(This is an edited version of the first part of a talk I gave to Christian school principals at the recent Christian Schools Australia National Policy Forum in Canberra.)
This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!
You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!
It was a rousing speech.
Not surprisingly, it went viral. As a result, many students worldwide, including here in Australia, joined Greta on School Strikes for Climate.
Climate change is one of those hot-button issues that many people have firmly held views on: from people like Thunberg who tell us we’re facing a climate catastrophe. To more conservative-leaning figures like Andrew Bolt who question whether climate change is a serious threat at all.
But because it’s such a passionately held issue, there’s a healthy dose of vilification aimed at those who are on the other side.
Verbal hand-grenades like ‘denier’ or ‘climate catastrophist’ are lobbed at the opposition. There’s a lot of heat generated in these interactions. But not that much light.
And at worst, lots of hate, but not much compassion.
So how do we, as Christians, approach hot-button topics like climate change and other polarised political issues? How do we apply biblical truth to issues where there is no direct biblical commandment?
Well, we come to the first concept that will help us to apply biblical truth. A concept that’s simple but profound.
And that’s the concept of Straight-Line issues and Jagged-Line issues.
Straight Line Issues vs. Jagged Line Issues
The concept of Straight Line issues and Jagged Line issues was defined by American theologian Robert Benne in his book Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics. I’ve taken it from a TGC Themelios journal article written by Jonathan Leeman and Andrew David Naselli.
This is how Leeman and Naselli define them:
For a straight-line issue, there is a straight line between a biblical text and its policy application. For instance, the Bible explicitly teaches that murder is sinful; abortion is a form of murder, so we should oppose abortion. That’s a straight line.
But for a jagged-line issue, there is a multi-step process from a biblical or theological principle to a political position.
So into which category would climate change fall? A straight-line issue, like murder (and thus abortion)? Or a jagged line issue?
A good question to ask is this: where does the Bible talk directly about climate change?
As far as I can tell, the Bible doesn’t talk directly about climate change. However, it may have things to say about it indirectly. And so, straight line and jagged line issues impact how we relate to other Christian believers:
Christians should agree on straight-line issues and recognise Christian freedom on jagged line issues.
Jagged Line issues are matters of conscience and wisdom.
That is, different Christians will weigh Biblical principles differently. Thus their consciences will lead them to different conclusions. And according to passages such as Romans 14, there needs to be freedom and space for Christians to disagree over disputable matters: over matters that the Bible doesn’t speak to directly.
So Paul outlines a key principle in Romans 14, namely welcoming those who disagree with you, as Christ has welcomed you. We do this by not quarrelling over ‘opinions’ (ESV) or ‘disputable matters’ (NIV) (Rom 14:1). There are matters over which Christians can freely disagree because they are not first-order issues (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-7).
In the Roman church’s context, this included the food they ate, and observing particular days (Rom 14:2,5). Those things are not of first importance, says Paul — and so we should maintain Christian fellowship with Christians who disagree with us over those matters. (And uphold their freedom to keep disagreeing with us).
Now in our day and age, we don’t divide ourselves over food laws. Instead, we divide ourselves over political issues.
For example, we divide over which party you vote for, which policy you support: are you Labor or Liberal, what’s your view on climate change: these are disputable issues (biblically speaking) in the same way food issues were in Romans 14. They’re not first-order straight-line issues.
They’re matters of individual conscience and individual wisdom. And so, we should give each other freedom and grace to come to different conclusions about them.
On the other hand, Christians can’t just agree to disagree over straight-line issues and maintain Christian fellowship. For example, if an abortion doctor came into your church, and he wanted to become a full-fledged member of your church while continuing to carrying out abortions, your Church leadership would have to say no to his church membership. [Of course, if he was a non-Christian abortion doctor, who was coming along to your church, then you would welcome him in as you would any other non-Christian (though not to church membership).]
Here are two other things to note about Straight Line issues and Jagged Line issues:
Most Political Issues are Not Straight Line Issues (Although Some Are)
According to Benne, Leeman and Naselli, most political issues are not straight-line issues. Most are jagged-line issues.
Think of everything from taxation policy to foreign aid to refugees. These issues are important, and Christians should bring biblical principles to bear when thinking about them. But the path from biblical text to policy application is not simple.
For such issues, none of us should presume to possess ‘the’ Christian position, as if we were apostles revealing true doctrine once and for all time. Instead, we should recognise that such issues belong to the domain of Romans 14 Christian freedom.
The freedom we have to disagree over jagged line issues, while still maintaining Christian fellowship.
Goals vs. Policies: The More Specific the Policy, the Less Straight the Line From Bible to Policy
Leeman gives the example of his Pastor, Mark Dever, at Capitol Hill Baptist in the US, who said that he wouldn’t promote a pro-life march from the pulpit, although he might participate in one.
Dever doesn’t want to use his pastoral authority to communicate that Christians must adopt the political strategy of marches. Marches may or may not be wise. The Bible doesn’t come close to saying. And a pastor’s authority comes from the Bible.
