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Dignity and Respect

The good society, continued.

The Law of God and Public Policy: A Good Society (4)

Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence… 1 Timothy 2.1, 2

Human dignity
Paul is outlining for us the basic components of a good society. We can be sure that his view of goodness was informed by the holy and righteous and good Law of God (Rom. 7.12). Thus, we’re looking to him to frame out our understanding of a good society before we return to the Law of God itself for more specific details in working for public policies conducive to such a society.

We’ve seen that, in Paul’s mind, a good society is one in which people live peaceably and in quiet with their neighbors, and where godliness is encouraged, nurtured, and preserved. Paul continues his brief discussion with the mention that, in a good society, people must be allowed to live dignified lives in every way. The word translated “reverence” in NKJV is perhaps better rendered “dignity”, which according to Louw and Nida indicates “behavior which is befitting, implying a measure of dignity leading to respect—propriety, befitting behavior” (cf. ESV, “dignified” and NASB, “dignity”).

The word for dignity here is closely related to godliness. It refers to honor, worthiness, even holiness of life. Paul’s vision of a good society was one in which “all people” might be free to realize their full worthiness and potential as beings made in the image of God. While it is only just to extend dignity and respect to all men, it is the responsibility of those charged with making and keeping public policy to ensure that society provides a fertile ground for such human flourishing, beginning with their own example.

Those in positions of authority at all levels of society are thus charged by God with encouraging a sense of dignity and respect among their constituents.

Demeaning practices
So, for example, practices which demean others should not be tolerated. We have seen what happens in a society where elitism, racism, classism, cancel culture, and partisan politics prevail in public life. To the extent that policymakers encourage or allow such behavior, they share responsibility for the many ills that attend to it—tribalism, indifference to the poor, contempt for people of different worldviews, sexism, partisanship, and so forth.

Further, a culture of moral permissiveness, encouraged by public policies wrapped in the garb of “free speech” and “individual rights”, has corrupted our view of human sexuality and is destroying the institutions working to preserve a view of sexuality which is noble, honorable, edifying, and dignified. Those in authority in culture and society should strive for a more dignified approach to sexuality and discourage the kind of licentiousness that prevails in our day. But they are not likely to do so without strong encouragement from their constituents.

Whatever demeans human beings, pandering to our base desires and leading us to lives of degradation, dependency, or dishonor must be opposed by authorities at all levels of society. Gambling does not dignify the human soul. Nor does allowing free access to addictive drugs. Certain forms of pop culture demean not only women, but also men, and encourage violence and unbridled self-indulgence. Should such entertainments be encouraged? Should heads of households, leaders in church and school, and government officials not seek practices that lead to dignity rather than debasement?

It can sound very “puritanical” and perhaps even a bit tyrannical to try to use law and other forms of social pressure to restrain the baser affections and inclinations of the human soul. But we are already doing so in our society. We are already using law to restrain behaviors which all agree are not to be tolerated, and we have done so as a society from the beginning of the American experiment. And law is not our only recourse; consensus at every level of society can also play a powerful role in promoting dignity and respect, as can purchasing power and choices of what to watch on television or which websites to visit.

The problem today is that we keep lowering the bar of what we will tolerate, and thus we degrade the terms of human dignity, adjust our legal standards accordingly, and incur the problems such degradation brings with it.

Christian homes and churches can provide a powerful alternative to the demeaning practices and policies that flood our society today. Plenty of examples exist for Christians to appeal to for encouragement and counsel in seeking more dignified lives. Augustine’s journey to faith began in earnest as he came to realize how demeaning to human dignity were the gladiatorial combats and other “entertainments” in which he had become involved. John Newton was a slave trader before the Gospel transformed him and gave him a more dignified and respectful way of life.

Recovering dignity and respect should be an aim of every person in authority who serves in their calling as a follower of Christ. And all Christians must work to achieve a greater measure of dignity in all forms of public life.

Show, then teach
As in all areas of public policymaking, Christians must first embody what we seek, even as we are laboring to teach it. We must be careful to demonstrate God’s standards of dignity and honor, and to practice them in community with one another before we try to turn such practices into public policy. Our neighbors need to see what a good society can look like, and how it can benefit them and their children, before they will consider the need for laws and other policies that promote dignity throughout our society. 

We must show good reasons why we support such policies and practices. We must patiently explain that certain kinds of behavior, because they make us less than dignified image-bearers of God, should not be encouraged in whatever social spheres we have influence or presence.

Again, this is nothing new; our society already restricts and prohibits, under penalty of law, certain kinds of behaviors which it regards as beneath human dignity. We’re not auguring for some new use of the law. Rather, we simply want to achieve, in our lives and by public policy, a raising of the bar of dignity, for only thus will we know a greater measure of justice and relieve the stress and distress that lowering the bar of dignity has foisted on our society.

Like all the work of justice, we must pray for the dawning of a new day of dignity and respect. Men must pray for those in authority at all levels of our society that we may know greater dignity and respect, for these are crucial components of a good society.

For reflection
1. What opportunities are available to you each day to show others dignity and respect?

2. What can churches do to help parents teach dignity and respect to their children?

3. How might showing more dignity and respect reduce the influence of tribalism in our culture?

Next steps—Transformation: Pray that God will make you an agent of dignity and respect. Pray each day that you will show dignity and respect to the people with whom you are engaged.

T. M. Moore

What is the place of the Law of God in the Christian’s life? Our book, The Ground for Christian Ethics, answers this question and shows us again why Jesus taught us that keeping the Law is an indispensable part of our calling in God’s Kingdom. Order your free copy of The Ground for Christian Ethics by clicking here. To gain a better understanding of how the Law of God applies in daily life, order a free copy of our book, A Kingdom Catechism, by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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