Moral Deliberation: The Christian's Responsibility
by John C. Cooper (July / August 1998 — Volume 14, Number 4)
A gospel-centered mind and spirit are needed to face the moral crises of church and society. From Scripture and church history, the author paints a picture of what "moral deliberation" could be.
The gospel lesson for the Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost was the "hard saying" of Jesus about divorce. Not only did the lesson declare that divorce was out of harmony with God's will, but it also said that those who divorce and remarry commit adultery.
A century ago, that might have passed without comment. Recently, a group of Lutheran pastors discussed this gospel lesson and most voiced the wish to avoid comment on it in their sermons. The self-righteous and some sectarian fundamentalists might see this avoidance as proof of the apostasy of the mainline church.
Actually, this reticence to condemn the many divorced people sitting in the pews — and on our evangelism lists — is not a watering down of the faith but an example of a sensitive Christian conscience at work.
I know that on that Sunday, I explained that I would preach on the epistle lesson and save a sermon on marriage for a more positive Scripture lesson — and only after I had prepared the ground by preaching on our creation, fall, and the covenants established by God with humankind, as well as on the doctrines of sin and forgiveness.
You see, to deal with ethics and morals in a Christian way is not to automatically condemn some persons or activities or to commend some people and actions. It is to think things through, guided by love and faith in the Holy Spirit who inspires us.
We live in an era of complex moral and ethical crises, and we can no longer attempt to deal with them in simplistic ways.
The paper released by the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference Oct. 1, 1997 on the urgent need for Catholic parents to love and maintain good relations with their gay and lesbian offspring, while still maintaining the traditional Christian position opposing homosexual activity, is a good example of Christian moral deliberation. It is neither radical nor traditional, liberal nor conservative, but concerned and informed by love. We might learn from it.
What is surprising about this official Catholic statement is its emphasis on the persons involved. It clearly says when persons are involved, forget church law and respond in gospel love.
This is heartening because it not only is humane, it is at rock bottom evangelical and gospel-based. As such, it is a good starting point for our thinking, for in Lutheran terms, the Catholic bishops were saying: "Sin boldly — and believe still more boldly in the God who justifies us by faith, not by the measuring standards of a law."
I'd like to invite you to grasp the cross with its message of grace, and to listen more closely to the law written on our hearts (as St. Paul observes), a law of simple right and justice, of compassion, and of love.
We in the churches must lay down the red flags of liberalism and the blue flags of conservatism which we have taken over from the secular world and surrender ourselves and our opinions to the Living Word — to Christ — who meets us in Scripture rightly discerned. This is absolutely vital since we do live in an era of moral decline, indeed of moral crisis.
You have all heard the televangelists, revivalists, politicians, professors, and social scientists declaim about our ethical morass. Unfortunately, these social commentators are often long on diagnosis and short on prescription. Many of them are correct in their assessments, but few are realistic, much less gospel-centered in their recommendations for reform.
Even the most churchly of these speakers have failed to examine Scripture in the context of the worshiping congregation in order to discover a more excellent way. Too often, they end up merely condemning legalistically or attempting to defend certain behaviors.
The "religious Pied Pipers" of the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition fall prey to this legalism, and of importing political standards into the religious-moral debate. I discussed this in a book called Religious Pied Pipers in 1981.
This self-righteousness can be seen to be wrong and counter-productive by anyone who has read of Jesus' running dispute with the Pharisees in the gospels. There we see that Jesus never belonged to a moral majority and eventually that group in his day brought him to the cross.
Of course, moralistic elitism can be found among liberal groups as well. For instance, those of us who live in the Florida Keys have experienced this with some Environmentalists frequently.
No, we cannot simply "sign on" to one of the parties in the current moral debate if we truly wish to live Christlike lives.
How to Deliberate
As you consider doing your own moral deliberation from a gospel-centered starting point, I will point briefly to four illustrations.
These include Scripture from Proverbs; the story from the life of Abraham; John's story concerning Jesus and the fallen woman; and Luther and the Ninety-Five Theses.
(1) In Proverbs, we read: "The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord" (Prov. 20:27a).
The point here is that human beings are creatures of reason and intelligence, and God expects us to use our intelligence in directing our own lives, and in our assessment of others.
