The Ethics of Personhood

The Ethics of Personhood

Human history is tragically full of examples of the persecution and oppression that arise when those in power create their own definitions of human personhood and rights so as to exclude and misuse certain groups of people. However, Scripture is clear that all human beings have dignity, personhood, and rights given to them by God. The biblical understanding of personhood provides the essential foundation for ethical decisions about how to treat other people.


The Biblical View of Personhood

The Bible begins with God, the sovereign, good creator of all things: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). God’s creative handiwork, everything from light to land to living creatures, is called “good.” But humanity, being the very image of God, is the crown of God’s good creation—“behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). As the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings reveal God more wonderfully than any other creature—as they were created to be like God, by God, for God, and to be with God (Gen. 1:26–27; 2:15).

In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make man in our image.” In the very beginning, our Creator gave us a remarkable title: he called us the image of God. This reveals the inherent dignity of all human beings, because the expression “image of God” designates human beings as representatives of the supreme King of the universe. As the image of God, humans, both male and female, are given special dignity and dominion and are commissioned to care for God’s good creation (Gen. 1:28–30).


Consequences of the Biblical View of Personhood

As God’s image-bearers, human beings are imbued with dignity and worth beyond that of animals. Speaking to Noah after the flood, God emphasizes that human life is to be highly valued, and that violence against any human being is to be rigorously punished (Gen. 9:5–6).

In Genesis 1 and 2, we see that God’s plan for humanity was for the earth to be filled with his image-bearers, who were to glorify him through worship and obedience. This beautiful state of being, enjoying the cosmic bliss of God’s intended blessing and his wise rule, is called shalom. As Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., writes, “In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”

Shalom means fullness of peace. It is the vision of a society without violence or fear: “I will give peace (shalom) in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid” (Lev. 26:6). Shalom is a profound and comprehensive sort of well-being—abundant welfare—with its connotations of peace, justice, and the common good. Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that shalom means harmonious and responsible relationships with God, other human beings, and nature. In short, biblical writers use the word shalom to describe the world of universal peace, safety, justice, order, and wholeness God intended, in which all human beings enjoy freedom, security, and peace.


Unbiblical views of personhood

Genesis 3 records the terrible day when humanity fell into sin and shalom was violated. Adam and Eve violated their relationship with God by rebelling against his command. This was a moment of cosmic treason. Instead of trusting in God’s wise and good word, they trusted in the crafty and deceitful words of the Serpent. In response, the Creator placed a curse on our parents that cast the whole human race into futility and death. The royal image of God fell into the severe ignobility we all experience.

This tragic fall plunged humanity into a relational abyss. Paul Tripp writes, “What seemed once unthinkably wrong and out of character for the world that God had made now became a daily experience … For the first time, the harmony between people was broken.” God’s image-bearers were created to worship and obey him and to reflect his glory to his good creation. After the fall, humanity was enslaved to idolatry (hatred for God) and violence (hatred for each other). Sin inverts love for God, which in turn becomes idolatry, and inverts love for neighbor, which becomes exploitation of others.

As Ashley Null points out, “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” The fallen human heart finds ways to justify its hatred of other people and its desire to exploit them. The result is the multitude of unbiblical views of personhood found throughout human history which dehumanize and exclude people who are made in the image of God. Greg Bahnsen examines several major non-Christian views of the nature of humanity, such as the rationalistic dualism of Plato, the materialist economic determinism of Marx, the psychic determinism of Freud, and the environmental conditioning determinism of B.F. Skinner. Myriad other unbiblical ideologies of personhood have existed, such as tribalism, Social Darwinism, racism, Nazism, and views of superior personhood based on religion, wealth, gender, age, intellect, heredity, and so on.

Arguably, all unbiblical views of personhood can be divided into two sorts: (1) views that are reductionistic, that is, they reduce people to merely material beings, not made in the image of God; and (2), views that are gnostic, that is, they downplay the material aspect of people, so that suffering is seen as no more than an illusion. Both paths open the way to dehumanization, violence, and exploitation.


