Archives For ethics

This morning Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen, Jim Wallace, and Bishop Julian Porteous were interviewed about Gay Marriage on Sunrise. It wasn’t a train wreck. For which we can all be thankful. Sunrise should stick to this balanced format rather than stoking the fires of controversy with stupid debates featuring people who are clearly intellectually outmatched. Having an informed presenter who is (though slightly misguided when it came to polygamy and the Bible) asking the right sort of questions is also helpful. And by the right sort of questions I mean questions that get to the heart of Christian objections, rather than questions intended to be confrontational and stupid.

The Catholic guy hits the nail on the head in the way Jim Wallace doesn’t. Peter Jensen completely agrees. They talk about Jesus. They talk about the Bible. They talk about marriage being a worthwhile institution. They do it in a much more coherent way than the host, and in a much more winsome way than Jim Wallace did earlier in the week, and than he does today.

They argue that this issue is simply an issue of definition, and redefining marriage.

I like Peter Jensen’s “God has a great deal of interest in what goes on in the community” response to the idea that marriage is a “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s argument.” And his distinction between respecting the law and being forced to take part in conducting gay marriages.

And they do a good job of suggesting that their arguments are natural law arguments. It would’ve been nice to see something about how following Jesus means transforming your views on sex and sexuality as part of the argument about protecting Christianity from having to teach positive things about homosexuality. But you can’t win them all. And this is simply a much better Christian showing than the disaster from this week.

I love that Andrew O’Keefe called out the number of form letters (rather than thought out letters), and vitriolic letters, they’re getting from ACL supporters. And Jim’s funny “no true Christian” response:

“We have people coming onto our website and posing as Christians and proving themselves not, usually by the language.”

Just like we have people going on TV and making stupid and ignorant comparisons to the Nazi regime.

I don’t understand the ACL’s objection to Sunrise openly being part of the campaign – surely they’re better off being open about their bias than pretending to be objective and favouring the cause.

I do like the tone in this interview – it’s much more productive than the debate format where people are yelling at each other and trying to score cheap points. But good on the two churchmen for showing how some winsome, Christ-centred, public engagement works.

While I’m on the subject – it would be remiss, and somewhat non even-handed of me not to gently rebuke this offering on the Sydney Anglican’s website this week. Andrew Cameron does a much better job of essentially presenting the “children” argument Jim Wallace used earlier this week in a winsome, engaging, and empathetic way. And its context is different to the Sunrise interview in that it’s on a denominational website, and for Christians, rather than a nationally televised program. But a good article would have been a better article for sharing with non-Christians if it started with the same argument used by Archbishop Jensen and Bishop Porteous. Christian objections to same sex marriage are ultimately based on Jesus’ affirmation of marriage and the created order, and subsequently Paul’s use of the same argument in Romans 1-2. If Jesus had overturned the created order in his ministry then the “love wins” debate would have merit, but he didn’t. He affirmed it. It’d be nice if more of our arguments started with the centrality of Jesus to Christian belief on social issues – it’d also do away with people who want to raise the eating of shellfish and tattoos as other issues that Leviticus forbids, as though we’re being selective.

I like these paragraphs from Andrew’s piece:

“What we’ve seen is a shift in our society’s ‘common objects of love’ – those matters a society gathers itself to defend, and which help to make it a society. What matters about marriage has shifted over the decades. Our society now loves the idea of love; it loves freedom of expression; it loves eradicating differences. It doesn’t love permanence; it’s ambivalent about children; it’s less convinced that biological parenthood is significant to children; it abhors any notion that each gender might offer something particular and different to the other, and to children. These changes-of-loves are what make it seem that marriage can be renegotiated.

In the middle of these changing loves, Christians can ask helpful questions (there’s not much point being polemical when so little thought has been given to the nature of marriage). We can ask our neighbours: ‘Are you sure that you are not missing something? Do you really want to abandon those older loves? Will that actually help us as a community?’.”

I probably should make it clearer, lest people have questions, that I completely agree with both Peter Jensen and Andrew Cameron – that marriage between a man and a woman is good for society, and better for children, because it matches God’s intention. What I think we need to figure out is how we continue to present that in a way that affirms that Jesus is better for people than marriage (which might mean not getting married in certain cases), and protects our ability to keep saying that once the legislative horse bolts. I think basing the argument on Jesus, the created order, and questioning why it is that we think sexuality is the defining characteristic of human identity is a better way than encouraging our supporters to spam media outlets and politicians, and then comparing them to the Nazis when they disagree with us.

I’m not a single issue voter. And I recognise that abortion is a hot-button issue where different worldviews can produce divergent results.

Maybe I feel more strongly about this now that I’m a father, and that I’ve had the experience of watching, via ultrasound, and feeling, via my hands, the development of a baby in the womb. Maybe it’s the experience of watching my daughter’s eyes take in the world around her for the first time… but some recent Australian developments around the issue of terminating pregnancies just makes me sick about the callous nature of modern life.

It makes me despair about the kind of world my daughter will grow up in – where the implications of moving away from a Christian view of human life will start to be truly felt. If we are just a sack of cells, with nothing to distinguish us from the animals, then everything is fair game. There are no checks and balances. No cohesive account of why life is important. Harm based accounts of ethical behaviour are so very arbitrary and will always be decided by the subjective interests of the powerful, or the majority.

As it currently stand there’s such a mish-mash of values being thrown into the moral/ethical/legal pot that something’s got to give. Holding a consistent position beyond valuing all life (or seeing all human life as representing God’s image) just throws multiple spanners into the works. I’ll get to a solution, of sorts, later. Well. I’ll rehash a solution that I’ve posted once before…

Anyway. Here’s a selection of situations in Australia that have prompted my ire.

First, Western Australia is set to join Queensland, in affirming that a wanted fetus is a human.

“Attorney-General Christian Porter is drafting the new laws and will introduce them into State Parliament later this year.

Under present laws, an unborn baby has no legal status and is not recognised by the courts.

But Mr Porter said the new fetal homicide laws would create a new criminal code offence of causing death or grievous bodily harm to an unborn child.

Based on a law already in force in Queensland, it would carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Offenders who kill or intend to kill an unborn baby by assaulting a mother will face mandatory life imprisonment – the same as a murder charge in all but exceptional circumstances.”

But here’s the kicker.

“He said he intended to consult further with the groups about the Government’s reforms in the coming weeks, but confirmed the legislation would not in any way affect the law relating to abortion in WA.

“The proposed legislation will be drafted to require an unlawful act to be done to the mother before any penalty can apply,” Mr Porter said. “This ensures these changes will not affect a mother’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy.”

