On What Authority Do You Make Your Moral Decisions?
GAYoda: Today’s global magazine for gay Christians
We make numerous decisions each day. Some are personal preferences that are virtually inconsequential (e.g., “Should I wear this lavender sweatshirt today?”). Other choices are moral; violation may have real consequences (e.g., “Should I, as a gay Christian, marry a gay man?”).
As a preface, I base much of this article on the teaching provided to me by my pastor, Emily Swan of Blue Ocean Church. Emily, thank you for your historical expertise and fair-minded wisdom!
This article provides a condensed history of the types of authority that American Protestants depend upon whenever they need to make a moral decision. Then, I will discuss the notion of “Solus Jesus.” Furthermore, I will discuss the sources of authority that I value. Finally, I will provide an example of how I utilized my sources to decide whether I should marry a gay man.
Here we go!
Drive-By History of Moral Sources of Authority
Around 400 AD, the 27 books of the New Testament were canonized. However, the primary authority for moral decisions was the magisterial Church leaders (i.e., Catholic Popes; Eastern Orthodoxy’s Patriarch). Very few people had access to the New Testament, so the Pope’s rules reigned. Numerous Catholic decisions concerning moral behavior were made by a singular person — and not guided by the New Testament.
Around 1400–1500, men like Martin Luther and John Calvin protested the decisions of the Popes, claiming that the written text of the Bible was the only trustworthy source. Subsequently, the principle of “Sola Scriptura” was formed. Sola Scriptura held that God inspired the Bible authors’ writings — and that the Bible’s text was the only reliable (i.e., inerrant, infallible) source of truth. In essence, “down with the Pope; up with the scriptures!”
Sola Scriptura was originally intended to establish one divine source of authority (i.e., the infallible text versus the parade of new Popes). However, today it has become quite apparent that differing text interpretations within Sola Scriptura were splintering the Church into thousands of different dogmas and denominations. Eventually, 30,000 differing Protestant denominations were created.
To combat the proliferation of endless denominations, Protestants created an over-arching “family” by which differing denominations could unite. So, in the late nineteenth century, conservative theologians began calling themselves “Fundamentalists.” Fundamentalists once again turned to Sola Scriptura as the sole source of truth — relying only upon scripture for determining moral decisions.
However, in the 1930s, Fundamentalists were mocked during the “Scopes Monkey Trial” (i.e., the attempt to only teach a biblical explanation of the origin of people). Consequently, Fundamentalists rebranded their “family name” into “Evangelicals.” Evangelicalism then became popular with Billy Graham and other public figures — removing the “stain” of Fundamentalism. But, to be clear, Evangelicalism has always, and will always, be the same thing as Fundamentalism.
The original “Mainline” Protestant denominations (e.g., Episcopal, Methodist, Wesleyan) had rebranded themselves too. In addition to Sola Scriptura, Mainline denominations added other sources of authority — such as common sense, traditional church practices, personal experience, and science. Thus, a fissure developed within Protestant Americans — dependence solely upon scriptura by the Evangelicals versus the Mainliner’s additional sources of authority.
The divide (and fighting) still exists today!
My pastor Emily Swan and her colleague Ken Wilson wrote a terrific book entitled “Solus Jesus.”
The authors’ main point is that Jesus is the source of all truth, not some very debatable biblical texts. Jesus is the “Word” that came from God. Jesus’s teachings and actions provide us not only a description of the nature of God but also a clear guideline by which we may live our life. To ethically make the choices that Jesus made (i.e., “What would Jesus do?”) is to live divinely.
And there was no more important criterion for Jesus than love. Jesus tells us that all of the Old Testament laws can be fulfilled by two “laws of love:” 1) love Jesus using all of your capabilities, and 2) love all others in the way in which you would like to be loved. What types of behavior would you like to receive from others? Then give those behaviors out to others. What types of behavior would you hate to receive from others? Then avoid giving those behaviors out to others. In this law of love, a person need only look inside oneself to get the answer to moral decisions.
This law of love should, therefore, be our primary Telstar that guides our moral choices.
Well, that is, until Jesus issued His final command.
And this command became the new, most perfect Telstar, for making moral decisions.
As background, on the night before Jesus was horrifically and sadistically tortured, He gave His final “dinner speech” to His closest friends. And in this speech, Jesus revised the law of love. Here are Jesus’ exact words:
“A new command I give you: love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)
Instead of Jesus’ Followers looking inside themselves to ascertain what to do and not to do, Jesus told them to focus on what Jesus did. And what exactly had Jesus done immediately before declaring His absolute, new rule of love? Jesus humbly washed each of the disciples’ grimy feet. He set the example for the ultimate definition of love:
Unselfishly providing compassionate kindness to everyone who you contact.
