Draw the Line

(In a discussion I was asked to write follow-ups to my 4th of July post “Allegiance” this post is a continuation of that series) 

There are many topics in the modern American political conversion which challenge Christians abortion, immigration, & homosexual rights are probably the most pressing of these currently. I understand that Christians can legitimately vary in their interpretation of the Bible and thus disagree on these and other issues. But traditional Christian ethics teach stances which are pro-life and against homosexual practice. And I was asked how to take these stances into the public forum. 

The issues become difficult for Christians because they represent an opportunity to present the same kind of morality to the nation to which we adhere. I think the is some latent legalism in our minds which says God will honor and bless us off we get everyone tho adhere to this standard. I also recognize that some believe every law in the books in this country needs to be explicitly aligned to Christian teaching, but such an idea lacks strong theological or historical support. We must ask in these difficult moral questions, “are these laws impacting only Christians” & “can the Church still live out a faithful witness with this law in place”. If the law only impacts Christians or if it negatively impacts the Church’s freedom then everything I’m saying here is moot. If these criteria are not meet then let us be “gentle as doves and shrewd as snakes”.

 “It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning.” 1 Corinthians 5:12 NLT

These words from Paul should form the basis for how we deal in politics. Christians must remember they have an ethical center different from those outside the Church. We must be careful how we approach morality in the public forum since in the eyes of others we do not hold an objective claim to morality. We must also recognize laws are the minimum standard of morality, one can always live better than the law mandates; one simply cannot live worse without punishment. And lastly, we must remember it is ok to compromise with others of differing moral ideals. Compromise does not mean we sold out ought principles, it means we relax the standards for others so we can live in community together.

It just so happens I’m reading Philip Yancey’s book Soul Survivor and this week I read the chapter on Dr. C. Everett Koop Surgeon General under Ronald Reagan. I cannot think of a better example of how Christians should enter the public sphere than Yancey’s depiction of Koop.

Koop was honest, determined, and held to his standards. Yet, he recognized his personal convictions were different from those of others. He was willing to listen to the positions of others and work for compromise. When it came to issues like homosexuality he allowed the needs of others and realistic goals to motivate him. He did not, as some wanted, simply reject homosexuals because of his convictions. On abortion he allowed the data to help set his agenda, he knew abortion was wrong but as a doctor he also knew how far he could push he knew where the data would support his Christian ideals. By acting in this way, showing himself to be reasonable, he gained respect from those who disagreed with him and helped to advance the country.

Koop points to a need to be highly intelligent and have rationale other than the Bible as we approach political agendas.

 “What bothered me most, as I reflect, was the lack of scholarship by Christians—as if they felt that by leaning on a theological principle they didn’t have to be very accurate with the facts. People talk about knee-jerk liberals. The liberals have no corner on that market; I’ve learned there are also knee-jerk conservatives. Christians should be involved in politics, and use their Christian principles, morality, and ethics in that process. But they shouldn’t jump over the process and voice their beliefs as the only possible outcome.” Dr. C. Everett Koop [98]

Yancey follows this up observing:

“It does no good to quote Bible verses to people who do not revere the Bible, or threaten God’s judgment on people who do not believe in God.”[98]

 We must show ourselves to be people who stick to ideals (truth,honesty,morality) no matter what. This means we do not sell out our integrity to pass laws, we show ourselves to be people who follow ought ideals but do not force them on others. We must have ideals and rational arguments grounded in sources other than the Bible. But most of all we just recognize the U.S.A. is not equivalent with Jesus’ kingdom. We can allow laws which do not correspond to our ideals. C.S. Lewis famously backed laws allowing divorce saying Christians could not expect others to hold to Christian ideals of marriage. After all, we live these ideals through the help of the Spirit how can we expect others to live them out when they don’t live in the Spirit. This is the heart of living in community. 

How does this impact issues such as abortion? I would not advocate that Christians give up the pro-life positron, but we need to be more intelligent about it. As Koop puts it:

“One of the problems with the pro-life movement is that they are one-hundred-percenters. Historically it is true that if the pro-life movement had sat down in, say, 1970 or 1972 with the pro-choice people, we might have ended up with an agreement on abortion for the life of the mother, defective child, rape and incest, and nothing more. That would have saved ninety-seven percent of the abortions since then. Ninety-seven percent of twenty-five million is a lot of babies.” [200-201]

Paul reveals that if we live morally (in the Spirit) we do not need laws because we exceed the demand of the law. Meaning, if we learn to compromise on legal issues like abortion we can use the compromise to gain respect in a community which needs to hear the Gospel. We can take the time we waste on arguments to get out 100% and use it to help others live by the Spirit and not need the law.

Above all we just recognize, others sin differently than we do. Some sins are hard to legislate away and others are easy. There are times when we need to show grace.

“The gospel presents both high ideals and all-encompassing grace. Very often, however, the church tilts one direction or the other. Either it lowers the ideals, adjusting moral standards downward, softening Jesus’ strong commands, rationalizing behavior; or else it pulls in the boundaries of grace, declaring some sins worse than others, some sinners beyond the pale. Few churches stay faithful both to the high ideals of gospel and its bottomless grace.” Philip Yancey [202]

For those Christians who stand for traditional beliefs it is imperative to recognize compromise in the public sphere does not equate to compromise of values. One can, as Dr. Koop did, stand against homosexual practice and allow for homosexual civil equality. One can stand against abortion and have dialogue with those who do not. We can even compromise and age to allow some abortions. This is not watering down Christianity because Christians individually and the Church still represent the pro-life ethics. All that is done is that Christians have decided to allow grace to neighbors of a different mind. This is how God treated us after all. As Paul says we do not control those outside the Church and if we want them to listen to us we must show them the respect of listening to them. I recognize that I have not given clear instructions for specific issues. On issues of civil equality for homosexuals my general rule is to say allow the equality. Even if you believe homosexuality is wrong is God going to judge the Church harshly because we allowed Americans outside the Church to live contrary to the Bible? No. Not is tolerance in this area acceptance of the lifestyle. In abortion, stop protesting and start dialogueing. Stop trying to push our standards on others and rationally and coolly ask where we cancompromise. Allow the compromise tho stand, but never cease to work on making the law unnecessary. When the prophets wanted to eliminate child sacrifice in Israel they couldn’t simply pass a law, they had to change people’s ethical standards. The same is true today. Early Christians worked hard to eliminate abortion in the Roman world they did so one woman at a time.

(I cannot over emphasize reading Yancey’s book it is probably the best book I’ve read this year).

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