How the gospel can overcome sex trafficking

February 18, 2014

At the ERLC Leadership Summit, Tony Merida will be speaking on “Traffic Stop: How the Gospel can Overcome Sex Trafficking.” Merida is the founding pastor of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, N.C. He also serves as an associate professor of preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

If you're interested in attending the Summit, go here.

Why is the issue of human trafficking important for evangelical churches to consider?

It’s an important question culturally because it’s so widespread. Every person should be concerned about his or her abused neighbors. 

But it’s also an important question theologically. When thinking about sex trafficking, we need to answer questions like these: (1) Who is God? (2) What is a person? (3) How powerful is the gospel?

If we believe that God is a God of justice, then we should desire to reflect his character by seeking justice on behalf of the oppressed. If we believe that people are actually created in the image of God, then we must conclude that they are worthy of respect, dignity and basic human rights. We should value all people because we value their maker.

In addition to basic human rights, I also believe that it’s not right for someone not to hear the gospel, and in many cases, those trapped in slavery may never be exposed to the Good News, which promises them new life, and a kingdom where lions and lambs play together. Jesus is the life-changer – he can change the hearts of not only those enslaved, but even the hearts of wicked enslavers. By his grace, God causes the dead come to life; the enslaved to go free; the unrighteous to become righteous; and the broken to dance with joy. That’s the ultimate hope that we have to offer the world, but we may never have that privilege if we don’t first engage on the physical, economical, judicial, and societal front.

We can’t live with our heads in the sand on this issue; we need to be alert, wise, compassionate, and gospel-driven in order to love our enslaved neighbor, and to reflect the nature of our merciful and just God.

When you think about human trafficking, what is a key aspect that churches aren’t addressing adequately? Why is that the case?

I can’t speak for every church, but my instinct is that we aren’t doing much of anything. Of course, they’re exceptional churches, but my hunch is that many churches aren’t addressing the issue theologically, consistently and strategically. 

Why the neglect? Well, some think that doing justice ministry is a distraction to the real mission, that it’s a “slippery slope to liberalism,” that it’s a fad or that it’s something that’s simply optional. I reject all of these.

Others aren’t engaging the battle because of fear (justice work requires courage), despair (“the problem is so great, what’s the point?”), apathy or ignorance (they’ve never been taught about the issue and the Christian response).

One of the areas I’m most passionate about – and an area I think the church should explore more – is aftercare. Many victims who are rescued from trafficking need loving, restorative care. They need everything from basic skill training to a basic understanding of the gospel. They need to see what a healthy family looks like, and what a healthy church looks like. We who have been welcomed into the kingdom by Jesus, should be quick to welcome those who need healing.

Of course, this is not the only thing we can do (we should also be speaking truth to power, praying, relieving poverty and trying to fix broken structures that increases vulnerability), but this is one area that comes to mind immediately. Gospel-centered aftercare is a huge need.

This conference seeks to apply the gospel to issues related to human sexuality. What are some ways the gospel relates to human trafficking?

In Luke 7, there is a beautiful scene of a woman who is simply called “A sinful woman.” Most commentators think she was a prostitute. We don’t know her name, and we don’t know why she got involved in such a life. But what we do know is that she worshiped Jesus far better than the religious Pharisees. Why? Because she had been changed by Jesus. She who spent her whole life practicing a perverted form of hospitality (prostitution), was now, in purity, washing the feet of Jesus with her hair; she who spent her whole life giving unholy kisses, couldn’t stop kissing his feet; she who spent her whole life being abused by men, was being valued by the greatest of all men. Her dignity was restored. Her sins were forgiven. And consequently “she loved much” (7:47). Jesus says, “Do you see this woman?” We should see her, and we should act. Let’s free battered and broken people from the jaws of evil men, and introduce them to the Savior, who alone can say, “Your sins are forgiven…. Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:48, 50).

If evangelical churches transformed the way they handled the subject of trafficking, how would it reshape their congregations?

It would make us more like Jesus. We should be measuring spiritual maturity by how much we look like Jesus, not by how many books/blogs we’ve read, how many retweets we got this week, or by how many sermons we podcasted this week. When you read the New Testament, you can’t help but to catch the spirit of Jesus’ concern for the poor and the marginalized. We should long to look like him. And if we would care for these individuals, we would not only look more like Jesus, we would also find amazing personal blessing, we would realize that word and deed ministry go together powerfully, and we would provide an attractive witness to a watching world.

Register for the Leadership Summit here.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24