This is why my head is spinning.

Lately, I’ve found myself reading the blog of Rachel Held Evans,  a pretty awesome Christian author, speaker, and (obviously) blogger. After reading for a few days, it seems like many of her views are similar to mine. She’s an egalitarian, I’m an egalitarian. She seems to be okay with homosexuals, I’m okay with homosexuals. Her husband’s name is Dan, and if I ever married a dude, I would definitely marry a Dan, just to add a pleasant confusion to all conversations about either of us. She also looks a little bit like a My So Called Life-era version of Claire Danes, and I am biologically incapable of not approving of that.

Oh Angela. . . seventeen-year-old me would have been SO good to you. . .

As I’ve been perusing through her blog, I decided to clickety-click the “Popular Posts” button and get a bird’s eye view of what topics have generated the most traffic. Then I read those posts. Then I read the comments. And since RHE’s blog has some pretty strict rules about trolling – something to the tune of “Be good or you’ll be banned because we say so” – I found that the quality of said comments was much, much higher than that often found on the internet.

The topics that I read included the following:

-         The culture war surrounding the issue of homosexuality

-         Several “Ask A Question” posts, with interviews from atheists, egalitarians, homosexual Christians, and several other types of interesting, thought-provoking, or controversial types of folks

-         Whether or not the concept of an “age of accountability” is appropriate for any denomination that looks only to the Bible for its doctrine.

-         A thorough condemnation of Pastor Mark Driscoll for being Pastor Mark Driscoll, ie, a bully.

-         And other stuff.

Now like I said, I read these articles, and I read the comments on the articles. Again, the comment quality on this blog is very high. The discussion was good – sometimes heated, but never overly disrespectful, and generally very well informed and well thought-out. But I noticed something on these comment conversations (and often on the articles themselves) that I hadn’t really noticed before as a thing, even though it goes on throughout the entire body of Christ, not just one person’s blog – the question that seems to be asked the most frequently is simply, “How do we use the Bible to tell us what is right?”

Person A – “The Bible says that we should do this, so we should do it, because it is right. To do otherwise would be wrong.”

Person B – “I respectfully disagree. The Bible says we should do this, so we should do it, because it is right. To do as you suggest would be wrong. “

Sometimes the debates get more heated than that.

And then there’s me.

Daniel – “But I’ve known right from wrong my entire life, and I picked up my first Bible eight months ago. Can it really be this complicated?”

I always just used the Wheel of Morality. Should I not have done that?

I think that this may be the subject in which my experience growing up as a secularist/skeptic/pagan diverged the most dramatically from the experiences of those who grew up in the Christian culture. While I acknowledge the obvious – that Western culture has been shaped by Judeo-Christian morality for thousands of years, and even secular Westerners hold certain ideals (like the value of all human life) that did not exist in the pre-Christian Western world – I would still say that my moral life was only minimally shaped by the Bible. For example, the idea that sex outside of marriage is bad is, to my experience, only native to those who grew up within a household environment stressing Biblical morality. I, on the other hand, believed that sex should be saved for someone that I loved, and was committed to monogamy with me. . . but marriage needn’t be mandatory.

My morality acknowledged three types of acts – those that are right, those that are wrong, and those that are meh. Right actions helped people and made the world a better place. Wrong actions hurt people, and they made the world a worse place. “Meh” actions didn’t have a moral impact at all, because they neither helped nor hurt anyone.

Here are some examples of my moral compass in action!

Right Actions – Helping those in need; comforting someone who is sad; sharing your sexuality with one person you love; telling the truth; encouraging people; being good to children.

Wrong Actions – Abusing someone verbally, physically, mentally, or emotionally; over-indulging in substances like drugs or alcohol that make you more likely to hurt yourself or others; being sexually promiscuous; being greedy to the point of taking from those in need; acting out of hatred or intolerance.

