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Foundational Issues (9) – Thoughts on Engaging in Moral Discourse in a Pluralistic Society

Productive debate can only occur when there are agreed upon premises. From common assumptions we can argue about applications. For example, Americans have always agreed that ‘all men are created equal.’ But they disagreed as to what this meant. Woman Suffragists agreed with this premise and said that it meant that women should be able to vote. Leaders of the Civil Rights movement likewise agreed with this premise, but argued that ‘separate but equal’ was not really equal. In both of these movements intense, but productive, debates occurred over conclusions and applications because everyone held common premises.

Today we find ourselves in a very different place. There is no agreed upon definition of the nature of morality, how we know it, the purpose of government, or what a human being is. Without any shared assumptions it is very difficult to have productive debates about specific applications like what a family should be, what constitutes marriage, or if/how/when a person can or should change genders. 

Yet this complexity does not mean we should remain silent. Below I offer some general conclusions, followed by some practical advice. I should note that I feel fairly confident in my analysis in the previous eight messages. I believe that most of it is fairly objective and uncontroversial amongst Christians. However, the advice I am about to give is my own and I am not sure how various Christian persuasions and traditions would think about it. I ask that you would try to receive my thoughts charitably. 

General Conclusions

1) To the extent that we engage in debate, I believe as Christians we should take a moderate approach instead of trying to “own” our opponents.

2) When we disagree with a fellow believer I think we need to come back to the Bible and work out what it teaches and hold fast to what is clear (e.g. abortion or the structure of the family) and have grace for differing opinions on issues that are unclear (e.g. environmental regulations or school vouchers).

3) When we engage with non-believers, instead of trying to convince them of our opinion on this or that issue, no matter how important the issue may be, I believe our primary goal should be to lead them to the Gospel. Biblical principles must be the foundation of all our moral discourse. Without this in place we’ll constantly be assuming different things and will inevitably come to different conclusions. We need to stop wasting our energy arguing about the fruit of different beliefs and instead get to the root of matters. And the root of all that is good, true, and right is found in Christ alone.

As difficult as our current cultural moment is, we need to see it as an opportunity for the Gospel. Everyone bears God’s image, even if sin has marred it, so many people still long for good and just things, even if they have lost the justifications for those things. As Christians we can witness to our unbelieving neighbors by showing them that the Gospel is the only way to obtain the good things they desire.

For example, consider racial justice. Ending racism is a godly goal that many of our secular neighbors hold. As Christians we can declare that Christ died to break down the wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14). As Christians we recognize God as our Father; from this it follow that we recognize others as our brothers. Christianity is not opposed to racial reconciliation; instead, it is the only true and firm foundation for any real reconciliation and justice to happen.

Mindsets and Habits to Embrace

Beyond the specific conclusions listed above, there are some practical mindsets and habits we can embrace when engaging in difficult issues.

First, we need to keep things in perspective. God is Sovereign; we are not. There is a lot outside of our control—from viruses to nuclear weapons to famine; a lot of the things (all of the things?) we fear are in God’s hands, not ours. And God is in control even of evil. In His Providence He uses even bad things for our good. If you are talking to someone like Mr. A, you can have the best arguments in the world and you may not be able to convince him. If one is not in Christ then they are blind; can your arguments give sight to the blind? I recently read through Luke’s gospel and it is amazing how consistently Jesus refutes His opponents. It gets to the point where they stop responding to His questions because they know He will win any argument they get into. Yet despite being refuted by Him they refused to believe in Him. You can win an argument and still fail to convince. This doesn’t mean that debating is bad, it can be helpful when done in love. But we must keep in mind that even if we fail to convince the fault may not lie with our words, but in the hardened heart of our opponent. So take this burden off yourself! And I would go further and suggest that for every debate you have you should pray ten times, maybe a hundred times! What we need and what we should desire is not victory over our “opponents”, but rather their repentance and their reconciliation with us in Christ. We should not seek to win, but to win others over! What good does it do to convince someone of the Biblical understanding of the sanctity of life if they reject the Source of all Life? The goal of all debate, all arguments, all words should be the good of others and God’s glory.

Second, if someone ever attacks you because you cannot rationally justify your beliefs, that is ok. While there is some disagreement among Christians, I am convinced that we cannot justify morality using abstract reason alone. But neither can we justify reason using abstract reason alone. Think about it. Secular people want morality to be grounded in reason. But why reason? Can you use reason to prove that reason is reliable? Can you prove by reason alone that reason should be the basis of morality? Philosophers in the early enlightenment thought so, but I don’t know of any major thinker in the last 100+ years of any stripe (Christian, secular, etc.) who believes this, so thoroughly debunked has this belief been. Everyone, whether they realize it or not, lives by faith. You have faith in God; your secular acquaintances have faith in human reason. Everyone appeals to things they can’t rationally justify. So don’t be browbeaten when you do.

Third, I am convinced that we will change few minds with our words and many minds with our actions. Early Christians we much maligned. Since they called everyone brother and sister (including their spouses) they were accused of incest; because they ate the body of Christ and drank His blood they were accused of cannibalism. They defended themselves in their writings, but these false accusations did not go away until a severe plague hit. The plague was so bad that pagans abandoned family members and left them to die alone. Christians, by contrast, stayed behind to care for those that were sick, even those who had been actively persecuting them(!). Those the Christians cared for had higher rates of survival, while the Christians themselves died in higher numbers. After this no one accused them of being incestuous cannibals.

Today Christians are called ignorant and unloving. It will convince few if we simply say we are not; we must live lives that make it abundantly clear we are not. We can spend less time in pointless social media arguments and spend more time in God’s written word and thereby develop real wisdom and knowledge. We can live lives of committed marriage and thereby reconstruct the family. We should be pure from all sexual immorality and avoid watching mainstream shows and movies that our grandparents would have considered obscene and pornographic. Instead of voting for the right candidate and then going our own way, we can give sacrificially to organizations like Carenet that help unwed mothers welcome children into the world and we ourselves can foster and adopt. We can get to know our neighbors and invite them into our houses. We can invite them into our small groups. This is not to say that people will no longer hate or slander us, they will. They did that to Christ and His apostles and they will do it to us. But in the midst of this slander and hatred we can faithfully follow Christ and bring about real change. I am walking with Christ today, in part, because nearly four decades ago a grocery clerk invited my mom to church while she bagged her groceries. This woman didn’t change any law. She didn’t win a high profile debate. She simply invited someone out of darkness and into the light. And today I and my sister and our children are walking with Christ. Like a pebble dropped in a pond our acts of faithful obedience will ripple forth into eternity.   

The answers to the difficult questions we face isn’t just a clever argument, but a life lived in Christ. Obviously I think it is important that we know what we believe and why we believe it or I would not have spent the last nine weeks writing this series. But ultimately those answers are worth nothing unless they are embodied in a life that is grounded and rooted in Christ, a life that is lived for God’s glory, a life that loves neighbors and sacrificially seeks their good, a life that above all desires to share the Life of Christ.