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Why Do We Go to Church?

How the “Worship Wars” Often Miss the Real Issue

Where going to church was for most Americans the default setting, today it’s a conscious choice. Many churches tried wooing Boomers back with softness and smiles, affirming images of a God who is helpful for our life projects, and myriad activities for the kids. Many of their children and grandchildren are burned out on it all. Some head for the exit, toward Rome, the East, or the “spiritual but not religious” category. Others are calling the church to be less consumer-driven and to make God the focus.

For too long the “worship wars” have coalesced around style. These are not unimportant questions; how we worship says a lot about the object and significance of the event. However, all the sides (simplistically drawn between “traditionalists” and “contemporary-worship” advocates) in the debates share more in common than any do with the rationale of Reformation Christianity.

The most important divide is over this question: Do we come to church primarily to receive or primarily to do something? In other words, is God not only the object but the primary actor in the service, or are we?

I’ve heard some conservatives critique contemporary models for being “human-centered.” God isn’t there to make us happy or give us things; we’re there to bring him pleasure, to praise, worship, and serve him. I don’t actually think that most evangelicals disagree over that premise. It’s hard to make the case that people craving more congregational participation—longer “worship times” (“worship” now being equivalent to singing along with a praise band)—are merely consumers. Indeed, the sermons in many of these churches are pep talks filled with exhortations. They may be friendlier, but the goal is to get people to do something.

Actually, what has now come to be identified as “traditional” worship has more in common with “contemporary” worship than either has with historic practice. There are many examples, but the most important is their shared emphasis on the public service as something in which we (rather than God) are the primary actors. We are the subject of most of the action verbs. We come to church to praise, to worship, to express, to rededicate ourselves, to serve, and so forth. Even when we mention receiving something, it’s often merely so that we can do something: we learn our marching orders for the week. The Bible is our road map for life. Based on it to some extent, the sermon motivates us to follow the map. Baptism illustrates our commitment to following Jesus and Communion provides an object lesson to help us reflect more deeply on how much we owe Jesus because of what he did for us on the cross. Then the songs reinforce the idea: we’re here to do something for God and perhaps also for each other. We are the subject of the action. At most, the sermons, the liturgy and sacraments can be an occasion for us to think, reflect, feel, and act; they are very rarely treated as actual means of God’s action here and now.

Of course, we are the subject of action in the public service at appropriate points. We do confess our sins and our faith in Christ; we pray, give financial support to his work, and present our laments, petitions, and praise to the one who has given us every spiritual blessing in Christ. But that’s just the point. When do we actually receive these spiritual blessings? Is there room in the service for God to give us anything when we’re doing all the talking, blessing, expressing and acting?

Far deeper than instruments and music styles, this divide is the real one. Historically at least, Reformed and Lutheran churches believed that the Triune God is the primary actor in the public service. That’s one reason it was called “divine service”: the Father, in Christ, by the Spirit, serving his people with his good gifts. We find it referred to as “the divine service” routinely in churches of the Reformation over much of their history.

Drawing on the biblical view of the public service as a covenantal event, Reformed churches have understood the Triune God as the primary actor. If the covenant of grace is based on God’s unchangeable promise, with Christ as its mediator, then the public service is where this covenant is established and extended. Here the risen Lord of the covenant assembles his people to bless, convict, absolve, instruct, guide, and send them out into the world as “a kingdom of priests to our God” (Rev 5:9). The key moments in this covenantal event are God’s speech, baptism, and Communion—in each case, God being the actor. The very media themselves indicate that we are recipients of the action.

In every covenant, there are two parties. In the covenant of works, God delivers the commands, with attending threats for disobedience and promises for obedience. The spotlight is on the people who swear the covenant, “All this we will do!” In the covenant of grace, however, the spotlight is on the Triune God. He is the oath-maker, assuming the ultimate responsibility for realizing its goal. There are also commands; however, they are not conditions for inheriting the family estate, but the “reasonable response” of God’s people “in view of his mercies” (Rom 12:1). In the covenant of grace, God has allowed himself to be put on trial—even to be convicted by his own just law, fulfilling its conditions, bearing its sentence for our transgressions, and being raised as the beginning of the new creation.

In the public service, this is not just a story we talk about; it is actually happening here and now. The kingdom of grace is landing in the middle of us, turning a barren desert into a lush garden. As the keys of the kingdom are exercised, God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven; prison doors are being unlocked, releasing captives. God himself is walking through the animal pieces cut to seal his oath (see Gen 15). It is the new covenant, which is not like the Sinai covenant that Israel swore and transgressed (Hos 6:7; Jer 31:32-35). It is the new covenant in Christ’s blood, which he shed at Calvary and now gives to us as the source of forgiveness. Our Lord’s words and actions in the Upper Room are re-enacted in the regular preaching and celebration of the Supper.

In this public service, we are always passive in relation to God—receiving everything as a gift. God addresses us, here and now, with his commands and promises. He doesn’t just tell us about forgiveness, but forgives us through the ministry of fellow sinners who themselves need forgiveness. He does not take away our speaking parts in the script, but gives us a new script with himself as the central actor—and by his Spirit loosens our tongues to speak his praises. We do have a role in this covenantal event. It is not only the role of hearing and receiving, but also of praising and pledging. However, the latter are our reasonable response to God’s saving work, not conditions for it. In other words, the benefit of this Lord’s Day assembly is based on God’s work for us, not on our work for God. When we say, “This was a really great day at church,” we don’t mean that the choir or praise band was especially good, or even that the preacher was especially motivational. Rather, we mean—or should mean, “Our God did it again today—the holy Father aquitted us by his grace, clothed in his Son, giving us every spiritual blessing in Christ by the Spirit, through his Word and sacraments.”

It is significant that faith is attributed in Scripture to the Spirit through proclamation of the Word (specifically, the gospel); that baptism is effectual not because it is our pledge, but because it is God’s—we don’t baptize ourselves, but are baptized by Christ through his minister; that Communion is effectual not because of our imagination and intensity of commitment, but because through it believers actually receive Christ with all his gifts. These are means of grace.

However, where the sermon is primarily a “to-do” list and baptism and the Supper are primarily our means of commitment and re-commitment, respectively; where the “worship time” (i.e., music) encourages us to focus on our love, our praise, our promises, our sacrifices, the covenant being ratified takes place closer to Mount Sinai than to Mount Zion. It is more like a kingdom that we are building than one that we are receiving (see Hebrews 12:25-29). For this covenant and the public service it ratifies, Christ becomes more of a facilitator than a mediator.

Consider the argument of Dan Kimball in Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). Kimball urges, “…we need to recognize that going to a worship service is not about us, the worshipers. It is not about God’s service to us. It is purely our offering of service and worship to God—offering our lives, offering our prayers, offering our praise, offering our confessions, offering our finances, offering our service to others in the church body” (3).

What Kimball is reacting against especially is a consumer-driven model, where we come to church to “get something out of it.” However, where his answer seems to be to make the service more about what we give than what we receive, I’m convinced that more scriptural way to talk about it is to say that we come to have God tell us what we really need (regardless of our “felt needs”) and to give us what we need most. The problem that properly concerns him—namely, consumerism—is not solved by making it all about what we do! How does saying it’s all about what we do counter the problem he identifies correctly of making us rather than God the center? (Elsewhere, Kimball has criticized the Reformation for identifying the “marks of the church” with preaching and sacraments, precisely because it defines the church as a place where God is doing certain things rather than a people who do certain things.)

