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01 March 2008

The Basics: Dignity of all people

The Basics: Dignity of all people

In our 11-part series looking at how the Alliance's Basis of Faith is Good News for our neighbours, Justin Thacker discusses...

4. The dignity of all people made male and female in God's image to love, be holy and care for creation, yet corrupted by sin, which incurs divine wrath and judgement.

The dignity of all people ... yet corrupted by sin. In recent years, the inevitable tension between these two phrases has been the source of much theological debate in evangelical circles. This has been particularly evident in relation to our evangelistic imperative.

It is hard to spot the tone of acceptance in the declaration
"you brood of vipers".

On the one hand, there are those who would wish to emphasise what is often called our original goodness. They rightly draw attention to the fact that we are made in the image of God, and that when God looked at His creation He declared it to be very good. According to this view, the message we need to proclaim, particularly to those on the margins of society, is that God loves us unconditionally, that we are people of worth and that in Him our lives can be meaningful.

On the other hand, there are those who would focus upon our original and ongoing sinfulness, the result of which is that we face certain and eternal judgement. Given this, they suggest that the important message we need to share is one of rescue from an eternity in hell.

How should we respond to these varying approaches? Is the primary message one of love and acceptance, or is it one of judgement and condemnation? You will notice that by putting the choice in those terms, I have clearly prejudiced one side over the other. But that is not the only way to express this dilemma. I could also have asked whether our primary task is that of saving people from an eternity without God, or whether it is to make them feel good about themselves in the here and now. Once again, to present the choice in those terms is to prejudice the debate.

Yet theological disputes frequently follow this well-worn path. An over-emphasis of some aspect by one side does not trigger a robust affirmation of the centre ground by others, but rather a swing to what they perceive to be the opposing emphasis. This is justified by the claim that we need to emphasise this aspect of the issue because the other side are emphasising the other.

However, all too often what happens in response is that the first side then swings even further away from the centre ground in order to counter what they perceive to be a new biblical imbalance, again justifying this in terms of countering a one-sided presentation. So we have an endless pendulum swing whereby the two poles of many debates move further and further apart, not only from the true centre ground, but even from what each side really thinks.

A whole Gospel

Given this, it is our job as evangelical Christians to refuse to participate in such polemical partisanship. The call upon us is to proclaim the whole Gospel, not just the aspects that we think others have ignored. That is not to say that such a task is easy, or that we ever achieve it perfectly. However, we must be clear that this is at least what we are aiming for.

As we examine the life of Jesus Christ, we rarely find the kind of polarisation that all too often characterises our discourse and practices.

Consider, for instance, His conversation with the Samaritan woman recorded in John 4. Was His message one of sin and judgement, or was it one of love and acceptance? It was clearly both. That Jesus, a male Jew, sat down and talked with her alone communicates something of the "dignity of all people". He was demonstrating that adulterous Samaritan women were not beyond the kingdom that He had inaugurated; they too could be recipients of the good news He was proclaiming.

Yet, that message of affirmation was also accompanied by an acknowledgment of her sin and her need of a Saviour. She was not left with the idea that Jesus was a really nice man and she could just carry on her life as it had been. Neither was she left with the thought that Jesus wouldn't have anything to do with her until she repented of her sinful life. Rather, she knew clearly that the kingdom of God was for her, despite her sin, and that Jesus Christ was the person through whom that salvation could be known.

We see the same thing in Jesus' engagement with the "sinful woman" of Luke 7. While Simon the Pharisee wanted to do nothing but condemn, Jesus' acceptance of her remarkable display of affection demonstrates the respect that He afforded her and the dignity with which He considered her. Yet He also acknowledges her "many sins" and need of salvation. With Christ, there is no shirking from the reality of sin or of judgement, but neither is there a failure to show love and compassion, even to the astonishment and chagrin of the religious elite.

Of course, there were other times when Jesus appeared to emphasise one aspect more than another. It is hard to spot the tone of acceptance in the declaration "you brood of vipers". This fact reminds us that at specific times and in specific contexts it may be appropriate to give a more tailored response. The important point is that the kind of response we give is driven by the needs of the person we are dealing with.

The problem with us is that far too often we situate ourselves either in the condemn-and-burn camp, or the love-and-accept camp, perhaps driven more by our personalities and fallible theologies, than by the needs of those we encounter.

Might I suggest, then, that the predominant pattern we find in Jesus is neither Jesus the accusatory judge nor Jesus the social worker, but Jesus the Christ: one who displays the full Gospel. The challenge for us is to stand similarly on the centre ground, proclaiming both the dignity of all and our corruption by sin. To occupy such a position is not easy but it is, with God's help, where we must seek to be - for it is also where we will find Christ.

Justin Thacker is the Alliance's Head of Theology

This series is not a commentary on the Basis of Faith, neither is it an explanation of how the Basis is interpreted by the Alliance. Rather, it focuses on the relevance of the Basis to spreading the Good News.

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