In order to live out this new command, we are challenged to recognize the person who needs kindness, then feel compassion for the person. Generally, marginalized people (e.g., the impoverished, the disabled, the ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities) need kindness. After all, they are in the minority, usually without a voice and often without hope. Our role: ache over the hurt that the marginalized are feeling. And then, do something — some act of kindness — that You could imagine Jesus doing.
Is the authority for moral choices such a mystery? Is Sola Scriptura the sole method for how we should then live? Not really.
Who is hurting? Notice that person and feel compassion. And what should you do for that person? Provide an unselfish act of kindness.
Solus Jesus should reign over all other methods of determining moral decisions.
Allow me to provide you with a real-life example. Yesterday, I wanted to get a Subway sandwich for lunch. As I entered the restaurant, I saw multitudes of people standing in line. All of these people looked impatient and agitated. Why? Because there was only one person to serve us.
I immediately felt compassion for the server. She worked as fast as she could, but the line seemed only to get larger. A woman in line behind me said, “Gosh, they need more servers.” My response was, “Yes — and isn’t she doing a fantastic job!” I felt compassion for this low-incomed, hurting server.
When it was finally my turn in line, I greeted her weariness with a big smile and said, “My goodness, you are doing an amazing job here today!” She smiled back. When she had finished making my sandwich, I exclaimed, “Wow, that looks beautiful!” She smiled back again.
Then I gave her the biggest tip possible.
I provided her an unselfish act of kindness.
Love truly is the answer. And providing Jesus’ compassionate kindness to everyone I encounter is my life goal.
My Divine Sources of Authority
Humans must ultimately determine their source(s) for making moral decisions. So, I am now going to disclose my sources of authority. While Evangelicals maintain Sola Scriptura as their only source, I consider a multitude of sources as a divine combination that God uses to help me make my moral decisions. Thus, I utilize the following five “tools” that help me make a confident decision that I believe is Godly (listed in priority).
1. Jesus’ teachings and examples that demonstrate what love looks like. Feel compassion and then provide an unselfish act of kindness.
2. Scripture from the Protestant Bible (while understanding the context of how it was originally written).
3. Common sense; something logical and apparent to most people.
4. Convictions from the Holy Spirit; a personalized revelation that I attribute to the Holy Spirit.
5. Scientific discovery; scholarly findings that shed new light upon human behaviors.
My Gay Marriage Decision
So far, this paper has done a lot of defining and explaining. Now, I would like to provide a real example of how I resolved a moral decision: should I marry Reggie as my gay husband?
1. Jesus’ teachings and actions that demonstrate what love looks like. Feel compassion and then provide an unselfish act of kindness. Jesus loved to hang out with the marginalized. And LGBTQ people are the primary marginalized group within today’s American Protestant Church. It took no stretch of the imagination to know that Jesus completely loves Reggie and me — exactly as we are. And I came to believe that Jesus would tell Reggie and me, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Then, I imagine Jesus delighting in our wedding ceremony — just as He did during His first miracle.
2. Scripture from the Protestant Bible (while understanding the context of how it was originally written). Many evangelicals cite Matthew 19:3–12 as Jesus’ mandate that marriages must only be between one man and one woman. “For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh,” is what Jesus said to the Bible scholars of His day. Jesus then added, “Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” Many Evangelicals have quoted those two verses as though they were proof-positive that no gay marriages should exist. Yet, Jesus is actually using those exact two verses to make the point that divorce should never happen! The Bible never makes any definition of what should constitute a marriage.
3. Common sense; something logical and apparent to most people. Today the majority of Americans believe gay marriages are a good thing. It seems common sense to most people. Suppose gays are incapable of experiencing attraction to women. In that case, is it wrong to deny them their only possibility of marriage via a gay marriage? Should celibacy be the only option for gays?
4. Convictions from the Holy Spirit; a personalized revelation that I attribute to the Holy Spirit. One of the sure signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence is when I am engaging in “the fruit of the Spirit.” Peace is one type of the Spirit’s fruit. And I have always been at peace in my decision to marry Reggie.
5. Scientific discovery; scholarly findings that shed new light upon human behaviors. Several decades ago, people commonly believed that gays could change their sexual orientation. However, personal testimonies of thousands of gays, plus scientific studies, have demonstrated that eliminating one’s longstanding same-sex attraction is not possible.
On this very day, you may need to make a moral decision.
On what authority do you make your moral decisions?
You should get that straight before you make your next moral choice.
Dr. Mike Rosebush (Ph.D., Counseling Psychology, he/him) is the founder/writer for GAYoda: Today’s global magazine for gay Christians. Click here to access the library of GAYoda articles. Contact Dr. Rosebush at firstname.lastname@example.org.