How can one say that the worship service “is not about us” and then categorically deny that it’s “about God’s service to us” and instead say that “It is purely our offering” to God?

This even affects the horizontal aspect of the service. There’s a big difference between saying God meets with us and saying that we meet with God. Who called the meeting? Whose agenda? Is God being included in our fellowship or is our fellowship constituted by God’s including us in his great plan for the ages in Christ? According to Kimball, leaders should ask, “Is this environment and what we do allowing us to become more intense worshippers of God?” (115). Similarly, Sally Morganthaler suggests that this approach means that “worship experience emerge from the people themselves,” rather than “the generic wrapper” (I think she means liturgy.) [1]

Again, the cure seems worse than the disease. How can the solution to human-centeredness be found in my determining with other sinners means of more intense worship and more “worship experience” emerging from the very people, like me, who need to be saved from ourselves and our experience? Does God even have a role to play in any of this? Is God nothing more than a passive spectator and recipients of our works? At least in traditional liturgies, there is usually a covenantal conversation: God’s speech-acts provoke a response. But if God is merely a passive recipient of our action, what can our own role be other than self-expression, drawing on our fund of personal experience rather than on the objective Word?

If I enter church regularly with the default setting of narcissism, consumerism, and so forth, then I don’t need better techniques, rules, or motivation for becoming a more intense worshiper of God; I need to be killed and made alive in Christ! “Emerging generations are hungering to experience God in worship,” Kimball says (116). That’s great! But isn’t that precisely why we need God to be the main actor?

If church services are merely places where we get our marching orders for the week, have a little fellowship, and offer our praises, money, and prayers, then why do we all need to actually show up every week to do this? What can be done here that cannot be done in all sorts of informal ways throughout the week? In fact, Kimball adds, “We adore the Lord all week, not just at ‘worship gatherings.’ Our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our marriages, our families, our jobs—everything should be offered to him in worship. This includes what we think about, what we do, what we say, what we eat, and what we spend time doing—they are all acts of worship.” “It is offering our love, our adoration, and our praise to him through all of our lives,” so it’s “extremely sad that we have trained people to think that worship primarily happens when they come to church and sing” (4-5). Our speaking parts (means of commitment), not God’s (means of grace), are the reason for going to church, in this view.

There are certainly many passages that affirm with Kimball that our worship is to be an expression of our daily lives—whether eating or drinking, working at the office, living with neighbors and family members, all to the glory of God. However, that’s exactly why we need to be on the receiving end Lord’s Day. Before we can be active in good works, we must be recipients of grace. On the Lord’s Day, we have a foretaste of that everlasting rest that is already ours objectively in Christ. We are served by God, and then God serves our neighbors through us in the world throughout the week. We come to church because the Creator and Redeemer has called us to assemble. He has something to tell us that will rock our world. It’s bad news and good news. Through all of these words, he is performing miraculous wonders for, in and among us. Christ is present in our midst, in the power of his Spirit. Preaching and sacraments aren’t just more occasions for us to act, but means of the Father’s action, in his Son, by his Spirit. Even our own singing has as its chief purpose not mere self-expression, but making the word of Christ dwell in us richly, with thanksgiving in our hearts (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19).

In short, the problem in many of our churches today is not only that we aren’t God-centered enough. It’s that even in our attempt to be God-centered, the focus is on what we bring the table rather than actually being on God and that remarkable work that he is doing in delivering Christ to us with all of his benefits. Only when we recover the biblical emphasis on God’s ministry to us—where he has appointed, when he has appointed, and through the means that he has appointed, will the priority of God’s grace in his covenant mercies be central. And only when this is central is our desperate need for regular participation in this feast evident as well. We come to church regularly not primarily to do something again, but to receive something again—and, yes, also to respond in gratitude. True enough: it isn’t about us, but it is for us. And a funny thing happens when we surrender to this divine charity: we actually become active again in faith and its fruit of love and service to others.

1. Sally Morganthaler, “Emerging Worship,” in Exploring the Worship Spectrum: Six Views, ed. Paul E. Engle and Paul A. Basden (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 229.[Back]

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For or Against Calvinism: The Miami Edition

This past January, Michael Horton and Roger Olson had another chance to discuss their books (For Calvinism and Against Calvinism published by Zondervan) in Miami, Florida, and this conversation is now available at the White Horse Inn store (The Miami Conversation). If you haven’t heard the first conversation recorded at Biola University in La Mirada, CA in October 2011 you can get a bundle of both audio recordings at a discount (Both Conversations). The format of the Miami conversation was the same; both speakers had a brief opportunity to make the case for or against Calvinism followed up by a time of back and forth conversation and questions from the audience.

The total length of the Miami audio file is 98 minutes, and you can listen to a teaser of this discussion below:

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A New York Saturday

Grab your coffee and spend a few minutes with Mike Horton in New York City. This video, graciously provided by our friends at MockingbirdNYC was shot at their recent conference. Mike Horton was the plenary speaker and after his session, he sat down with Jady Koch to talk theology: specifically the difference between grace and karma, the difference between reason and rationalism, the use and misuse of the third use of the law–even Bono makes an appearance! Good stuff to get you started on your weekend.

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How Would Jesus Vote?

Every political season, a firestorm of controversy erupts around the religious viewpoints of the major candidates and their policy prescriptions. But more and more Christians are increasingly uncomfortable with the agenda from both sides of the political aisle to claim God as a campaign advisor. How should Christians understand their responsibilities as citizens? What role does our faith play when we enter the voting booth? Does God even care?

The California primary election will be June 5th. Would you consider taking the time in your busy schedule to give the evening of June 1st over to thinking more deeply about the intersection of your faith and your earthly citizenship?

How would Jesus Vote? A Special Presentation from Michael Horton

  • When:  Friday, June 1, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Who:  Michael Horton
  • What:  Michael Horton, author and host of the White Horse Innnational radio broadcast, is coming to the Silicon Valley to explore the political implications of being a disciple of King Jesus. You are invited to a special lecture at The King’s Academy on June 1st at 7:30 pm (reception to follow). Free resources from White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation magazine will also be available.
  • Where: The King’s Academy, 562 North Britton Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA  94085
  • Registration: FREE EVENT – no registration required!

Please periodically check our calendar page for more upcoming events.

UPDATE – 6.7.12: This event was not recorded so we will be unable to provide the audio to this lecture.

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What’s a Routine Traffic Stop? It All Depends

Looking at the Trayvon Martin Case from an African-American Perspective

By Ken Jones | Pastor, Glendale Baptist Church (Miami, FL) and Co-Host, White Horse Inn

On Tuesday, May 8, 2012, I was looking out of my office window at approximately 3:30, in the afternoon. Our church sits on a busy street just above an on-and-off ramp for the turnpike. So I was not surprised to see a car turn into our driveway (this often happens when a driver has missed the on ramp or has gone the wrong direction when getting off of the turnpike). What caught my attention about this car is that it was actually being directed into our lot by a police car. Apparently there was some sort of traffic violation and the police officer pulled the violator out of the busy traffic into our parking lot to write him up.

I went back to my desk and after about twenty minutes I peeked out the window and there was a young African-American male with hands spread on the hood of his car as he was being patted down by the officer. Most traffic violations don’t require a body search or pat down, so I headed out to the parking lot for a closer look.

