11.10.2007

Ethics and Consequences, Part 2

The central question in any system of ethics is "What is the good life? That is, what life is most satisfying?" (Yep, I can type "ethics" into Wikipedia's search.)

Once that central question has been answered, then good and evil -- righteousness and sin -- are determined by its impact for the community upon the ability of most individuals to live that satisfying life.

Jesus had revolutionary answers for both these questions. He told us that the only life that satisfies is the life lived following Him, and that the only way we would be capable at any given moment of obedience (good) rather than disobedience (evil) was by staying connected to Him in the moment -- that is, by abiding in Him. (As in so many other places, my central texts are the Sermon on the Mount and John 14-17 .) He also said that the His primary command was that we love others -- love our brothers and sisters, love our enemies, and love the stranger in the road.

Jesus laid out a clear system of values in the Sermon on the Mount -- and the central tenet was a self-giving love, as outlined above. The ethic that grew out of His teachings in the early church was also an ethic of love and truth. We see this all the way from the stories in Acts to the writings of Paul to the Colossians and Galatians to the writings of James. There was a respect for "what seems right to all men", and beyond that a commitment to focus primarily on a life spent for Jesus.

The chief problem with most modern writers and teachers who espouse a secular or liberal ethic is that, even if they catch Jesus' drift in pointing toward an ethic of love, they miss His primary claim to be the source of the good life -- the life that satisfies. It is in Evangelicals, conservative Protestants, orthodox Catholics, and others who affirm Orthodox Christianity that I find that life-giving center of power and salvation. Without knowing the real, risen Jesus, there is no power to live a life of love -- and even if there were, it would not satisfy in and of itself, without a life soaked in the presence of the One for Whom each heart cries.

The chief problem with a conservative ethic is that it tends to forget the point of the ethic -- that it draw us all closer to Him and to each other, and that the primary command we are to obey if we are His is the command to love. We are to seek for truth and live in truth -- the truth about how we are wired sexually and socially and in every other way, and the truth about how the world works, and the truth about the things that God asks of each of us -- but we are to go after truth in a way that pushes forward toward reconciliation and healing and real repentance, not in a way that pushes all of us back into hiding for fear of the light of day. And most of what the older evangelical ethic does is not to move people forward toward freedom, but rather push them back into hiding and close them off from the source of real salvation from their sins.

We are definitely called to uphold TRUTH and to call each other to act in ways that move each of us and all of us toward righteousness and freedom -- and the first step in that is to keep holding up the TRUTH that the reason we each need a Savior is that we each actually need a real Savior to save us from real actual -- embarrassing, messy, hurtful -- sin. And that we do "get better" as we walk on, but we never stop needing a Savior in a real way, anymore than an meth addict can ever say he or she is so "recovered" that they aren't vulnerable to their addiction anymore. We are sinners. Even you. Even me. Even everyone we pay to be our spiritual leaders.

The next step in accountability is to extend grace to each other in confessed sin. God doesn't make us clean up our act first and then come to Him once we've managed to do that, and we can't do that to each other, either. We need to keep refocusing each other on the source of life and the source of being able to "clean up our act". You can't really clean up your act, nor can I -- but Jesus can make real change from the inside out, and He will if we're willing to keep showing up for Him to love on us.

The third step is something that God does: if we tell the truth about our need to be cleaned up, and extend the grace that lets people keep showing up to be transformed by the Living Word, then God allows people to be held accountable to good ethics through the work of His Spirit in conjunction with real life and its consequences. Drugs produce one kind of life. Sexual immorality produces one kind of life. Rebellion produces its fruit. And love and obedience to God produces its fruit. So those who are drawn toward THE GOOD LIFE -- the real good life that is a relationship with our Triune God -- will leave behind their filth and walk on toward good food and rest.

An application of Galatians or Colossians or I and II Corinthians to the subject of ethics and consequences in the modern church twists our old ethical systems into something unrecognizable. It is not a liberal, secular ethic, because His values don't make sense to the world. But it is also not a legalistic ethic, because freedom from sin comes from focusing on the One Who frees us from sin. We can't struggle free of it on our own, and we can't expect our brothers and sisters to do so, and punish them for sin beyond the natural consequences, as if they were our little children that we helped by so doing. (A spanking is certainly better than being hit by a car, but what parent picks up the injured child who was just run over by a car off the street and promptly spanks him for running in front of the car that actually hit him? But we treat each other that way, and say the spanking is for the good of the on-lookers even if it doesn't help the child right then. Yeah, right!)

The specifics of how this might be applied in real situations in our faith communities is a great topic for a whole new book . . . but I'll touch briefly on it tomorrow.

Meanwhile, offer freedom -- to yourself and to your brothers and sisters -- by calling yourself and calling your brothers and sisters to focus on the Only One Who Frees. "Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord!"

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