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Constitution 14: Sixteenth Amendment, Taxes, Taxes, Taxes

I promised to return this fall to the series of blogs on the Constitution. Previously, I briefly examined the Constitution and Amendments 1 through 15. I stopped with the Civil War Amendments that dealt with ending slavery and its consequences.  Today, we come to the 16th Amendment. There is probably no amendment less popular among nearly everyone who pays taxes in the 16th Amendment, which made possible the living of income taxes on American citizens! It reads as follows:

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

Despite being unpopular, there is probably no single constitutional provision adopted after the Civil War with more impact on American society and the emergence of the United States as a world power. Without the income tax, the modern welfare state, the participation of America in the two great World Wars of the 20th century, the creation of the military-industrial complex, the huge federal bureaucracy, and the position of America in the world would have been impossible. [1]

Reasons for Passage of the Amendment

During the years after the Civil War, the industrialization and urbanization of America, together with the expansion of the role of the United States of America in the world, created the need for additional federal income. Progressive groups especially felt that it was necessary to tax the wealthiest segment of society in a way that protected the interests of the poor and middle class. In 1894, Congress passed the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act, which created an income tax provision of 2% on incomes of over $4,000 (equivalent to $135,951.63 in 2022 U.S. Dollars). [2]

During the Civil War, a similar tax was used to pay the expenses of the war. It was expected that the Supreme Court would use the same reasoning it had used in upholding the Civil War tax to uphold the income tax. [3] That was not the case. In 1895, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co., holding unconstitutional Congress’s attempt the prior year to tax incomes uniformly throughout the United States. [4]

 Article I of the original Constitution gave Congress the general authority to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imports, and Excises.” For “direct” taxes, Article I provided that taxes must be collected based on the population of the states. Before an income tax was established, the majority of funds given to the federal government derived from tariffs on domestic and international goods.  [5] That is, citizens of Virginia could not be made to pay taxes greater than citizens of New York. Since an income tax taxes personal or corporate income, it was inevitable that the burden of an income tax would fall on wealthier states with wealthier citizens.  The Sixteenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, expressly provides that Congress has the power to collect an income tax without apportionment among the States and without regard to population. Thus, the Sixteenth Amendment creates an income tax exception to the requirement in Article I that direct taxes must be apportioned based on states’ population.

Interpretive Issues 

By its terms, the Sixteenth Amendment applies to “taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived.” The empowerment of the Sixteenth Amendment does not extend beyond “incomes” to property taxation or other forms of taxation not permitted by the Constitution. [6] Of course, the term income itself is not entirely clear, and there has been continuing subsequent litigation on what exactly constitutes income for the Sixteenth Amendment. [7] The basic holding of the Court was that: “Income may be defined as the gain derived from capital, from labor, or from both combined, including profit gained through sale or conversion of capital.” [8] This seems simple, but stock dividends and stock issued in reorganizations and the like, and other cases, raise difficult issues. [9]

Internal Revenue Code

Obviously, the nature of the income tax, corporate and individual, gave rise to the need for additional law and administrative interpretation.  The Internal Revenue Code embodies the lineal descendant of the income tax act passed in 1913 following ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment contains the basic tax laws of the United States. [10] The federal Internal Revenue Code is approximately 2,412,000 words long, and federal tax regulations are 7,655,000 words long. These numbers do not include the substantial body of tax-related revenue rulings and case law that is often vital to understanding the tax code. [11] This has resulted in calls for simplification.

Tax Resistance

Every so often, someone fails to pay their income taxes based upon arguments concerning the legality of the Federal income tax. The arguments vary. This blog will not cover all of them. In all cases, the courts have overwhelmingly supported the government against taxpayers making specious objections to the code and the income tax system created by the Sixteenth Amendment.

A common argument is that the Sixteenth Amendment is somehow invalid because it was not properly adopted. The courts have held that this argument is baseless. This argument is based on the premise that all federal income tax laws are unconstitutional because the Sixteenth Amendment was not officially ratified or because the State of Ohio was not properly a state at the time of ratification.  Unfortunately for those taking this position, the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified by forty states, including Ohio (which was confirmed as a state as of 1803). [12] Shortly thereafter, two other states ratified the amendment. Under Article V of the Constitution, only three-fourths of the states are needed to ratify an Amendment. More than three-fourths of states ratified the Sixteenth Amendment without Ohio to complete the number needed for ratification. After the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the income tax laws. [13] Since then, courts have consistently upheld the constitutionality of the federal income tax. [14]

 Some individuals want to believe that a religious objection to income taxes eliminates their duty to pay them. the Supreme Court held that the broad public interest in maintaining a sound tax system is of such importance that religious beliefs in conflict with the payment of taxes provide no basis for refusing to pay, stating that “[t]he tax system could not function if denominations were allowed to challenge the tax system because tax payments were spent in a manner that violates their religious belief.” [15] We can safely assume that if religious objections were a valid basis to avoid taxes, America would become a much more religious nation.

Finally, some individuals have taken the position that taxpayers may refuse to pay federal income taxes based on religious or moral beliefs or on an objection to using taxes to fund certain government programs. Some of these persons mistakenly invoke the First Amendment and, often, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”). The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances, freedom of speech and religious opinion do not extend to failure to pay taxes. The Sixteenth Amendment does not provide a right to refuse to pay income taxes on religious or moral grounds just because taxes are used to fund government programs opposed by the taxpayer or which violate a deeply held belief. It is also settled law that RFRA does not afford a right to avoid payment of taxes for religious reasons. [16] Once again, if personal moral or religious objections to certain programs or policies were to be a valid objection to paying taxes, there would be vast numbers of people (myself included) that would object to all or a part of the spending of the government. No government could possibly allow or survive such a rule.

Calls for a Wealth Tax

One issue of current importance is the call of some for a wealth tax to eliminate the great wealth disparities of our nation. The prior discussion shows readers that a wealth tax would be difficult to sustain. The Sixteenth Amendment avoided imposing restrictions on unapportioned taxes for income defined as incomes from whatever source derived. The Sixteenth Amendment would probably not support a Wealth Tax because such a tax is a tax on capital, not income. Additionally, a wealth tax likely would be considered an unapportioned direct tax and, therefore, unconstitutional. Some believe a wealth tax could be sustained based on an early Supreme Court decision in Hylton v. United States, which upheld a tax on the carriages for the conveyance of persons (an early excise tax on consumption transactions).[17]  In Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co, the court took the view that Hylton sustained the carriage tax as a tax on the use and an excise.”[18] To validate a wealth tax, it would be necessary to overrule Pollock, a tactic urged by some. [19]


A discussion of the implications of the Sixteenth Amendment might take up millions of pages, as does the code and its interpretations. For now, it is enough to know that this one Amendment opened up a new taxation regime to fund an expansion of Federal power. It also created an entirely new area of the law that occupies thousands of lawyers, accountants, and others daily. Its importance cannot be overstated.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] I would like to emphasize that this paragraph is not meant to indicate that the tax and the emergence of America as a world power were bad things. In fact, the reasons that progressive Americans gave for the adoption of the tax are as valid today as they were then. In fact, the emergence of the “super-rich” internationally gives reason to ponder the reasons for the adoption of the income tax and the potential application of those reasons today.

[2] Act of Aug. 27, 1894 9, § 27, 28 Stat. 509, 553 (1894).See, “Constitutional Amendments – Amendment 16 – “Income Taxes” at (Downloaded September 16, 2023).

[3] Springer v. United States, 102 U.S. 586 (1861).

[4] Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co., 157 U.S. 429 (1895), on rehearing 158 U.S. 601 (1895). Both decisions are collectively referred to as “Pollock.”

[5] U.S. Contusion Art I, Section 8: The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;….

[6] Eisner v. Macomber 252 U.S. 189, 206 (1920).

[7] Id., at 207–08. The court adopted the view that “Income may be defined as the gain derived from capital,

from labor, or from both combined,” provided it be understood to include profit gained through a sale or conversion

of capital assets,….” In so holding, the court overturned an attempt to tax stock dividends where there was no realization of profit. The court continues to have to apply the term income in complex situations and the holdings of the court are not uniform. See for example, United States v. Phellis 57 U.S. 156 (1921); Rockefeller v. United States 257 U.S. 176 (1921); Marr v. United States 268 U.S. 536 (1925),  Miles v. Safe Deposit Co., 259 U.S. 247 (1922).

[8] Eisener v. Macomber, at 207.

[9] See for example, United States v. Phellis 57 U.S. 156 (1921); Rockefeller v. United States 257 U.S. 176 (1921); Marr v. United States 268 U.S. 536 (1925),  Miles v. Safe Deposit Co., 259 U.S. 247 (1922).

[10]  Internal Revenue Code 26 U.S.C. Title 26 (2018).

[11] Scott Greenburg, “Federal Tax Laws and Regulations are Now Over 10 Million Words Long”

(October 8, 2015) . (downloaded September 16, 2023)

[12] Bowman v. United States, 920 F. Supp. 623 n.1 (E.D. Pa. 1995). Congress has upheld the 1803 admission of Ohio. Five United States Presidents have been from Ohio, and its citizens have paid substantial income taxes.

[13] Brushaber v. Union Pacific R.R. 240 U.S. 1 (1916).

[14] Sochia v. Commissioner 23 F.3d 941 (5th Cir. 1994) Miller v. United States 868 F.2d 236, 241–42 (7th Cir. 1989) (per curiam), United States v. Stahl, 792 F.2d 1438, 1441 (9th Cir. 1986), United States v. Foster 789 F.2d 457 (7th Cir. 1986) Knoblauch v. Commissioner 749 F.2d 200, 202 (5th Cir. 1984).

[15] United States v. Lee 455 U.S. 252, 260 (1982), Jenkins v. Commissioner 483 F.3d 90 (2d Cir. 2007), United States v. Indianapolis Baptist Temple224 F.3d 627 (7th Cir. 2000), Adams v. Commissioner 170 F.3d 173 (3d Cir. 1999), United States v. Ramsey, 992 F.2d 831, 833 (8th Cir. 1993), Wall v. United States 756 F.2d 52, 53 (8th Cir. 1985, United States v. Peister 631 F.2d 658 (10th Cir. 1980).

[16] United States v. Lee 455 U.S. 252, 260 (1982), Jenkins v. Commissioner 483 F.3d 90 (2d Cir. 2007), United States v. Indianapolis Baptist Temple224 F.3d 627 (7th Cir. 2000), Adams v. Commissioner 170 F.3d 173 (3d Cir. 1999) United States v. Ramsey 992 F.2d 831, 833 (8th Cir. 1993),Wall v. United States 756 F.2d 52, 53 (8th Cir. 1985), United States v. Peister 631 F.2d 658 (10th Cir. 1980), Salzer v. Commissioner T.C. Memo. 2014-188, 108 T.C.M. (CCH) 284 (September 15, 2014).

[17]  Hylton v. United States 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 171 (1796).

[18] Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co. 157 U.S. 429, 574 (1895).

[19] See, Greg Roselsky, “Is a Wealth Tax Constitutional?” Planet Money (December 17, 2023) (Downloaded September 16, 2023).

Miroslav Volf No. 3: Engaging the Public Square

This is the final blog dealing with the public theology of Miroslav Volf, a professor at Yale Divinity School. His book, “A Public Faith, is one every pastor and interested layperson should read. [1]. I am not capable of giving the book the complete review it deserves. I may quibble at points, but the theme and thesis of the book are right on point for where we are today in American and Western society.

Petty Hopes and Great Conflicts

Volf begins his discussion of sharing wisdom in public life with a sentence that describes perfectly contemporary American society.: “We live in an age of great conflicts and petty hopes.”  Volf has already analyzed the reduction of meaning in human life to the achievement of personal satisfaction. Personal satisfaction constitutes the hope of late modern America. Human flourishing has been reduced to the personal selfish achievement of personal power, possessions, religious experience, sexual pleasure, gourmet food, recreational drugs, and whatever individual immediate desire a human might occasionally choose. [2] These are just a few of our petty hopes.

On the other hand, the decline of traditional societies, the emergence of a worldwide, Western-induced, materialistic philosophy of everyday life, and the messianic hopes of radical groups have created a world of great conflict. All over the world, the phenomena of misplaced moral utopianism, secular and religious, have caused and continue to cause foolish revolutionary conflict and violence. During the so-called war on terror, the great conflict was between the secular humanist West and radical Islam. [3]

There are, however, many other conflicts. On the Indian subcontinent, the conflict is often been between Hinduism and Islam. Within Western societies, conflicts have often been between different fundamental ideas concerning the requirements for human flourishing and the proper structure of human society. As I write, Israel has considerable social unrest over a proposal to adjust the judicial system. These significant conflicts threaten the peace and stability of nearly every democratic society and seldom lead to wise and careful policymaking.

Volf believes that a critical challenge for all religions in a pluralistic and troubled world is to help people grow out of their petty hopes to live meaningful lives and help people peacefully resolve more significant conflicts within their society to live in community with others.  I would add helping people grow out of their narrow ideologies to live in community with others. This requires that the world’s religions make available to members of their societies the fullness of the wisdom contained in the traditions they represent.

In the West, Christianity and the Judeo-Christian tradition historically provided an overarching story of the redeeming love of God, concrete, practical advice concerning how people should treat one another, and the representative, personal wisdom of the Old and the New Testament. For Christians, the figure of Jesus Christ embodies the wisdom and love of God in a personal way, reflecting the personal wisdom of a personal God. [4]

Why Share Christian Wisdom?

The Bible is not neutral about whether Christians should share their faith and its implications with others, including secular others. The Great Commission and many related passages, including “So let your light shine before men that they might your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16) speak to the need for religious faith to speak to a disbelieving world. Part of “letting your light shine” is letting the brilliant illumination of the Word of God revealed in self-giving love shine into society.

Christians are requested to share the self-giving love of God with others. Love is essentially social and communicative. Humans will speak to our children about important things if we love them. In the same way, if we truly love our neighbors and fellow citizens, we will kindly share with them if it seems that they are on a self-destructive path. The dual duties to share wisdom and to love do, however, limit how Christians are called to interact in society.

  • First, love and violence are antithetical, and no violence can be employed in sharing the love and wisdom of God.
  • Second, the purpose of any communication is to help our society in a loving way. This indicates that hard-selling sales pitches, mischaracterizing our opponents, violent demonstrations, harsh language in social media, and other techniques standard in our society are forbidden to Christians.
  • Third, Christians should refrain from speaking unless they embody in their Way of Life the wisdom they encourage others to adopt. Hypocrisy is not a helpful Christian strategy for social change.
  • Fourth, Christians are not witnesses of their personal, selfish opinions or views but witness to Christ in all things, and our advice has to be given accordingly.

As I was preparing this list, it occurred to me that it is generally (though not always) true that Christians do not give wisdom in the form of a suggested result but as a help to how society makes decisions. To give what I hope is a non-inflammatory illustration, Biblical Wisdom warns against excessive debt. Christians may want to share this wisdom with society. The precise means chosen (reducing spending, increasing taxes, etc.) are not determined within the boundaries of strictly religious knowledge and are matters of practical application.

Christian Faith and Public Engagement

Christians in America live and engage in public life in a society vastly different than those who founded the nation, fought a terrible civil war to eliminate slavery, built its basic industrial infrastructure during the 19th Century, and fought and won two world wars in the 20th century while creating a “post-industrial economy. The United States was the “first modern nation” profoundly impacted by the Enlightenment, the evolution of the modern world, and the growth of an industrial and technological society. During much of this period, secularists felt religion would disappear from public life as people adopted a modern, materialistic worldview.

This is not what happened. Recently, there has been much evidence that the reverse might be happening—and this has caused a predictable rise in concern among secularists about the dangers of religion. Most importantly, beginning with the philosophical work of Nietzsche, the psychoanalytic work of Freud and others, and the rise of post-modern physics, the intellectual foundations of the Enlightenment and the materialistic worldview it engendered began to crumble or at least require serious revision. We sit at the beginning of a new era, and societies are in uncharted waters. Where we are headed in not completely clear. What is clear is that the future will not be exactly the same as the past or as many of the loudest voices in our society desire.

