Tag Archives: ethics

Bad Choices

Recently I’ve been doing some reading in one of my preferred areas of study: Ethics. Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It, by Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, is an interesting study on the choices we make that do not line up with our ethical views and why these choices happen.

I found it most interesting that many individuals if asked to predict how they would behave when faced with a certain choice would pick the option lining up with their ethics (what they should do), but when facing the actual choice they will often choose the opposite (what they want to do). Then, after the choice and the situation has passed, that same individual realizing the dissonance between their ethics and their actions will reinterpret the situation to justify their action.  In this way they follow what they know to be unethical, then remake it to look ethical.

One problem the authors point out is that when simply discussing scenarios most people quickly realize they are facing an ethical question, but when facing an actual life scenario they fail to recognize the ethical dimension of their choices. It is easier to weigh the ethics when not faced with the actual choice—when the ethical determination is simply a theoretical exercise with no actual cost.

This got me thinking about the choices churches make, never realizing what they have actually chosen. Often we justify our choices as wise, as stewardship, as honoring God, when they are actually abusive, uncaring, and divisive.

I’ve spent years as a pastor (usually going into a church after the previous pastor made a horrible choice). I have also counseled many of my fellow pastors when facing bad choices being made by themselves or their congregations.  As I mention these, understand I am not going to say what church or pastor did what. Please don’t assume I am speaking about my church or about any particular church. Also understand that I write this, not to condemn or judge, but to get people to dig a bit deeper under the surface, step back and look at choices with fresh eyes. If a congregation or pastor could foresee what choices they could face in the future, and what could tempt them to make the wrong choice, then they can be better prepared to recognize both the ethical dimension of the choices, and see the choices for what they truly are.

I know of one church where the pastor worked multiple jobs to take some stress off the church finances. He did this because the church had a mortgage that it really couldn’t afford, but by supplementing his salary, the pastor enabled the church to pay it down sooner. He felt strongly that the church was worth it and wanted to enable them to do more with the resources God gave them. At one meeting where the church board was speaking about the growing income and the decreasing mortgage balance, the pastor in passing said, “Let me know when you think the church can afford for me to go full-time and I’ll quit my other jobs.” One of the elders responded, “Well, you should be able to be full-time on what we pay you now, depending on how you live.” This pastor felt stung. It was his sacrifice that permitted the church to do what they were doing. He used his jobs for outreach and the church was growing. By having those jobs the church did not have to pay the pastor enough to support his family on the local economy. Yet, the elder was saying the pastor should be happy with a standard of living that the elder himself would have found unlivable. Churches often make choices on pastoral compensation based on the idea: “Well. It is a calling. If you serve God, then he will provide for you.” They then see it as an excuse to not support the pastor sufficiently—to abdicate their responsibilities in that area. They forget that the Lord does promise to provide for his servants. He promises to support the pastor/teacher/elder, but he promises to do it from the giving of the local church—from the wealth with which he blesses that congregation. Using “calling” and an unscriptural view of “providence” to justify forcing those who serve the church the most to raise their families on the least is at best an affront to the God who called the pastor.

I know another church where the board constantly fought the pastor. One day, an elder got some strange ideas about the pastor and put a chain and padlock on the church doors so that no one (especially the pastor) could get into the building without the elder being there. The elder believed he was protecting the church from a pastor he did not trust. In reality he was protecting his own power and from then on the church was known as “the church with the chain on the door.” In discussions with this elder he gave many justifications to support his choice to lock the pastor out of his own church.

Many churches are divided into factions. Each group seeks to have authority and exercise it over the others. They will be rife with party spirit and each make decisions not on what will glorify the Lord, and fulfill his will for the church. They make decisions based on what will keep them and their party in authority and then, after the fact, twist their reasoning to justify their behavior. I’ve seen such in operation in worship format, in building improvements, in benevolence giving, in outreach strategy.  Even the most holy of activities, as worshipping the Lord, become ammunition for these people. Let me ask you a question. Do you think God listens to the worship of his people and actually says, “I prefer when they worship me with that type of song and don’t really like when they worship me with the others.” Many will say, “But I don’t get anything out of (insert type of music) and get much more from (insert other type of music).” That is the problem. You falsely imagine that worship is intended for you to “get something from it.” Worship is intended as an opportunity to worship and bless God. He could not care less if you chant to him or rap to him. Before you think I am beating up on the traditional music folks with this, I have seen worship leaders, pastors, congregants, on both sides using music to beat up their opposition. This is not honoring to God, when you dishonor those Jesus died to save. Doing this is unethical regardless of the style of worship you are defending.

