By / Jun 22

In her brilliant book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, Zena Hitz writes that true education involves “a reaching out past the surface, a questioning of appearances, a longing for more than is evident.” Her contention contrasts with modern conceptions of education that see the goal as absorbing correct opinions and dictating to students the predetermined correct interpretation.

Thomas S. Kidd’s new biography of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh, models the kind of intellectual exploration Hitz celebrates. There is perhaps no more controversial figure from American history than Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president and the author of America’s most cherished document, the Declaration of Independence. Kidd succeeds in revealing the complexity of this enigmatic man by, on the one hand, refusing to bypass his moral deficiencies, while, on the other hand, elucidating his intellectual genius and unmatched contributions to America’s political formation. As a result, Kidd’s biography takes readers, perhaps more successfully than any previous attempt, into the inner life of the “sage of Monticello.”

Just like Disney and the COVID-19 pandemic, the telling of history has been unable to evade the forces of politicization. On one side, we are told that figures like Jefferson are anathema and that their contributions should be deleted from the pages of history books because of their obvious moral failures. On the other side, such figures are placed on pedestals and celebrated as heroes with their mistakes fully whitewashed. Kidd wisely avoids both extremes in his biography, which serves as a “narrative of Jefferson’s moral universe more than a traditional biography” (3).

Through Kidd’s close examination of Jefferson’s inner life and corresponding actions, a picture emerges of a man with many contradictions. How could the same man write one of the most compelling arguments for universal human freedom in history while holding slaves in bondage for the entirety of his life? How could the same man champion frugality as a republican virtue, yet pursue luxury to the degree that his entire adult life was lived under a dark cloud of suffocating debt? How could one so skeptical of dogmatic religious assertions call himself a Christian and remain a lifelong reader of the Bible?

The central dilemma in Jefferson’s moral universe

Of course, perhaps the greatest enigma—and one that Kidd treats in depth—involves Jefferson’s sexual relationship with his slave (and half-sister of his deceased wife), Sally Hemings. Kidd’s discussion of Hemings occurs in several places throughout the book, and he calls the affair “arguably the central dilemma in Jefferson’s moral universe” (89). Hemings was inherited by Jefferson upon the death of his father-in-law and was herself the progeny of a sexual affair between master and slave.

Jefferson’s affair with Hemings began in France after Sally served as travel companion for Jefferson’s young daughter Polly in 1787. By this time, Jefferson had been a bachelor for nearly five years after the tragic death of his wife from complications following childbirth. Jefferson apparently promised her he would not remarry. While Jefferson would never speak openly about the affair, it became the source of public speculation and scorn during Jefferson’s many political battles. 

Kidd deftly examines Jefferson’s letters from Paris around the time of the affair to find clues but ultimately concludes that we have no direct evidence concerning the precise nature of their relationship. Jefferson envisioned himself in the style of the biblical patriarchs, ruling over his estate and slaves at Monticello, and followed that lifestyle even in his sexual habits. Sally Hemings would bear six of Jefferson’s children. Her son would later write that she was hesitant to return from Paris to the life of a slave in America but relented when Jefferson promised certain privileges and vowed to free her children when they reached the age of 21.

Sally herself was not mentioned in Jefferson’s will, even though he did emancipate two of her children presumably in keeping with his promise to her. Jefferson likely left her name out of his will to avoid political scandal. Nevertheless, she was informally freed at Jefferson’s death and formally emancipated five years later by Jefferson’s daughter.

Despite expressing early opposition to slavery, Jefferson never expended political capital to end the wicked institution and maintained negative views of Black people as a race throughout his life. In old age, Jefferson wrote against emancipation on the grounds that free Blacks’ “amalgamation with other colour produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent” (195). As Kidd points out, it’s hard to imagine how any man could reconcile such sentiments with his own contradictory actions. But again, we see in Jefferson a man of many enigmatic contradictions. 

Jefferson and the question of religion

What are we to make of Jefferson’s own religious faith? Kidd concludes that Jefferson was a Unitarian. He denied the Trinity, cut out most of the miraculous stories for his infamous cut-and-paste Bible, and despised esoteric conversations on matters of theological doctrine. But he maintained a lifelong belief in a Creator God who providentially ruled the universe and held the teachings of Jesus in high esteem. 

