Let’s use More Indicatives! (but not all indicatives are the same)


Seeds of this blog, part 1: A good sermon, but…. The sermon provided helpful advice and exhorted the listeners to take important action steps. There were a few lines about Jesus as an example to follow, but no indicative proclamation of God’s action that would enable this behavior. No words of God’s grace. I left the sermon thinking “people need to do better at including more indicative;” then it changed from “they” to “we need to do better.” A few days later I humbly recognized that my class that week was like the sermon—lacking in indicatives. I decided, “I want to write a blog to encourage the use of more indicatives about God in preaching, teaching, and conversation with others.”

Seeds of this blog, part 2: Who should be given the low grade, the students or me? I advocate for following Paul--when exhorting include more indicative than imperative. I qualify this by saying that talking about Jesus as an example, although technically indicative, is not an indicative that undermines our tendency to experience ethical exhortation as bounded group religiosity. Yet, when I read the last batch of ethical exhortation assignments I found that most all their talk about God was God as an example. Then I had the thought, “maybe it is not them, maybe it is me; maybe I am the one who deserves the low grade. How can I explain this better?” Humbling, and even more humbling that it took me 20 years to see this. So, for students who have heard my lecture on offering exhortation in a centered, non-religious way, my apologies. Please consider this as an upgrade to one section of that lecture. Others, feel free to listen in. Hopefully if what I have said so far feels a bit foreign what follows will clarify.

Ethical Exhortation: Learning from Paul

Because of human religious tendencies and because of their experience of bounded group religiosity, many people will experience commands in a religious way. The fuzzy solution to this is to avoid making imperative statements about things we are called to do. What is the centered  alternative? How can we exhort people to action, give imperatives?

In Religious No More I quoted Robert Hill who observed that, “Paul was ever answering the question of what we should do by saying something first about what God has done” (143). In more technical terms: Paul’s imperatives flow from his indicatives. Before defining those terms further it might be helpful to experience and feel the difference between an exhortation without indicatives and an exhortation rooted in an indicative of what God has done. Listen to these brief examples (3 minutes each).

To speak or write in the indicative mode is to indicate or point.

General Indicative

The vast majority of the Bible is indicative, giving information about God and humans. A common use of general indicatives in exhortation is to use God as an example. It is fine to do this; to, for instance, point to Jesus as model of loving enemies, but this type of indicative does nothing to undermine bounded group religiosity. Like any “naked” imperative, people easily hear it as an “ought” that they must comply with to meet the standard, to be in. Therefore, our exhortations must include other types of indicatives as well.

Indicatives Linked to Imperatives

Bounded group religious thinking is: if you do X then God (or the church) will respond by giving you Y. We can turn this religious thinking on its head and undermine bounded group judgmentalism when the call to action is linked to an imperative of what God has already done:

- forgive as you have been forgiven

- having been loved by God love others

- having tasted the gift of reconciliation with God and inclusion in God’s family let the ripples

 of that reconciliation flow by reaching out to others.

I often use the word “flow” in relation to these linked indicatives. They make clear that, what we are called to, flows from what God has done. They often have an indicative statement of who we are because of God’s action, and the imperative calls us to live out who we are. We see this in the following line from an Earl Palmer sermon:

“You are loved, love one another. Live out the grace that has happened to us.”

The linking of an imperative to an indicative pours sand into the gears of religion. It is much harder to hear Palmer’s exhortation as something you must do to get on the right side of a line. Sometimes, as in the above examples, linked-indicatives have clear statements of God’s action and the response called for. There are, however, variety of ways of stating and linking. Take for instance this example from a current student, Natalie Reinhart “Can you imagine the possibilities that could emerge in your family, friendships, workplace, schools, if we responded to our enemies through our own experience of God’s mercy and grace?”

Linked indicatives and imperatives are not always short and in the same sentence. For instance, the first eleven chapters of Romans are indicative. Paul points to the reality of who God is, he describes the human reality of alienation from God, and he indicates how God has responded to that reality. After eleven chapters of the indicative mode he begins chapter twelve by saying “Therefore.” Based on what he has indicated and pointed to he now turns to discuss ethical actions—imperatives linked to the previous 11 chapters of indicative.

Empowering Indicative

Linked-indicatives make clear that God’s action precedes our action. They still, however, can leave people feeling burdened by the difficulty of the challenge. Empowering-indicatives point to the possibility of living out what we are called to do because of what God has done. One of my favorite songs that we often sang at Amor Fe y Vida church states:

“Porque tu Dios es amor tu puedes amar” (Because your God is love you can love)

It is not just: God or Jesus show us what love is, but God’s love enables us to love.

Empowering indicatives not only point to how God enables what is commanded, they often add a sense of invitation—of promise and possibility. Feel that in these examples of empowering indicatives I lifted out of exemplar exhortations from former students:

“God has reconciled with humanity; because of Christ, reconciliation with each other is possible. Our restored relationship with God and the power of the Spirit allows us to do the impossible in the face of our enemies. He is making all things new!” Grace Spencer

“The transforming Spirit of God, living and active in our midst, empowers us to embrace, bless, show hospitality to, offer kindness to, those persons afflicted with the same malice that crucified our Lord…that would have us crucified.” Brad Isaak

The following two contain both linked-indicatives and empowering-indicatives:

 “Take hold of His hand as He offers you a freedom that you have never before known. You have no need to live in the shame of deception but are free to speak openly and honestly. Therefore, I urge you to speak with the authority of the truth, because you can! Choosing to speak the truth will become less a decision and more an outpouring of Christ working from within you; so, let your honestly come from your feelings laid bare and know that in the love of Christ, you will blossom forth into the person that you have been made to be!” Bryan Taylor

 “You are loved and forgiven. Be who the Spirit has empowered you to be. Be who you are. Love.” Heather Loewen

Religion Undermining Indicative

As I describe in chapter two of Religious No More Jacques Ellul portrays religion with an upward arrow ↑ because our natural tendency is to think we must do things to earn God’s acceptance. Ellul uses a downward arrow ↓ to communicate that Christian revelation, the God of the Bible, is the opposite. Any indicative statement that points to the primacy of God’s loving action, even if not linked to an imperative, challenges our religious tendency and reinforces the gospel ↓ arrow. Therefore, in an exhortation, statements about God’s unconditional love and grace help prevent people from experiencing the command as bounded group judgmentalism. Let us, as we prepare Bible studies, sermons, and classes ask the question: What am I doing in this exhortation to undermine the default arrow ↑ of religion and to prevent people from hearing what I am saying as bounded group religiosity?

In response to that question, quantity matters. Take note, in Romans Paul has 11 indicative chapters before four chapters of ethical exhortation and ends the letter with indicative words. In Galatians after four and a half chapters of indicative Paul turns to the imperative mode in chapters five and six, and then ends with religion-undermining-indicatives. Why does quantity matter? Because of our natural religious tendency, one short statement of God’s grace is not enough to overcome it. Many sermons are the opposite of Paul. They speak much more about what humans ought to be doing than about what God has done. Paul spoke first about what God has done and spoke much more about what God has done.

Let us follow Paul’s example! Use linked-indicatives, empowering-indicatives, religion-undermining-indicatives—and use more indicatives than imperatives.

See the ethical exhortation section of the Discipleship and Ethics website for exemplars of exhortations that use the above types of indicatives well.

Posted on January 9, 2019 .