We’ve all been in churches where any noise from anyone—especially a child—receives stern looks from others. When you choose to glower at a young mother who is struggling to keep her toddler quiet, you do it with the hope they will see your face and choose to keep their child quiet. Do you really want to send the message: “Your child is not welcome here”?  In one church, I had a couple elderly women come to me to complain, “Don’t their children know how to behave in church?” I knew the family and responded, “They’ve never been in a church before so how are they to know?” I told them to give them time and be patient because the parents were seeking and we didn’t want to make their children unwelcome just because they didn’t act like these two elderly women imagined their own children did. It is funny just how much of our own children’s behavior we forget. We imagine that our own children never made any noise or never misbehaved in church and then judge parents because their children do not act like the perfect examples we imagine our own children to have been. When we do this we are choosing to send a message that children are not welcome—at least not those who act like children. We would never say it outright, but that is because we are more comfortable with a politely silent lie, than a spoken one.

Years ago, I heard about a church served lovingly by a pastor and his wife for over thirty years. They had always lived in a parsonage and lived on low income to sacrifice for the service of the church. One day the pastor died, rather suddenly. The church board notified the widow, shortly before the funeral, that she had thirty days to vacate the parsonage. In their mind, this was just good stewardship. They only had one parsonage and couldn’t pay enough for the next pastor to rent a home, so they needed her out. The problem is that the pastor and his wife were probably in that situation because of the church’s twisted view of stewardship. We are to be stewards of what is truly important to God—the people he redeemed. We are to use the world’s wealth to care for people. This is an example of a church who thought it was the money in the bank account that mattered most to God. Such a twisted view is not as uncommon as you might hope.

One bad choice people and churches make is often found in memorials. One day a friend was showing me around his church facility. It appeared everything had little brass plaques attached showing in whose name they had been given. When a person gives such things they are giving with strings attached. Heaven help the pastor who tries to remove grandma’s memorial organ, or grandpa’s memorial pew from a small country church. The thing takes the place of the beloved person and must then be treated with the same respect as the person. I told him that I felt sorry for him because if he ever decided to remodel he would be deemed guilty of throwing out Grandma or Grandpa rather than an outdated piece of furniture. Are you giving to your church to bless the kingdom or to trumpet your generosity?

There is one other type of church choice that is too common. It too can be rooted in bad stewardship concepts or in any other number of areas. This happens when a church makes a decision that will hurt another person—often the pastor. When a church knows they can have A or B, but not both, choosing either means preferring it over the other. If the church chooses A, then that means they value it more than B. If they choose B, then they prefer B to A. I’ve seen churches take actions that will require the pastor to leave—one example is a choice that favors the building over the pastor. When they do this the church is showing the pastor that they prefer the building to the pastor.

If your choice or action is unethical, it doesn’t honor God to twist the facts afterwards to make up for it. The only thing that can be done is repent, as forgiveness and make amends.

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Shelter for our Enemies

Isaiah 16 demonstrates an interesting dimension of Judeo Christian ethics. In this passage, God is punishing Moab for past sins against God’s people. Yet, God commands his people in verse four, “let the outcasts of Moab sojourn among you; be a shelter to them from the destroyer” (ESV).

It’s often imagined that compassion for one’s enemies is a purely Christian commandment first given by Jesus. Of course, Jesus takes it to a new level by telling us to love them. We imagine because Jesus said, Matthew 5: 43f, “You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ but I say to you, Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” (ESV). Because of this many have claimed the Old Testament taught hatred for one’s enemies. Actually, no such command is found in scripture. Jesus, in this passage, is directly referencing the extra biblical teachings of the Pharisees.

Actually, Jesus command in Matthew 5:43f is very much in keeping with the tenor of Old Testament on behavior towards one’s enemies. Jesus took it farther by commanding active love towards them, but the Old Testament includes several admonishments to act toward them in a loving way (Ex 23:4f; Pro 24:17; 25:21; 29:10 to name but a few).

