In the last few weeks an elder in the CRCNA heard it said more than once, "If you advocate for that position then you are condemning those people to a life of loneliness. That would be cruel and unloving." Just how should one respond to this statement?
You, might reply, "that depends a whole lot on the context in which it is said." "Is it about euthanasia, imprisonment in solitary confinement, homosexual marriage, isolation due to a disease, shunning someone, or simply telling your children that they should prefer one Grandmother's cookies over another?"
Actually it could be any of those. In order to try to respond, perhaps it might be wise to stand back slightly from the immediate emotional appeal of its contents and ask what might be the assumptions and commitments that lie behind it.
Why assumptions matter:
Whether we like it or not all people base their decisions on a group of assumptions or as some call them presuppositions. That is to say they are the foundation on which these decisions are built.
An example might be if we assume that the person who is unregenerated by the Spirit of God can and will accept spiritual things, then we might construct a whole evangelism strategy around that. If however, we assume the validity of the Biblical view that the unspiritual person cannot and will not accept spiritual things (I Cor 2:14) then we would structure our evangelism strategy accordingly.
Similarly, if we base our theologizing on the assumption that only the love of God is the basis of our decisions, then our ideas and actions will flow out of that. Alternatively if we base our theologizing on the assumption that the holiness, justice, righteousness, wrath and love of God is the basis for our decisions, then our ideas and actions will flow out of that.
Just for clarity, this short piece will assume the timelessness of the moral law of the righteous Biblical judge, it will assume that this law is non-negotiable. It will assume that an elder in a church can exercise kind and loving authority as they wield the Word of God. It will assume that there is an actual Biblical Christian worldview held by those that are savingly in Christ and that there is a human-centred worldview that is held by those who are not savingly in Christ, and which can influence Christians. It will also assume that God made all people to be social or relational creatures reflecting His image as a Trinity that lives in relationship. Finally, it will assume that due to the effects of sin, humans are not overly well equipped to decide on what is ultimately "cruel or unloving" and that God is a much better judge of these.
Some assumptions that perhaps are being made:
Recall the statement: "If you advocate for that position then you are condemning those people to a life of loneliness. That would be cruel and unloving." In exactly which context this statement is applied is not the most important issue at hand. The thinking behind the statement is more critical, yet we will have to assume that the statement is not one just about personal tastes, but about the logical consequence of kindly yet authoritatively applying the law of God.
1. The statement likely assumes that the person who advocates for a “historic Christian position” or the “orthodox position” position is the final judge. However this may not be true at all. The person who is advocating for this position may be reflecting a higher authority such as the timeless Word of God and is appealing to that, rather than to their opinion. For instance if an elder tells an unmarried young couple who are living together that this is against God's law, then the appeal is to God's law and not to whether or not the elder is intrinsically a nice or evil person.
2. The statement likely assumes that the standards for what is "cruel and unloving" are in the hands of the person who is making the objection. That is to say, they have defined the standards and somehow can do so with a measure of omniscience. In effect they could also be saying—although no one really likes to admit it—that their standards are higher than God's standards, even if He, with all knowledge, righteousness, holiness and love for humans has ruled that something is out of bounds.
3. Perhaps the statement assumes that a way of life that could lead to loneliness is the ultimate "sin" against another human being. That is to say, it calls into question the integrity of the person upholding a certain position—and in this case on Biblical grounds—as one who is doing the condemning. Again this is to confuse the application of a just law and the person who is recommending its application. In a similar way the judge who sends the drunk driver to jail is not an evil judge for taking away the freedom of the guilty, but is applying a law used to protect the innocent.
4. If the statement assumes that the greatest sin is a horizontal infraction between humans, then the person making the objection might be forgetting that the issue in this case might be one of defying the non-negotiable moral laws of a Holy God. It also forgets that as Hebrews 10:31 says, "It is a fearful [dreadful] thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
5. The statement might assume that there is only one cure for loneliness. There is no doubt that humans are created for relationship and are social beings; however, many singles, widows, married people, and even prisoners in solitary confinement have ways and means to find solutions for loneliness. As well, ultimately there is no human on the face of this earth that can fill the deepest needs of another, which is a role that only "God with us" can fill and do so also through his gathered people, the church.
6. The statement could assume, contrary to Scripture, that God's laws are burdensome (c.f. I John 5:1-5), and by implication that He might be the great spoilsport in the sky. It may also assume that a human can put the Scripture on trial.
7. The statement might assume that life on this earth is what constitutes all or the majority of life. That is to say, any deprivation on this earth is seen as a woeful calamity. In reality this may be a very temporary—in the light of eternity—cross to carry, which incidentally is the assigned duty of all who call themselves followers of Christ. As well the eternally fully consummated intimate relationship of the Triune God with his people helps to keep this "momentary afflictions"—painful as they may be, in perspective.
8. Finally there is a likelihood that the statement assumes that a decision to be made for ethical behavior needs to be based on the pastoral situation at hand, rather than advocating for a response to a pastoral situation at hand based on timeless ethical and moral standards. That is to say the statement could be assuming the correctness of a certain moral and ethical relativism.
In each of the possibilities above, we were careful to say that there was a probability of a person holding an assumption. This would need to be carefully determined from the person themselves. Yet their answers about their assumptions would reveal whether or not one is thinking in terms of a Biblical Christian worldview or whether one might be slipping into some categories of a humanistic worldview and trying to fuse Christian and humanistic thinking into a syncretistic mix. Humanism says that humans are the measure of all things, and thus an appeal by the elder to the righteous standards of a holy God would be offensive. Christian thinking starts with God. We recall that the Apostle Paul said, "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons " (1 Corinthians 10:21). At first flush, statements which might have a huge emotional appeal might actually mask something else.
Perhaps this reminds us of a question that was posed by one Christian to another after the East African revivals in which God revealed deep rooted sin and where it was brought to the light. They would ask each other, "Brother, sister, are you walking in the light?" Maybe that example would ask all of us as well, "In which light are you walking?"
Questions for reflection:
1. Is it possible that an emotional appeal to "our better judgement" is actually an appeal to put ourselves over and above the completely just, righteous, holy and loving Judge of all the earth? What does that make us as created beings to be?
2. Is it possible that the most "cruel and unloving" advice that the elder could give would be to trade something that could be had in this temporal life for the potential loss of it for eternity? [This question assumes that a person believes in eternal loss or punishment]. What would be your basis for deciding who is following a historic Christian position here?
3. Eternity is very long. Every teacher will account to God for their actions. If someone's advice would lead a person to experiencing an eternity of loneliness apart from God, how would they square this with the Bible's teaching on a more severe judgement for teachers (James 3:1)?
4. What if we turn the objector's phrase on its head? Perhaps this person is suggesting that the elder was advocating for a position what was clearly in defiance against the entire thrust of the Scriptures. What this person is doing is to tell this elder that the logical consequence of the elder's thinking would be to condemn the person to an eternal life of loneliness apart from God and that this would be most cruel and unloving?