Thinking straight in a crooked world

No one can deny the close link that exists between thinking and action. Says Proverbs 23:7 (NASB): “For as he thinks within himself, so is he.” Christian psychologist Gary Collins agrees: “In large measure, how we think with our minds determines how we live.”1 This recognition of the cause-effect relationship between thinking and moral living must lead us to reflect on various types of thinking that can and often do impact the manner in which Christians relate to various lifestyle concerns.

Genetic-origin hypotheses

In a 1994 article, entitled “Our Cheating Hearts,” Time magazine noted that, according to evolutionary psychologists, “it is ‘natural’ for both men and women—at some times, and under some circumstances—to commit adultery.” The article argued that humans are genetically predisposed or programmed to be unfaithful to a marriage partner. If this is so, then how can one be held responsible for one’s actions? After all, this desire for infidelity is not really a matter of personal choice; it is really of genetic origin. Such types of genetic-origin perspectives are becoming more and more popular, justifying various behaviors that were once considered immoral.

However, “How can evolutionary psychologists be so sure?” Time answered its own question: “In part, their faith rests on the whole data base of evolutionary biology.”2 That appears to be the crucial issue—faith!

While it is indeed true that human beings are born with sinful natures, and each one of us has certain sinful tendencies and predispositions, the question is: In what or in whom do we place our “faith”? Do we put our faith in evolutionary hypotheses? Or, do we place our faith in the God of the Bible, who is willing and indeed able to make us into new creatures in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17)? Do we believe in the spurious speculation that our genes determine how we live our lives? Or, do we believe in the power of the gospel to transform the one who accepts Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16)?

More and more scientists do recognize the truth that, while genes contribute to personality traits, they do not entirely determine them or dictate what we choose to do. As John Ratey, a neuropsychiatrist at Harvard University, recently put it: “‘Genes do not make a man gay, or violent, or fat, or a leader. Genes merely make proteins.…We humans are not prisoners of our genes or our environment. We have free will.’”3

In brief, we are born in sin, yes; we are prone to do evil, yes; but, we have the power of choice to do that which is good; to be “overcomers” through God’s Spirit (see Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 21:7; etc.).

Mechanical-protection philosophy

A second approach to some human quandaries is the philosophy that advocates mechanical protection as the best option. According to the December 2004 United Nations report on AIDS, about 40 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS.4 And about 20 million have died of the disease.

In the year 2002, about 3.1 million people died of AIDS worldwide; 2.3 million of these deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. Some years before this report came out, one African country decided to promote the use of condoms and provide them to many institutions. In fact, the government urged every church, including Seventh-day Adventist congregations, to display condoms in the foyer and to distribute them to their members in a desperate bid to defeat this dreaded and deadly disease. An Adventist pastor from that country asked me, “What should I do? The government wants me to do this.” In such a situation, what should Adventists do? What is the compassionate, Christ-centered, scriptural approach to this issue?

Dr. Harvy Elder of Loma Linda University, who is actively involved on the issue of AIDS, including preventive measures, notes the following case study of Uganda. Starting in 1986, nationwide education sought to change moral behavior in cooperation with the religious community, schools, and the military. These all promoted abstinence until marriage and then faithfulness within marriage. Testing and intervention methods were improved. The results were phenomenal. Sexual activity among boys 13-16 years old declined from 60 percent to 5 percent, and among girls of the same age group the drop was from 24 percent to 2 percent. Male virginity from 15-19 years of age increased from 32 percent to 55 percent, while female virginity increased from 38 percent to 45 percent. Premarital sex by men declined from 60 percent to 23 percent, while premarital sex by women declined 53 percent to 16 percent. Men with more than one sex partner declined from 86 percent to 29 percent; and women with more than one partner from 75 percent to 7 percent.

Later, after these major declines, condoms were introduced. Thus, in the late 1990s, with increased emphasis on mechanical protection, there was decline in self-control, with increasing numbers of partners and increasing HIV rates.5

Similarly, since the “True Love Waits” abstinence movement arrived on the scene in the United States in 1993, “rates of teenage sexual activity, pregnancies, diseases and abortions have fallen for 12 unbroken years,” notes Erin Curry. Put simply, “young people who pledge virginity until marriage have lower rates of STDs [sexually transmitted diseases] and engage in fewer risky sexual behaviors.”6

Now, it may be true that some who use condoms for pre-marital or extra-marital sex may be “protected” from some physical harm—from AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, etc. But this type of activity does not protect one from emotional, psychological, spiritual, and moral devastation. Anyone who is acquainted with the Bible realizes that the human is an integrated being.

As committed Adventists, we need to say to any who may be tempted to use condoms for extramarital sex: “We know that the secular world alleges that you can protect yourself mechanically through condoms when indulging in sexual promiscuity; but, remember that the body is an integrated whole. Indeed, it is classified as ‘the temple of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 6:19, NKJV). Don’t fall for the falsehoods of this fallen world. Live the biblical way.”