There would be no limit on when an unborn baby was considered to be a human life.”

Here’s the story.

So that’s clearly a little inconsistent. And elevates wantedness to incredible significance when it comes to personhood. Which is just bizarre.

But there’s a precedent at play here in recent Australian history – there was a massive public outcry, which highlighted this inconsistency, when a Melbourne hospital terminated the wrong twin in a bungled abortion last year. Again – the unwanted twin was disabled, and would most likely have not lived long, or have been a burden, on the parents. So “wantedness” became the factor by which a decision about the personhood of this twin was essentially made.

Now here’s the icing on the cake. For years. Pro-life, or anti-abortion, activists have been employing a potentially fallacious slippery slope argument against allowing any abortion. Suggesting that once you allow abortion, to be consistent, you should allow the termination of a newborn baby. Because drawing the line at birth is arbitrary. It’s becoming increasingly arbitrary as the miracles of modern medicine mean the viability date for fetus outside the womb is an increasingly early thing.

Most reasonable thinkers have cautioned this kind of argument as being logically incoherent. In the absence of actual evidence of a slippery slope, these arguments are basically setting up a straw man position and not engaging with your opponents with respect.

But now. The slippery slope has been pointed to by a couple of Australian academics. Ethicists. Who recognise that it is incredibly inconsistent to draw a line under a person’s personhood at birth. They’ve argued, in an article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics (PDF), that post birth problem children, who represent an unwanted burden for their parents, should also be terminated. Because they are not morally sentient beings, so therefore not people.

After arguing that children with certain pathologies that would limit a normal life, a reason that would normally constitute grounds for abortion, should also be legitimately terminated after birth, these ethicists go on to suggest that though children with conditions like Down Syndrome can be said to be “happy” – they may present an unfair burden on the parents (the idea that life is to be “fair” is based on some questionable presuppositions).

“Nonetheless, to bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care. On these grounds, the fact that a fetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion.

Therefore, we argue that, when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.”

This seems like a horrible satire. But it’s published in a legitimate journal.

Lest we be mistaken about what they’re arguing for:

“Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where
abortion would be”

It goes down hill from there…

“Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk. Accordingly, a second terminological specification is that we call such a practice ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘euthanasia’ because the best interest of the one who dies is not necessarily the primary criterion for the choice, contrary to what happens in the case of euthanasia.”

Here’s where they try to draw a line to define personhood.

“Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’. We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this
existence represents a loss to her.”

Now. I’m no published ethicist. But having a newborn baby in the house gives me a little bit of perspective on this. My baby, who is two months old, cries when she is hungry. She has done since birth. She stops crying when she is fed. At this point I would argue that her cries are indicative of a desire to keep on living, via being fed. I don’t know how one could establish a definitive sense of loss short of asking the person – which would rule out personhood until a baby is old enough to comprehend his or her existence.

At this point we start to see the problem with a general social shift away from a Christian anthropology. A view that people are special because they are created different to the rest of the animals.

“This means that many nonhuman animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons. Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life. Indeed, many humans are not considered subjects of a right to life: spare embryos where research on embryo stem cells is permitted, fetuses where abortion is permitted, criminals where capital punishment is legal.”

So you can’t kill a functional monkey. But you can kill a disabled baby. The logic here is so thoroughly inconsistent it is staggering.

In applying the logic to themselves – the authors of this study suggest that potentiality is not a valid consideration. You can’t say “well that baby or fetus would have become like us” – because once the decision is made, it’s a moot point.

“If a potential person, like a fetus and a newborn, does not become an actual person, like you and us, then there is neither an actual nor a future person who can be harmed, which means that there is no harm at all. So, if you ask one of us if we would have been harmed, had our parents decided to kill us when we were fetuses or newborns, our answer is ‘no’, because they would have harmed someone who does not exist (the ‘us’ whom you are asking the question), which means no one. And if no one is harmed, then no harm occurred.”

This is where harm based metaethics fall apart. Who decides and defines harm if not the powerful?

The worst bit, I think, is that they rule out adoption as an option – because adoption may cause future psychological harm to the mother, where the decision to coldly and callously end the life of the child will not. In their logic. This is “potential harm” based on some studies done somewhere. Somehow that is more legitimate than speculating about the effect of terminating a living baby on the mother’s emotional well being.

“Accordingly, healthy and potentially happy people should be given up for adoption if the family cannot raise them up. Why should we kill a healthy newborn when giving it up for adoption would not breach anyone’s right but possibly increase the happiness of people involved (adopters and adoptee)?

Our reply is the following. We have previously discussed the argument from potentiality, showing that it is not strong enough to outweigh the consideration of the interests of actual people. Indeed, however weak the interests of actual people can be, they will always trump the alleged interest of potential people to become actual ones, because this latter interest…

…On this perspective, the interests of the actual people involved matter, and among these interests, we also need to consider the interests of the mother who might suffer psychological distress from giving her child up for adoption. Birthmothers are often reported to experience serious psychological problems due to the inability to elaborate their loss and to cope with their grief.

It is true that grief and sense of loss may accompany both abortion and after-birth abortion as well as adoption, but we cannot assume that for the birthmother the latter is the least traumatic. For example, ‘those who grieve a death must accept the irreversibility of the loss, but natural mothers often dream that their child will return to them. This makes it difficult to accept the reality of the loss because they can never be quite sure whether or not it is irreversible.”

One thing you can be sure of is that terminating the life of a child is irreversible. Another thing you can be sure of is that this article won’t be all that palatable with doctors who have to consider the prospect of ending a viable baby’s life (the Hypocratic Oath would seem to prevent such action). But really – the foundational truth here is that once you move away from viewing all human life as carrying the image of God – which is one of the fundamentally important points of Genesis 1 and 2, ignoring questions of science, you don’t really have a leg to stand on when it comes to coherently describing why human life is a good thing, and why it should be protected.

While this will be a minority voice at the table when it comes to setting of policies regarding the rights of a fetus – legislation that is very much on the table particularly in the case of Western Australia… one of the things we, as a church, can and should be doing in Australia is speaking out and saying that we do want these children.

Adoption is a policy solution. Especially if we, as Christians who believe in reconciliation, offer mothers the chance to be involved in their children’s lives – a form of reversible adoption. I think what we should be campaigning for, every time we open our mouths about abortion, is a changing of Australia’s horrendously complex adoption laws. This means being radically prepared to add additional mouths at the table in our family homes. But wow. If infanticide is the alternative – which is a label the authors of this ethics paper tried hard to avoid. Then it is part of the Christian witness to step in and uphold the value of life. Doing that was a driver of change in the Roman Empire – where infanticide was a common practice. Unwanted babies were exposed. Left to die. And the church started collecting them. Caring for them. And challenging the established practice.