Consequences of unbiblical views of personhood

Without the biblical understanding of human personhood and dignity as image-bearers of God, society is free to degenerate into violence, oppression, and exploitation of the weak by the strong. The Old Testament clearly depicts the cruelty and violence that results from the Fall: cannibalism (2 Kings 6:28–29), violence against children (Ps. 137:9), women (Amos 1:13), and the unborn (2 Kings 15:16), rape (Judges 19:22–30), massacres (1 Sam. 22:18–19), and enslavement (Amos 4:2).

Throughout human history, we see again and again how unbiblical views of personhood are used to exploit and oppress people. The strong eat the weak, and there is injustice against disliked and lesser-valued groups, from the unborn to the elderly. There is abortion, infanticide, child abuse, and child labor. There is slavery, gender violence, sexual assault, sex trafficking, labor trafficking, racism, genocide, and ethnic warfare. There is class warfare, disenfranchisement, age discrimination, oppression of the poor, and discrimination against the disliked, the disabled, the uneducated, the weak, and the powerless. That which should be held sacred is commodified, bought, and sold. The examples of injustice and exploitation that occurs when human personhood is redefined are innumerable and heart-breaking.


The Biblical call to justice and mercy

Though it does not hesitate to depict the harsh reality of violence and oppression, the Bible clearly calls us to fight for justice and mercy for all people as God intended.

The prophet Zechariah portrays a God-given role for God’s people as a nation that practices justice & mercy in their society: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech. 7:9–10). When Israel fails and continues to rebel against God’s law, God threatens judgment, but then pours out grace and restores them. Zechariah envisions God’s grace leading to true repentance and a people who fervently pursue justice and mercy for all people. The result is that the nations of unbelievers will come asking about the Lord (Zech. 8:20–23). God’s people thankful, worshiping God, and working for justice and mercy will be a light to the nations (Isa. 49:6), a hope which culminates in the coming of the Messiah.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and declared that these words of Isaiah were fulfilled in him: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:17).

In making this declaration and in his ministry, Jesus showed that bringing freedom for captives and relief to the poor and oppressed is at the very center of his divine mission. His ultimate act of liberation was his substitutionary death and victorious resurrection, which set his people free from slavery to sin and death. Yet his teachings and his example show us that the proclamation of the good news of Christ’s saving work should be accompanied by tangible acts of love, service, and mercy toward our neighbors if the gospel message is to be recognized in its full power.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus’ actions contradicted the dehumanizing assumptions of his culture. Jesus spent significant amounts of time with children, women, the poor, the diseased, Samaritans, and other outcast and disliked groups, valuing and loving those considered less valuable by the culture of his day. This paradoxical approach to the value-systems of the world is echoed by Paul when he writes, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:27–29).

The Christian church has, at its best, been known for exemplary love and sacrificial service to “the least of these”—the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Such service has provided a powerful apologetic for the gospel. By upholding the dignity of all human life as the image of God and tangibly expressing the biblical ethic of personhood that flows from it, the church has the opportunity to be a light to the nations and to participate in God’s mission by welcoming the weak and powerless to find grace, mercy, and rest in Jesus Christ.

It’s Reformation Day

It’s Reformation Day

Unless you live under a rock, you know that today is Halloween, a holiday celebrated around the world by millions of people each year.

Fewer people know that it’s also Reformation Day, which commemorates Martin Luther’s historic act of posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517.

The Unintentional Reformer

Luther’s theses were viewed as an act of defiance to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church of the day, as they challenged the legitimacy of church practices, like the selling of indulgences and Church teachings about the authority of the pope, the authority of Scripture, purgatory, and the forgiveness of sin. Luther, who at the time was a humble theology professor, did not intend his Ninety-Five Theses to be a call to reformation, for he did not want to cause a rift in the church. However, his ideas were controversial because they questioned the authority of the church. Helped by the newfound technology of the printing press and the cultural situation of the early 1500s, Luther’s ideas were distributed throughout Germany and the rest of Europe, sparking the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation marked a colossal shift in attitudes about spiritual authority, the nature of the church, and biblical doctrine. The century before the Reformation was marked by widespread dismay with the corruption of the leaders in the church and with false doctrines, biblical illiteracy, and superstition. Some monks, priests, bishops, and popes in the Roman Catholic Church taught unbiblical doctrines including the treasury of merit and salvation by faith plus good works.

On a deeper level, this main issue was driven by the rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of justification.