Not wanting to jump to a conclusion, and doing the best that I could to suppress the familiar anger that accompanies the conclusion that I was trying not to jump to, I first went to my car that was parked several feet away from the incident but still in view. By the time I reached my car the young man was seated on the ground as the officer proceeded to search both the trunk and glove box of his car. At this point I walked towards the scene and from a distance I informed the officer that I was the pastor of the church and asked if everything was alright, to which he replied “yes”, just a routine traffic stop. I stood by the door of the building for a few minutes before returning to my office. When I looked back outside, the officer was handing the young man a ticket and within a few minutes they were both gone.

The words resonated in my mind “routine traffic stop.” I had received a traffic ticket a few weeks earlier, a procedure that took all of ten minutes, with my glove box being opened by me to get out my registration. I never got out of my vehicle, was not searched or patted down and my trunk was not opened. I thought my experience which also ended with a citation was a routine traffic stop. But then I thought about the conclusion that I had tried to avoid jumping to, and I understood the truthfulness of the officer’s words.

In far too many instances when young black males are involved this is “the routine.” I recalled incidents from my youth in South Central Los Angeles, where standing on the street with two or three friends would prompt a U-turn from law enforcement passing by. We would be told by these officers of the law that we were gang members (when we weren’t); that we matched the description of perpetrators of some crime in the area, or they were sure we were on our way to no good. That was “routine.” It was also routine, when I started driving, to be pulled over and detained for up to an hour. When my son came of age it was also routine for him to be detained on his way home from his university job for similar periods of time. There seems to be something suspicious about young African males that warrants re-defining “routine” when dealing with them.

Whatever else is associated with the Trayvon Martin case; what gnaws on me is the suspicion that he was deemed a suspicious character and therefore a threat. In the incident that occurred in our church parking lot, I intentionally did not mention the race of the police officer because this not wholly a race issue. Many of the officers who gave out the harshest treatment in our South Central neighborhood were themselves African-American. This is about prejudice in the name of prevention and the subjects of this prejudicial action in far too many cases are young African-American males who seem to be perceived as a threat. Geraldo Rivera suggested that the hoodie worn by Trayvon Martin made him suspicious, and that Hispanic and African-American parents should not allow their teens to wear them.

Last summer, I spoke at the Legacy Conference in Chicago where there were braids, tattoos and hoodies galore, adorned by young people who devoted three days to the study of God’s word and taking it to the streets. Whether we like the fashion of our young people or not, is beside the point. Fashion has always been a part of youth rebellion. After all, suburban youth of different ethnicities who often share the fashion of urban youth are not subject to the same “routine” as young African-American males.

In the past, this prejudice in the name of prevention has come from law enforcement. In the Trayvon Martin case, it was from a neighborhood watch person. I pray that the judicial process will render a just ruling. But here is my greater desire that young men of color will become subjects of actual “routine” traffic stops and not suspicious characters because of their age, color or attire.

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Should We Oppose Same-Sex Marriage?

I appreciate the responses to my previous posts on this issue and, after reading some of the questions, thought somewhat pressed to write this last one. OK, so we know what Christian marriage is. We preach that, teach it, and expect believers to embrace Scripture’s instructions regarding sexual conduct, although we are still sinners who must continually repent, trust in Christ, and receive his pardon. Got it. But what about the public argument?

As I said in the last one, we aren’t authorized to speak in God’s name where he hasn’t spoken, but we are commanded to do so wherever he has. This is where it gets dicier, though. I’d like to frame my response, first off, in terms of two extremes that we have to avoid:

1. Treating references to homosexuality in the Old Testament as either irrelevant or directly applicable to the current question.
You see this in public debates of the issue, where extremists on both sides talk over (and past) each other. One thing they often share in common is interest in quoting passages from the Old Testament on the question. Then the person on the left reminds us that the sanction mentioned is stoning. “Do you want to stone gays?”, one shouts. “No, but I believe what the Bible says about homosexuality.” “Well, right next to that verse it says that you should stone disobedient children—Oh, and not eat pork, and not touch a woman who is having her period.” Bottom line: the skills of biblical interpretation are about equally as bad on both sides of the table.

The statements in Leviticus are part of the Mosaic covenant. They pertain uniquely to the covenant that God made with Israel as a nation. The laws that governed every aspect of private and public life, cult and culture, were a unique episode in redemptive history. Their divine purpose cannot be rationalized in terms of sanitation, public health, or personal well-being. The whole focus was on God and his desire to separate Israel from the nations, preparing the way for the Messiah to come from her womb. Therefore, there is no more biblical warrant for stoning homosexuals today than there is for avoiding Scottish cuisine.

If there’s every reason to distinguish these two covenants, we have to be very careful nonetheless that we don’t make the opposite interpretive blunder of contrasting the Old and New Testaments on the question of homosexual practice itself. I’ve heard of late several times committed Christians acknowledging that the Old Testament forbids it, but the New Testament is silent. It’s “mean Moses” versus “nice Jesus”: a familiar but completely baseless contrast. Affirming that the the civil laws are now obsolete doesn’t mean that the rationale explicitly given for some of these laws should be disregarded, especially when God singles some acts out not simply as dependent on God’s will for that time and place, but as “abominations.” Homosexuality is included in that list, as it is also in the New Testament (1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10—right up there with “murders, enslavers, liars, and perjurers”). The church does not have the power of the sword in the new covenant. Nevertheless, God’s statement on the matter is pretty clear: he hates homosexuality. It violates the natural order—reflecting the extent to which fallen humanity will go to suppress the truth—even that which can be known by reason—in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18-32).

Jesus brings forgiveness of sins, not a new—supposedly easer, happier, more fulfilling law. In fact, he upbraids the lax view of divorce tolerated in his day. Jesus does not ground marriage between a man and a woman in the Mosaic covenant—or in the new covenant, but returns to the order of created nature: “He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate’” (Mat 19:4-6).

It should be added that Paul’s point in Romans 1-3 is to sweep the whole world—Jew and Gentile—into a heap, condemned under the law, in order to announce that Christ is the Savior of all, Jew and Gentile, and justifies the ungodly who trust in him. We are all called to repent—lifelong repentance, in fact. In this, as in everything, we fall short; our imperfect repentance would be enough to condemn us if we weren’t clothed in Christ’s righteousness. However, to repent is to acknowledge that God is right and we are wrong—on the specifics of precisely where we want to assert our sovereignty.

2. Allowing same-sex marriage because since this isn’t a Christian nation, we should not seek to make the traditional Christian view public law.
Yes and no. The argument sounds like a “two-kingdoms” approach, but I think it’s actually more on the historic Anabaptist side.

First, it is certainly true that America is not a Christian nation and in any case Christians should not seek to promote distinctively Christian doctrines and practices through the properly coercive power of the state.

Second, however, I believe that we have to carefully distinguish general and special revelation, common and saving grace, the kingdoms of this age and the kingdom of God. Traditional Roman Catholics and Protestants are the vanguard of the pro-life movement, but in addition to witnessing to the depth of Christian conviction on the subject they also make arguments that can appeal to the conscience of non-Christians. The goal is certainly to legislate morality (just as the pro-abortion lobby attempts). However, it is the attempt to include the unborn in the category of those to whom the most basic right to life applies (namely, human beings). It is not a distinctively Christian view that the unborn are human beings (many pro-abortionists even agree, but rank the mother’s choice and happiness higher). Nor is it a distinctively Christian view that human beings shouldn’t be murdered—regardless of the parents’ economic or psychic well-being.

