This past week, I had the opportunity to view the independent movie “The Ordinary Radicals” and meet its director, Jamie Moffett. I’m not going to discuss the movie today, other than to say, it is well worth your while to watch it. But the movie made me think about the variety of ways there are of being Christian. My hunch is that there are as many ways of being a Christian as there are Christians. This is not a one size fits all enterprise. Each of us have something unique and important to offer.
But that raises the question, how many ways are there to be a Christian? Are there some ways of being a Christian that are not appropriate? Historically soldiers could not join the early church, they couldn’t be baptized. ( I know this raises the question of whether one can be a Christian without being baptized and/ or joining the church- but let’s leave it for another day.) Early Christians were pacifists and they believed being a soldier was incompatible with the Christian life. In addition, Roman soldiers sacrificed to the Emperor and participation in the Emperor cult was not acceptable either. Of course today, there are many people in the military who consider themselves Christians. So here’s something that used to be off limits and now, for ,most people, no longer is. I’m sure you can think of plenty of other examples where our boundary for what is acceptable for a Christian to be or to do has changed.
So are there limits to what Christians can do? And how do we figure this out? Are the boundaries shaped by the culture and times that we live in? Or are the boundaries fixed? Or can a boundary be a mixture of both, some things that do not change and other things that may?
Are there things Christians shouldn’t do? Are there movies to avoid? Certain types of music? Art? Places? Behaviors?
I suspect many of us would say there are some limits. Some of us have much more certainty about this subject than others. For some of us, it’s a “I know it when I see it” type of boundary. Some of us decide on a case by case approach. Rather than avoid all “R” rated movies, we try to consider why the movie is rated the way it is. Some of us draw a firmer line and avoid all “R” movies. Maybe some of us just don’t go to movies at all.
Perhaps instead of fencing things out, we might try a positive approach. Think about what we should do rather than what we shouldn’t do. The apostle Paul gives some lists,( Romans 12, Philippians 4:8-9 for example) of what Christians should do. (Of course Paul also give us plenty of lists of what not to do, as well.)
Underneath the discussion of what is appropriate for Christians to do is the question of motive. Why should Christians avoid certain things? There are two main reasons, I think. One is that we ought to avoid things that separate us from God. The Christian tradition has always held that certain behaviors help bring us closer to God and certain behaviors tend to move us away from God. The other reason is the effect that our behaviors have on others. Does our behavior serve to bring people closer to God or cause them to move away from God.
And here is where things get sticky. Sometimes the same behavior, the same action can bring some people closer to God while moving others away. Say for example, someone goes out to dinner with friends and has a drink. Perhaps someone will see that, become upset and question what it means to be a Christian. Another person could see the same event, be surprised and think perhaps being a Christian isn’t as impossible and restrictive as they thought. This isn’t a new situation. Paul wrestled with similar issues. In his day the problem was eating meat sacrificed to idols.
Paul might give us the guidance we need. Both in the Romans 14 passage about eating meat, and in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul reminds us, our first concern should be for others.
This makes life hard. It’s much easier to for example, avoid all movies rather than think about the movie, and who you’re going with, and what the discussion after the movie might be like.
It’s a sort of situational ethics. But it’s not an ethic that operates in a moral vacuum, and it’s not an ethic that if focused on whats best for me. It is an ethic that takes seriously the situation of others- What’s best for those around me. It’s not a list of rules but rather the rule of love.
I’d like to know, what do you think?