Importantly, human beings now live in a religiously diverse world that will not get any less diverse any time soon. Part of the results of recent social changes is a vast increase in the inevitable interactions among religious groups.  The challenge for Christians, and every member of Western society, is how to live peacefully and productively in a religiously diverse environment. As for secular people, it is clear that no single secular form of modernity can peacefully dominate the world and create a secular “world culture.” There are currently several secular ideologies with substantial followings. Wolf calls this an era of “multiple modernities.” As a result, there will not be one single form of society or one single world culture. It is more likely that multiple world cultures will incorporate parts of what we refer to as the modern worldview.[5]

For example, it is unlikely that Western Europe and North America, with their Judeo-Christian heritage, will look like India, with its Hindu and Buddhist heritage, China, with its Taoist and Confucian heritage, or the Middle East and large parts of the world, with their Muslim heritage. The challenge is finding a modus operendi that will allow all these religious groups and all these modernities to live and work together productively to promote human flourishing, or what might traditionally have been called “the common good.”

Basic Outline of the Political Pluralist Proposal

Volf believes that the Christian faith, with its emphasis on wisdom and love as foundational to the Christian life, supports a form of political pluralism that can help heal the divisions of our culture and allow various religious groups to participate fully in society and public life. Other world religions also incorporate basic ideas similar to those that motivate a Christian response to cultural pluralism. A basic outline of such a view is as follows: [6]

  1. God commands love of neighbor and encourages humans to treat others as we would like to be treated. The Golden Rule is a feature of many societies. [7]
  2. The ultimate authority of God over the universe allows room for the creatures created in his image to manage their societies. While it is true that believers must obey their God, it is not true that believers are not subject to legitimate secular authorities.
  3. While the fundamental texts of every religion guide life, that guidance is usually general and spiritual or moral. There is plenty of room for legal, social, and cultural diversity and innovation within a shared commitment to an ultimate ground of truth, beauty, and goodness.
  4. No single religion or culture has a monopoly on the proper way human societies should function. Specific laws, manners, ideas, concepts, rules, regulations, values, and criteria that shape distinct cultures need only be generally compatible with a shared commitment to fundamental values and religious ideals.
  5. Religious people are called to live within their home cultures as followers of their religious views. They should not regard their own specific religious beliefs as essential to the culture in which they live.
  6. Although religious believers believe that the moral law has universal validity, believers should not impose on secular culture-specific elements of their views except as a result of a democratic process that permits it and grants others the maximum amount of religious and philosophical freedom to pursue their aims peacefully.
  7. Neither Christians nor any other religious group members have a duty to impose their views upon others in society. This is particularly true of those religions for whom peacefulness, love, and voluntary acceptance of religious opinions are fundamental.
  8. A decision to adopt a particular faith must be accepted by people freely and offered to them, not as a command but as a gift. Any legal or other imposition of a religious belief, particular social system, or legislation based on religious views is rejected in principle.


Ultimately, Volf’s proposal is a practical political application of the Golden Rule. Former President Obama, who features in a significant way in his important “Cairo Speech,” believed that a pluralistic international order could be achieved based on the widely shared principle of treating others as we would like to be treated under similar circumstances. [8] If Volf is correct, human societies are not doomed to a “Clash of Civilizations.” [9] The various cultures and religions of the world can live in harmony if they abandon violence to achieve religious results and bring to bear their best wisdom on issues of public importance. This requires a certain confidence that whatever is best in the tradition I happen to subscribe to will, in some way, be reflected in what ultimately is determined to be true. Violence is always a last resort, and often the last resort of those who secretly fear that their views are, in fact, wrong.

A Public Faith is a fine book. It is one I intend to read over and over again.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011),

[2] Id, at 99.

[3] Id, at 100.

[4] Id, at 102-103. I have reflected upon the role of wisdom in Christian thinking and practice in Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, WA: Wipf & Stock, 2014) and Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love (Memphis, TN: BookSurge, 2009, 2016).

[5] Id, at 120.

[6] Id, at 142-144.

[7] Something like a universal law of love is found in many cultures. In its classic form, it urges people to treat others as they wish to be treated. The Biblical precept “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” is understood in Jewish and Christian circles as universal, a transcendent principle encompassing the whole meaning and purpose of the law.

In Christianity, it is called the Golden Rule.

[8] Id, at 141.

[9] Id.

Disciple Makers Tool Box

One of the great pleasures of my life was meeting Jack Dannemiller. I vividly remember our first meeting. It was one of my first few days as a pastor in Bay Village, Ohio—a crisp, bright, lovely late October day. Jack came by my office to welcome me to town and brought a few copies of Answers to Life’s Greatest Questions, a pamphlet he published under Living Dialogue Ministries’ imprint. Jack wanted to meet me and discuss the challenges facing youth in Cleveland and Fort Myers, Florida, where Jack lives part of each year. Our visit began a friendship of several years and a partnership in the Gospel in Cleveland and beyond. Answers to Life’s Greatest Questions and several Bible Studies he has published have been successfully translated into Spanish (and other languages) and used by mission partners in Mexico and other places. Others of his books have been useful in congregations in which Kathy and I have participated or have contacts.

Who is Jack Dannemiller?

The answer is, “Jack Dannemiller is a committed Christian layman.” Jack got his first degree from the Case Institute of Technology and then from the Case Western Weatherhead School of Business. His successful business career culminated in his work as the Chairman and CEO of a New York Stock Exchange Company. Currently, he is the Chairman of Living Dialogue Ministries. He has written several books and participated in the preparation of others. He is the Author of “Answers to Your Greatest Questions” and “Reasons for Faith: A Journey into Apologetics.” At an age when many men “slow down,” Jack finds time to be a father and grandfather and serve to cause of Christ in two different cities and beyond.

Jack has been honored by his Alma Mater, which describes Jack’s accomplishments as follows:

Jack Dannemiller’s adage for life and work has served him well: “Discovery is seeing what everyone else is seeing but thinking what no one else thinks.”

For his MBA thesis at what’s now Case Western Reserve University, Dannemiller created the Professional Selling Skills training program that’s been used in a range of industries for more than 50 years.

As chairman and CEO of Applied Industrial Technologies, he brought innovative practices to the Cleveland-based distributor of industrial, motion and control technologies that led to tripling the company’s product types and expanding its global reach. [1]

I did not know Jack during those exciting years of his business career—but I know folks who did, and they all love and admire the man as a wonderful human being. Jack is a guy worth listening to and learning from in many areas of life.

The Disciple Makers Tool Box

Jack’s latest effort is called “The Disciple Makers Tool Box: Instruction Manual: Your Guide to Becoming a Disciple Maker.” [2] This short little book of under 100 pages is precisely what it purports to be—a toolbox for people who wish to be or become disciple-makers. Each chapter contains short, practical, hands-on advice and help concerning how to make disciples for Jesus Christ. It deals with the most basic questions skeptics and secular folks have, the primary barriers to the faith they experience, and the fundamental tools one needs to share your faith with others and help others begin their walk of faith. For example, Jack provides several easily reproducible aids to disciple-making.

Jack answers basic questions not as a pastor or theologian but as a layperson who has a heart for God and wants to know more about how to share their faith. The book is deliberately written in an approachable style. It does not deal with complex issues in depth but instead gives simple, straightforward responses to the kinds of questions people have and the barriers to faith in Christ. The emphasis is on readability by the average person, yet the matters covered can be complex.

Here is a brief outline of the contents of The Disciple Makers Tool Box:

  • Disciple-making dialogue techniques
  • Discerning questions for dialogue
  • Questions and answers for dealing with seekers and skeptics
  • How to explain the real meaning of faith
  • Charts, Illustrations, and Handouts
  • A proven method for studying the Bible
  • Resource references for finding Evidence & Answers
  • A simple course outline on basic Christian Apologetics

Dialogue as a Skill for Disciple Makers

As some readers know, last year I published a book called “Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making.” Jack and I were each working on our books at the same time, and I profited greatly from his advice, comments, and wisdom. I had the opportunity to read his manuscript as it developed. He was already Chairman of Living Dialogue Ministries, and I had already been interested in dialogue in various human contexts, including Church leadership and disciple-making. [3] In Crisis of Discipleship, I went into more theoretical detail about why dialogue is important in reaching our culture. Disciple Makers Tool Box has the same emphasis, and dialogue remains a common theme in our work. All the books in the Living Dialogue series have as one goal providing ways for people to have meaningful and helpful conversations with believers and seekers alike.

This emphasis on dialogue is especially important in our divided society, where many people refuse to engage in a loving exchange with those with whom they disagree, especially where politics and religion are involved. One of the most important things Christians can learn to do is communicate effectively into the lives of people in our society. Jack’s emphasis on dialogue is important in this regard.


No book can be perfect, and no short book can cover everything a reviewer or critic might wish were covered in detail. Disciple Makers Tool Box has to be judged by what it is and set out to accomplish—and on that basis, it is a great success. I recommend pastors, small group leaders, disciple-makers, and others read this book and get copies to give away. As I mentioned near the beginning, Kathy and I have used Living Dialogue Ministry Bible studies and materials in small groups we have led, and some of our young mission partners in Mexico have shared the Spanish versions there. The results have been encouraging.

The books published by Living Dialogue Ministries are generally written for an evangelical audience. For readers and friends who would not fit in that category, I emphasize the practical nature of the materials. Because of the straightforward nature of the language, some may feel that the books are too simplistic for their congregation. I urge such readers to resist the temptation to feel this way and allow their congregations and groups to learn from Jack and Living Dialogue Ministries. You will not regret the decision. For those in evangelical congregations, the book will fit easily into the training curriculum for your congregation.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Case Western Reserve University Alumni Association at 9downloaded August 21, 2023).

[2] Jack Dannemiller, The Disciple Makers Tool Box: Instruction Manual: Your Guide to Becoming a Disciple Maker (Richmond, VA: Living Dialogue Ministries, 2023). This book and all the others in the Living Dialogue series are available through the ministry’s website at

[3] I cannot make this a complete review of Jack and his friends, but one of his colleagues, Irving Stubs, is essential. Irving has been a pastor and a consultant specializing in dialogue. He lives in Richmond, Virginia, in retirement and has been influential in encouraging dialogue in business and religion. Irving R. Stubbs is the author of Dialogue: A Way to Live Revised Edition (Richmond VA: Living Dialogue Ministries, 2020).

Miroslav Volf 2: A Public Faith

A Public Faith has two distinct parts. Last week, we dealt with Part I, in which the author outlines the “malfunctions of faith,” i.e., the constant temptation to either attempt to dominate the public square through violence or withdraw entirely from engagement with public life. Volf believes that both these approaches are ultimately flawed and, from a Christian perspective, unfaithful to the gospel. This week, we begin a review of Part II, which Volf entitles “Engaged Faith.” The fundamental point of Christian engagement is to participate in public life so that a witness is made to the wisdom and love of God revealed in Christ. In different societies, this engagement will occur in different ways. Volf aims to sketch out a way of engagement helpful to modern pluralistic, secular societies.

The Constantinian Settlement and Religious Voices in Politics

In the West, Christian engagement with politics and appropriately addressing the public square is complicated by the centuries-long connection between the churches of Europe and its governments. Due to the legacy of the “Constantinian settlement,” and the fact that Christianity was the established religion in much of Europe, Christians in the West became used to being in positions of honor and social influence in society. The loss of this position and the attempts to maintain a privileged position in Western society are, Volf believes, a hindrance to the proper functioning of Christian faith in the Public Square.

Volf gives one example, and I will provide another in the interests of fairness. Volf focuses on the Christian Right that emerged in the 1970s. Jerry Falwell and his short-lived Moral Majority movement attempted to “restore America” to its status as a “Christian nation” by active engagement in politics. On the other hand, we have the example of Faith in Public Life and other left-wing social action groups affiliated with the American left—a group powerful in the Democratic Party. Each of these groups, and many others on all sides of the political spectrum, represent a sense that certain religious voices have been marginalized and need to be heard at the table of public debate. The involvement of some indicates an unwillingness for the views they represent to lose the privileged position to which they are accustomed.

One description of the Christian left reads: “Liberal theology has roots in Enlightenment philosophy, which suggested a rational and contextual reading of the Bible. The Liberation Theology of the 1960s cemented liberal Christians’ stance on active participation in social justice work.” [1] Readers of this blog will understand that the Christian left is not a child of the 1960s but has a long history in America from the Social Gospel movement forward. The Christian right, on the other hand, has a different history. Evangelicalism had little political voice or interest until the 1970s, when the issue of abortion began to trouble American life. At that point, traditional Christians, catholic and Protestant, began to enter public life and seek a place at the table.

My point in this section is to underscore that Volf is correct in his analysis—but he does not necessarily fairly describe the situation. The quote above focuses on what I think is the most critical factor in the current situation: the Enlightenment’s antagonism towards orthodox Christianity and its attempts to silence religious voices. This endeavor continues to the present time in an increasingly militant manner.

The Marginalized History of Christian Faith

Volf believes that there is something odd about this situation. The early Christians did not sit at the center of power but at the margins. Christianity was a small, despised, and persecuted faith in the first few centuries. The primary issue of public theology was whether or not Cesar was to be obeyed, with the apostolic leadership urging obedience to civil authorities, even though they frequently persecuted the young church. [2] Opposition meant certain martyrdom. The early Christians worshiped the God of Israel and the Messiah Jesus of Nazareth in whose footsteps they attempted to walk. [3] For the most part, they ignored and did not participate in the public life of the Empire.

Volf’s goal in writing a public theology is to look toward the future in which the church is once again at the margins of society and yet dispel the inevitable gloom that some feel and generate hope for Christian and other religious communities at the beginning of the 21st century. He wants to make the Christian community comfortable with being just one of many players in a secular society, or what he would call a “religiously plural” society. He wants to articulate a public theology allowing Christians and others, whether at the margins or the center of power, to promote the common good in their own way. [4] This is a noble goal.

Church and Sect

One of the most interesting parts of A Public Faith is his analysis of the distinction between “church” and “cult” as it impacted the work of Earnest Troeltsch and Max Weber. Only a European familiar with the state church concepts prominent in European society can fully appreciate its distinction, history, and inapplicability to contemporary politics. According to Troeltsch, the church is an institution of society and sits at its center, or as a sect, is set apart from society and generally opposes it. The church is an established institution, part of the social order; a sect is a marginalized group. The state recognizes a church; a sect is tolerated. [5]

I remember years ago being surprised to learn that the Assemblies of God and Pentecostal groups were considered “sects” in a particular European country and not entitled to the certain protections afforded to the state churches. To an American, this seemed utterly illogical. However, the distinction is a part of the fact that, in most European countries, there was an established church. It might be the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, a Lutheran, or a Reformed Church. The state recognized and funded these institutions, and their pastors, were semi-official state representatives.

On the other hand, sects, such as the Assemblies of God or perhaps the Brethren, are not so recognized. Volf grew up as a Pentecostal in Yugoslavia, a member of what would have been seen as a sect. In many European countries, there was no such thing as “religious freedom.” One was expected to be a member of the state church. One was, by birth, such a member.

Americans have a hard time understanding the religious history of Europe and how religious freedom developed in Europe. In Europe, after the religious wars in Europe (1517-1648), religious tolerance gradually developed, and state religions lost their monopoly on faith. [6] From the very beginning, immigrants from various countries inhabited North America. Many had left in search of the religious freedom they did not enjoy in Europe. Almost immediately, America developed a kind of religious pluralism that would take years to develop in Europe.

By the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, another kind of pluralism began to develop in Europe and the United States. No longer were the religious distinctions between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews central, but various other groups started to have substantial followings, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and others. This was also true in Europe, especially in those nations with significant Muslim populations. As a result, the old distinction between sects and churches has no meaning. [7] Today, to talk of religious freedom in America is to recognize that many religions and groups are entitled to such freedom.

Accommodation or Entrenchment

Religious groups have taken different tactics in responding to religious pluralism and the decline of their influence in society. This is an oversimplification; generally, the more liberal tendency has been to accommodate contemporary Enlightenment social voices and try to find a way of expressing faith that fundamentally secular people can understand. The efforts of Fredrich Schleiermacher come to mind. [8] To the extent these groups participate in public life, they tend to adopt the political views of the political left as a part of their accommodation.

