food sacrificed to idols

On word use, social media, and weaker brothers

It has become apparent that in a recent Facebook post some language I used has caused some brothers and sisters in the Presbyterian Church of Australia to stumble; they have because of a communication failure assumed the worst of me, and so circulated my post to senior members of my denomination nationally and locally worried that I have veered into apostasy.

I have to own this failure to communicate, and it has caused me to reflect on how I use words, and how I use social media.

I believe the unity of the church is profoundly important — matched only in importance by the mission of the church — and, I believe the unity of the church is part of the mission of the church. So we live in perplexing times.

I use words in a particular way. I understand the way I use words — and the way I frame my writing and my speech according to my audience. That is part of the communicative act — it’s part of using words to describe and persuade.

The meaning of words changes rapidly, and, in an increasingly fragmented age where we have no common, fixed, perhaps even transcendent basis for the meaning of words (that isn’t to say I do not think there is a transcendent basis for the meaning of words) we have to nimbly communicate through confusion around meaning, both keeping pace with the changing meaning of words and contesting their meaning. It’s a challenge.

Two examples of the contest of not only words, but phrases — especially the way this contest plays out in a “culture war” setting — are the phrase “black lives matter” and the terminology used (by Christians or otherwise) to describe the experience of same sex attraction (whether a person uses a letter from the LGBTIQA+ acronym, like “gay,” or some other terminology including, for example “same sex attraction.”

I’ve outlined before that my philosophy of language is descriptive rather than prescriptive and that so much pain within conversations is caused by people approaching words differently, but on the back of some fresh experience of this pain, I’m using this post to provide certain clarification around both my use of language, social media, and approach to relationships from here on in.

More than 10% of my congregation are people whose experiences are in the what you might call ‘sexual minority’ category — that is, those who might describe themselves as “same sex attracted” or LGBTIQA+. This is not accidental; it is the result of years of advocacy on behalf of Christians in this category who are seeking to live faithfully as followers of Jesus; and by this, I mean, seeking to obey the Lord Jesus, as we understand the Scriptures, within a traditional sexual ethic — namely, our church teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman, and sex outside of marriage is adultery, and, following the teaching of Jesus, that lust is, itself, idolatry.

I’ll say up top that I’m a reluctant public commentator on matters of Christianity; I do not wish to carve out a platform or profile. I do not check stats for this blog. I do not advertise. This website costs me at least a thousand dollars a year to register, and operate. I am happy to write for external publications because I enjoy crafting articles for publication, but I do not wish to court controversy or be a culture warrior. I am committed, as much as possible, to writing constructive or ‘generative’ pieces into the future, rather than deconstruction and critique. I am a public commentator on issues of public Christianity because I am a pastor and I care about my flock. I think part of the role of a pastor is to make space for your brothers and sisters to flourish, laying down your own strength while serving the chief shepherd. I have the ability and the privilege that allows me to speak as someone who will be heard. So I do. My social media accounts are not ‘platform building exercises’, though, until now, I have added any friend who has requested to connect where they have had more than 25 mutual friends, or reached out to ask questions about things I’ve written.

I am, first and foremost, a person. I am human. I am fallible. I think out loud. That gets me into trouble — but I am a person who aims to operate with integrity and conviction. I want to pursue truth rather than brand loyalty, a following, or popularity. So I am prepared to say unpopular things that challenge status quos.

I am also a husband and father. I have a responsibility to my family. I want to live in a world where it is plausible for my kids to follow Jesus, not because I think this relies on human effort, but because I understand that God works both by his Spirit and ordinary human means to bring people to himself, and my deep desire is for a church community that nourishes my faith, my wife’s faith, and my children’s faith. Given one of the major stumbling blocks for belief in the Gospel seems to be how Christians treat the LGBTIQA+ community, I think it is incredibly important that my kids have people in their lives (in their ‘plausibility structure’ who are both LGBTIQA+ and committed to the way of Jesus.

I am, thirdly, a pastor. I love my church family. I love my LGBTIQA+ brothers and sisters who are modelling costly discipleship and rich community. I believe these brothers and sisters in our church community and the wider church are something like the Desert Fathers, those voices who withdrew from ordinary life and so were able to spot the idolatrous culture of the city and call it out. Our culture worships sex, desire-fulfilment, and individual self-expression and identity formation through choice/consumerism; it is courageous and prophetic to stand against that tide and these brothers and sisters model this in the area of sexuality in ways that have much to teach us. I will, as a pastor, give my strength, privilege, and voice, to carve out space for them to flourish, and to serve our church — and I will advocate for them when they find themselves under attack from the wolves, or bitey sheep.

Fourthly, I am committed to the work of evangelism — not only in a commitment to preaching and living the Gospel as a church community, but to making a compelling case for Christianity for those in a post-Christian, post-modern (maybe meta-modern) world. I’m not interested in re-Christianising only the politically conservative, for whom Christianity aligns nicely with a political agenda, but with those who feel most aggrieved by the way Christians have been caught up with empire. I want to take the Gospel to the marginalised, into the issues that groups like the ACL ignore, and into the lives and stories of my friends and neighbours. I believe that one of the best ways to do this is to listen, and to adopt a posture of hospitality. When I use social media, just as when I use my dining room table or backyard, I am inviting people not into a ‘public’ space, but a space that is private and where they are able to enter a conversation. I enjoy that these conversations can involve people from across the political spectrum, and religious spectrum — I think, for example, the church is at its best when it has that sort of diversity in the mix. I confess my posts have become ‘too public’ to do this well; but the primary audience of my social media is not ‘the church’, it’s ‘the world’ — and my primary use of social media (I hope) is not performative ‘image’ or ‘platform’ building, but to present myself as I am, and to engage in virtual, mediated, relationship with people with the aim of taking that relationship into the real world over a meal, or a drink, or at church. I want people to engage in conversation with me in the hope that the conversation will leave them feeling warmer towards Jesus than they did before engaging.

Any ‘public Christianity’ I do is an expression of these three roles — and my social media use is not ‘public Christianity’ (though admittedly it has become more and more that way without careful stewardship). My posts aim to be pastoral rather than political; I want to resist the politicisation of people and their experiences (both in church politics and worldly politics). This does not mean my posts are not political — they are in two ways; firstly I believe the local church (and the wider church) is a political institution — an expression of the kingdom of God, and that the Gospel itself is political (in that we declare that the resurrected Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth). As we operate as a local community, and that operation is reflected (though mediated) in our ‘social media’, that will be ‘political’ in a subversive way (I hope). Secondly, that pastoral stance produces a political stance, especially in a world that is so dominated by an ‘us and them’ culture war that uses vulnerable people as political footballs without caring how hard they get kicked. Some of my ‘politics’ involves kicking the people kicking vulnerable people (and I’d like to do that less), some of it involves putting my hand up to get kicked instead (I’d like to do that more), while some of it involves asking people to play a different game.