Here’s a letter from a travelling father to a mother:

“”Know that I am still in Alexandria…. I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I received payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered (before I come home), if it is a boy keep it, if a girl, discard it.”"

Here’s Justin Martyr on the practice of discarding, or exposing, children and the church’s rejection of it (which often took the form of rescuing exposed children lest they end up in lives of prostitution.:

“But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men; and this we have been taught lest we should do any one an injury, and lest we should sin against God, first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution…

And again [we fear to expose children], lest some of them be not picked up, but die, and we become murderers.”

And perhaps my favourite, Tertullian, responding to claims that Christian rites involved child sacrifice (which they didn’t).

“But in regard to child murder, as it does not matter whether it is committed for a sacred object, or merely at one’s own self-impulse—although there is a great difference, as we have said, between parricide and homicide—I shall turn to the people generally. How many, think you, of those crowding around and gaping for Christian blood,—how many even of your rulers, notable for their justice to you and for their severe measures against us, may I charge in their own consciences with the sin of putting their offspring to death? As to any difference in the kind of murder, it is certainly the more cruel way to kill by drowning, or by exposure to cold and hunger and dogs. A maturer age has always preferred death by the sword. In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fœtus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth…

You first of all expose your children, that they may be taken up by any compassionate passer-by, to whom they are quite unknown; or you give them away, to be adopted by those who will do better to them the part of parents.”

There’s nothing new under the sun. This sort of callous disregard for human life was something best left in the past, and part of the church’s heritage it should be proud of. And embrace. A cursory glance at Wikipedia’s infanticide article demonstrates the pivotal role we played, through embracing unwanted children, in changing the way western society viewed life. We can do it again. And we should.

The other compelling Christian factor in this argument is that the gospel brings a message of wantedness not just to the discarded or “unwanted” child, but to the mother as well. We value people because Jesus valued us. And because God not only implanted his image in humanity, but calls humans to be his people. We’re adopted into his family. We are wanted by God. That’s the essence of a Biblical anthropology, and its a reality which is heightened for the Christian. Which gives us a precedent to follow, and provides a mandate for us to love and seek the unwanted. This, I think, is the most compelling anthropology going round, and it makes sense of life from conception to death. It only really competes with the view put forward by these ethicists – because they’re right. This is the natural outcome of viewing humanity as a fleshy sack of bones and organs. Only these two options have any sense of cohesion.

That is all.

A friend of mine, who seems to be convinced that Christianity necessitates pacifism, doesn’t think very highly of the movie Machine Gun Preacher (featured here yesterday). Because I like this particular guy a lot, and hold his abilities and mind in high regard, I’m going to take his position as representative of pacifist Christianity broadly, and in the main, this should be read as a response to the movement rather than the individual.

The movie tells the true story of a former bikie turned Christian, turned missionary orphanage builder, turned child rescuer (with an AK-47 – hence the movie title).

It sounds like a great mainstream movie that will get people watching (it’s by the director of the Kite Runner). I’ve been fairly vocally critical of Christian movies and Christian art in the past. But this ticks a lot of cinematic boxes, and will portray a Christian doing something positive in a good light. It will raise awareness about the activities of a pseudo-Christian terrorist movement and demonstrate that their deeds aren’t particularly Christian. It will raise awareness about human rights issues in a country that all too often fails to register in Christian circles, let alone in the mainstream media (Sudan). And it will do all of this in, based on the preview, a pretty compelling way.

But it involves violence. And so. Pacifist Christians are dismissive of it. Which to me demonstrates the incredible inconsistency of pacifist doctrine in a fallen world. Sure, the ideal world doesn’t involve violence. Violence didn’t exist before the fall, nor will it exist in the new creation. But violence is not necessarily evil, nor a necessary evil. Violence is a means, not an ends, and it can be a means to a good end – ie the liberation of people from oppressors who are drunk with power. It will produce negative results at times, and may not be the only means to an outcome. But to frame the issue in a not too unrealistic hypothetical – how many hostages have to die while the hostage takers are talked out of their actions before that course of action is a failure?

Now, I don’t think the email I got from my pacifist friend was meant for publication. I don’t think it is up for me to put this guy’s position or words (which essentially committed the Christian equivalent of Godwin’s Law by bringing up Anders Breivik) in the spotlight for criticism. But the jibes made me angry so not putting them out there is a matter of self-control and my personal blogging ethics alone. Opponents of pacifism, within a Christian framework, aren’t necessarily endorsing violence as the only option. That should almost not need to be said. The difference seems to be that normal Christians see violence as a last resort, pacifists don’t see it as a resort at all. It’s almost impossible to argue that Sam Childers, the machine gun preacher, would be doing the right thing if it were within his power to stop child abduction, slavery and prostitution (which clearly it is) and he chose not to, because the only solution involves violence, or a peaceful solution involves being shot as he approaches the gate of the Lord’s Resistance Army Compound.

Pacifism is beautiful, but the world is fallen. It takes a special sort of over-realised eschatology to suggest that rescuing children from the clutches of evil men is not something that should be celebrated. Which is why I think this movie is a triumph, even if it glories in scenes involving exploding cars.

If he wants to repeat his comments in the comments on this post for all to discuss I’m sure the debate would be richer for it (though also more heated), and would serve my purposes in making the pacifist position a matter for something that looks a little bit like ridicule. Because, frankly, it’s Biblically ridiculous to suggest that there is no place for violence in redressing injustice.

The bigger question, and possibly the only grounds where I agree with this criticism of the machine gun preacher, is what place there is in the world view of the Christian for vigilante justice. I’m not sure how state-sanctioned the machine gun preacher’s actions are, they certainly don’t appear to be being conducted as secret, except that he doesn’t tell the terrorist group he’s coming. But if the state is failing there are precedents where Christians have stepped in to conduct what, in retrospect, look like justifiable vigilante actions. Bonhoeffer’s involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler would be such an example.

So, over to you – is this movie designed for Christian teenagers to get excited about explosions in a sanctified way? Is taking an AK-47 to liberate abducted children the moral equivalent of becoming a call girl to tell your customers about Jesus? Does the Machine Gun Preacher’s one man crusade reflect badly on Christianity, or demonstrate an incredible capacity to act for the powerless?

