be our guide, the question is which spirit should be our guide. And how do we determine one spirit from another?
Apostolic case studies
These four sources — tradition, experience, scripture and spirit — are the four sources that are most commonly referenced as the guides to morality. Yet each one of them seems to have problems. So, are we any closer to understanding how we make moral choices?
Perhaps we need some more pointers. Let’s turn to scripture and see how Jesus and His Apostles made moral decisions. Perhaps their example will shed light on how we are to make moral choices.
After all, in the last few weeks I have been emphasising the need to read scripture the way Jesus and His Apostles did. So, let us see exactly how they made choices.
Let’s look at two case studies:
- Jesus as Messiah
- Salvation for the Gentiles
Jesus as Messiah
How did believers in the first century come to view Jesus as the Messiah?
Experience — 1 John 1:1-4
Spiritual revelation — Luke 2:26; Matthew 16:13-17
Scriptural study — Acts 17:10, 11
Salvation for the Gentiles
In at least one place, Paul very simply defines the gospel as justification of the Gentiles by faith (Galatians 3:7). Yet this was a huge and radical issue within the church. How did the church come to accept that salvation was for Gentiles as much as for Jews?
Spiritual revelation — Acts 10:9-48 // the vision + the spiritual in-filling of the Spirit
Biblical revelation — Hosea 1:8-11; Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, 52:10, 60:3
Church tradition — Acts 15:1-29
Applying Apostolic principles
In both these cases, Jesus and His Apostles were led by the Spirit, and drew on scripture, experience, spiritual revelation and ecclesiastical decision-making. In other words, they employed all four sources of information in making moral decisions.
First, the Spirit demonstrated His Will. Then they went to scripture to see if this was so. Then they related their experience. Finally, the church body made decisions in keeping with the Spirit, scripture and experience.
So, let us see how these principles have been and are being applied by Christians today. Let’s look at four case studies.
- Women in the church
- Social Justice
Nowhere does scripture explicitly outlaw slavery. In fact, the law of Moses explicitly makes provision for it. Yet Christianity has come to the consensus that slavery is an abhorrent affront to God.
How has Christian judgment outrun the judgment of scripture? And how do we, as Christians who emphasise the restoration of first century spirituality relate to this?
Firstly, we observe that there are a number of precepts at play. Scripture says, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). But people asked, “Well, who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29). So, Jesus told a story that radically expanded the definition of neighbour (Luke 10:29–37).
Secondly, Paul argued for a wronged slave master to show radical Christian love and forgiveness towards a run-away slave (Philemon 1:17). Paul’s reasoning is that the slave master and the slave are brothers in Christ (Philemon 1:16). They have equality in Christ.
Thirdly, we note the principle that the gospel is to go to all nations, languages, tribes and people, means that people from every family on earth will become brothers in Christ (Matthew 25:40).
By putting all these precepts together, many noble Christians were led by the Spirit of God to protest against racially-based, exploitative slavery. In so doing, they were being led into a truth that is not explicitly stated in scripture, but is reliably derived from scriptural precepts.
Women in the church
Paul made a statement that has long caused controversy in Christian history.
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12).
There are indeed some female Christians—even some Seventh Day Baptists—who take Paul at his word and refuse to teach in public. Yet clearly, in this congregation, we do not do this.
Why is it we seemingly do not follow a plain teaching from scripture?
What we do is we ask, “Is this the view of women espoused throughout scripture?” Is it true that everywhere in scripture, women are subservient to men at God’s command?
And the answer is no, for:
- God appointed Deborah as a judge of Israel (Judges 4:4).
- The prophetess Anna was the first person to declare Jesus as Messiah (Luke 2:36-38).
- The gospel of John presents the woman at the well as the first evangelist (John 4).
- The great commission was given, not to eleven apostles, but to the entire church, men and women alike (Matthew 28:19–20)
- The Spirit fell on men and women alike during Pentecost ()
- Paul's letters hint that an evangelistic ministry was led by the female Prisca (Romans 16:3).
Jesus treated women with a great deal of respect, treating them as equals, honouring them, appearing after His resurrection to them first, empowering and enabling them for ministry.
Interestingly, when we think about Paul commanding women to not teach or have authority over men, we realise that Jesus said exactly the same thing about men (Matthew 23:8), because the promise of the New Covenant is that there is no rank or hierarchy within God's ecclesia.
So, we find ourselves on solid ground when we in faith recognise “neither male nor female, for you are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28).
Instead of taking this one statement as God’s direct instructions for us today, we interpret it in light of the witness of all of scripture, in the leading of God’s Spirit, in light of historical examples, and in the truth of our experience that we are blessed by the ministry of women in this congregation.
With the case of women in the church, the witness of scripture varied across time and place in its affirmation of the status of women. However, this is not the case when it comes to homosexual relations. The witness of scripture is united in declaring that a man “lying with a man as with a woman” (Leviticus 20:13) is immoral. That women giving up natural relations and sleeping with other women, and men doing the same, is immoral (Romans 1:26–28; 1 Corinthians 6:9).
Now, despite scriptural witness being univocal on this point, we Christians have not been completely faithful in our representation of this issue. Here’s why.
No doubt you’ve heard the saying, “Love the sinner, not the sin.” I've heard it many times. Have you ever said it to anyone? Have you said it to a sinner? Now, when you said it, how many sinners heard that statement and felt loved? — None?
