One Pastor’s Perspective on Christians and Government

Note: I’m sure there will be Christians who disagree with this post. I would be grateful if this were part of a larger conversation rather than a monologue. If you have a different, and biblical, way of thinking through this issue, I’d be grateful to hear from you. Or if you want clarification on something I’ve said, I’d welcome that too.

Over the last year churches have had to deal with restrictions on gathering because of COVID. Depending on where in the world you live, your church has been unable to meet in person for long stretches of time or only if those attending adhere to certain guidelines. Where I live in Nova Scotia, Canada, we’ve been able to meet in person since last July if we socially distance. Though due to a significant rise in COVID cases in our province, we are currently on a two-week shutdown.

Am I going to insist, despite our provincial government’s policy, that our church gather in person anyway? I am not. And even if I were inclined not to follow our government’s mandate, there’s a very good chance that I’d be alone in church on Sunday. My congregation, perhaps because they are largely older, are particularly cautious.

But we are already aware that there are churches who have refused to follow any of the guidelines. The claim is that doing so would be a violation of not only their specific convictions but actual biblical teaching. Furthermore, restrictions on faith gatherings are sometimes being characterized by those who refuse to abide by them as discrimination or even persecution. 

The question is whether or not this a fair assessment of the situation. Or to put it another way: when and on what basis can people of faith legitimately engage in the refusal to abide by such government mandates? 

And before I get to what my understanding of this is according to Scripture, let me underscore the fact that I am not an expert of any sort when it comes to the issue of church and state, what the Bible says about governing authorities, and when believers and other citizens can and should responsibly engage in civil disobedience. What I am about to say is based on my current best reading of Scripture. To that end, I am open to being corrected if I am misinterpreting Scripture or misapplying it. However, anyone who seeks to correct me would need to convince me of their interpretation of Scripture and not simply assert that their position is more sound than mine. 

One passage we need to consider is written by the apostle Peter:

Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves. Honor everyone. Love the brothers and sisters. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Peter 2:13-17

Perhaps the first point to make concerns the form of governmental authority which was in place at the time Peter wrote these words. That is, we’re not talking about a democratic government system to which we are accustomed. People in Peter’s day didn’t vote for their emperors or governors. Not only that, but the authority in question here is Emperor Nero, a corrupt and violent leader who, according to the ancient historian Tacitus, burned Christians alive.

This makes it all the more curious and perhaps alarming that Peter uses the word submit. The word means to “place ourselves under” or in this case to live according to the governing authorities. As one commentator notes, “there could be few rulers indeed whose claims on loyalty would be sustained by less personal merit” than Nero. Why, then, would Peter exhort his readers to submit not only to the authorities generally, but Nero specifically?

For Peter to tell believers to honor an emperor such as Nero, the standard for civil disobedience must be especially high for those who claim allegiance to Christ. Indeed, the exhortations in 1 Peter are meant to emphasize that Christians are also called to be law-abiding citizens and that their compliance with the governing authorities is one component of their witness to the gospel.

Peter is not the only New Testament writer who writes of the relationship between believers and the governing authorities. Quite possibly the pre-eminent passage on this matter is written by another apostle, a contemporary of Peter’s:

Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the one in authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor. 

Romans 13:1-7

Much like Peter, Paul emphasizes the duty of Christians to be good citizens. But Paul goes further here than Peter by saying governing authorities are instituted by God. He refers to the state as “God’s servant.” Those who resist governing authorities are “opposing God’s command.” 

Whatever else we say about the relationship between Christians and governing authorities, we have to contend with what both Peter and Paul are telling us. If a Christian holds the conviction that they need to disobey a particular law or mandate of the government, they need to have an especially compelling reason to do so. 

Perhaps we can put it this way: The most fundamentally compelling reason is if Christians are being forced to choose between obeying God and obeying the governing authorities. In such cases, Christians are obliged to disregard the governing authorities. 

In Acts 4:19-20, Peter and John were told under threat not to tell people about Jesus anymore. While these were religious and not governing authorities, how Peter and John responded is instructive and important. This is what they say: “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. The authorities were asking Peter and John to stop telling others about Jesus. Peter, John, and other followers of Jesus were compelled to share this good news with anyone who would listen. Not only that, they were expressly commissioned by Jesus prior to his glorious ascension to do precisely that. So even if the governing authorities of the time had made such an act illegal, the disciples of Jesus would have been compelled and even obligated to proclaim Jesus anyway. 