Spiritually earnest people were taught to justify themselves by charitable works, pilgrimages, and all kinds of religious performances and devotions. They were encouraged to acquire this religious “merit,” which was at the disposal of the church, by purchasing “certificates of indulgence.” This left them wondering if they had done or paid enough to appease God’s righteous anger and escape his judgment.

Others within the Roman Catholic Church recognized the problems and had called for reform, but Luther’s gifts, the technology of the printing press, and the social situation in Germany combined to make Luther’s actions the spark that, in the popular language of the day, “set the whole world on fire.”

The Heart of the Matter

On one level, the main issue was spiritual authority: is it the Pope and church councils that define the Christian faith, or is it the Bible alone? However, on a deeper level, this question was driven by the rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of justification—salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

It was seeing people suffering under the weight of uncertainty about whether they had done enough to please God that prompted Luther’s desire to refocus the church on salvation by grace, through faith, on account of Christ, by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. To those spiritually oppressed by indulgences and not given assurance of God’s grace, Luther proclaimed free grace to God’s true saints:

God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind, and life to none but the dead. He does not give saintliness to any but sinners, nor wisdom to any but fools. In short: He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace. Therefore no arrogant saint, or just or wise man can be material for God, neither can he do the work of God, but he remains confined within his own work and makes of himself a fictitious, ostensible, false, and deceitful saint, that is, a hypocrite (Luther, WA, 1.183ff).

In place of a treasury of merit for sale, Luther declared that “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”

Further Reading

Reformation Day is worth remembering because of the massive impact the Reformation had on our theology, our history, and our faith. For more on Luther and his work, see these posts:

Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church

Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church

Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the religious and political figure who founded the Unification Church, died early Monday in South Korea at the age of 92. His funeral will be held on September 15 after two weeks of mourning.

Unification Church Introduction and History

Commonly known as the Unification Church, the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (HSA-UWC) was founded by Reverend Sun Myung Moon in South Korea in 1954. Moon was born January 5, 1920, in the small village of Kwangju Sangsa Ri in what is now North Korea. He was raised in the Presbyterian Church after his parents converted to it from Confucianism in 1930.

On Easter morning, at the age of 16, Moon claimed that Jesus visited him and asked him to complete the mission that Jesus had left unfinished on earth because of his untimely crucifixion, namely, establishing God’s kingdom on earth and bringing peace for all humanity. According to Moon, Jesus was unable to fulfill his mission of bringing salvation to the earth, and therefore a new Messiah had to come. Moon accepted this mission from Jesus and began developing his own doctrinal ideas based on Christianity and other religions.

In 1948 the Korean Presbyterian Church excommunicated Moon after deciding that his views were incompatible with orthodox Christianity. In 1954 he officially founded the Unification Church and began seeking converts, one of whom was Young Oon Kim. She became the first HSA-UWC missionary to the United States in 1959 and spent much of her time translating Moon’s major religious work, Divine Principle, into English. Missionary efforts in the United States, however, were rather unsuccessful, and the HSA-UWC had only several thousand members by the early 1970s.

According to Moon, Jesus failed in his mission to accomplish spiritual and physical salvation, he did not come to die on the cross, and his crucifixion was against the will of God.

In the mid-1970s, the HSA-UWC headquarters was moved to New York. Moon had built a multi-million-dollar empire in Korea and Japan through capitalistic efforts and gained notoriety for his support of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. The Unification Church was denied tax-exempt status in the United States in 1981 because the court said its purposes were political rather than religious. Shortly thereafter, in 1982, Moon was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 18 months in U.S. prison.

In 1992, during a time of peace for the HSA-UWC, Moon officially claimed that he was the second coming of Jesus prophesied in the Bible. Moon said about himself, “I am the foremost one in the whole world. Out of all the saints sent by God, I think I am the most successful one. I have talked with many, many Masters, including Jesus, on questions of life and the universe…They have subjected themselves to me in terms of wisdom. After winning the victory, they surrendered.”

According to a recent statement by Unification Church spokesman Ahn Ho-yeul, the Unification Church has 3 million members, 100,000 of them in the United States. Some critics and ex-members, however, think that these numbers are highly inflated.

Unification Church Beliefs and Practices

The beliefs of the Unification Church are based upon Sun Myung Moon’s writings and speeches, which the Church views as divinely inspired and authoritative. The Church says that Moon’s work Divine Principle “is the result of divine inspiration, prayer, and the study of religious scriptures and of life itself.”