Jefferson’s writings are filled with references to God’s guiding providence, and Jefferson even appealed to God in prayer. He based the Declaration of Independence on the Christian doctrine of creation and adorned the walls of Monticello with French paintings of biblical scenes. He sent his daughter Patsy to Catholic school in France while they were living there during his diplomatic mission and preferred the spiritual temperament of America to the apathetic luxury of Europe. But these words and actions must not lead to Jefferson’s christening; to him, Jesus was a man—the most excellent one—but just a man all the same. 

Further, Jefferson was reared in a context informed by the Bible, and Jefferson himself knew the Bible better than many Christians today. Kidd masterfully recognizes scriptural allusions in Jefferson’s writings and points out how Jefferson and the other founders envisioned themselves repeating biblical and classical scenes from history on the new American stage (29).

But Jefferson’s most intense religious passions were reserved for his political convictions. Kidd deftly points out many instances of Jefferson applying biblical imagery to political happenings. The Age of Revolutions was, for Jefferson, a new creation. His Federalist political opponents were deemed “heretics” because of their longings for monarchical ways. The victory of republican liberty in America was a sure sign of God’s providential hand guiding history toward its climactic end. In Jefferson, we see already the seeds of that tendency to conflate America’s political actions positively with God’s actions in the world. 

In conclusion, Kidd’s biography leaves no stone unturned in examining the inner life of America’s third president. Jefferson’s legacy has loomed large since America’s inception, and Kidd’s deep dive into Jefferson’s moral and religious universe will aid readers who want to understand this brilliant man of confusing contradictions. 

By / Sep 21

In last few weeks, there have been a number of developments concerning the availability of pornography on social media. OnlyFans, a social media service that caters to those in the sex industry and profits off the promotion of pornographic material, initially announced that it would bar sexually explicit videos beginning in October. This caused a massive conversation about the morality of pornography in the digital public square. Bloomberg reported that the service has attracted over 130 million users and experienced rapid growth during the COVID-19 pandemic, similar to the boom that Pornhub saw during the initial lockdowns in 2020. News of this move was received by many as a blow to the pornography industry — including to those who earn a living off on the platform selling access to their pornographic material.

OnlyFans originally stated that this decision was due to a strategic shift in focus to a broader platform for various artists and creators, as well as pressures from investors and payment processors who saw financing or facilitating pornography as a potential liability and deleterious to their own public image. However, OnlyFans cancelled their plans to ban sexually explicit content just a week later because of the massive public outcry, especially on social media. The company announced on Twitter that it “stands for inclusion and we will continue to provide a home for all creators.” 

This entire episode brought to light an ongoing debate in digital governance and public policy over the ubiquity of pornography online and how society should go about navigating questions of vice, free speech, and public morality.

Recognizing the moral component

Reflecting on the OnlyFans decision to reverse their proposed ban on sexually explicit material, Felix Salmon at Axios writes that many technology companies are beginning to act like a fourth branch of government given their immense power and control over our public discourse. He argues that many of these content policies end up going much further than the law actually requires in terms of the availability and distribution of pornography online. The argument goes that if the government doesn’t ban it, neither should these companies.

He highlights how these bans on explicit content, such as porn, are often driven by moralistic underpinnings based on the fact that pornography is legal, yet is “shunned by most of the business establishment.” He goes on to contend that these decisions — often based on the fact that payment processors and banks tend to shy away from financing pornography websites, especially due to the illegality of some material and the rise of sex trafficking — are contributing to a lack of U.S. alternatives to the current mainstream pornography sites, which are often based in other countries including the London-based OnlyFans. 

He also mentions some of the controversial moves by eBay and Tumblr. Each company implemented strict policies against pornography. These policies seem to fly in the face of the celebrated progress of the sexual revolution toward the mainstreaming of expressive individualism, LGBTQ+ rights, and the ridding of what are seen as outdated views of marriage and sexuality from our public conscience.