As does a Christian’s authority.
Having determined into which category where a particular issue like climate change lies (i.e. Jagged Line issue), what’s our next step? How do we next apply Biblical truth to an issue like climate change (and many other similar jagged line issues)?
1) What does the Bible have to say directly about principles that indirectly touch on the issue?
When it comes to an issue like climate change, what passages of Scripture relate to the topic we’re exploring?
As God’s image-bearers, human beings have a responsibility before God over the world (even as it is fallen) — Genesis 1:27-28.
In loving our neighbour, especially caring for the vulnerable (Galatians 6:10).
Again, notice these don’t speak directly to the issue of climate change. But these passages will give us principles to address the topic of climate change. Of course, different Christians will weigh and apply the relevant principles differently, depending on their wisdom and conscience. And thus, they might come to different conclusions about a particular topic.
And so, we need to remember that unless the Bible speaks directly to an issue, we mustn’t say that Position X on a topic is the ‘Christian’ position that faithful Biblical Christians must adopt.
We must leave room for Christian freedom and disagreement. (Not least, because our polarised world certainly doesn’t leave room for disagreement).
2) Although the Bible is the Only Source of Infallible authority, it is Not the Only Source of Authority
Christians should look to sources of (fallible) authority to help us understand an issue. Such as science and other sources of scholarship.
Theologically speaking, we can look to these non-biblical sources of authority, even though we’re fallen creatures, because God hasn’t abandoned humanity completely. For example, passages like Romans 2:15 show that God’s law (to some measure) is written on the hearts of non-Christians. God still sends His rain on the righteous and unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).
Throughout the Bible, we see that humanity still retains a God-given capacity to understand our world to some degree. Theologians call this ‘common grace’.
We can understand our world to some measure. Not infallibly. But often accurately.
And yet, we need to remember that these sources are fallible.
They’re prone to bias. And error. And we need to keep this in mind when exploring jagged line issues using fallible sources. By way of example, Stanford University Professor John Ioannidis, who studies scientific research, found that a large number, if not the majority, of published medical research papers, contain results that cannot be replicated. That’s concerning, isn’t it?
But as Christians, this shouldn’t come as a surprise: research results are fallible because the people doing the research are fallible.
And so, this fallibility should mean we don’t just get our information only from sources that we agree with.
We should also look to credible sources of information that challenge our views on the jagged line issue. We should look to both sides of jagged line issues to better understand them. As it says in Prov 18:17, the one who states his case first seems right until the other comes forward and examines him.
And we’re to do this with humility: listening well to those presenting the issue (James 1:19). Seek out the best and fair-minded people whose views you disagree with. Listen to them. Think it over. Weigh the evidence. Before coming to firm conclusions.
So, with these principles in mind, let’s look at how we might approach an issue like climate change.
Practical Example: How Should Christians Approach Climate Change as a Jagged Line Issue?
So what does it look like to put these principles into practice with a political issue like climate change?
1) Is there a direct line from Scripture to global warming?
No: the Bible doesn’t speak directly to this issue, therefore it’s not a straight-line issue like murder (and abortion). Thus, let’s not make it into one.
In other words, there is no infallible Christian view on climate change (let alone on climate policy).
Climate change is not an issue for Christians to divide over.
2) Are there biblical principles that can inform our view of climate change?
This world is God’s creation, and it is good (if fallen) (Gen 1-2)
Humanity has stewardship over creation (Gen 1:27-28)
Love of neighbour (Gal 6:10)
3) Are there non-infallible credible sources of knowledge that we can use?
Yes: IPCC reports. But at the risk of sounding like a Climate Denier, we need to remember that scientific research is fallible because it’s affected by human sin. As a result, I think the Bible would push us toward engaging more — not less — with credible evidence from both sides of a jagged line issue (Prov 18:17).
Looking at both sides of an issue doesn’t mean we search up any random blogger who happens to hold a different view to us. Instead, we need to seek out the most credible people who have different views from us. Especially if the jagged line issue is a high-stakes issue like climate change, where on the one hand, we’re told the world faces disaster if we don’t take action, and on the other hand, the action being suggested is incredibly costly.
Truth is more likely to come to the fore when we understand both sides of the issue, rather than just one side.
To practice what I preaching, I’m in the process of reading books by people that have experience in environmentalism but have come to different conclusions than the norm about certain aspects of climate change:
Apocalypse Never, by environmentalist Michael Shellenberger. False Alarm, by Bjorn Lomborg. And I’ll soon be reading Unsettled by Dr Steven Koonin (who also served as President Obama’s Undersecretary for Energy).
Again, giving these other points of view a fair hearing may still lead you to conclude that your jagged line perspective is correct, and even more so when you’ve seen what the other side believes.
But regardless of where you land on a particular jagged line issue like climate change, remember that other people’s jagged line might land them elsewhere. And so, we need to provide the freedom for them to hold their positions, and welcome them as brothers and sisters in Christ.
(Part 2 of this talk explores how we talk and engage with people who think differently to us, and will be published at a later date.)