Because of Moon’s background in Christianity, many of the themes of the Divine Principle are also present in the Christian faith. For example, the Divine Principle is divided into three parts: God and creation, sin and evil, and redemption.

For the Unification Church, everything in the world, including God, is based upon a dualism: good and evil, male and female, cause and result, physical and spiritual. God’s purpose for creation was for Adam and Eve to achieve the “Three Blessings,” which included becoming perfect (spiritual), having an ideal and sexually pure marriage producing sinless children (spiritual and physical), and exercising dominion over creation (physical). All of these ideals could be achieved through rightly-ordered relationships with God, humans, and nature, and these perfected relationships would result in God’s kingdom coming to earth. However, Adam and Eve failed to achieve these ideals; Satan seduced Eve sexually, which led to the spiritual fall. Because Adam and Eve were ashamed, they had sexual relations to consummate their marriage. But because they participated in these relations before achieving perfection, the physical fall resulted.

Because God is a duality of cause and result, the fall caused God to suffer deeply. Humanity is responsible for fulfilling the three-step process by which the kingdom of God is established on earth. But before the process can be completed, there must be a restoration of the foundations broken by the fall of Adam and Eve. While many of the Old Testament saints (and John the Baptist) restored the spiritual faith that Adam and Eve had lost, they could not renew the obliterated physical role of humanity in God’s purposes. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, restored the spiritual foundation lost by Adam and Eve; however, because he did not marry, he was unable to complete the three-step process and failed to bring about physical salvation. His redemption was incomplete.

Reverend Moon believed that he was the second Messiah who came to bring physical salvation to the earth, thereby completing what Christ had begun.

Reverend Moon’s view of Jesus is very different from that of Christianity. Moon denied Jesus’ virgin birth, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the deity of Jesus, writing “We must understand that John 8:58 does not signify that Jesus was God himself. Jesus, on earth, was a man no different from us except for the fact that he was without original sin.”

According to Moon, Jesus failed in his mission to accomplish spiritual and physical salvation, he did not come to die on the cross, and his crucifixion was against the will of God. Moon says that Jesus was an imperfect image of God, who with the Holy Spirit brought about spiritual but not physical salvation. When Jesus knew that he would not accomplish his mission, he began to preach about his second coming. Moon says that Jesus’ resurrection was spiritual, not bodily.

Reverend Moon believed that he was the second Messiah who came to bring physical salvation to the earth, thereby completing what Christ had begun. Such salvation could be achieved by following the example of his ideal marriage. Because of this, the Unification Church became well-known for its mass-marriages, in which Moon would bless large gatherings of couples. The followers subsequently believed that their children would be free from original sin and be capable of bringing God’s kingdom to earth.

Because Moon taught that his followers can reach a level of sinless perfection through him, they have no need of turning to Jesus. Forgiveness of sins is not necessary for salvation. In fact, Moon claimed to be greater than Jesus: “The whole world is in my hand, and I will conquer and subjugate the world….Up until now, Jesus has appeared in the spirit world to his followers. From now on, I will appear.”

Moreover, Moon acknowledged that the Unification Church is a different religion from orthodox Christianity. Moon claimed, “Our group is of higher dimension than the established churches and naturally there must come vast difference between what we are and what the Christian people are…The Christianity which God has been fostering for 6,000 years is doomed. Up to the present God has been with Christianity. But in Christianity things are stalemated. God is now throwing Christianity away and is now establishing a new religion, and this new religion is Unification Church.”

A Christian Response to the Unification Church

Clearly, the Unification Church teachings on central doctrines are heretical. Christians believe in the Trinity, affirming the divinity and mission of all three persons of the Triune God.

Christians also believe Jesus is the God-man, who is fully God and fully human, and came to die and rise again for our salvation: The Nicene creed states about Jesus:

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. 

There are a few elements of Unification Church doctrinal emphasis that can be affirmed by orthodox Christians. For instance their doctrines of sin and salvation embrace both the spiritual and the physical aspects of creation. When Adam and Even fell from grace, it was not just their relationship with God that was tarnished; rather, their sin had drastic effects on the physical creation as well, which now groans in expectation awaiting the ultimate restoration to be brought about by the consummation of Christ’s kingdom (Rom. 8:22).

