Scriptural Clarity for a Soft-Minded Age

As the telephone repairman connected new wires to the black box in our basement, he asked about my work. I told him I was a minister.

He pondered this briefly, then asked the location of my parish. I had most recently been a church overseer of many churches for a Protestant denomination, I told him. I hadn’t had responsibility for a particular congregation during that time.

He offered that he was Catholic. I asked gently if he was active in his church. Immediately I detected inner conflict in his responses.

The Catholic Church is just out of date these days, he complained. It’s back in the dark ages. The contraception matter was one issue. Women should have a right to choose. He thought that abortion should be avoided, but what about a list of extenuating circumstances? All of this tumbled out of him in obvious frustration.

He was also angry because the priest of his parish had refused to confirm his 12-year-old son. The reason the priest gave was that he didn’t ever see the boy’s parents in church.

But, I inquired, you still want to be a Catholic?

Yes, he answered without hesitation.

That was the reason for his conflict. He wanted to be a Catholic — but felt he should be able to participate on his terms.

He was reflecting what some call the modern mind. For people with that mindset, God may exist but his fundamental nature and requirements should be of each individual’s design. And he could be kept mostly out of sight except for emergencies. Thus it was acceptable for standards of morality to become fluid and vague.

When such persons encounter firm moral demands of an institution such as the Catholic Church, they tend to be both angry and conflicted. For this repairman, it seemed to me, there were no external standards of morality. It seemed he wanted to determine personally and with finality what was right. He could therefore remain marginally connected to his church while being angry at it because it wasn’t more modern.

My anecdote is but one example of this phenomenon. Consider another: the case of a daughter of prominent members of an Evangelical church who cohabited openly with a man for nine years and then decided she should have a big church wedding.

She approached her parents’ pastor. She wanted a full-scale event in the church sanctuary with all the usual embellishments, and a guest list of 200. The pastor put forward an alternative way to help this couple out. She refused his offer of a private wedding.

She could not understand why her request would create moral tension for pastor and church board. She thought she had a right to this celebration. It was to be a “rite of passage.”

But as the church saw it, she and her mate had made that passage on their own in a very public way nine years earlier. There was no “new beginning” to be celebrated. Moreover, the words of the wedding ritual would ring false to the listening congregation. For them it would be an issue of truth and honesty in the presence of God.

I rush to add that in this kind of circumstance, today’s Evangelical church is mandated by Scripture to love as Jesus did, sometimes with compassion, sometimes with firmness. But the church is called to love truthfully.

The Apostle John writes to his “true friend Gaius” thus: “It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in it” (3 John 3).

The truth John had in mind was the truth of the gospel of Christ as elaborated in the Christian scriptures. Should not established doctrines and truthful procedures grow out of revealed truth in timeless and trustworthy Scripture, making today’s churches clear-minded in this age of moral softness?

Bookmark and Share

We Need Courageous Leadership

Two nights ago Kathleen and I had an extended conversation about what constitutes strong moral leadership. What will it take to produce it in greater measure at all levels of a troubled society?

It’s a big topic for two 94-year-olds retired from public life and with no platform from which to speak. But we had just watched American news coverage of protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman.

We had seen the walls of large buildings torched in some of America’s major cities. Streets were crowded with people, mostly young, who were demonstrating in an orderly way. But the fires were being set by another group whose obvious intention was to destroy everything of value.

Our conversation touched on the inner human commitments that tend to make for strong character when taught and promoted. It was not about styles of leadership. There are plenty of courses, seminars, and videos attempting to address them.

It was rather about core qualities: wisdom, righteousness, and commitment to justice.

We knew that authentic righteousness requires that our thoughts and actions align with God’s moral law (Exodus 20:1-17). Justice seems to us to be the result of a human conscience aligned with God’s law written on our hearts, enacted into rule by law. And if we disobey such a conscience, and righteous rule by law, we damage character and deny justice.

Justice requires that both sides in a dispute be treated equally. To be just in a court of law is a most demanding challenge, and some say justice is always an approximation. Yet in everyday life fairness can be discerned as a reachable standard.

Leaders who operate from power, emotion, personal animus, empathy alone, prejudice, or taste will quickly be seen to be unjust or weak, inflaming observers. And, of course, leadership based on subjective/relativistic notions of morality will come to be seen as puny and capricious.

In the course of our conversation about leadership Kathleen reminded me of a Sunday-school song written a century and a half ago by an Episcopalian clergyman named Philips Brooks. It was about the prophet Daniel, the young Jewish lad who had been taken as a captive from Israel to Babylon to be trained as a civil servant. There, he was twice at imminent risk of unjust execution (the second time cast into the lion’s den because he would not worship an image of the king of Babylon).

Here are the words of a refrain we sang 85 or so years ago:

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known.