From here on in I’ll be changing the settings on my posts to friends only to minimise engagement with those who might feel my posts are a stumbling block, and to make it clearer that I am not particularly interested in ‘in house’ conversation with other members of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in that forum (should my posts cause those brethren to stumble). There are other forums for that sort of conversation but you, my dear brothers and sisters in the PCA, are not the intended audience for my Facebook profile, it is given to the roles I’ve described above — as person, husband, father, pastor, and friend. St. Eutychus does have a Facebook page as a hangover from when I checked stats and thought a platform was important — I will continue to post articles there for wider engagement. I am happy to have debates there.

If you are a Facebook friend from the PCA but my posts trouble you, you are, of course, welcome to read along, but at the point that you feel offended or a sense of disunity, I invite you to contact me directly rather than kicking the denominational rumour mill into overdrive. I will do my best to accommodate you in contexts where we are in conversation.

In the case of the offending post I both described a member of my congregation as “coming out”, and, in the comments I described people who hold to a traditional sexual ethic as “celibate gay Christians”. The latter is offensive to some, the former caused significant confusion for many brethren around the nation despite the immediate clarification offered in the comments section of the post.

I want to briefly outline why I use “gay Christian” quite happily to describe members in good standing of my church community (when they so choose), and why “coming out” is something I believe is worth celebrating — but the main point of this post is to explain why and how my use of social media as a tool not for communicating within the people of God, but as part of God’s mission to the world will shape the way I use language, and what expectations I will then operate with when it comes to people interacting with my social media presence from here on out.

I don’t believe that a person who calls themselves a “gay Christian” is making an ontological identity claim where their sexual preference is competing with their union with Christ in defining their personhood.

My understanding (and I’ll note here that I am cishet, married, and have no experience navigating life as a sexual minority) is that for my brothers and sisters who have been aware of their sexual orientation from quite early in life, that orientation is a significant aspect of their narrative, and their experience navigating the world and relationships. If a Christian, in good standing in a church community, told either a non-Christian or a fellow Christian that they are “gay” or “lesbian”, I think it’s reasonable to assume that both the church friend or the non-Christian friend would have unhelpful immediate assumptions about what that means for their faith; namely, the assumption is that one cannot be both “gay” and faithfully Christian (leaving aside “affirming” theology and its claims for the moment — and… I use those scare quotes because I think, ultimately, asking a ‘theology’ to do the work of personal affirmation is tricky (not that that is always the case here), and we’re meant to align our lives with theological truth, rather than the other way around… but I think almost all the ‘theology’ on the table here, whether supporting a ‘traditional’ sexual ethic or embracing same sex relationships ends up affirming a liberal view of the individual and identity… and so I don’t necessarily see it as totally distinct, much as I don’t see ‘left’ as all that distinct from ‘right’ politically). It seems to me that these individuals need language that can describe their experience and their religious commitments in efficient ways.

I don’t believe that identity is an airtight theological category — in fact — I think it’s a trojan horse that slips in all sorts of idolatrous anthropology built from expressive individualism into the church (and, that, for those who have issues with what ‘gay’ means in the ear of the average punter, it would be interesting for them to account for what ‘identity’ means in both a therapeutic and sociological/recognition sense such that we should ask if it’s a legitimate category to be putting at the heart of our theological anthropology). So I don’t believe that someone who says they are a “gay Christian” is making an ontological identity claim, but rather describing their experience — and that the qualifier “celibate” helps further answer the questions and objections that the hypothetical person they speak to might have.

I understand that for many the word “gay” is associated with homosexual practice, and that for many Christians the debate about whether same sex attraction itself is sinfully disordered (a form of concupiscence), or whether it is lust and sex (the activities prohibited in the Bible) that are sinful expressions of an idolatrous rejection of God’s design for human sexuality, such that the word “gay” is an affirmation of a sinful and disordered aspect of a person’s life. I acknowledge that for both these groups (and they overlap of course) the use of the word “gay” is something like participating in idolatry. And yet, when I hear how my LGBTIQA+ brethren use terms like “gay” or “queer” they are doing something quite different with their language and it seems to me that “same sex attracted” is a label that thoroughly reduces a person’s experience to their sexual desire, and for those in the ‘concupiscence’ camp, that seems to me to be altogether worse (eg “I am a same sex attracted Christian”).

My “celibate gay,” queer, and LGBTIQA+ Christian friends are using language descriptively to describe their experience; inasmuch as they are making an “identity claim” it is a claim around experience/narrative, not ontology. And, to the extent that they are describing an experience it is an experience outside my own, and I want to be careful to listen well to them and to not think it is my job to control how language is used (remember, I am a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist). I think it’s particularly worth noting that words like “Gay” and “Queer” have been thoroughly contested, and the definitions in popular usage have dramatically shifted over time. The language keeps changing and to abandon the contest for words is to ensure the devil gets all the good music. Additionally, I’d note that the variety of experiences of attraction (sexual or otherwise) is consistently being nuanced as people have freedom to breakaway from historically rigid categories, and so, different labels are being given to different experiences of attraction at breakneck speed (did you know, for example, that because of the dynamic of ‘asexuality’ being unpacked in various ways, and in order to accommodate the different experiences of same sex attraction, people within the LGBTIQA+ umbrella will now make significant distinctions between romantic and sexual attraction, such that you might experience being romantically attracted to one sex, but sexually attracted to another). It pays to listen carefully in order to understand how language is being used, rather than insist on word meanings if one wants to have a conversation with another person; otherwise it’s like a Protestant theologian talking to a Catholic — we use all the same words, but have vastly different meanings.

This does mean that for Christians whose experience life as sexual minorities, they are navigating two sets of language — the expectation to meet certain theological shibboleths within the church, but also, often, actively working to make sense of their own experience as they navigate the complexity of positioning themselves in both the church and the world. Explaining to their church friends why they aren’t pursuing marriage with a person of the opposite sex, and to the world why they aren’t pursuing their attraction into desire (or lust), a relationship, or sexual activity. And we want to police their language use. Give them a break.

Also, I’d note that the terminology used — specifically ‘gay’ — is a broader and much more inclusive label than “same sex attraction,” which reduces a person’s experience — and perhaps even their identity — to ‘sexual attraction,’ whereas, so far as I understand it from conversations with my friends, to adopt a more inclusive label like gay, or queer, is to acknowledge a variety of shared experiences (and solidarity) with other sexual minorities who have to navigate a world (and church) that brings a degree of pain, trauma, and exclusion (even just from normal expectations around marriage and procreation). To police that particular term because it is “only ever about sex” is to choose a false prescriptive definition, and to significantly limit the semantic domain of a word (where there aren’t many better ones) that carries much more weight than simply some sort of idolatrous ontological identity claim built around sexual practice. It’s to make the mistake of elevating sex to the supreme position in a person’s life, and to flatten a range of narrative type experiences into some nebulous category of ‘identity’. In short, it’s a failure to listen.