Yes, there were times the people of God were commanded to kill their enemies in warfare. However, we must be careful to discern two things, (1) these were directly commanded by God, or in response to active enemy attack, and (2) these were commands for the nation and not the individual. The duties of the individual were often very different from those of the nation. It was often the actions of the nation that made it possible for the individual to live to a higher ethical standard. Think of it today as our government leaders have the duty to punish the evil doer, and my individual duty is to forgive that same evil doer.

In Isaiah 16 God commands us not to gloat over our enemies. It also commands us to actively shelter our enemies from the outpouring of God’s wrath. Think of it this way:

“Moab has harmed you and attacked you. Moab has taken advantage of you when you were smitten. Now, I will smite Moab and punish them severely. But when they come among you to escape the destroyer I send among them, you must shelter and protect them. You must not do as they have done, but must behave as my people should.”

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God does good or God is good?

A friend recently asked me if God was the absolute authority on morality and how I could support it. I wrote this for him. it is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject, but I thought I’d  share it in its initial form.

Two questions:

Is God the authority on morality?

How does one support that?

This is actually a very ancient dilemma. Plato asked it in Euthyphro when he asked “Is it good because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is good.” We ask it today as, “Is it good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?”

This is actually a much more important distinction than we imagine, and even many Christians get it wrong. If I asked you, “Dan, why would God do that?” (God commanding is an action of God, so for the rest of the article I will speak of actions done or performed by God) You would likely say, “Because it is good.” I believe you would be exactly 180 degrees wrong! God does not choose to do A or not do A because one or the other is good (meaning has the quality of being good). God does or does not do A, and which ever he chooses is good, because he is God. So, “Why would God do that? Because he is God and chose to do it. Since he did it, it is good.”

This is actually demonstrable in symbolic logic:

Let x be an action, Px mean “x is performed by God” and Gx mean “x is good”. This: Ɐx(Gx→Px) [my apologies if the sign for universality does not appear in your browser] would say, “For any action, if the action is good then God performs it.” This would make God’s choice dependent upon a separate moral code that transcends God. If there is such a code, then who wrote the code? One would expect a code giver, himself superior to God. It would also mean “If the code says A is good, then God who by nature will always do good, would necessarily do A. He would be without actual choice, because the code that determines it to be good would dictate that he do it, or be less than perfect good.”

In the symbols above Ɐx(Gx→Px) God performing (P) the action is a consequent of the action being good (G). But God does not act consequent to anything other than his own sovereign choice. In other words he acts because he chooses, and not because someone else, or even any code, has dictated his action.

The only way to preserve the sovereignty of God, his own necessity and superiority and transcendence is to reverse the formula: Ɐx(Px→Gx). This makes it say “For any action, if God chooses to perform the action, the action is good.” This makes the goodness, the morality of an action consequent of God’s doing it. This means if God does it, it is good no matter how another may view it. If God had chosen to wipe man off the earth, even before the fall (“Hi Adam! Welcome to earth, now you’re dead!”) it would have been a good act, because God did it. In the same way, when we face a moral question of do or do not, the command or example of God is sufficient to determine the answer.

To say otherwise makes God the slave of a greater moral code, which implies a greater moral code giver.

Some may say, “But God created that moral code, and then chooses to limit himself by it.” This is just the same thing I have said, “It is good because God has chosen it.” The moral code in question would exist and be followed because God created it and then chooses to follow it. Isn’t it just easier to not imply some unjustified degree of realism to this code and simply understand morality as being the actions of God and, for us, this means our moral action is those that correspond to what God would have done in that situation and setting, or what God commanded in special revelation.

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Moral Confidence

Galatians 2:20 ESV, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

 

In the world of Christian ethics there is a tendency to imagine the lines between right and wrong being drawn much more precisely than is the actual case. As Christians, we view the scriptures as our “rule for faith and practice.” We seek within the pages of holy writ guidance for right and wrong, so that we can live a life pleasing to God, the author of scripture. This search for moral direction within scripture is admirable. It is also wise. However, we have to agree that not every choice in life is spelled out within scripture. When facing such choices we have to look in a different direction. Fortunately, God has given us tools to use to find the right course of action.

