At what level should Christians engage with things not mentioned in the Bible?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: I’m a new Christian — and I don’t quite know how to proceed… so let me ask you this question. When people create systems to better our society — but the systems are only arguably good and/or are not mentioned in the Bible — should Christians support or use them? Vaccines and in-vitro fertilization come to mind. They have been proven as good, but ethically, would God support them?

What about modern weapons of war? Would God want our military to protect innocent people by using a nuclear weapon? I know that these might be seemingly unrelated instances — and hence need to be examined on a case-by-case basis — but I’m struggling to grasp this as a broad concept. What should we do when something is morally questionable in its origins… but which has been proven to do a lot of good for a lot of people?

Romans 3:8 keeps coming into my mind when I ask this question, so I think some help deciphering that verse would be in order.

Answer: I see that you are a “new” Christian. Congratulations on your decision to follow Christ! (FYI, I’m an “old” Christian… and I am excited about the adventures you have ahead of you!) Let me also commend you on your humility. You classify yourself as a “new believer” — yet you are looking for a “broad concept.” Many chronologically advanced Christians come up short in terms of developing a cogent worldview because they will not step back and survey the landscape. So to you, I say, well done — and please… continue to do this!

Let’s tackle Romans 3:8 first.

“Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just!” (Romans 3:8, NIV)

In this verse, Paul is (sort of) making a joke about how sin cannot condemn us. As far as its propositional content goes (The propositional content is the meaning of the words, not the words themselves.), it has a single use. So, epistemologically speaking (Epistemology is the study of meaning) — and hermeneutically speaking (Hermeneutics is the study of how we interpret the Bible) — you should not apply the “Let us do evil that good may result” to modern things… but particularly to those that are generally considered to be good… like vaccines, fertilization techniques and the protection of the innocent around the world.

Christians should certainly join the debate about whether vaccines are doing more good than harm or if by using in vitro fertilization, a woman is reaching beyond where God wants her to go. But these things aren’t “in” the Bible. We have no “express teaching” (direct teaching) on these topics.

Express teachings are the gold standard in hermeneutics. This is because they carry the most epistemological weight — and this is because they carry the least epistemological ambiguity. If a passage could mean this or it could mean that… it is still God’s word. It’s just ambiguous. This is either by God’s design or we, as interpreters are missing something. Both are plausible.

The next step down the epistemological ladder is an implied teaching. Perhaps some passages tell us what to do about vaccines through a general category — like medicine. On the same epistemological level would be parallel cases. But neither parallel nor general teachings have the same weight as, “Thou shalt not steal” — although they do weigh something… so how do we proceed? We build a cumulative case.

If we get enough passages that at least imply what we are trying to prove — and these passages are not disqualified (as I’ve shown Romans 3:8 to be moot concerning vaccines) — you may offer these passages together as biblical evidence. But proceed carefully. I believe that an express teaching trumps nearly any amount of implication.  (One verse that does teach something outweighs 1000 verses that might teach something.) So watch for express teachings.

But — where the rubber meets the road — even a well-prepared and well-supported defense of what you think the Bible says does not have enough “epistemological weight” to stop another Christian from doing reasonable and prudent things that are opposite of what you’ve decided to do. Christians often come to different conclusions in response to the same data. But even beyond that, they might respond oppositely — even after they reached the same conclusions!

A good example here is women in the pastorate. In my opinion, the case against it is one of the clearest express teachings in Scripture. In my church, most members agree… but they are not necessarily prepared to take the same action. If my church installed a woman pastor, I would leave. But some others — who are just as convinced as I am that the church is acting against God’s express teaching — would stay.

You see, there is no “right or wrong” way to respond here. Life is complicated. Today, no one can afford to be a “one-issue” Christian. For me, a woman pastor would be that bridge too far… but for that third-generation church member who has family embedded in the church and the community, leaving would be the bridge too far… so he’d stay and fight. We each have to act according to our consciences to do the work that God has put in front of us.

Now, I think installing a woman pastor is a grievous error… but it’s not a cardinal error. It does not affect the “core” doctrines of the faith… like God’s existence, Jesus’ deity and salvation by grace through faith. Nor does it affect the Church’s job — to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20).

(A sister ministry, Got Questions Ministries, has an article about women in the pastorate which I recommend. Click here to see that article.) 

I say all this to address the, “What should I do?” aspect of your question. You are on the right track. You have taken counsel with “senior” believers. But you still have to fit things into your worldview and behave towards vaccines and the world as your conscience dictates right now. Today I believe and teach a lot of things that are opposite of what I taught 50 years ago — so be prepared to change as you analyze new data.

As to “ethics” and God, there is a lot of wiggle room. If your thinking and behavior are not countermanded in Scripture, then “go with God.” You are in that zone where it may or may not be okay to eat meat sacrificed to idols… depending on the weaker brother or depending on your conscience (1 Corinthians 8:4).