My friend and colleague Matthew Ventura has written about the difficulty choosing the right language according to the audience he is speaking to, and about how he uses words not to make an “identity claim” (whatever that means) but in a paradigm of differentiation and solidarity. Here’s his description of why he uses the terminology he chooses when using the descriptor “celibate gay Christian.”

“A second approach seeks to step towards LGBTIQ people and say ‘I’m one of you. We can relate to each other’s experiences of being sexual minorities.’ Of course, for the celibate single same-sex attracted Christian, there will be plenty of areas of our experience that are not common to non-Christian LGBTIQ people, but this approach aims to highlight the commonalities and express solidarity. The motivations for this approach can either be missional (taking a step into ‘their world’ with the hope of eventually welcoming them into ‘our world’ of God’s family), hospitable (seeking to bring other marginalised people in and offer them a place of belonging in a safe and loving queer community) or a personal motivation (seeking a community where one can feel understood, supported and loved in their minority experience), or any combination of these motivations.”

Now, I’m not gay, but I think the reasons he gives for someone who shares that experience to use particular terminology also applies to the church in its participation in God’s mission to the world.

Matt makes a couple of observations on how people on the “differentiation” end of this spectrum operate, and how those seeking solidarity with the LGBTIQA+ community operate and the risks connected to these positions; the risk he describes here is the one my post fell foul of this week.

By associating themselves so closely with other LGBTIQ people, “celibate gay Christians” have risked causing scandal. Regardless of their actual moral conduct, celibate gay Christians often perceived by other Christians as being deviant, theologically liberal, or morally bankrupt simply by their close association with other gay people. Understandably, many Christians would prefer to avoid causing scandal by opting for the safety of unambiguous terms that clearly differentiate themselves.

That’s a useful framework. Ron Belgau at Spiritual Friendship has written about language being used narratively, or phenomenologically, rather than ontologically, which I think is also useful. It also fits better with a sort of ‘narrative ontology’ that sees us persons given bodies and lives to steward by God in accordance with the telos given to us by his story (rather than being authors of our own destiny and identity). In his excellent book A War of Loves, David Bennett spells out seven reasons behind his choice of language, a couple are worth quoting at length.

“The word gay does not necessarily refer to sexual behaviour; it can just as easily refer to one’s sexual preference or orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation. So, whereas “stealing Christian” describes a believer who actively steals as an acted behaviour, “gay Christian” may simply refer to one’s orientation and nothing more. This is why I rarely, if ever, use the phrase gay Christian without adding the adjective celibate, meaning committed to a life of chasteness in Christ. To call myself a celibate gay Christian specifies both my sexual orientation and the way I’m choosing to live it out. We have all been impacted by the fall. The particular challenge for the majority of gay or same-sex-attracted Christians is untangling the sinful aspect of same-sex attraction from their God-given desire for intimacy. Some find that this need for human intimacy is met in celibate friendships; a smaller group report a special God-given attraction to a particular opposite-sex partner in a mixed-orientation marriage. But most side B Christians choose celibacy.”

Another reason he gives is to speak prophetically to the surrounding world.

“Those of us who are orthodox or traditional Christians and who are gay or SSA need to reclaim our space in the conversation over sexuality back from the secular culture. While we have shared experience of same-sex desires with those who are gay and seek to be in gay marriages, including dealing with them in a fallen world that is prejudiced and unloving, we are different, and this needs to be reflected in how we understand what it means to be gay or SSA in broader society. Also, people like me have benefited from the gay rights movement in many ways and would not be able to live the open life we do without many of these wins for human dignity, but we don’t want that movement to spell the deprivation of our rights to live in churches that support our choices and obedience to Christ. We can identify with many of its wins for the human dignity of LGBTQI/SSA people, including employment rights, protections from hate crimes, and anti-discrimination laws, even if we may disagree on sexual ethics.”

His final reason lines up with Matt’s “solidarity” framework.

“My seventh and final reason is invitational. Mainstream secular culture feels alienated by terms like same-sex attracted and gay lifestyle. There is no monolithic gay lifestyle. The term same-sex attracted sounds medical, like a diagnosis—reminiscent of when same-sex desire was seen as a disease. Such terms can place hindrances in the way of those who need to hear the gospel message. When I entered the church and heard these terms, they kept me from feeling included and understood. On the other hand, the term gay is positive and welcoming for those who are gay or SSA. Christians would do well to focus on removing boundaries—existential, intellectual, and spiritual—in order to know the good news for our own sexual brokenness, and then, further, to share the good news humbly from this place with others.”

Which is to say if we listen to our Christian brothers and sisters whose lived experience we’re talking about, and we’re wanting to speak the good news of Jesus in ways that are compelling to others who share that experience, there might be a 1 Corinthians 9 “all things to all people” rationale for using this language — even if, for Paul, sometimes becoming like the Greeks was massively problematic for Jewish Christians. But I’ll unpack more of this below.

My observation of the status quo — including my own experience this week — is that we can spend a lot of time trying to decide what specific words always mean and so interpret them that way, or we can spend a lot of time trying to understand what people mean when they use words. A lot of the consternation about my post would’ve been lessened by less insistence that the words I used always mean a thing they don’t, and more seeking to understand what was being communicated. As someone who uses words though, I do have a responsibility to ensure my choice of words is connected to clear meaning for my audience. The catch is we all have so many audiences, and so many of our audiences use words differently.

All that said, I do not believe that a person’s sexual attraction is inevitably a personal choice (though I am comfortable that there is a degree of fluidity experienced by a variety of people and sexual and romantic attraction is complicated). I do not think a same sex attracted person, or a person whose experience of gender does not conform with their biological sex, needs to ‘become straight’ or even ‘become not LGBTIQA+’ in order to put their trust in Jesus; I think to live with Jesus as Lord will have implications for how we use our bodies and desires as part of our Christian vocation — as we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. And this will mean faithfully aligning one’s sexual behaviour, and desires, with the Bible (that said, I also believe church communities should be places where people come to hear the Bible taught before they have decided what that means, not having decided what that means), and that acknowledge that there is disagreement on how to interpret the Biblical data (personally, I find the arguments for an ‘affirming position’ on same sex relationships unconvincing). This means I believe it is fantastic for a person, and for their church community, if someone whose experiences (including, but not limited to attraction and/or desire) fall within the LGBTIQA+ spectrum, “comes out” and shares those experiences with vulnerability and trust, in order to be fully known, loved, and supported in their pursuit of faithfulness.