In any case, Christians, I think, can engage in civil disobedience or be non-compliant with a mandate or law that would either (1) contradict what we are clearly taught in Scripture and/or (2) prevent us from sharing the good news of Jesus with others. So, for instance, a governing authority cannot force a believer who is a medical doctor to perform abortions. Abortion, being murder, violates the clear teaching of Scripture. The government also cannot reasonably expect Christians to obey a law that would prevent them from telling others about Jesus. Jesus commands us to tell other people about him.

For our part, those of us who are followers of Jesus have to be willing to accept the consequences of our decisions. What was true of the early disciples, like Peter and John, and is also true, say, of Christians in China today, also has to be so with us. If obeying God and following Jesus means being arrested, so be it. Let’s not forget that the apostle Paul wrote a number of his letters while imprisoned. John had his vision recorded in the Book of Revelation on Patmos, an island to which he had been exiled.

Now, as far as I can reasonably tell, none of the current COVID restrictions prevent me from obeying what Scripture clearly teaches or from telling others about Jesus. In other words, I can very easily live out my life as a follower of Jesus even while abiding by the current guidelines put in place.

Now, whether the guidelines are reasonable in themselves, or absolutely necessary, is beside the point. Rather, if a Christian or a church chooses to ignore them, they need to look outside Scripture for their reasons.

But what might someone say in response to this? For instance, what Scriptural support might one give for violating the restrictions on gathering in person? 

Here is an example to which some may point. In Hebrew 10:23–25 we read this: Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.

The author of Hebrews recognizes that believers need spiritual support and encouragement to persevere in their faith. Living as a follower of Jesus requires community. Those who neglect Christian community are at risk of being much more spiritually vulnerable. And so the author exhorts readers to continue meeting in order to encourage one another.

However, let us be clear on this. Nowhere does this passage describe in detail how such meeting together should take place. Prominent pastors who have ignored gathering restrictions on the basis of this passage (but surely not only this passage?) seem to be interpeting it through the lens of how people in their particular cultural setting expect the church to gather. 

However, the writer of Hebrews wasn’t speaking about Christians gathering by the hundreds, much less thousands, in a modern church facility. Indeed, the early church met in one another’s homes. Pastors and others who conclude that they can gather their people in such large numbers in violation of government authority in our current situation cannot do so based on what we read in Hebrews. Put simply, we can apply this passage in Hebrews without having to gather together in large numbers in our modern church buildings.

Of course, I’m sure it’s possible someone can make a case as to why churches ought to be able to meet in large numbers despite COVID. My main point here is that it’s very difficult to do so on the basis of Scripture, from a specifically Christian perspective. 

At least as far as I can see, taking into account what the New Testament says of our relationship to government as instituted by God, alongside the apostolic example, means that, generally speaking, Christians can in good conscience abide by the COVID guidelines without the fear that they are disobeying God and his word. I think the burden of proof lies with those who posit otherwise.

What I want to say, too, is that I think those of us who are Christians need to be able to distinguish between obeying God even if it means disobeying a given law and fighting for religious freedom so that laws which put us in that position do not exist. We may or may not be able to change an existing law or how the governing authorities act towards people and communities of faith, but we should not conflate obeying God with the exercise of political power for the purpose of protecting religious freedom. 

It’s not that we shouldn’t work to ensure that citizens, whether Christian or otherwise, have the freedom to worship and live according to their beliefs and conscience. We certainly ought to do so. However, in an increasingly post-Christian culture we need to be prepared to follow Christ whatever law our government puts in place. While having religious freedom is always ideal, it’s never a guarantee. Plenty of Christians around the world know this all too well.

These are strange, challenging, and often confusing times. Christians in good faith are reaching different conclusions about how to follow Christ and the dictates of their consciences. Each of us is responsible for applying the teaching of Scripture to our everyday lives—including in our relationship to governing authorities. May we all exercise due diligence in this process, because though we are all called by God to live as responsible citizens, we are all also accountable to him for the manner in which we do so.

