The Biblical Virtue Of Compassion

Apr 9th, 2022 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Compassion is an important biblical term that means having pity on or showing mercy to someone.  It is a character trait of God.  The Old Testament speaks of having compassion on the “orphan, the widow and the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:18) and on the “poor and afflicted” (Micah 6:8; Psalm 141:9).  Compassion is used by Jesus at several critical moments in His ministry (e.g., Luke 15 of the father of the prodigal son; the Good Samaritan in Luke 10).  One should not necessarily expect to see the virtue of compassion among unbelievers, but it is reasonable that one would see it powerfully among believers; among those who name Christ’s name.


First of all, think with me about Jerry Falwell, Jr.  Falwell’s tenure as Liberty University’s president was marked by several scandals and in August 2020 his tenure ended when a “particularly tawdry story of a year’s long sexual relationship with his wife and Giancarlo Granda [one of his business partners] who claims that Falwell knew and sometimes watched.” Neither Falwell nor his wife has denied the sexual affair.  Jerry Falwell Jr. has been publically disgraced but, as many Christian leaders have observed, there is an apparent lack of contrition, shame and repentance on his part. In a distasteful final statement, Falwell quipped that he was “free at last” from Liberty.  Liberty University and its Board launched an independent investigation into the conduct of former president Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife, Becki.  The board had decided not only to study the case but also to set up a system of spiritual accountability for those in leadership.  “The school is considering a separate move to reorient it toward its ‘spiritual mission’ by establishing a post in the university leadership dedicated to spiritual guidance for other leaders,” write Sarah Rankin and Elana Schor for the Associated Press, “ensuring they ‘live out the Christian walk expected of each and every one of us at Liberty.’”


Christian author, Hannah Anderson, correctly observed that “The bond between this independent university and the local church means that when trouble hits the school, it also hits the broader Christian community. The impact is deep and wide. In this context, Liberty’s practices as a parachurch organization carry significant weight, and the response of the university’s board of trustees sets precedent far beyond the boardroom and into the pews. The old adage is true: Attitudes are caught, not taught.”  In a New York Times op-ed, Liberty graduate Kaitlyn Schiess, who is now a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, writes, “At Liberty our minds may have been receiving correct content, but our hearts were being trained to love wrongly: to love political power, physical security, and economic prosperity as higher goods than they are.”  Schiess is describing the power of culture formation—how small signals and modeling from trusted sources nudge us in certain directions, both as individuals and as communities.  Christian colleges and universities should serve as institutional anchors—spaces of transformation and education, discipleship and scholarship, cultural edification, and exhortation.  Under Falwell’s leadership Liberty’s function as an “anchor” was jeopardized.


Recently, Vanity Fair published a profile of Jerry Falwell Jr., featuring an extended interview “with the man who went from being a kingmaker in the 2016 presidential election to resigning after a series of scandals.”  During the interview Falwell revealed, “Because of my last name, people think I’m a religious person. But I’m not. My goal was to make them realize I’m not my dad.”  It would seem reasonable to charge him with hypocrisy.  But Russell Moore, now with Christianity Today, poignantly comments, “When I say that Jerry Falwell Jr. is no hypocrite, I mean it in only one sense. Obviously, Falwell was hypocritical in, among other things, allegedly engaging in behavior that, for even the smallest of the offenses, would have led to fines or expulsions for his students . . . And, of course, beyond that is the much more fundamental matter: How can the chancellor of one of the world’s largest Christian universities justify his behavior by saying he’s not religious?  That’s precisely the point, though. Hypocrisy is an ongoing and always-present danger in the church. Jesus warned us to beware of hypocrisy—charging the religious leaders of his day with maintaining piety out of pretense.  For Jesus, the congruence between the inner and the outer—the heart and the mouth, the motivations and the behavior, the public and the private—is a crucial matter of integrity before God. The warnings were needed, Jesus told us, because hypocrisy is, by definition, crafty and hidden. Wolves look like lambs, which is why they are able to ravage the flock.”


Moore goes on, “Falwell Jr. frequently spoke not in terms of the gospel or the way of Christ, even parenthetically, but in terms of decidedly Machiavellian political aims and objectives. When individuals questioned the cost to Christian witness of merging evangelicalism with populist demagoguery, he often dismissed them as though they were morally preening puritans, out of touch with the real world.  When his own scandals started to proliferate, Falwell did not defend himself as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. He didn’t even (as do so many scandal-ridden Christian leaders) present himself as a repentant David in the middle of Psalm 51. Falwell said that he was a lawyer, not a preacher—as though the commands to integrity, obedience, repentance, and mercy were ordination vows, not the call of Jesus on every one of his disciples and, even before that, written by God on the consciences of every human being.  In many ways, Jerry Falwell Jr. did not hide from us who he was. He told us, over and over again.”  This is a crisis of accountability, “but this is also a crisis of love. As evangelical Christians, it is a scandal that we didn’t hold Jerry Falwell Jr. accountable for all the vulnerable people who suffered because of his decisions. And yet it’s more than that: It’s a tragedy that we did not love Jerry Falwell Jr. enough.”


