Christian ethics (part 4): participatory and communal

This post continues a series exploring Fully Human in Christ: The Incarnation as the End of Christian Ethics by Todd Speidell. For other posts in the series, click a number: 12, 3, 5.  

Last time, we noted that the Christian ethic of Thomas F Torrance (TFT) is relational/filial rather than moralistic/legal. It is an ethic exemplified and so defined by Christ's life and love -- an ethic which we as God's children participate in together by the Spirit.

Lost and Found by Greg Olsen (used with artist's permission)

This time we'll note that for TFT this participatory, communal Christian ethic shows forth in a life of serving others -- the service both exemplified and commanded by Christ. TFT comments:

The content of the commandment and the content of the service in obedience to it derive from the self-giving of God himself in Jesus Christ the Lord. He gives what he commands and commands what he gives. He commands a service of love, and he gives the love that empowers the service. (p. 26)

Thus we understand that TFT's ethic is not about legalistic obedience to a moralistic code, nor is it about some sort of political movement, It's about obedience to a person -- participating in the other-centered, love and mercy of Jesus Christ himself. And as Scripture makes clear, Jesus is to be found in our world, serving the downtrodden -- the sick, hungry, thirsty, naked and incarcerated; the "least" of King Jesus' brothers and sisters (Matthew 25:35-40). As Speidell notes, 

[Jesus] has stationed himself in the concrete actualities of human life where the bounds and structures of existence break down under the onslaught of disease and want, sin and guilt, death and judgment, in order that he may serve man in re-creating his relation to God and realizing the response to the divine mercy. It is thus that Jesus Christ mediates in himself the healing reconciliation of God with man and man with God in the form, as it were, of a meeting of himself with himself in the depths of human need. (p. 26)  

If the Church is to live out fully a truly Christian ethic, it will actively share with Jesus in what he is doing in reaching out in redemptive love to address what TFT calls "the desperate need and plight of men" (p. 27). In this participation, the Church must carefully note that in his redemptive work, Jesus "comes clothed in his Gospel"--he does not come using tactics and methods that are less than good news, less than redemptive. And so the Church must follow suit, resisting these two temptations:

  1. Participating wrongly. The Church must resist the temptation to use worldly power in seeking to join Jesus in his service of mercy. This also means resisting the temptation to use worldly power structures.
  2. Failing to participate. The Church must not abdicate its responsibility to join Jesus in his service of mercy. It must avoid the temptation to retreat from its calling into a "spiritual ministry of forgiveness" which "concedes corporate responsibility to the State for the betterment of human welfare." The Church must not run away from the hard, sometimes agonizing work "of being merciful as God is merciful" (p. 27).
While Speidell notes that TFT's Christ-centered and gospel-shaped ethic is not primarily moral or political, he notes that it is, nevertheless, action-oriented with a focus on sharing in Christ's service of love and mercy to a world in desperate need. In that regard, he points out that Christ calls his Church to a three-fold ministry of service:

  1. Active in intercessory prayer. This aspect of ministry, which is about directly relying upon God, is also a primary way in which the Church directly engages the world by joining with Jesus in his ministry of intercession on behalf of the world. The Church must never underestimate the importance and power of intercessory prayer.
  2. Faithful in evangelistic witness. Rather than hiding behind its walls, the Church must be willing to testify on behalf of those who suffer, even to the point of suffering itself in order to "witness on behalf of people in their estrangement and separation and alienation from God" (p. 27).
  3. Proactive in healing internal division. The Church must not only witness to the reconciled life, it must live it. To do that it must work to heal its internal divisions that "mirror the divisive forces of evil in the world" (p. 27).
Reflecting on the Church's mission to participate in Christ's ministry of service to a hurting world, Speidell notes that

the work of Christ is the work of the Father, in whom we participate by the power and presence of the Spirit. Following Christ in discipleship, which involves "ethics" too, means being where Christ is on behalf of the poor and hungry and thirsty and needy. For that is where we ourselves meet Christ, and invite those whom we encounter in the presence of Christ in mutual need of God's grace given to us and for us. (p. 29)

Speidell then sums up, referring to the writing of Ray Anderson, a student of TFT: 

The early Church helped transform society, not by political and ideological programs or theologies of liberation, but by being faithful to the gospel of God's intervention, redemption, and transformation of our human and social existence. The Church's ministry and mission is thus proclamation of the Word and pastoral visitation and counsel "to people as persons" -- not as "pawns of politicians" or secular psychology and counseling as a replacement of the personal ministry of the Word. Christ has redeemed the whole of human existence as God among us in our place and on our behalf. (p. 29)