“Meh” Actions – Ordering pizza; masturbation; watching television (in moderation); drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana (in moderation); shopping for clothes at the mall; engaging in homosexual sex (with one committed partner); sex before marriage (with a committed, loving partner)

Now, I am no longer a secularist/skeptic/pagan – I am a Christian. And part of being a Christian is reading the Bible. But sometimes I think the way I read the Bible is different from the way others in my community read the Bible. I see the Bible as this tremendous story about God, and about the people who love (or don’t love) God, and our attempts as a human race to redeem ourselves and become better people. There’s also this awesome story arc going through the whole thing about a people who started out whole, became broken, and will someday be whole again. It’s moving stuff. I love it.

I just don’t know for sure that I’m supposed to get all of my rules for it. I don’t doubt that God supports the basic thought process behind my moral compass – again, right actions help people and help the world, wrong actions hurt people and hurt the world, and some actions aren’t really right or wrong. In fact, I think most people I know would agree to that basic moral framework. Many Christians I know, and millions I don’t know, also add another qualifier to the process of determining the morality of a given act. They say that a right action helps people, helps the world, and does what the Bible says God wants us to do.

In fact, many believe that sometimes the Bible will tell us that something is right even when our hearts tell us it is wrong – and we should do what the Bible says, because God knows more than we do.

That’s where I get left behind.

Hopefully not literally.

Going back to the idea of virginal marriage, that’s something that I’m going to have to address in my own household very soon. My girls are both pre-teens (or “tweens” as Nickelodeon tells me I have to call them) and eventually I’m going to have to address the pressures they’ll experience from their peers regarding sex and sexuality. And my boys are growing up in a world where porn is, like, almost-literally everywhere. So I need to know what my stance on pre-marital sex is. When I ask my Christian friends for their opinion, the response has been (so far) universally on the side of virginal marriage. When I ask my secular friends, the response has been (again, universally, up to this point) that waiting until marriage to lose your virginity is a horrible idea! How do you know what you want out of your sex life? How do you know anything about your body? How do you know that you and your partner will be compatible in this, a most vital part of any relationship?

“Why,” they ask me, “would you buy a car without test-driving it first?”

On the other hand, some people have made compelling arguments in support of virginal marriage. As noted above in my examples of my moral compass in action, I generally put pre-marital sex in my “meh” category. But what if, as some people argue, you’re more likely to get sexual hang-ups from having sexual relationships before you get married? Yeah, I’ve seen that happen. What if you should put your trust in God, and not in sexual experimentation, to make sure that you and your spouse are compatible in the sack? Well, I trust in God, so yeah, I can see that! What if sex is such a special gift, such a wonderful blessing from God, that you should only share it with one person – the most special person in your life? My wife is phenomenally important to me, and I wish I could have given her that – so yeah, that argument makes sense to me, too. In fact, with all of these arguments, I might just say that virginal marriage is in the “right” category.

Would I do that, though, if the only compelling argument my friends made was, “Well, the Bible says to wait?”

I don’t think I would have, to be honest.

So here’s my question today, for anyone who wants to address it – how do you work out the tension that arises when “Biblical” morality seems incompatible with morality outside of a Biblical stance? Did any other readers besides me come from a very skeptical, secular worldview before coming to Jesus, and have to answer this question for themselves? 

About Daniel Mitchell

50% of "What the Faith?!?!", a blog about two skeptics who turned to God for no apparent reason. View all posts by Daniel Mitchell

6 responses to “This is why my head is spinning.

  • Joe

    I found that preachers or the clergy come to some conclusion about some issue then go to the bible to support their conclusion.

    A very good example of this is the life of George Whitefield. He was one of the founders of Methodism, a well-known preacher in Britain and America in the 18th century, and a widely recognized public figures in colonial America. Slavery was outlawed in Georgia in the early 18th century (morality outside of a biblical stance). However, Whitefield advocated for the re-legalization of slavery in order to make his plantation profitable. It was through his efforts that slavery was re-legalized. Apparently, he saw no incompatibility with slavery and Christianity. Thus, Whitefield’s biblical morality was quite different from the morality outside of his biblical stance. To disagree with Whitefield at that time, may very well have been considered a sin. I doubt there is a preacher alive today that would advocate or even admit that slavery is acceptable. This raises the concern whether biblical morality changed and if it has should we take with “a grain of salt” what the clergy preaches about the hot button issues of today? I’ve come to the conclusion that many of the “meh” actions get categorized by the clergy in to the “wrong” category.