I think that the same can be said here as well. Marriage is not grounded in the gospel, but in creation. Special revelation corrects our twisted interpretations and gives us a better map, but general revelation gives sufficient evidence at least for minimal arguments from antiquity. Knowledgeable people will disagree about the strength of those arguments, since, for example, Greek elites often had teen-age boys entertain them on the side—with the approval or at least the awareness of their wives. Yes, others reply, but that was part of the downfall of the Greek civilization. In every case, it will be a debatable point—not to say that it isn’t worth arguing, but in the light especially of recent studies, it probably will not change a lot of minds.

Third, in my own wrestling with the political debate, love of neighbor looms large. Some on the right may offer arguments that reflect more the same demand for special rights as those on the left of the issue. The legal aspects of that are beyond my pay-grade—and they are important. Others may treat this issue as irrelevant: “Look, it doesn’t affect me. I just don’t want to live next door to some creepy home like that.” However, in terms of specifically Christian witness, love of neighbor (as God’s image-bearers) should be front-and-center. We have to care about our non-Christian neighbors (gay or straight) because God cares and calls us to contribute to the common good.

The challenge there is that two Christians who hold the same beliefs about marriage as Christians may appeal to neighbor-love to support or to oppose legalization of same-sex marriage.

On one hand, it may be said that if we can no longer say that “Judeo-Christian” ethics are part of our shared worldview as a republic, then the ban seems arbitrary. Why isn’t there a campaign being waged to ban providing legal benefits to unmarried heterosexual couples? Or to make divorce more difficult? It just seems more symbolic than anything else: it looks like our last-gasp effort to enforce our own private morality on the public. On the other hand, we might argue that every civilization at its height, regardless of religion, has not only privileged marriage of one man and one woman but has outlawed alternative arrangements. Same-sex marriage means adoption, which subjects other human beings to a parental relationship that they did not choose for themselves. Are we loving our LGBT neighbors—or their adopted children—or the wider society of neighbors by accommodating a move that will further destroy the fabric of society?

I take the second view, but I recognize the former as wrestling as much as I’m trying to with the neighbor-love question. Legal benefits (“partnerships”) at least allowed a distinction between a contractual relationship and the covenant of marriage. However, the only improvement that “marriage” brings is social approval—treating homosexaul and heterosexual unions as equal. Although a contractual relationship denies God’s will for human dignity, I could affirm domestic partnerships as a way of protecting people’s legal and economic security. However, the “marriage card” is the demand for something that simply cannot consist in a same-sex relationship. Human love is defined not by a feeling, shared history, or animal attraction, but by something objective, something that measures us—namely, God’s moral law. To affirm this while concluding that it’s good for Christians but not for the rest of us seems to me to conclude that this law is not natural and universal, rooted in creation, and/or that we only love our Christian neighbors.

At the end of the day, what tips the scales toward the second view is that I can’t see how neighbor-love can be severed from love of God, which is after all the most basic command of all. Even if they do not acknowledge “nature and nature’s God”—or anything above their own sovereign freedom to choose—reality nevertheless stands unmovable. Like the law of gravity, the law of marriage (of one man and one woman) remains to the end of time—not just for Christians, but for all people everywhere.

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A Christian Response to Same-Sex Marriage

As a minister of the Word, I am not only authorized but commanded to speak in God’s name where he has clearly spoken. The authority of the church’s speech is undermined either by saying too little or by saying too much. Ironically, when we respect the limits that God has placed on our public speech in God’s name, we dig more deeply into our own scriptures and are better enabled to exhibit a different pattern of living that, for all of its inconsistencies and hypocrisy, points not just to a better argument that still trades on the assumptions of this fading age, but points to the new creation.

With that in mind, I’m following up my previous post (“Same-Sex Marriage Makes Sense”) with a few thoughts about how we as Christians should ground our corporate beliefs about marriage as a witness to the powers, rulers, and authorities of this age without becoming their servant.

In my last post I suggested that same-sex marriage makes sense within the moral framework of a universe in which I am the center, my individual choice is absolute even over nature and nature’s God, and whatever role God might have is defined by my story, not his. In that light, the same-sex marriage debate is just the tip of the iceberg. Our own traditional marriages-indeed, Christian ones-fall short of the glory of God. The issues cut deeper than the assault on marriage or crumbling marriages or even pornography and other perversions of God’s order. Yet even to fall short of something is to have something to fall short of. And if there are no longer any sins to confess, then there isn’t any guilt to be forgiven by a gracious and loving God “who is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Christ” (Rom 3:26).

What Really Matters? How Our Lives Reflect our Worldview

As I argue at length in The Christian Faith, our lives are shaped by the intersection of the specific drama, doctrine, doxology, and discipleship that unfolds in Scripture. First, the drama. We go back to this basic story to make sense of the events that otherwise would seem atomistic and meaningless. Second, this plot becomes meaningful to us through the doctrines and commands. So how should I respond to this story? The drama has to mean something first, before it “means something to me,” but the latter is the special concern of doctrine. Israel knows that God is faithful because he has proved it in the historical drama. The gospel story is that Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised, but a remote history becomes our story when we hear that “he was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). If the doctrines arising from this drama lead us to faith in Christ, then the commands elicit our obedience. The doctrines and commands connect us here and now to the story then and there. Faith breaks out in thanksgiving and praise. Twice, right after teaching God’s unconditional grace in election and redemption (in Romans 8 and 11), Paul is led to outbursts: “What shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”; “For from him and to him and through him are all things, to whom be the glory forever. Amen.” In this mode of praise and thanksgiving, faith bears the fruit of good works: “I urge you, therefore, in view of God’s mercies, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice…” (Rom 12:1).

Every worldview consists of a founding drama, a narrative plot, whether it’s creation-fall-redemption-consummation or the self-caused and self-sustaining evolution of energized matter, the unfolding of Absolute Spirit, the education of the human race from medieval superstition to modern (or postmodern) self-sufficiency, or class warfare, and on we could go. Each story yields distinctive doctrines. If our origin and death have no transcendent meaning or purpose, then our reasonable response is to have faith in ourselves and try to make something work here and now. If the “meaning of history” is the survival of the fittest, then my neighbor is a competitor and the weaker they are, the better. If it’s the worker’s victory over the bourgeoisie, then our daily actions will be oriented to that goal. Doxology follows. We’re wired for praise. In fact, we’re created as the being that leads the whole creation in a symphony of tribute to the Triune God. Even when we praise idols, including ourselves, we praise. It’s interesting that Paul identifies original sin with being “no longer thankful,” worshipping the creature rather than the Creator. Then there’s discipleship-living out the story that we have internalized as our own. Taken together, these are the coordinates of a worldview that animates us-and that often, quite literally, move armies.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

The bedrock convictions of the Christian complex of drama-doctrine-doxology-discipleship are summarized in the ecumenical creeds. Triune God is the only God, the “Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible.” This God is revealed in the law and the prophets and supremely in the person of Christ, as he is disclosed in the apostolic writings. The God who created us also became flesh to redeem us, fulfilling the law in our place, bearing our curse, and being raised on the third day as the beginning of the new creation. The Spirit-”the Lord and Giver of Life”-is sent to baptize us into Christ, giving us faith to embrace the remission of sins. Though still sinful and full of error, we are gathered into Christ’s body: justified and being renewed day by day. At the end, the ascended Christ will return “the judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.”