Before getting into the details about making such decisions, let me remind you of another problem. Many people wrongly assume that every possible choice can be decided by looking for a command in scripture. “I am considering action A. If I look hard enough there should be a scripture telling me to do A or to not do A. Then I simply obey the words of scripture, and morality is easy.” However, Christian morality, like all moral reasoning, is far more complex than that. This error comes from two false assumptions:

  1. All actions can be classified as morally forbidden or morally binding.
  2. Scripture provides exhaustive moral guidance—covering all possible moral questions.

The second is easy to address. Scripture’s moral instructions were never meant to be exhaustive. A human life is made up of innumerable choices, from the moment one is capable of moral choice to the moment one is no longer capable to make such choices, one must decide moment by moment what action to take. Some choices will require little thought—for example, we make some choices simply because of our culture or from long practice, as a sort of ethical muscle memory. However, even a moral choice without thought is still a moral choice, just a habitual one.

In case you think all of life’s possible choices can be found in the pages of scripture remember the one life which scripture records in far more detail than any other—that of Christ Jesus. John tells us that not all the books in the world could hold all the things that Jesus did (John 21:25). If this is true of simply recording the deeds done in a three year period of a single life, imagine how many books it would take to lay out “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not” commands for every possible choice faced in every possible human life in every possible time.

This erroneous thinking is actually tied to the first false assumption above. We imagine the world as “black and white” in all moral questions. In doing this we classify everything as either right or wrong. So long as we understand right or wrong to mean “acceptable or unacceptable” this is fine. Acceptability is morally vague. If an action is acceptable, then it is something I may choose, but if I do not choose it then no harm, no foul. This is because acceptable is not obligatory—it is…um…acceptable. However, a problem arises when we try to give the impetus of moral force to every choice by classifying everything as either morally obligatory or morally forbidden. If we imagine that every possible action is either morally forbidden by God (Thou shalt not…) or morally demanded by God (Thou shalt…) then life is lived far more harshly than scripture ever intended. We can easily find ourselves in situations where one must choose between two equally immoral actions. This usually happens because we have applied scriptural morality in a way that was never intended.

When morally right and wrong are understood to mean moral obligation to act or to act not, we see the two extremes of black and white separated by a great gulf of grey. By this, don’t imagine that I mean vague or relative morality. What I mean is, along with the morally obligatory and the morally forbidden, there is also a category of morally neutral actions. These are actions that God neither demands nor forbids we perform. In these actions, we are free to choose either way without moral violation. In these cases I may go right or left without any moral results.

If I am sitting here on a morning and want to spend the day at the local amusement park for some entertainment, are there any moral imperatives to consider? Well, if it is a workday, and to go I would have to call and lie to my boss, then going to the amusement park would be immoral. Let’s imagine that I have volunteered with a local agency and promised to take some children to the amusement park, but decide that I would rather not go and break my promise by calling and pretending to be sick. In this case, not going would be immoral. But are these the only possible scenarios? Of course not. If it is my day off and I have no other obligations, the decision to go to the amusement park is morally neutral—I am neither obligated to go, nor forbidden to do so.

Many Christians put little thought to the morally neutral. Some of the more legalistic among us imagine there is no such thing as morally neutral. They often do this by misapplying James 4:17. The problem comes from reading it in the King James Version, which says, “Therefore, to him who knoweth to do good, but doeth it not, for him it is sin.” It is too often assumed this means that if I see possible action A, and I can tell that it would have some good result—perhaps it would help someone, or would improve someone’s life—then I am obliged to perform it. This would change any action with a possible good result into a moral imperative. However, this is not what the passage is saying. It is a bit more obvious in modern translations, such as the ESV which reads: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” The issue in James 4:17 is showing that moral imperatives can be positive or negative. They can command us to act, just as bindingly as they tell us to refrain. It is too easy to say, “I have not done x, y or z, so I have behaved morally.” But morality can also bind us to an action so failing to do something morally binding is just as immoral as doing something forbidden. However, this does not make everything binding. It merely addresses those things that are truly binding.