The inescapability of legislating morality

While there is much more to be said about these types of decisions, including the wisdom of banning pornography and objectionable content online, there is irony in how those in our secular age think about issues of governing and morality. Some will celebrate the technology industry making moral judgments in certain arenas, including the celebration of LGBTQ inclusion or the ever-expanding definition of hate speech that tends to describe historic Christian teaching on sexuality as unacceptable for public debate. Yet, these same groups will chastise the industry for making other policies on moral grounds, including decisions to limit or ban pornography on social media platforms. Concerning the latter, they argue that these technology companies — and the business industry itself — need to shed these outdated and moralistic attitudes since we shouldn’t be legislating or designing content policies on moral grounds. 

It is increasingly common in our society to think that we shouldn’t legislate morality, but this misses out on the fact that all laws and even digital governance policies are making inherently moral statements about what is to be promoted or celebrated in our society. They each put forth a version of the good life, which is a central facet of ethics and morality. While pornography is currently legal in the eyes of the state and an extremely lucrative business, companies that disallow pornography may be acknowledging, without even knowing it, how dehumanizing this industry is for all involved and how it tears down society. Either by giving into the public pressures to keep this material off their platforms or recognizing the ways in which being associated with this material will reflect on their brands, decisions to preclude this material from their platforms are ultimately serving a higher good in our society. 

In the digital age where technology companies hold such immense power over our public discourse, each of their content moderation policies are casting a vision for the good for our society, and it is incumbent on all of us to be involved in these debates. These companies have every right to ban or suppress pornography on their platforms, which, should be noted, is not an easy decision in light of the financial incentives and public pressure. But our society is better off because decisions like these protect the vulnerable and innocent among us and uphold public virtue and the centrality of the family.

The OnlyFans situation and continued debate over moralistic attitudes in our public discourse is yet another reminder of the moral incongruence of expressive individualism and how much of our modern public ethic based in the pursuit of vice is simply untenable. When you build public morality off of carnal desire rather than transcendent principles, you will be left with a system that is not only unable to stand under its own weight but also one that will not produce the type of virtue desired for society. While there may be legitimate debate within the Christian community over the wisdom of government bans, private companies choosing to exclude pornographic content from their platforms is a clear win for public morality and the common good.

Learn more about ERLC’s work in the digital public square and sign up to receive articles like this at ERLC.com/digital

By / Jan 26

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on what Christians should know about ethical theories. The first article and future articles can be found here.

In this series, we’re looking at several of the most common ethical systems within normative ethics (such as deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics), considering their strengths and weaknesses, and comparing them to a baseline standard, which we’ll call “biblical ethics.” The first article explained what biblical ethics is and how we know an action is moral. In this article we’ll examine moral decision-making, including how we know which biblical rules or principles apply to a given situation and what we do when moral acts conflict.

How do we know which rules or principles apply to a given situation?

As pertains to moral decision-making, the Bible should be understood as a revelation of God’s commands, principles, and virtues. God’s moral instruction comes to us in the form of commands and principles and is also revealed in Christian virtues and examples (particularly in the example of Jesus). We should therefore prioritize commands because they help us to most clearly understand God’s standards for our conduct. They also help us determine how principles and virtues are to be applied.

Within Scripture we find two basic categories of commands: broad (or general) commands and narrow (or specific) commands. Broad/general commands typically apply to many situations, such as the command to love our neighbor, and always apply in some way to all cultures and all contexts.

Narrow or specific commands relate to a particular circumstance, often in a culture that differs from our own. An example is Deuteronomy 22:8, which says, “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.” An application in our day might be to build a fence around your backyard pool so that a neighbor’s child doesn’t fall in and drown.

Narrow commands might not always apply to all cultures and all contexts. In some cases (as with the example above) there might be a parallel application. Narrow commands are similar to “case law” (i.e., law as established by the outcome of former cases) in that they give us paradigmatic examples for situations we might encounter.

In determining how a command applies we must consider the reason for the command. If the reason for the command is a theological principle that is always true, then the rule will almost always apply today. As a general rule, if the Old Testament gives a moral command it is still in effect unless later canceled, either explicitly or implicitly, in the New Testament.

