Ronald D. Sisk is the author of numerous articles as well as four books. Over twenty years, he served as pastor of four congregations in California, Texas, and Kentucky. In 2015, he retired from North American Baptist Seminary (later Sioux Falls Seminary) in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as Emeritus Professor of Homiletics and Christian Ministry, having also served as academic vice president and dean of the faculty. He and his wife, Sheryl, live in Loveland, Colorado.
What were your hoping to accomplish/achieve when you sat down to write Right and Wrong: Finding Values for the 21st Century?
I began writing in the early days of the Covid pandemic in 2020. So many things seemed to be happening all at once—Covid itself, the calls for isolation, the search for a vaccine and widely varying responses by Christians to requests for churches to limit public worship. Plus we were in the midst of the political drama created by the 2020 election, the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and the refusal by many to accept the election results. Of course we have continuing social culture wars over issues like abortion and gun violence. So much is happening. And at the same time churches seem to be giving widely different responses to every question. The churches themselves seem to be losing credibility with large sections of the public.
I became convinced that what people really need is the ethical approach Jesus taught us in his great commandment—to love God with our whole hearts and minds and each other as ourselves. And I realized for it to be of any practical use it had to be written for a general audience and couched in terms that people can understand.
Why is it so important to keep having these difficult conversations? Is there hope and what are the challenges of starting them?
Life today is incredibly complex and confusing. The media and popular culture bombard us constantly with new ways of thinking and acting. Traditional authorities are often discredited or completely broken down. And yet following Jesus continues to have enormous appeal both for those of us inside the church and for people who have abandoned the organized church or consider themselves individual followers of Jesus outside of traditional religious establishments.
Teaching people a simple way to let Jesus’ commandment of agape—defined as seeking to will and to work for the well being of others and ourselves through every decision we make—to let that commandment be our guide as we face decisions offers a way forward people can actually use.
It also helps us give each other room to be uncertain or disagree as we work through specific issues. Making agape our guide means in part that we must be careful to treat others with dignity and respect as we think through the way we act.
Two of the most meaningful parts that stuck out to me were the ideas of adaptability and perspective. What makes these terms powerful and important? What are the greatest misconceptions surrounding them?
The Methodists have an idea that helps us tremendously with these concepts of adaptability and perspective. They call it the Wesleyan quadrilateral. What they mean is that whenever we’re looking for how to make decisions we can be informed by four different decision points. The first is Scripture. We must always seek to understand what the Bible meant both to those who heard or read it first and to people today. The second informant is what the church has done in the past. How have our fathers and mothers addressed similar issues they faced? The third information point could be called science or research. What have we learned about this world God has created and how does that change the way we see right and wrong? And then, fourth, what is the Holy Spirit telling us about how best to keep Jesus’ commandment to live out agape in our day.
None of this makes making decisions easy for our day. It’s never easy to change the way we think or act. But it’s also a mistake to believe that every rule that worked for believers in the First Century must also always work for believers today or a hundred years from now. Some do. Fidelity in marriage is unlikely ever to be discarded by Christians. But slavery, which was widely accepted by Christians till the 19th Century is now universally condemned by the church. The Spirit is still teaching us!
Can you talk a little bit about the structure of your book? Why did you choose these topics and what was your motivation for the end-of-chapter questions in “Reflection and Discussion.”
You could almost describe the structure of the book as a “pandemic diary.” It began as the pandemic began. And every issue I dealt with was something people were actually discussing and struggling with during the period from the emergency declaration regarding Covid in March of 2020 to the shootings in Uvalde two years later. In every case responsible Christians were taking different and often opposing views on the various questions. Everybody couldn’t be right. It wasn’t my place to tell anybody what to think, but I could attempt to point them consistently to the values agape teaches and then challenge them to let those values guide their own thinking. The questions I asked at the end of each chapter were designed to help people think for themselves and talk with one another about the values they were choosing.
Did anything surprise you while you were writing? What does the writing process mean to you?
I always learn what I actually think as I’m writing. I realized as I went along that I couldn’t ask anyone else to rethink their positions on issues based on Christian love if I wasn’t willing to let that same love change my own positions. Perhaps most surprising for me was the way the shootings in Uvalde helped me clarify my own thinking about the 2nd Amendment and the need for meaningful gun violence education in America. I had long thought change was necessary, but writing about those tragic deaths brought the issue into a kind of stark clarity I’d never achieved before.
How can we, as a people of faith, act with more ‘agape’ inside and outside of the church?
You asked me earlier about perspective. One of the most important things about trying to live out agape in our world is letting it teach us the discipline of trying always to see issues not only from our own perspective but also as those closest to those issues see them. The elderly black couple who have become friends of ours in recent years have taught us more truth about racial issues in America than either my wife or I had ever imagined was true—the way they raised their children, the way they view the police. Getting to know and love them has changed the way I love as a Christian and a citizen. Whatever the issue, you and I have to be ready to let love change us.
When did Scripture first come alive for you?
I’m really old of course! Growing up trying to understand what my faith meant during the Civil Rights and Vietnam War era of the 1960s and 1970s meant that I was constantly asking myself what Scripture was teaching me about race and about war. Things were just as confusing for folks back then as they are now. But the gospels have always spoken to me. And the way Jesus dealt with every situation he faced taught me early on that what He really wants for you and me, all of us, is to teach us day by day how to know right from wrong, how to choose what we genuinely think is right, and thereby how to live well!