Tag Archives: Conscience

Theology in a Time of Pandemic

W. Jackson Watts

Theology never arises in a vacuum. It always has a context, a set of circumstances shaping its development and reception. Augustine’s City of God was a response to pagan claims that the barbarian incursions into Rome were a consequence of Christian emperors abolishing pagan worship. Martin Luther’s early writing would have never been penned outside the shadow of a spiritually bankrupt church. Francis Schaeffer’s Trilogy makes greater sense once you learn about his years ministering to spiritually and intellectually adrift youth at L’Abri.

The coronavirus pandemic is an occasion that forces us to theologize. As important as it is for church leaders to develop communication strategies and ministry procedures to ensure safety, it’s equally important to consider how our understanding of God, Scripture, and the Gospel are revealed in and through this crisis. Crises always expose the depth (or lack thereof) in our convictions. Yet they should also elicit careful theological reflection—reflection which presupposes that Christianity speaks to all of life.

I’d like to highlight five questions Christians should be able to address during this pandemic. My goal is not ultimately to answer all of these. Rather, it is to show how a clear understanding of Scripture is essential to begin to answer them at all.

Where is God and What is He Up To? (Theodicy)

As the death toll rises, so too do the questions that some ask about the presence of God. No doubt the present suffering is unequally distributed among families, communities, states, and nations. Some are better equipped to treat the sick, comfort the afflicted, or avoid the worst financial impact of the crisis. But rest assured, many are asking about God’s ways.

Theodicy is simply that: an account of the ways of God, especially in the face of suffering. Typically theodicy is a concept discussed in the context of what philosophers and theologians call “the problem of evil.” The problem, generally and simply stated, is that if an all-loving, all-powerful God exists, and evil exists, too, then how can we maintain belief in God? It would seem that a good and loving God would eliminate evil—at least in its most egregious forms. It seems just as likely that an all-powerful God could. While free will is usually used to show that it’s not a logical contradiction for evil to exist in a world where such a God exists, the problem of evil has many intellectually challenging forms that require us to pause, and avoid simplistic answers.

Imagine Christian parents who lose an infant child to coronavirus. Tragic. They then learn from hospital staff that their baby won’t be permitted a traditional burial. Moreover, it may not be safe to touch or kiss his body. He is their only child. The problem of evil lands a certain way for these parents: “Why God? Why this evil? Why did you let this happen?” How does free will sufficiently answer such questions? The problem of evil then presents a pastoral challenge as much as a theological challenge.

Now imagine unbelieving parents who experience the same tragedy. While they may not know what a syllogism is, at a deeply visceral level their suffering counts against belief in God. “How could we believe in a supposedly all-powerful, all-loving God who allows things like this? How could belief in such a God be maintained in the face of this kind of evil?”

Pastors, Sunday School teachers, small group leaders, and believers of all kinds don’t need to wait until they, the believers under their care, or their neighbors face death to think carefully about these issues. We need attentive hearts and ears, to go along with a biblically-informed mind.

Is this Pestilence Like the Ones in Scripture? (Eschatology)

 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”  And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth (Revelation 6:7-8; ESV).

More than one Christian has read a passage like the one above and tried to find versions of it in their world. This isn’t new. What is new is our 24-hour news cycle where we receive real-time updates on our phones about every famine, plague, shooting, drought, tornado, and earthquake. Let’s face it: it’s hard to watch the evening news and not think, “The world is literally coming apart.” And it has, ever since Genesis 3. Most of us also have some basic eschatological beliefs which entail conditions on earth and for human life growing increasingly worse. This means both people’s love growing cold, as well as earth’s increasing travail, groaning for release from its bondage (Mt. 24:12; Rom. 8:18-22).

Beyond this basic conviction, Christians can certainly freely debate how similar the nature of modern disease and virus are to ancient plague and pestilence. I’m sure there are similarities and differences.

Where we want to be cautious is at the intersection of theodicy and eschatology. For example: “God is doing this to wake us up spiritually!” “This city had more coronavirus cases because it is an especially wicked city; it’s the judgment of God.”