Part of the problem with applying everything as morally obligatory or morally forbidden is that it destroys the concept of an action being praiseworthy or of an action going beyond one’s moral duty (supererogatory actions). Actions beyond one’s duty and therefore praiseworthy are actions where the person was morally free not to act, but chose to act anyways. They were not obliged to go either way, but they took action. Was Jesus morally bound to die on the cross? If so, then he deserved the death. He was morally free to choose to escape that death. His death is praiseworthy because he was not morally obligated to die, but chose to do so. You can see even greater danger to the “all actions are always morally obligatory or morally forbidden,” when you apply this back to this example of Jesus’ death. If this is true (one is always morally obligated either to act or not act, with no morally neutral) then since we have already determined that Jesus was not morally obligated to die, then he must have been morally obligated to live. If so, then receiving the death that we all agree he had the power to prevent would mean Jesus acted immorally by dying for us. If all choices are either black or white with no grey, meaning all actions are either morally forbidden or morally obligatory with no morally neutral, then either Jesus died because he deserved it as a sinner, or he sinned by dying. It should be obvious that such a dichotomous look at all moral considerations is indefensible. We must recognize the morally neutral in order to have any sensible morality.

One reason many want to deny the idea of moral neutrality of certain actions or choices is because it is in this area that most moral difficulty arises. If I accept that scripture does not lay out exactly how I must act in each and every choice of life, then I am forced to expend great effort in making my own choices. This effort is actually a sign of maturity. Years ago, when working as a substitute teacher in a small rural school on a Native Reservation, I was often assigned to work with the middle school because they were the most difficult. I would always tell the class, “If you act like an adult, I will treat you like an adult; act like a child, I will treat you like a child.” One day a student raised his hand and asked, “Mr. Cluck, what’s the difference?” I responded that “A child does what is right because doing otherwise brings punishment, but an adult does what is right simply because it is right.” The mature must learn how to know right from wrong and learn to act in the right way by internalizing these so that there is no more need for direction (this is the essence of the morality of the New Covenant, Heb 5:12-14 and Heb 8:11). The mature does not act out of a fear of punishment but out of a developed desire to do right.

Most effort to find a direct command in scripture to morally require either action or abstinence are inspired by a lack of confidence. We may believe the other person incapable of making a right choice, so we look for guidance for them. We may believe ourselves unable to convince them, so we look for a written command to force them. These may be what we admit to inspiring us, but there is one thing we will seldom admit though deep down it is the most likely cause of this effort. We simply do not trust the Holy Spirit to guide them. We do not trust the Holy Spirit to change them. We want to play the part of the Holy Spirit by finding a way to make our own moral pronouncements binding. When we do this to ourselves, we may simply not trust the Lord’s resolve to save us. We may fear that God is just waiting for some reason, some excuse to scratch our name out of the book of Life.

Don’t misunderstand me. If scripture says “Do it” then you do it. If scripture says “Do it not” then do not do it. If there is no command, look for a principle to guide you. However, if there is no scripture to command and no principle to guide then choose wisely, and confidently. Of course, someone may always come to you later and show you a principle or passage you missed. When this happens, accept the correction, repent of the action, ask forgiveness and move on. Christian morality was meant to improve us, not to condemn us—“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Romans 8:1).

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Another Standard

The ethical standards of God’s people are mostly universal—right is right, wrong is wrong. Situations cannot change these. So, if an action is declared to be sin in scripture, then it is sin regardless of situation. Of course, there are times when situation can impact the moral status of an action. For example, it might define or refine an otherwise acceptable action by showing it to be morally forbidden because it is inappropriate for a specific situation. Killing is one example. The same God who said “Thou shalt not kill,” gave orders for his people to wage war, and to execute capital punishment. This shows the commandment forbade unjust killing—murder. This is an example of how refining terms and defining conditions can make something, otherwise forbidden, permissible. This is because in the situation, the command doesn’t apply.

The same thing can happen when conditions forbid something otherwise permitted. One example in scripture is alcohol. Scripture not only permits wine but actually encourages drinking it. However, in the right situation (in the presence of a weak brother whom our freedom could harm) we are morally obligated to abstain. This is because we have a higher standard—care for brethren—than the freedom we otherwise would enjoy. We give up the freedom to favor our brothers.