Ethics at QTC

Nathan Campbell —  June 15, 2011

We’ve got an Ethics intensive this week. I’m pretty excited. I’ll be blogging some stuff at Venn Theology. We’re being lectured by a British guy named Jonathon Burnside he has been in Dr Who. So he’s cool. This is his website.

He’s a “reader in law” who specialises in OT law. And he’s big on basing our Christian ethics on the OT. Which should be fun.

“We should feel free to draw on the whole of Scripture in forming our ethics”

The basis for not applying laws about shrimp is:

“There is ethical continuity but there is ethnic discontinuity.”

I was thinking about this yesterday. I was thinking about the very literal way the New Atheists read Old Testament laws. It doesn’t match the way we read any laws in a modern setting. We don’t apply the laws literally, the courts interpret the laws. And they do so via an Acts Interpretation Act (there’s the entire benefit of my 2.5 years as a law student).

I’m thinking that Deuteronomy 6:5 acts as a paradigmatic “Acts Interpretation Act”… and thus, the need to know the law involves being able to interpret it properly.

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Which makes it extra interesting that Jesus then refers back to that as the most important commandment in all three synoptic gospels.

What do you reckon? I’m going to try to get into an argument with an atheist and see how that line flies.

Check out Venn Theology for Ethics posts.

In the latest case of dumb things dumb people do because they are dumb and think dumb… ethicists have suggested that calling animals “pets” is demeaning and dehumanising.

“Despite its prevalence, ‘pets’ is surely a derogatory term both of the animals concerned and their human carers…”

Domestic dogs, cats, hamsters or budgerigars should be rebranded as “companion animals” while owners should be known as “human carers”, they insist.

Even terms such as wildlife are dismissed as insulting to the animals concerned – who should instead be known as “free-living”, the academics including an Oxford professor suggest.

The worst thing about the findings of this pro-animal journal:

“It is edited by the Revd Professor Andrew Linzey, a theologian and director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, who once received an honorary degree from the Archbishop of Canterbury for his work promoting the rights of “God’s sentient creatures”.”

That’s some great theology right there. Because animals have sensitive egos.

Also. We can’t talk about bad human actions in terms of animal behaviour:

“Phrases such as “sly as a fox, “eat like a pig” or “drunk as a skunk” are all unfair to animals.”

It’s this sort of thinking that leads to the development of stupid weasel words. I mean. Vacuous and empty phrases that lack any grace or clarity.

Bruce’s teaching on this matter has been pretty influential – here’s a photo of two of his students seeking the welfare of the ancient city of Corinth.

As mentioned in the previous post, the issue of public benefaction presents an interesting dilemma for interpreting 1 Thessalonians 4 – which prima facie (at first glance, just a little phrase I picked up in my three years as a law student) suggests Christians should live quite lives…

Bruce’s contention is that the rhetorical purpose of 1 Thessalonians is to break down harmful social structures the church have inherited from Roman culture, or in this case, a particular harmful social structure – the patron client relationship.

A secular patron who converts to Christianity must go from being a patron seeking honour from his clients, to a private benefactor, bestowing generosity on those around him without the honour his previous status brought. Bruce contends that Paul’s sharp use of his own example in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 came as a result of the Thessalonians’ collective inability to do this. Christians, so far as Paul was concerned, were to be benefactors (whether public or private) of those around them.

“7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

And this, in verse 12:

12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. 13 And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.”

Some scholars have speculated that the situation underpinning these non-working eaters was a drought and work shortage – Bruce suggests this would make Paul a little unsympathetic to their plight. Others suggest that converts had taken the example of the Cynics and quite their jobs, taking to the streets. Others suggest it was an aversion to manual labor that prevented the Thessalonians getting in and working.

Underpinning the issue in 1 & 2 Thessalonians (especially 2) is the fact that some Christians are providing food for those who aren’t working for it – there’s some sort of patron-client thing going on. And Paul has a problem with this. But some have identified a problem with suggesting there’s a problem with the patron-client relationship being the model – because patrons only formed relationships with people of the same social status with less wealth, this objection comes from the characterisation of the early church as lower class only… So the idea that they’re clients suggests that they have some status.

Clients had all sorts of social obligations to their patron, and by keeping them they were able to receive the generosity of the patron, it was a symbiotic rather than parasitic relationship though, because the patron’s social status was based on the size of his clientele. It’s possible that a bloke named Aristarchus who gets two mentions in Acts as a member of the church was a wealthy guy (there is an Aristarchus from Thessalonica at the same time who was a local pollie). Someone of that standing would have had the means to be both a civic and a private benefactor. Jason, Paul’s host in Thessalonica also appears to have been a wealthy man. And women could be benefactors too.

A patron who converted would have had to maintain their non-Christian client base. And Christian patrons with Christian clients would have resulted in an unhealthy power dynamic cutting both ways (the patron would have to honour their client’s requests, while the client would be the patron’s subordinate). Not an easy situation to be in, so Paul was keen for them to avoid those relationships all together.

Many have taken the 1 Thessalonians 4:11 verse mentioned in the previous post to entail keeping out of public life, to turn to a life of political quietism. The term was used to describe a person who gave up public duties in order to rest – but the alternative Paul puts forward is not to rest, but rather to stop being a busy body and to get back to working with one’s hands. Bruce thinks the starkest contrast possible to the life of the quiet worker who fed themselves by their labours was the client. Clients were political activists for their patrons – like a crowd in South Park chanting “rabble, rabble, rabble” their job was to make noise on their patron’s behalf. There are shades of Plato’s Republic in this command not to be a busybody, Plato says to “do one’s business and not to be a busybody is just.” Paul’s use of the term “busybody” most likely describes clients doing their patron’s work in the public square, and not looking to their own affairs.

Paul wanted Christians to live lives admired by all, “commanding the respect of outsiders” (1 Thes 4:12), and the life of the client impressed nobody but his patron – groups of clients would even get into fisticuffs with clients of their patron’s rival.

Paul’s exhortation towards quietism is not a general command – but a specific one to the “some” who do not work, “such” as they are to do their own work and eat their own bread.

Paul wants the Thessalonians to follow his paradosis his example amongst them, in word and deed. Commanding people to stay away from (and not feed) the idle man was the manner Paul used to break the link between patron and client within the church – but Christians weren’t just to work for their food, they were to do good too (2 Thes 3:13). They were to be a benefit for their city – Bruce argues that Paul’s objections to the patron-client relationship aren’t about upsetting the civic apple cart, but rather are about encouraging the Christians to make positive contributions to the city, rather than being a drain on resources. Christians were to be benefactors to the truly needy, not to those who were able to work, but wouldn’t.