Believing in the providence and sovereignty of God means that He is in control. Nothing happens that He isn’t aware of or that He did not allow. However, it takes a few extra theological leaps to claim to know precisely why a particular evil happened and had the specific effects it had. Some have done this even in recent years, whether it concerned Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans (2005), or Hurricane Sandy in the greater New York area (2012). I can see no biblical claim that would allow us, with confidence, to call specific natural evils divine judgments. It may be the case, but we cannot know. Just as important, it raises other problems we may not be prepared to answer: What if the calamities that impact Christians are just as likely to be judgments of God against His church for her unfaithfulness to Him? After all, the grain of the Old Testament certainly shows us that God’s judgments fell against His own people more often than it did pagan nations!

It’s certainly not my intent to squash every theological judgment we might personally consider as reasonable or even probable. I find in my own congregation that we all have a sense that God is reminding us all of important truths: “We are not in control of our lives. God will take care of us. God is good even when things are going wrong. We need to obey civil authorities, even when we find it difficult.” It’s not irresponsible to say that God has His purposes, and some are more clearly discernible from Scripture. Yet we should not go beyond that.

Should We Take the Money or Not? (Conscience)

One provision in the CARES Act involves the government (specifically the Small Business Administration), through banking institutions, providing loans to smaller businesses to help them meet their payroll needs. The loans actually convert to grants if the company can demonstrate that they used all of the funds for payroll. After all, the government has a vested interest in seeing small businesses survive and workers continue to be paid.

The wrinkle in this bill that many Christians have been debating is the inclusion of churches and other religious organizations. In other words, a church could be the recipient of a loan. Baptists have a long and complex history when it comes to its relationship between the church and state (see more below). But this specific provision in the law cuts across denominational lines, whether one belongs to the free church tradition or not. Many pastors, theologians, and parachurch legal groups have landed on different sides of this question. Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has written a short, helpful piece arguing that it may be permissible. Yet even he acknowledges the reasonable, conscientious objections some Christians and churches may have to accepting such financial support, even if the funds appear to have no strings attached, and enough lawmakers thought it was a good idea.

It’s not my intent to analyze the merits of this argument, but simply to caution about how we debate matters of conscience in general. Sometimes Christians understand conscience in a sub-biblical way. We essentially adopt our society’s basic understanding: “If it bothers you, don’t do it. If it doesn’t, go for it.” This is not a biblical understanding of conscience. Scripture is clear that one’s conscience is not reducible to how we feel about a given choice before us (I commend Andy Naselli’s excellent, short book on the topic). As Harold Senkbeil thoughtfully puts it, “Conscience is not so much a moral compass as it is an umpire, or the capacity to see oneself as God sees you.”[1]

Our conscience can be misinformed, desensitized, and just plain wrong. Our “umpire,” to use Senkbeil’s metaphor, must be trained by the wisdom of Scripture. I say this because we can yield to the moral relativism of our highly secular age. Christians need to avoid merely saying, “You do what’s best for your church, and we’ll do what’s best for ours.” Christian truth is such that we need to come together and discuss thorny questions in a gracious, patience, respectful way without checking our brains at the door. Such a discussion will not yield uniformity, but it will yield greater unity, even when we have come to different conclusions.

What is the Church and How Shall it Gather? (Ecclesiology)

The same considerations concerning Christian dialogue certainly apply to more than the CARES Act. Probably the first question pastors asked when they realized the severity of COVID-19 was, “What can we do online?” Of course, the first question should always be, “What should we do?”

I spent countless hours thinking about and discussing this particular one. I’ve written elsewhere about my concerns concerning the interface of religious practice and technology. It’s ironic that I should find myself teaching and interacting with church members through Facebook and Zoom each week. But technical ability (or the lack thereof) should never be bracketed off from theological reflection about what the church is and isn’t, what worship is and isn’t, and how we maintain those distinctions, even while using certain crutches that we’ll gladly lay down when gatherings begin once more.