I was reminded of this while meditating on my own duties as a pastor. One of my duties includes prayer for my church and people. My people take care of my financial needs to free me to care for their spiritual needs. There are two primary needs I am to meet: prayer and preaching the Word. It is important that I do these—spending the appropriate time doing each. This actually got me thinking about certain actions which make these hard.

Just like all people I have things I enjoy and things that I do not enjoy. I face temptations to refrain from good and to do evil. I must live my life as an example of proper Christian morals. If an action is morally forbidden, then I must teach it as such. If an action is morally obligatory then I must teach that as well. Since I must teach it, and must also avoid hypocrisy, I must live out those moral standards. This is actually easier than many might realize. I have always been a “rules” guy and have little problem following the plain teaching of scripture. The problem is those areas that are morally neutral. Following the plain demands of scripture requires simple obedience but these neutral areas require wisdom.

These morally neutral situations can include anything. They can be relationships, entertainments, or anything else that scripture does not specifically forbid or command. As you go through life you will also find these to be quite a large part of life—scripture can only lay out so many scenarios with direct commands on how to deal with them. These can then be expanded by applying underlying principles to other related situations. However, the average human life can never be fully directed from beginning to end with direct commands: “In this situation, you must do that; in that situation, you must do this.” Most of life will fall into the morally neutral—a decision that is neither commanded nor forbidden.

While each course of action has its own benefits and problems, its own pros and cons, there is one standard that I have found helps when dealing with the morally neutral—with those questions of action not spelled out with an obvious biblical command or principle.

Let me start by saying, if scripture says “Thou shalt not,” then THOU SHALT NOT! If scripture says, “Thou shalt,” then THOU SHALT! Pretty simple. Beyond this, if a principle can be reasonably deduced from these direct commands applying them appropriately in other ways, then follow where reasonable exegesis of scripture leads. If you discern a principle that applies to A, then apply it to A. If it reasonably applies to B, then feel free to apply it to B.

But handling those situations for which there is no direct command or reasonable principle to give guidance can be difficult. One standard that will help is the condition within you which such actions produce. One such example I use is in my own life as a pastor. If I find a course of action for which I do not have direct guidance or a rational principle to follow, I watch to see the effect it has on my spiritual life—especially my discipline in areas of my pastoral responsibility.

Even if the action is morally neutral, with nothing to tell me whether I should or should not do it, I will refrain if doing it makes me feel unworthy of praying or preaching. Does the course of action keep you off your knees and out of the Word? If so, then even if it is otherwise morally neutral, you morally should avoid it. Avoid it for your own sake. Avoid it to not only please the Lord, but to keep yourself ready to serve him effectively.

This means anything, even if it is otherwise permissible, which gets in the way of my prayer life or my study of scripture must be avoided, resisted and abstained from. While I have freedom to exercise them, the results are not beneficial, so they must be rejected. This is why Paul was able to say, “All things are permissible, but not all things are profitable.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)

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Handling Silence

This morning a friend posted a meme on Facebook that got my attention. Now, before I continue, understand that I consider this brother a friend and respect his views and opinions greatly. So nothing I say here should be taken as a rebuke of the brother. Everything here is meant to address the meme itself and the underlying view. Whether my friend actually holds this view or not is unknown to me. Even if he does, that doesn’t matter because I intend to show some problems with the view and not with those who hold it. One thing we need to learn as Christians is to separate the person from the views they espouse. I actually sent him this for review before posting.

The Meme is posted here:

bible doesnt say

It shows the sons of Aaron—Nadab and Abihu—offering incense. It is of course based on the story of these two who were punished for offering ‘strange fire’ upon the altar.

If you look at the meme you see Abihu asking Nadab if he is sure this act is acceptable, to which Nadab responds “Yeah bro! The Bible doesn’t say we can’t.” The reason this meme inspired such thought in me is that it commits a serious error. I’ll list those here, but must first lay out the underlying concept this meme is meant to ridicule.

There is a train of thought which says, “If the Bible doesn’t say it is forbidden, then it is permissible.” It is a way of interpreting the Scriptures that would take all moral considerations and ask: “Does the Bible make a positive command concerning it?”

It’s common to look at the decision making process this way:

I am considering action A.

Does the Bible command me to take action A?

If not then I am not required to take action A.

Does the Bible forbid action A?

If not then I am free to perform action A.