On the other side of the political spectrum, in the “post-liberal” program, there is an attempt to maintain the primacy of religious grammar in transmitting faith. Instead of translating religious faith into secular conceptualizations, post-liberalism attempts to describe a secular society in religious terms and maintain its sacred language and beliefs intact. This cultural-linguistic” approach is attractive to both moderate, traditional, and conservative religious people and those impacted by what used to be called the “Yale school” and its narrative/ linguistic approach to Christian theology. [9]

External Mission or Internal Difference

Volf moves from his analysis of church and sect to a distinction between a “separatist view” and a view he calls “internal difference.” Volf uses Bonhoeffer as a proponent of a kind of separatist view based upon a passage from Cost of Discipleship in which he speaks of Christians as amid the world but ready to be called out of the world at any moment. [10] I think that his use of Bonhoeffer in this regard was unwise.

The Greek word we translate as “church,” “ekklesia,” means “those called out.” From the beginning of the Christin church, there has been a sense in which the church is always something outside of society, and its members are sojourners, pilgrims on earth awaiting a better land (Philippians 3:20; I Peter 2:11-12; Hebrews 11:9-10, 13, 16). Any public theology must take seriously the notion that in some sense, even while being in the world, Christians are also those who have been called out of the world into the fellowship of Christ. The “separatist view” has Biblical support and a call on Christians in matters of public life.

Against the idea that the church is separated from the world, called into a kind of sectarian isolation, Volf defends the view that the church is internal to the world but different, a view he calls “internal difference.” It is hard to disagree with this move. As physical beings and institutions, Christians and churches are inevitably in the world and part of that world. Therefore, insofar as Christians participate in public life, they must participate within society and as a part of it.

Subversion or Self-Giving Love

Unfortunately in my view, Volf puts forward the idea that, in some way, the church is to be a “subversive institution,” by which he means an institution that lives by different rules and thus challenges or subverts the notions of power, position, and the like. He uses the example of Indians and other oppressed people. Although I appreciate Volf’s intention, I am not certain that the notion of “subversion” can be squared with either scripture or tradition. In scripture, there is the constant refrain from the apostolic witness that Christians are to live peacefully within society and respect its rulers. [11] I doubt the postmodern notion of subversion was in the mind of Peter, Paul, or any other apostles.

Instead of subversion, Christians are called to something more challenging—self-giving love. [12] While there can be no doubt that Christians must seek to overturn structures of society that prohibit human flourishing (to use Volf’s word), this is always a result of love. For example, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer left New York and returned to Germany in 1939, he did not give as his intent the subversion of the Nazi regime. He intended to share in the sufferings of the German people. [13] Shortly after arriving in America, Bonhoeffer seems to have had a moment of clarity, realizing that he must return to Germany and share the suffering of the German people. Explaining his decision, he wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, who had helped create a place of safety for him:

“I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” [14]

I think Bonhoeffer did not return to Germany to become a subversive but to share the suffering of the people he loved. After returning, he did not immediately join the resistance. When entering the resistance to Hitler, Bonhoeffer knew that his action was morally ambiguous (and held the danger of the death he ultimately suffered). Bonhoeffer was forced to consider his calling to resist the evil of the Nazi regime (an act of loyalty, not subversion), even if it meant stepping away from his commitment to pacifism and non-violence. When challenged by a student in one of his lectures, Bonhoeffer let the student know that he understood the moral demands that were becoming more evident daily in Nazi Germany. [15] He was also aware that the admonition, “He who lives by the sword,” dies by the sword, applied to himself and others who opposed Hitler just as much as did Hitler and his Nazi cohorts. [16] This comment is essential to understanding Bonhoeffer’s theological and moral rationale for his activities. He understood that his decisions and activities were morally and theologically ambiguous, though he felt he was acting in faith. I believe that a love of God and his fellow Germans put Bonhoeffer on the road to his martyrdom, not a calling to subversion.


I need to make one more week of this fine book. It may seem that I have been critical in this blog, but I agree with A Public Faith‘s major points. Sometimes, I would choose a different phrase or terminology, but the point is the same or close to the same. One might call the differences, a “point of emphasis.” I think Volf would agree with what I have said in this blog and critique my critique by pointing out this commitment to the Law of Love, which is a part of the thesis of the entire book.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Ruth Terry, “The Christian Right and Left Share the Same Faith But Couldn’t Be More Different” Yes! Solutions Journal (December 24, 2019) Downloaded August 9, 2023).

[2] See for example, Acts 4:18-20; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17; Titus 3:1-2; I Timothy 2:1-15.

[3] Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011), 78.

[4] Id, at 79.

[5] Id. This discussion is found at 81ff.

[6] The Peace of Westphalia (1648) brought to an end an eighty-year war between Spain and Holland and the thirty years war as it involved Germany. The peace was negotiated, in the Westphalian towns of Munster and Osnabruck, hence the name. Many scholars date the emergence of the modern secular state and the emergence of a preference for religious freedom from this event.

[7] A Public Faith, 81ff.  In all likelihood, for the purposes of analysis, we ought to dispense with the term “Church” and speak of “Religious Fellowships” when describing the current pluralist situation in the West. Christian Churches are simply one of the many forms of Religious Fellowships people belong to.

[8]  See, Fredrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, trans. & ed Richard Crouter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). This is one of his most quoted books and serves as an introduction to his thought. This is also not the place to discuss Schleiermacher and his considerable impact on Western thought in various areas, philosophical, theological, and otherwise.

[9] See George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philidelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1984). This book made Lindbeck and his former colleague Hans Frei, prominent leaders of post-liberalism or the so-called “New Yale School” of theology.

[10] Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship ed. Gefferey B. Kelly & John D. Godsey tr. Barbara Green & Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001), 250-251.

[11] See footnote 2 above for citations. One cannot make a biblical case for the idea of subversion without turning into something like “Critical Love.”

[12] I am certain that VOlf would agree with this—and all he means by “subversion” is that kind of subversion that love would inevitably cause in a society ruled by the love of power.

[13] Most of this comes from a blog I did some time ago. See, G.Christopher Scruggs, “Bonhoeffer 5: Political Resistance 1839-19423”(October 10, 2022) found at (downloaded August 11, 2023).

[14] This letter is often quoted. I am using the quote as recorded by Learn Religious, “Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Theologian, and Martyr” at (downloaded August 25, 2022)

[15] Mary Bosaquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1968), 199-200.

[16] Id, at 205.

Miroslav Volf No. 1: A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good

This week, we are looking at A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. [1] The author, Miroslav Volf, is a Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and founder and leading force of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. He was educated in his native Croatia, the United States, and Germany, earning doctoral and post-doctoral degrees from the University of Tübingen, Germany. He has written or edited over 20 books and many 100 scholarly and general publications. [2]

Volf was raised a Pentecostal. His master’s degree was from Fuller Theological Seminary, an independent seminary very much connected to the Reformed movement. He studied and wrote his dissertation under Jurgen Moltmann, a German Reformed theologian, in Tubingen, Germany. He attempts to find a mediating position in his work and respects Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox views.

Roots of Volf’s Interest in Public Theology

Volf grew up in Croatia (the former Yugoslavia) as a Protestant in a secular Communist society. [3] Yugoslavia was constantly threatened by religious violence because of the existence of Roman Catholics, Serbian Orthodox, and Muslim subcultures. After the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, tribal violence erupted. As Volf notes in an interview:

The wars in the former Yugoslavia were waged partly in the name of pure identity: with Muslims, especially in Kosovo, Serbs and Croatians alike insisted on the purity of their respective soil, blood, and culture. So I was also looking at the Christian tradition for resources to help me think about identity. [4]

In A Public Faith, Volf is additionally motivated to respond to current issues that trouble American Christianity. In the book, he is mainly concerned with defending the Christian faith and participation in politics from those secular humanists who believe that the Christian faith should be suppressed, particularly in the public square. Finally, since “9-11,” Volf has engaged in interfaith dialogue concerning religious violence. A Public Faith is designed to address violence as a malfunction of religious faith. In particular, Volf addresses Christians regarding our history of violence, evident not just in the distant past but in contemporary events in places like Ireland, Croatia, etc.

Volf believes the issue of a proper relationship between religion and politics is critical in the modern world because contemporary societies have been impacted by the unwillingness of religious people of many faiths and cultures to keep their religious views private and because, in a multicultural world, it is practically impossible to avoid the issues raised by religious groups. [5] In an increasingly interconnected world, it is essential for all religious groups to consider their public behavior carefully.

Malfunctions of Religious Faith in Public Life

 Volf believes there are two fundamental ways in which faith groups can malfunction in public life:

  1. First, by completely withdrawing from public life, leaving faith “idling” in all spheres outside their private and church lives; or
  2. Second, by engaging in public life coercively, assuming that one’s faith is the exclusive form of religious truth. This danger is not limited to religious people; secularists can sometimes fall into this flawed view. [6]

In A Public Faith, Volf argues against these two extremes. Against the distorted ideas of secular exclusivists and religious totalitarians, Volf contends that, in a society and world in which there are many conflicting faiths, freedom of religion and tolerance should be relied upon to prevent religious or antireligious violence. Naturally, there is no “right” to engage in violent or coercive behavior or to claim the right to persecute other groups.

As a point of departure, Volf acknowledges that Christians and other groups have \condoned violence from religious motives. However, he believes that when Christians (or adherents of any religion, sacred or secular) invoke violence to advance their cause, what he calls “a religious malfunction” occurs. [7] Those who use violence, especially Christians, either do not understand the full implications of the Christian faith and the commandment of love or mistakenly do not think it applies to the actions they are advocating.

Religious Political Pluralism

Volf opposes any religious or secular monistic monopoly in the public arena.  In A Public Faith, he outlines a position he describes as “religious, political pluralism.”  This view holds that society should encourage the full participation of the views of all groups, including all religious groups, in public life. The secular and Christian ideals of freedom of thought, speech, and opinion support this idea.

Since the religious wars fulminated by the Reformation, and increasingly since the Enlightenment and the rise of Marxism, there have been those who believed that the best social policy is to remove religion from public life. Increasingly, in the West, militant secularism has emerged that is opposed to religion, believes it harmful, and desires to see it suppressed.  The recent “War Against Terrorism” resulted in greater fear of the danger of religious extremism. Against this, Volf argues that religion is deeply seated in humankind and cannot be suppressed without a loss of freedom and individual choice. Therefore, he seeks a “religious political pluralism” that secures Christians and other religious groups a place at the table without giving up their distinctive beliefs.

Christian Engagement

As to Christian engagement in public life, Volf believes there is no single Christian way to connect to the broader culture and participate in public life. Volf does not think it wise for Christians to embrace a particular response to culture (in Niebuhrian terms, “of, against, or transforming”).  Instead, while remaining true to the specific convictions of their faith, Christians should approach involvement in public life in an ad-hoc manner, accepting, rejecting, or partly changing some aspects of culture, possibly completely withdrawing from others, and cheerfully celebrating others. This is a non-ideological approach to cultural engagement. In each case, Christian involvement must be guided by and embody the commandment of love at the center of Christian life and teaching.

Human Flourishing and Cultural Engagement

Volf uses as his fundamental category for guiding Christian involvement in politics the notion of “flourishing.” The idea is that Christians believe that faith in Christ and adopting the lifestyle of Christ leads to the healthiest form of human development and health, personal and social. Using the idea of “flourishing” also provides Volf with a non-religious word that can act as a bridge for discussion between various religions and secular people, all of whom presumably support and believe in human flourishing.

Volf believes that the modern contemporary idea of flourishing is irreducibly experiential and requires the continual experience of satisfaction of the desire for pleasurable experiences, personal, social, economic, etc. Unfortunately, people who believe that American experiential happiness is doomed to continual disappointment. Because human beings are inherently capable of transcending, the immediate, any immediate satisfaction is bound to be followed by another desire to be satisfied. This is an endless sequence demonstrated daily in modern care society.

Volf submits this form of experiential satisfaction to an Augustinian critique. Augustine would agree that human beings seek a kind of happiness that involves pleasure. However, Augustine also believes that human beings suffer from disordered loves and often seek a distorted and incomplete happiness, thus dooming themselves to failure in achieving human flourishing. [8]

Historically, Christians have believed that human flourishing and social harmony could only be achieved as humans loved God and one another. With the Enlightenment, most Western societies gave up thinking that the first part of the Great Commandment was necessary or desirable for human flourishing. In addition, the second component, love of neighbor, was deprived of any ultimate warrant and became a source of conflict between differing visions of what love of neighbor required. The result is the ideological politics of the late 20th and 21st centuries. In the current situation, love and hope both disappear as cultural realities. This is precisely what has happened in early 21st-century America.

Volf compares Augustine’s critique to the solutions offered by the Stoics (life lived by universal reason) and Nietzsche (life lived according to human willpower: Augustine believed that”

  1. God is not an impersonal reason distributed throughout the world but a person who loves and can be loved in return.
  2. Human beings made in the image of God are made for love and relationships.
  3. People live best and with the greatest happiness when they love God, a neighbor.
  4. Human flourishing requires the love of God and neighbor.

For Augustine and Christians, this notion of human flourishing fits a rational view of the universe. Unfortunately, many people in contemporary society cannot see this as a possibility, so captured are they by a fundamentally hedonistic and Nietzschean view of life. Returning to Volf notion of religious malfunction, whenever religion fails to love and concentrate on the development of human relationships with God and others, it malfunctions. Thus, any resort to force a connection with political behavior is a malfunction. This is the ground of the feeling that Wolfe has that many religions, currently and in the past, have malfunctioned.


Dividing this analysis of A Public Life into more than a single blog is necessary. This work is so dense that it is impossible to cover it adequately in one review. The simplest way to summarize this week is to see that love does sit at the center of a healthy polity. For Christians, this means that the great commandment to love God and others is a commandment that must be taken into public life in such a way as to promote human flourishing peacefully. The commandment of love also forbids Christians to use any form of violence to achieve their ends in public life.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011.

[2] Yale Center for Religion and Culture (downloaded August 1, 2023).

[3] Six republics made up the former Yugoslavia: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia (including the regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina), and Slovenia. Following the fall of communism in Yugoslavia, it split into separate areas.  Yugoslavia was a mix of ethnic groups and religions, with Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, and Islam being the primary religions. In the ensuing conflict, there was a great deal of violence and even genocide.

[4] Miroslav Volf, “Faith and Reconciliation: A Personal Journey”  and interview with Rupert Shortt, found at (downloaded August 1, 2023).

[5] A Public Faith, ix-x.

[6] This is a difficult area to address, but “Secular Humanism” is a kind of secular faith and should be subject to the same duties in participating in public life as are religious groups. This is particularly true of what might be called “militant secularists” who are motivated to eliminate religious participation in public life.

[7] Id, at 4.

[8] Id, 58-59.

Transforming Discipleship by Greg Ogden

Greg Ogden is a well-known pastor, ministry leader, seminary professor, author, and seminar leader. In my Doctor of Ministry program, we read one of Greg Ogden’s books, Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God. [1] Unfinished Business focuses on lay empowerment. It was very well received by the group. Over the years, Unfinished Business made it into a few sermons, became foundational for our small group and spiritual gifts ministries, and was often reflected upon. In my experience, the longer I was in ministry, the more life was dominated by the duties of ministry and the less time I spent empowering individual laypersons.

Despite our failures, Kathy and I were always in one or more small discipleship groups during our years leading congregations. Eventually, I wrote a year-long study for our church members known as “Salt & Light.” More recently, I published Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciplemaking to hopefully convey what we learned over the years to a new generation. [2]

As part of revising Crisis of Discipleship, I recently read Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time. [3]  In this book, Ogden champions a relational way of making disciples that emphasizes “Triads,” groups of three or four individuals, one of whom is a mentor, who embark upon a journey of discipleship together. Because discipleship is an inherently relational process, Ogden believes that fundamental transformation best occurs in small, transformational mentoring relationships. In developing his thesis, the examples of Jesus and Paul loom large in Ogden’s mind. I very much enjoyed this section of the book.

Part One: The Problem

Why Be Concerned?