Technology has surrounded worship practices for nearly two thousand years. The moment anyone gave any thought to a building, keeping records, or musical instruments they were discerning what tools or artifacts could be faithfully used to support Christian ministry. I dare say our forefathers thought a bit more carefully than we do about these types of issues. They had their own temptations to resist. They also had to try to discern how much liberty to extend to one another, especially as various congregations (and later denominations) made different ecclesial choices.

I think what’s crucial to affirm again and again is this: A worship service is an embodied gathering. No amount of virtual proficiency will create that. Now, this is a separate question from, “Can we provide a context for our households to be edified while they are apart? Are there some Scripture-based messages, songs, or other resources we can provide each week to foster private worship, while at the same time saying: Won’t it be great when we actually do worship together again?”? To me this is a delicate balance to strike. Yet this is the challenge all church leaders have. At least this strange and uncomfortable time should give us some space to feel how unnatural it is for the church to be apart.

To What Extent Should We Obey the Government? (Church and State)

As I said above, Baptists have a rather complicated history when it comes to relating to the state. Heritage aside, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 are in our Bibles. We may not teach it so explicitly on a weekly basis, but the Lord has reminded us that obedience involves reading Scripture with Scripture. Can we square the command to assemble together in Hebrews 10 with the command to obey the authorities, who tell us not to assemble?

With few exceptions, Christians across this country have clearly seen that civil obedience and love of neighbor (both Scriptural principles) shape our application of the command of Hebrews 10—that a temporary suspension of public gatherings is not compromising our faith. In fact, it may be the exact embodiment of the faith needed in a world that so often misunderstands the church.

To be sure, as we see what appear to be positive signs in the fight against COVID-19, we are all chomping at the bit to gather again. The test of our theology of civil obedience will be whether our impatience is born out of a spirit of passion for Christ, or disdain for authority. Sometimes we struggle to discern the difference. Regardless of motives, being in an emotional uproar is seldom a good place to begin good theology.

All five of these questions are complicated. Unfortunately they often elicit a lot of heat, but not a lot of light. This is part of why the Commission for Theological Integrity exists. Our prayer is to lean into the conversations that others are already having, and to serve as a resource for clear, theological reflection and action. I pray we serve Free Will Baptists and their neighbors well in this pandemic.

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[1] Harold Senkbeil, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2019), 128.

Making Sense of Religious Liberty

Jackson Watts

Recently a friend of mine at the Helwys Society Forum, a site I also contribute to, called attention to Robert Louis Wilken’s book, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom. I had somehow overlooked this title, though I had admired Wilken’s work for years. He is William R. Kenan Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. My first encounter with Wilken’s work was reading his book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them over ten years ago. I was riveted by his description of early Christian practices and teaching and how Roman civil authorities perceived this strange new cult.

Then about five years ago while I was studying at Concordia Seminary, Wilken came to lecture on the church fathers. Even in his 80s, he was clear and compelling. I should also add that he was personally warm. What drew me to this more recent book was the subject: religious freedom. We are living at a time when increasingly in the West earlier assumptions about the value and necessity of liberty of conscience aren’t fully recognized, or only for a scarce few. Even now at least four cases that somehow relate to this subject are being argued, or have been recently argued, before the U.S. Supreme Court. This issue is not going away, and will only intensify in the coming years.

Though Wilken’s argument is more limited in scope, I think it complements the overall project of articulating an understanding of freedom of conscience that benefits all people, not just Christians. I want to briefly summarize Wilken’s argument, then make some observations that relate this to our present challenges in the area of religious freedom.

A Common Misconception Exposed

Among historians there has been a tendency to see religious freedom as the product of Enlightenment thought. The argument goes something like this: During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bloody religious wars were all too common. As the Enlightenment emerged, philosophers and other intellectuals saw the need for civil society to move past this needless and unfortunate bloodshed. In that unique context the need and case for religious liberty emerged. Increasingly people were free to practice their own religion, and form their own confessional communities without oppression or restriction by the state.

