Ethical application, both in preaching and counseling, is a debated and difficult topic. Some are intentionally against any application of a particular passage to the ethical details of life (parenting, employee-employer relations, dating relationships, etc.). Others feel that such detailed application is the heart and soul of the Christian message. Both these extremes miss the mark.
David Powlison’s essay “Think Globally, Act Locally” in Speaking the Truth in Love: Counsel in Community has a vivid description of what application looks like on the local (or concrete) level:
The patterns, themes, and tendencies of our lives are what we see when, figuratively, we view our lives from the observation deck of the Empire State Building. From one hundred floors up, Manhattan and the Hudson River spread serenely before you. But the action and noise of life happens at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, and when we take the Lincoln Tunnel home to Hoboken. The big stories of our lives are worked out in a running series of small scenes. This is how God has made it to be, but this is something that counselors and preachers don’t often understand.
When you counsel (or preach) in great and good generalities, people will nod, but they rarely change. Jesus works for a turn-the-world-upside-down reorientation and redirection. Ministry needs to know the big picture, but it really gets involved in the rush hour traffic. Change takes place in the watershed moments and decisive incidents of everyday life.
Speaking the Truth in Love, Pgs. 65-66. (Bold emphasis added)
I might quibble a little bit with the “turn-the-world-upside-down” language (especially in light of some of the “God-of-the-mundane” material Shane and the White Horse Inn have been exposing us to lately), but I believe Powlison is making an important point even with those words: change happens in concrete decisions.
Change happens when a man installs Covenant Eyes on his internet browsers. Change happens when a mother refrains from spanking her child when she angry. Change happens when a woman starts asking for rides home so that she isn’t tempted to stop at the bar and fuel her alcohol abuse. Change happens when a teenager destroys his stash of dope. Change happens when the adulterer throws away the key to his “lover’s” apartment.
This does not thereby minimize the importance of the big-picture. I’d even argue that in many (most?) churches in this country, there is a lack of good big picture categories being presented (e.g., law/gospel, Redemptive-Historical Development, Christo-Centricity, etc.). But over-correction tempts us all.
And while not every sermon needs to (or even should) speak quite as starkly as the examples I cited above, it does nobody any services to speak generally enough to allow someone truly in need of rebuke to nod appreciatively without feeling pricked in their conscience. By nature we are quite good at deflecting things that challenge us in the details. We show love when we encourage and help people to stop hiding behind generalities.
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)