Why should we pay attention to Ogden’s ideas? The answer is simple: All the evidence supports the conclusion that American churches are doing a poor job of discipleship. As Chuck Colson reportedly said, “American discipleship is 3000 miles wide and an inch deep.” Colson voiced this view at a time when the evangelical movement had succeeded in drawing a new generation into its churches. Today, we are experiencing the limitations of focusing on church growth, programs that attract people, and entertainment-centered worship. Nearly all Christian groups, including those with the name “Evangelical,” are stable or shrinking.

In Transforming Discipleship, Ogden sets out several indicators that American congregations are failing at discipleship:

  1. American Churches are not creating proactive disciples who independently reach out to others.
  2. American Christians are not taught and do not display a “Way of Life” different from the way of life secular people enjoy.
  3. American Christians too easily divide their personal and business lives from their faith, resulting in cultural conformity.
  4. American Christians often reflect the values of a materialistic American culture instead of the importance of Christ.
  5. American Christianity is excessively individualistic as opposed to communal. [4]

It is hard to argue with any of these conclusions.

American evangelicalism, the branch of Christianity most enthusiastic about the Great Commission, often reduces the Great Commission to “salvation” by “accepting Christ.” This divorces evangelism from the Biblical call to “make disciples who obey.” This diminished view of salvation and discipleship is without support in Scripture but has become a common form in many churches. Worse, in many congregations, “joining the church” has become the goal of evangelism, with discipleship relegated to voluntary participation in Sunday School.

American church leadership cannot escape responsibility for the situation. Church leaders like myself, who concentrate on worship, preaching, and maintaining the institutional structure, have not placed disciple-making at the center of their vocation. As Ogden puts it, “In spite of Jesus’ strategy of calling people from crowds and focusing on a few, we continue to rely upon preaching and programs as a means to make disciples.” [5] Many church leaders, and thus many congregations, either have no clear idea of how to create vibrant self-actuating disciples or deliberately rely on preaching and programming because this is within their area of comfort. “We rely upon programs because we do not want to make the personal investment that discipleship requires. [6]

Pushing the Great Commission to the Margins

Pastors have become so invested in preparation for worship and being a part of the busyness of the programs and activities of the church that they have forgotten their primary calling to make disciples. Underlying all these factors is one fundamental fact: The American church, indeed the churches of Western Culture generally, have failed to make disciple-making central to the mission and ministry of the local congregation and modeled by its leaders. Yet where the church operates as intended, there is proactive disciple-making, a distinct difference in the values of Christians and the surrounding society, a unity of church and secular life among believers, a rejection of a materialistic lifestyle, and a life-transforming community. These churches are spiritually healthy, whatever their size.

The Problem with Programs.

For most of my pastoral career, I led larger program-centered congregations. Most such congregations were impacted directly or indirectly by the “Seven Day a Week” model that placed programming at the center of their essentially institutional vision. [7] The problem program-based discipleship are several:

  1. Programs tend to focus on conveying information or knowledge. As a result, they rarely result in deeper personal relationships with God, other Christians, or a suffering world.
  2. Programs focus on a leader preparing to convey the information or knowledge to the participants.
  3. Programs focus on structure, regimentation, and standardized results.
  4. Programs typically require little accountability from participants who “attend.” [8]

For all these reasons, programs are unlikely to produce transformed disciples who can share their faith with others and disciple them effectively. I began my ministry in a small congregation, where my motto was “People before Programs.” Unfortunately, the pressure of leading larger congregations made me forget the truth in that epigram. In recent years, I have come to believe that our excessive focus on church growth, size, and programming was mistaken.

Part Two: The Solution

Jesus and Paul: Our Prime Examples.

Not surprisingly, Ogden’s solution to the problem is to direct the church’s and its leaders’ attention back to the example of Jesus. Although Jesus ministered to “crowds,” he invested most of his time and energy into a core group of disciples with whom he shared his life and communicated the life of God. He called the disciples in pairs and one at a time to follow him in the life of discipleship. As time passed, three of the twelve (Peter, James, and John) received special attention and encouragement to grow in their discipleship. Luke indicates that Jesus chose the disciples due to a season of prayer. If today’s leaders are to follow Jesus, they must pray for a small group of candidates and invest time in them just as Jesus did.

From the beginning, Jesus was preparing his chosen few for the work of the Great Commission. He invested time in teaching and modeling the life of faith for the Twelve. He sent them out two by two to practice what they had internalized (Mark 3:14-15). He coached the twelve and supported them in their growth. He refused to do everything and therefore delegated increasing responsibility to them, knowing that the cross lay ahead.

Like Jesus, Paul invested tremendous energy in the few. Silus, Luke, Timothy, Titus, and others mentioned in the New Testament traveled with Paul, shared his life, and received intimate mentorship and teaching in a transparent and supportive relationship. As a result, they were empowered to continue accomplishing the Great Commission. These leaders were formed in the context of a personal relationship.

Part Three: Multiplying Discipleship

Ogden is not satisfied with merely reciting the Biblical grounds for a change in how pastors, church leaders, and local congregations create more mature believers. He has specific suggestions as to how this can be accomplished. These suggestions do not take the form of a particular program. To develop the method, one begins with the goal: mature disciples. In Ogden’s view, Mature disciples are formed over time through accountable relationships intended to bring believers to a more profound and life-transforming relationship with Christ.[9]

To accomplish this goal, Ogden suggests a particular strategy to assist leaders:

  1. Life-transforming discipleship is not accomplished by programs but by life investment.
  2. Investment in disciples means having close personal relationships with believers growing in their faith.
  3. Life investment and deep relationships take time and develop slowly.
  4. Small groups, what Ogden calls “Triads,” are the most effective means to accomplish the goal of disciple-making. [10]

Conditions for a Discipling Relationship

Naturally, not every relationship can become a disciple-making relationship. There are conditions for an effective disciple-making relationship.

  1. Trust. The disciple must trust that the leader is capable of helping develop a deeper relationship with Christ, and the disciple-maker must believe that the disciple has the character, energy, and drive to grow in Christ. Personal accountability, transparency, confession, and active direction must exist for such a relationship to exist. [11]
  2. God’s Word. At the center of any disciple-making relationship is the Word of God. [12] As Paul said to Timothy:

You know who your teachers were, and you remember you have known the Holy Scriptures since childhood. These Scriptures can give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. God inspires all Scripture and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed. (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

  1. Mutual Accountability. There can be no real growth where there is no accountability. In a discipling relationship, this accountability is mutual. The mentor and the mentee must be accountable to one another for the connection. [13]


Transforming Discipleship is a fine book, well-written and easy to follow. Ogden sets out a strategy and the details of a particular methodology that is important and much needed. In particular, his focus on intimate relationships of trust and accountability is important. There is much more to the book and the strategy Odgen suggests than I can relate here. I would recommend Transforming Discipleship to any pastor or church leader considering adopting a new and better plan for making and growing disciples in our culture.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] Greg Ogden, Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990, 2003).

[2] G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciplemaking (College Station, TX: VirtualBookworm, 2022). This book is currently under revision, and I recommend waiting to purchase it until a new, updated, and expanded version is available.

[3] Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003). In this review, I will not precisely follow Ogden’s outline.

[4] Id, at 40-46. In creating this list, I have slightly rephrased the argument contained in the book.

[5] Id, at 67.

[6] Id.

[7] This phrase is from the important book authored by church consultant Lyle Schaller, The Seven Day a Week Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992). For many pastors in my generation this book and others by Schaller were instrumental in forming our vision of how to grow a vital church.

[8] Transforming Discipleship, 42-45.

[9] Id, at 129. I have rephrased Ogden’s exact definition.

[10] While I believe that Ogden’s idea of  discipleship in “Triads” is Biblical and important, my own view is that the number is not as important as that the number of disciples mentored by an individual be small enough that the disciple-maker can invest personally and deeply in each person.

[11] Id, at 134-162.

[12] Id, 162-168.

[13] Id, 168-174.

H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture”

There is no way to complete a study of political philosophy and theology without mentioning H Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. [1]   Christ and Culture began as a series of lectures at Austin Presbyterian Seminary in the late 1940s. It was published in 1951 and remains a classic of Christian thinking about the relationship between Christian faith, culture, and politics.

H. R. Niebuhr

H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) was trained in philosophy and religion, ordained as a pastor, and served as a professor at Eden Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School. Niebuhr also served as President of Elmhurst College. Theologically, Niebuhr was an adherent of the theological position commonly known as “neo-Orthodoxy.” Like his brother, Reinhold, Richard Niebuhr was influenced by Kierkegaard, existentialism, and the theological work of Karl Barth and other theologians of crisis. In the preface to Christ and Culture, Niebuhr credits Reinhold and Hulda, his sister (a prominent Christian scholar in her own right), as significant influences in the final form of his thinking on the issues covered by the book. He also credits Earnest Troeltsch and his monumental work, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, as influencing his work. [2]

Christ and Culture emerged from the predicament in which the Christian faith and the Church found themselves after the Second World War. After a brief period of enjoying the success of the Allied cause, the late 1940s were characterized by the beginning of the Cold War, the Fall of China to Maoism, the realization that nuclear weapons made possible the destruction of human civilization, the Korean Conflict, and even concern that a form of National Socialism might reemerge in the West. Perhaps most importantly, for the first time, Christianity in the United States was faced with a militant secularism that believed Christianity was not the solution to the problems of Western culture but the root of the problems of Western civilization. 1 Since these concerns exist today, reading the book is a meaningful way to reflect upon our current cultural situation. Niebuhr wrote Christ & Culture as a response to these challenges.

One must read the book to capture its essence. I believe that Niebuhr was a sincere Christian, attempting to open doors to a peaceful and productive Christian engagement with Western Culture.

Christ and Culture

As the title implies, Christ and Culture addresses the relationship between Christ and culture. In his lecture and book, Niebuhr defines and discusses exactly what he means by both. He begins by outlining what he means by Christ. He attempts a definition that applies across denominational and theological divisions. Christ for Niebuhr is the Christ we meet in the New Testament who, for Christians, is the source of the final understanding of what God and human beings are like. [3] Jesus of Nazareth, as rendered in scripture, reveals the God who is love and how love can be incarnated in a specific human life. [4] Niebuhr maintains a careful historical understanding of God in Christ. Christ is God in human form.

Christ is the God/Man. Culture, on the other hand, is a purely human creation.

It is “sum the total of all that has spontaneously arisen for the advancement of material life, and as an expression of the spiritual and moral life – all social intercourse, technologies, arts, literature, and sciences. It is the realm of the variable, free, not necessarily, universal, of all that cannot lay claim to compulsive authority.[5]

Although God is the creator of everything, including the human race, God has given freedom and capacity to the human race, made in the image of God to create. What human beings create is human culture, including all its forms, language, art, literature, government, science, social institutions of every kind, churches—everything that we human beings create in our freedom, even our loss of freedom (tyrannical governments), all these are expressions of human culture.

Niebuhr’s Options

An inevitable question is bound to be raised, “How does God in Christ relate to human culture?” How does the eternal Christ relate to the ever-changing reality of human culture? In Christ & Culture, Niebuhr outlines five different models of how culture interacts with the Christian faith: [6]

  1. Christ Against Culture. In the ‘Christ Against Culture’ model, Christianity is inevitably opposed to secular society. In this view, human sin and finitude inevitably and fundamentally compromise human society and culture. Therefore, Christians should avoid, reject, and separate from culture. Ideally, Christians should attempt to create an independent, profoundly different Christian culture easily distinguishable from the surrounding culture. One modern example would be the Mennonite and Amish communities and the work of, among others, John Yoder in his work, The Politics of Jesus. [7] Stanley Hauerwas, whom Yoder influenced, is another potential contemporary example. [8]
  2. Christ of Culture. In the ‘Christ of Culture’ model, culture is seen as fundamentally not conflicting with the Christian faith. Proponents of this view attempt to view Christian truths as reflecting cultural truth. In reality, however, cultural values often come to outweigh the importance of Christianity. Niebuhr believes that the flaw inherent in this view is its tendency towards a superficial reading of the New Testament witness, resulting in distortion of the Biblical witness and Christian faith. [9] Historic Gnosticism, Enlightenment Christianity, and Liberal Protestantism are examples of this view, which inevitably creates a kind of cultural Christianity that baptizes society’s opinions with a Christian veneer. [10]
  3. Christ Above Culture. In the ‘Christ above Culture’ model, culture represents the classical consensus between a Christianity-rejecting culture model and a Christ-affirming culture model. In this view, Culture is a product of human society and human natural capacities; however, Christian revelation perfects cultural expressions. Inherent in this view is the idea that nature and grace are two different things, and grace (faith) is necessary to complete nature. Niebuhr believes that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches and theologians like Thomas Aquinas, who combine reason with revelation, tend towards this view. This model can lead to the institutionalization of Christianity through finite and cultural expressions, as may have been the case during the synthesis of the Middle Ages.
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox. In the ‘Christ and Culture in Paradox’ model, there is an ever-present tension between the Christians and their interaction with culture. Despite the attempts of those in the Christ above Culture camp to create a workable synthetic consensus, there remains a tension that gives rise to this Christ and Culture in Paradox position. [11] Christians are forced to simultaneously live between the kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of Heaven, accepting some aspects of culture and rejecting others. Niebuhr believes Martin Luther is an example of this view. [12] Niebuhr observes of Luther:

This is the basis of Luther’s dualism. Christ deals with the fundamental problems of the moral life; he cleanses the springs of action; he creates and re-creates the ultimate community where all action takes place. But by the same token, he does not directly govern the external actions or construct the immediate community in which man carries on his work. [13]

The danger of this view is that it too easily allows human culture and political society to avoid a compelling Christian critique, as the Lutheran response to Nazi Germany often says.

  1. Christ the Transformer of Culture. In Niebuhr’s final model, Christianity is seen as a spiritual force that seeks to transform or covert culture into a greater resemblance to the Kingdom of God as it works within human society for its perfection in Christ. Although this view connects with the Christ against Culture and the Christ in Paradox types, it is distinguished by its belief that human sin does not result in an absolute break between Christ and Culture but is like a disease that warps and misdirects culture. Culture, however, as a creation of human actors made in God’s image, is not entirely fallen but only needs conversion and healing.

In this view, Christ came to redeem all creation, including human culture. Christians participate in this redemptive work in the present while awaiting his coming Kingdom. “For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and of man’s response to them.” [14] Niebuhr believes that John Calvin and Augustine represent this view. [15] The great Puritan theologian Johnathan Edwards is given as an exponent of the conversionist position. [16] Significant adoption of the conversionist position also characterizes the Wesleyan tradition. [17]

From the Anglican point of view, F. D. Maurice is listed as a profound exemplar of the Christ Transforming Culture view. [18] Maurice builds his theology of Christ and Culture from a Trinitarian base in the interrelations of love among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus, his theological starting point is communal and relational. For Maurice, faith in Christ allows human beings to escape their self-centeredness and find restoration of relational wholeness. [19] As human beings enter a divine encounter with Christ, culture must change and evolve in the direction of the Kingdom of God.

Conclusion and Evaluation

As with any important book, Christ and Culture has been subject to criticism. Niebuhr wondered if the book positively impacted Christian ability to deal with culture. In the book, he was careful to note that the types are merely types and do not occur in an unknown diluted form in the work of actual theologians or churches. He does not view his work as conclusive or the final word on the relationship between Christ and Culture. [20] As I read the book, I wondered if the five types merely represent five ways the church might be called to respond to culture depending on the circumstances in which it finds itself.

Many criticisms focus on whether or not the first four types merely serve to introduce Niebuhr’s preference for Christ as the Transformer of Culture. I think any fair reading of the book concludes that Niebuhr is attempting to be fair to historical models but favors this model. Other criticisms focus on the inadequacy of the models. Niebuhr himself tries to defuse this objection reminding readers that the five models are just that: models for thought. Reality is more complex than any model could be.[21]

As readers of this blog might anticipate, I would like to suggest that the primary relationship between Christ and culture is one of love. That is to say that Christians are called to love the cultures into which they are born and to bring the healing power of Christ to act upon such a culture. Sometimes the faithful response is to oppose the culture. Sometimes the faithful response is to support the culture. Sometimes the faithful response is to take a position above the culture. Sometimes the faithful response is to live in paradox with the culture. Sometimes the impact of faithful response is to transform the culture.

