“Gray areas” in Christian ethics: What to do
Before I make the last hurrah in my series on “gray areas” in Christian ethics, I want to list my essential points so far in this series:
1. There are practices that are not absolutely prohibited or even discussed in the Bible, and serious Christians hold opposing viewpoints on those points.
2. Christians must tolerate diverse opinions from other Christians regarding “gray areas”, with the understanding that tolerance is a thing to demand more for others than for oneselves.
3. The exact phrase “avoid even the appearance of evil” is a Christian oral tradition (stuff people in church started saying and just kept saying) deriving from Scripture but is not itself in Scripture.
4. Although Christians have to respond when they are misunderstood, they need not cater to the misunderstandings of others.
There are probably two reasons why people love to be influential: 1. they love power for its own sake, 2. they love to be able to move people to be and do the things that they genuinely think are good. If I have influence, then I am, in some way, important.
Political and religious leaders are moral influencers who find themselves having to fight for “ear time”–their very jobs demand that they exert some sort of influence when they communicate with people. Morally ambiguous categories are easier to address with lists of rules rather than exhortations toward good thinking; imperatives are simpler than interrogatives. They want to use the “ear time” they have to push people to do good, which is right and proper, but they must strengthen individual consciences so that people can make right decisions when they are separated from enforced systems of rules.
In C. Michael Patton’s post “Beware of ‘Professional Weaker Brethren'” (http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2010/08/beware-of-professional-weaker-brethren/), he talks about “professional weaker brethren” who abuse the Romans 14 injunction to watch out for the consciences of fellow Christians; they put others in a fog by telling them to be “sensitive” while surruptitiously advancing their own moral views, petty schemes, or sinister agendas. Sometimes these people have damnable qualities that keep them from official positions of influence. Sometimes these people lack sufficient charisma to make people listen to their ideas. Sometimes these people seek an unbalanced form of justice for injustices they have suffered. In any case, there can be no permanent, unchanging defense against them: although Christians are warned against wolves who would prey upon them, there are also weasels who will sneak in when the wolves are gone.
Patton also references Galatians, where Paul opposes false Christians who have a legalist agenda who try to smother the freedoms that Christians have in Christ. I would also add that Paul had to call the Apostle Peter on the carpet for hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-13) for flip flopping on whether Christians should follow Jewish ceremonial laws, and this was probably after the issue was resolved in the manner recorded in Acts 15. The false Christians tried to force Christians to follow Jewish ceremonial laws. They had a coherent message, concrete evidence of compliance or deviance, and sufficient appearance of legitimacy to worry the church in Galatia! Whether the false Christians described in Galatians worked by insinuation of what they wanted people to do or they openly promoted a smothering moralism, they throttled the life of the church.
I started the discussion of “gray areas” with alcohol, so I will finish with alcohol. Some Christians pronounce alcoholic drinks as evil in themselves, others respectably decide to abstain from alcohol, and still others drink moderately. I think that drunkenness was the American church’s whipping boy sin of the early part of the 1900s, much like homosexuality is today, and the stigma attached to drinking alcohol followed it out of Prohibition. Perhaps Christian culture might insinuate the propriety of one viewpoint over that of another. As morality is very serious to me, I will never allow mere insinuation to dictate my moral thinking; right and wrong are too important to be merely insinuated.
“Gray areas” are so called because they are neither right nor wrong, neither white nor black; “gray areas” are from abstract evaluations of real-life situations. In the end, if we must hate sin, must we also despair of our potential for it? With my hands I have served food to the homeless; with my hands I have committed various sins. Must I despair because my hands might be used for evil in the future? In sum, when we approach “gray areas”, we must deliberately plot a course to a fixed destination beyond them. There is no avoiding them. There is only action.