Here’s where Wilken (and other scholars) help debunk this misconception. He ably shows that the origins of religious freedom didn’t begin with Enlightenment philosophers, John Locke, or the founding fathers. Instead, he shows that as early as Tertullian (3rd century A.D.), Christian theologians saw in Scripture a basis for religious freedom. As Wilken puts it, “Religious freedom rests on a simple truth: religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart and for that reason cannot be coerced by external force (1). Or to put it in Tertullian’s words:

It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions; the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another. It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not  coercion that we should be led to religion (from Ad Scapula).

Wilken then develops his argument by showing how Lactantius and Gregory the Great joined Tertullian in providing a fairly early Christian perspective about religious liberty. Now I should add that this argument wasn’t fully developed, and certainly its application was not widespread. However, it refutes the argument that Enlightenment thinkers came up with the idea over a thousand years later.

Throughout the next several chapters Wilken walks the reader through Christian history, showing unique developments in which these early Christian ideas were received, appropriated, repackaged, and unfortunately, sometimes ignored. One interesting feature of the book is Wilken’s attention to Reformation era developments in several European countries, and how the case for religious liberty was made and often unevenly applied.

This latter point is really crucial. Jesus warns us about the problem of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy hinders people from seeing and receiving the truth. While living out of the faith inconsistently doesn’t logically discount the truthfulness of the faith, Scripture is clear that people see Jesus through seeing His people (John’s Gospel and first epistle really hammer home this point). So perhaps one reason why it is so easy for modern people to believe that religious liberty is not a cherished, ancient notion is because religious people themselves have at times been inconsistent in its application.

A Free Will Baptist Contribution

A book that deals with this subject couldn’t avoid the contribution of Thomas Helwys. Wilken devotes significant attention (for a relatively short book) to Helwys’ articulation of religious freedom. As an aside, my colleagues at the Helwys Society Forum have done this also, and we continue to marvel at the non-Free Will Baptists who are interested in Helwys who contact us about what we’re doing. But even Wilken sees Helwys as a major figure in this story. He quotes the famous line from Helwys that gets to the nub of the matter: “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever. It appears not to earthly power to punish them in the least measure” (180). For an early English General Baptist to be the one making this case is something for modern Free Will Baptist to be proud of. But we should just as quickly feel surprise, for another inconsistency in the story of religious liberty is the fact that Christian thinkers were not always quick to acknowledge the need for full freedom for other groups to practice their faith. Helwys throws the doors wide open to Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Jew.

Tensions that Linger

I have alluded now a few times to the circuitous path it took for religious liberty to be widely observed. Part of this is due to some tensions that not only existed in earlier times and places, but ones that are still with us today. I’m going to highlight just two of the issues we still need to wrestle with and learn to articulate with clarity.

Coercion or Persuasion?

When we read about some earlier Christians discussing religious toleration (more limited) versus religious freedom (more expansive), one issue they were concerned with is how to persuade people to adopt the Christian faith—and their specific confession—while not coercing it. Again, if one accepts the premise that religious faith is a matter of the heart or individual conscience, then it cannot be coerced by some kind of external force. This external force could be threat of death, or something less severe like threat to civil well-being. Naturally believers who want to be evangelistic see persuasion as a legitimate Christian activity. The apostolic pattern certainly bears this out. But when does persuasion slip into coercion? When does an attractive argument become an inducement? Wilken’s book gives a few examples of this problem being worked out in a few circumstances, but we still have to think about it today.

It is possible to preach and evangelize in such a way that we give the impression that people should adopt Christianity if they intend to be loved or valued by us. Yet there is a distinction we have to make. We are called to love and respect the worth of all people, regardless of whether they come to Christ or not. There is indeed a special love, care, and commitment that believers share in the body of Christ that unbelievers are, by definition, excluded from. But I think we have to try to communicate this wisely so that we can be sure to seek to persuade people, while not coercing them. We may not wield a sword, but it’s possible that we would try to win people to Jesus using extraordinary means that win them to our means, or the external benefits of what we preach, and not to Christ himself.