In my opinion, the most basic and overarching ethic is for God’s people to advance God’s purposes. He wanted us to fill and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28). So I would be “for” anything that promotes human flourishing… like vaccines — even though they have a downside. I treat all the fruit of science and technology the same way. I will almost always “take the good” if the good to God’s purposes outweighs the bad. But that’s me… and we should weigh each case.

But as to “ethics,” if you are advancing — and/or not overtly retarding God’s purposes — you are in the conscience zone (Romans 2:14-15). You are free to do what your conscience, the Holy Spirit and Scripture commend or allow. So, what’s a good gauge to tell if you are on track?

If you keep an orthodox view of the cardinal doctrines of the faith, Pray, study, fellowship and serve, your life will be balanced… and the Holy Spirit will guide you. The product of your efforts will not be perfect. But God is not about product. He’s about process… and your attitude tells me that you will be just fine.

Back to Romans 3:8. That verse has some special challenges when it comes to translation — and therefore — to a slam-dunk understanding of what’s going on… although I’m pretty comfortable with what I’ve said so far.

The issue is, the New Testament was written in (Koine) Greek. We believe that those original documents are both inspired by God and inerrant. Now, the target for translators is to understand what those Greek words meant to the original audience… but then bring that “propositional content” forward into English — but in a way that makes optimal sense today.

This is an imperfect process, but it’s a God-protected process — and many free tools are available to help us sort this out. I recommend the Bible Hub website to help with the task. Go to the following link, and I’ll demonstrate why. (https://biblehub.com/romans/3-8.htm.)

You are looking at twenty-plus English translations of the Greek text — and this is great news for the laymen: the best scholars in these fields have already done the heavy lifting. So, although it is useful for a Christian to be able to work in the biblical Greek and Hebrew, it’s not at all necessary… as you will see. Look at the two translations of Romans 3:8 I’ve provided below.

Amplified Bible
And why not say, (as some slanderously report and claim that we teach) “Let us do evil so that good may come of it”? Their condemnation [by God] is just.

English Standard Version
And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.

Do you see why these verses do not apply to your global question? The context of the words — and context is king! — shows that they are being used to express a falsehood. They say some people are slanderously trying to apply them to Paul! That’s strong language.

But when you look over all the translations, you’ll find that some communicate the “slander” aspect less strongly. What you’ve done by this simple exercise is accessed and analyzed (millions of hours of?) the best scholarship… by the best people… protected by the best God… not to mention committees and the marketplace.

If you want to see the difficulties in translating this verse, select the Comment tab. If you want to approach it through the original languages, select the Greek tab, etc. Just know that, although we seek connections in the Bible (the process is to compare Scripture with Scripture… to consider the whole counsel of God!), not every passage with similar words or concepts belongs together… as my analysis of Romans 3:8 demonstrates.

This ends my analysis of Romans 3:8. Now let’s look at one aspect of your broader question. “What should we do when something is morally questionable in its origins, but can technically do a lot of good?” To answer this, we need to talk about the Genetic Fallacy.

“Fallacy” is a technical term in logic and epistemology. It means that a proposed reasoning cannot be brought to bear on a topic because the reasoning is flawed at its core. In this case, we are contemplating a person who affirms that a certain proposition cannot be true because of “where” it came from — and “where” includes from whom it came, the real or supposed motives behind the statement, etc. People who affirm this are committing the Genetic Fallacy.

You can see how this applies to your question. It removes the burden of unpacking a proposition’s history or caring about its adversaries or opponents. A proposition is either true or it is not on its own merits. This frees you up to think about vaccines, fertilization and war machines on their own merit. It can be as simple as asking yourself, “Do they do more harm than good?” Just be warned, Christians come to different conclusions. So, although the Bible and common sense weigh in with some techniques of analysis, there is no “Christian answer.” There is only what you, the Christian, can answer and live with.

The apostle Paul demonstrated his grasp of logic by explaining why he did not fall for the Genetic Fallacy. Let’s look at Philippians 1:15-18.

“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.” (Philippians 1:15–18, NIV).

Look at Paul. He was in jail — facing death... yet he was rejoicing that the gospel was being preached. It did not matter to him that some of its preachers were motivated by selfish ambition — twisting the knife that was in his side. The important thing was that Christ is preached. The people and their motives did not matter. It came down to a yes or no proposition. Was the gospel being preached? That was a yes. Nothing else mattered.

Logically speaking, a claim is either true or it is not. It doesn’t matter who supported it, and it doesn’t matter where it came from. The apostle Paul knew better than to do that, and you knew better when you asked your question. You said that we probably won’t arrive at an answer without examining each challenge “on a case by case basis.” This methodology is at the heart of all analysis, and it tends to fight the Genetic Fallacy at its core.

Wow… that answer went on a bit! I pray that it helped you. May God bless you in all that you do!

 

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20210920 At what level should Christians engage with things not mentioned in the Bible? ).

(For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at mainsailep@gmail.com. To submit a question about God, the Bible or the Christian culture, click here.)