    • Daniel Mitchell

      “I’ve come to the conclusion that many of the “meh” actions get categorized by the clergy in to the “wrong” category.”

      Hey Joe. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. I couldn’t disagree more with clergy putting “Meh” items into the “wrong” category. But it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve disagreed with a large population of the Christian community about something like this.

      To me, the biggest triumph of the church in the west is the subtle, sometimes-ignored moral framework that has been created. All cultures essentially use a three category system for deciding morality, but what changes is what goes into what category. Before Jesus, a Roman citizen (a man) could kill his wife or child, and it would be put in the “meh” category – after all, they were his property. It would be no different from him killing one of his slaves. But Jesus came and taught that everyone has merit, that every human life is a valuable thing, and over time that became the default position in the western world. The Bible as it exists today obviously didn’t factor into Jesus’ teachings, because it didn’t exist as we know it.

      It’s for this reason that I find the idea that what is right can seem wrong in our hearts, but still BE right, because the Bible says so. I don’t think the Holy Spirit supports that. But that’s just me.

  • Meg

    I think we put way too much emphasis on sin. It has no power, after all; that’s what we Christians believe, isn’t it? Sin doesn’t determine our heaven-or-hell status. Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish Moses’ law, but to fulfill it. Now, from what I understand this means that the laws of the land up to that point had been in place for a purpose, but that purpose was now fulfilled, thus rendering the adherence to these laws moot (like eating pork, a particularly egregious sin for God’s chosen people).
    Now, I don’t know what God thinks about each and every item we like to put into our “sin” categories; I don’t even know if it matters whether or not I know what he thinks about it—[aside]although C.S. Lewis makes a very compelling argument that if we believe God is ok with something, but he really isn’t, then we are basically believing in a different God than who he actually is, and is therefore just idol worship (my paraphrased words, not his). Then again, it seems to me that when we talk about sin and it’s application in our lives, we are not asking questions that evaluate our own relationship with God anyway. We are asking questions that evaluate others’ worthiness of God. [/aside] SO, back on track:
    My understanding of what happened on the cross is this: ALL sin, for ALL of time, past, present and future, was canceled the instant Christ rose from the dead. For example: if being gay is a sin, according to Christ it is no longer a factor in how far away from God they are forced to be (hell); however impure it may be, Jesus will still bridge the gap and connect them with God, who will gladly accept them. Hell, at least they’re not eating PORK! [rabbit-trail]Then again maybe they are… well I guess they’re hosed then.[/rabbit-trail] Therefore, we needn’t bother our pretty little heads about which sin category it falls into, because when we’re all dead we will all have golden houses and they’ll all be the same size.
    Categories are useful psychological strategies for making sense of our world, but when we get too caught up in them they lead to a great deal of hurt and damage, especially when given religious context. There is nowhere in the bible that I can find that suggests I am remotely qualified to judge another person’s worthiness (in fact it says quite the opposite), and that means that have not been given authority to give sin the power to separate anyone from God’s love, even if someone’s sin falls into the “supremely evil” sub-category of “Wrong.”
    And that’s what I think, since you asked :)

  • Daniel Mitchell

    A great book to read that supports your position is by Jay Bakker. It’s called “Fall to Grace”. Basically, Bakker’s point is that people like to preach something he calls “Grace Plus.” Basically, it’s people saying, “You’re saved by the grace of God – plus, don’t do this.” Like, “Grace plus no sex before marriage” takes you to heaven. . . or “grace plus no homosexuality” takes you to heaven. His point is that ONLY grace saves us.

    Also – I want a golden house! Only, could I know what to do to make mine bigger than my neighbor’s? ;)

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