‘The foundations of Christian ethics must be evangelical foundations; or, to put it more simply, Christian ethics must arise from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Otherwise it could not be Christian ethics.’ (Oliver O’Donovan)
There are a lot of discussions online at the moment among conservative evangelicals about class, gender, and race, because of both the needs of our society and different problems within the church. This post is simply a plea for us to remember what O’Donovan has taught us in this first sentence of Resurrection and Moral Order: we must work hard at thinking theologically about ethical issues at every stage from within our faith in Jesus, rather than just buying into worldly patterns of thought.
We Christians have committed sins in regard to class, gender, and race that are the sins of the world around us. Elitism among Christians is often just a baptized form of worldly elitism, chauvinism of worldly chauvinism, and racism of worldly racism. Sometimes we manage to add to the world’s wrong thinking a warped theological justification of our own, but we are capable of just repeating the sins of the world within the church without even bothering to add a theological veneer.
So too our critique of these sins is often indistinguishable from the critique offered by non-Christian activists or liberal Christians, sometimes literally so as we retweet their messages. A Christian’s critique of elitism can all too easily parrot statist socialism, a Christian’s critique of chauvinism can parrot anti-marriage feminism, and a Christian’s critique of racism can parrot the adversarial problematization of all whiteness.
Just as the sin was wrong because it was worldly, so too the solution that simply repeats secular responses can never be the answer. Indeed it cannot even be the question: the world cannot tell us what is most deeply wrong with elitism, chauvinism, or racism. In the end its critique will implode because of its incoherence, resulting in more rather than less division (witness the attempts to silence debate on campuses with angry shouting or the division of feminism against itself over the status of biological men who identify as women).
By contrast, the Holy Spirit can tell us what is wrong with these sins from a position of stable truth, for example through James: ‘Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?But you have dishonoured the poor man.’ (James 2:5-6). The preferential treatment of the rich is wrong because God has chosen the poor, an explanation of the sinfulness of sin that the world would never come up with; indeed, it would not even acknowledge the scriptural category of sin.
In the heated atmosphere of live debates we need to be very careful to listen to ourselves, to see if we sound like the world in either our sinful attitudes or our critique of them. Our concern must be to think theologically in submission to God’s revelation. If we do not do that, then no one will, and there will be no truly viable message of peace and justice because the ambassadors of the Prince of Peace will have become mere echoes of the world rather than prophetic preachers to it.