While it is true that HIV/AIDS can be contracted through dirty needles, blood transfusions, rape, etc., that is not the point of discussion in this article. The issue being considered here is the danger of secular thinking patterns that promote unbiblical lifestyle choices. Sadly, many innocent babies also get HIV/AIDS during birth or breast-feeding; others may contract it through abusive relationships. All, however, need to be treated with true Christlike compassion, as chidren of God, and not shunned simply due to having HIV/AIDS.

G. C. Berkouwer, noted theologian, puts it this way: “The Biblical view of man, shows him to us in an impressive diversity, but…it never loses sight of the unity of the whole man.”7 Medical and social scientists have confirmed that there is an integral relationship between mind and body. Since human beings are made in the image of God, we are to reflect that image in everything we do.

Politically-correct terminology

A third attempt to escape from tough issues is to hide beneath the sinking sand of political correctness. In mid-2002 a CNN news report discussed the financial scandals involving United States companies Enron and WorldCom. When CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer called the accounting problems “fuzzy math,” the guest being interviewed immediately disagreed, saying: “It is out and out fraud!”

It is indeed interesting to observe how language has changed. No longer is promiscuity called “fornication”; it is “being sexually active.” “Prostitutes” are classified as “commercial sex workers.” When innocent civilians are “killed” during war, it is called “collateral damage.” Homosexuality, once categorized as “deviant behavior,” is simply an “alternative lifestyle.”8

This type of manipulation of terminology can be seen even within the Christian community, where, for example, deliberate deception is referred to as “a diversionary tactic,” an “imaginative strategy,” a “playful trick,” or “a very practical solution.” Whatever happened to the challenge to call a spade a spade? A renowned Christian writer summons us to “call sin by its right name. Declare what God has said in regard to lying, Sabbathbreaking, stealing, idolatry, and every other evil.”9

Isaiah 5:20 warns: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil” (NKJV). In place of the word “woe” some Bible translations use the term “cursed” or “destruction to.” This word woe in the Hebrew language is often used in connection with funeral laments. The New English Translation actually says, “Those who call good evil are as good as dead.”

Be careful of politically correct perspectives. Why? Because many user-friendly terms tend to minimize the evil of certain practices, and make it more difficult for people to see the true sinfulness of these actions and therefore make it more difficult to see the need of a Savior.

The summons is to declare definitively “right” what God calls right, and “wrong” what God calls wrong, but to do so in a compassionate, Christlike spirit, so that people will see the need of a Savior. Then they will turn to Christ, and He will offer them the forgiveness and the cleansing as stated in 1 John 1:9 (NKJV): “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Non-judgmental accommodation

Finally, the concern of biblical standards is wished away by appealing to non-judgmental accommodation. Many Adventists are painfully aware of the cascade of questions concerning lifestyle issues that have been arising among us—challenges ranging from substance abuse, to sexual behavior, to Sabbath observance. Admittedly, there are some who believe that the Adventist Church and its institutions, including its schools, should be more “open” and “accepting” and should “keep up with the times,” meaning we should relax our position on certain church standards such as dancing, the use of ornamental jewelry, etc.

Indeed, an Adventist social scientist says that “it seems almost certain” that the prohibition of ornamental jewelry “will not hold in the near future of the church.”10 In fact, a volume published in the year 2001 on Adventist lifestyle issues, warns that “if we continue taking a hard-line, unbending stand regarding less morally defined issues such as [ornamental] jewelry,…we can expect to continue seeing them [i.e., the youth] leave our church, many of them never to return.”11

While such dire predictions may sound dismally perplexing, amazingly, carefully researched historical trends, at least in the United States, prove precisely the opposite! Referring to the book Acts of Faith, published in the year 2000, Adventist sociologist Edwin Hernandez notes: “Recent research shows that as mainline denominations relaxed their traditional observance of the [Sunday] Sabbath and other time-consuming practices, members were deprived of the benefits of belonging to such a religion—the distinctive sense of identity and communal belonging. This situation led to a continuing precipitous pattern of membership decline. Between 1960 and 1990, the following mainline denominations had significant membership decline: [United] Methodists—39 percent; [United] Presbyterians—34 percent; [American Baptists—50 percent]; United Church of Christ—48 percent; and Episcopalians—46 percent.12

On average, these five mainline churches declined 43 percent, as they became more accommodating and more tolerant by relaxing their lifestyle standards. “Will relaxing the [lifestyle] standards [of the Adventist Church] in order to make them more reasonable and palatable—thus less costly—to modern sensibilities lead to a more vibrant faith?” asks Hernandez. He correctly concludes, based on the considerable evidence from the study of other Protestant denominations that have done this, that the results of lowering standards are indeed “devastating.”