However, it is based on a mistaken idea. It assumes the Bible contains instructions (positive to prescribe or negative to proscribe) for all possible moral considerations. There is a way to handle this question, which is acceptable (I’ll address it in a moment), but the problem is when people do, as the meme implies, and make anything not negatively proscribed into positive permission. They assume that because the Bible doesn’t forbid something they should therefore consider it proper and moral, as if Scripture was giving them direct permission through its silence.

Now, before going further, allow me to point out that the meme itself, even ignoring the underlying assumptions, is actually fallacious. It is pulling this story out of context and applying it in a way the Scriptures never intended. Actually, Nadab and Abihu knew their action was abominable. The meme insinuates that they had no command against doing this so they assumed it was acceptable. However, even the passage which records this (Leviticus 10:1f) says their actions were “contrary to his command (NIV)” or were actions “which he had not commanded them (LEB).” Leviticus 9 tells of them helping their father perform the proper sacrifice, so they knew what was proper. They were not acting in the absence of a direct command. They were acting in opposition to a direct command: Scripture said how to sacrifice and make offerings and forbade doing them any other way. If the Bible says “Do this and this alone” any person deciding “I’ll do that instead” is disobedient. Because of this, the meme’s subject matter doesn’t even apply to the argument about whether all actions not negatively forbidden are permissible—it’s a misapplication.

Getting back to the issue this meme poorly addressed, I spoke earlier of those who say “Anything not forbidden in the Bible is acceptable.” I would argue both sides of this question. First off there is the question of whether silence in Scripture should be taken as permission, but one must also consider the implications of silence in Scripture.

To take silence in Scripture as permission is fallacious: “God did not address it, so he must approve of it.” Actually God not addressing it in Scriptures just means it was not an issue he chose to address—for whatever reason. It may still be unacceptable, but God, in his sovereignty, chose not to speak to the issue. Perhaps it wasn’t an issue in the age when Scripture was being revealed. Perhaps it wasn’t a major consideration among the people to whom he was speaking. We must use our divinely given wisdom and the prompting of the Holy Spirit to know whether we should take an action or not take it when Scripture is silent. But never make the mistake of assuming Biblical silence equates to Biblical sanction.

But now, there is another dimension to this discussion—the implications of scriptural silence. What about those addressing an issue upon which Scripture is silent, who decide that even in the face of silence action A is not permissible (not something God would want them to do)? This is fine. This is an act of conscience. The problem comes when that person takes this decision and tries to make it a command for all to follow: “I believe this is forbidden even though Scripture is silent on it. Therefore, I insist it is forbidden to all Christians.” There is a problem with this—and not just a small one. Such Christians need to rethink their view of Scripture. Most protestant Christians would say, “Scripture is our only rule for faith and practice.” If so, then if you cannot find a command on it in scripture, or at least a concept that reasonably allows an inference of a command, you cannot declare it binding upon all. It remains a matter of personal conviction—it may still be unacceptable, but it is up to the Holy Spirit to guide the heart of the other person to that conclusion (which you are of course free to encourage through teaching and counsel). Some examples of this are eating certain foods, drinking alcohol or smoking. There are many areas of our lives which fall under this category.

We must be careful not to take silence of Scripture as permission. We equally must be careful about making Scripture say what the author of Scripture never chose to say. Both practices abuse the Scripture and do not show proper respect for the revelation of God to man.

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Dishonest Scales

Proverbs 20:23 NIV says, “The LORD detests differing weights, and dishonest scales do not please him.”

These weights and scales were used in business transactions, a certain weight of silver for a basket of grain, say. If one party of the transaction had rigged his scales or weights to give a false measurement, he could cheat the other party. Compare it to the stereotype of a dishonest butcher weighing meat with his thumb on the scale. We who follow Christ must have a standard of honesty that pleases him. Our culture often winks at minor dishonesty in business dealings, or in getting an insurance settlement, or in reporting income for tax purposes. Some think it’s okay to cheat a business, the government, or a person who is wealthy because “they can afford it.” Nowhere in scripture is there an allowance to take what is not yours, even if from one who has much more. These are akin to using the dishonest scales which Proverbs says God detests. Christians are to be blameless, as businessmen, taxpayers and consumers.

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