In the end, Christ and Culture remains a monumental work that every student of the relationship of Christ and Culture should and must study.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1951). There is a newer 50th Anniversary edition available. Citations here are to the original.

[2] Earnst Troeltsche, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992).

[3] Christ and Culture, at 11

[4] Id, at 16-19.

[5] Id, at 17.

[6] This brief explanation is partially based on Hugh Whitehead’s “Christ and Culture” Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, at Work and Theology 101 (June 21, 2012) (downloaded July 18, 2023).

[7] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1972, 1994).

[8] I intend to cover Hauerwas before this series of blogs is complete. For an introduction to this thinking, see Peaceable Kingdom (London, ENG: Notre Dame Press, 1983), After Christendom (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1991), and his most recent, With the Grain of the Universe (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), which are his Gifford Lectures in printed form.

[9][9] Christ and Culture, at 108-109.

[10] Whitehead,, note 6 above at 45-82.

[11] Christ and Culture, at 149.

[12] Id, at 170.

[13] Id, at 174.

[14] Id, at 195.

[15] Id, at 206-218.

[16] Id, at 217-218

[17] Id at 218-219.

[18] Id, at 220-229.

[19] Id, at 225.

[20] Id, at 230.

[21] Id, at 43-44.

Adopting a Rule of Life for Healthy Spirituality

In his many books on Emotionally Healthy Discipleship and Leadership, Peter Scazzaro recommends that Christians develop a “rule of life” or order for living that can give them the resources to continue to grow and maintain balance in the Christian life. [1] The word “rule” comes from the Latin “Regulus,” a word used for a trellis upon which grapes are grown. The idea is that a rule of life is like a trellis that allows our life of faith to thrive so that we can bear the fruit that Christ desires us to take (John 15:1-2). [2] It is part of remaining in Christ, constantly receiving the spiritual grace and life we need from God by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Just about the time Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire and the faith became less important to many people, serious Christians began to develop a monastic lifestyle, and from that lifestyle came various monastic rules. St. Pachomius (died 348) wrote the first rule in the East. St. Augustine (died 430) founded a community and authored a rule about 400 A.D. John Cassian (died 435) also wrote an important rule. Finally, St. Benedict (died 550) founded his order and created a rule about 530 A.D. that has endured throughout the ages as perhaps the greatest of the rules of life created by monastics.

I first became aware of various “monastic rules” in seminary. During an intensive personal study, I read for the first time Augustine’s rule, Benedict’s rule, the Rule of St. Francis, and other rules from the Christian tradition. [3] As a final project for the study, I created a rule that has been meaningful to me through the years. The rule I constructed was a version of the Rule of St. Augustine appropriate for a lay person who was married and had four small children.

This rule has an advantage over rules that are merely human preferences based upon my own life of faith. The historic rules were not for a person but for a community. They were not administered by an individual for his or herself but by a community for the benefit of all. Over the years, I have seen personal rules that I did not think would lead the person into a deeper faith but were designed to give them a good feeling about who they were and the spiritual life they found comfortable. Following a rule, such as the Rule of Augustine and St. Benedict, join a person with a long tradition of faith, stretching back to the Fathers and Mothers of the Church. All in all, it is best to join the great community of saints to create an orderly life of discipleship.

There are many fine books on the Benedictine way of life and the benefits of following Benedict’s rule. [4] I keep a copy of that rule in my briefcase and backpack, including a modern paraphrase by a lawyer in Memphis. [5] There are also benefits to the Rule of St. Francis, especially for those interested in simplicity of life and harmony with creation as a goal of the Christian life. Other rules can be helpful. Adopting a rule of life does not guarantee success in the Christian life, but it has proved its usefulness over the millennia as a help for Christians in following Christ.

I decided this week to publish my version of the Augustinian Rule created thirty years ago in 1993. It may be helpful to someone else. In any case, here it is for my readers:

Three Biblical Principles

Great Commandment:

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.   On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40).

Great Commission:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw Jesus, they worshiped him, but some doubted.  And Jesus said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”(Matthew 28:16-20).

Primacy of Grace:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:8=9).

The  Rule

The way to live out the Gospel can be found by adopting a Rule or way of life in response to the unmerited grace God has bestowed upon us. As Christians, we can model community for those secular communities we form and serve.

Principle One: Love God

To experience and show the wisdom and love of God, I will be regular in corporate worship, study, private prayer, silence, and other spiritual activities important to the Christian life. Daily prayer, at least three times a day (morning, noon, and evening), is important to maintain a connection with God and stability in the Christian life. I will read and study scripture daily, listening attentively to God speak through the witness of Scripture.

Principle Two: Love Other People

As a follower of Christ, I will love God and others. This love is the self-giving same love God showed in giving his Son to suffer for our sins and that the Son showed when he went to the Cross in obedience to the Father for the love of the world. No matter what else we accomplish, without love, it counts for nothing (I Corinthians 13). In particular, followers of Jesus are called to their neighbors by sharing faith in the wisdom and love of God.

Principle Three: Be a Good Steward of the Gifts of Life

Jesus calls me to be a wise steward of my time, treasure, and talents – material, physical, emotional, and spiritual. I will embrace this way of life through “lifestyle stewardship.” I will use my spiritual gifts for the good of others, returning a share of what I have to God’s work, focusing my life mission on concern for those in need, and sharing my resources with them. I will tithe my income.

Principle Four: Embrace Simplicity

I will focus on loving God and others by, among other things, living simply, rejecting materialism and consumerism. I will embrace moderation and simplicity of life, eating and drinking with restraint, fasting occasionally, and sacrificing consumption for the benefit of others. I will, in moderation, deny myself so far as health and circumstances permit.

Principle Five: Cultivate Humility

God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5-6). I will remember that there is no possibility of attaining Godly wisdom, love, or healthy relationships without humility. Pride, which lurks even in good works, is the beginning of much sin. In humility, I will remember that I can be self-centered and difficult when confronted with difficulties with others.

Social status, education, possessions, and high achievements do not make me a good Christian; they enable me to do more for others. Jesus emptied himself of his heavenly power to serve others on the cross as a symbol of God’s humility (Philippians 2:2-13). As Christ emptied himself, I will empty myself and guard against pride, which undermines good works and distort motivation.

Principle Six: Live Peacefully with Others

I will attempt to live at peace with others as far as possible (Romans 12:18). I will try to speak words of love and encouragement, even if correction is needed. When I need correction, I will graciously accept help given in love and truth.

Living in a community without some conflict is impossible. I will address differences and disputes maturely, directly, and with compassion. I will model open, forthright, wise, and loving communication and dialogue in pointing out what harms individuals and the community for the welfare of all. If offended, I will be ready to forgive from the heart.

Principle Seven: Seek the Common Good

The measure of my growth in wisdom and love will be found by seeking the common good and placing the interest of other people, our family, and community equal to or before my interests, whether in church, business, social organizations, neighborhood, the community or wherever I find myself with the opportunity to serve the common good.

Principle Eight: Be a Servant and Servant LeaderI will seek to serve others. If given a leadership position, I am not placed above others but remain a part of the community being served, with special responsibilities. If guiding a community, I will attempt to exemplify wise servant leadership in humility and with the spirit of Christ.

Principle Nine: Ongoing Evaluation

I will periodically look at the Word in Scripture, the teachings of the Church, and this Rule of Life to assess how I am doing along the journey of the life of Christian maturity.

Principle Ten: Freedom under Grace

While striving to live wisely and lovingly guided by this Rule of Life, I will remember that God gives the grace needed to succeed. Grace provides the freedom to choose to love God and one another as Jesus did and reject enslavement to the powers and principalities of this age.

Putting it to Work

To put this Rule of Life to work in a wholesome and life-affirming way, I will engage in the following:

Love God

Daily Devotion and Prayers

Weekly Worship

Times of Silence

Study of the Word

Sacrificial Giving


Love Self

Daily Exercise

Weekly Sabbath

Periodic Vacations

Periodic Retreat

Emotional Self-Care


Love Community 

Service to Marriage

Service to Family

Service to Friends

Service to Church


Love the World 

Honest Labor for Family and Person

Weekly Service to Community

Service to God, Nation, and World

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] See, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Updated Ed.  (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014); Emotionally Healthy Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003); The Emotionally Healthy Leader Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015); Emotionally Healthy Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2022).

[2] Emotionally Healthy Leader, at 135-141.

[3] St. Francis wrote his rule in about the year 1209, though it did not reach its final form until about 1221. Since this is after the split between the Eastern and Western churches, I have not included it above nor have I included other rules after the division of the East and West.

[4] See, Joan Chitteister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1990).

[5] John B. McQuistan, Always We Begin Again: The Benedictine Way of Living (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1996). I also keep a copy of this more secular rule in my backpack.

James Cone: A Theology of Liberation

James H. Cone (1938-2018) is often called the founder of black theology. What Gustavo Gutierrez is to Latin America, Cone tried to become to North America. The debt that Cone owes to Gutierrez is plain from the first lines of his book, A Black Theology of Liberation. [1] Cone was born in Arkansas, educated at Shorter and Philander Smith Colleges, went to Garrett-Smith Theological Seminary, and then to Northwestern University in Chicago, where he wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the theological anthropology of Karl Barth. He taught theology and religion at Philander Smith College, Adrian College, and Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he held the distinguished Charles A. Briggs Chair in systematic theology.

In the Tradition of Liberation Theology

Cone begins A Black Theology of Liberation with a definition of theology that cements his place in the tradition Gutierrez started. “Christian theology is a theology of liberation. It is a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ.” [2] For Cone, as for Gutierrez and others, the central Biblical event which gives rise to their theology is the liberation of the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. Underlying their theological movement is a particular reading of the events of the Pentateuch.

The Importance of the Exodus Story

Cone begins his analysis by quoting Exodus:

You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession (Exodus 19-4-5).

His analysis of the passage is revealing of his hermeneutic. “By delivering this people from Egyptian bondage and inaugurating the covenant on the basis of that historical event, God is revealed as the God of the oppressed, involved in their history, involved in liberating them from human bondage. [3]

While others in the movement deal with the Exodus in detail, Cone jumps in at the end of the story defining the meaning of the story as the revelation of the God of Liberation. The story of how the tribes of Israel ended up in Egypt, the divine prophecy of their captivity, and the faithfulness of God to his promise to Israel, all these elements are submerged in the choice of liberation itself as the story’s central feature.

Interestingly, there is very little evidence that Israel had such a foreshortened interpretation of the story. For Israel, it was the story of God’s steadfast love for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their heirs, the story of God’s choice of Israel out of all the nations as his treasured possession, and of God’s liberation of Israel and placement of Israel in the Promised Land despite their unworthiness and disobedience.

The Practical Importance of the Exodus Narrative

This is not to say that the story of God’s liberating power is without its importance in the story itself and to Israel and other people trapped in captivity. One story from my pastoral career may help a reader understand the story’s importance to black Christians. My first pastorate was in a small southern town that was poor and mostly black. The history and consequences of racism were a present reality. A local farmer began a ministry to the High School that was very deliberately integrated. Given the fact that the community and high school were majority black, the ministry itself was as well.

One of the challenges of the ministry was engaging pastors across racial lines to become involved. The ministry was very much like any high school youth group; there was an annual retreat, a weekly meeting, and plenty of food for hungry teenagers. Generally, the farmer and his wife led the Bible study, but that was not always the case. In the community, an older back CME pastor agreed to become involved. Naturally, we became friends. One feature of his leadership in the ministry and community was his always amazing ability to preach on demand and without much notice.

Over five years, I became familiar with his preaching style. We even exchanged pulpits and did Thanksgiving services together. Of all the sermons he preached during those years, the sermons that involved the Exodus were clearly the most memorable. He used the Exodus passages to talk about captivity to sin, drugs, sexual morality, and various social and spiritual evils. He used the Exodus story to discuss racism and God’s power to change our community. He used the story as a warning not to end up down in Egypt in the first place.

Whenever he spoke from Exodus, there was a special power in his preaching, for he was speaking not just from his own experience but also from the experience of his people. Cone’s use of the Exodus story and its use by others in the same theological tradition is unsurprising. It is a deep part of the Black American experience from slavery to today.

The Existential Component

While Cone is careful to speak in Biblical Terms, on the whole, he is critical of the history of theology, which he conceives as a negative factor, and the activities of the churches, which he sees as facilitating racism. In discussing the role of the churches in eliminating slavery, he highlights how faith was used to justify slavery without giving due credit to the fact that the entire anti-slavery movement was powered by Christians who opposed slavery on religious grounds.

Most of his theological discussion is an attempt to bring traditional Christian faith, and especially the faith of oppressed minorities, into dialogue with existential theology as reflected by the so-called “theologians of crisis” Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Brunner, all of whom were impacted by Kierkegaard and Heidegger. He emphasizes revelation’s role in self-understanding, self-awareness, and self-authenticity among the oppressed and those who would help them. [4] Conversely, he is critical of Bultmann’s attempt to release the Christian faith from history. [5] On the whole, Cone wants to prevent the Christian faith from being merely an intellectual endeavor cut off from action to bring justice to society. In so doing, he wants to continue to find a place for history—the history of human liberation by the gospel.

Doing Away with the White God

Cone begins his analysis of language about God with the observation that Black Theology assumes the reality of God. That is to say, Cone’s analysis begins in faith and moves in faith to critique existing “white” theology. [6] In his view, to be certain that black theology achieves its purpose of liberating the black (and white) community from embedded racism, it is important to break with any traditional speech about God that would prevent this movement from achieving its goal. [7] What Cone is after is to remove distorted ideas about the nature of God and the purposes of God, which he believes infects traditional “white” theology.

There are parts of this endeavor with which any thinking Christian must agree. To the extent that dominant theological groups have distorted the ideas and notions concerning the person of God, it cannot be wrong to point out these distortions. Such attempts do the church a favor by cleansing it of false ideas.

On the other hand, Cone too frequently misses the fact that much of the orthodox consensus of the church was the work of persons of Middle Eastern (The Cappadocian Fathers and many others) and African heritage (Augustine). The ecumenical consensus of the past was not the work of “white Europeans.” In fact, Europe was shaped and formed by non-White, non-Europeans.

Jesus Christ in Black Theology

For Cone, as for most Christian theology, the character and person of Christ are at the center of theology and faith. Once again, though, Cone is not interested in Christ as an abstraction but as a reality that confronts racism and oppression in all its forms. [8] Black theology, says Cone, does not agree with the radical views of Bultmann and those who say we can know nothing about the historical Jesus. Instead, black theology wishes to ground itself in the Biblical revelation of Christ, the Oppressed One who is afflicted and oppressed and identifies himself with the afflicted and oppressed. [9] Cone observes that in this birth, in his life, and in his death, Jesus was constantly in solidarity with the oppressed—and constantly at war with their oppressors.

Since Cone believes that Black Liberation Theology demands a Black God, it will not surprise anyone that a Black Jesus is an essential element for Christology:”

Now, what does this mean for blacks in America today? How are they to interpret the christological significance of the Resurrected One in such a way that this person will be existentially relevant to their oppressed condition? The black community is an oppressed community primarily because of its blackness; hence the christological importance of Jesus, must be found in his blackness. If he is not black as we are, then the resurrection has little significance for our time. Indeed, if he cannot be what we are, we cannot be who he is. Our being with him is dependent on his being with us in the oppressed, black condition, revealing to us what is necessary for our liberation. [10]

A bit of interpretation is needed to understand his point sympathetically.

Cone rejects the view that we can know nothing about Jesus. He rejects a Christ that is not embedded and active in history. On the other hand, Cone has an existentialist view of the importance of Jesus as reflected in the concrete situation of people. For those who are oppressed, this means seeing Jesus as present with them and identifying with people in their oppression. Since it is important for oppressed people to see Christ as their liberator, for the black community, Jesus must be black. I do not think that Cone would indicate that this is a physical thing. It is a spiritual matter that Jesus us black, just as Jesus is present in all cultures.