Jesus himself claimed that his work on the cross was a finished one (John 19:30); his dying breath was not a sigh of defeat, but an exclamation of victory. He perfectly achieved the mission for which he was sent.

While much of the Unification Church’s teaching uses the language of Christianity, those familiar with biblical doctrine will see that Moon’s teaching sounds out of tune. First, it fails adequately to account for the redemptive significance of Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Though the Unification Church is right to assert that Jesus brought about perfect spiritual salvation through his victory over Satan and in his perfect relationship with God, they fail to recognize that Jesus’ work was a once-for-all sacrifice that achieved physical salvation alongside of spiritual salvation.

Jesus proclaimed good news for the poor and release for the captives (Luke 4:16-21); he built the new temple of God in his own resurrected body, in which believers now worship in Spirit and truth (John 4:21-26). Jesus himself claimed that his work on the cross was a finished one (John 19:30); his dying breath was not a sigh of defeat, but an exclamation of victory. He perfectly achieved the mission for which he was sent.

Second, the Unification Church’s doctrine of humanity is out of sync with the teaching of Scripture. According to their teaching, perfectly sinless children are the product of ideal and sexually pure marriages, but Scripture teaches that all humans have fallen short of God’s glory by participating in Adam’s sin and by continually sinning themselves (Rom. 3:23). Indeed, just as in Adam all have died, in Christ all will be made alive (1 Cor. 15:22). There are no perfectly righteous people; all human beings after Adam inherit his fallen human nature and are guilty of his sin—children included.

In addition, the Unification Church teaches that sinless children are the only ones who are able to help bring about the physical realm of the kingdom of God. But according to Scripture, the kingdom of God definitively dawned at the long-awaited coming of Jesus Christ. In Mark 1:15, Jesus declares that the kingdom of God is at hand. Through his signs, wonders, miracles, and healings, Jesus showed that God’s kingdom had come upon the earth. Yet, at the same time, the kingdom of God is still a coming reality—it is “already but not yet.” Jesus, who came in humility and weakness in his first coming, will return in power and glory finally to establish God’s reign. The kingdom of God is not a product of human action or achievement, but completely the result of God’s initiative and power.

The orthodox Christian faith does justice to the physical and the spiritual, the already and the not-yet, not by looking for a Messiah to come make it possible for us to finish the job, but by looking to the one true Messiah who finished what we could not finish: the one and only Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Politics, Culture, and the Church 

Politics, Culture, and the Church 

How involved should the church (as an institution) and Christians (as individuals) be in politics?

How Christians relate to politics and government is a sub-question concerning how Christians relate to broader culture at large. H. Richard Niebuhr offered a famous paradigm in his book Christ and Culture. Niebuhr believed each of the following approaches could be found in either Scripture or other early Christian writings.

1. Christ against Culture

This is the most uncompromising view toward culture that “affirms the sole authority of Christ over culture and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty” (p. 45). It says loyalty to Christ means complete disdain for culture. This view is similar to the approach of the Pharisees in the New Testament. This radical view sees government and politics as having no role in the life of the church or in the lives of believers. Rather, they stand in stark opposition. This view does well in understanding that the church is not the state and vice versa, but the potential danger of this view of government is that it can fail to see that God has placed rulers in the world as means of accomplishing his purposes (Rom. 13:1–7). However, there are times when it is important to stress the disconnect between Christ and culture: 1 John arguably contains this emphasis.

The church (as an institution) is ill-suited for shaping political processes and projects.

2. Christ of Culture

On this view, Christians “hail Jesus as the Messiah of their society, the fulfiller of its hopes and aspirations, the perfecter of its true faith, the source of its holiest spirit” (p. 83). This group sees no tension between the world and the church—between social laws and the gospel. Rather, they would see the political sphere as simply being the imminent way that God works in the world. Biblically, this extreme would be similar to the approach of the Sadducees, while also being expressed in early Gnostic writings. In contemporary discussions, this position would be akin to those who say that social change and progress is the gospel. This view does well in recognizing that the gospel has cultural implications, but fails to distinguish cultural change from the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

3. Christ above Culture

In this view, there is no battle between Christ and culture; the conflict is between a holy God and sinful humans. God is the one who orders culture, which is neither good nor bad in itself. Human sin is expressed in rebellious cultural acts, so a harmony between Christ and culture is the best way to address the problem. Applied to the political sphere, this position would see some kind of possible synthesis between the church and the state, and the two can meaningfully co-exist and cooperate. Most notably, this position would recognize that God has ordained rulers and that there is a generally available natural law on which the basic tenets of government are based. Fallenness is the problem, not politics itself. This view can be seen in some motifs in Matthew’s Gospel (for example, Jesus’ instruction to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s), and would represent the general approach of some Anglicans and Catholics.

