On Complexity and Compromise: Discerning the good, acceptable, and perfect
by Marissa Cope
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
I attended an event in Austin last weekend where a notable Christian thinker presented his thoughts on how we, as Christians, ought to navigate the political rapids. He presented abstract and sophisticated systems for addressing tough issues of the day, and gave some examples. When there was an opportunity for the audience to ask questions, the speaker was peppered with specific, issue-oriented questions on how we should confront topics like gay marriage, the budget crisis, and embryonic stem cell research.
We all wanted to know the rules of conduct, and how they applied to the issues we face. That is the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they are thinking about ethics: its rules and how they apply in the complex circumstances of life.
Christ enables us to face complexity without shrinking back. Complexity doesn’t necessitate compromise. It does necessitate love. “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil 1:9–11).
So we start with love—abounding love. And from there, come knowledge and discernment. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2).
We continue by deferring everything to the will of God. The Rev. Dr. David C. Jones, Professor of Theology and Christian Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary, tells us that we may reasonably define Christian ethics as “the study of the way of life that conforms to the will of God as revealed in Christ and the holy scriptures.”
Jones goes on to say, “Ethics is not just about issues of right and wrong; it is also about the kind of persons we ought to be. We ought to be the kind of persons who, for one, think issues of right and wrong really matter, who love the right and hate the wrong, and who can be counted on to do the right thing under pressure.”
So what does pressure look like? And what are we to do with it?
I work in a pro-life organization connecting women in crisis pregnancies with life-affirming resource centers across the country. I recently had occasion to speak with a college friend who is a medical resident in the rural South. We were comparing notes from our professional lives and she shared her frustration at seeing women come in and give birth to babies for whom they had little intention or ability to nurture. She wondered what I thought about promoting life, all the time, no matter what, when we know that every day there are children born into lives characterized by poverty, neglect, addiction, and other abuses.
So there’s complexity—the facts of life slap us the face and threaten our direct understanding of rules and how they apply. How do we recognize complexity, and adapt to it, without compromising the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God?
Similarly, when the National Association of Evangelicals was seeking opportunities to reduce abortion in our culture, partnering with a teen-pregnancy prevention group seemed like a no-brainer. But there was a strong response to how the issue would be addressed. One possibility was promoting contraceptive use among unmarried Christians.
Leith Anderson, NAE President commented, “Evangelicals are conflicted about contraceptives outside of marriage because we never want to promote or condone sexual immorality. But we are told that contraceptives can reduce abortions and we want to stop abortions…The Church is understandably reluctant to recommend contraception for unmarried sexual partners, given that it cannot condone extramarital sex. However, it is even more tragic when unmarried individuals compound one sin by conceiving and then destroying the precious gift of life…Evangelicals must continue to stand against abortion on demand but also face the sexual behavior and abortions in our midst.” (Marvin Olasky, “Conflicted,” World Magazine, June 22, 2012.)
Looking back to Philippians 1:9, we start with love as the foundation for our knowledge and discernment. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “If I bestow my goods to feed the poor and have not love, it profits me nothing.”
From there, in both cases—in all cases—we are to reason biblically.
We may soften our approach, not our stance. In the case of babies born into poverty, abuse or neglect, I can’t ignore that reality. But biblical reasoning doesn’t allow us to settle for the “lesser of two evils.” It leads us to the fact that there is much more for all of us to do to address the entire spectrum of root causes and the real pain surrounding many unplanned pregnancies. Not only do we continue the fight to end abortion; we must also get busy supporting efforts to better the lives of all families who face poverty and trials.
And when we hear that unmarried Christians are having premarital sex at nearly the same rate as their non-Christian peers, we don’t abandon the ideal of abstinence before marriage; we step back and think about how we can better communicate the lavish gift of God that sex inside Christian marriage is.
Like all of the Christian life, bold humility is not easy. But it is possible. Shining light into darkness is a bold move, but we do it in love. Tim Keller says, “Because we see the law and love of God fulfilled, we become both humble and bold because we know we are His by grace. This is unique. Without the Gospel, humility and boldness can only increase at each other’s expense.”