So, with all those bits of data in place — the reason I use the language I do — both the description “celibate gay Christian” for those who self-describe that way, and “coming out” for people who embrace the vulnerability of being known and supported, rather than closeted, spins out of my relationships and my sense of call (as a pastor with an evangelistic commitment to marginalised people groups in a post Christian world). I appreciate that this creates challenges for my brothers and sisters much like Paul’s ‘gentileness’ was a problem for the church in Jerusalem, and that perhaps I could work harder at being a “Presbyterian to win the Presbyterians”…

But here’s some of the theological framework behind this choice that I have alluded to above — I believe the choice of terminology here is roughly equivalent to idol meat in Corinth.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul is addressing a situation where the moral freedom of Christians in the church — to eat meat from the local marketplace that came from local temples — was a stumbling block for other Christians in the church. Paul tried to balance the competing priorities of unity and mission; there are, in 1 Corinthians, very good reasons to eat gentile food — namely, to win gentiles to Jesus. Paul describes his missionary flexibility (offensive both to non-Christian Jews, and to Christian Jews, when he lands in Jerusalem) in 1 Corinthians 9, and unpacks his unity-first ethic in chapters 8 and 10. He does a few key things in his presentation of the tension. First, he makes it clear that idol meat is not illicit — that to eat it is not actually to definitively participate in idolatry — much as those celibate gay Christians who use the descriptor work very hard to make it clear that they aren’t endorsing idolatrous sexuality (even if other people who use the words “gay Christian” might be — just as some Corinthians who claimed to be Christians who ate meat in the temples might’ve been). Paul makes it clear that the stronger brothers and sisters in the church are actually correct. Paul connects eating this meat with eating with non-Christians (in chapter 10), saying one should stop doing it in that context at the point it confuses non-Christians about whether or not you are affirming their idol, but that is relational rather than caught up in some prescriptive meaning of the symbol of the meat. Paul wants Christians to eat with non-Christians as an extension of the mission he describes in chapter 9 — and he wants both differentiation (not being idolaters) and solidarity (being a Greek to win the Greeks) to be part of the pattern of engagement. His guiding principles, expressed in chapter 10 are the glory of God, the unity of the church, and the good of others so they might be saved.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

The tricky navigating act here is that Paul prioritises the protection of the weaker brother in 1 Corinthians 8.

He writes:

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

Now, in drawing and applying this analogy to the current circumstance I probably shouldn’t just assume the position of the “stronger brother”, but it is clear that my use of my freedoms (knowing, as I do, that despite my language use I have not succumbed to idolatry but am using language for pastoral, evangelistic, and prophetic reasons in a contest for meaning) have caused brothers and sisters to stumble, thinking that I am affirming idolatry. There is an onus on me here to be more careful with my language in church facing contexts. I assume Paul didn’t police the language (or meat eating) of Christians eating meat with their gentile friends without weaker brothers around — because he gives guidelines for how they should do that (in chapter 10). This is why my response to the present imbroglio is to more clearly define my social media use as ‘world facing’ rather than ‘denomination facing’ — I’d like to use it as a dinner party, rather than an in house church meeting.

But I will say, too, that the idea that Christians in various minority experiences — in this case sexual minorities — should position themselves as the stronger brothers and moderate their language, while existing on the margins of our institutions and having very little ‘social capital’ within the church; where their language is institutionally policed, and where their employment or sense of belonging not only in church communities but their biological families is always at risk (and often these relationships are sources of trauma-through-differentiation rather than solidarity) just seems intuitively wrong to me. We ask these brothers and sisters to do so much additional emotional, spiritual, and existential labour just to exist in our communities. Maybe we could flip the script a little bit and do all we can not to cause them to stumble — even if that means adopting terminology we are initially uncomfortable with, and joining them in solidarity in our shared pursuit of God’s glory, and the mission of the Gospel.

On Idol food, Covid Vaccines, Abortion, Retrieval Ethics, and Love for Neighbours

Modern life is complicated.

This piece is both about that complexity, and how hard it is to make good ethical decisions, and about the current conversation about how a potential Covid-19 vaccination uses cells from abortions conducted decades ago.

The Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies has described use of human tissues from abortion as ‘reprehensible,’ and he, and others, have suggested use of this vaccine is now a conscience issue for Christians.  The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said, in an article urging the Government not to create an ethical dilemma, that news of a Covid Vaccine seems great:

“Until you read the fine-print on the ampule. Turns out that this vaccine makes use of a cell-line (HEK-293) cultured from an electively aborted human foetus.”

He said, further:

“Of course, many people will have no ethical problem with using tissue from electively aborted foetuses for medical purposes.

Others may regard the use of a cell-line derived from an abortion performed back in the 1970s as now sufficiently removed from the abortion itself to be excusable.

But others again will draw a straight line from the ending of a human life in abortion, through the cultivation of the cell-line, to the manufacture of this vaccine. They won’t want to be associated with or benefit in any way from the death of the baby girl whose cells were taken and cultivated, nor to be thought to be trivialising that death, nor to be encouraging the foetal tissue industry.”

There’s a beautiful picture of just how complicated in the Netflix series The Good Place, where modern people have stopped being good enough to earn a ticket into the afterlife because of how deeply enmeshed modern systems are — even when it looks like we’re doing ‘good’ things, the system runs a long way down and our actions are almost always the product of a system that involves some evil. Really obvious versions of this involve supply chains for the goods we purchase in the western world; I might buy some baby clothes to donate to a new mum, but I might buy them from a source who have slave labour in the supply chain for both the raw materials and production of those clothes; at which point I am complicit, whether I know it or not, in propping up that evil.

The Good Place makes the case that, whether knowingly or not, being complicit in evil is inevitable. Knowing that we’re complicit presents a dilemma, because, from that point on, we can’t claim ignorance as a way to mitigate our culpability.

This makes doing the right or good thing pretty tricky; and might just lead us to a fatalism that says evil is inescapable and so we should just do what we want, or what seems best to us, as individuals, without tackling the complex systemic issues.

The Good Place was an attempt to at least frame that conversation in a world without God in the picture; it provided its own answers with a sort of virtue ethic built on love for others and the pursuit of happiness in the realms we can control; it offered a humanist approach to the dilemma of complex, systemic, sin.

The Bible has both an account of and a solution to, complex, systemic sin, and a guide for how to live in a complex world where all human behaviours intersect with evil and are complicit in benefiting from evil. There’s a stream of Christian ethics developed from this understanding that the world as we know it is not ‘turtles all the way down’ but ‘frustrated by sin and curse all the way down.’

The Bible accounts for systemic sin with a vision of humanity that starts in our hearts and minds; we’re actually not capable of pure altruism that only benefits the other and has us escape from the system; at one point in Genesis, God looks at humanity and the human heart, and declares our hearts to be ‘only evil all the time’ (Genesis 6:5). The ‘good’ that we do, even as those still made with the capacity to reflect the image of God in the world, is inevitably tainted by complex mixed motives and especially self-interest.