Sometimes it is rather obvious how a command in Scripture can be applied. But oftentimes, to determine whether an action or circumstance is similar to an action judged to be wrong in Scripture, we must use analogical reasoning. In his essay “The Place of Scripture in Christian Ethics,” James Gustafson states the commonly accepted method of scriptural analogy:

Those actions of persons and groups are to be judged morally wrong which are similar to actions that are judged to be wrong or against God’s will under similar circumstances in Scripture, or are discordant with actions judged to be right or in accord with God’s will in Scripture.

An example of how to use analogical reasoning would be to consider the question of whether abortion is immoral. Our first step would be to ask, “What ethical rules or principles apply in this situation?” For this question, the answer is rather straightforward since the Bible has a clear command that prohibits the taking of innocent life.

The command was given by God to Moses as one of the Ten Commandments on two separate occasions (Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17). In the New Testament, we also find the commandment reconfirmed by Jesus (Matthew 5:21), and reiterated by his apostle, Paul (Romans 13:9). As pastor-theologian Kevin DeYoung notes, the sixth commandment prohibits much more than just cold-blooded, premeditated murder. It prohibits killing or causing to be killed, by direct action or inaction, any legally innocent human.

An elective abortion (as opposed to a spontaneous abortion, or miscarriage) is the killing of an innocent human being. Based on scientific knowledge of human development, we know a human embryo/fetus is an actual human being and that human life begins at fertilization/conception. Several passages in the Bible also strongly suggest that human life begins at conception (cf. Job 31:13-15; Psalms 51:5; 139:13-16; Matthew 1:20). Because elective abortion unjustly takes the life of a defenseless human being, abortion is prohibited by God under the sixth commandment.

What do we do when moral acts conflict?

There may be times when we may find that two or more moral commands or principles appear to be in conflict. An oft-used example is the “Nazi at the door” problem:

Imagine that you are living in World War II Germany and are hiding a family of Jews in your basement. A Nazi SS soldier comes to your door and asks if there are any Jews in your home. On the one hand, you know it is morally wrong to lie. On the other hand, you also know it would be morally wrong to answer in a way that would get the family killed. What should you do?

There are three ways to resolve this issue. The first is to determine whether there is an actual moral conflict. The second is to conclude that true ethical conflicts cannot exist. The third is to determine the hierarchy of commands.

Many Christians—including me—would say that in this particular situation there is no moral conflict because there is no lie being told. A lie is an intentional falsehood that violates someone’s right to know the truth. I’m convinced there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth. The Nazi at the door has forfeited his right to know the truth about whether you have Jews in your home because he has a nefarious intent. It would be similar to the Hebrew midwives who deceived Pharaoh when he wanted to kill all newborn male babies (Exodus 1:17–21).

If there was an actual moral conflict (because you believe failing to acknowledge the Jews hidden in your home would be lying to the Nazi), then we have to apply the second or third approaches. The second approach is called “non-conflicting absolutism.” It denies that a true ethical conflict can even exist and claims that any perceived conflict is a result of human misinterpretation. Under this view, if we have a perfect view of ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ any illusion of conflict is dispelled. The problem, of course, is that we have no perfect view and so it is not clear how we would know what decision to make under this perspective. This is why the non-conflicting absolutism is rarely held by Christian ethicists.

The third approach is called “hierarchicalism” (or graded absolutism). This view holds that moral conflict can exist and that when ethical laws are in conflict a “right” choice is available through a hierarchy of principles found in Scripture. Under hierarchicalism, if one duty clearly has priority, we must choose that duty. Even if we believed that we would be lying to the Nazi and that it would be morally wrong, the duty to protect the lives of the Jewish family would take priority. According to hierarchicalism, as long as we follow the higher moral law, we are not held responsible for failing to keep the lower-level command.  Also, under hierarchicalism, if both duties appear to have equal priority, we are free to obey either duty (though we need to be certain they are indeed of equal priority).

Hierarchicalism has solid biblical support, as even Jesus prioritized some rules and commands when they appear to come into conflict (see, for example, Matthew 12:9-13). It’s important to remember that hierarchicalism is about selecting the better of two goods, not choosing the “lesser of two evils.” We are not called to choose any evil—even a lesser one. We are not called to choose an evil that good may come.