The church (as an institution) should be concerned primarily with proclaiming the gospel of Jesus.

4. Christ and Culture in Paradox

This view is similar to the “Christ above culture” view, except that instead of culture and Christ being synthesized into a unity, this position sees them as separate entities that can be held in paradox. This position encourages both loyalty to God and participation in culture.

Applied to politics, this type of view would see no conflict with Christian participation in politics and loyal allegiance to Christ, and would lead to an acceptance of political interaction with all of its good and evil. This position does well in avoiding simplistic rejection of politics as a whole, but it can lead to mere acceptance of how things are in the political realm. Niebuhr sees such a view in the Apostle Paul’s approach, and it could also describe the approach of some Lutherans.

5. Christ the Transformer of Culture

This is a view that has a “hopeful view toward culture” (p. 191). This view recognizes that God created the world good, and that because God acts in historical events, human culture can be “a transformed human life in and to the glory of God” through the grace of God (p. 196). In practice, this view means that Christians work in culture for its betterment, because God ultimately has some hand in human creativity. While there is sin in culture, all is not lost because there is hope through Christ for the redemption of culture. Niebuhr sees this emphasis in John’s Gospel.

Represented by some of the Reformed groups, this fifth position would see Christians as responsible for transforming the fallen political realm. In a sense, this view strives to see the kingdom of God represented in all spheres of life, including politics. This view does well to understand that God has called Christians to be active transformers of culture, but it can fall prey to viewing the government as more powerful than it is. That is, it can wrongly see government as the primary way to bring about transformation in the world.

Political involvement is a task for individual Christians, who find themselves living “between two worlds.”

Miroslav Volf’s ‘Soft Difference’

Contemporary theologian Miroslav Volf offers a corrective view to the Christ and culture paradigm set out by Niebuhr in his essay “Soft Difference.” Drawing from 1 Peter, he argues that Christians can transform the world not by attacking culture or actively working to impose the values of the kingdom of God on the world, but instead by living “in faithfulness to God and to the values of God’s kingdom, inviting others to do the same.” Rather than either ignoring or seeking to coerce others, he urges a Christian way of life in which “mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation . . . [seeking] to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even ‘without a word’ [1 Pet. 3:1].” The goal of Christians should not be force unbelievers into obedience but instead to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).

Institution and Individual

The church (as an institution) should be concerned primarily with proclaiming the gospel of Jesus, making disciples, and caring for the poor and marginalized. The church is primarily concerned with the kingdom of God, which is not the kingdom of this world. The church (as an institution) is ill-suited for shaping political processes and projects, and political involvement can only distract the church from its mission. This is a task for individual Christians, who find themselves living “between two worlds”—between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world.

My Heroes Live in South Sudan

My Heroes Live in South Sudan

My heroes live in South Sudan and I want to tell you about them.

Not many people sacrifice like they do—for their neighbors, country, and enemies. Some have even given their lives for their cause.  However, most had the honor of seeing their dreams realized last weekend when the Republic of South Sudan claimed its independence. They are the chaplains of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army.


My Connection to Sudan’s Suffering

I traveled to southern Sudan each year from 2001 to 2007 and I have seen these people’s suffering first hand. Every summer I trained chaplains and I was ordained by elders of a Sudanese church.  My wife Lindsey and I also lead a non-profit, Mosaic, that initiates sustainable projects for peace and social justice in South Sudan and Uganda. We’ve been there, and seen these people’s tragic struggle.