This is one way that people from the Reformed theological tradition, following Calvin and Luther, have understood ‘total depravity’ — the idea not that all our actions are absolutely depraved, but that sin and its effects are such that all our actions are the actions of hearts tainted by sin; Luther borrowed Augustine’s idea of the heart curved in upon itself; which is a nice picture — even as we offer love for others, or for the world, there’s a self interest in the mix.

One way the Bible unfolds with this in the background is that no person is capable of righteousness, or doing good, until we meet Jesus in the story; the righteous one. This means that as good happens throughout the story of the Bible it happens through God’s actions in the world and despite human failings; the Old Testament is full of figures who do evil stuff, but who God still works through — sometimes, even, God works through people whose hearts have been hardened towards him, like Pharaoh in Exodus (as Paul explains this in Romans). Sometimes what we intend for evil, God can use for good — this is true of, explicitly, Joseph’s brothers sending him into slavery in Egypt for evil reasons (Genesis 50), but is also true of the execution of Jesus; an evil, sinful, expression of human selfishness (as the Bible frames it) that we intended for evil, but that God used to bring goodness and life; this act from God, through the righteousness of the son, is one where we’re either complicit in a way that brings death and judgement on us, or one where we find — in the fruits of that evil act — that is, Jesus body broken and blood poured out — eternal life. Good is retrieved from this act; Jesus, obviously, is willing in this moment in a way that Joseph was not so much (that’s the point of his visit to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he says “not my will, but yours” and then goes on to be arrested, tried, and executed as an act of selfless love for God, and for those who will find life in him).

Even as we seek to do good, we’re caught in a world made by people who operate in self interest, and who sometimes operate in a sort of self-interest that doesn’t love others; especially distant others. Our inclination, self-interestedly, is to love those neighbours we get the most back from; those we’re most proximate to (who can effect our well being the most); the distant vulnerable aren’t always on the radar (see how easy it is to cut foreign aid, especially without seeing what that does to a complex global system, or worse, because we do see what that does to a complex global system and want to maintain a status quo of inequality so we get cheap stuff). We cannot actually escape benefiting from sin or evil. This is the system we live in and benefit from; even, for example, Centrelink payments come from taxes raised by the government, including taxes raised from gambling, and mining, and other industries that make money from sin. They’re handed out by a government that makes legislation that promotes sin (for eg, greed), and pays an army that engages in many military activities, not all of them ‘just wars’.

David Foster Wallace captured this in his famous This Is Water address; where he said this selfish default drives a world of “men and money and power’ that hums along in a pool of “fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self,” our lack of inclination to upend this status quo comes because “our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”

The account the Bible gives for this systemic mess is that we turned from the life giving God towards autonomous self rule; to self worship (as Wallace put it); this starts in the first pages of the Bible with the story of Adam and Eve, who reject God’s good design for a world in harmony with him; a role bringing goodness, fruitfulness, order, and love — Eden — to the whole planet, and so instead of the whole earth being made as Eden, the world is cursed and frustrated, and people are exiled from God’s presence and the relationship with him that would shape our hearts.

When Paul reflects on the human heart, and its entanglement with a systemically broken world, in his letter to the Romans, he says the system we all end up being shaped by, this system of sin, starts with a decision to worship and serve created things instead of the creator (Romans 1), after a lengthy working through just how bad what the Bible calls sin is for us, our relationships, and our destiny, and how God does something about this with a new pattern for humanity in Jesus, his death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Spirit — so that we can be forgiven, and share in a new humanity (by sharing his death and resurrection) — Paul lands in Romans 8, where he talks about ‘creation’; the whole world; being frustrated by sin; captive to sin. It’s not turtles all the way down, it’s sin. In Romans 7 he describes the human experience without God’s Spirit as being one where even if we know what good things we should do, we can’t — our idolatry means our hearts are curved not towards God, but towards created things, and ultimately towards ourselves.

Idolatry is serious business. It destroys life; it creates systems of mess. So, of course, Christians who are trying to live a new life in Jesus — where we share in his death and resurrection, and receive his Spirit to liberate us from bondage to curse and sin — are meant to ‘not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind,’ as we worship God properly, ‘offering ourselves as a living sacrifice’ to God (sharing in the death of Jesus, one might say). The false worship in Romans 1; where ‘self’ rules, is replaced by a different picture of worship — where we give ourselves in love; where we put self interest to death (a theme Paul picks up on repeatedly in his writings, most clearly in Philippians 2).

Idolatry is a picture of the systemic complexity of the world, for Paul, it is both a symptom and a cause of systemic mess and sinful behaviour. One way this complexity manifested itself for first century Christians was in food sacrificed to idols. At a physical level, idol food was still food. It still nourished the body and gave life; it was still meat from an animal that God made. If it landed on your table and you had no understanding of its provenance, you’d be hard pressed to know the difference.

This is a bit like if someone gave you a cotton shirt today, with no label, it might be difficult for you to tell whether that shirt came from a sweatshop, or was ethically produced, or whether the cotton came from an Aussie farm, or from slave labour internationally… you might eat that meat with a clean conscience (or wear that shirt). But once the provenance is made known; after that first bite, or first wear, you’re faced with a new dilemma.

You’re being asked to decide if more bites, or more wears, make you complicit in a whole sinful system, and what that means for you.

The more ubiquitous the meat in the marketplace or shirt in the clothing store, the more difficult it is to avoid such complex ethical questions and participation; in fact, it is almost inevitable that our consumption of goods in this world will be a product of sin and evil (see David Foster Wallace’s description of the default system); in the form of idolatry; and some sin and evil will be more palatable to us than others (for Christians, where we’ll get to below, it’s interesting to ask why abortion is a conscience issue around a Covid vaccine, where sweatshop labour, or supply chain issues, don’t seem to challenge us so much on a daily basis in our consumption of goods).

Paul addresses food sacrificed to idols on two occasions in his writing in ways that I think are helpful for framing the present day conversation about Covid-19 vaccinations and cell lines coming from two aborted foetuses. I’ll unpack a little bit of what he says in Romans and 1 Corinthians, and the principles for ethics in his working out that issue; touch on some key teachings of Jesus that I think are in the mix for Paul and us (on these questions), and then, against the backdrop of acknowledging how complex the modern world is, and how it’s sin all the way down, ask how we might best approach issues where we are being made aware of sin in the provenance of something we’re being invited to partake in; so that one might act according to conscience. I’ll sum these up in a nice numbered list at the end. So feel free to skip to that to see if this whole thing is worth reading.

How one approaches an ethical question like whether to eat food sacrificed to idols, or whether to receive a vaccine that comes from a questionably sourced line of cells, or prosperity in a nation built on stolen land and the genocide of its first peoples, will be the product of one’s ethical system (and often there’s a political shortcut here, where we outsource our ethical thinking to chosen leaders).

