A few days after Bill Clinton was elected, I (Rick) was facilitating a small-group leaders’ meeting. One of the leaders whose political convictions leaned strongly Republican suggested that our small groups should have a time of lament in light of the recent election. Some others nodded in agreement. Was this a good idea?
I thought not. I mentioned to the leaders that about 80 percent of evangelicals voted Republican, a fact that most seemed to be aware of. Then I asked all of the leaders to take a sheet of paper and write down the two to three people in their group who were likely to vote Democratic.
There was dead silence. No one picked up their pencils.
Finally, a leader spoke up and said they didn’t think anyone in their group had voted Democratic. I pointed out that if our congregation reflected the national averages for evangelicals, a small group of 12 to 14 people would have three Democrats. I was just asking them to stop and think who those people were and how they would likely feel if we opened up the small group meeting with a season of lament. It was an awkward moment.
The leaders realized that opening the small group with a season of lament might not be welcomed by certain group members. They also realized that prayer times in the past several weeks leading up to the election were probably equally alienating. We had simply been blind to an underlying diversity of political convictions within our groups.
The standard dictionary definition of conviction runs something like this: a fixed or firmly held belief, a belief that we won’t be giving up anytime soon. But we have beliefs like that about arithmetic, and we don’t usually call those convictions. Convictions are not just about garden-variety facts but rather about particular sorts of beliefs. We might say that convictions are firmly held moral or religious beliefs that guide our beliefs, actions, or choices. This shuts out beliefs we have about matters of taste (not moral), and it also shuts out beliefs we hold but are happy to disregard or ignore (they don’t guide our actions).
Notice that this definition makes room for two different kinds of convictions, what we might call absolute convictions and personal convictions. Absolute convictions are called absolute not so much because of the zeal with which we hold them, but rather because we feel that they should apply to “absolutely” everyone. They are universal; they apply both to ourselves and our neighbor. The great Christian creeds are examples of such absolutes.
Personal convictions, on the other hand, are things we believe personally and which guide our personal conduct, but we realize others may not share. This might be a conviction about refusing to drink alcohol because a family member had been killed by a drunk driver. We would probably hold this conviction quite firmly, but we would also know that not everyone would share it. The distinctions we are making here are nothing new; they simply reflect the famous maxim “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
So how can we form deep Christian convictions without dividing the church? Let’s take a deeper look at convictions themselves.
Convictions are like light: They come in many colors and form across a spectrum. Consider the belief that God created human beings in his own image—a timeless theological truth grounded in Scripture (Gen. 1:26). This sort of conviction could be called a confessional belief—an absolute that all Christians should share in common.
A few chapters later, in Genesis 9:5–6, this truth is formed into a moral mandate that prohibits killing a person because all humans are made in the image of God. This moral mandate can be further expanded into a set of positive claims that actively value human life. Unpacking this a bit, we would see that valuing human life would probably mean more than just being “pro-life” in the sense of opposing abortion. Instead, one might think of a “consistent ethic of life,” a phrase coined by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Such an ethic shuns abortion and also euthanasia, war, and violence. It would likely have positive entailments such as access to basic human freedoms that image bearers require, such as the freedom to worship according to one’s conscience and have basic necessities such as food and shelter.
These increasingly refined judgments do not emerge because we are finding more and more explicit teachings of Scripture, but because we are unpacking more and more implications of our confessional belief that human beings are created in the image of God. These implications might be summarized in a core value statement such as, “Every human being should be protected from life-threatening harms and provided access to essential goods needed for a flourishing human life.”
Clearly we are moving across a spectrum and becoming increasingly specific as we go. Our confessional beliefs and moral mandates are shaping core values within our souls—shaping our desires and pursuits. However, these core values are still not specific enough. Ultimately, we must discern specific guidelines for conduct. We must decide if the prohibition against taking the life of an image bearer means that we should oppose both abortion and capital punishment or only abortion.
Notice that as we move across this spectrum, each step makes our convictions more specific, but as they become more specific, they also become more contested. At the outset, explicit statements of Scripture or universal creedal confessions assure agreement among all Christians. Convictions about these matters are absolute and universal. However, the more specific we make our judgments, the more culture, prudence, historical circumstance, and practical wisdom influence our conclusions, and therefore the more diverse our opinions become.
We can connect this spectrum to three different types of issues: absolutes, disputable matters that are included in this spectrum, and matters of taste that are not. The spectrum begins with absolutes and increasingly addresses disputable matters. At the far opposite end would be matters of taste, but they are not included because they are not matters about which we form convictions.