Whether we’re thinking about issues like same-sex marriage or traditional marriage, we are called upon to repent of the nihilistic narrative of the autonomous self, the dogmas of self-founding and self-transformation, the worship of ourselves, the market, the state, the family, morality, happiness and security, political ideologies, and peace of mind. We burn the script we’ve written for our “show about nothing.” We stop singing Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” And a strange thing happens. As we turn our back on lords that cannot liberate but only tyrannize, we embrace in faith a Father who welcomes us in his Son and calls us by his Spirit to a feast. Once outcasts and strangers to God and his covenants, we become co-heirs with Christ, seated with companions-brothers and sisters-we did not choose for ourselves.

Contract or Covenant?

This biblical story opens and closes with the work and word of the Triune God. “For from him and to him and through him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” He made us in his image, establishing a relationship by way of covenant and related us to each other covenantally as well. Here, covenantal responsibilities come before abstract rights. Even my right to owning property is not grounded in autonomy, since “the earth is the LORD’s and everything in it” (Ps 24:1). In his providence, God has apportioned to me times and places, but they are ultimately his and I am accountable to him for how I steward them. So it’s not so much my right to private property, but my neighbor’s responsibility not to steal from me, that is basic to biblical ethics. It is not a universal principle that each sovereign self legislates for himself silently within, but a voice from the One who made us all, that summons, “Cain, where is your brother?” And I dare not use sophistry, replying with the rich young ruler, “Who is my neighbor?”

The most significant covenants between God and humanity are the covenant of creation and the covenant of grace. Under the first we are condemned “in Adam” yet still accountable to the law. It rings in the conscience of every person, coming from God, not from the individual or the state. Under the second, we are divorced from Adam’s cursed tree and grafted onto Christ, the Living Vine.

Among the most significant covenants that God established between human beings is marriage. Marriage is not a sacrament. Ordained in creation, before the fall, it is not a means of grace. Furthermore, not everyone receives it and yet God blesses their lives, too, in his common grace. Yet marriage is also not a contract. It is not simply an agreement between two autonomous selves to form a useful corporation for individual self-fulfillment. Though it isn’t sacred, it is solemn. And in a Christian marriage, the holy and the common intersect as the Lord maintains his covenant faithfulness from generation to generation. The children even of one believing parent are holy (1 Cor 7:14). The family, as God ordained it, is the building block of both cult and culture, the holy church and common society.

Marriage, then, is both a medium of the law and the gospel. Why should we be surprised at same-sex marriage when for generations now we have accepted the idea that unfettered choice brings happiness and law is the opposite of love? Not only in Israel, but especially in Israel, ancient political relationships between the ruler and the ruled were expressed not in contractual terms (a formal agreement to exchange certain goods and services), but in terms of loyalty and love. To love the king is to obey or “walk after” the king. The law merely stipulated what that love entailed. Moses summarized the law this way, as did Jesus when he said that the two tables of the law can be summarized as love of God and neighbor. Throughout the epistles, the call to love is not left suspended in mid-air as a romantic emotion that comes and goes, but as a commitment to love and serve each other according to the pattern of specific commands.

We are so used in our culture of entertainment to infidelity having a happy ending. We accustom ourselves to the idea that “I have to be happy and if I’m not happy with so-and-so, but with this other person, then I’m really not fulfilling my end of the bargain either to myself or to my wife-I just don’t love her anymore.” Even Pat Robertson suggested infamously that a husband should not have to stay by his wife with Alzheimers but should be free to flourish again with someone else. The portrait of a person hanging in there, not “till the money runs out” or “till neither of us is really happy anymore” or “till it just not working”-instead of “till death do us part”-may seem quaint to some, but even in this culture I wonder if it wouldn’t arouse a little tenderness, a different way of imagining life, where duty to nature and nature’s God were actually treated as the essence of love.

But finally, Christian marriage is uniquely an evangelical ordinance. It is not our faithfulness to God or to each other, but God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises, that keeps us going even through rough marriage-and-family experiences. It’s a wonderful thing when the Spirit draws those “far off” into Christ’s fold through the gospel. It is also a wonderful thing when the Spirit unites sinful children to Christ through the gospel as it is passed down from generation to generation. We dare not idealize the “Christian family.” We too are sinful, and our families are carriers of our universal contagion as well as its peculiar manifestations in our own lives. Nevertheless, it is not what we make of it, but what it makes of us-or rather, what God makes of us through it-that the covenant home becomes, despite its weeds and diseases, a garden blooming in the desert.

You Are Not Your Own-And That’s Good News!

Despite whatever unfortunate quotes one can find from some church fathers too influenced by pagan notions, the biblical affirmation of sexual purity in the marriage of believing spouses has nothing to do with ascetic disdain for the body and sexual pleasure. On the contrary, it’s precisely because our bodies are too important to the biblical drama that they can’t be exempted from biblical discipleship. Here is an example of that point from the Apostle Paul:

The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’…Flee from sexual immorality…You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:13-20).

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Same-Sex Marriage Makes a Lot of Sense

The media is still buzzing with President Obama’s recent announcement that he personally favors same-sex marriage. In 1996, he favored it. In 2004, though, he rejected it (affirming civil unions) on grounds of his Christian convictions that marriage is a “sanctified” union of a man and woman. Now he has reversed that position, again offering his Christian convictions (loving neighbors and being in a church community that accepts same-sex couples) as a rationale.

Speculations about political motivations aside, the President is hardly alone in his waffling over this controversial issue of significance for American society. Nor is he alone among those who say that they affirm same-sex marriage—or their own homosexual lifestyle—as something that is affirmed by God and their Christian commitment.

Makes a Lot of Sense?

Both sides trade Bible verses, while often sharing an unbiblical—secularized—theological framework at a deeper level. If God exists for our happiness and self-fulfillment, validating our sovereign right to choose our identity, then opposition to same-sex marriage (or abortion) is just irrational prejudice.

Given the broader worldview that many Americans (including Christians) embrace—or at least assume, same-sex marriage is a right to which anyone is legally entitled. After all, traditional marriages in our society are largely treated as contractual rather than covenantal, means of mutual self-fulfillment more than serving a larger purpose ordained by God. The state of the traditional family is so precarious that one wonders how same-sex marriage can appreciably deprave it.

Same-sex marriage makes sense if you assume that the individual is the center of the universe, that God—if he exists—is there to make us happy, and that our choices are not grounded in a nature created by God but in arbitrary self-construction. To the extent that this sort of “moralistic-therapeutic-deism” prevails in our churches, can we expect the world to think any differently? If we treat God as a product we sell to consumers for their self-improvement programs and make personal choice the trigger of salvation itself, then it may come as a big surprise (even contradiction) to the world when we tell them that truth (the way things are) trumps feelings and personal choice (what we want to make things to be).