The Bible and Women

Nathan Campbell —  November 5, 2010

So, the comment thread in that post I linked to from the Friendly Atheist yesterday has just about descended into anarchy. But there are some people in there intent on pushing the line that “the Bible is nasty to women.” Now, some nasty things happen to women in the Bible – but this doesn’t mean that the Bible affirms them. There are a few stories of rape, and a few cases where servants and concubines are used to produce children – that to our 21st century sensibilities look a little archaic. That’s because they are archaic. The Bible is an old book. It’s a product of its times. But let me introduce you to one of my favourite words – anachronism. According to Wikipedia, anachronism is:

“is an accidental or deliberate inconsistency in some chronological arrangement, especially a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other. The item is often an object, but may be a verbal expression, a technology, a philosophical idea, a musical style, a material, a custom, or anything else so closely associated with a particular period in time that it would be incorrect to place it outside its proper domain.”

Now, this relates to the issue of the Old Testament law – because it is anachronistic to read our modern ideas about law and order back into Israel’s situation, and to find it wanting by our standards. We can’t measure their fairness or rightness using our standards. What we can do is look at those stories and laws and see what principles underpinned them in their time, and their place.

One of the current favourites in this sort of debate is to bring up Deuteronomy 22, which says:

23 If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, 24 you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.

25 But if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die. 26 Do nothing to the woman; she has committed no sin deserving death. This case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor, 27 for the man found the young woman out in the country, and though the betrothed woman screamed, there was no one to rescue her.

28 If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, 29he shall pay her father fifty shekels[c] of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”

The Bible is pretty clear that adultery is ruled out for God’s people – both Israel, and Christians. It’s in the Ten Commandments – rape is a breach of these Ten Commandments – so it’s clear from the outset that these three occurences are dealing with people who have broken God’s law. They’re essentially a retrieval ethic. They’re dealing with how to punish wrongdoers – it’s not a guide for how to get a wife.

These laws also bear certain similarities to ANE contemporaries  - from what I’ve read so far, only forcing the woman to marry her rapist is different, and I’d argue that’s a retrieval ethic aimed to protect the victim from a life of miserable poverty (or worse). Assyria had almost identical punishments and rules about rape in the city (I don’t know if that link goes straight to the page on Google Books – but its on page 131 if it doesn’t). In Assyria the rapist of a married woman was given whatever punishment the husband inflicted on his wife. The Assyrian laws about a betrothed woman, or virgin, were similar – the father could take the rapist’s wife as punishment, he could swap the rapist’s wife for his daughter, forcing his daughter to marry the rapist. If the rapist was single he had to pay three times the bridal price and marry the daughter. Sound familiar? But the father could also punish his daughter however he wanted for her offense…

Atheists don’t like the first Deuteronomic law above because they like to suggest a woman is being punished for not screaming loud enough. Because they are unable to read anything with nuance, or accept that even the laws are written with a little bit of artistry that requires actually thinking in order to properly interpret a passage. The man in this case finds a woman, and “he sleeps with her” – there’s no violence described. The judgment suggests that were she not complicit she would have said so – it’s a pretty calcified reading to suggest that it’s dealing with circumstances where the woman would have called for help, but couldn’t.  The plainer reading seems to me that the woman in this instance is being stoned as an adulterer, not as a rape victim. I’d have serious questions about how this stoning would be carried out – there isn’t a description of court proceedings prior to stonings, and it’s an argument from silence to suggest such proceedings happened or didn’t, but I suspect the Israelites were pretty concerned about not spilling innocent blood (and fine with spilling the blood of the guilty. The second prohibition makes it clear that rape is a problem – a crime punishable by death. And the third presents an ethical dilemma.

Here’s a slightly edited version of how I tried to tackle it on the Friendly Atheist – I’d be interested in others thoughts on this, kicking off with the comment I was responding to (I had suggested that most references to submission and intergender relationships in the Bible are in the context of marriage (ie. that other women I know don’t have to submit to me because I am male, that Biblical submission is in the context of marriage, with reference to creation, and linked to the husband’s sacrificial role as a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church) :

…may I add, that gender is mentioned plenty of times in the bible outside of the context of marriage, including calling for stoning for wearing masculine garments, rapes, kidnappings and enslavements of women of other groups, murder of pregnant and non virgin women, killing women for not screaming loud enough while being raped, forcing women to marry their rapists, etc…

The reason you do not object to the sexism and homophobia in the bible is because you are a homophobic sexist, glad we cleared that up.

Can you find me a place where I’ve said anything that makes you think I fear gay people? Or that I negatively judge women (or men) on the basis of their gender?

Homophobia and sexism aren’t in the Bible they are in the actions of people wrongly using the Bible. The Levitical laws regarding rape sound nasty, but they were a retrieval ethic trying to salvage some good from bad. Rape was also illegal. It’s not as if the law said “run around raping whoever you want, just so long as you marry them afterwards.” Read the story of Dinah in Genesis to see how Israelites treated rapists (and this story formed part of the Torah). Her brothers convince the rapist’s village to get circumcised – all of them – and then they come in with swords and put them to death. Primitive. Yes. But it shows that rape wasn’t taken lightly by the men.

Do you know what happened to a raped woman who fell pregnant in the Ancient Near East? She was either killed as an adulterer, exiled from her people and her home (which was also essentially a death sentence), or forced to live a lonely and sad existence in her fathers household as an economic burden. Here’s an Ancient Near Eastern (and Jewish) account of the ethical problem presented, and the plight of the victim, the story of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13 (again, just because it’s in the Bible it doesn’t mean the Bible affirms the narrative, most of the Old Testament is about how people fail at living God’s way and can’t keep the law).

12 “No, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me! Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. 13 What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.” 14 But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.

15 Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, “Get up and get out!”

16 “No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.”

But he refused to listen to her. 17 He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of my sight and bolt the door after her.” 18 So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. She was wearing an ornate[a] robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. 19 Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.

20 Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.” And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.

Absalom ends up killing his step brother Amnon for his crime – and the whole episode pretty much destroys King David’s family. The story highlights man’s inability to keep the law, and the heavy price paid for transgressions. There are no winners. Would the situation have been better for all involved if Amnon had met his legal obligations, owned up to his crime, and treated Tamar better? Yes. Would it have been much better if he hadn’t raped her in the first place? Absolutely. But the law exists to deal both with trying to prevent the crimes and trying to provide solutions for human sinfulness. Insisting that actions have consequences.