It is interesting that the people most loudly opposed to the use of this vaccine are those most interested in individual sin, from a particular paradigm, rather than systemic sin. That’s an ethical outlook. There are lots of ways to do ethics; our default western method is utilitarianism, where the ends justify the means (who cares where the vaccine comes from so long as it works and is safe), some Christians like divine command ethics (our job is to act where God has spoken clearly, how he has spoken, and to discern what he might command of us if he is silent) — in a complex modern world, people from this camp are often looking to create new black and white rules where none have previously existed. Duty ethics are closely related to divine commands; where we have a duty to obey God, but also any legitimate authority he has created (church leaders, denominational articles/confessions, the state (depending on how one reads Romans 13 etc).

These systems will all ask questions about whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to take a particular course of action, with a different authority in the mix (the results, God, the authorities one recognises who establish a duty for us — even nature, in some forms). Another form of ethics; virtue, or character ethics asks not so much ‘is this action right or wrong?’ and ‘who says?’ but ‘am I acting rightly as I take this path’ — virtue ethics can both recognise how inevitable sin is in a messed up world, and provide a way forward that focuses not so much on choosing the lesser of two evils, but on being as virtuous as one can be in a given situation.

There are lots of ways to frame virtue ethics; I love a combo approach that brings Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue together with the Christian story; the type articulated in Stanley Hauerwas’ A Community of Character: Towards a Constructive Christian Social Ethic. Hauerwas, as an anabaptist, is very committed to the idea of systemic violence; the impact of sin ‘all the way down’ — he particularly draws that out with reference to the modern state (or kingdom) as essentially a violent, military, enterprise. I’m sympathetic to a criticism of anabaptist ethics that it ends up seeing people disengaged with worldly institutions, and always operating in parallel (and I like James Davison Hunter’s response to Hauerwas in To Change The World); but Hauerwas is bang on the money in his willingness to see sin impacting systems, and to call for an alternative system that radically reshapes our ethics and our understanding of character and virtue.

Incidentally, there’s a terrific piece on Christianity Today from David Fitch, who is a guy with anabaptist sympathies who wrote a book unpacking some of Hunter’s ideas around “faithful presence” critiquing Tim Keller’s recent paper on social justice and critical theory that is worth a read. I also think given the complexity of modern life, where it’s sin all the way down, the question is not ‘how do I avoid evil?’ — if evil is inevitable — it’s not even ‘how do I pick the lesser evil?’ But ‘how do I do what is most loving?’ It may be that this sometimes means choosing not to participate (in a trolley problem type scenario, you actually never have to pull the lever), but it should always, for Christians following the example of Jesus (and secure in the results that the evil done to him produced for us), involve a heart not curved in on the self, but towards God and others by the Spirit. Modern ethics requires some of us to stand distant enough from the fray, with a degree of purity intact, so that we might ask questions about the status quo, and some of us getting our hands dirty in the mess and muck of compromise in order to work towards change. We need both Anabaptists and Anglicans (but maybe not Anglicans who act as Anabaptists).

Idol food in Corinth and Rome: A path for navigating ethical dilemma in complex and sinful systems

I think Paul, in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, champions an ethical system built on the commands of Jesus; specifically, the command to love God (above idols), to love one another (those within the Christian community), to love one’s neighbour (such that they are clear about God and idols, and might become clear about the love of God for them); and that he leaves navigating life this way as a matter of freedom, conscience, and character rather than in the realm of rules or results. Here’s some of the data.

Paul says:

1. Even though idols aren’t real and people should be free, then, to enjoy idol food as meat made by God, some people don’t know this (1 Corinthians 8:4-7). This knowledge gap is a relational reality; and this makes the right thing to do disputable, rather than black and white (a question, perhaps, of ‘ethics’ rather than law or divine command.

This model doesn’t immediately map on to the vaccine question; because the abortions in question were real and sinful (just as the idolatry in the meat sacrifice was real and sinful); and the vaccines are a fruit (some time removed) of that sin (just as the meat is), part of Paul’s logic is that these idol statues aren’t actually real (not that the sin isn’t), they haven’t magically changed the meat.

Now, it’s worth teasing out that part of Paul’s ethical framework, at least in Corinth, is the idea that ‘an idol is nothing’; that the meat in question is simply a clump of cells, and that meaning is created by the way the cells are framed. An aborted foetus is not nothing, it is someone. The question here is different, but there are similarities too. Abortion, in the form we experience it in the modern west, is not just a health issue (such that one might decriminalise it), but also a biproduct of idolatry (have a look at the behaviours that Paul lists in Romans 1, and you’ll see the behaviours that produce lots of the modern demand for abortion). This means the parallel is not exact; and yet, while the cells used in this research come from people; unborn babies; unborn babies  who experienced an evil (so far as we can tell, or assume, without knowing the medical and social circumstances around these abortions — though the letter from the Archbishop says they were from an ‘elective abortion’), the cell culture involved has been duplicated over and over again in a chain for decades, it is not so straightforward to argue that the cells that exist now are ‘the person’ who was aborted then. It is clear we’re not, in this instance, talking about the ongoing trade of foetal tissue from elective abortions; though this sort of research justifies the ongoing trade of aborted persons for scientific research, and certainly prevents the status quo being changed to make abortion less commercially or scientifically attractive. Part of the conscience question facing us is whether using this vaccine, or this cell line, rather than other options, props up, or justifies, a system that should be torn down; the other question is about what good might be retrieved from that historic evil (not an ends justifies the means argument) for the sake of people now.

The human tissue cultures used in these vaccines is intrinsically connected to the sin in a way the meat isn’t (the meat was a good creation from God, taken by people to do bad things, but there was an original purpose for that meat connected to God’s glory which can be redeemed — receiving it with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4); the cells were a good creation from God, but the human intervention means they can’t be directly redeemed for that purpose — the life of the person who was aborted, though a vaccine is life-giving it isn’t in the same form that God gave the material substance in question; and yet, is also disconnected by time and duplication in a way that makes the question less clear cut (and a matter of conscience), and a ‘good’ can be retrieved from that evil, which is a pattern we see from God through history, and particularly at the cross of Jesus, where a life is taken that then gives life to others.

It’s a complex question; the issue is that some people will inevitably, now, think that anybody who receives this vaccine is complicit in evil. Their consciences will be seared, and it is likely this searing will create division between those whose consciences are clear, and those whose aren’t.

2. How we approach these conscience issues and areas of freedom really matters because of the way those who are a little more black and white (the ‘weaker conscience) perceive your exercising of freedom, and when they choose to act against their conscience, while following your example, or choose not to care about the sin at the heart of the question, because they think that is what you are doing; they do the wrong thing (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). If you’re going to articulate a position on a disputable issue it seems important to make it clear that it is disputable and not binding (like Paul is, himself). And if you’re going to say an issue is disputable it inevitably means making space for the ‘stronger’ position to actually be the correct one (if it is possibly true and explicitly not illicit). In Romans, Paul unpacks this a little more, he says ‘don’t participate in a thing’ if to do so makes your Christian brothers and sisters believe you are supporting evil/idolatry and so leading them to do something against their own conscience.