Some years ago, I was given a series of pictures of Jesus, as various ethnic groups render him. In the Orient, Jesus is sometimes pictured as Oriental. In the Middle East, he is sometimes pictured as Middle Eastern.  In Latin America, Jesus is sometimes pictured as Latin American. From Sunday school, some of us remember a picture in which Jesus that had blue eyes and brownish blonde hair. The historical Jesus probably looked little like any of these renderings. One of the interesting features of the Gospels is that they do not give us any description of the physical Jesus. This may be quite intentional since the Gospels were missionary documents, just like the rest of the New Testament. It was the intention of Christ that he should be available to any ethnic group, for his gospel was to be preached to the entire world (Matthew 28: 16-20).

The Anthropology of Black Liberation

In addition to believing that traditional ideas about God are warped in “white theology,” Cone believes that a true picture of humanity is hidden and obscured, especially in fundamentalist and highly rigid traditionalist circles. [11] This observation leads Cone into what I think is the most suspect part of his analysis, but one that contains some degree of truth. In the context of the suffering and prejudice endured by the black community, Cone believes that this suffering is a kind of “revelation” ignored by fundamentalists, Barthians, and theological liberals alike. [12] For Cone, God in Christ Jesus meets oppressed people with a message of what they must do in order to achieve liberation from oppression. [13]

Cone is suspicious of any attempt to create an idealized humanity separate from the reality of human beings in particular. In a memorable passage, he states:

Secondly, black theology is suspicious of those who appealed to a universal, ideal humanity. Oppressors are ardent lovers of humanity. They can love all persons in general, even black persons, because intellectually they can put blacks in the category called Humanity. With this perspective, they can participate in civil rights and help blacks purely on the premise that they are part of a universal category. But when it comes to dealing with particular blacks, statistics transformed into black encounter, they are at a loss. They remind me of Dostoyevsky’s doctor, who said, “I love humanity, but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity, in general, the less I love men in particular.” [14]

Cone wants us to see is that the love of Christ is not the love of an abstract category called, Humanity. It is the love of concrete human persons whom God places in our lives. When human beings profess their love for humanity but do nothing to alleviate the suffering of the oppressed, they are not living in faith, whatever their profession, they are living self-absorbed, irresponsible lives. [15]


Cone is often critiqued for his angry language and tendency to overstate his case. Having lived in the area where Cone was born, I think it is important to remember that he was born and reached maturity long before the Civil Rights Movement made the entry of black Americans into the mainstream of society easy. He lived and experienced the raw edges of racial prejudice and segregation. I think he can be forgiven for his tendency to speak in angry and overstated ways.  His views are part of a broader tendency of late modern, post-Viet Nam critique of American society with its attraction to revolutionary tactics to change perceived unjust social realities. While not agreeing with all of his language, Cone is pleading to see beyond the religion and morals of mid-century, middle-class, white, bourgeoisie American society. His notion of a black God and a black Christ can and should be seen as an attempt to overcome any idolatry by which any racial, ethnic, or cultural group seeks to glorify itself and oppress others. At least, this is what I think Cone meant in his work.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1986, 1990).

[2] Id, at 1.

[3] Id, at 2.

[4] Id, at 53.

[5] Id, at 54.

[6] Id, at 55.

[7] Id, at 61.

[8] Id, at 110.

[9] Id, at 113.

[10] Id, at 120.

[11] Id, at 82-83.

[12] Id, at 84-85.

[13] Id.

[14] Id, at 85

[15] Id, at 95

Happy Fourth of July!!

July 4th is Independence Day. I am writing this on July 3, a day Americans seldom remember, but it is when the battle of Gettysburg ended. The action commenced on July 1, 1865, and ended on July 3. When the Confederate Army left the battlefield, they did not know it, but the “High Tide” of the Confederacy had been reached, and the war was now lost. What remained now was the slow march that would end at Appomattox Courthouse in April of 1865. In the meantime, many fine young men would die.

General Lee, who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, knew that the Confederacy could not win a war of attrition, nor could his commanders win battles forever against an increasingly dominant foe by the sheer brilliance of strategy and the energy of commanders in the field. The invasion of Pennsylvania was an attempt to force a negotiated settlement. Gettysburg was not Lee’s chosen site for the battle. It is simply where the two armies met.

The site, however, favored the Army of the Potomac and its new commanding officer, General George Meade. He had replaced General Joseph Hooker, whom Lincoln did not think was aggressive or wise enough to win the battle. (Hooker’s personal and leadership morals gave us the phrase “Hooker” for a certain sort of woman that followed his army.) For three days, the battle raged. Lee was hampered by the death of Stonewall Jackson, his best commander, and J. E. B. Stuart, his cavalry commander, did not arrive as anticipated and left the old warrior blind to the enemy movements until it was too late. Finally, Lee was sick, probably with a mild heart attack. He was not at the top of his game.

During the battle, Lee uncharacteristically made three errors: (1) he over-estimated the capacity of his army, (2) he underestimated the strength and tactical advantages of his opponent, and (3) he fought the battle with insufficient information due to the failure of Stuart to arrive in a timely manner. Lee’s health unquestionably impacted his judgment. He was ill for most of the battle. Nevertheless, his concern for his army and the battle’s fairness was undiminished. He warned his soldiers against bad behavior despite the fact that they were in the enemy’s heartland, not Virginia.

On the other hand, Meade was competent, brave, and not easily rattled, a characteristic too common among Union Generals up to this point in the war. One commentator puts it this way: Meade deployed his forces effectively; relied on capable subordinates to make decisions where and when they were needed; took great advantage of defensive positions; wisely shifted defensive resources on interior lines to parry strong threats; and, unlike some of his predecessors, stood his ground throughout the battle in the face of fierce Confederate attacks [1]

Between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers from both armies were casualties in the three-day battle, the costliest single day in our nation’s military history. Reflecting on the battle, Lincoln summed it up in words that should never be forgotten:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[2]

In every war, someone loses, and someone wins. Lincoln’s genius was that he could speak words that applied to the winners and losers, to all that loved their country, which is why after the war was over, both sides could see in his address the profound wisdom and love for all that inspired them.

I have quoted these words in the past on July 4th. This year, I want to take our attention back to the words that preceded them:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. [3]

Most unfortunately, we and our leaders, in the quest for power and for the creation of a nation in the image we feel best, have allowed our country’s dedication to the liberty of all to degenerate into a civil war of a kind. We sometimes call it a “Culture War.” I believe that a good portion of that war is deliberately fought to distract the public from the reality that their freedom and way of life are being taken from them by oligarchs, corrupt politicians, intellectuals, and a host of “opinion makers” left and right.  We are not “met on a battlefield” of a battle past, we are on the battlefield.

It is easy to lose perspective during a battle. It is easy to forget that the folks on the other side are just as dedicated and just as sure that God (or my least favorite term, “history”) is on their side as we are confident of the righteousness of our cause. It is easy to forget that God loves everyone, including those we believe to be fundamentally wrong. It is easy to say and do things we will regret when we lie a few seconds from death.

At such times, it is a good idea to remember the ending of the Gettysburg Address, “…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  It is on days like today that we need to renew a certain basic resolve that we who are here today wish to leave to our children and grandchildren, all of them, of whatever race, color, creed, or political view, the benefits of the freedoms and prosperity we enjoy.

We did not create this land. We inherited it. We inherited it as a gift the day we came or were born. Those who lived before us built the nation with their blood, sweat, toil, and tears. They worked in good times and depressions, in peace and war, in plenty, and in want to build the country we inhabit. We are not its owners. We are trustees for those who will come after us.

On October 17, 1863, the Civil War was not over. Another bloody season lay ahead. I am afraid that a different kind of bloody season is ahead for us all. The question boils down to this: Will we fight with the tools of reason, love, mutual forgiveness, forbearing differences, and forgiving mistakes, or will we fight until someone wins and everyone else loses? There lies the question before us.

Happy Independence Day!!

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Murray, Williamson and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh. A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016) at 285, found at (downloaded July 3, 2023).

[2] Abraham Lincloln, Gettysburg Address (October 17, 1863).

[3] Id.

Liberation Theology No. I: Gustavo Guitierrez

In 1988, a Peruvian Roman Catholic scholar and priest, Gustavo Gutierrez (b. 1928) published A Theology of Liberation. [1] The book has been the classic formative text for a generation of theologians influenced by its thesis, which focuses on the gospel as a revolutionary force in society. Gutierrez was educated in France and a Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of Lima, Peru. The details of the emergence of the text are well-known. It was the fruit of many conferences, lectures, and studies by the author, who developed his thesis over many years. It is the mature thinking of a theology profoundly impacted by the poverty and suffering of the poor in Latin America and elsewhere as well as by the Marxism popular among academics of the period.

Gutierrez has been humble and willing to adjust some of his thinking in light of theological critiques and the concerns of the magisterium Roman Catholic Church. [2]

Basic Underlying Principles

Three principles that guide Gutierrez’s thought:

  1. Poverty is a degrading social evil and must be opposed and rejected;
  2. Poverty is not to be seen as the result of laziness, but the result of structural injustices that privilege some while marginalizing others.
  3. Poverty is not inevitable. [3]

For Gutierrez, God loves and wishes the best for all human beings, and, this love is especially evident in his concern for the poor and oppressed.

While there is truth in these fundamental principles, it would perhaps be best to rephrase them as follows:

  • Extreme poverty is a degrading social evil that must be addressed by society and its members, including the church;
  • Poverty is not necessarily or even usually the result of laziness. It can be and often is the result of structural injustices that privilege some while marginalizing others.
  • Systemic extreme poverty is not inevitable in most, if not all, societies.

My paraphrase is designed to eliminate the objection that, in some way, “the poor will always be with society,” and that some people do fall into poverty due to their own decisions (in my experience, alcoholism and drug abuse are factors in this), and that some degree of poverty is present in all cultures and in all economic systems, a situation that is probably inevitable inside of history. In addition, there may be some cultures so broken and dysfunctional located in places without the potential for economic development that poverty is nearly inescapable.

Theology as Reflection on Praxis

For Gutierrez, theology properly understood is the disciplined reflection on praxis. Another way he often phrases this notion is that “theology is a critical reflection on the Christian praxis in the light of the word of God.” [4] In other words, theology reflects on the actual life of the church as it exists and developed throughout history. An excellent place to begin in analyzing Gutierrez is thinking about the meaning of praxis on a somewhat broader scope and then looking at the slightly reduced focus of the liberation theologians. Generally, “praxis” in Greek means a deed, an action, a function, a business or behavior, or a doing of something. In a way, praxis is not more than what the church or society is actually doing. The second part of the definition involves bringing the word of God, the revelation of Christ, into dialogue with the praxis. It is allowing the word of God to inform and alter first theological understanding and then praxis itself.

In Acts, one of the first descriptions of the Christian faith is people of the “Way,” by which the author means people who believe that way to God is through Christ. Nevertheless, the Way did refer to a concrete way of life first described in Acts:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those being saved (Acts 2:42-48).

This life, as described, is a life of communal worship, listening to Christian apostolic witnesses, fellowship with other believers, shared meals and communion, prayer, generosity, and witness. This broader view of the Christian Way differs from what Gutierrez and other liberation theologians mean by praxis. Gutierrez discerns two steps in his concept of praxis:

  1. Experiencing the poverty and oppression of the marginalized;
  2. Actively engaging theologically to bring about the transformation of unjust social structures. [5]

It is a fair critique of A Theology of Liberation that it does not sufficiently incorporate the fullness of the Christian way of life, of which response to human need is an important part, into its argument.

The Influence of Marx and Revolutionary Ideologies

From the beginning, Gutierrez admits the influence of Marx on this theology. For Gutierrez, disciplined reflection connotes a reflection that will lead to material and revolutionary change in the conditions of the poor and marginalized. [6] Secondly, Gutierrez is primarily interested in the transformation of society. [7] Gutierrez distinguishes this new theological approach from what he refers to as the historical approaches that couched their theologies as a form of wisdom or a form of rational knowledge.[8] Roughly, theology as wisdom characterized the early church, and theology as rational knowledge characterized the Middle Ages. Following Marx, Gutierrez wants to see theology as an embodied action designed to change the socio-economic realities of the material world.

The revolutionary implications of Gutierrez’s approach (and a frightening one) is found in Gutierrez’s glorification of the French and Russian Revolutions. Gutierrez believes that the social practices of the contemporary human race are becoming mature. Human beings are more conscious of being actively in control of human history, more willing to speak up against social injustice, and determined to participate in transforming social structures and effective political action. Gutierrez goes on:

It was, above all, the great social revolutions – the French, and the Russian, for example, to mention only two more important milestones – together with the whole process of revolutionary ferment, that they initiated, which wrestled, or at least began to end political decisions from the hands of an elite, who are destined to rule. After that time, the great majority of people did not participate in political decisions, or did so only sporadically informally. [9]

I first read Gutierrez more than thirty years ago and wrote a critique of his work on just this point. I thought then and think now that the glorification of violent revolutions in which millions were killed ignores the example of Christ and his actual work in history. If the price to be paid for the participation of people in public life is slaughter, then we might want to revisit our commitment to that end. Fortunately, I do not think embracing a revolutionary and violent ideology is necessary to increase human flourishing. [10] More importantly, the thesis ignores the results of Marxism from the Russian Revolution to the more recent economic impoverishment of Venezuela.

This aspect of Gutierrez’s thought, admittedly not the majority of this thinking, is what led Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II, who had an intimate understanding of the dangers of Marxist totalitarianism, to issue their warning against certain aspects (not all) of the theology:

The warning of Paul VI remains fully valid today: Marxism as it is actually lived out poses many distinct aspects and questions for Christians to reflect upon and act on. However, it would be “illusory and dangerous to ignore the intimate bond which radically unites them, and to accept elements of the Marxist analysis without recognizing its connections with the ideology, or to enter into the practice of class-struggle and of its Marxist interpretation while failing to see the kind of totalitarian society to which this process slowly leads. [11]

It is important in reading this instruction to note that the Vatican did not condemn liberation theology as a movement but only certain tendencies that might lead people beyond the Christian faith.

A Preferential Option for the Poor

One of the more controversial aspects of Gutierrez’s approach to theology is the so-called “preferential option for the poor.”  In an interview in America in 2003, Gutierrez stated his own belief that a preferential option for the poor had become a fixed element of Catholic theology:

Do you think the “preferential option for the poor” has become an integral part of the Catholic Church’s social teaching? And where did that term come from?

Yes, I do believe that the option for the poor has become part of the Catholic social teaching. The phrase comes from the experience of the Latin American church. The precise term was born sometime between the Latin American bishops’ conferences in Medellín (1968) and in Puebla (1979). In Medellín, the three words (option, preference, poor) are all present, but it was only in the years immediately following Medellín that we brought these words into a complete phrase. It would be accurate to say that the term “preferential option for the poor” comes from the Latin American church, but the content, the underlying intuition, is entirely biblical. Liberation theology tries to deepen our understanding of this core biblical conviction. [12]

In appreciating the scope of the preferential option for the poor, one must begin with what it does not mean. It does not mean replacing one kind of injustice for another. It does not mean depriving those who are not poor of justice. It means a concept of justice that includes rejecting extreme poverty and social structures that undergird it. Gutierrez does not limit his definition of poverty to mere physical deprivation. Unjust poverty includes captivity to sin, captivity to oppressive social structures, and captivity to psychological or anthropological injustice. In other words, properly understood, it is a holistic concept outlining the Christian response to all forms of oppression.

Political Realism and Liberation Theology

Gutierrez has much in common with Reinhold Niebuhr about his assumption that conflict is inevitable in politics. [13] Building a just society means confronting and opposing unjust social structures in words and deeds. [14] With this observation, it is difficult to argue. When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he is talking about the internal, moral, and spiritual kingdom of God’s rule in the interior life of individual human beings. However, this inner, or what Gutierrez calls the “psychological level” of the kingdom, is not without its external results. John the Baptist vividly describes the results of repentance:

“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:8-14).

The gospel is to have more than a personal, interior application. God is interested in transforming the human subject, mind, spirit, body, and emotions. It is this wholistic emphasis of liberation theology that is its greatest strength.


Liberation Theology, as it was initially voiced by Gustavo Gutierrez, flowed from his reflection on the terrible poverty of some parts of Central and South America in light of the gospel of Christ and its promise of new life to all human beings. Gutierrez attempts to ground his analysis in the Scriptures and historic Christian faith and reflect upon that faith. He is also concerned that the Christian faith in Latin America did not descend into a mere acceptance of the current social structures that trap many human beings in poverty. Although his work has been and can be critiqued, it remains a powerful force.