The morning after Kathleen’s and my earnest discussion about higher leadership I went to the little “den” of our apartment and read with delight the early part of the Book of Daniel. I read how with utmost courtesy he stood like a rock on issues of importance, to his own peril. And how the Lord was powerfully with him.

And I like to think that today, too, we can say with Daniel (2:20-22):

Praise be to the name of God forever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.

Bookmark and Share

Photo credit: astrangelyisolatedplace (via flickr.com)

Re-post: Let Us Pray for Moral Clarity

Several decades ago a distraught father arrived unscheduled at my study, dropped heavily into a chair, and announced without preliminaries, “We’ve got a pregnant girl at our house.”

The pregnancy was the result of one passionate indiscretion not of a covert lifestyle she and her boyfriend had adopted. Nevertheless, their plans for further education were suddenly jeopardized, and additional unanticipated consequences were beginning to unfold.

The parents were crushed by the news, but wise in their responses. There was no talk of spiriting the daughter out of town to have the baby in anonymity, no toying with the thought of an abortion, no counseling about a possible adoption. They judged that the relationship of the two young people had the marks of real love and they seemed to them a good match. For these reasons, everyone — parents and the couple — agreed to a private wedding in their home.

The news spread quickly to the youth group of the church and they were filled with empathy. They immediately began to talk among themselves about giving the whole of their church youth fund, a significant amount, to the couple. The impulse solidified quickly.

Upon learning of this, I spoke to the group’s leaders, saying theirs was not an appropriate response to the crisis. We don’t reward a serious moral lapse generously. At first the teens saw me as cold and lacking in compassion. Their anger was strong but restrained.

But this became a teaching moment. I explained that the couple’s conduct had grievously broken God’s law, brought grief to parents, and in major ways set a hurtful example to peers. I urged them to understand that their generous plan would create moral confusion.

It would be more appropriate, I explained, to pool their own personal resources and give a wedding gift such as they might give to others from their youth group who were getting married. Emotions cooled and my suggestion seemed to take.

That was many years ago. Things settled back quite quickly then because in that social environment there were more substantial moral norms to work from in making moral decisions. Today a Christian community is likely to find even within its own ranks a confusion of opinions regarding what would be right and what would be wrong in responding to the young couple’s moral lapse.

The couple themselves responded to their new situation courageously and with purpose and they went on to raise a family and live exemplary Christian lives. And the church community, compassionate in its general responses, settled quickly. It bore testimony to something deeper than mere sentimentality — to the redemptive love of a Christian group held together by moral unity.

The shift in society across intervening decades makes clear that moral clarity has become blurred even in the minds of many Christians. Fuzzy thinking about right and wrong replaces a clear settled commitment to seeking the righteousness of God.

In this environment of moral confusion, I pray for moral clarity in my own understanding as well as in the church around the world. I pray for it in the pulpits of the land, in church board decisions, in every Sunday school class, in Christian grade schools, in Christian colleges and universities everywhere. And perhaps most of all, I pray that in Christian families healthy consciences will be formed in the crucible of family living and family altars.

In a world filled with moral ambiguities and confusion, do you believe moral integrity is worth fighting for in family circles, within the church, and in society at large? If so, please join me in prayer for the strengthening of Christian consciences everywhere.

Bookmark and Share

When Institutions Opt for Integrity

On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers, one of the world’s largest investment banks, filed for bankruptcy protection after the biggest financial collapse in history. Investors swarmed like bees, stock values dropped sharply, assets shrank.

Two years later, on August 19 of this year, 60 Minutes, revisited the crisis. Anton Valukas, federal bankruptcy lawyer, had been appointed by the court as an investigator. He labeled Lehman Brother’s actions leading to the collapse as equal to a “shell game,” and declared the wrongdoing a case for legal action. He spoke for integrity in the business world. Apparently the courts have not yet acted. Will they opt for integrity?

The same 60 Minutes also reviewed a scandal in the Catholic church in Ireland which involved boys as young as eight who had been violated by priests. The sexual abuse had apparently gone on unchecked for decades. Finally, an archbishop came on the scene who had empathy for the victims and appeared penitent on behalf of the church. He was ready to deal justly with wrongdoers and to make amends with the victims — insofar as possible.

At one point 60 Minutes showed the archbishop tearing up as he reflected on the lifelong damage to eight-year-old boys who had been repeatedly abused.

On the day I watched 60 Minutes I also had a phone conversation with a woman across the continent. She asked if I had heard about the recent allegations of sexual abuse at Prairie Bible Institute, dating back several decades. PBI is a respected Bible college in Alberta, Canada, and my telephone correspondent is an alumna who attended in the 1950’s. She wondered aloud: Is her alma mater opting for integrity?

The evidence appears that the wrongdoing is being addressed in every way possible and insofar as possible. Victims are being counseled and supported. They have been given aid in tracking down their abusers. Those seeking to right the wrongs are paying a great price in time and energy.

