The Limits of Christian Ethics

Most of my ethical engagement and writing is church-oriented. My personal focus is on how church members can care for other members and also how congregations can serve the communities in which they are located. But is this the limit of Christian ethical engagement in society? If we move beyond these confines to some degree of prophetic involvement with the world, do we become helplessly and hopelessly political (or partisan)? Is God’s moral concern limited to “the flock”, or does God have expectations beyond the parameters? If God does, then what might the implications be for Christians who desire to be faithful to Jesus in “being about the Father’s business”? In this essay, I will consider these questions by briefly looking at three concentric circles of Christian social ethical concern—(a) the “church”, (b) local communities, and (c) broader society.

First, concern for the welfare of other followers of Jesus is stressed throughout the New Testament. Near the end of his ministry, Jesus stressed that caring for the least of His brothers and sisters was central to inheriting eternal life (Matt. 25:31-46).[i] In Acts, we see the followers of Jesus donating their possessions to take care of others who share their faith (2:44-46; 4:32-37), and both Jewish and Greek widows were cared for (6:1-7). Paul says he was eager to care for the poor (Gal. 2:10), and he stressed that caring for those in the house of God is critical (Gal. 6:10) even for geographically distant believers (Acts 24:17). John also stressed this sphere when he called believers to care for brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16-18). Clearly, we are called to radically love those who share the Christian faith.

There is one risk here worth being mindful of—“rice Christians.” This was word a Kenyan woman used to describe the lack of spiritual development in her Kenyan context. I was interviewing the Adventist aid worker to learn about her experience of being forced to flee her home when it was vandalized during the political unrest of late 2007 and early 2008. The perpetrators were SDA neighbors who belonged to a different tribe than her.

“Why isn’t Christianity able to overcome these tribal schisms?” I asked.

“It depends on their motivation for becoming Christians and Adventists. Do they love Jesus or are they ‘rice Christians,’ people who just come to church to get help?”

Caring for the community of faith in ways that minimize the possibility that assistance will actually become an obstacle to spiritual growth demands attention (John 6 seems to speak to this); however, guidance regarding specific steps toward this end is beyond the scope of this essay. Regardless of this risk, we cannot evade our responsibility to care for other Christians in our congregations and around the world.

In the second sphere, we consider the Christian’s duty either as individuals or as a collective body to care for those in our local communities. We are told to do good in order to bring praise to God (Matt. 5:16). Despite the risk of developing rice Christians, community service was a major contributor to early church growth. Fourth century Roman emperor Julian the Apostate wrote to a lower government leader about the affect Christian service to the poor was having on the official worship of the empire. Christianity was seen as atheistic because adherents did not believe in the state’s pagan gods.

[I]t is their [the Christians’] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism?… For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.

In a letter to Hadrian, Aristides notes that Christians not only help each other, but also their neighbors and even their enemies (137 CE):

It is the Christians, O Emperor, who have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God. They do not keep for themselves the goods entrusted to them. They do not cover what belongs to others. They show love to their neighbors. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way they make them their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies. They live in the awareness of their smallness. Every one of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing. If they see a traveling stranger, they bring him under their roof. They rejoice over him as over a real brother, for they do not call one another brothers after the flesh, but they know they are brothers in the Spirit and in God. If they hear that one of them is imprisoned or oppressed for the sake of Christ, they take care of all his needs. If possible they set him free. If anyone among them is poor or comes into want while they themselves have nothing to spare, they fast two or three days for him. In this way they can supply any poor man with the food he needs. This, O Emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this is their manner of life.

Statements like these reveal the truth behind the sentiment expressed by Minucius Felix, a Roman Christian apologist in the late 2nd or early 3rd century CE: “We do not preach great things, but we live them.” Reflecting on the growth of the church during this time despite hardships and public restraint, historian Alan Kreider comments, “It’s not our worship that attracts people. It’s not our sermons that attract people, but rather it’s embodied faith, embodied in a community and embodied in attractive disciples of Jesus. And the sense of God at work transforming individuals and communities. These are the things that draw people to a growing church.”[ii]

Moving to the third level of engagement—society in general—we encounter greater diversity in conclusions about what faithful discipleship looks like for individual Christians, local congregations, and global denominations. Some Christians believe religious principles should be enforced through national laws, while others eschew any involvement with government because it soils Jesus’ purely “spiritual” agenda. Rather than attempt to make lengthy and definitive arguments about each component, I will limit my current analysis to a sampling of stories from the Hebrew Scriptures (HS) and early Adventism.

From the biblical record, how large is God’s scope of moral interest? In the HS we find a number of examples of God’s moral concern for secular leaders and nations. God sent Jonah to Nineveh because of the people’s violence (Jonah 3:8). Sodom and Gomorrah were condemned in part because they did not care for their poor (Ez. 16:49-50). Nebuchadnezzar was brought low because of his pride (Dan. 4). Many more examples could be given (e.g., Amos 1 & 2), but these are sufficient to see that God has moral expectations far beyond the covenant community that is His bride (Rev. 19:7). When God claims to exercise kindness, justice and righteousness in the world (Jer. 9:24), this is not limited to the Hebrew theocracy.

We see that the morality of “secular” nations is still important to God, but what role, if any, should Christians today play in determining this morality? Some people point to Joseph and Daniel and say that being in positions of power is a fine vocation for God’s elect. Other Christian interpreters look to the silence of the early Christians regarding the reformation of Rome and conclude that Christians should not waste their time rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic because Babylon has fallen and we are to come out of her and her systems (Rev. 18:1-5). The Christian’s use of violence is a closely related topic, but it moves beyond my limited purposes for this essay.

