How to shepherd your people to care about human dignity
By Dan Darling
My family recently took a trip Monticello, the estate of Thomas Jefferson. The tour of this historic home was a study in contradictions.
On one hand, we marveled at the genius of a man who wrote words that set the trajectory for the American experiment: “All men are created equal.”
On the other hand, we lamented the sheer injustice of Jefferson’s engagement in the slave trade. He not only bought and sold slaves; he fathered six children by Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman.[epq-quote align=”align-right”]We need to help our congregations develop a consistent, pro-life ethic of human dignity—one that recognizes the value of those inside and outside the womb.[/epq-quote]Jefferson was no orthodox believer, though he attended an Anglican church. But his moral inconsistencies are not unique to his era, his belief system, or to him. People today walk around with inconsistencies of their own.
This means pastors and church leaders must preach and shepherd people in such a way that points out ways in which we profess to believe in human dignity but live out a contradictory ethic.
My guess is most leaders reading this piece are convictionally pro-life and unashamed to teach this to their congregations. I’m grateful Christians have long stood up for our unborn neighbors.
But if we are to be faithful to God’s Word and to shepherd our people, we need to do more than simply acknowledge the evil of abortion. We need to help our congregations develop a consistent, pro-life ethic of human dignity—one that recognizes the value of those inside and outside the womb.
Here are three important ways we can help them do that:
1. Preach often on what it means to be human.
While the Creator spoke most of creation into existence, Genesis 1 and 2 says God sculpted humanity from the dust of the ground and breathes into humankind the breath of life.
Humans are endowed—stamped—with the image of God. This truth means we represent God in the world and has profound implications for how we see ourselves—and how we see others.
We live in a world that constantly redefines what it means to be human. On one hand, we’re encouraged to be God-like, usurping our Creator and creating our own destinies. This only leads to despair.
On the other hand, we’re encouraged to be animalistic, giving into our worst temptations and instincts and lusts. This only leads to exploitation of other image-bearers.
The people in our congregations need a robust understanding of what it means to be human, to be created by a loving God, to be redeemed from the curse of sin, and what the resurrection means for the way we think about our bodies.
2. Use application in a way that “afflicts the comfortable.”
An old journalism maxim is that good reporters “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
I think this is good for pastors and church leaders, especially in the way we make application. The temptation for us, when preaching on human dignity, is to point out all the ways in which disagreeing with us is an assault on vulnerable image-bearers.[epq-quote align=”align-right”]Church leaders should challenge their congregation on any political or cultural issue that seeks to diminish the image of God in others.[/epq-quote]But we shouldn’t just preach for “amens” and retweets. We should also cause our people to think about ways they, in their tribes and associations, may be complicit in attacking the dignity of people created in God’s image.
Pastors must not allow the political preferences of their congregation to drive the subject of their sermons. Church leaders should challenge their congregation on any political or cultural issue that seeks to diminish the image of God in others and our responsibilities in light of that—from the way we treat the unborn and elderly to how we view the immigrant and refugee.
And we do this, not just with the obvious passages that describe the Bible’s rich vision for human dignity, but also with application in less obvious passages, such as these:
- Jesus coming in the flesh shows the goodness of human bodies.
- Jesus describes the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God in His discourses.
- God used a vulnerable baby in the Nile, and then an old, washed up former prince to bring down Pharaoh, who dehumanized the children of Israel in Egypt.
- An aging Apostle Paul finds strength and dignity in human weakness.
3. Model an otherworldly vision of human dignity in our congregations.
It’s not enough to simply teach that humans are created in God’s image and have intrinsic dignity and worth.
This is what Jesus is teaching his disciples in Matthew 20. When overhearing their pitched jockeying for positions in what they thought would constitute Jesus’ new kingdom, the Lord reminded them that the kingdom of God is vastly different from the kingdoms of this world. The last, Jesus said, would be first.
God’s people are tempted, in every age, to adopt the dignity-denying ethos of the surrounding culture. Paul rebuked the church in Corinth for hero worship of those with social status or rhetorical gifts by reminding them that when they were called into the kingdom, “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26).
James challenged the churches he wrote to not to treat the wealthy better than the impoverished, for “God has chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5).
To fully reflect the biblical view of human dignity in our churches means we not only extend ourselves on behalf of those whom the world has denied worth, but also that we display an otherworldly view of dignity in the way we conduct ourselves as a body.
It means we resist the world’s definitions of worth and power.
It means we see the Down syndrome child as a fully valuable member of our body.
It means we resist the urge to only put on our platforms those who fit the cultural definition of beauty or masculinity.
It means we are the one, and perhaps the only, place in society where people are accepted and loved not because of what they can contribute, but because of who they are in Christ.[epq-quote align=”align-right”]Imagine congregations filled with people who have nothing in common with one another, other than the fact that they are redeemed people of God.[/epq-quote]Those who are disabled or poor—those who don’t neatly fit into our modern notions of success—should have a prominent place in our assemblies. Not only do they have full human dignity as image-bearers of God, but each one is a future king or queen of the universe, who will one day reign with Christ.
Imagine congregations filled with people who have nothing in common with one another, other than the fact that they are redeemed people of God and their primary allegiance is to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We should long for this in our churches. But more than that, we should ask ourselves what we are doing to make it a reality. This begins with each of us celebrating the upside-down nature of the kingdom. It begins with serving others because we wish to cultivate their humanity and promote their dignity—not because we wish to feed our ambition or promote our reputation.
It begins with treating others with the dignity that the Lord Jesus did, and does, and will.
DANIEL DARLING (@DanDarling) is vice president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is also a speaker and author of several books, including The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity.