The Common Good
March-April 1999

Incarnating Ethics

by Glen H. Stassen | March-April 1999

We're called to faithful discipleship, not creedal rigidity.

I once took a count of what sort of things Jesus thought important enough to confront people about in the gospel of Luke. Nine times Jesus confronted people for not showing love in their actions. Nine times he confronted folks for their greed and hoarding, which get in the way of single-minded service toward God and loving action toward the needy. Nine times Jesus confronted people for having divided loyalties, rather than serving God alone. Eight times he confronted people for showing by their actions that they did not recognize his authority. Eight times he confronted people who were seeking places of honor and reputation, and urged instead the way of servant-like humility.

Seven times he emphasized that the crucial question is whether we actually do what he teaches, versus the hypocrisy of claiming to be on the side of righteousness while not doing God's will. Seven times he called people explicitly to repent, to take the log out of our own eye, to stop being self-righteously critical of others and insisting on our own way, and instead to be more humble and loving toward him and toward others.

It is dramatically striking how Jesus' confrontations, and his pronouncing woe, all had to do with ethics. By contrast, he never confronted people about their doctrines. How far some of us have drifted from the way of Jesus!

Whether people have good ethics depends not only on their ethical reasoning skills, but also on where their hearts are, which depends on what treasures their lives are invested in (Matthew 6:21). This means that a lot of people who are not professional Christian ethicists have better ethics than many Christian ethicists. Real Christian ethics is done in community, as we correct one another's tunnel visions. So what will be written on this page, often by professional Christian ethicists, will surely not be mistaken by readers as the final and unquestionable word.

WE HOPE THE ETHICS PAGE will generate discussion, mutual admonition, and better and more informed faithfulness. But at least Christian ethicists do focus on ethics, which is what Jesus emphasized. Good Christian ethicists are concerned about how we understand what it means to live lives faithful to the will of God. Some specialize in biblical ethics, or theological grounding for ethics; others in philosophical analysis of the reasoning in Christian ethics. Some specialize in the mission and practices of the church as a community that does ethics. Most ethicists also bring focused study of a specific issue area, like medical ethics, political ethics, sex and family ethics, economic justice and poverty, ecological ethics, peacemaking, racism, or professional ethics. These specialties can contribute significantly to the commitment of Sojourners readers to doing God's will in our complex and dramatically changing world.

Different groups of ethicists advocate different approaches. In an essay in Sojourners ("Disciples of the Incarnation," May 1994), three of us who sometimes work as a team (Michael Westmoreland-White, David Gushee, and I) advocated an approach we call incarnational discipleship. We emphasized the teachings and deeds of the incarnate Jesus of Nazareth, who taught in the tradition of the prophets of Israel, and emphasized concrete embodiment of Jesus' way in our lives and the lives of our churches.

We wrote that "the crying need of our churches is for faithful discipleship to Jesus as Christ and Lord," not creedal rigidity or vague morality. We advocated a Christ-centered ethic, but rejected docetic Christologies that either sentimentalize Jesus or focus on Christ's divinity to the exclusion of his humanity. In such docetism, we wrote, "Jesus is made irrelevant to the concerns of this world and thus trivialized by a theology that supposedly makes him central."

We advocated a kind of ethics that intentionally ventures out beyond our own cultures and incarnationally enters into the experiences of other people and different cultures, especially the poor and those who are discriminated against, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. did. We advocated grace that is not cheap grace but faithful obedience and participation in the redemptive work of God in Christ. We called for overcoming the privatistic captivity of the gospel by serving Christ in whom God comes into the center of our whole lives.

In our specific life-context, this especially means confronting racism and working to overcome it. And it means developing an inclusive, multiethnic, democratic understanding of our nation so that we can resist and overcome its opposite. Finally, it means praying both privately and in community, holding one another accountable, providing much-needed encouragement and support for others and for ourselves, just as Jesus prayed deeply and asked for support from the disciples.

We saw Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. as symbolizing this kind of incarnational discipleship. This is the kind of Christian ethics that I hope will sing its tune on this page in the months to come. —Glen Stassen

Glen Stassen was the Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, when this article appeared.

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