What is the process for moral decision-making?

We can put all of this together to devise a seven-step process for making moral decisions:

  • Pray for divine guidance — Ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate the process and to help you act in a way that glorifies God.
  • Clarify the ethical issues or problems — Make sure you understand the relevant factors (e.g., context, facts) that help clarify or define the ethical issue or problem.
  • Gather the scriptural data on the issue — Determine what commands, principle(s), and examples are most relevant to the issue.
  • Determine how to apply the biblical instruction — Once the applicable rules are understood, decide how they should be applied.
  • Determine the hierarchy — If necessary, determine the hierarchy of commands that would need to be applied.
  • Consult the community of the faithful — There are few situations you will face in this life that are entirely novel. Consult with mature believers and those with expertise on the issue (such as Christian ethicists) about what you should do.
  • Formulate a Christian ethical position — With prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit and the community of faithful believers, make a determination about what moral position is most glorifying to God. 

This may initially seem like a labor-intensive process, and too burdensome for use in real life. But once we develop a solid grasp of God’s commands and the relevant fact patterns, the process often becomes rather straight-forward.

In the next article in this series, we’ll wrap up our focus on biblical ethics by considering the role of conscience. The remaining articles in this series will then compare and contrast other ethical systems—deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics—to the biblical standard.

By / Jan 19

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series on what Christians should know about ethical theories. This and future articles can be found here.

“We have two kinds of morality side by side,” said the philosopher Bertrand Russell, “one which we preach but do not practice, and the other which we practice but seldom preach.” Russell was an atheist, but his aphorism is all too applicable to many Christians. Too often we preach a type of moral theory that not only differs radically from that which we practice, but with which we would not want to be associated. For example, we would rightfully reject—at least in what we “preach”—that “the end justifies the means.” But in practice we do tend to justify the unjustifiable if it leads to an outcome that we desired. To bring our preaching more in line with our practice, we need to develop a clearer idea of ethical systems and how they are connected to the Christian faith.

Ethics is the study and application of moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or conduct. The sub-branch that focuses on what action a person should take is normative ethics. In this series, we’ll look at several of the most common ethical systems within normative ethics (such as deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics), consider their strengths and weaknesses, and compare them to a baseline standard, which we’ll call “biblical ethics.” By developing a clearer understanding of ethical systems, we can better understand how to apply them in our own lives—or whether they should be rejected entirely.

What is Christian ethics?

This application of ethics in our everyday lives primarily involves the process of moral decision-making, a process which requires us to primarily answer two questions: “What should we do?” and “What should we be?” For a Christian, the answer to those questions should ultimately be: “What God has commanded me to do—to obey him” and “What Jesus wants me to be—to be more like him.”

In John 14:15, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” That’s not a suggestion—Jesus framed it as an imperative. Those who love Jesus will keep his commandments. The corollary is that those who do not keep his commandments do not truly love Jesus. Loving Jesus is the minimal standard for identifying as a Christian. If you do not truly love Jesus—if you do not even attempt to keep his commandments—you should not call yourself a Christian.

The central paradigm for Christian ethics is thus union with and conformity to Jesus, primarily through the Spirit-driven process of obeying all that Jesus has commanded of us. As the Christian ethicist John Murray said, “If ethics is concerned with manner of life and behavior, biblical ethics is concerned with the manner of life and behavior which the Bible requires and which the faith of the Bible produces.”

Because Christian ethics should be rooted in Scripture, all Christian ethics should be biblical ethics. But because that is not always the case, we’ll use the term biblical ethics to refer to a specific form of biblically based Christians ethics.

What exactly is biblical ethics?

Biblical ethics, as defined by Murray, is the study and application of the morals prescribed in God’s Word that pertain to the kind of conduct, character, and goals required of one who professes to be in a redemptive relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Biblical ethics is bibliocentric (Scripture-centered), theocentric (God-centered), and Christocentric (Jesus-centered). As David W. Jones explains in An Introduction to Biblical Ethics, this means our approach to biblical ethics should:

  • Not only describe what the Bible says but treat what it says as authoritative, inerrant, relevant, and necessary;
  • Not only accept biblical teaching as a good way of doing things but as applying eternal, divine, moral laws to everyday life; and
  • Not only embrace a theistic worldview but affirms the uniqueness of Christ as the way, the truth, and the life—not only for Christians but for everyone everywhere.