Moore’s most piercing comments focus on what Falwell represents: “In some ways, the Jerry Falwell Jr. story is emblematic of the state of American cultural Christianity. If, as the old saying goes, hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, then the older form of American cultural Christianity was genuine hypocrisy. Some people belonged to churches so they would be seen as good people. Even if they never believed, they sang the hymns and prayed the prayers and played on the church softball teams. The adulterer would pontificate on family values, and the embezzler would teach Sunday school classes on the Ten Commandments.  In time, as always happens, politicians sought to make this kind of religion a political force—a moral majority—that could de-emphasize the less popular aspects of Christianity (Trinity, incarnation, blood atonement, carrying a cross) and emphasize the more marketable aspects (fighting for the soul of America, reclaiming the culture, saving Western civilization).  Now, though, cultural Christianity seems to have evolved to the state where many people don’t even have to pretend to belong to churches. They just need to know how to post Facebook memes about Christian values right along with profane slogans about the president of the United States.  And behind all of that are real people—created in the image of God, destined for an eternity of glory or damnation. The consequences aren’t just societal or even just theological. They are strikingly and tragically personal.”   Moore issues no vendetta here.  He reflects on a tragic figure in American evangelicalism:  A man who consistently revealed who he is—not a devout Christian passionately pursuing Christ’s priorities; a man who self-destructed; a man who deserves our love and our compassion.


Second, consider a development in the state of Florida.  The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act was a 2008 law that President Bush signed after significant advocacy from and support of evangelical leaders.   It states that when the Border Patrol identifies a child from a noncontiguous country seeking protection at the US-Mexico border without a parent or legal guardian, the patrol is to transfer the child to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to ensure that the child is kept safe.  The unaccompanied migrant program is fully paid for by federal (not state) funds—and therefore does not divert from the care of local children in need of foster care.  Therefore, Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization and World Relief, reports that faith-based organizations like Bethany Christian Services, Lutheran Services, and ministries of the Catholic Church agreed to partner with the federal government to provide care for these children. In many cases, that includes Christian foster parents who partner with them by opening their homes to help the kids.  “In doing so, such Christian individuals and organizations are being faithful to the Biblical command to care for foreigners who reside among us (Lev. 19:34).”  Pro-life Christians who believe that every human life is made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27)—and therefore possess inherent dignity and worth—have a clear direct scriptural directive to ensure that such children are protected from harm.

But, in December 2021, Florida governor Ron DeSantis issued an “emergency rule” blocking the issuance and renewal of state licenses for organizations that serve unaccompanied migrant children, including many faith-based organizations.  Recently, Floridian evangelical pastors joined other religious leaders and laypeople in urging the governor to reconsider this decision, which both puts vulnerable children at risk and impinges on the religious liberty of Floridians.  “Governor DeSantis’s stated rationale for the order is focused on preventing the resettlement of ‘illegal aliens’ to the state, but the reality is that the unaccompanied migrant children at the center of this debate are being treated precisely how US law requires.

From there, HHS works with a network of childcare providers—which are required to be licensed by the state to ensure they meet appropriate standards. These providers care for the kids until a sponsor is identified, which is usually the child’s mother or father who already lives in the US, or another relative.  The child is eventually required to report to an immigration court to determine whether he or she lawfully qualifies to stay in the US.”

Christians may agree or disagree with whether this is the best process for responding to these uniquely vulnerable kids, but it is the law of the land—and the federal government is not doing anything illegal or nefarious by complying with its mandates.  “By withdrawing a required state license, foster parents cannot care for unaccompanied children and ministries cannot operate a temporary shelter while they search for the child’s family. Therefore this new policy actively blocks Christians (and those of other religions) from exercising their freedom of faith.  After all, religious liberty is more than just the right to worship in a church building on Sunday. It is the freedom to follow and obey all the tenets of one’s religion, including caring for vulnerable children.”

Caring for migrant children according to a 2008 federal law demonstrates distinctly the biblical mandate of compassion.  It is sad and unconscionable that Florida’s governor has thwarted one way in which Christians seek to show compassion on the “least of these.”  In the name of the biblical virtue of compassion, he should rescind his order.

See Kaitlyn Scheiss, “What Went Wrong at Liberty University,” in the New York Times (27 August 2020); Hannah Anderson, “What Happens at Liberty Doesn’t Stay at Liberty,” (2 September 2020); and Anthea Butler, “Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Fall, Liberty University and the Myth of the Moral Majority,” Religious News Service  (27 August 2020); Russell Moore, “Jerry Falwell Jr. is No Hypocrite,” in Moore to the Point Newsletter” (28 January 2022); and  Matthew Soerens, “Gov. DeSantis, Let My Ministry Serve Migrant Kids” in the (28 January 2022).

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