Sexuality, the Christian Faith, and Life in a Cardi B Culture

If anyone says that sex, in itself, is bad, Christianity contradicts him at once. But, of course, when people say, ‘Sex is nothing to be ashamed of,’ they may mean ‘the state into which the sexual instinct has now got is nothing to be ashamed of’. If they mean that, I think they are wrong. I think it is everything to be ashamed of. There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips.

C.S. Lewis

Recently American hip hop artist and social media personality Cardi B made headlines and drew both praise and ire for a performance at the Grammys best described as pornographic. She was performing her hit song, “WAP,” which itself is a pornographic acronym I won’t type out in full here. To be honest, my feeling is not so much one of moral outrage or disgust as it is of sadness. Because this is a young woman made in the imago Dei, created with worth and dignity by a loving Creator, who is willingly objectifying herself in front of millions (Maybe only thousands? Who watches the Grammys anymore anyway?). Not only that, but given that the Grammys are an ostensibly “family program,” Cardi B is effectively communicating to young girls that this is how to express your femininity and personal freedom. And to boys? Is she not communicating that this is how they ought to view women, as objects of pleasure worthy of exploiting?

We live in a culture of many contradictions, not the least of which is about sex. On the one hand, our culture tells us that experiencing sexual pleasure is so important that we must do so in any way we can. Suggest a moral boundary and you will either be laughed at as prudish or accused of violating someone’s rights. Indeed, in one way or another, indulging our sexual desires is the pinnacle of human freedom and self-expression in our culture. On the other hand, those who want to indulge every sexual whim and proclivity think Christians (and the morally conservative) make far too big a deal about sex. Sex and sexual desire are natural, after all, right? So what’s the problem?

In Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, there is a direct correlation between sexual depravity and idolatry. The rejection of the God of biblical revelation leads not only to the worship of created things but also to expressing this worship, in part, through sexual immorality. The latter always leads to the former–sometimes, indeed, the latter expressly includes the former.

For instance, in the days of ancient Israel, sleeping with shrine prostitutes was a part of the practice of worshiping the gods of Canaan. When on the verge of entering the Promised Land, Moses commands the Israelites to eliminate all of the objects of Canaanite worship. In Deuteronomy 7:5–6 he says to tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, cut down their Asherah poles, and burn their carved images. For you are a holy people belonging to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be his own possession out of all the peoples on the face of the earth.

Reading such a passage, one thing we need to understand is that the rituals practiced by followers of Baal and Asherah were not harmless or admirable or noble. In Amos 2:7 we read that A man and his father have sexual relations with the same girl, profaning my holy name. In context, this is a condemnation of shrine prostitution. Both a father and his son have had sex with the same shrine prostitute as part of a religious ritual. It’s precisely this sort of activity that Moses’ commands on the eve of entering Canaan were meant to prevent.

We see the same connection between idolatry and sexual immorality in the New Testament. Here’s what the apostle Paul says:

For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made. As a result, people are without excuse. For though they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became worthless, and their senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles. Therefore God delivered them over in the desires of their hearts to sexual impurity, so that their bodies were degraded among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served what has been created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen.

Romans 1:18-25

Now, there’s a lot going on in this passage. But one thing is clear. When people reject God–whose existence is known to everyone–and effectively worship created things rather than the Creator of all things, sexual impurity and moral depravity follow.

Our Western culture is secular. God is no longer a part of the equation. We don’t need to look outside ourselves to find meaning and truth; instead, we turn ever inward, to our own feelings and desires, whatever they are and wherever they lead us. And because of this, there is no standard by which to measure whether anything is morally objectionable. It brings to mind a low point in the history of Israel, seen in Judges 21:25, where  it says, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever seemed right to him.”

Everyone did whatever seemed right to him. Isn’t that where we are in our culture? Doesn’t everyone simply do what is right in their own eyes? Without an external authority, a king, in this case God, then what stops anyone from indulging in whatever desires they have?

I think of a passage from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: One character asks another, “If there’s no God and no life beyond the grave, doesn’t that mean that men will be allowed to do whatever they want?”

Without accountability and the knowledge of impending judgement, what are we capable of doing?