The critique of liberation theology has focused on its use of Marxist analysis. In my view, this critique is also valid—but limited. Marxism resulted from the inadequate worldview of post-Enlightenment modernity with its relentless materialism. On the other hand, pre-Marxist thought often incorporated an equally materialistic notion of reality (Laisse Faire Capitalism) that ignored human life’s spiritual and moral elements. What is needed is a movement beyond these two alternatives through a more holistic view of reality.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation tr. Sister Caridad India and John Eageson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998).

[2] The version of his work which I read for this blog was different and improved from the version I first read in school. In 1984, the Vatican took issue with certain aspects of this thought, and a report was issued. Then Cardinal Radzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and Pope John Paul II both voiced concerns about his work. Gutierrez was never, however, mentioned by name or condemned.

[3] Wayne Northey, Gustavo Gutierrez and the Preferential Option for the Poor (November 8, 2011) at (downloaded June 22, 2023); John Dear, “Gustavo Gutierrez and the Preferential Option for the Poor” National Catholic Reporter (November 8, 2011) June 22, 2023).

[4] Gutierrez, at 6.

[5] A. Denisencko, “Review of A Theology of Liberation” Multiversum Philosophical Almanac (Downloaded June 22, 2023).

[6] Id, at 9. This aspect of Gutierrez’s thought has provoked the most criticism, including from the Vatican.

[7] This does not mean that Gutierrez is unconcerned with the individual level of salvation. liberation includes both the individual level of salvation and its economic, political, and social level involving entire classes of people. It might be best to consider Gutierrez’s fundamental idea as a holistic liberation or freeing of human beings from all structures, psychological and social that warp human existence.

[8] Id at 4-5.

[9] Id, at 46.

[10] It is, however, necessary to recall the experience of economic and political oppression in the so-called “Developing or Third World” and to understand and internalize the anger that can and should be felt at the injustice that they have experienced.

[11] Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’”  found at (downloaded June 22, 2023).

[12] Daniel Hartnett, “Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutierrez” America: A Jesuit Review (February 3, 2003) at (downloaded June 22, 2023).

[13] Gutierrez, at 48.

[14] Id.

Marshland by Alystair West

This week, I am taking another break from the usual blog alternating philosophy, theology, public life, and discipleship to briefly review a new, just-published novel, Marshland, written under the pen name Alystair West. The primary plot line goes like this: in the 1980s in Texas, a young attorney stumbles into a mystery unfolding on various levels—personal, legal, political, moral, and spiritual. A plane crashes in a storm, leaving two people dead. The event threatens an important transaction for Arthur Stone’s law firm. Worst of all, his life, the lives of others for whom he cares, and his career may also be at risk.

The mystery involves members of a prestigious law firm, family members, a special forces officer, drug dealers, high-level financiers, local and other business people, and the intelligence community. The trouble begins off the coast of Africa, where a hurricane is forming, then moves to central Mexico, Houston, and San Miguel de Allende. Beneath the apparent, earthly and unearthly powers appear to be working with unknown intent. Only time will tell whether those involved will emerge whole.

The mid and late 1980s in Houston, Texas, were a time of financial crisis when excessive lending and risk-taking devastated an entire industry. Changes in tax laws, a deep recession, financial deregulation, and other factors led to a massive crisis. The overconfident lending and financial wheeler-dealing that characterized parts of the banking crisis in Texas have been repeated many times in American history before and since in Texas and elsewhere. One interesting question is, “What is in human nature that encourages these kinds of problems?”

In Marshland, Arthur Stone and a diverse cast of characters encountered death, betrayal, and perhaps emerging faith.  Marshland is currently available through the following outlets:

WestBow Press (best royalty for the author):


Barnes & Noble:

Why write a book like Marshland? There are many reasons.

The author’s previous books were generally theological or biblical, of a genre that might be called “Popular Practical Theology.” Books like Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love (2010), Path of Life: Wisdom Literature for Christ-Followers (2014), and Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making (2022) were written for Christians, and perhaps more importantly, for more or less mature Christians willing to look into a subject a bit more deeply than popular Christian books generally take a reader. Marshland is an attempt to reach a more diverse group of readers.

Secondly, the author has loved the work of the Inklings, Owen Barfield, C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. In particular, Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams had a significant impact. The author wanted to take a stab at writing something like the “spiritual shockers” for which Williams is famous, and the Space Trilogy, for which Lewis is known. This was a chance to create an imaginary world that might draw non-believers into becoming interested in what it might mean to be a Christian.

Third, the author has been both a lawyer and a pastor over the course of his professional life. As many people remind me, these two professions are at least popularly seen as divergent. Yet, both professions deal with human beings and human problems. Both give a person an insight into human nature (not always good) and how difficult life can become for people caught in difficult and damaging situations. Marshland draws this apparent diversity into some unity. (If the series continues, this aspect will become more and more apparent.)

Finally, the author wanted to write a murder mystery with a spiritual message. Marshland is just a novel. The characters, murders, transactions, and plot are all fictional, but the spiritual and moral quandaries in the book are not imaginary. They are genuine, and they impact us every day. We confront the “powers and principalities” every day of our lives. We like to think that if we ever faced the temptations others face, we would act differently, but human history tells a different story. We all have feet of clay.

Over time, the fiction I have read is almost as important as history and theory in understanding how human beings make many more significant and lesser mistakes of judgment. We are all finite and fallible—a bit worse than merely finite and fallible. In fiction, we can see ourselves and our culture more clearly. These “Path of Life” blogs are designed to help people walk through day-to-day life’s challenges, difficulties, opportunities, successes, and failures more wisely and successfully. Ultimately, that is what the author of Marshland wanted to do.

Blessings to all my followers and friends!!!

The Pastoral Epistles and Pastoral Training

Paul wrote three letters in the New Testament, which the church has traditionally referred to as “Pastoral Epistles” because they were written to two colleagues of the great missionary evangelist, Timothy, and Titus. [1] The letters are filled with pastoral advice and counsel directed from an older and more experienced Christian leader to younger leaders of the next generation. The letters continue to be relevant today. They point to the need for a church-based system for identifying new leaders, training and mentoring new leaders, maintaining contact with leaders, and existing leaders taking seriously the development of a new generation of leaders for the church.

Context of Pastoral Epistles

Historically, the authorship of the epistles was considered to be Paul, though modern critical scholarship sometimes doubts this conclusion. Having studied the letters, I take the historic view that the Pastoral epistles are most likely from the pen of Paul. I am not a scholar, but the epistles seem to me to be pregnant with personal concern and love of a kind that I would not think likely in a forgery or secondary writing. Nevertheless, should the modern view be accurate, it would still bolster the case that the early church consistently trained leaders by personal example and guidance, and character and spiritual qualities were equally important as scholarship.

Eusebius records that Paul was released from prison in Rome, made a missionary journey, returned, and was imprisoned sometime thereafter. [2] These letters shed light on the events of Paul’s life after his first imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28:14-21), as First Timothy and Titus were probably written during this brief period of freedom.

Second Timothy indicates that it was written at or very near the end of Paul’s life. Paul probably wrote the letter to Timothy between A.D. 66-67 while imprisoned in Rome for the final time (2 Tim 1:2, 8). This imprisonment was more difficult than his first imprisonment in Rome. In the letter, the apostle indicates that he is under tremendous stress and believes death is imminent (4:6-8):

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Tim 4:6-8, NIV).

Taken as a whole, the letters reflect a man near the end of life, in prison, writing letters to trusted associates giving them instructions, and, in the case of Timothy, hoping that he will soon come and join the apostle in his labors (2 Timothy 4:9). All three of the Pastoral Epistles, in other words, reflect an aging Paul, who has planted many churches and nears the end of his labors. Timothy, in Ephesus, and Titus, in Crete, are two of those he trained and ministered with in earlier years. He remains close to them and writes them personal letters of advice. [3]

The Power of Personal Relationships

The pastoral letters are filled with personal encouragement, advice, and teaching directed to Timothy and Titus, who are now ministering in isolation from their mentor, who must communicate by letter.  Paul, for example, is aware of Timothy’s youth, a tendency to defer to elders, and timidity when challenged, and the letter is designed to encourage Timothy to be self-aware and avoid allowing these habits to injure his mission and ministry for the gospel. Paul can give the advice he gives precisely because he has a deep personal relationship with the recipient of the letter. Titus is also a “true child in the common faith” (Titus 1:4). He has been entrusted with a difficult task in Crete. Paul is especially concerned that Titus succeeds in this mission (Titus 1:5). The advice given to both is of such a character that it might have been ignored without a personal relationship and regard for the writer.

The personal exhortation is self-explanatory at the beginning of Second Timothy:

For this reason, I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace (2 Tim 1:6-9a, NIV).

Paul exhorts Timothy based on his laying on of hands and the power, love, and spirit of moral self-discipline that Timothy has observed in their private time together. Timothy traveled with the apostle and knew of his sufferings and trials for the gospel. Paul, therefore, calls Timothy not just to doctrinal purity but to the personal holiness of life after the example of Paul.

A Leader’s Life of Prayerfulness

Paul begins his first letter to Timothy with a reminder of something that Timothy must have experienced many times during their travels together: the role of prayer in the ministry of the apostle. Paul “urges first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men … that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (I Tim. 2:1). In his second letter, Paul thanks God whom he serves without ceasing he remembers Timothy in his prayers “night and day” (I Tim 1:3).

A constant theme in all the letters of Paul is his constant prayer for all the churches he serves (Romans 1:8-10; I Cor 1:4; Eph 1:16; Phil 1:3-4; Col 1:3; I Thess 1:2-3; 2 Thess 1:3). Neither Timothy nor Titus, nor any other travel companion of Paul could fail to notice that the apostles teaching and power, his endurance in ministry, and his ability to navigate complex ministry settings was deeply impacted by his life of prayer. Paul wants to be sure that Timothy remembers his example and emulates him in his ministry.

The Importance of Sound Doctrine

These blogs have often deferred on doctrine, which can be controversial, but there is no doubt that Paul is concerned that Timothy and Titus defend the Gospel and the apostolic teaching. The church of Jesus Christ has never existed without the threat of false teaching. From the beginning, some distorted the Gospel, failed to recognize its implications, or misstated it for personal gain. (Acts 8:8-24; 13:1-12; 15:1-2). Over time, misguided teaching included arguments over ideal speculations and genealogies (I Tim 6:3-4; Titus 3:9), excessive asceticism (I Tim 4:3), good and bad moral character (I Tim 3:1-9; 2 Tim 3:2-7), and last but by no means least, distorting the Gospel message (those who have strayed from the faith saying that the resurrection is already past” (I Tim 2:18).

In response to these threats, Paul reminds Timothy that he has “carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering love, perseverance, persecutions, and afflictions” (I Tim 310-12). Notice that Paul does urge Timothy to preach the gospel faithfully to the apostolic witness as he received it from Paul but also not to forget to emulate the form of life that Paul embodied as he ministered to the Roman world:

 What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us (2 Tim 1:13-14, ESV).

The gospel is to be defended not just with arguments but with the same faith and love Timothy saw in Paul’s life and ministry.

This aspect of Paul’s teaching is essential for today’s pastors, perhaps especially among evangelical pastors. Paul clearly understands that sound doctrine is necessary, but sound doctrine without prudence, wisdom, gentleness, and love is without power. Paul’s teaching was not with words of power only but accompanied by the apparent strength of the Holy Spirit (I Cor 2:1-5). The growth of disciples under the care of a pastor depends upon the presence and conviction of the Holy Spirit.

The Character of a Church Leader

Ministry is founded on character, the attributes that make up a church leader. Throughout the entirety of the Pastoral Epistles, the issue of pastoral character and integrity is dealt with by Paul. Near the end of First Timothy, the apostle Paul urges his younger companion:

But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you, which you have declared so well before many witnesses. And I charge you before God, who gives life to all, and before Christ Jesus, who gave a good testimony before Pontius Pilate, that you obey this command without wavering. Then no one can find fault with you from now until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again (I Tim 6:11-14, NLT).

This particular set of verses encapsulates the insistence of Paul that Timothy be faithful to his calling (I Tim 1:18-19), not allowing anyone to ignore or disrespect him because he is young (4:12). He is to be diligent in preaching, continuing to personally follow sound doctrine (4:16) carefully admonishing the congregation with due concern for differences (5:1-12). As to moral challenges, Timothy is to “flee these things and pursue righteousness, faith, love, patience, and gentleness” (6:11). Titus also is to speak appropriate words to the congregation in Crete and not allow anyone to despise him as a leader of God’s people (Titus 2:15).


What relevance do the Pastoral Epistles have for the church today? When reading the texts, one is struck by the parallels between Paul’s context and the difficulties that Timothy and Titus faced and those pastors and church leaders face today:

You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. for people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred.  They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly (2 Tim 3:1-5, NLT).

These verses are often referred to whenever pastors and church leaders gather together in our day and time. Ministry is difficult in the best of times, but when faith is disparaged, and morals are declining, ministry becomes overwhelming when there is little respect for the church or its leadership. My time in ministry spans the end of the leadership of the World War II generation, the ascendency of the Boomers, and the current emergence of a new generation. There is no question but that the level of personal and institutional dysfunction has grown. To meet this problem, the church needs pastors carefully mentored by more experienced leaders, not just in the content of the faith but also in the character and practices of Christian leadership.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Timothy’s discovery by Paul is recorded in Acts 16:1-2, and his presence is noted in both Acts and Paul’s letters. Titus was a Greek who was led to faith in Christ by Paul and thus his child of the faith (Titus 1:4). Titus eventually became a co-worker, perhaps one of those accompanying Paul and Barnabas from Antioch to Jerusalem ( Acts 15:2). At the Jerusalem Council, Titus would have been an example of a Gentile Christian who was not circumcised. Titus was living proof that the rite of circumcision was unnecessary for salvation (Galatians 2:3).

[2] Eusebius, History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, NPNF Volume 1, 2.22.

[3] All three letters are addressed to Timothy or Titus personally. Unlike the other letters of Paul, they contain no long lists of persons to be greeted by the Apostle. They are personal letters, not public letters to churches.

Rawls 4: Economics and a Fair Society

Rawls begins his discussion of justice and the political economy with a statement that almost everyone would agree to: “A doctrine of political economy must include an interpretation of the public good, which is based upon a conception of justice.” [1] The social system of a society profoundly affects the character of its citizens. Human wants and aspirations, our vision of our potential futures and the limitations on our aspirations. They are on, are all impacted profoundly by the social institutions, under which we live. [2]

My wife and I are enthusiastic followers of British television. A constant theme of shows that deal with the early 20th century is revealing the way in which the working class in Great Britain began to see a different future as a result of social changes during and after the First World War. Downton Abbey, for example, follows the changes in a prominent family and their servants thought the changes World War I brought. [3] Such shows always include older members of the family and older servants who have grown up within the limitations of a traditional society who are challenged to accept the aspirations of a younger generation. This is just an illustration of the truism that socio-economic systems carry with them a vision of society, a set of social institutions, an economic reality, all of which impact those who live in any society.

The Original Position and Political Economy

Rawls’s presentation begins with a presumption that human beings choose and change a social system with limited reference to the actual route of the historical development of a society and the actual condition, including ideas and prejudices with which all investigation begins. He is dismissive of those who “acquiesce to the status quo” without thinking through the moral conceptions implicit in the status quo or leaving things as they have developed under historical contingencies. [4] In his view, there is no safe starting point other than to create an ideal conception of society unprejudiced and uninformed (I think) by reality as it presents itself in concrete historical circumstances. This is the notion behind the “original position.” Unfortunately, throughout human history, human beings have been born into a socio-economic reality to which they adapted and, in many cases, changed. Perhaps the safest starting point is society as it has evolved and adapted over time. The kind of “armchair philosophizing in which Rawls engages makes him a child of Descartes, Kant, and the high Enlightenment philosophers but far from the pragmatism that characterizes American philosophy at its best.