There are at least five distinctives of biblical ethics, says Jones, that make it different than other ethical systems:

  • Biblical ethics is built on an objective, theistic worldview. In other words, biblical ethics assumes the presence of a fixed moral order in the world that proceeds from God. Therefore, advocates of biblical ethics affirm the existence of universal, moral absolutes.
  • Biblical ethics is not a means of earning favor with God but rather is the natural result of righteousness already imputed by God.
  • Biblical ethics seeks to recognize and to participate in God’s moral order already present within the created order and in special revelation.
    Biblical ethics affirms that immorality stems from human depravity, and not primarily from man’s ignorance of ethics or from socioeconomic conditions.
  • Biblical ethics is the process of assigning moral praise or blame, and incorporates conduct (that is, the what), character (the who), and goals (the why) of individuals involved in moral events.

All three of these last three elements—conduct, character, and goals—are interrelated and can be visualized in this moral events triangle, says Jones.

The first corner of the moral events triangle corresponds to conduct, that is, the “practice” of moral events. Moral conduct is based on an ethical rule or principle and focuses on external acts and behavior. Conduct is typically an orientation of person-to-person.

The second corner of the triangle stands for character, that is, the “person” of moral events, and focuses on motives and internal disposition. Character deals with the things inside each person—that is, a person’s self-relations. Character is an orientation of person-to-self.

The third corner of the triangle represents goals or the “purpose” of moral events, which is oriented toward a purpose and focuses on design or intended end. In biblical ethics goals deal with relations between man and God. Goals are an orientation of person-to-God.

Our character and our conduct are ultimately oriented toward the end goal of biblical ethics—the glorification of God. In John 14:21 Jesus taught his disciples, “The one who has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.” And in Matthew 5:16, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed his listeners, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Therefore, a primary way Christians love and glorify God is to keep his commands and perform the good works that flow from godly character and actions.

How do we know when an action is moral?

In determining whether an action is moral, we first start at the top of the moral events triangle with conduct, the “practice” of moral events. When faced with a moral scenario, the first question that should be asked is, “What ethical rules or principles apply in this particular situation?” We must know and understand the rules/principles as well as the relevant facts and context about the situation, what we’ll call the “fact pattern.”

Once the applicable moral norms are identified we then move to the next point on the triangle, which concerns character—the “person” of moral events. In the process of making a moral decision, believers ought to consider their motives and ask the question, “Am I acting out of love for God and love for neighbor?”

Finally, we get to the last step in the process of moral decision making. As we noted earlier, the end goal of biblical ethics is the glorification of God, so we need to answer the question, “What path, choice, or answer would bring the most glory to God?”

A primary way Christians love and glorify God is to keep his commands and perform the good works that flow from godly character and actions.

The right path is to keep the moral law out of a love for God and neighbor with the intent of bringing glory to God. We also need to make sure we have the proper order and connection between love of God and love of neighbor: Love of God comes first, and love of God leads to love of neighbor.

In the next article in this series, we’ll look at moral decision-making, including how we know which rules or principles apply to a given situation, what we do when moral acts conflict, and the role of conscience.

For further reading

By / Aug 19

Aristotle said that friendship is “an absolute necessity in life.” And from a Christian perspective, I think that is on target. “No one would choose to live without friends,” the philosopher wrote, “even if he had all the other goods.” Indeed, if we think back to the opening pages of Scripture, we see this same idea in the life of Adam. After God completed the rest of his work of creation, he placed Adam in the garden of Eden to “work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). In the midst of a perfect creation, there was one problem: Adam was alone.

Adam at that time had every kind of good. He lived in a perfect world. He experienced none of the pain or hardships of life. There was no sickness nor affliction nor strife. And above all of that, he had a relationship with the Living God, who walked with Adam in the garden in the cool of the day (3:8). But even though Adam had a seemingly perfect existence, being at peace with God and the creation that surrounded him, his life was incomplete. And recognizing this, God made for Adam “a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18).

