Category Archives: Ethics

God-Bearers and Christ-Bearers

Ignatius of AntiochI’ve been revisiting the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, particularly the letters of Ignatius. Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch at the turn of the second century who wrote seven letters to various churches only a matter of weeks before his martyrdom in Rome.

In those letters, Ignatius comes across as a humble and pious man who is deeply committed to Jesus Christ and the church. A constant theme is his concern not only for sound doctrine, but also for Christian unity in love (cf. Eph. 4:1-6, 14-16). The letters are fascinating in many respects, but one thing in particular has struck me. In the salutation at the beginning of each letter Ignatius refers to himself as ὁ Θεοφόρος—literally, “the God-bearer.” Michael W. Holmes notes:

In Greek inscriptions the term is commonly used as a title, describing those who carry divine images or shrines in religious processions (imagery and terminology that Ignatius applies to the Christian community in [his letter to the Ephesians] 9.2.)

Here’s the text to which Holmes refers:

So you are all participants together in a shared worship, God-bearers and temple-bearers, Christ-bearers, bearers of holy things, adorned in every respect with the commandments of Jesus Christ.

That’s quite a sobering thought. Every Christian believer is both a ‘God-bearer’ (one made in the image of God, created to worship God) and a ‘Christ-bearer’ (one united with Christ, being conformed to the likeness of Christ). Whether we recognize it or not, in all that we say and do—whether good or bad—we bear the name of God and the name of Christ. That has profound implications for how we conduct ourselves and how we treat other people.

I rarely write letters these days, but I probably write a dozen or so emails every day, and I occasionally post on social media. Sometimes, I regret to say, I do so with a tone or attitude that isn’t befitting of a Christian. No doubt it would look rather bizarre and pretentious to sign off my emails and blog posts as “James the God-bearer,” but surely it wouldn’t hurt to have that appellation in my own mind as I draft my missives. Even more effective perhaps would be to start by writing “James the God-bearer,” as if I were going to sign off in the manner of Ignatius, only to delete it before finally clicking ‘Send’!

Christians Not Welcome?

“Oxford college bans ‘harmful’ Christian Union from freshers’ fair” is the headline for the following Telegraph report:

An Oxford College has banned the Christian Union from its freshers’ fair on the grounds that it would be “alienating” for students of other religions, and constitute a “micro-aggression”.

The organiser of Balliol’s fair argued Christianity’s historic use as “an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism” meant that students might feel “unwelcome” in their new college if the Christian Union had a stall.

Freddy Potts, vice-president of Balliol’s Junior Common Room (JCR) committee, said that if a representative from the Christian Union (CU) attended the fair, it could cause “potential harm” to freshers.

Mr Potts, writing on behalf of the JCR’s welfare committee, told the CU representative at Balliol, that their “sole concern is that the presence of the CU alone may alienate incoming students”.

[…]

“Historically, Christianity’s influence on many marginalised communities has been damaging in its methods of conversion and rules of practice, and is still used in many places as an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism.”

He said that barring the Christian Union from the fair “may be a way of helping to avoid making any students feel initially unwelcome within Balliol”.

This is appalling and hypocritical on multiple levels; I’ll highlight only one. Note that the Christian Union is being excluded not because of anything specific to that organization, but because of supposed problems with Christianity. The very presence of representatives of the Christian faith at the freshers’ fair is deemed hazardous because it might ‘alienate’ new students and make them feel ‘unwelcome’.

Does it not occur to the JCR committee that some of these incoming students will be Christians, and that the exclusion of the Christian Union for the reasons they give might alienate those Christian students and make them “feel initially unwelcome”?

Just as intolerance is promoted in the name of tolerance, so exclusion is practiced in the name of inclusion. Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of ‘secular spaces’!

Warfield Lectures: Anthropology & Transgenderism

Last October I had the great privilege of delivering the Fifth Annual B. B. Warfield Lectures at the invitation of Erskine Seminary and First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC. Edited versions of those two lectures have now been published in RTS’s online journal, Reformed Faith & Practice:

  1. What Are We? Three Views on Human Nature
  2. Transgenderism: A Christian Perspective

The first lecture is to some degree setup for the second, but each one is self-standing.

When Harry Wants To Be Called ‘Sally’

Transgender IconThe Nashville Statement was published this week, and the (over)reaction to it has been entirely predictable. It’s a fine summary of the biblical Christian position on human sexuality, and (while I might quibble with the wording here and there) I agree with all of its affirmations and denials. What the statement doesn’t do (by design) is answer all of the tricky questions that arise for Christians now living in a culture that by and large repudiates the claims of the Nashville Statement. Truth notwithstanding, the tide is flooding the plain and we’ll soon be up to our necks.