In detail: Four types of convictions
Confessional beliefs. Confessional beliefs define the boundaries of Christianity and ground the beliefs and practices of the church and individual believers. They are often expressed in creedal statements such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. Creedal statements are commonly recited by the whole church in public worship. They are also generally worded as “We believe” statements rather than “I believe” statements.
Clearly the implication is that all members of the congregation are expected to share these beliefs. Denying these creedal statements is good grounds for doubting the authenticity of a person’s Christian faith. These confessional beliefs serve as preconditions for our convictions. We might even call them Christian convictions as opposed to personal convictions exactly because we believe that these convictions are part and parcel of the Christian faith itself. They are not simply matters of personal conviction.
As the name implies, confessional beliefs focus on belief, not action. They are largely composed of timeless theological assertions about the nature of God, mankind, and salvation. Churches and individual disciples of Christ have to decide what honoring Jesus as Lord demands of them in the particular times and cultural circumstances in which they find themselves.
Moral mandates. Identifying moral and spiritual mandates is the first step in “operationalizing” our confessional beliefs—that is, moving them into action. Like confessional beliefs, moral and spiritual mandates are universal or near universal among Christians. They are the behavioral counterparts to the theological beliefs found in our confessional statements and creeds and are derived from the commands of Scripture, even as the confessional beliefs are derived from the theological claims of Scripture.
“Mandates” is a handy way to refer to these high-level action-guiding principles, but it should be noted that the term covers a wide range of behaviors. Some of these mandates address spiritual issues related to proper worship and devotion to God. Other commands deal with ethical issues about how we treat fellow human beings. We will use the phrase “moral mandates” as an umbrella term that covers both ethical and spiritual matters.
Core values. Moral and spiritual mandates almost immediately beg for further specification. We have labeled this next step along our conviction spectrum “core values,” referring to the things that are important to us—the things that we actually value.
The term values is commonly used by moral psychologists or sociologists to identify underlying motivations for actions. Values are desired ends that guide us in our choices and help us evaluate policies, people, and events. Recently, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has formulated a “Moral Foundations Theory” that identifies six basic human values: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty.
How can common values result in such different guidelines for action? The reason is that people tend to agree about the values themselves but tend to disagree on how the values should be prioritized. Most controversial issues intersect more than one value, as in the case where a policy that promotes liberty may diminish fairness or fail to care for a basic human need.
For example, when discussing immigration, everyone may agree that people should obey governing authorities and also regard immigrants with love and dignity, but they may disagree on how to weigh these in particular cases. Furthermore, people do not construct a single, universal hierarchy of value but rather may prioritize values differently depending on the situation. In other words, we might weigh values differently in the cases of Syrian refugees and Central Americans crossing our southern border. In short, values are the place a common starting point leads to different end points.
Guidelines for conduct. The final step along the conviction spectrum is developing specific guidelines for conduct. Here, moral mandates and core values find expression in actual policy decisions, responses to ethical dilemmas, and plans for action within a specific cultural context. Guidelines for conduct have time frames, locations, and audiences in mind. They answer the question, How can I best honor Christ in the time and place and circumstance where he has placed me?
Practical wisdom and knowledge play an extremely important role in forming guidelines for conduct. Tim Keller argues that caring for the poor is a clear biblical teaching and a moral mandate, but it is a matter of practical wisdom whether the best way to do this is through private enterprise or government redistribution or some combination of the two. Similarly, neighbor-love and the protection of life in the image of God mandates that we alleviate human suffering and care for the afflicted. There is no single “Christian” answer to questions like these. Nonetheless, we must decide what we will do. We cannot pursue all options at once.
In general, it is not uncommon for us to have strong, gut-level intuitions about moral and political issues. This is not necessarily wrong—our conscience often operates intuitively without our being able to identify principles that would support our intuition. However, it is valuable to refine and deepen our intuitions by reasoned reflection illuminated by the wisdom of others. We are not the self-sufficient source of all truth.
Jennifer Herdt, a Christian ethicist at Yale Divinity School, notes that a deep dependence on God is essential to developing “truthfulness concerning one’s own character and capacities [which] enables the admission of weakness and strength, incapacity and capacity, alike.”
We pursue truth together, as part of a community. An essential part of this process is, as James says, being “open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” Such virtues lead to a “harvest of righteousness” (James 3:17–18, ESV). Once we have listened to others with openness and sincerity, we are in a much better place to pursue Paul’s project of becoming “fully convinced in [our] own mind” (Rom. 14:5).
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