Friendship is indispensable

Friendship is something common to humanity because it accords with our nature. God created us as relational beings. As we live our lives, we crave relationships. That is one of the reasons the lockdowns of this season have been so devastating. People are not able to experience the benefits of in-person relationships at nearly the same volume or frequency that they are accustomed to. And, like Adam, we are not meant to live alone. Few of us are able to thrive in extended periods of isolation. 

Think about the indispensable role that friends play in our lives. We find happiness in the company of friends as we share time and experiences together. We find comfort in our friends as we experience hardships and trials in our lives. And we find ourselves turning to our friends to celebrate the joys of life. True friends are companions that stick with us through the best and worst times of our lives, which is why Proverbs speaks of the friend “who sticks closer than a brother” (18:24). Friendship is something we are not supposed to live without.

Friendship is valuable

Our friends serve us in many ways. And one of the most important ways they do so is by helping us see things more clearly. Recently, I posted on social media about the value of having friends across the ideological spectrum. My point was that having friends who disagree with us about important issues can keep us from arguing against caricatures or straw men because we can put the face of a friend with the position we are speaking against. Honestly, I was surprised by how deeply that message seemed to resonate with a lot of people. 

None of us are prepared to withstand all of life’s challenges, at least not on our own. But the good news is that for Christians, we not only have the Holy Spirit within us, but the church around us as we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).

I was thinking about this aspect of friendship because a friend from work recently pointed me toward their.tube, which is a website I had never heard of. But if you visit the site, you’ll discover that it models how different types of people experience YouTube. Like almost every form of social media, YouTube is driven by an algorithm. It shows you more of what you want to see and screens out things you don’t like so that you will spend more time on the platform. 

It only takes a few minutes on their.tube to size up the impact of these algorithms. To keep you on the platform, they create a giant echo chamber. From the moment you log on, YouTube (or Twitter or Facebook) creates a feedback loop that is designed to show you things you want to see—not necessarily things that make you happy, but whatever keeps you engaged. I suppose that is fine if we are talking about videos of kittens or comedians. But social media is actually where many people turn to gather information about much more important matters, like politics and culture and even religion. 

Those are critical areas of our lives to hand over to an algorithm. And that is why it’s helpful to remind ourselves that what we see on social media doesn’t always correspond to real life. More than that, it’s one of the reasons we need relationships in the real world. Meaningful friendships serve as a kind of moral anchor; they can help us keep our bearings whether we are encountering echo chambers, ethical dilemmas, or other kinds of challenging circumstances.

Friendship and faith

Our craving for relationships not only accords with our nature, but it also aligns with God’s plan of redemption. Through Jesus, God reconciles us to himself. But he also brings us into a new family, the church. As we read through the New Testament, what we see is that the church is supposed to be a loving community made of people who serve and sacrifice for one another (John 13:34; Gal. 5:13; Eph. 5:21). In fact, it is a community that was, as Jesus taught us, created by friendship: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And in the church, we not only find brothers and sisters with whom we will spend eternity, but friends to walk alongside us as we follow after him.

None of this means that friendship is always easy. Sometimes we experience periods of loneliness. Sometimes our relationships are filled with discord (even Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest followers). But when we encounter such things, we should remember that friendship, like every good gift, comes from above. Pray. Ask the Lord to bless your pursuit of  deep friendships or to bring reconciliation and peace when your relationships become contentious. He is faithful. He cares for you. And he will provide all that you need.

Jesus’ earthly ministry took place in the context of friendship. He chose a group of 12 men and loved, taught, and served them. He modeled the kind of commitment and patience and grace that friendship requires. And in his example, he showed us how friendship is a critical part of the Christian life. None of us are prepared to withstand all of life’s challenges, at least not on our own. But the good news is that for Christians, we not only have the Holy Spirit within us, but the church around us as we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).