There are other examples of this problem. In an earlier generation belonging to a church (and “espousing a religion”) helped build one’s social profile, especially if you were going to run for a local political office in certain communities. And though this trend has increasingly disappeared, it still points to the problem of believing without truly believing.

Private Belief or Public Practice?

Perhaps the part of Wilken’s book that I found most compelling is the problem of how we define religion. At times some Christians saw religion as merely, or at least predominantly, private belief. Obviously they did not see their own faith that way, but they were often tempted to limit it to private belief when it came to what would be allowed of others. Naturally you cannot compel someone to truly believe something in their heart. However, when it came to public expressions of that belief, those in power often differed on what would be accepted.

At the same time, many in favor of religious freedom for others recognized that this was inconsistent. Religion pertains not only to individual, private beliefs, but the expression of those beliefs, in practice, with other believers. This means there is always a public dimension of true faith. This was of course unsettling at times for civil leaders who thought that preserving order in their particular realm required conformity in matters of external religious observances. It’s like saying, “What you want to do and believe in the privacy of your own home is fine, but the moment you step outside, gather with other likeminded individuals, or stop supporting the existing religious order, then you’ve crossed the line.” Liberty ended at the threshold of one’s home.

This sounds all too similar to our contemporary situation in America. Christians are increasingly told that if they want to enter the marketplace they have to discard all of their religious and theological convictions, regardless of how sincerely held they are, how inherent they are to historic Christianity, or how supported they are by the First Amendment. If they try to bring their beliefs to bear on, say, how they create art, provide adoption services, or operate a college, they must conform to the established secular orthodoxies of the moment (I say “moment” because it is literally a moving target depending on which regulatory agency is writing memos that day, or if the Twitter mobs notice).

It’s all too easy to see how this current situation doesn’t just violate the plain sense of the First Amendment, but also the very ancient understandings of religion that some of the most powerful minds in history have articulated, such as St. Paul, Tertullian, Gregory the Great, John Wycliffe, Thomas Helwys, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and more recent brethren like Robert P. George and Russell Moore. We can do better. Christians need to do their best to appeal to persons of good faith to show them why every citizen has a stake in freedom of religion and conscience. Wilken’s book and argument are just what the doctor ordered in helping to equip us for that enterprise.

 

Legal and Religious Liberty Implications of the Supreme Court Decision on Same-sex Marriage (Part III of V)

by Matthew Steven Bracey

In part II, having considered how we’ve gotten to the state in which we find ourselves in part I, we began asking where we go from here, and considering religious liberty in particular. We’ll continue that with this post.

Religious Liberty Threatened

Chai Feldblum said, “There can be a conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty, but in almost all cases the sexual liberty should win.”[1]

Many Christian voices have sounded the alarm. Robert George writes, “In the name of ‘marriage equality’ and ‘non-discrimination,’ liberty—especially religious liberty and the liberty of conscience—and genuine equality are undermined.”[2] Russell Moore remarks, “Religious liberty is genuinely imperiled, perhaps more than at any time since the revolutionary era.”[3]

In his dissent in Obergefell, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “Today’s decision creates serious questions about religious liberty. Many good and decent people oppose same-sex marriage as a tenet of faith, and their freedom to exercise religion is—unlike the right imagined by the majority—actually spelled out in the Constitution.”[4]

Make no mistake, friends, religious liberty is in trouble. And it’s slowly being taken away. What will this mean for our children and our grandchildren if we don’t do something?

Religious liberty isn’t simply the right to teach our religion or to hold it in the privacy of our homes. It includes the freedom to exercise our religion in society, in business, and so forth. “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.

However, a Supreme Court that requires states to recognize same-sex marriage results in a conflict for people who want to exercise their First Amendment religious liberty rights.

Justice Thomas also talked about this in his dissent. He says that the majority’s opinion “makes only a weak gesture toward religious liberty in a single paragraph. And even that gesture indicates a misunderstanding of religious liberty in our Nation’s tradition.”