The imago Dei (image of God) we share is centered on our intelligence — not our physical form. It is without gender, race, age, or nationality. We are addressed by God, and we can also address God in prayer. We are not asked to leave our brains at the door of the church, but rather to use them all the more.
To be moral means to be a thinker much more than it means to be emotional or to feel. Indeed, the great enemy of traditional, biblical morality is emotivism, or subjectivism — the belief that morality is a matter of what we like and dislike.
If our standard rests on our feelings and emotional reactions, there is no accounting for taste, and no rational way to account for right and wrong. To seriously act morally means to question, explore doubts, listen to others, and consider issues together. This is moral deliberation.
(2) From Genesis 18:16-33, we are given a biblical recommendation to question everything.
Here is Abraham, the father of the faithful, who stood up to God over the proposed destruction of Sodom. Abraham asks God:
Will you destroy...the righteous...within the city? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city?...Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?
When God relents, Abraham pushes on: for forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, ten righteous?
Like Tevia, who argued with God in Fiddler on the Roof, Abraham, too, argued with God, using his intelligence to see the discrepancy between the urge to punish and a genuine ethical response. This was not a defense of sinful behavior but a defense of what human beings made in God's image, with God's law in their hearts, know is right.
Abraham appealed to his conscience, as Martin Luther did before the Diet of Worms. To go against conscience and clear reason, Luther held, is neither right nor safe, i.e., regarding one's salvation. Few people today recognize that, ironically, Luther took his stand on the traditional Catholic doctrine of The Inner Forum, of the Christian conscience. Since we have a conscience, we must use it!
(3) From the Gospel of John comes the well-known story of Jesus and the woman taken in the act of adultery (John 7:53-8:11). The Pharisees — who were absolutists on honoring every detail of the Torah, the Midrashs (interpretations) and of Kasrup (the so-called "Kosher" laws) — showed Jesus a woman who unquestionably had broken the commandment against adultery.
"What's your moral judgment?" they asked Jesus. Several later Greek manuscripts add: "Jesus wrote with his finger on the ground the sins of each of them" (emphasis author's). The Pharisees left. Jesus did not condemn the sinner, but warned her not to sin again.
Substitute "thief, " "liar", "selfish person," "sexual deviant," "drug abuser" or something else for "adulterer" and you can draw your own conclusions. What the hard application of the moral law left out was the human factor, the sheer human dignity of the sinner, the obvious human weakness of the most righteous person, and the prophetic and Christ-like urgency to show love and forgiveness.
"The letter kills but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6).
(4) Lastly, there is the example of Luther in 1517, faced with the complexity of the corruption of the church administration, practice, and theology that brought about not only the Lutheran Reformation followed by the Reformed Reformations, but also the Catholic Counter-Reformation as well.
Faced with the abuse of indulgences and the televangelist-like activities of Tetzel — that great raiser of church funds — Luther, like Erasmus, and many other honest people of the times could have condemned, satirized, damned, and not been far off the mark.
But unlike Savonarola, the great critic of churchly corruption in Italy, Luther did not only criticize, he added the more difficult path of deliberation, analysis, and recommendation. He did this boldly, without cutting any ethical or theological corners, by penning the Ninety-Five Theses.
In the Theses, Luther was as irenic and as gentle as the situation would allow, basing his arguments on Scripture and the theological tradition of the historic church catholic.
In the heat of the battle, Father Martin could still say "Christians should be taught that it is not the mind of the Pope that the buying of indulgences is to be in any way compared with works of mercy" (Thesis 42), and "Christians should be taught that if the Pope knew of the exactions of the preachers of indulgences, he would see the Basilica of St. Peter burned to ashes than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep" (Thesis 50).
Later, his fully thought-out principles were also gently set forth by Philip Melanchthon in the Augsburg Confession. Luther's opponents drew a circle to shut him out, but he drew a circle to take them in, asking for a Church Council in which Christians could sit down and deliberate over problems and work them out together.
Toward this same process of moral deliberation, I invite you. With Proverbs, Abraham, Jesus, and Luther in mind, we should go and do likewise.
John C. Cooper is the pastor of Lord of the Seas Lutheran Church, Big Pine Key, Florida. He presented this material before the Florida - Bahama Synod's Church in Society focus groups Oct. 25 and Nov. 1, 1997. Dr. Cooper is also an educator and author of many books.