The above quotation from C.S. Lewis speaks of the notion of shame. But when we can do whatever we want, there is no need for shame. Or to feel shame. Or to regard our actions and behavior as shameful. There is no moral arbiter beyond whatever we desire. And even though many find them offensive, these words below of the apostle Paul, continuing from the verses above, draw this point out explicitly:

For this reason God delivered them over to disgraceful passions. Their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. The men in the same way also left natural relations with women and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty of their error.

Romans 1:26-27

There are forms of sexual activity which are indeed shameful. Just because we desire something doesn’t mean it is right or good or beautiful. But they may seem that way to some because either they have explicitly rejected God or hold to a distorted view of God, one not found in Scripture.

Of course, the Bible has much more to say about sexuality than this.

In Genesis 1 and 2 we see a much different picture of human personhood and sexuality. There, human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creative action:

So God created man
in his own image;
he created him in the image of God;
he created them male and female.

Genesis 1:27

The relational, personal God of Scripture created relational, personal beings. Us. So the thing to see here is that having been made in the image of God, we can only truly understand ourselves if we also acknowledge God as our Creator.

Then we have this:

Then the Lord God made the rib he had taken from the man into a woman and brought her to the man. And the man said:

This one, at last, is bone of my bone
and flesh of my flesh;
this one will be called “woman,”
for she was taken from man.

This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh. Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame.

Genesis 2:22-25

In my life I have also known shame because of sex, because of how sexuality is exploited by severing it from its God-given purposes. What person in our culture hasn’t at least been minimally exposed to pornography? I guess all you need to do is watch the Grammys these days.

Yet, having been married for nearly 19 years, let me say, without getting too personal, that I know exactly what this passage is talking about when it says Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame.

So anyone who accuses Christians of being “anti-sex” miss the point entirely. Rather, sex in its proper context is a beautiful gift of the Creator. Only when we separate sexual intimacy from the moral horizon in which God is our Creator does sex degrade into something shameful. The man and the woman in Genesis felt no shame. Sin had yet to enter the world, separate humanity from intimacy with its Creator, and therefore distort the intimacy we were made to have with one another.

A culture in which Cardi B is not only free to perform a pornogaphic dance to a pornographic song with another woman, but is celebrated and admired for doing so, is clearly getting closer to reaching the apogee of having rejected God as Creator and moral judge. When people elevate their most sinful inclinations in the name of personal self-expression and freedom, they are truthfully more enslaved than ever. And for those of us who are followers of Jesus, who acknowledge God as Creator and moral judge, our first response shouldn’t be outrage at such displays but sadness over how individuals lovingly designed by God have, by rejecting him, also rejected their own humanity and the dignity and beauty that are intrinsic to it.

Religion and Politics Part 3: Living By a Different Narrative

“But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Luke 6:27–28

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay,” says the Lord.  But “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head.” Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.

Romans 12:14–21

If only our political leaders or, perhaps more importantly, those who demonize or canonize them, would take the above words from Scripture seriously. Knowing a perverted form of Christianity (in the form of “Christian nationalism”) had a role in last week’s attack on Capitol Hill is no less than sickening. And if the sight of “Jesus Saves” banners alongside “Trump” banners carried by people storming the Capitol building–which led to five deaths!–doesn’t lead to serious self-examination, I can’t imagine what would.

Political leaders, obviously, are also culpable. Whatever anyone makes of the alleged voter fraud in the 2020 US presidential election, it’s clear to me at least that since election day President Trump as conducted himself in an entirely egotistical, narcissistic way. No humility. No grace. No dignity. The last few months alone taint any semblance–however small–of his accomplishments while in office. He’s done himself no favours, and to that end has done a disservice to his country.

It doesn’t end there, though. Now having impeached President Trump for the second time, the Democratic Party shows itself to be no less prone to pride, division, and to be more interested in power than the interests of the nation. Really? With less than a week to go in his presidency? And now the possibility of a senate trial after Trump has left office? What an auspicious way for Biden’s first term to begin. So much for healing the division.

So much of what really motivates politicians is behind the curtain. Media interviews, tweets, soundbites, carefully crafted statements–none of this gets to the truth in an honest and truthful way. Yet the curtain is, to my reckoning, transparent, if not by design than certainly through the rhetoric we hear from the left and the right.