Plausibility Structures

The secularist mantra, “You can’t legislate morality,” is a shibboleth. Defenders of same-sex marriage moralize as much as anyone. They appeal to dogmas like freedom of choice, individualism, love, respect, acceptance (not, tolerance, mind you, but acceptance), and excoriate religiously traditional opponents as hypocritical in failing to follow the loving example of Jesus. The agenda is plainly as ethical as any other. Whatever is decided at state and federal levels, a certain version of morality will most certainly be legislated.

What this civic debate—like others, such as abortion and end-of-life ethics—reveals is the significance of worldviews. Shaped within particular communities, our worldviews constitute what Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann coined as “plausibility structures.” Some things make sense, and others don’t, because of the tradition that has shaped us. We don’t just have a belief here and a belief there; our convictions are part of a web. Furthermore, many of these beliefs are assumptions that we haven’t tested, in part because we’re not even focally aware that we have them. We use them every day, though, and in spite of some inconsistencies they all hold together pretty firmly—unless a crisis (intellectual, moral, experiential) makes us lose confidence in the whole web.

Every worldview arises from a narrative—a story about who we are, how we got here, the meaning of history and our own lives, expectations for the future. From this narrative arise certain convictions (doctrines and ethical beliefs) that make that story significant for us. No longer merely assenting to external facts, we begin to indwell that story; it becomes ours as we respond to it and then live out its implications.

I’ve argued that in Christianity this can be described familiar terms of the drama, doctrine, doxology, and discipleship. But you see it in every worldview. Take Friedrich Nietzsche, for example. The late 19th-century philosopher believed that we came from nowhere meaningful and are going nowhere meaningful, but in the middle of it all we can create meaning for ourselves. Freed from an external creator, law-giver, redeemer, and consummator, we are finally on our own. The parents are on holiday (if there is a parent), and it’s party-time. In Romans, Paul identifies our fallen condition as a pathological inability to be thankful. After all, if reality is an accidental given of a random and impersonal universe rather than a gift of a purposeful God, then the only meaning we have is that which we design and execute for ourselves.

It’s something like Nietzsche’s narrative—the “Nowhere Man” poised to make something of his own individualism and will to power—that creates the plausibility structure of contemporary living in the West. Its central dogma is the will to power and its doxology is actually self-congratulatory, like Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” It yields masters and consumers rather than pilgrims and disciples.

The fact that “moralistic-therapeutic-deism” is the working theology of Americans—whether evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants, or agnostics—demonstrates the pervasiveness of secularization even in our churches. The old actors may still be invoked: God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit. Bits of the old narrative may still be mentioned: creation, providence, redemption, salvation, heaven. However, the shift is evident enough. These old words are mapped onto an essentially human-centered rather than God-centered map. The map is the autonomous self’s striving to create a sense of meaning, purpose, and significance. Each individual writes his or her own script or life movie. “God” may still have a meaningful role as a supporting actor in our self-realization and peace of mind, but we’re the playwright, director, and star.

So when we come to debates about same-sex marriage in civic debates, even professions of deeply held Christian commitments can be invoked without the biblical narrative, doctrines and commands, doxology, and discipleship actually providing the authoritative source and structural integrity to our arguments.

Conservatives often appeal to self-fulfillment: gays are unhappy. They don’t realize their own potential to mate with the right gender and produce pleasant families like the rest of us. To be sure, there are other arguments, like referring to the decline of civilizations that accommodated homosexuality. However, this is just to extend the pragmatic-and-therapeutic-usefulness presupposition of individual autonomy to a social scale.

On this common ground, same-sex marriage is a no-brainer. Some people are happier and more fulfilled in committed same-sex relationships. There’s no use trying to refute other people’s emotional expressions of their own subjective states of consciousness. Do same-sex couples wrestle with tension, anxiety over a partner losing interest and being attracted to someone else, infidelity, and so forth? Looking at the state of traditional marriage, how exactly are these couples uniquely dysfunctional? A 2006 Amicus Brief presented to the California Supreme Court by the nation’s leading psychological and psychiatric bodies argued, “Gay men and lesbians form stable, committed relationships that are equivalent to heterosexual relationships in essential respects. The institution of marriage offers social, psychological, and health benefits that are denied to same-sex couples…There is no scientific basis for distinguishing between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples with respect to the legal rights, obligations, benefits, and burdens conferred by civil marriage.” Well, there you have it. The new high priests of the national soul have spoken.

How would someone who believes that sin is unhappiness and salvation is having “your best life now” make a good argument against same-sex marriage? There is simply no way of defending traditional marriage within the narrative logic that apparently most Christians—much less non-Christians—presuppose regardless of their position on this issue.

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Q&A at Ligonier – Horton with Meyer, Sproul Sr. & Jr., and Tackett

Earlier this year, Dr. Horton was at the Ligonier National conference with a number of colleagues. You can listen to the entire conference free from Ligonier’s website. However, we thought we would highlight the Question & Answer session that Dr. Horton was a part of that spoke about creation, science, and other non-controversial subjects. Enjoy!

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Freer Than Thou: How Wisdom Avoids Legalism and License

To give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion…”
Proverbs 1:2-4

We are so good at being legalists. One minute we’re the “older brother” in our Lord’s parable, resentful of the Father’s lavish grace showered on the prodigal son; the next minute we’re smug judges of the “pharisees.” To reverse the roles in another parable, gospel-liberated heirs can be, rather ironically, like the Pharisee who prayed (at least in my version), “Lord, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee. I know that I’m totally depraved and am justified by grace alone. I’m so glad I ‘get it’—of course, thanks to you.”

One way of asserting this superiority, waving the “I’m-one-of-those-who-get-it” flag, is to turn the taboos of our past on their head. We’ve discovered liberty in “things indifferent”—adiaphora, or things that are not identified in Scripture as sins. Don’t get me wrong: this liberty is precious. In fact, Calvin went so far as to call it “an appendix to justification.” As he said, to bow the neck to a yoke of slavery in practice is to deprive oneself and others of the joy of the gospel. Yet, as the reformer also observed from Paul, love is the rule. For the weaker brother or sister, we restrain our liberty, but we will not surrender that freedom for which Christ died to those who would exercise tyranny over consciences.

What’s interesting in the Lord’s parable is that the prodigal son never once expressed superiority toward his older brother. The Father had enough love and forgiveness to go around: for both brothers. Enough to unite them in fraternal bonds.

We’re all on a long road to maturity. The problem is that when I behold the holy and generous Father, I can only confess with Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” Not that long ago, there was a shared culture of propriety. Even unbelievers who swore like a sailor with their buddies on a fishing trip held their tongues in check around the women and children. They weren’t foul-mouthed in business meetings.

Today, however, there is a culture of baseness. The lowest forms of cultural expression have become the most pervasive, tearing down all of the dividers between “appropriate here, but not here.” Even middle-aged people sometimes try to mimick the youth culture. We see this not only in the sloppy dress that has now become de rigeur, but in church services that borrow from the trivial banalities of pop culture as if it could authentically convey the riches of Christ from generation to generation. Pastors even sometimes say they use of foul language in the pulpit as a missional device, but the justification sounds eerily familiar to that of the shock-jock looking for ratings. Our friend Shane Lems has written a thoughtful post about this topic recently. It affects the way in which younger pastors sometimes dismiss the wisdom of older generations. Even when they talk about wives submitting to husbands—and perhaps members submitting to them—they do not themselves submit to elders and a wider body of fellow officers. It’s sloppy. It lacks discernment. And when it involves swearing while speaking in Christ’s name, it’s sacrilegous. Most non-Christians I know get that. They’re not impressed by preachers sharing their sex life in vivid detail; it sounds like someone who just discovered that sex isn’t a sin.

