by the Rev. Dr. Jane Patterson
Is it “Christian” to go on a vacation to Europe? to vote the party line? to fire a problematic employee? How do we know how to decide these things, when neither Jesus nor his disciples went on any vacations that we can tell, didn’t cast a vote, and didn’t hire or fire anyone?
Twenty years ago, I was taught a very simple method for reflecting theologically and faithfully on practically any issue. This method doesn’t solve every problem in decision-making, but it does help us to gain clarity about what we are doing, and why, and it often challenges the preliminary decision we came in with.
In this method, you ask yourself (or your community asks) three questions: Is it Christian? Is it true? Is it appropriate in this context?
Is it Christian?
Whether or not a course of action is Christian has to do with how it appears in the light of the biblical scriptures and the traditions of the Church. For example, let’s say that I want to buy a pair of black pants. Do the scriptures say anything about clothing? Do they say anything about the spending of money? Do they say anything about being satisfied with what you have? Notice the different kinds of issues that might have bearing on my purchase, not the least of which would be what I might do with the money if I were not spending it on another pair of black pants.
What does the Christian tradition have to say about clothing? About what is “enough”? About what money is for? I might turn to the Benedictine Rule, which speaks about the clothing for the monks. How relevant to my case are the rules for clothing monks in the 6th century? But perhaps there is a principle behind the Rule of Benedict that would be applicable for me. For instance, it is clear that the true needs of each monk are respected, but desires are kept in check. How would that principle relate to my proposed purchase?
Is it true?
This is a more subtle area of questioning. It usually involves other spheres of knowledge, for instance science or philosophy or psychology. Is it true that I need a new pair of black pants for a particular occasion? Does that occasion really require black pants in the first place? Think of a more substantive issue, like how you cast your vote. Have you really checked up on the facts your candidate is using? Are your values for society coherent with your values for yourself? This can be a very rich area for reflection. It holds us accountable to the same standards of integrity and coherence that we are likely to hold others to.
Is it appropriate for this context?
Back to my new black pants. Perhaps we’ve come to the conclusion that they are so essential that they constitute God’s basic care for clothing and feeding human beings, and they are not out of line with a Christian’s call to simplicity. But what if I can’t afford them? Then they would not be a good purchase for someone in my circumstances.
What if buying them would keep me from being able to pay my tithe to the church? What if buying them would mean that my child could not have a new jacket? There might be lots of contextual reasons for not doing something, even if it is both Christian and true.
This is also the area that might raise issues that would cause you to postpone something, or to do more work on it before you act. In the case of the pants, I might save my money a little longer. In the case of a new ministry that a church is considering, the vestry might decide to do a little more discerning of the ministry before it is enacted, might try to find out how many members feel called to the ministry, or might decide to raise some money for it before launching the new effort. In the case of voting for a candidate, there might be two that you were deciding between, but one seems to have the best plans for your city or country at this particular time, and that insight might tip the balance for you.
This simple method is useful for all kinds of issues, both large and small, that face us as disciples of Christ. In my experience, the use of this method raises the sticky issue that most of us do not know our scriptures or our traditions thoroughly or flexibly enough to access them for decision-making. But then that in itself is another issue for faithful reflection.
About the author: The Rev. Dr. Jane Lancaster Patterson is an educator, retreat leader, writer, and co-director of The Work+Shop in San Antonio TX. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org