What happens to a nation, to a community, when those who hold polar opposite views are unable to see one another as genuine human beings? What happens when rhetoric completely overtakes dialogue? What happens when all each side of the political divide seems capable of is attacking their opponents and self-righteously defending themselves?

Let’s face it, the emperor has no clothes.

But those of us who are concerned about the welfare of our neighbourhoods, communities, and our countries don’t have to subscribe to the narrative of political opportunism, vitriol, and sensationalism. Especially those of us in the church of Jesus. In fact, if we take our Savior seriously, we absolutely cannot. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. There are no caveats here. No exceptions. No footnotes or small print.

The words of both Paul and Jesus invite us into a different, more life-giving narrative. Think of the apostle’s words from the passage above from Romans: Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good. Those supposed followers of Jesus who stormed the Capitol or who sought revenge by impeaching a president whose term is basically over reveals hearts that have indeed been conquered by evil. One of the worst kinds of evil is that which is thoroughly convinced of its righteousness. It’s the kind of evil that seeks potentially good ends but by whatever means available.

Eugene H. Peterson, in his book The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way, says this: “The North American church at present is conspicuous for replacing the Jesus way with the American way.” In this book he talks about how means and ends need to be congruent when we talk about following Jesus. He says it better: “To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us.”

Living by a different narrative, one shaped by life in the kingdom and following Jesus, means unsubscribing to the idea that politics–the ways of conducting ourselves as a community and seeking the common good–necessarily involves hating our enemies and doing whatever we can to defeat them. More than that, if succeeding in politics and having our way–even if we think it’s the best way–means we have to plunge our souls into this abyss, we’re actually better off losing the political fight. Jesus, after all, did say something about losing our lives in order to save them. In his kingdom victory may well look like defeat, but perhaps recognizing this is the start of not only saving our souls but loving our enemies.

Making Every Effort When There’s Nothing You Can Do: More Thoughts on Spiritual Formation

The process of Christ being formed in us, the process of maturation every believer is called to undergo, is called spiritual formation. In other words, the process of transformation, of growing in Christ, is the work of the Holy Spirit. Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord told his people, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:14). And God fulfilled this promise in the upper room at Pentecost (Acts 2:1—4). And while there is an indicative sense in which this is true, that the believer lives by the power of the indwelling Spirit, such truth can also be expressed as an exhortation. As Paul says, “Live by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). What this exhortation tells us is that there are two related aspects of the work of the Spirit in the process of spiritual transformation. On the one hand, we cannot grow as followers of Jesus without the power of the Spirit; on the other hand, we are also called to cooperate with the work of the Spirit in our lives in order to see transformation take place.

For something to happen, there needs to be power; for someone to be formed into the image of Jesus, they need “the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:13). In fact, in the New Testament there are several instances where the words “power” and “Spirit” are used interchangeably or in conjunction with one another. The point is simply that the person of the Spirit is the one who enables a follower of Jesus to grow as a follower of Jesus. Peter points us to this reality when he says, “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Everything needed. Commenting on these words from 2 Peter, author Mark Buchanan, in his book Hidden in Plain Sight, writes: “Everything you need for life and godliness you have already. In full. You actually don’t need any more. Not one thing—not a cotter pin or flat washer, not a doohickey or a thingamajig; nothing’s been withheld. Everything required for zoë—abundant and flourishing life—and eusebeia—a deep and real commitment to what matters most—is intact.”

During his final hours with his disciples, Jesus used more organic imagery to say essentially the same thing: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Particularly if we conceive the fruit Jesus mentions as the fruit of the Spirit, Jesus puts a more relational spin on the same idea, but the point is the very similar. To become more like Jesus, we need to be in relationship with Jesus. The power of that relationship is the Spirit. Apart from me you can do nothing. Our nothing is more than sufficiently met by Jesus’ everything.