Forcing a rapist to marry the woman probably saved her life, and definitely provided for her material needs – poor recompense, yes, and we’d certainly do it differently today. But these were primitive times, and evil people existed then as they do now. Seriously. What do you think “law” does now? It seeks to protect and recompense victims and punish wrongdoers.

The law in the OT was the minimum standard. We’re talking about the criminal code. Israel was meant to act with love to their neighbours and surrounding nations. It might not look like justice to our modern eyes – but that’s some sort of anachronistic superiority complex. There aren’t many cultures from the past that look good in our eyes. Nor were non-Christian cultures any better with how they treated women. In fact, they were worse.

That’s what I said there. I commend this article from a blog called M and M that I just discovered while looking for some evidence to back up my statement about ANE rape victims (Hammurabi’s Code also punishes adultery (and the perpetrators of rape) with death, though it ties the adulterers together and drowns them), I read it somewhere, can’t remember where… Anyway, these paragraphs from that post are worth thinking about when approaching this question:

Deuteronomy is an Ancient Near Eastern Legal text; it therefore is part of a literary genre from that period of time. We are aware of other texts from the same genre such as the ancient Hittite Laws, Middle Assyrian Laws and Code of Hammurabi, and its important to note that legal codes written in this Genre differ significantly from modern legal codes.  Hiller notes,

[T]here is no evidence that any collection of Near Eastern laws functioned as a written code that was applied by a strict method of exegesis to individual cases. As far as we can tell, these bodies of laws served educational purposes and gave expression to what was regarded as just in typical cases, but they left considerable latitude to local courts for determining the right in individual suits. They aided local courts without controlling them.[5]

The same point is made by Raymond Westbrook in his comparative study of Ancient Near Eastern Legal Codes. He notes that such laws “reflect the scribal compilers’ concern for perfect symmetry and delicious irony rather than the pragmatic experience of the law courts.”[6] The method used in legal texts was “to set out principles by the use of often extreme examples.” Christopher Wright calls this “paradigmatic law,” which he explains as “the detailing of specific circumstances with the view to giving judges basic principles and precedents on which to evaluate the great variety of individual cases that may come before them.”[7]

Some of these passages in the Old Testament present prickly questions and handling them without bringing our modern views to bear on them is hard – how do you answer that sort of question and accusation? To see just how nasty the comment I was responding to hit the Friendly Atheist link in yesterday’s post (if I link it here it appears in the comment thread as a trackback and will create all sorts of angst). And I’m meant to be studying.

C.S Lewis on democracy

Nathan Campbell —  October 5, 2010

Some time this week I’ll be reigniting my conversation on this post about gay marriage, politics, ethics and the Christian, there are a few points in the discussion that I’m yet to address, I just need some clear head space.

But I like this quote from C.S Lewis on democracy in the meantime. It nicely articulate why I lean libtertarian on matters of government intervention in certain elements of our lives.

” I am a democrat [proponent of democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man.

I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government.

The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. . . . I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost. Much less a nation. . . .

The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”

It’s from his chapter “Equality,” in the book Present Concerns, which I haven’t read. But I lifted it holus bolus from this post from Justin Taylor.

Pooh philosophy

Nathan Campbell —  September 18, 2010

If comic books don’t strike you as great fodder for philosophy and ethics lessons (and that post had a comment from the author who wrote Batman and Philosophy and is writing Spiderman and Philosophy (which was pretty cool)) then perhaps Pooh and Philosophy is more your thing. This is from a list of philosophy books for children.

“Plot: Drawing on readers’ assumed familiarity with this beloved cast of characters, lead by none other than Winnie the Pooh, Hoff demonstrates the basics of philosophical Taoism by making examples of the One-Hundred Acre Woods residents. Each character embodies some basic principle of Taoism. Pooh is portrayed as the Uncarved Block with innate powers due to his natural and unspoiled simplicity. The rest of the crew is also interpreted per Tao principle – for example, Knowledge for the sake of Appearing Wise in Owl’s case.”

Comic Book Philosophy

Nathan Campbell —  September 8, 2010

Robyn and I have been working our way through Spooks, known in the UK as MI-5, a television series that takes you inside Section D of the British Intelligence Service. It’s a utilitarian political handbook – all decisions are made on the basis of the “greater good” many decisions are bad actions taken for good outcomes. Some of them make my stomach churn a little. While I’m all for utilitarian frameworks I think I’d redefine my view as achieving the best outcomes with whatever means possible (rather than necessary). And I’d rule out a bunch of actions as “impossible” based on my theology. Anyway. Long intro. Check Spooks out. But that’s not the point.

Philosophy and ethics classes in the US are increasingly turning to comic book characters to frame ethical debates. And I reckon that’s pretty awesome. There are even books being published with titles like “Batman and Philosophy” and “X-Men and Philosophy.”

Some quotes from a BBC story:

Christopher Bartel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Appalachian State University, asks students to read the graphic novel Watchmen in order to explore questions about metaphysics and epistemology.

In one class, he uses the character of Dr Manhattan, who claims that everything – including people’s psychology – is predetermined through all the causal laws of physics.

Mr Bartel uses this to teach theories of determinism and free will, and the moral responsibilities entailed in those world views.

Mr Bartel says his course – Philosophy, Literature, Film and Comics – is a “fantastic recruiting tool”, and that more of its students go on to specialise in philosophy than students in any of his other courses.

“I usually have students read Plato, Aristotle and Hume in introduction to philosophy courses. They often find it interesting, but get scared away by just how hard it is to read the stuff,” Mr Bartel told the BBC.

“Comic books can provide really good illustrations of these philosophical ideas without scaring them off.”

Here’s a sample question:

“Imagine for example, that you are Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) and you have just discovered that you have superpowers. Do you have a moral obligation to use your new-found powers to help others?”

And another awesome quote:

“Shaun Treat, who teaches at the University of North Texas, is not bothered by “highbrow” critics either. For him, the proof is in the pudding: the students lap it up.

After years of teaching traditional debates like Hobbes versus Locke, he says, “it’s amazing how much more the students are interested and engaged when you them put in cape and tights and have them slug it out”.”

On redeeming creation

Nathan Campbell —  August 31, 2010

Izaac, in reflecting on the Engage conference he was at recently, mentioned what he sees as a push towards redemption in our doctrine of creation. I think it’s probably a helpful corrective, I have been accused of having an “anaemic doctrine of creation1 in the past. Pretty much any time I said anything about why I think caring for the environment is a secondary issue (compared to preaching the gospel).2 I’m not suggesting it has no value, just that it only has value when it aids our primary purpose.