3. Because life is complicated and often figuring out how the wise and good path is ‘disputable’ rather than clear cut, Paul is keen for people to venture into discussions like this carefully and without quarrels; that means both those who are ‘strong’ and those who are ‘weak’ — that is those who think to participate is to be sinful and complicit, and those who think it isn’t — should make room for one another in Christian community and not break fellowship over the question (Romans 14:1-4). Part of his logic is that ultimately all of us have to give an account to God for our decisions (Romans 14:4, 7-13). But, digging in to questions like this and arriving at a position of conviction in ‘your own mind’ (Romans 14:5) is a good thing (especially in a mind being transformed and renewed by the Spirit and your true and proper worship ala Romans 12). He’d prefer people focus on unity in Christ, and things that will build that, than that they venture into disputable matters in ways that either offend or bind the conscience of others (Romans 14:19-22), and yet also says to ‘not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil‘ (Romans 14:16), and is, himself, writing a letter that got published in a pretty successful book making a particular case.

4. If you decide that to receive this vaccine is sinful, it is quite possible that you are wrong (and I think you are, as I’ll unpack below), but if that is your conviction, then to receive this vaccine is a sin (Romans 14:14); not an unforgivable one, but the lesser of two evils is still evil if you think you’re choosing ‘an evil’. Any deed not done as an act of faith(fulness to God) is sin (Romans 14:22-23).

5. Paul’s ultimate ethical questions are faithfulness to God and relationship with him (Romans 14:7-13), and love for neighbour (especially, but not only, fellow Christians) (Romans 15:2-7), but also explicitly that we act in such a way in society that builds relationships and models the Gospel to non-Christians (1 Corinthians 10:21, 33). His priority is not self-seeking. As he invites people to “come to your own conclusions” he also invites us to recognise that you aren’t only an individual; as a Christian you are both united to Jesus (and you belong to him), and you are a member of a particular community of people (the body of Jesus, the church), and that communion matters more than your individual freedoms (Romans 14:7-9). Paul would rather abstain from meat all together than cause another to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:13, Romans 14:13-14); this is another point where the comparison is inexact. To not eat meat is fine, there are vegetables that are nourishing. A vaccine in a pandemic is a slightly different sort of health question than a question of diet preference; and, the Archbishops have also said that if it’s a choice between this vaccine and none, they think this vaccine would be a ‘good’ rather than an evil. Because the stakes are a bit higher (it’s not just about diet, and there are anti-vaxxers in the mix who are, at times, from a Christian fringe), I think there is a case to be made that the ‘stronger’ should actually be speaking up strongly in favour of vaccination as an act of love for neighbour (while perhaps questioning supply chains). To this end, I think the letter does a reasonable job, but the reporting of the letter makes the dilemma a little more black or white than either Archbishops Davies or Fisher were.

6. Don’t be an idolater at idol temples. It should be clear to people you belong to a different world and worship a different God (1 Corinthians 10:18-22). The equivalent here would be that it is enough for people to know that you aren’t complicit in abortion if you aren’t participating in the abortion industry, or seeking a termination. It is quite possible that our public opposition to the sort of world that produces an abortion industry that sells human body parts will be enough to make us not complicit in the evils connected to this vaccine’s history, but also to have an ethical model that sees some good retrieved from that history in the form of this vaccine (not in a way that justifies the continuation of the practice). Our true worship (offering ourselves as living sacrifices) and what we say yes to, including the ways we show that we value human life, will do more to frame our engagement in these issues than what we say ‘no’ to. In Corinth, the way they were meant to share in the Lord’s table, as they gathered (which they were failing to do very well) was part of the mess where people’s participations at other tables called their loyalty to Jesus into question.

7. If a thing seems to be a good thing that can be received as an act of faithfulness, not explicitly idolatrous, you are free to participate (1 Corinthians 10:25-27). It isn’t necessarily wise to raise questions of conscience when they wouldn’t otherwise be raised. In Corinth, unless meat came from a kosher butcher, all meat was connected to the idol temples and the meat market. It wasn’t that the status of the meat was likely to be idol-free, it was that asking made an issue of the connection. Don’t go digging into the provenance of a thing if you aren’t prepared to act on the information you then receive; but if you receive a thing that appears good without knowing its illicit provenance, you haven’t sinned. Once you’ve got that information you’re in conscience territory.

8. It’s not just conscience territory, but appearance territory. In fact, Paul says the biggest deal is not your own conscience, but the consciences of others — it’s if the people on believe your action is supporting the idolatrous status quo because you are a participant — that makes him take the position he does (1 Corinthians 10:28-29). So ‘don’t participate in a thing’ if to do so makes your non-Christian neighbours believe you support evil/idolatry.

Retrieval and Love: An ethical system for disputable matters in a complicated world

In his The How and Why of Love, Michael Hill develops an ethical system that is kingdom oriented, shaped by a Biblical theology that positions us as those awaiting the return of Jesus in a complicated and fallen world where there’s sin all the way down. He says it’s not enough for us to simply say ‘this is what God’s kingdom looks like’ and do that, because we’re not there yet, but also that the character of God’s kingdom is caught up in the great commands of Jesus, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. He takes a teleological ethic that says “an act is right if and only if it promotes the kingdom of God,” and shows that the kingdom is a kingdom of loving relationship between God and humans, individual humans, groups of humans, and humans and the created order,” and also “inner harmony within each human.” When I teach this to my RI kids I talk about how God made us to love him, love each other like we love him, and love the world like he does. That’s our purpose; that’s what the kingdom looks like. Hill’s restatement of an ethical system of ‘mutual love’ says “an action or trait of character is right if and only if it promotes (creates or maintains) mutual love relationships between (a) God and humans, and, (b) humans and humans.” Because we live in a world that is not yet ‘the kingdom of God realised,’ Hill suggests a “retrieval ethic,” where “in the context where hardness of heart prevents the accomplishment of the goal of mutual love, love would seem to necessitate the retrieval of as much good as possible, or, at least, the reduction of harm.” He distinguishes this model from the ‘lesser of two evils’ approach because here one is not choosing to justify evil, but rather, seeking to do what is most loving in a bad situation (a sort of virtue ethic, where our understanding of love is shaped by the Christian story, and particularly God as creator and redeemer, through the cross of Jesus, the resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit), and the “kingdom ethic” model where we are told to act as though the kingdom is already fully realised (or as though that’s our job).

Hill does have a chapter on abortion in his book; one that touches very briefly on the use of cells in research. He doesn’t dig into that as a picture of retrieval, but instead, outlines a thoroughly Christian vision of the unborn foetus being fully human. Once that life has been taken though, as was the case decades ago, the ultimate good to be retrieved would be the retrieval of a view of their personhood, and their dignity, and the tragedy of the loss of life involved; we’re decades down that chain now, which is why Michael Jensen’s piece on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal is a useful vision of what it might look like to both retrieve that good, seeing the personhood of the unborn child, and the good of the medical research, that has emerged from their tragic death, including the possibility of this vaccine.