Even before the above scientific analysis was done, Methodist preacher Dean Kelley wrote Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.13 A decade later, in l982, Kelley was invited to present a paper at Andrews University, on essentially the same issue. He opened his remarks with: “It’s a little ironic, I think, that somebody from one of the declining churches should come to talk about church growth to a body that is growing at very significant, precisely consistent rates.” Later in his presentation Kelley made the following tongue-in-cheek observation: “If Adventists want to stop growing and begin declining like everybody else, all they have to do is emphasize that abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine isn’t really essential to Salvation. Decide that vegetarianism isn’t actually all that important, and foot washing is a little tacky.…Recognize that…tithing, like the requirements already mentioned, can be a form of righteousness by works. And (I am almost unable to mention this) introduce the idea that one can worship as well on Sunday as on Saturday!”14

In simple terms, Kelley was saying: “If you want your church to die, then get rid of your standards and be just like the rest of us.”

There are some who say, “Oh, but you cannot prove the Adventist position on jewelry from Scripture.” Angel Rodriguez has done a painstaking analysis on the whole issue of jewelry in Scripture. Notice his basic summary: “The Adventist standard of jewelry is supported by contextual analysis of the biblical texts.”15

But our standards must always be Christ-centered. Peter speaks about our “good conduct in Christ” (1 Peter 3:16, NKJV), or as the NIV puts it: “good behavior in Christ.” The NET states that others will “see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ.” Christ-centered church standards—that is, “godly living”—thus translates into positive witnessing opportunities. The way we live our lives will be a living testimony that naturally attracts people to Jesus Christ.

We must uphold Bible-based, Christ-centered standards. Otherwise, based upon the clear evidence from other churches that have abandoned Christian standards, our church will die. If we become like the world, there will be no reason for others to join us, because we will be just like the world.

Yes, let’s be open—open to the Holy Spirit, open to the Word, but not to worldly ways.

A personal challenge

We have considered a few examples of secular thought patterns that are afloat, affecting the lifestyle choices and moral behavior of some believers. In Colossians 2:8 (NIV), Paul cautions: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” That is the basic choice all must face: Human tradition or Jesus Christ? So, as Paul challenges: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5, ESV).

The Scripture summons us: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2, NKJV). For, as we have the mind of Christ developed in us, God will work through our transformed lives, to attract others to Jesus Christ.

Ron du Preez (D.Min., Andrews University; Th.D., Theological Ethics, University of South Africa) is a pastor in the Michigan Conference. Previously he has taught at Southern Adventist University in Tennessee, and has been a missionary in the Far East and in Africa. He can be contacted at faithethics@yahoo.com or by mail at P.O. Box 407, Berrien Springs, Michigan 49103, U.S.A.

REFERENCES

  1. Gary R. Collins, The Magnificent Mind (Waco, Texas: Word, 1985), p. 36.
  2. Robert Wright, Time (15 August 1994), pp. 44-52 (emphasis added).
  3. John Ratey, User’s Guide to the Brain (New York: Vintage, 2002), 34; quoted in Vicki Griffin, “The Learning Brain,” Lake Union Herald (April 2004), p. 10.
  4. See http://www.unaids.org/wad2004/EPIupdate2004_html_en/epi04_00_en.htm.
  5. “AIDS,” Journal of Health & Healing, 26:4 (2005): pp. 21, 22.
  6. Erin Curry, “New Analysis Nulls Claims That Virginity Pledges Don’t Work,” Baptist Press (22 July 2005); see http://www.baptistpress.org/bpnews.asp?ID=21261.
  7. G. C. Berkouwer, Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1962), p. 200 (emphasis added).
  8. For a sound biblical study of homosexuality, see Donald J. Wold, Out of Order: Homosexuality in the Bible and the Ancient Near East (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1998).
  9. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1940), p. 806 (emphasis added); see also Education (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press, 1903), p. 57.
  10. Roger Dudley, Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church: Personal Stories from a 10-Year Study (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2000), p. 41.
  11. Keavin Hayden, Lifestyles of the Remnant (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2001), p. 125; see also, pp. 56-74.
  12. Edwin I. Hernandez, “A Call for the Renewal of Adventism’s Communal Consciousness,” Journal of Research on Christian Education 10 (Summer 2001): pp. 291-292. He was referring to the work of Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2000), p. 152. In his overview of Presbyterians, as an example of this declining membership trend, Hernandez specifically refers to the issue of “dress codes” as one area they relaxed in an attempt to promote so-called “openness” and “freedom of conscience.”
  13. See Dean M. Kelley, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).
  14. Dean M. Kelley, “How Adventism Can Stop Growing,” Adventists Affirm (Spring 1991), p. 48.
  15. Angel Manuel Rodriguez, Jewelry in the Bible: What You Always Wanted to Know but Were Afraid to Ask (Silver Spring, Maryland: Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists), p. 110.