We live in a world that is saturated in information, misinformation, and conflicting voices. Seeing God’s will done ‘here on earth as in heaven’ involves having a Christian voice in public debates and in stories covered in news and other media. But when Christians don’t agree, what then?
Speaking about issues, whether in formal public statements or informal chats to friends, involves particular risks for Christians, including failing to correctly represent God’s will, and undermining our Christian witness.
So how do we recognise a genuine Christian voice in the news or public debate? When Christians go into politics, or engage in lobby groups, or claim to be public watchdogs, or when they speak on public issues from the pulpit, how can we know that they have a proper biblical view on any given issue, balancing public and private morality, and not confusing the roles of state and the individual? How do we know they are communicating the mind, and heart, of God?
This short paper attempts to highlight some of the challenges we face in hearing God’s voice today, and lay out some principles which characterize an authentic Christian voice.
- The unprecedented profusion of voices – The internet and social media have enabled everyone with a computer or smartphone to search, receive, and broadcast a greater array of comment than has ever been possible before. “Friends” (and others) post links to articles on topics and by authors we have little or no knowledge of.
- The nature of broadcast media – Within the constraints of time and budgets, radio, TV, and news media do a reasonable job of presenting information to us. But commercial media outlets have to produce what sells. Regrettably, all too often this is entertainment or controversy based stories, where the popular and extreme win out over the informed and moderate.
The news cycle demands quick responses on issues, which favours those who comment immediately (even if what they say is wrong), over those who need time to develop a more accurate response. It also favours simple, strong, statements, over more complex, nuanced, ones, even if that reflects the true picture.
- Time – None of us has the time to check all the information we receive, so we take a lot on trust. But if the people or sources we are getting our information from have not had the time (or inclination) to check the accuracy of the information, we can find ourselves passing on information which is not true. Either that, or we become cynical and don’t believe anything we hear – (which creates its own problems!).
- Preconceived ideas – We all hold views on a wide range of topics. These views come from our culture, our history, our churches, our families and friends, and they become part of our identity. Wisdom tells us that there is good and bad within all of these areas, and that not all of the views we hold now, or will hold in the future, are correct. But it is very hard to change our views, even when they are wrong. It is natural to process information that agrees with our preconceptions more readily that information that challenges them.
- Complexity of public issues – Most issues do not lend themselves to simplistic solutions. Issues like religiously inspired terrorism, human sexuality and relationships, welfare and poverty, and criminal justice, certainly don’t. Even experts have different ideas on how to understand and address complex issues. Non-professionals joining the discussion often add more heat than light.
- The Bible! – Even though some people don’t like the fact, and some people try to deny it, the reality is that the Bible does not give simple, clear, prescriptive answers to many of the issues we face today. If it did, there may not be as many divisions in the church as what we have.
- Anti-Christian sentiment – This should not be overstated, but there is a small section of society which is active in trying to limit the role of religion in general and Christianity in particular in society. When people or groups identified as Christian speak or behave badly, this can be a significant encouragement to those seeking to privatise religious faith.
- Lies, damned lies, and statistics – Numbers are often used to support arguments. The only problem is that statistics are seldom as straightforward as they appear (or are made to appear). Also many people have little understanding of how statistics work.
With all this in mind, what are some of the principles that should characterise an authentic Christian voice in the public discourse?
- Quite simply, the first and most important principle is to ask “Is what the speaker says actually true?” Or do they exaggerate or overstate the truth? Do they leave out relevant facts to give a slanted view of truth?
Jesus said “I am the Truth”. Speaking untruth, no matter how sincerely one believes it, undermines our Christian witness and is not of God.
- Are the speaker’s words faithful to the Spirit of Christ? Given the Great Commandments and Great Commission imperatives (to love, witness, lead people to Christ, and make disciples) as embodied in Christ, do the speaker’s words lead non-believers towards Christ or turn them away? Do they communicate love and compassion or judgement and condemnation?
- Think about the Golden Rule – how would you feel or react if the speaker’s comments were made about you?
- Are the speaker’s arguments reasonable and logical?
This diagram of The Ten Commandments of Logic offers a good summary of some logical fallacies which cannot reflect the mind of Christ, yet appear often in public statements.
Carefully check out your favourite spokespeople to see if any of these apply.
- Authority – If the speaker is identified publicly as Christian, what is their Christian accountability? What are their credentials? Are they respected by other Christian leaders? Are there other well qualified voices that express a different view?
The World Evangelical Alliance is one useful reference point. The WEA was founded in 1846 and is made up of biblically orthodox, evangelical, theologians, leaders, specialists with PhDs, and practitioners, from 129 countries and covering 20 specialist areas including theology, religious liberty, and mission. This does not mean that when the WEA makes a statement that it is automatically right. But the breadth and depth of knowledge and experience behind the WEA does mean that it should be given the consideration it deserves.
- Does the speaker recognise the difference between church and state, between morality and law, and the limits of what the law can achieve?
- Does the speaker recognise that modern society is not the same as Israel in the Old Testament or the church in the New Testament? That ideas and words relevant for one group may not be for another?
- Is the speaker seeking to have Christian morality imposed on society by law? God gives humans free-will to follow His ways or not. We should be careful therefore about trying to compel people to act ‘morally’ by using the force of law.
- Limits to the efficacy of law:
- Professor Ian Harper from the University of Melbourne and Centre for Independent Studies has said, “It is important to recognize the limited capacity of the state to promote moral behaviour in human beings. Too often our energies and imaginations have focused on the state as a means of compelling our moral vision. We should realize that, beyond the core area of justice, the power of the state to do good and bring about a moral society is by no means unambiguous. For one thing, state-enforced morality often fuels resentment and breeds its own resistance” (emphasis added)[i]
- Professor Warren Brookbanks from the University of Auckland, has commented in a similar vein, “… the crisis in families is not something that can be solved by more regulation … there are, I would suggest, real dangers in assuming that the law and public opinion are the best agencies through which the “rehabilitation” of marriage can be achieved”[ii]
- Some topics (e.g. terrorism) have the potential to spread fear. Other topics (e.g. sexuality issues) have the potential to marginalise people. The nature of the Gospel is to promote love not fear, to include people not marginalise them. The hard words of Jesus were directed at religious leaders who were guilty of doing those sorts of things, and he stood alongside those who were marginalised or regarded as sinners.
- Respect – The fruit of the Spirit includes gentleness, and Paul instructs Timothy to be ready to give reasons for the hope he has, but to do so with “gentleness and respect”. The combative nature of public communication is a particular snare for Christians who engage in this arena. The majority of people in the audience for mass communication are non-believers who we want to see, hear, and receive the Good News of Christ. In addition, when comments are made about another person or group, are the other person/group’s views represented fairly.
The chief end or purpose of mankind, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. Let us be committed to glorifying God, and being known as people who, like Jesus, are “filled with grace and truth” (John 1:14).
[i] “Christian Morality and Market Capitalism: Friends or Foes?”, Professor Ian Harper, Centre for Independent Studies, full text at http://www.cis.org.au/
Harper goes on to say … “The lessons of the Prohibition Era in the United States should not be forgotten. Moreover, we should remember Thomas Jefferson’s caution: ‘Never give power to a good man that you would not give to an evil man.’ If we rely too heavily on the state and bolster it, with a view to deploying its coercive power to our purposes, we may regret it when at some point the state begins to enforce values antipathetic to our own”
(Professor Ian Harper holds the Sidney Myer Chair of Commerce and Business Administration at the Melbourne Business School within the University of Melbourne. He is also Assistant Director and Dean of Faculty at the School)