Despite this, our role in spiritual transformation is not passive. Even Jesus says, “Abide in me,” which, if it means remaining in intimate communion with him, is hardly an effortless endeavour. Like any other relationship, ours with Jesus requires nurture, cultivation, support, and, yes, even effort. Speaking of effort, therefore, in the same passage where Peter speaks of God as giving us “everything needed” for becoming mature in Christ, he then goes to tell his readers to “make every effort” (2 Peter 1:5—8). The effort he encourages his brothers and sisters to expend is effort in adding to their faith a number of virtues that are quite similar to Paul’s list of spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22—23).

So clearly, there is a biblical expectation that those seeking to become mature in Jesus will, to paraphrase the subtitle of Barton’s book, Sacred Rhythms, “arrange their lives for spiritual transformation.” And this biblical expectation is not low, either; Peter does say, “Make every effort.” God calls believers to do everything they can do to become more like Jesus. The Christian life is active and intentional. Just as God does not force his saving love upon anyone, neither does he force our progress towards spiritual maturity. He has his role, we have ours. When we “make every effort,” we are, in effect, living by the Spirit.

It is interesting to reflect on the process of spiritual formation in the context of some of our more prominent, i.e., newsworthy, political stories. For instance, the unfolding train wreck that is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford throws into sharp relief the importance of considering character (especially but not exclusively in political, public life). The dissonance of a leader behaving in the way that Ford has yet who also insists on the quality of his leadership—itself debated by many—serves as a reminder that what we do and who we are intimately related. It’s in this respect we see a connection between the fruit and gifts of the Spirit. In a word, character counts; and character is a crucial aspect of having Christ being formed in us.

Biblically, Christian character takes shape through specific virtues. Paul provides a list of virtues he calls spiritual fruit. Found in Galatians 5:22—23, they are as follows: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Peter does something similar with his list in 2 Peter 1:5—8: “You must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.” These lists of virtues give shape to the kind of people we are called to be as followers of Christ.

Together the fruit of the Spirit give us a picture of the character of Jesus. And so for a believer to grow the fruit in his or her life is, de facto, to grow in Christlikeness, to become more like Jesus. But the obvious problem is that we cannot produce the fruit of the Spirit, as one author says, “through sheer willpower and personal discipline.” Therefore, we have a quandary. We are told by Scripture to “make every effort” to do something we cannot do by our own efforts. Apart from me you can do nothing. Apart from abiding in Jesus, attempts to be like Jesus will prove useless.

Our own inability to produce spiritual fruit is itself our starting point and the key to understanding the kind of effort we are called to exert in the process of having Christ formed in us. Thinking we can do it, that we can accomplish our own spiritual transformation, guarantees either frustration over failure or pride in our good works. In other words, the first step in making every effort toward maturity in Jesus is realizing our own utter helplessness in his presence, a helplessness defined by our limitations and our sinfulness. We must make every effort to understand what it is we cannot do.

The link between our own powerlessness and God’s infinite capacity to transform us according to the imago Dei is the person of the Spirit. “Indispensable to the life of virtue,” Buchanan says, “is the presence of the Spirit. If the Spirit does not stir, fill, and direct both our life of faith and our quest for virtue, all our virtues will grow stunted and bitter, like fruit from hardscrabble ground. Such virtue is usually no more than a repertoire of self-serving gestures.” Beginning the journey toward spiritual formation means acknowledging before God that we stand in complete need of his aid, that nothing we are called to be is something we can accomplish. Practicing spiritual disciplines means placing ourselves in the position where God is free to be about his work of forming us after the image of Jesus.

If, for example, someone struggles with impatience as I do, becoming more patient is not going to happen through my own attempts to act more patiently in relation to those around me. But placing myself more thoroughly at God’s disposal can indirectly produce the quality of patience in my life. “When we come to terms with the inability to change ourselves,” Buchanan reminds us, “then we allow the Lord to be our source.” Apart from me you can do nothing. Think of the prophet’s words: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6). Such words lie at the heart of spiritual formation.

Rob Ford, Canadian Senators, and Why We Should Demand Personal Integrity Of Our Leaders

Having recognized leaders caught in moral wrongdoing or illegal activity no longer surprises us. Scandals are enough a part of our political, social, and, sadly, religious landscape that we’ve come to expect them—almost as a matter of course. Public indifference, cynicism, and disappointment over various misdeeds have in part coalesced into lower voter turnouts, less respect for public figures, and mistrust of those to whom we have given prominent positions. Recent examples in my own country such as the Senate scandal and Toronto mayor Rob Ford do nothing to quell our suspicions that power corrupts.