By / Mar 7

Editor’s Note: This blog is an excerpt from Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You're Irrelevant and Extreme

For a couple centuries of American public life, a soft reliance on the state to endorse Christian values seemed to work just fine. Since most people assumed America was a “Christian nation,” it made sense that federal and state laws tacitly affirmed a biblical worldview and actively promoted Christian morals. From gambling and alcohol prohibition to tax exemptions and modesty laws, nominal Christianity benevolently reigned over the public square. Everyone stayed buttoned up, and, for the most part, we appeared to be a virtuous people, a moral people.

But in the twentieth century, more and more people began to see Christian morality as standing in the way of a new moral code: the morality of self-fulfillment. Throwing off burdensome traditional mores, people began to imagine life without a bothersome God standing watch. John Lennon captured the zeitgeist in his perennial hit: “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try . . .”

New research, as shown in the table below, highlights the extent to which Americans pledge allegiance to the new moral code, which can be summed up in six guiding principles.

The New Moral Code

Please indicate whether you agree or disagree with each of the following statements.

Source: Barna OmniPoll, August 2015, N = 1,000

As you can see, the morality of self-fulfillment has even crept into American Christianity. Large percentages of practicing Christians embrace the principles of the new moral code. Too many Christians have substituted comfortable living for a life changed by the gospel. The government’s tacit endorsement of vaguely Christian morals has made it difficult, in many ways, to discern what it means to be faithful, beyond showing up.

In recent years, the morality of self-fulfillment has begun to bear its inevitable fruit: people want to fulfill themselves by doing things outside the bounds of cultural Christianity. And they don’t want the law telling them they can’t.

As a result of this shift, we are seeing laws that endorse the broader culture’s replacement of Christian morality with the moral code of self-fulfillment. And according to that moral code, any competing morality—say, a religion—that seeks to constrain someone’s pursuit of personal fulfillment must itself be constrained.

If something or someone stands in the way of my fulfillment, that obstacle must be removed.

In contrast to the dominant culture’s embrace of self-fulfillment as the highest moral good, good faith Christians believe living under God’s moral order leads to human and societal flourishing. As Scripture says, physical training is of some benefit, but “training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).

Yet the extent to which the morality of self-fulfillment has taken hold of the hearts and minds of practicing Christians exposes an area of dangerous weakness in today’s church. This grafting of cultural dogma onto Christian theology must stop. In order for us to flourish as God’s people, his moral order must be allowed to rule our lives.

What are the principles of God’s moral order? Contrasting the new moral code are six statements about the way life ought to be, with Jesus at the center.

  1. To find yourself, discover the truth outside yourself, in Jesus.
  2. Loving others does not always mean staying silent.
  3. Joy is found not in pursuing our own desires but in giving of ourselves to bless others.
  4. The highest goal of life is giving glory to God.
  5. God gives people the freedom to believe whatever they want, but those beliefs always affect society.
  6. God designed boundaries for sex and sexuality in order for humans to flourish.

We’ve purposely expressed these six principles as a response to the six principles of the new moral code. Christians express something truly countercultural when we insist that real morality is rooted in something outside ourselves. Even if it feels uncomfortable at first, we have an obligation, in good faith, to speak as a counterculture to the spirit of the age. Beyond using our voices, we need to do the hard work of being countercultural in our own lives and churches. Only when we are consistent will our lives stir outsiders to rethink their own moral compass.

Living counter to the new morality is an uphill battle. Some days it feels like keeping the wind from blowing. Nearly everything about the broader culture is expertly marketed to appeal to our comfort, well-being, safety, and satisfaction. A delicious meal. Your dream holiday. The perfect house. Great sex. What will fulfill you? For ages, humans have bent toward self-indulgence. In our advertising age, there are countless ways of making people crave.

But then there is the way of Jesus. The Westminster Catechism’s first question asks, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer, as generations of Protestant confirmands could tell you, is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” There are profound moral implications here. If the highest goal of life is God’s glory rather than our own enjoyment, then our outward behaviors and inward character will have a drastically different shape.

When we feel the cultural winds blowing against us, let’s be reminded how long the moral ideas of the Christian faith have rolled on—no matter their competition in each successive age. Rest assured, good faith is on the right side of history.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, Christians can confront the culture with a better way to live—the way of renewal, not of self-fulfillment.