“Oh, Grow Up!”

In all the pendulum-swinging between making a rule and breaking a rule, what we’ve lost is wisdom or prudence. There are some rich words in the older Christian vocabulary that tag along with these pregnant terms. One is circumspection (from the Latin compound circumspectio; literally, “looking around”: the art of using one’s own judgment (discernment) to apply general biblical teaching and common sense in specific contexts where there is no universally-applicable biblical rule.

It’s all about growing up. When we’re children, we learn the grammar. As disciples of Christ, we learn the basic words, teachings, stories, and rules of God’s Word. Then we enter the dialectical (or logical) stage, when we look for connections and ask questions about what we believe and why we believe it. It’s like learning to ride a bicycle: focusing on the pedals and steering without falling off. Or learning to play the piano: focusing on the placement of our hands and looking at the notes on the page. But then we enter the rhetorical stage, where we’re actually riding the bike, attending directly to the road rather than the pedals, and actually playing the music instead of focusing back and forth on our fingers and the notes. Growing up into Christ is a lot like that.

Legalism messes all of this up, because it keeps us from growing up, from going on to that rhetorical stage where we’re practicing the faith that we profess. It keeps us looking at our fingers and the notes. How far can I go with my girlfriend? What’s the line I can’t cross in doing my taxes? These are the sorts of questions the Pharisees asked Jesus. It’s the genre of questions I often hear at conferences.

If we are drawn to the lowest forms of culture, we shouldn’t be surprised when even non-Christians respond, “Is that all you can sing?” Or “Are your vocabulary, life experience and imagination so limited that you have to shock people with vulgarity?” Even in areas where we’re free, there is wisdom. And in any case, Christians are not free to violate standards of propriety that Scripture does in fact directly condemn.

In Reformed circles it’s often called the “cage phase”: that familiar introductory period when neophyte Calvinists ought to be held in a medium-security facility to ensure the safety of others and themselves. Not only is there the obvious theological revolution that occurs and generates a certain excitement as well as a sense of being let down by one’s churched background; there is, for many of us who came from fundamentalist or evangelical circles, a newfound Christian liberty. Where once the little legalist inside us loved to wave the flag of superiority by parading our dedication to rules that weren’t even found in Scripture, now we do the same thing by parading our liberties. A cigar and a beer aren’t just a cigar and beer, but banners unfurled for all to see. It’s just legalism of a different sort. In either manifestation, it’s childish.

Growing in wisdom is a lot more difficult. It’s like becoming a vintner, a barber, a musician, or an athlete: it takes time, attention, meditation, and art. It requires submitting to expertise—something that we as Americans especially shy away from in our egalitarian culture where everybody is as competent as the next person.

“The Charioteer of all Virtues”

Not surprisingly, most of the references to prudence in scripture are found in Proverbs. Prudence is distinguished from wisdom as a species from its genus. If wisdom is the general capacity for evaluating and following the Good, the True, and the Beautiful (which, Proverbs tells us, begins with theology—i.e., the fear of God), then prudence is that particular exercise of wisdom that involves discrimination. One does not need to exercise discretion in deciding whether to love God and one’s neighbor. However, discretion is called for when deciding on a vocation for that aim, in the week’s bustling priorities, and how best to fulfill it. You can’t learn to ride a bike just from reading a manual; you have to do it, informed by a biblical outlook and common sense, and when you fall you have to get back on and ride.

Here, the specific context, not the general rule, guides moral reasoning: “I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge and discretion” (Prov. 8:12). One not only is expected to do prudent things; rather, prudent things are done by a prudent person. The goal of character, Christian or otherwise, is to develop habits of picking up on both general biblical wisdom and particular, immediate contexts. We know a prudent person when we see one: “A fool’s wrath is known at once, but a prudent man covers shame” (Prov. 12:16). “The heart of the prudent acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge” (Prov. 18:15). If our only categories are “right” and “wrong,” we will miss the opportunities to develop a moral conscience, the character of a prudent person. This isn’t just about Christian practice, but the wisdom that goes with the grain of our created nature.

Plato called prudence “the charioteer of all virtues” (Phaedrus), but Aristotle especially developed this notion in a direction that many, including myself, regard as remarkably consistent with scripture. (And why not? Aren’t we talking about civic righteousness and common grace? Even Luther, who disliked Aristotle generally, said that he was “very good in the area of moral philosophy,” Luther’s Table Talk, #411).

In Book 2 of his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguished virtue as being of two kinds: intellectual, formed by teaching (experience plus time), and moral, formed by habit. In Greek, he points out, ethike “…is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit).” People become builders by building, musicians by playing, and so forth. Aristotle emphasizes the fact that we are responsible not only for our actions, but for our lives—our character, who we are and who we become. (Again, we’re not in the realm here of redemption, but of common grace.) Our culture today is starving for this sort of moral discourse, especially when the idea that we are passively shaped by our environment is so rife.

I think that Aristotle would tell a mother who is worried about her children seeing any movies, reading any fiction, or hanging out with the wrong crowd, “Give them an alternative prize.” In other words, it is at least in part up to us as parents to provide an environment where truth, goodness, and beauty are known and experienced in depth. If they are gripped by the truth, they will less likely to believe the latest lie. If they become intimate with that which is good, noble, and worthy of respect, they will be less inclined toward the shallow narcissism that feeds immorality in the first place. Familiar with great lives of great men and women who were shaped by integrity and wisdom, they will at least have something to contrast with the trivial characters that they see promoted in the culture. And they will only come to recognize the inferiority of that which is ugly by being familiar with that which is beautiful. Prudence is thereby molding character in such a manner that even where there is not a specific rule or defined expectation in a given situation, they will be able to size things up and make a mature decision. A rule-oriented existence usually stunts the moral growth of people and communities.

Granted, this is more difficult. It would be great if wisdom were just a matter of acquiring information and applying it. That’s how a lot of people do actually think about discipleship: it’s something you can get out of a catalogue. You can’t buy it—it’s not on sale anywhere. In our modern culture, calculative or instrumental reason (what Aristotle called techne: “know-how”) has swallowed the horizon. You can’t Google “winemaking” or buy a kit and think you’ll give Stag’s Leap a run for its money. The difference between pop culture and serious culture is not “common person” versus “elitist,” but values dominated by consumption versus creation, distraction versus attentiveness, passing fancy versus caring.