In all three situations — a trusted secular financial institution, a worldwide denomination, and a respected Bible College — the persons given responsibility to act must surely have been tempted to avoid getting involved or to address the issues lightly. But instead they appear to have taken sides with truth and have been committed to do their duty. With regard to the secular institution the results are not yet final.

With Christian institutions especially it is important for leaders to see with clarity and courage that, however it is covered, moral infestations damage the functioning or reputation of the institution. As is often said, they must do not only that which is right but that which appears to be right. This is the price to be paid to retain the integrity of any institution.

I have often pondered a story that appears in the fifth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The New Testament church is thriving. Converts are multiplying by the thousands. Miraculous healings are taking place. The Gospel is going forth in all directions. The picture could scarcely be brighter.

But a couple come into the picture — named Ananias and Sapphira — who have sold a field for a certain sum of money. They come before the Apostle Peter having agreed between themselves to give a portion of it to the church pretending that they are giving the whole of it. They are intentionally deceptive.

But the Holy Spirit gives Peter insight and he rebukes Ananias for lying to the Holy Spirit. Ananias dies on the spot and is carried out to be buried. Three hours later Sapphira turns up to affirm the same lie. She too is stricken, falls down dead, and is carried out to be buried beside her husband.

When things are going so well for the young church otherwise, why such severity of divine judgment? Why wasn’t the lie of the two just set lightly aside or overlooked during the flush of general success?

Because the Lord wanted to teach the young church that unaddressed moral evil will settle into the innards of the young body as moral corruption — if not duly rebuked.

Many years later the same Peter continued to call all believers to rid themselves “of all malice and all deceit, hypocricy, and slander of every kind” (1 Peter 2:1). When cells of Christ’s church take such exhortations seriously integrity is valued and protected.

In the testing times now coming on the Christian cause on this continent, it is good to pray earnestly that God will give to every Christian institution the kind of leaders who have sharp moral insight and, when necessary, the courage to act.

Bookmark and Share

Truth and the Modern Mind

As the telephone repairman connected new wires to the black box in our basement, he asked about my work. I told him I was a minister.

He pondered that word in silence briefly and then asked the location of my parish. I explained that I had been a church overseer for the last 19 years of my active ministry, so I hadn’t had responsibility for a particular congregation during that time.

He offered that he was a Catholic. I asked gently if he was a practicing Catholic. Immediately I detected inner conflict in his responses.

The Catholic church is just out of date these days, he complained. It’s back in the dark ages. The contraception matter was one issue. Women should have a right to choose. That was another. Yes, abortion should be avoided, but what if there had been a rape? All of this tumbled out of him with obvious frustration.

He was also angry at his priest because the priest had refused to confirm his 12-year-old son. The reason the priest gave was that he didn’t ever see the boy’s parents in church.

But, I inquired, you want to be a Catholic? Yes, he answered without hesitation. That was the reason for his conflict. He wanted to be a Catholic — but on his terms.

He was reflecting what some call “the modern mind.” For the person with that mindset, God may exist but he has been shoved to the margins of life — kept there only for emergencies. Thus objective standards of morality tend to become vague if not non-existent.

When such persons encounter firm moral demands of an institution such as the Catholic Church, they tend to be both angry and conflicted. For this repairman there were no external standards of morality. He seemed to want his independent will to determine with finality what was right. He could therefore remain connected to his church after a fashion but stay disconnected and angry at it for its not being more modern.

This moral confusion is not just a Catholic issue. The same kind of thinking often reflects the conflicted modern mind in Protestant circles.

Consider the daughter of a prominent member of an evangelical church who cohabited openly with a man for nine years and then decided that she wanted to have a big church wedding after all.

She approached her parents’ pastor. She wanted a full-scale event in the church sanctuary with all the usual embellishments, and a guest list of 200. The pastor offered her an alternative way to help them out. She refused his offer of a private wedding.

She could not understand why her request would create moral tension for pastor and church board. She thought she had a right to this celebration. It was to be a “rite of passage.”

But as the church saw it, she and her mate had made that passage in a very public way nine years earlier. There was no “new beginning” to be celebrated. Moreover, the words of the wedding ritual would ring false to the listening congregation. To that body, it was an issue of truth and honesty in the presence of God.

Today’s evangelical church is called to love as Jesus loved, sometimes with compassion, sometimes with firmness. Love is a biblical mandate. And the need for love in our world is agonizingly great. But the church is called to love truthfully. The Apostle John writes to his “true friend Gaius” thus: “It gave me great joy to have some brothers come and tell about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in the truth” (3 John 3).

The truth John had in mind was the truth of the gospel as it is revealed in Jesus and elaborated in the Christian Scriptures. Should not established doctrines and truthful procedures grow out of revealed truth, making today’s churches clear-minded in this age of moral softness?

Bookmark and Share