He explains that religious liberty is

about more than just the protection for ‘religious organizations and persons . . . as they seek to teach the principles [of their faith].’ Religious liberty is about freedom of action in . . . religion generally, and the scope of that liberty is directly correlated to the civil restraints placed upon religious practice.[5]

Well, this is the same thing Jefferson said. When Justice Thomas echoes Jefferson, and yet finds himself in the dissent, we have a problem.

If the chances of incurring civil limitations or restrictions increase as a result of practicing your religious beliefs, the less religious liberty you have. And the more religious liberty is being threatened and destroyed.

This was illustrated when, following Obergefell, Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, was jailed for defying a court order when she refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses, which she said violated her religious beliefs.

We’re seeing similar conflicts on related issues on the state and local levels. What happens if you or someone you know is a public servant and refuses to issue a same-sex marriage license on account of his or her conscience?

What if you or someone you know is a baker, bed and breakfast owner, florist, photographer, or a wedding venue owner and declines to accommodate same-sex couples?

What if you or someone you know is a church planter, and the city refuses to grant you equal access to rent public properties? What if it attempts to regulate your policies regarding marriage or compel you to submit sermons that make reference to homosexuality or gender identity?

What if you or someone you know is in upper management, and the government attempts to require your company to cover contraceptives and drugs to induce abortions? These possibilities, and many like them, aren’t far-fetched. They’re affecting us, our families, our congregations, and our cities.

Defending Religious Liberty

What, then, can we do? We reeducate ourselves about religious liberty. We learn how religious liberty is rooted in Christianity and good for societies.

Moore reminds us that it’s a gospel and church issue: “Religious liberty is as much about children’s Sunday school as it is about the Supreme Court—indeed more so. If we’re going to claim a future for liberty, we must remember why we have it: for the gospel and for the advance of the mission.”[6]

We observe how the voices of the past can help us in this endeavor.[7] We see the good sense in it, and we commit ourselves to it. “Just expressing our opinion is[n’t] enough. We are called to take a stand.” [8] We don’t do any of this by ourselves, but with people in community. This can take place in all kinds of situations.

Perhaps we discuss religious liberty with our families over the dinner table. Perhaps we do it with our churches in Sunday school or a small group. Perhaps we do it in our workplaces around the proverbial water cooler or over lunch.

Perhaps we defend religious liberty by voting on laws and candidates that best honor it. I hardly think that a likely presidential nominee who says that Obergefell was a good start, but that we’ve a long way to go, cares much your religious liberty or mine.

Perhaps we sign petitions or manifestos, write letters to local newspapers and representatives, protest peacefully, volunteer or work for appropriate candidates, or even run for a political office.

Whatever we do, we must do something.

In part IV, we’ll pick up with the topics of the separation of powers, federalism, and the rule of law.

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[1] Maggie Gallagher, “Banned in Boston: The Coming Conflict Between Same-sex Marriage and Religious Liberty,The Weekly Standard, May 15, 2006; http://www.weeklystandard.com/ Content/Public/Articles /000/000/012/191kgwgh.asp?page=3; accessed October 21, 2015; Internet.

[2] Robert P. George, “Marriage, Religious Liberty, and the ‘Grand Bargain,’” Public Discourse, July 19, 2012; http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/07/5884/; accessed October 21, 2015; Internet.

[3] Moore, 150.

[4] Obergefell, 576 U.S ___ (Roberts, dissenting), at 27.

[5] Id. (Thomas, dissenting), at 15–16; ellipses in original.

[6] Moore, 153.

[7] Some of these include Thomas Helwys (c. 1575–c. 1616), John Murton (1585–1626), Thomas Hooker (1586–1647), Roger Williams (c. 1603–1683), William Penn (1644–1718), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), and James Madison (1751–1836).

[8] Timothy George, “Let Religious Freedom Ring: Why It’s One of the Most Pressing Issues Today,” First Things, June 30, 2014; http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/06/let-religious-freedom-ring; accessed October 21, 2015; Internet.