No Greater Tragedy

Sudan has rarely known peace or stability. Civil war erupted before the nation gained independence from Britain in 1956. The south is tropical, underdeveloped, and populated by almost one hundred tribes or ethnic groups of African descent. By contrast, the north is drier, wealthier, and linked financially and culturally to the Muslim Middle East. These two groups—northern, oil-rich Arabs and southern, impoverished herdsman—have been at odds since the nineteenth century. In the words of former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, there is “no greater tragedy on the face of the earth than the tragedy that is unfolding in the Sudan.”



For over two decades, the regime in northern Sudan (the Government of Sudan) has bombed, starved, and enslaved black southern Sudanese in an effort to subject them to Islamic rule. The Government of Sudan even funded the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to terrorize the people in southern Sudan. These butchers shamelessly abduct children, force prostitution, rape, mutilate and force cannibalism. Over the past twenty-five years, more than two million southern Sudanese are dead and nearly five million southern Sudanese have been displaced by starvation and violence.

What has happened to our brothers and sister in Sudan is horrible and heartbreaking. They are still in great need from the rest of the world. But, the world is not worthy of them!



In response, southern Sudan organized a rebel movement and army—the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). The SPLA defends against attacks from their government. Chaplains serve the SPLM as Christian clergy who promote human rights and reconciliation between God and humanity, the northern government and the southern army, soldiers and civilians.

Chaplains act as agents of peace. They serve weaponless on the frontlines to minister pastorally to the southern Sudanese soldiers and to encourage the southern soldiers to engage the northern soldiers appropriately. When northern soldiers were captured, the chaplains oversaw their care and ensured that they were treated humanely. Another concern of the chaplains is the welfare of civilians, especially southern Sudanese civilians who were oppressed by the government of Sudan and terrorized by militant extremist groups that have done cruel and disgusting things to them.



What has happened to our brothers and sister in Sudan is horrible and heartbreaking. They are still in great need from the rest of the world. But, the world is not worthy of them (Heb 11:38)! I have seen the human suffering: southern soldiers injured in the war, northern POWs, bomb craters in school yards, mutilated civilians, pastors with limbs missing because they were helping others take cover as bombs exploded, recurrent droughts, orphaned children, cramped refugee camps, mass starvation, slaving raids, and epidemics of diseases.



I have also seen the courage and perseverance of the southern Sudanese people, who have been oppressed by their government, abused by the rebel army organized to defend them, and terrorized by an extremist group in northern Uganda. I have witnessed the bravery, dedication, and servant-leadership exhibited by the chaplains of the SPLA. These chaplains, many of whom were soldiers, decided to go back to the frontlines of the conflict without their weapons to minister as clergy. Some chaplains have been killed already and all the chaplains know the dangers they are facing. In the despair and darkness of the brutal realities of Sudan, there is hope.

While part of the plan was to train these men to serve their country in a time of civil war, the other part of the plan was to train them if there ever was peace. Now that South Sudan is an independent nation, hopefully peace will soon follow. There are currently over 500 pastors who will either continue to serve as chaplains or begin to plant churches in their new country. And there are more being trained as you read this. Please pray for South Sudan.


Download a PDF from Justin to read more on Southern Sudanese Chaplains


 Justin is also the Executive Director for Mosaic, a non-profit organization that initiates sustainable projects for peace and social justice in southern Sudan and Uganda

Name That Syncretism

Name That Syncretism

Want to play a game? First, let me set it up.

In 2007, an Episcopal priest (the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding)converted to Islam. But it was a different sort of conversion. She (supposedly) didn’t disavow Christianity but simply blended in her Muslim beliefs. People termed her an Episcoslamic Muslipalian.

Last month, the diocese of Northern Michigan elected Father Forrester, a professed Zen Buddhist, as their bishop. Now a Muslim-Christian makes a bit more sense since both are monotheistic traditions. But blending a theistic religion and non-theistic philosophy seems difficult. People have called him aBuddhapalian.
This isn’t just a Christian + “other religions” phenomenon. Recently, I had a conversation with someone who referred to himself as a “Jew-Bu” (a hybrid of Jewish and Buddhist).
Instead of arguing against this shmorgisborg approach to religion, let’s play a game. What’s the most creative religious pairing you can come up with? For some inspiration, you might want to visit a discussion at SoulPancake and read answers to the question “Is it possible to be a part of more than one religion? Do you have to choose?”
I’ll start. “Scientatholic” is Scientology + Catholicism. This guilt isn’t free. You have to pay thousands of dollars for it.