Book Review – Ethics as Worship

Ethics as Worship

The Pursuit of Moral Discipleship.

Liederback, Mark D., and Evan Lenow. Ethics as Worship: The Pursuit of Moral Discipleship. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2021.

We rightly bemoan moral relativism and unforgiving legalism, but how equipped are we to offer a biblical alternative? We acknowledge that the Bible is inerrant and authoritative, but how consistently do we live out its clear teaching? What does it look like to be fully human? In 751 pages, Liederback and Lenow give us a Christocentric ethic that avoids parroting a predictable party line, but rather seeks to discern what the Scripture actually teaches.

The authors summarize Carol Gilligan’s work on the “ethics of care” which teaches us to think of moral decisions not as math problems but as outworkings of relationships. Since our relationship with God is always primary, “Ethics as worship is not primarily about actions, behaviours, character traits, or consequences. Ethics is about God and his glory … the application of vibrant, orthodox, worshipful theology to loving, obedient, missional living.” Using case studies and illustrations, the book works quite well as an ethics textbook, explaining terms such as “deontological,” and arguing for a “humble absolutist position” in which biblical absolutes never ultimately conflict. Christians are given greater epistemological clarity, but we still need to grow because we live in a fallen world and our own sin debilitates us.

For me to love an ethics book, I don’t have to agree with the authors on every issue, I just need to be inspired to start caring about the issues again. This book doesn’t simply argue for “just war” and against pacifism, it explores various types of pacifism and explains why some forms of pacifism are worthy of respect, while still making a solid case for just war. The chapter on abortion was so informative, refuting the “best” arguments for abortion – such as Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “unplugging the violinist” analogy – and demonstrating why abortion is a watershed issue.

Rather than treating the issues as separate subjects in need of talking points, Liederback and Lenow apply rich Reformed theology to a vision for all of life. Because we are sinners, we need Christ to be our great High Priest, we need to be justified; because we are individuals who sin personally, we need Christ to be our King, we need to be sanctified; because we have produced “culturally embedded sin patterns” we need Jesus to be our Prophet, calling us to repent. In contrast with many reactionary rants against Critical Race Theory, this book penetrates to the core: “While the concept of ‘structural sin’ is as old as St. Augustine’s classic City of God, it was co-opted and popularized by liberation theology as a way to bring attention to the dehumanizing policies and laws impacting the poor … Unfortunately, it also embraced many elements of Marxist thought.” While the section on economics seemed lacklustre, and though they sometimes relegate to the footnotes their most salient point, their unhurried pace and their nuanced analysis were refreshing. Regarding stewardship of the environment, they critique both the paranoid alarmists and the presumptuous deniers, urging the reader not to assume that creation care is a left-wing, social gospel concern, helping us see it as part of our worship and part of our gospel witness. Here’s part of their reflection on Romans 8:19 – “By means of the gospel as it transforms individual sinners, the rest of creation then has a basis to hope that it may once again receive the kind of leadership that it was meant to receive from Adam and that it currently longs for.” A small group could choose three or four chapters of this book to discuss over the course of seven weeks. Some Christians seldom read books, in part because Christian books seldom address issues they care about. This book connects issues we already care about to the overall purpose of life: worshiping the Triune God.