The danger of correctives is that they push to far. As Zack points out, and Mikey reiterates. Here’s the quote from Izaac:

“But I’m concerned when redeeming creation is starting to get equal billing with the gospel. The balance hasn’t tipped yet, but it ain’t too far away. At the moment its simply good critiquing of the church.”

This issue nicely fits in with my post about work, rest and play, and my post about my ethical framework – and the “redemption angle” is probably the best articulation of the difference between my approach on the issue of gay marriage, and Mark Baddeley and Tim Adeney’s corrections (and I think, by extension, Oliver O’Donovans – who I really need to read).

Here’s my doctrine of creation in analogy form (from a comment on Mikey’s post). As you’d expect, it takes a pretty utilitarian approach to “redeeming creation” where the end is not the work in itself, but the work of the gospel.

I like to think of culture/the world as a sinking ship, Robinson Crusoe style, where any redemption is pulling stuff off the ship and waiting for a new one to come. I think sitting around on the ship polishing floors (or rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic) is a little pointless in the bigger scheme of things… Even though the ship will eventually be refloated.

I think the concept of “redemption” is more helpful, and more often related, to getting people off the sinking ship as opposed to cleaning up the sinking ship. And I think, to stretch the analogy, that cleaning the ship is only useful so long as it clears a pathway to make it easy for other people to get off.

So I think we ought to work hard too, but I think we ought to work hard primarily because it’s part of the process of having a consistent witness and part of our gospel mission.

I think the restoration, Romans 8 style, is a complete renewal of Creation not just a renovation where God fixes the bits we’ve missed. It seems to me that the planet gets a refresh regardless of our efforts – while people don’t get that same second chance, so that’s where we should be focusing our energy (unless you’re a universalist, in which case being a tree hugging hippy is equally morally valid).

I guess my sinking ship analogy almost perfectly personifies a retrieval ethic. And I’m ok with that.

Also, this PDF study guide to Christian ethics from AFES is pretty good.

1Also, it’s very interesting how closely my conversation with one “David Walker” paralleled my conversation with one “Mark Baddeley” – perhaps they are the same person. Separated by oceans.
2And nothing proves the point about the danger of being a corrective like the way I put forward those views in that pretty ugly series of posts. While I agree mostly with what I said still – there was a bit of nuance missing. I don’t think either/or dichotomies are a helpful way of approaching these issues – I think primary/secondary concerns is probably better – and acting for a secondary concern can often aid in a primary concern, but should never supplant, or contradict, it. That’s my theory.

Al has done some thinking about the concept of play. He wrote a good essay on the subject of play where he introduces his view that play can not, by its nature, contain utility. He reiterated that in the comments of my post on utility. Given my views on utility it seems likely that I’ll disagree on his conclusion. And I do. Here’s why, in Venn diagrams.

My friends Kutz and Simone differ on whether we should look forwards, or backwards, when approaching such questions of ethics. So I’ve covered both.

I think play is of most value the more overlaps that occur in these diagrams. Rather than of least…

While I think the externalities in the current situation are of merit, for example, I enjoy sleep (which is just rest) and playing computer games (which is just play). But I enjoy sport more – which is fun (play) and exercise (work). I think areas of overlap are of greater value as rest. We intrinsically know this in our approach to finding a job. We look for, and get the most out of, jobs that are a combination of work and rest (something menial where we can let our minds focus on things that give us pleasure), or work and play (something that we actually enjoy), otherwise we need to be financially compensated in order that we can enhance our experience of play and rest outside of work.

So if I take pleasure from cooking and end up with a meal for myself and others at the end of an enjoyable, and restful, process, I think that’s better. If I give that meal to somebody else it also nicely fits in with my gospel utilitarian framework.

I think taking the things that give us rest, and using them for the service of others, is pretty much the best way to rest.

On Gospel Utilitarianism

Nathan Campbell —  August 24, 2010

I have, for some time, been trying to reconcile (in my head at least) two philosophical positions that I find fairly compelling. Positions that drive my approach to life and that come with some baggage and myriad problems if one strays from the path I am trying to chart. It’s a path trodden, with varying degrees of success, by guys like Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and the apostle Paul. I’ll leave you to figure out who of those three I think did it successfully.

I’m pretty sold on the “missional” approach to ministry – and with that, these days, comes “contextualising.” We can talk about what that means further if you want. But lets just say I think our job as Christians is to proclaim the gospel to people in a manner that engages with them where they are at, and points to the Lordship of Christ. This Lordship expresses itself in a transformation of that person’s life towards righteousness, and away from sin. Those people then become transformers of culture and join the team as “fellow workers” in the harvest. That’s our job as Christians. Live lives pleasing to God, devoted to worshiping him Romans 12 style – and being ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 4:11-21). Being heartily reformed, I believe that this of course comes under the sovereignty of God and his work in and through the Spirit.

First, some Bible.

Here are the passages I find most exciting in the Bible.

The Great Commission (Matthew 28)
18Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Being “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9)

19Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Being “Ambassadors of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5)

11Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience…

14For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

I think there are plenty more passages I could use. Pretty much the entirety of Acts.

Let me, just briefly, define what I don’t mean by “gospel” – I don’t mean the “turn or burn” message of repentance. I mean the whole kit and caboodle. One really helpful thing from college this year has been learning that the Greek word for gospel, ευαγγελιον, had a present day meaning before the gospel writers picked it up – it was the proclamation of the arrival of a king.

That’s a helpful way of thinking about the gospel – the arrival of a king entails a realignment of one’s life towards living the way that king commands. So when I talk about presenting the gospel what I mean is more than just telling people they’re going to Hell if they don’t repent and believe. It’s about proclaiming the present and future reality of the Kingdom of God. That means talking about suffering, persecution, and the nitty-gritty of Christian life, not just promising prosperity and beds of roses in order to win converts.

On Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a bit of a dirty word – and rightly so. Because without any sense of qualification it basically boils down to “the ends justifies the means” – which means that so long as the outcomes of your action are a positive (in its original form a net increase in happiness) whatever action you take is morally acceptable.

The model of Utilitarianism popularised by John Stuart Mill (though coined by a guy named Jeremy Bentham) was framed as “the good is what brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.”

Gospel Utilitarianism

Unadulterated pragmatics flowing from a utilitarian philosophy has no place in the proclamation of the gospel. It leads to compromise. Pretty quickly. But the underlying principle – of providing the greatest good to the greatest number – I think is more tenable.

If we understand that a person’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever. That that aim is their greatest good. Then our goal should be to see that “greatest good” being enjoyed by the greatest number. Shouldn’t it? Provided the emphasis in this model is on “Gospel” not on “Utilitarian” I think it’s a pretty useful rubric for making decisions, and a good ethical metric to consider.