Here’s how I’d approach this particular vaccine, through an ethical grid supplied, in part, by Paul’s approach to food sacrificed to idols.

1. The complex world we live in means every act in a network of relationships, or culture, or system, or nation, is tainted by sin. We can’t avoid corruption from the fruits of idolatry.
2. Something more than ‘don’t partake in evil’ is required.
3. Adam’s original sin was partaking in something that had been declared sinful by God, something more than ‘partake in evil without worrying about it’ is required.
4. The law, or ‘divine commands’ in Christian ethics is ‘the floor’; love for God and neighbour (and the imitation of Jesus) is the ceiling.
5. Our ethical systems should compel us to imaginative love and virtue, not just right (moral) decision making.
6. Conscience is a really big deal in Paul’s ethical system; but he always implicitly sides with the ‘strong’ conscience while accommodating the weak; Christian leaders should avoid binding the conscience of others in case they are the weaker brothers and sisters on an issue and they unnecessarily bind the conscience of another by making an issue of provenance where none exists.
7. If we’re going to raise conscience issues on one sin of particular concern, it’s worth being consistent (asking questions about church institutions and their investment policies, super funds, environmental policies, etc, etc). Once we acknowledge complexity as a conscience issue in one area we better be prepared to follow that up with consistency.
8. God retrieves good things through human sin and evil; we are not God, but we might be prepared to adopt a similar posture of seeking to retrieve goodness, love, and life-giving approaches for the sake of our neighbours in good conscience, making the best of it.
9. That there are some goods retrievable from abortion (in the form of this vaccine), in no way justifies those particular abortions involved, or abortion in general. The end does not justify the means.
10. If Christians are never to participate in evil, when the complexity of systemic evil is made known, then we must create parallel institutions like schools, banks, libraries, etc; not to mention an alternative political state (especially in Australia); a paradigm of working towards good as redeemed people who, by the Spirit, are now able to curve our hearts away from ourselves to some degree, towards love for God and neighbour, then a more helpful paradigm for our ethics is ‘am I being Christlike in this situation’ and a working towards retrieving good.
11. True retrieval and love for both God and neighbour, in the face of complexity, means not turning a blind eye to evil or sin, but staring it down, and acknowledging it. Rooting it out of our own lives, but also seeking to change and challenge the systems we find ourselves in (across the board). Speaking out about questionable provenance of ‘goods’ that we seek to consume is one part of a step of undermining such a market, or status quo, creating genuine alternatives has to be part of that picture too. I think it’s a good thing that the Archbishops from these denominations have raised questions about the provenance of the Oxford vaccine, I think it would be great if other vaccines are pursued instead, but if they are, or aren’t.
12. Vaccines are a way we love our neighbours. The anti-vax movement is often built on an individual ethical paradigm (what is loving for self; often built on personal utility around minimising personal risks), rather than a community/relational one (what is loving for others and for God). Questions about the provenance of a particular vaccine aren’t questions about vaccinations in general.
13. The solution to a complex and messy system is the renewal of all things by Jesus, not the righteousness of us people. This doesn’t mean doing nothing; it just means our actions won’t be enough to solve the problem of sin and curse — either systemically or in our individual lives. We live our lives simultaneously recognising that creation is subject to frustration, and that we are, by the Spirit, the children of God the creation is waiting for in eager anticipation; how we tackle sin and mess now anticipates the return of Jesus to make all things new; removing sin, and curse. This is the story that answers the question ‘who am I?’ that provides the answers to the question ‘how should I live?’
14. You should not get a vaccine that is a byproduct of abortion if that is a conscience issue for you; that is, if you think you would be sinning if you received the vaccine voluntarily.
15. You should not subject other Christians to your conscience based assessment of the morality of the vaccine.
16. I do think whether or not one chooses to partake in the Oxford Vaccine is a matter of conscience similar to food sacrificed to idols; and one shouldn’t publicly trumpet your choice as a matter of Christian freedom that destroys a weaker brother or sister, but, nor should we not say anything; finding the balance of speaking like Paul did, and adopting a position on a contentious issue without delegitimising the positions of those who arrive elsewhere is a question of wisdom and imagination.
On balance, given the retrieval framework, it is, in my summation, a ‘good’ to receive this vaccine as an act of love for those neighbours presently alive, whose health and well being and ‘life’ (in pro-life terms) will be positively impacted by your decision.

But this last statement also has to be carefully qualified; and this is how I think I’m discharging that responsibility to not let something ‘good’ be called ‘evil’ in a disputable zone… On balance, personally, and without seeking to bind the conscience of others; I can say:

  • modern practices around abortion are a sinful failure of love for neighbour (the individual unborn neighbour, but also the system that makes abortion desirable represents a failure to love those in our community who might seek an abortion),
  • through the evil of abortion, in the case of this vaccine, some goods might be retrieved that allow love for neighbour in a different form (vaccination),
  • that to participate in those goods is not simply to participate in, or be complicit in, evil. In this I’m drawing an analogy here between the outcomes of idolatry (food sacrificed to idols, and abortion), and whether Christians can partake in free conscience, our knowledge of the sin involved in the production, promotion, and use of this vaccine, and whether our participation is perceived as making us complicit (or makes us complicit in the ongoing idolatry).
  • to participate in promoting and receiving this vaccine, while alternative vaccines might not be caught up in the same sinful system, might not be the most good and loving thing that I can do.
  • other vaccines will also inevitably be the product of other forms of sin (greed, immoral conduct, commercial enterprises built on various problematic practices or products),
  • our job is to act as people motivated by love for God, and love for neighbour,
  • a covid vaccination with widespread uptake in the community is a part of love for neighbour during a pandemic, but even this will involve a complex mix of systemic sinfulness, and possibly even my own selfish desire to preserve my own life, possibly at the expense of others rather than for their good.
  • so, there are more constructive approaches to ethics, and things for us to be talking about and doing as Christians. We might be better off focusing on positive alternatives than highlighting negatives; as a citizen in Corinth might have been better off giving and seeking hospitality with their neighbours, seeking to save the lost to reduce demand for idol food, or starting their own meat markets, rather than policing the food served up in a complex and messy world.

17. In all this, because the world is complex and our hearts still curve in on themselves, none of these actions or positions will totally avoid sin. Participation in sin in this world is inevitable. The Good Place had the diagnosis right. The answer is not that I live a good or ethical life of love though; I can not. Christian ethics are always a response to God’s grace and forgiveness received through Jesus. Whatever point you land on in this complexity (I hope this post is long enough to have earned this…) Jesus is the ultimate vaccine, and he protects us from the deadly consequences of our curved hearts.

Scroll to Top