It’s not unfair to say that the Nashville Statement answers easy questions. What does the Bible actually say about natural sexual distinctions and proper sexual relationships? The harder questions concern matters of Christian practice as we engage with the shifting culture around us and grapple with the impact it has on the lives of real people.

I’ve given several presentations on the topic of transgenderism over the last two years, one of which will be published as an article in the forthcoming issue of RTS’s journal, Reformed Faith & Practice. On every occasion, one particular question has been asked during the Q&A session:

How should we deal with people who claim to be transgender and ask us to use different names and pronouns to refer to them, which they claim correctly reflect their true ‘gender identity’?

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Thinking Biblically About Transgenderism

A short lunchtime presentation to the RTS Charlotte students, followed by Q&A.

Are All Sins Equally Bad?

If Jack cheats at Scrabble, is that as bad as if he cheats on his wife?

If Elmer pilfers $10 from the offering plate, is that as bad as if he embezzles $10,000 from the church?

If Annie shoots her neighbor’s dog, is that as bad as if she shoots her neighbor?

To most people, the answers to the questions are quite obvious. In each case, the answer is no: both of the actions mentioned are sinful, but the second is worse than the first. All too often, however, I encounter Christians (including some of my students) who seem confused about this issue, or who at least hesitate to give the seemingly obvious answer. I’ve heard Christians say things like, “All sins are equally sinful in God’s eyes,” and therefore they conclude that we shouldn’t discriminate between ‘lesser’ and ‘greater’ sins or make comparative judgments regarding different sins.

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Two-Headed, Four-Legged Women

Last week a shocking video was released which showed the Senior Director of Medical Services for Planned Parenthood, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, casually discussing how to perform abortions so that the murdered baby’s body parts can be preserved and sold for medical research. A second video was released today by the Center for Medical Progress which features another of Planned Parenthood’s top doctors, Dr. Mary Gatter, apparently negotiating over the price of organs harvested from aborted babies.

This is truly horrific material, even if we should not be surprised given what we already know about how the abortion industry operates. So much could be said about the ethical and political dimensions, and most of it has already been said by others more eloquent than me. (I particularly appreciated Brit Hume’s short but hard-hitting commentary.) However, I do have one observation to add to the discussion, which I haven’t yet come across elsewhere.

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You Shall Not Bear False Witness (Tabletalk)

[The following article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Tabletalk magazine. It is reproduced here with permission.]

“What is truth?” Pilate’s question reflected a jaded skepticism toward the very idea of truth rather than a serious philosophical inquiry. How tragic that a man entrusted with matters of life and death should express such a cynical attitude. And how very different should be the attitude of Christians, whom Jesus described as those who are “of the truth” (John 18:37).

The supreme value of truth is evidenced by the presence of the ninth commandment in the Decalogue: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16). The commandment is most immediately concerned with truthfulness in a judicial context. Deuteronomy 19:15-21 gives instructions about witnesses in a criminal case. A single witness is insufficient to establish a charge; there must be two or three witnesses (Deut. 17:6; see also Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19). If there is any question about the integrity of a witness, the judges must “inquire diligently,” and if the witness is found to be a “false witness” (Heb. eid-sheker—the same term used in Ex. 20:16), he must receive the very penalty that would have been applied to the accused. Thus, perjury carried a maximum penalty of death under the Mosaic law.

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Nigel Biggar on Nuclear Deterrence

Last year I posted an approving review of Nigel Biggar’s In Defence of War. One topic Biggar doesn’t directly address in his book is the ethics of nuclear deterrence. This omission he has now remedied with an excellent article on the moral and practical rationale for nuclear deterrence and the role of the UK in holding nuclear weapons. His argument is particularly important in light of the sweeping electoral victory in Scotland enjoyed by the SNP this week and their stated position on the UK’s Trident programme.

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Philosophy and The Edge of Tomorrow

The Edge of TomorrowI just saw the latest Cruise blockbuster The Edge of Tomorrow. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s my kind of movie: sci-fi alien-blasting action with a smart plot that delivers satisfyingly on an intriguing premise. (Plus, I just enjoy Tom Cruise movies. Is that so wrong?)

If you liked Minority Report, Inception, and Looper, there’s a good chance you’ll get a kick out of this movie. But what I want to write about here are some of the interesting philosophical issues raised by the movie. It seems to me that the storyline makes at least five substantive (and often disputed) philosophical assumptions.

SPOILER ALERT: Some plot details are revealed in what follows. If you plan to see the movie but haven’t yet, don’t read any further! (But do come back later.)

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