David M. VanDrunen
Ethics as Worship: The Pursuit of Moral Discipleship, a massive work, aims to provide a thorough account of Christian ethics from an evangelical perspective. The authors, who teach ethics at Baptist institutions, have a strong commitment to biblical authority, which is evident throughout their text. Reformed readers will find their theological framework and moral conclusions generally familiar and agreeable. There are exceptions. For instance, they treat the crucial issue of sanctification as primarily a human work (in which God’s grace and Spirit provide crucial help) rather than as a work of God, as the Westminster Standards define it. Another example is their conclusion that Christians never have the right to initiate divorce or to remarry after divorce, contrary to Westminster Confession of Faith 24.5–6.
Although Reformed readers will find the authors’ moral conclusions generally agreeable, it’s not as clear whether they will find reading this large book profitable. This conclusion isn’t provoked by disagreement on any particular ethical issue but by a concern that the authors haven’t adequately captured where the heart of the Christian moral life lies or how the New Testament itself describes it.
The authors’ goal to treat ethics as worship sounds intriguing and even promising. But this promise falls rather flat. It quickly becomes clear that the “worship” the authors have in mind isn’t worship proper—that is, the assembling of God’s covenant people on the Lord’s Day—but worship in the sense of honoring God in all areas of life. Christians of course should seek to honor God in all things, and labeling this “worship” isn’t necessarily wrong, but a couple of problems emerge. For one thing, while the authors frequently claim to address issues in ways that will “maximize the worship of God” (or similar expressions), it’s seldom clear what this alleged focus on worship actually contributes to their arguments in defense of moral positions. These arguments invariably make sense on their own, and thus the authors’ frequent references to “worshipful behavior” (272), “worshipful motivation” (368), or “worshipful response” (682) are superfluous. Why use ridiculous expressions such as “worshipful sexual relationships” (607) when that simply means marriages that adhere to Christian sexual morality?
But the bigger problem is that this long book gives readers no impression that worship proper is of any great concern to the moral life, or that ordering one’s time around six days of work and one day of rest and worship has anything to do with “moral discipleship” (to borrow the book’s subtitle). This is a major omission and makes the book’s title sadly ironic.
The book also has a disproportionate focus on big issues, as I’ll call them. Part 4, “Application,” is about 60 percent of the book and treats more than a dozen controversial matters, all of which could be labeled “culture-war” issues. These issues are indeed important in their own right, but should a book promoting “moral discipleship” devote so much space to them, especially considering what it leaves out? One problem with this focus is that much of the book addresses issues that have little to do with the actual moral lives of the vast majority of Christians most of the time. Surely the biggest moral challenges most readers of this review have experienced today don’t concern their view of nuclear war or capital punishment or whether to enter a homosexual marriage or pursue physician-assisted suicide. But I suspect that righteous use of the tongue has been a moral challenge for just about every reader today—and yet that issue is of little importance to Ethics as Worship.
Another difficulty with the big-issues approach is that it makes this book’s ethical focus look little like the New Testament’s ethical focus. The content of chapters 12–14
illustrates. In more than one hundred pages, these chapters consider environmental stewardship, capital punishment, and war. Weighty matters, to be sure, but can anyone read the New Testament and think that these are the moral issues that Christ and his apostles thought were most crucial for the Christian life? Yet the authors overlook an issue such as righteous speech, to which the New Testament (and Proverbs) devotes so much attention. Authors have liberty to address topics they wish, and readers should generally respect their decisions. But it also seems fair to think that the priorities of a book seeking to offer a biblical view of Christian moral discipleship should roughly correspond to the priorities of the New Testament itself.
One thing the authors might have done to alleviate these difficulties is to focus more on the Christian virtues, such as the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Although the authors suggest early in the book that virtue is an important part of ethics, it ends up playing only a small role in their work. Yet the virtues are both a frequent biblical theme and pervasively relevant for the Christian life day by day. Consider chapter 16. In the midst of the authors’ long discussion of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, they include a two-paragraph note about hope (542–543). Hope is certainly relevant in considering these big issues, but I wonder if the authors have put the emphasis in the right place. Most Christians will never seriously consider assisted suicide, and yet the authors devote the bulk of a long chapter to it. In contrast, hope is a virtue that ought to shape the attitude and conduct of Christians every day of their lives, and the authors treat hope in less than a page.
The author is an OP minister and professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Westminster Seminary California.
Ethics as Worship: The Pursuit of Moral Discipleship, by Mark D. Liederbach and Evan Lenow. P&R, 2021. Hardcover, 784 pages, $37.50.
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