Friday, May 25, 2012

Rules, Part II

What do we base our rules on?  When we come up with a system of guidelines, laws, or principles, how do we formulate them?  Many people will say that laws are based upon ethics and a system of ethics.  Generally, we can all come to some amount of agreement upon an ethical system, formulating rules which are workable.

The problem that I see with some ethical principles is that they can easily become relative.  We can easily move into a system of normative relativism which implies that even ethical beliefs that are contradictory may both be right.  There is also the concept of metaethical relativism which says that people legitimize their ethical principles based upon who they are, what their religious beliefs are, and what their culture is.

The ongoing question is whether or not there are moral absolutes or whether morals continue to be flexible and relative.  Moral relativism can easily slide down a slippery slope to become “mob mentality.”  We have seen the destructive nature of this throughout history.  Slavery seemed to have been a good idea to someone, once upon a time, and somehow, it caught hold and was embraced.

I go back again to the question of the normalization of our ethical and moral systems.  How do we keep things from becoming too relativistic?  We can probably all come up with examples in our heads of what things are morally acceptable and what things are not.  But what prevents those things that are currently unacceptable from becoming acceptable?

There is a place for moral absolutes, I believe that the Bible gives us a moral compass from which we can determine those absolutes.  But what do we do with those who don’t subscribe to the authority of Scripture?  Can we really mandate morality on people whose system of beliefs is in direct opposition to what the Word of God teaches?

This is where I get hung up.  I choose to live my life governed by a set of rules that are given to me by the One who created me.  Others choose not to do so.  If I tell them that they are wrong and implement a system by which they are forced to subscribe to my belief system, will they really be convinced that it’s a good idea simply because they are legislated to follow that system?  Or will they resent that system more because it is being forced upon them?  Would it be better to open up a dialogue to express our differences and viewpoints?

The problem with dialogue is that it takes time, and in a broken and fallen world, we are not always willing to commit to the time that it takes to generate dialogue and begin a conversation.  To me, dialogue implies that the conversation is ongoing, it continues as long as people feel as if there is movement or progression.  It needs to be filled more with wonderment than with dogmatism, otherwise, it’s not really a dialogue but a debate.

But there are times when people’s hands are forced, when they have no choice but to stand firm rather than entering into dialogue.  What happens when organizations that previously held to a system of moral absolutes devolve, holding instead to a system of moral relativism?  What happens when organizations that once held to a “True North” allow instead for their North to be magnetic, changing based upon the poles of a constantly evolving culture?

The definition of the word “conviction” is, “a fixed or firm belief.”  I wonder how many of us can articulate the convictions which we hold.  I wonder how many of us are really convinced of our convictions, instead embracing something that has been handed down to us rather than doing the difficult work of working it out for ourselves.  I wonder what our convictions are based upon: a constantly changing culture, our emotional state at the time, or something that remains constant, never-changing, always staying the same?

I didn’t fully appreciate that my convictions needed to be my own until I was in college.  The process of working them out was formative for me, allowing me to wrestle with difficult questions.  After that wrestling, I landed in a place where my convictions are based upon what I believe to be absolute Truth, unchanging, always the same.  While I hold to those convictions and that absolute Truth, I do my best to remain humble, admitting my own fallibility and brokenness.  But if I let my own fallibility and brokenness inform my convictions rather than allowing my convictions to inform my fallibility and brokenness, my system of beliefs will change constantly.

Paul said in Philippians 2:12-13, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”  We must work out what we believe and why we believe it.  We must work out our system of rules with a willingness to ask difficult questions and hold in tension certain things.  If we approach the formulation of our convictions with anything less than humility and grace, we will simply be dogmatic, leaving no room for transformation.  Is it possible to hold to convictions and still have some wonderment over mysteries that have yet to be revealed?


  1. Romans 13 says that everyone should be subject to the governing authorities, which have rules, and that the governing authorities have been established by God.

    Luckily, our U.S. Government has made this a free country and there is no slavery. We can choose to voluntarily affiliate and disaffiliate with any organization. If, for example, you work for a company who has rules that conflict with your beliefs, then you have the right to leave and find another company. If you belong to an organization that has rules that conflict with your beliefs, then you have the right to voluntarily disaffiliate. Our government has even given us the constitutionally guaranteed, First Amendment Rights of Assembly and free exercise of religion.

    You say “What happens when organizations that previously held to a system of moral absolutes devolve, holding instead to a system of moral relativism?”

    Matthew 18:15-17 provides good guidance. If a Christian organization begins to make rules that begin to conflict with God’s Word, then it is important to bring this to their attention for resolution, and patiently try to win them over. If they continue to persist despite correction, and if they repeatedly continue to reject the Word of God, then they have destroyed their own authority and should have no authority over the people of God.

    Acts 4 and 5 provide context. In Acts 4, when the Sanhedrin commanded Peter and John not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, they replied – “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” Later, in Acts 5:29, the Apostles said, “We must obey God rather than human beings!”

    I think it comes down to that.

  2. "If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom...." (Col 2: 20-23, excerpts) Jesus says, in Matthew 13, "He who has ears, let him hear.... For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it."

    To me, if you believe the Bible is your source of wisdom, your rule of faith and practice, then the Scriptures speak to you that there is no other authority. God establishes that belief system within you and you "work out" your understanding of Him, His will and way in your life through what we call a "personal relationship," which should be an ongoing dialogue with God and an expression of that faith and understanding through our actions and dialogue with the world.

    Can you force this kind of belief system on someone? No. Does self-righteousness, crowd out the opportunity for such a belief system to take hold? Yeah.... Not that God can't work through self-righteousness if He wanted to. He who has ears....

    Conviction comes with a proving out of the truth, and that doesn't happen in a blink. Faith is a journey, a process of becoming "complete," as we read in Scripture. As Christlike as we think we Christians can be, let's be real--we're not anywhere near that! But we trust in His Word that gives us life and direction, so we can persevere.

    Wonder, indeed. Do we really have it all so worked out that we don't need someOne?