[UPDATE]

I think it’s also important to point out that I think pragmatism grounded in research and observation of how things work, and in the Bible’s account of how things work, and its instructions for Christian living and Christian ministry (with the latter as the priority) is fine. I’m not anti-natural revelation. And I think that’s what pragmatism is. It’s using natural revelation (observations of the world) to inform our approach to presenting people with the truth of special revelation (Christ, through the Bible).

This isn’t “ends justifies the means” stuff – but it’s about using whatever means are possible, biblically speaking, to achieve the ends. And it probably leads me to consider some secondary issues as altogether more trivial than others (for example, I can’t understand people who rule out ministry with the Presbyterian Church on the basis of a hang-up on baptism. I don’t think it was an issue for Paul (I reckon he would have treated it a bit like circumcision).

Hardcore “contextualisation” (Acts 16)
1He came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. 2The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 3Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. 5So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.

Which seems nasty in the light of this (Galatians 6)

4May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. 16Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.

The issue of gay marriage is probably going to raise its head again in the next term of government. It’s been on the periphery of this campaign, though the Greens and Family First are doing their best to bring it front and center. One of my friends emailed me yesterday saying:

“The fact we live in a country that doesn’t allow gays to marry I find completely baffling.”

He suggested any opposition is due to either homophobia or a belief in arbitrary rules.

I responded. I actually don’t have a problem with the government allowing gay marriage (what are they doing defining marriage anyway?). My concern is that churches be able to legally conduct marriages for Christians without having to also conduct gay marriages in order to keep their marriage licenses. I think there is actually a pretty sound economic argument for the government positively discriminating for stable heterosexual relationships. It turned into a bit of an email discussion – here are my points.

Why shouldn’t governments protect, incentivise, and legislate benefits for relationships that can produce children. Stable families with parental input from both genders are the “ideal” condition for raising children. Why shouldn’t positive legislation exist to promote that ideal? Economically speaking. After all, as Houston, W, says: the children are our future.

If the government moved away from defining marriage at all – and let anybody call themselves married – but maintained the benefits they provide for families and couples with children – then I wonder if that would defuse the situation? If they framed it not as “banning gay marriage” but as the provision of tax incentives for reproduction for heterosexual families.

It’s discriminatory and a restriction of the kind of freedom Christians should be advocating for to deny gay couples “partnership” rights when it comes to health and estate benefits.

I think the whole debate is framed really unhelpfully because the government has taken on more than its fair share of responsibility.

What the government should be doing is not discriminating against gay relationships, but discriminating for stable heterosexual families.

It’s comparable to indigenous benefits – I was not born indigenous, I had no say in being born non-indigenous. But I, mostly, have no problems with the government trying to incentivise better health and future outcomes for indigenous people by recognising a problem and providing financial incentives for education (Abstudy).

positive discrimination for a subset of the community is not necessarily the same as discrimination against another subset of the community. And governments do it all the time (abstudy and the other examples I mentioned before). Any policy adopted by governments comes at a cost to other proposals.

For example, the “Building Education Revolution” could be said to have discriminated against any public service that wasn’t an educational institute. A hospital couldn’t have a school hall funded under the program – because a hospital isn’t a school. It serves an important purpose and deserves government funding, but the funding will meet different needs because of the different nature of the buildings.

Equally, the program has been shown to be a lemon, because some schools (or education departments) have abused it. This abuse doesn’t mean that the program was bad for the schools that weren’t abusing it, nor does it make it a bad program (in the same way that some bad parents collect government funding). It was a policy designed to maximise the positive of schools having halls.

I also have no problem with the government positively discriminating for mothers (who receive family payments), retirees, the sick and disabled… one could argue that they should also incentivise being gay because gay couples are likely to both work, and generally1 take less time off to look after their children, and thus pay more taxes.

1I understand that some gay couples have children. I don’t think this is child abuse, but I also think different genders have different input into the lives of their children.

Only at this blog will you find a post like this coming right after a post like this. One of the things I’ve been thinking about while arguing about UFC, studying at college, and grappling with the social context of the early church, is the idea of how far you can stretch a particular passage of scripture as you grapple with a particular issue. While the “context is king” hermeneutic is really useful for figuring out the “impossible application” of a passage – there are lots of circumstances that it seems we can pull a verse out of the ether (or the Bible) to address – without looking too hard at the context of the verse. Sometimes we call this ethics, other times its doctrine.

I have always hated the concept of “memory verses” as some sort of bandaid solution to every personal calamity, I get suspicious when I walk into houses that have verses stripped of context strewn all over the walls. I reckon putting big slabs of text all over your walls is much more Godly. Well, not really. As Carson famously argued “a text without a context becomes a pre text for a proof text” or something… but I think we can actually legitimately “proof text” without completely paying attention to the full “original audience” context. We don’t need every historical nuance to come up with a sound systematic understanding of an issue. The Bible doesn’t consider Climate Change – but says lots about our responsibility for the planet, its brokenness, and our new gospel priorities (and expectation of a new creation)…

I’ve been thinking about this since giving a presentation on Question One of the Westminster Shorter Catechism at church a couple of weeks ago.

The proof texts for the “chief end of man” are, in my opinion, pretty weak. If you consider the context of those passages it’s almost impossible to argue that this is the “big idea” of any of the specific passages, but it’s a “big idea” from the Bible, and we seem to feel like we need a good proof text for every position – we can’t just argue on the basis of “the vibe”… you can stretch a fair bit of Bible over the idea that one of our chief purposes being to glorify God. We have this correct concept that we get to by doing our systematics properly, but no great proof text, so we pull all the little bits of Bible into a paper mache type shape to build our idea, or we have an idea and we stretch (like a balloon) passages over it to give it a Biblical flavour.

Pacifism is not specifically mandated in the Bible, but I can see how one might reach that end by stringing together the teachings of Jesus, the fruits of the Spirit, and also our understanding of church history (how the early church acted based on the teachings of the Apostles) – but I think you can equally look at the Bible and come to a just war/justifiable violence position. Depending on what passages you want to string together. I can see why systematic sermons are hard – but they’re also, as forms of communication, heaps more compelling and much better for application.

But just how far can we stretch “scripture” when building a systematic framework? And where does context fit into this picture of systematising? If we’re Mark Driscoll we just talk about the idea without bothering using the Bible – which may, in the end, be preferable (and possibly prophetic).

What do you reckon? How far is too far when it comes to proof texting?