What stands out to me, however, are not the immoral, unethical, or illegal acts or behaviour; instead, it is the tendency of leaders in nearly every case to deny such allegations until the evidence can no longer be avoided or explained away. Knowing full well that the allegations are true but to continue denying them publicly simply compounds the problem. Certainly, I can understand the instinct. As Scripture says, Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. Most of us experience the temptation to avoid culpability, to throw up walls of denial in the vain hope that our sins will not find us out. But, indeed, it is a vain hope. No doubt people like Mike Duffy and Rob Ford would agree. Better to come clean immediately.

And honestly, if each of us were to come clean, we’d all have some explaining to do. Jesus himself said, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. The upshot of Jesus’ words is that none of us is without sin. Without exception, we are all guilty. We all have skeletons in our closet and junk under our rugs. I take as a given that every single human being has the capacity to do unthinkable things. In Romans 3:12, Paul tells us as much: There is no one who does good, not even one. Worse, according to the apostle, our feet are swift to shed blood. Like the default settings on a computer, our propensity is to be selfish, to consider ourselves first and foremost. We are sinful down to our DNA.

As far as this goes, it isn’t necessarily our sins that ought to disqualify us from being in authority. Should this be our logic, none of us would occupy such positions. Indeed, God’s common grace, like a dam, often holds us back from acting on our most vile inclinations, protecting us from even knowing how bad we are. Give that this is so, we should actually be more surprised when someone in public office carries out their duties and indeed their living with integrity with any kind of consistency. Seeing how it is so infrequent, there should be applause and parades when this does happen!

So, no, I do not expect moral perfectionism from my leaders. Yet I would appreciate and prefer them to have integrity. Especially when certain misdeeds or acts are either illegal or have the potential to undermine the confidence of the public and the ability to fulfill their public responsibilities. For instance, in the case of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, his insistence on staying in power long after his leadership credibility had crumbled beyond repair is nearly incomprehensible. Put simply, he lacks integrity. Having finally admitted to his mistakes is almost worthless since he only did so because the evidence was irrefutable. His sins had found him out.

Integrity involves a wholeness between our inward character and our outward actions. Being a person of integrity does not mean we will be free from sin; rather, it means we will be willing to confess when we do. True, confessing our sins is difficult. Admitting how we have failed, how our choices have hurt those around us, can even be painful. To see the look in our loved one’s eyes when we tell them what we have done is a thoroughly unpleasant experience. When we lack such emotions (what the Bible calls contrition or feeling sorry for our actions) in confessing our wrongs, we lack integrity.

I think, also, that living with integrity means paying attention to our conscience, that God-given voice reminding us of what is right and what is wrong. Reading the Old Testament Psalms reminds us what this is like. Psalm 32 describes what it feels like when we fail to confess: When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. David provides us with a profound description of a guilty conscience.

Thankfully, confession is not the end. David continues: Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’—and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Coming clean means being made clean. The guilt has been taken away. Being a person of integrity includes, therefore, repentance. And not only because you’ve been caught, but because your conscience tells you that it’s the right thing to do. If only more of our leaders would act in this fashion, because even if their misdeeds are of a kind that do disqualify them from remaining in power, we could at least respect them for being honest about their failures and wrongs.

Unfortunately, my sense is that at least some of these leaders lack integrity not because of their sins but their unwillingness to confess, their sheer stubbornness at holding on to what little public trust they have, adamant that they still deserve power because despite their actions they can somehow manage to get the job done. As distasteful and as unethical some of their actions have been, this is worse. It adds insult to injury.

How long will it take us to learn that we cannot separate character from actions? It is the continuity between our character and our actions that constitutes personal integrity. Several years ago when the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke the very same thing bothered me. President Clinton became another example of that bifurcation between one’s personal life and one’s public position. There will always be some degree of continuity between one’s character and one’s actions. Eventually, who you are makes a difference to what you do. This is what makes having integrity so integral. Perhaps if more of our leaders took a few moments to reflect on this, they could begin to save themselves—and us—some grief.