While a kind of disembodied “Original Position” notion may be inviting to Americans, perhaps especially to well-educated Americans, it is profitable to examine the results where America recently put similar ideas into practice: In the misguided attempts to build an ideal, modern, secular democracy in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Most intelligent observers believe America failed to build functional democracies in these nations precisely due to its disregard for the historical, contingent but authentic structures of these societies, in particular, due to a failure to consider the tribal nature of the communities involved. I would suggest that the failure of Communism results partially from its propensity to envision an ideal state removed from the history and culture it was busy destroying. The result was, in all cases, tyranny and even greater social and economic unfairness than existed before their misguided efforts.

The Priority of Fundamental Rights

In a free society, there will, of course, be disagreement on what justice as fairness might mean. For there to be a practical application of Rawls’s ideas, there must be some way of arbitrating these differences, including in socio-economic matters. Rawls creates three basic principles to guide political actors in instituting a liberal political conception of justice:

  1. All citizens share fundamental individual human rights and liberties, such as rights of free expression, freedom of conscience, and free choice of occupation;
  2. Fundamental human rights and liberties take priority over demands to further the general good (e.g., to increase national wealth) or perfectionist values (e.g., to promote a particular view of human flourishing);
  3. All citizens should have access to sufficient means to effectively use their freedoms (i.e., education, basic healthcare, some income, etc.).

It is a corollary of these basic principles that:

All social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s disadvantage. [5]

A well-formed society, according to Rawls, creates structures (institutions) that provide for all citizens: a civilized distribution of income and wealth; fair opportunities for all citizens, especially in education and training; government as the employer of last resort; basic health care for all citizens; and public financing of elections. [6] As to economic matters, establishing economic justice requires that efficiency be sacrificed when and if leaders believe that inefficiency will create a fairer society. [7]

The Power of Government to Allocate Wealth and Other Social Goods

The founders of American democracy worked on the principle that citizens should in general, be able to keep what they earned and produced in terms of income and wealth (the principle of private property). Rawls works from the underlying principle that the state should control the allocation of income and wealth, as well as other social goods, to achieve equality. In a way, his thinking parallels the way in which American society developed from Roosevelt’s New Deal to Johnson’s Great Society.

Under Rawlsian theory, all social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all, of these values is to everyone’s disadvantage. Although Rawls does create theoretical limits on governmental power, in my view, there is no practical limit on the power of government to allocate any social good of any kind except for the entirely subjective judgment concerning what inequality is to “everyone’s advantage.” In Communist states, this was regularly interpreted to mean that it was to everyone’s advantage for party members and their families to have unequal shares. In Communist Russia and similar states, almost all social values were inequitably allocated to governmental and party elites. When the states disintegrated, they transferred resources to the families of communist functionaries.

It was precisely because the founders of American democracy felt that government could not equitably make such decisions that they worked from a different starting point. One might speculate that their starting point would have been the precise opposite of Rawls’s:

All social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect—are to be distributed as earned by citizens by their private efforts unless such an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values, is to everyone’s disadvantage.

Just to be clear, it is my personal opinion that the amount of national wealth that the wealthiest members of Western society have accumulated is now to everyone’s disadvantage, politically, socially, and economically. Attention must be paid to creating more worker and consumer ownership of the means of production. The government should refrain from such activities as “bailouts” that primarily benefit the rich. This could be accomplished in many ways, including encouraging employee ownership plans, worker and consumer cooperatives, and similar programs. The public should be the beneficiary when public resources are used to bail out private businesses. However, it would also be my belief that changes should be slow, incremental and carefully monitored to be sure that those who hold the same views I hold are not mistaken. This is the pragmatic approach in action.

If American democracy moved in the way suggested, it would be a practical implementation of the notion that Rawls wants to defend: that societies should be structured so that a just allocation of resources can be achieved. In my view, however, “just” at any given time can only be achieved by policymakers taking incremental steps to create social harmony and overcome sources of disharmony without interfering with private property or other private rights to the maximum extent possible. This is not a matter of “ideal structures” but of practical wisdom.

An incrementalistic Alternative

An implication of the approach suggested above for political decision-making is that policymakers are best served by making small adjustments to the current political reality (as opposed to some ideal “Initial Position”) as they test the results of policy choices. [8] Minor adjustments, if successful, will inevitably result in further adjustments. If they are unsuccessful, the abductive cycle of experimentation on alternative hypotheses can continue until a sound policy preference can be established. [9]

This kind of approach involves what is sometimes referred to as “reasoning to the best solution in unclear decision-making situations.” In political decision-making, there is always an element of conflict, unclarity, and uncertainty about policy decisions and their implications. Decisions such as, “Should we raise taxes?” or “Should there be a flatter tax system or a more graduated system?” provoke arguments on each side of the question, and decision-makers must make and initiate policy decisions under conditions of result uncertainty. While various proponents may argue that their solution is infallibly correct, those who make decisions inevitably make decisions in a state of uncertainty. The statements of certainty so common among political figures is often little more than an attempt to avoid the consequences of uncertainty among their followers and colleagues. [10]


It was not, of course, Rawls’s intention to create a basis for Western democratic emulation of communist socio-economic ideas or structures. He was not intentionally creating a justification for a totalitarian society. Rawls tried to develop a rationale for a more workable democratic and free society. His ideas fail not in his intentions but in his unrealistic starting point and his misguided confidence in human reason and government to create his ideal community. The founders of American social and political institutions drew upon a long and well-learned suspicion of human self-centeredness and governmental abuse of private citizens and their personal rights.

On the other hand, Rawls has confidence that applying his principles of justice by rational persons will result in a fairer allocation of social goods than the conscious and unconscious decisions of millions of persons seeking their own and, in many cases, the public interest. Currently, the majority thought-leaders of our society agree with Rawls’s approach. Changing this mindset, if it is, in fact, correct to change it, will require a great deal of thought, changes in education, and a social consensus closer to that of the founders of American democracy.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice rev. Ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971-1999), 229.

[2] Id.

[3] Engler, M. (2019). Downton Abbey. Focus Features.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 55.

[6] This is a reworking of (downloaded June 4, 2023).

[7] Rawls, at 230.

[8] More than one author has discussed the implications of abductive thinking for government, bureaucracy, and political calculation. See, for example, Matt Loasch, “Conceptualizing Governance Decision Making: A Theoretical Model of Mental Processes Derived through Abduction” Old Dominion University Digital Commons (Summer 2019), Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), dissertation, School of Public Service, Old Dominion University, DOI:10.25777/xvpq-e948 (downloaded, March 28, 2022) and Eleonora Venneri, “Social Planning and Evaluation: The Abductive Logic” International Journal of Applied Sociology, 4(5):115-119 DOI: 10.5923/j.ijas.20140405.01 (2014).

[9] Contemporary late-modern society is often characterized by a preference for “revolutionary change.” The model of this kind of a revolutionary ideology of change is the French revolution, where the entire structure of French society was destroyed and then rebuild on Republican principles. As previously observed, the destruction of the existing order resulted in huge human suffering and ultimately the dictatorship of Napoleon and further suffering. See Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994

[10] This section is from an unpublished paper, G. Christopher Scruggs, “A “Sophia-Agapic” Approach to Political Philosophy:  A Post-Ideological Proposal” (unpublished manuscript).


Rawls 3: Religion in Public Life

Last week, I looked at Rawls’s view of religion in public life. As indicated, Rawls is often charged by Christians with an antipathy to religion in public life. On the other hand, he firmly believes in the right of private conscience and belief for what he calls ‘sects,” which hold views contrary to the secular state he envisions and defends. Unfortunately, his way of protecting religious freedom is problematic. This is an area in which I find myself at odds with Rawls’s views. As a result, it has been challenging to be completely fair-minded about his critique. It is crucial to set Rawls within his historical context and appreciate his work to sustain a free society, despite any disagreements on his fundamental presuppositions. I hope this week to give an in-depth analysis of his opinions and set out what I think is a better view. As mentioned last week, I hope to be competent to set out why I believe there is a better way forward than the proposal Rawls makes.

Rawls’s View of Religious Freedom

Unlike more radical thinkers, Rawls was not opposed to the notion of religious freedom, which he regarded as a rational choice that would be made by persons in the “original position:”

Now it seems that equal liberty of conscience is the only principle that persons in the original position can acknowledge. They cannot take chances with their liberty by permitting, the dominant, religious or moral doctrine to persecute or suppress others if it wishes. [1]

Rawls assumes that all human beings, once they leave the original position will have differing moral, philosophical, and religious views, which views will have to be coordinated by the state in some way to prevent conflict. The first principle of this coordination is the apparent notion that dominant ideas cannot force themselves on minority views. Since human history is filled with attempts by religious and other groups to force their opinions upon others, this particular notion seems reasonable. I believe that were Rawls still alive; he would agree that humanist and anti-religious groups should face the same restraints.

It should be noted that there is an unexpressed assumption in this assertion: matters of morality, philosophy, and religion are “merely personal.” They do not have an ontological foundation in reality. Since this idea sits at the center of the notion of public reason to which we will next turn, it is essential to understand that many people do not believe that morals, religion, or political truth are “merely personal.” Many people believe that their personal moral and political views are, in fact, matters of public truth. Not all of these people are religious zealots or fundamentalist adherence to a particular religious belief.

I suggest that a better defense of freedom of religion requires that we accept that those seeking moral, philosophical, and religious truth seek the truth—that is, they seek to understand the true nature of reality. [2] This is true of religious and non-religious people. The fact that we disagree on the truth requires that we allow the views of all concerned to be protected not as a condition for a functional society (though it is that) but also because it is a prerequisite for the search for Truth, Justice, Goodness, and Beauty in the first place. Christians should be especially zealous in this regard because we believe that God is Truth and Love and that God’s love requires that people be free in the search in love for truth and justice and other ideals, ideals which cannot be effectively forced upon people in the first place.

Rawls, Public Reason, Religion and Politics

As mentioned, Rawls’s underlying notion is that justice is fundamentally a form of fairness. According to Rawls, “justice as fairness” is characterized as follows:

  1. Each person should have the same and indefeasible claim to an adequate scheme of equal fundamental liberties, which is compatible with the same scheme of rights for all.
  2. Social and economic inequalities, to be justified, must meet two conditions: (a) any inequalities must be expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and; and (b) such inequalities must be attached to offices and positions open to all members of society. [3]

Liberty of conscience is a principle of fairness inherent in the notion of “equal basic liberties,” that is, freedom of religion, morality, and philosophies of life are inherent in the idea of fundamental liberties. According to Rawls, it is a “fixed point” in his theory of justice as fairness. [4] In order, however, for persons of divergent moral, religious, and philosophical views to coordinate their efforts in public life, public discourse must be conducted so that the fundamental liberties granted are not infringed upon. [5]

As to public discourse, it is a requirement of a liberal society that such discourse be conducted on the basis that all reasonable citizens would grant as acceptable. [6] Here we can see a pitfall for religious people in public life: Rawls is not willing to give Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or other groups to argue as to matters of public debate on purely religious grounds. Put simply, Christians and News may not give as a reason for laws against murder their acceptance of the Decalogue and its statement, “Thou shalt not kill.” This is not a form of reasoning secular people accept as normative and, therefore, must be excluded from public debate.

One can respond to Rawls’s views in several ways. Initially, his idea that public debate should be only secular is an innovation with limited support in human history. In almost every culture, religious views have shaped political institutions and laws. This is especially true today in the Middle East among Muslims and Jews alike.

More to the point is the observation that, by establishing such a principle, Rawls has secretly snuck in another principle: that modern secular humanistic philosophy is valid as a matter of public fact and is not subject to question. I would argue that such a principle violates the idea that all those seeking moral, philosophical, and religious truth are seeking the truth—that is, they are seeking to understand the true nature of reality. That common search can be conducted by religious and secular people, who neither have a prior claim on what should count as reasonable in public discourse. By establishing this limitation on religion in public life, Rawls has not prevented discrimination. He has created it.

Rawls’s View from No-Where and Justice

Underlying the faults in A Theory of Justice is Rawls’s adoption of “a Kantian view of human rationality” regarding human decision-making about political matters:

Kant held, I believe, that a person is acting autonomously when the principles of his action are chosen by him as the most adequate possible expression of his nature as a free and equal rational being. The principles he acts upon are not adopted because of his social position or natural endowments, or in view of the particular kind of society in which he lives or the specific things he happens to want. To act on such principles is to act heteronomously. Now the veil of ignorance deprives the persons in the original position of the knowledge that would enable them to choose heteronomous principles. The parties arrive at their choice together as free and equal rational persons knowing only that those circumstances obtain which give rise to the need for principles of justice. [7]

Beneath Rawls’s notion of autonomy (and its desirability) is the idea that human actors are (or should be) “autonomous,” and to act with autonomous reasonableness is to somehow act without reference to natural connections, such as social position or natural endowments. Fundamental to this way of thinking is the isolation of the human actor from precisely those attributes that constitute human beings in the first place: family, neighbors, social class, education, experience, abilities, etc. This definition of reasonableness flies in the face of reality as it is and human nature as it is. It is not a form of humanism but a form of anti-humanism.

Like Kant and other philosophers of the Enlightenment, Rawls views society as a human institution established by human actors for human purposes. It is thus a “merely human creation.” It is not “natural” in the sense of being an outgrowth of the nature of reality and human persons as a part of that reality.  In labeling this section “The View from Nowhere” to emphasize that the Kantian view of a radical division between the human actor and reality in which human actors act without connection to other actors except through artificially created rules is a “view from nowhere in this world as it was, is or ever can be.”  This is a point of view that this series of blogs seek to replace with the belief that human society is a significant evolutionary development of the unfolding universe, and human society is an outgrowth of a deep relationality and interdependence built into the world and human beings as part of that world.

There are no autonomous individuals in the sense Rawls’s theory hypothesizes. It is not even desirable that there should be such persons. Human beings are naturally relational, social beings born, raised, enculturated, and living in a web of social relationships. Rawls is not so much trying to establish a good society in which people can flourish but a secular, Enlightenment society, which he assumes must be the result of rational actors, who in the Original State and supplied with a Veil of Ignorance, must decide as a good modern, post-Enlightenment, post-Marxian Harvard professor writing in the 20th century would choose to defend modern American liberal democracy. There are better, more realistic, and more nuanced ways to achieve this than the theory that Rawls proposes.

A Constructive Postmodernist Alternative

What I call a “constructive postmodernist view” holds that human beings are psychosomatic unities emergent from but also connected to the physical, social, domestic, and other environments from which they emerge. While human beings can and do gain a bit of objectivity about the world and others, they still maintain an inevitable rootedness in the reality of which they are a part. To pretend otherwise is neither wise nor helpful. To assume that valid social institutions require such a flight into an artificially constructed “Initial State” is unwise and unnecessary. It damages our valuable participation in the emergent order of nature and the society of which we are a part.

The search for justice is a social act—an act that not only involves the living but the communicated understandings of justice which we have received from the past, good and bad, that are part of our rational inheritance from those who have gone before us in the search for a just society.  Parties do not arrive at their choice together as free and rational persons but as members of a community, not necessarily of “equally rational persons,” but of finite and different persons who respect and are in community with others.

What of religious and moral views in such a society? The answer to this question is different from Rawls’s solution. Instead of excluding such ideas from public debate, such a society gladly brings religious beliefs into the public square, subject to the proviso that they be articulated without violence but in the spirit of open participation in the quest for justice among all members of a free society. A free society must be tolerant, including secular tolerance of religious views and the moral conclusions people draw from their faith. A constructive post-modernist view does not see religious, ethical, or philosophical pluralism as an “insurmountable” element of a contemporary and democratic society.” [8]Instead, it sees a plurality of views and opinions as posing to society questions that must be answered by reasonable dialogue in the common search for truth guided by a conviction that progress can be peacefully made in the search for a just society.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] [1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice rev. Ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971-1999), 181.

[2] See, Leslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1981).

[3] Id, at 53

[4] Id, at 181.

[5] John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York, Columbia University Press, 1993).

[6] Id, at 53.

[7] A Theory of Justice, 222.

[8] See Adir Guedes Soriano, “Liberal Democracy and the Right to Religious Freedom” Paper presented at the 19th Annual International Law and Religion Symposium, 7-9 October 2012, at the J. Reuben Clark Law School on the campus of Brigham Young University–BYU, Provo, Utah – USA. (downloaded May 25, 2023).