There is a tendency in our moral determinations today towards two extremes: One is moralism when ethical decisions are made without any consideration of the gospel. Two is antinomianism when there is a complete disregard for moral questions altogether. To avoid both extremes and so both God’s grace and God’s Law come together, Christian ethics must be rooted in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In His resurrection, Christ has redeemed the created order that God intended from the beginning of time and will restore it to its full glory on the last day.
The discovery and response to this created order of God all depends, of course, in attending to God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ as it comes to us in the Bible. God’s created order exists apart from whether or not we accept God’s revelation in Christ. That is why Paul says in Rms. 2.1, you have no excuse whoever you are … . Yet it’s full disclosure and understanding requires God’s revelation in Christ.
Unfortunately most moral decisions today assume there are no such divine revelation and therefore a predetermined moral order for us to discover and live by. Accordingly, many think it’s simply up to us to decide what orders our relationship to nature and each other should look like. The problem with this modern tendency is deciding whose moral decisions/philosophy is the right one? Consequently we live in a confused moral state of affairs today. Without any objective starting point that rests in God, we now simply make up what’s right or wrong along the way.
Another tendency in today’s moral thinking that we need to beware of is what is called ‘Historicism’. When the Resurrection no longer shapes our moral determinations – and thus unfolds for us a moral order that we’ve been created to participate in – creation easily becomes raw material for transforming and developing into whatever we decide it should become. For instance, the answers to the questions how we treat the environment and what is good or wrong is no longer something we discover in the Bible, but something that develops and thus changes over time. What might have been considered wrong or a sin at one time in history might now, thanks to so-called developing powers of our human reason, be acceptable behavior today. Again the problem here is whose understanding of this development is the right one? Answer, who knows?
So what do we do? As I’ve hinted at, we must let the Bible shape our moral pattern of reasoning. I wish to emphasize pattern of reasoning. The last thing we want to do, as has been done in some evangelical circles, is pickpocket individual verses here and there from the bible so we can impose our predisposed notions of what is morality right or wrong on others. Instead, we must listen to what God’s Word has to say to us in humility, yet applying our mental capacities fully to the patterns of what God has to say about the created order that He has redeemed and promised to bring to a wonderful conclusion one day.
Now, just because we, as Christians, can turn to a common source for understanding our moral dilemmas, that doesn’t mean we all naturally come to the same conclusions. The evidence in our own church shows this is clearly not the case. As the crucifixion of Jesus teaches us, we are frail human beings who always struggle between letting God be God in our lives instead of being our own gods. So what hope do we have in coming to any consensus on any moral matters? That’s where the Resurrection comes in. If Jesus is Lord, as His Resurrection claims, then no one may lord one’s interpretation of the Bible over anyone else’s. That is not to say, one cannot hold onto a particular point of view. But we must always graciously accept our differences while seeking common ground.
What does this look like in the life of the Church? A church should be a place where people feel free and comfortable to disagree with one another. For example, people should feel free to disagree with what is said in a sermon and able to worship with others who don’t hold the same moral views. But if that is to happen, let’s take care not to take offense at someone who disagrees with us. For remember we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ. This is the force behind what Paul says in Galatians 6.1-2: if anyone is detected in a transgression (or with a different opinion!), you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. … Bear one another’s burdens and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ. Is this easy to do? No. It can be hard especially if the other person is not as gentle about your differences of opinion as you are with theirs. But that’s why the Resurrection of Christ is so important for us as God’s people. Now that He has risen from the dead, Jesus did so not just so we can be free of sin and death, but also so we can live the humble, kind, patient and generous way of the Cross Christ lived.
To conclude, if we are to come to any moral consensus in the Church on what God’s moral order looks like as revealed in Scripture, we must accept there will always be differences of opinion on any particular moral issue. To a degree this is natural because Jesus is Lord, as the Resurrection proclaims, and we have a tendency to be lords unto ourselves, as the Crucifixion proclaims. The question then is not whether we have different moral answers, but how we deal with each other’s different answers? That requires charity and patience on behalf of all of us as we carefully attend to Scripture as we seek common answers. May St John’s be such a church!