For Seventh-day Adventists, the writings of Ellen White and declarations by the church present further sources of data to analyze. For instance, at the Third Annual Meeting (May 17, 1865), the church made a resolution that guided voting patterns and warned against engaging in party strife.

RESOLVED, That in our judgment, the act of voting when exercised in behalf of justice, humanity and right, is in itself blameless, and may be at some times highly proper; but that the casting of any vote that shall strengthen the cause of such crimes as intemperance, insurrection, and slavery, we regard as highly criminal in the sight of Heaven. But we would deprecate any participation in the spirit of party strife.

Ellen White gave guidance not to vote for parties since we cannot truly know what they stand for.

The Lord would have His people bury political questions. On these themes silence is eloquence. Christ calls upon His followers to come into unity on the pure gospel principles which are plainly revealed in the word of God. We cannot with safety vote for political parties; for we do not know whom we are voting for. We cannot with safety take part in any political scheme (Counsels for the Church, 316).

Despite this warning against voting for parties, she did encourage Adventists to vote on specific issues, for instance, temperance.

The advocates of temperance fail to do their whole duty unless they exert their influence by precept and example—by voice and pen and vote—in favor of prohibition and total abstinence (The Review and Herald, November 8, 1881; Daughters of God, 123).

In our favored land, every voter has some voice in determining what laws shall control the nation. Should not that influence and that vote be cast on the side of temperance and virtue (Temperence, 253)?

White emphasizes the need for reconciliation not division and also the value in being separate from the world, at least for church leaders:

I call upon my brethren who are appointed to educate…. It is a mistake for you to link your interests with any political party, to cast your vote with them or for them. Those who stand as educators, as ministers, as laborers together with God in any line, have no battles to fight in the political world. Their citizenship is in heaven. The Lord calls upon them to stand as separate and peculiar people. He would have no schisms in the body of believers. His people are to possess the elements of reconciliation. Is it their work to make enemies in the political world?—No, no. They are to stand as subjects of Christ’s kingdom, bearing the banner on which is inscribed, “The commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.” They are to carry the burden of a special work, a special message. We have a personal responsibility, and this is to be revealed before the heavenly universe, before angels, and before men. God does not call upon us to enlarge our influence by mingling with society, by linking up with men on political questions, but by standing as individual parts of His great whole, with Christ as our head. Christ is our Prince, and as His subjects we are to do the work appointed us by God (Fundamentals of Christian Education, 478).

White also advised Adventists to not talk publicly about how one votes if it does not relate to the third angel’s message:

Our work is to watch, and wait, and pray. Search the Scriptures. Christ has given you warning not to mingle with the world. We are to come out from among them and be separate, “and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:17, 18). Whatever the opinions you may entertain in regard to casting your vote in political questions, you are not to proclaim it by pen or voice. Our people need to be silent upon questions which have no relation to the third angel’s message. If ever a people needed to draw nigh to God, it is Seventh-day Adventists…. But the silence of Christ upon many subjects was true eloquence (Selected Message, Vol. 2, 336).

Interestingly, when speaking to youth, she does advocate participation in the legislative councils:

‎Are you ambitious for education that you may have a name and position in the world? Have you thoughts…that you may sit in deliberative and legislative councils, and help to enact laws for the nation? There is nothing wrong in these aspirations (Review and Herald, Aug 19, 1884; Mind, Character, and Personality, Vol. 1, Ch. 38).

For Adventists, then, the guidance appears to be that we should not engage in divisive, partisan politics or vote a straight party ticket, but we can vote on specific issues or referendums. Finally, White makes room for personal influence on the legislative body, though whether through lobbying, appointment or election is left unclear.

In conclusion, we can say that Christians as individuals and as congregations should do much to care for members and those in the local community. As for issues relating to national domestic or foreign policy that are decided through specific statutes, we should vote for specific measures as we understand them lining up with the wisdom and values of God, while not making these points of dissension with others in the faith. This is my understanding. What is your critique?

Quite honestly, this guidance seems easier said than done. For instance, temperance and prohibition were divisive issues in society during the early decades of Adventist movement, yet they were deemed important for advocacy. Since today virtually all issues have become divided along partisan lines, how are we to know which issues deserve our “voice and pen and vote” and which should elicit only silence? How much advocacy is acceptable? How can we best advocate positions and interests without playing to party lines? The discussion continues…

Epilogue: Two noteworthy books on these issues include The Politics of Jesus (Yoder, 1994) and Jesus for President (Claiborne & Haw, 2008). A discussion of the “church” as an embodied political expression of an alternative community or polity would add to the depth of this reflection, as would a consideration of Sider’s Triple Five Plan for church-based advocacy (Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, 1997, pp. 216-217).

[i] There is debate about whether this only applies to others “in the faith” or if the truth holds for those who are beyond this limited description. The interpretation depends on how one defines “brothers and sisters of mine.”

[ii] Resident but Alien, Episode 2, DVD, See also The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (Kreider,  1999/2007).

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One Response to The Limits of Christian Ethics

  1. Jeff Boyd says:

    This recorded conversation is a great follow-up to the above essay —

    Here’s a quote from Joseph Bates, one of the primary founders of the church: “All who embrace this doctrine of the second coming would and must necessarily be advocates of temperance and the abolition of slavery, and those who oppose this doctrine of the second advent would not be very effective laborers in moral reform.”

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