Did you realise that this saying doesn't come from the bible. Instead, it is a mis-statement of something Augustine wrote. Augustine wrote, “Love the sinner, hate my sin.” That's a significantly different idea.
Augustine argued that it is the sin that we have experience of that we are to hate — not the sin that we have no experience of.
The Christian church has so often pointed to homosexuality as being the chief of sins because it is a sin that other people engage in. We point to it and condemn it because it is a sin that besets other people, not us. We’re safe in pointing to that sin, because “we” don’t share in it. And every time we do that, we’re not “hating my sin”; we’re hating those who are different to ourselves. And that is the antithesis of “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
We must repent of this error. For by our actions we are misrepresenting Christ.
In presenting this sin as the chief of sins, many Christians are also guilty of mis-representing scriptural witness. You know, if we take the number of condemnations of sins as representing its importance, the sin of greed is condemned by scripture far more frequently than the sin of homosexual relations. Yet there's a tendency for Christians to condemn homosexual relationships more than the sin of greed.
Why do we do this? Because greed is something that affects us. We must remember to: “Love the sinner, Hate my sin.”
Scripture does not present homosexuality as being the chief of sins. Instead, it present homosexual relations as being the consequence of forgetting God (Romans 1:26–28). Even Sodom, so often castigated by Christians as being punished for sexual sins, is condemned by the Old Testament prophets for social and economic injustice (See Ezekiel 16:49).
Now, here’s an intentional irony. As we read Romans 1:26–28, and nod our heads in agreement, thinking, “Yes, it is just that ‘men[who] gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error,’” we’re agreeing this penalty is just. This scripture is teasing us and inviting us to join it in condemning homosexuality. And as soon as we do so, we’re pronouncing judgment on ourselves, for the very next thought within this passage is, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Romans 2:1).
Now, when Paul writes that we “practise the very same things,” He’s not saying we all engage in homosexual relations. No, he is condemning the fact that we have forgotten God, and that has led us into sin.
Paul’s entire point is not that people who practise homosexuality are uniquely condemned. No, his point is that we all are guilty before God.
As Christians, we should look on homosexuality, greed and pride as being equivalent sins. We should no more tolerate greed and pride within ourselves. For God would have us be holy.
Yet calling out other people’s sin is not the same as being holy. We're not called to be conscience of the world (1 Corinthians 5:9, 10, 12); we’re called to be conscious of God’s holiness within ourselves (1 Corinthians 5:11).
So, when people who identify as being homosexual enter the church, we need to teach that sex is something God designed and restricted to a marriage relationship. Sex outside of marriage is immoral.
Is that a hard burden for a homosexual person to endure? Yes, but no harder than a heterosexual farmer growing up in a rural environment in which he finds no suitable partner. Finding no suitable partner to marry is not unique to those who identify as homosexual.
Remember our discussion about slavery? The slavery allowed in the law of Moses was never racially-based or discriminatory. Instead, was a tool of social justice, with defined limits and provisions for redemption. It’s purpose was to maintain people as participants within the community and to restore them to self-sufficiency.
The most recognised form of slavery today is sexual servitude. Around the world tens of thousands of women and men are sold into prostitution. It's a violent destruction of the image of God in people’s lives, and needs to be eradicated as much as racially-based slavery was.
Yet today slavery also exists in a more subtle form. Debt-driven slavery, where as many people as possible are indebted for as long as politically tolerable in order that a few may get rich at the expense of the many. Perhaps society needs bold and Spirit-led people to today stand up for what is right, derived from principles of emancipation and liberation for all through the gospel of Christ.
If there's an area where the largest segments of Christianity is least faithful to the Word and the Spirit of God, it is in the area of social justice. The prophets spent much time teaching against the accumulation of riches at the expense of the poor, unjust legal systems, and social failures in the community of Israel. Yet we have come to construe Christianity as a personal, spiritual practise, divorced from the realities of business, politics, power and rule.
This is ironic because scripture places the rulership and power of God at the centrepiece of its world view. It describes Jesus not just as a personal Saviour, but as the Lord of Lords and King of Kings (Revelation 19:16), and the ruler of kings on earth (Revelation 1:5). The church is established as the beachhead of the Kingdom of God in this world. We need to recognise who God is, and who we are before him, and that Jesus' salvation is far more than personal — it is universal and even cosmic in scope.
So, how are we to know what is the right thing to do? God has placed his Spirit in our hearts to lead us into all truth, all knowledge, all power, all righteousness. We are to be conformed to the mind of Christ, and to go where he leads. Our conscience needs to be tuned to God's will, and we must repent when it convicts us of faults, failures and sin. We know it is God’s Spirit communicating with us because His instructions corresponds with the precepts of righteousness laid down in Scripture.
It is God’s Spirit that is the revolutionary force in the Christian moral view. God’s Spirit shows us His Will, and scriptural precepts confirm that we’re listening to the right Spirit. When controlled by the Spirit of God, experience and church decision making follows.
Remember, what is not of faith is sin. We all must give account to God. So, if we differ in any moral judgment, we must respect each other, and not wield authority over each other, for we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us respect each other, not undermine each other's faith, and the God of all truth will lead us into the unity of fellowship.