The Puritans were brilliant at “cases of consciences.” These were fat volumes of ministerial counsel in concrete, specific cases. It was neither “situation ethics” nor Kant’s categorical imperative (“act in such a way that you would decree that act as a universal law”). Most cases pastors faced (and still do) aren’t answered in black-and-white laws that can be applied universally. In some cases, a wife would be counseled to divorce her husband, while in others not; the difference was the specific set of circumstances. A wise person has to get inside the situation and look around, ask questions, spend time, and evaluate—with the advice of others in similar positions of spiritual authority. As Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin explain the approach, “The prudent person is aware that although the final end of human life is fixed by divine providence, the means to achieving that end are ‘of manifold variety according to the variety of persons and situations.’”[1]

Their goal was to educate the conscience, drawing on both the light of nature and the light of grace. Anglican and Puritan divine William Perkins’s Whole Treatise of Cases of Conscience (1606) represents a major contribution. In that book he begins by saying that such an exercise is essential since many Christians struggle with a heavy sense of guilt and “have either growne to phrensie and madness or els sorted unto themselves fearfull ends, some by hanging, some by drowning.” But, according to Jonsen and Toulmin, pietism and rationalism steadily diminished this practice, with the triumph of legalism and the Enlightenment’s “universal morality.”[2]

Calvin on “Things Indifferent”

After his lengthy treatment of justification, Calvin offers a section on Christian liberty in 3.19. of the Institutes. Note how many times Calvin mentions the conscience: “[A]part from a knowledge of [Christian liberty] consciences dare undertake almost nothing without doubting; they hesitate and recoil from many things; they constantly waver and are afraid” (Institutes 3.19.1). The legalism-license pendulum was familiar also in Calvin’s day:

For, as soon as Christian freedom is mentioned, either passions boil or wild tumults rise unless these wanton spirits are opposed in time, who otherwise most wickedly corrupt the best things…Others disdain it, thinking that it takes away all moderation, order, and choice of things. What should we do here, hedged about with such perplexities? (ibid.)

I know what many of my friends from my upbringing would say to this: with so many perplexities, don’t even open the can of worms. If it could cause anyone offense, don’t do it. So everyone ends up being enslaved to those who do not allow for liberty, since these are (wrongly) categorized as the “weaker brother.” But Calvin says this easy rule-oriented piety comes at too high a price:

Shall we say good-by to Christian freedom, thus cutting off occasion for such dangers? But, as we have said, unless this freedom be comprehended, neither Christ nor gospel truth, nor inner peace of soul, can be rightly known. Rather, we must take care that so necessary a part of doctrine be not suppressed, yet at the same time that those absurd objections which are wont to arise be met (ibid.).

After carefully delineating what sense in which believers are even free from the law of God (viz., “…before God’s judgment seat it has no place in their consciences” to condemn them), Calvin explains how freedom from “the severe requirement of the law” actually releases timid consciences to serve God and neighbor (3.19.5).

But there is a further freedom of the Christian, a liberty in “things indifferent”: these are things concerning which “we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently. And the knowledge of this freedom is very necessary for us, for if it is lacking, our consciences will have no repose and there will be no end to superstitions.” “Today,” he says, “we seem to many to be unreasonable because we stir up discussion” over medieval rules. Why not just go along with it all? Who’s getting hurt? “But when consciences once ensnare themselves, they enter a long and inextricable maze, not easy to get out of.” First, the sensitive person will say that one thing is wrong, then a further thing, until finally, his conscience will force him “to turn over in his mind” the most trivial matters. “To sum up, he will come to the point of considering it wrong to step upon a straw across his path, as the saying goes” (3.19.7).

The “weaker brother,” Calvin argues, is the one who questions his faith because of using or not using his liberty, not someone who questions the faith of others. Thus, many “weaker brothers” are actually pharisees, and for the sake of the liberty for which Christ died they must be resisted. Christians must not miss a single opportunity to “recognize [God's] liberality toward us.” It isn’t a small matter then: “Its whole force consists in quieting frightened consciences before God…” (3.19.8-9). For that reason, one need not (must not) give up his or her liberty for the sake of the “pharisee”:

Here is no ‘given’ offense, but those wicked interpreters baselessly so understand it. None but the weak is made to stumble by the first kind of offense, but the second gives offense to persons of bitter disposition and pharisaical pride. Accordingly, we shall call the one the offense of the weak, the other that of the Pharisees. Thus we shall so temper the use of our freedom as to allow for the ignorance of our weak brothers, but for the rigor of the Pharisees, not at all! (3.19.11).

As a side-note here, we could observe Paul’s attack on the Judaizers who came to “spy out the liberty” that believers enjoyed. During the Reformation, open-air barbeques were held every Friday in Zurich, the day on which the medieval church had forbidden the eating of meat. Princeton theologian A. A. Hodge, though he personally did not like whiskey, felt obligated to imbibe on occasions when he was called upon to abstain by abstinence groups trying to make his freedom a federal crime. Charles Hodge both reported and commended his son’s practice.

But are these illustrations of a universal rule, an anti-legalistic legalism, that would dictate our policy in each case? Not at all. These Christians exercised discretion, judgment, analysis of the particular situation and the various implications, including their weighing the priorities of both charity and the importance of this truth. At the same time that Paul warns of spying legalists, he adds, “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Are we following such a general rule in our exercise of prudent application? The general rule is set in stone, but prudence is exercised by an educated conscience in particular circumstances that must be carefully evaluated.

So what’s the outcome of all of this? The monks tried to outrun each other in deprivation. But what’s our response, asks Calvin, “…to outstrip his neighbors in all sorts of elegance…” under “the pretext of Christian liberty”?

They say that these things are things indifferent. I admit it, provided they are used indifferently. But when they are coveted too greedily, when they are proudly boasted of, when they are lavishly squandered, things that were of themselves otherwise lawful are certainly defiled by these vices…We have never been forbidden to laugh, or to be filled, or to join new possessions to old or ancestral ones, or to delight in musical harmony, or to drink wine. True, indeed. But where there is plenty, to wallow in delights, to gorge oneself, to intoxicate mind and heart with present pleasures and be always panting after new ones—such are very far removed from a lawful [i.e., prudent] use of God’s gifts (3.19.9, emphasis added).

Luther too reminds us, “God has given poor consciences, which lie captive under the accusation and curse of the Law, the comfort of spiritual liberty. But the devil interprets this as liberty of the flesh and creates nothing but confusion and disorder. As a result, his dupes want to be free in everything, lords of all government, and rulers of everybody. In this way the devil sanctimoniously disguises himself under the semblance of the Gospel and Christian liberty and yet overthrows both the Gospel and Christian liberty” (Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, December 9, 1528).

The point is best summarized by the Apostle Paul: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor. 6:12). You see, this is the hinge! The question in such matters is not whether they are lawful (and therefore, permissible for a Christian), but whether they are helpful. In some cases, they will be—no matter what rule-oriented folks may think. But in other cases, not.

Lazy consciences will cut this process off at the pass. So, in the “worship wars,” one group can end the conversation with the wielding of a rule (such as the regulative principle) that is confused with its application. In many cases, that settles everything about as much as merely crying out against those who drink moderately, “Don’t be drunk with wine!” On the other side, there are those who think that if it isn’t forbidden, it’s acceptable. In both cases, more work is required. Both groups should concede that (a) the general rule does not necessarily rule out the category of “things indifferent” and that (b) that fact does not mean that everything permissible is necessarily helpful. So let’s talk about whether our particular practices in worship are “helpful,” conducive to the divinely-prescribed goals, elements, and forms of worship. Surely by bringing both sides out of the legalism-license rule-orientation we could begin a fruitful dialogue in prudence.

Don’t miss Paul’s point: “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” Reverse legalism keeps us slaves of the rule-oriented system of our past. If we are to be genuinely free in things indifferent, we must no more be expected to indulge than to abstain. That’s what genuine freedom is all about. And that’s where the re-formation of prudent character—more than that, our conformity to the image of Christ—can begin.

1. Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 68, 130. [Back]
2. ibid., 163.[Back]

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