Passing the evangelical torch: Returning to virtue
Evangelical leaders of previous generations are in the process of passing the torch to younger leaders, for whom there are at least 10 fresh challenges. We’ve considered the challenge of Navigating Newfound Authority, Waging a New Bloodless Revolution, Overcoming Spiritual Superficiality; Creating Culture; and now a fifth challenge:
Returning to Virtue.
The new generation must deal with the crisis of basic character that overwhelms the nation and has also inflicted the church–with temptations of self-interest, immediate gratification, and moral laziness sapping the strength of its leaders and the witness of its people. All of us who are honest with ourselves will grieve our own failures to consistently demonstrate Christian character and to rise above our self-interest and harmful attitudes. There is less and less encouragement from our culture to demonstrate the basic virtues called for in not only the Christian tradition but in most traditions of Western civilization. Our Christian leaders must be known not primarily for their power, their persuasiveness, or their cultural conformity, but by their virtue.
These are not new concepts; they are ancient. Effective Christian witness will be seen from believers who can consistently demonstrate virtue. Here’s one list of virtues:
Abstaining from sexual conduct inappropriate for one’s state in life; the ability to refrain from being distracted and influenced by hostility, temptation, or corruption.
Practicing self-control, moderation, and deferred gratification. Prudence to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time. Proper moderation between self-interest, versus public-interest, and against the rights and needs of others.
Charity and self-sacrifice. Spending time, money, or labour, for others, without being rewarded in return.
Decisive work ethic. Fortitude and the capability of not giving up. Budgeting one’s time; monitoring one’s own activities to guard against laziness. Upholding one’s convictions at all times, especially when no one else is watching; integrity.
Forbearance and endurance. Resolving conflicts and injustice peacefully, as opposed to resorting to violence. The ability to forgive; to show mercy to others. Creating a sense of peaceful stability and community, rather than engendering suffering, hostility, and antagonism.
Compassion and friendship for its own sake. Empathy and trust without prejudice or resentment. Unconditional love and voluntary kindness without bias or spite. Having positive outlook and cheerful demeanor; to inspire kindness in others.
Modest behavior, selflessness, and the giving of respect. The courage of the heart necessary to undertake tasks which are difficult, tedious or unglamorous, and to graciously accept the sacrifices involved. Reverence for those who have wisdom. Giving credit where credit is due; not unfairly glorifying one’s own self
That’s a good list for all of us.
Bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright makes a good case for believers to take seriously the formation of Christian character and the daily practice of virtues in his book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.
This is an excerpt from the book:
“It is thus more or less impossible to speak of God with any conviction or effect if those who profess to follow Jesus are not exemplifying humility, charity, patience, and chastity. These are not optional extras for the especially keen, but the very clothes which the royal priesthood must ‘put on’ day by day. If the vocation of the royal priesthood is to reflect God to the world and the world back to God (the world, that is, as it was made to be and as, by God’s grace, it will be one day), that vocation must be sustained, and can only be sustained, by serious attention to ‘putting on’ these virtues, not for the sake of a self-centered holiness or pride in one’s own moral achievement, but for the sake of revealing to the world who its true God really is. The church has been divided between those who cultivate their own personal holiness but do nothing about working for justice in the world and those who are passionate for justice but regard personal holiness as an unnecessary distraction from that task. This division has been solidified by the church’s unfortunate habit of adopting from our surrounding culture the unhelpful packages of ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ prejudices, the former speaking of ‘justice’ and meaning ‘libertarianism’ and the latter speaking of ‘holiness’ and meaning ‘dualism.’ All this must be firmly pushed to one side. What we need is integration.
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