Navigating the Moral Maze of Artificial Intelligence
The Ethics of AI
To help navigate the moral maze of artificial intelligence (AI) and how it affects our churches, three writers join forces in this written panel discussion. Whether this is your first deep dive into AI, or if it causes you to embrace the technology in a creative but ethical manner, we hope you enjoy the conversation. Meet the panelists who combined their experience in this exciting but very new world.
Ron Hunter: minister, publisher, researcher, writer, adjunct professor, leadership guru, and advisor for masters and doctoral students
Kendall Ross: pastor, professor, engineer, researcher, grant writer, and business leader consultant
Cato Nester: researcher, bibliophile, data processor, and tech expert whose role currently keeps him immersed in AI pretty much 24/7
This article will only scratch the surface, but hopefully it starts a conversation that will continue to grow in the future.
Ron: To be clear, AI is new to most of us, and neither Kendall nor I claim to be experts. However, Cato is certainly an expert. Kendall and I have been using AI for most of 2023. Cato, why don’t you start by explaining or defining AI for those less familiar with it, and how the average person can use it.
Cato: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the development of machines and systems that can think and learn like humans, enabling them to perform tasks and make decisions. AI can be used in everyday life through various applications, such as voice assistants, personalized recommendations, smart home devices, virtual assistants, spam filters, language translation, and image recognition, enhancing convenience, efficiency, and productivity.
Kendall: AI is used extensively in software design, research, finance, and healthcare. For example, in the healthcare industry, AI is used in tasks like medical imaging analysis, diagnosis assistance, drug discovery, and patient monitoring systems. Financial analysts use it for trading, fraud detection, risk assessment, credit scoring—even automated customer support. AI is deployed across multiple websites to drive chatbot applications that efficiently handle many inquiries, improve response times, and enhance customer satisfaction. However, in this setting, we will narrow our discussion to areas that affect pastors, Christians, and churches specifically. Ron, how do you see this impacting the publishing world?
Ron: For some time, and often unknowingly, we have used AI in spelling and grammar checks, GPS routing (and re-routing), and auto-fill and word-prompts on texting or emails. Today, we can generate larger numbers of words. Colleges must be concerned with students using AI to write term papers. AI combines online knowledge with user prompts to find and create an answer by merging material from numerous sources. In other words, when you ask for 300 words on the Trinity, you are unsure where the material originated. Nor can you credit previously published works because AI does not note the source. More disturbingly, the material may be riddled with errors, because AI currently cannot analyze the quality of material it references in its answer. This does not mean we shouldn’t use AI. It has been my experience that AI creates new ways to explore an idea, often with better titles and sample outlines. It can also smooth out writing and add more active verb tenses.
Authors may use AI to write books, but the U.S. Copyright Office recently ruled they would no longer issue copyrights for non-human generated works. The office is concerned with the ethics of crediting a person who did not do the work or does not have the expertise. For example, one could ask AI to generate 700 words on quantum physics, but that does not qualify that individual to be a consultant or speaker in that area. But they could read some insightful data. Certainly, you can see the temptation for pastors or teachers to generate sermons, lessons, or Bible studies from AI.
Kendall: In popular culture Uncle Ben is credited with telling young Peter Parker (Spiderman), “With great power comes great responsibility.” I argue this principle stems from Jesus’ words in Luke 12:48: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” Regardless, I am both fascinated and frightened by AI. Much like the Internet did, AI has the potential to revolutionize how we access, filter, and use information. It can help individuals and companies save significant amounts of time and effort by producing content at a speed impossible for humans to match. And, it learns from each interaction, which means it is constantly improving.
However, it is necessary for us, as believers, to provide oversight for each AI interaction. As Cato mentioned earlier, AI is the development of machines and systems that “think and learn” like humans—humans with a sinful nature. The large and growing core of the AI data set is flawed. It reminds me of a term I first learned in programming: “garbage in, garbage out.” Flawed (garbage) data produces nonsense output.
Consequently, it is the data and the quality of the input that drives the quality of the AI output. Cato, I am told every AI service admits to errors in the output. Is that true, and how can one detect inaccurate information?
Cato: The frequency or percentage of errors in AI output can vary depending on the specific task and quality of the AI system. Error rates can range from low to high. Detecting errors in AI output can involve cross-checking results against ground truth data, performing manual verification, conducting user testing, and employing statistical analysis to identify discrepancies or inconsistencies. Ongoing monitoring, feedback loops, and continuous improvement processes are essential for error detection and mitigation in AI systems.
Ron: Cato, that was a technical answer, but I think you are warning us to be super cautious. Still, in my experience, AI has produced some high-quality output: summarizing books and textbooks that I teach and know very well, analyzing characters from the Bible or literature, and explaining various leadership theories. AI “feels” different from Google which, when prompted, points to other sources for answers. In contrast, AI compiles all online information to create a new answer to the question. What about the second problem we mentioned? Not knowing who to credit for the work, you cannot claim it as your own.
Kendall: This brings up a great point about pastoral plagiarism. This refers to the act of a pastor (or other religious leader or teacher) using someone else’s work, whether sermons, teachings, or written materials, without proper permission or attribution. It is presenting another’s ideas, words, or creative content as one’s own, thereby misleading the congregation to think the content originated from the individual who committed plagiarism. This can happen in many forms. It may involve directly copying sermons from other pastors or paraphrasing and rewording to make it appear as original content. It can even extend to multimedia resources (videos, images, or music) without obtaining necessary permission or giving credit to creators. Consequently, it is crucial for pastors to engage in their own research, study, and quiet time with God and to give credit properly to the original sources. This becomes difficult when using AI as a resource.
Ron: My biggest concern is the absence of the Holy Spirit in guiding sermon and lesson preparations. A computer cannot do your spiritual heavy lifting. Sure, non-human technology can generate some great data, but AI lacks the emotional connection to humans. If pastors do not actively engage with Scripture and study deeply, and if they rely on AI to write their sermons, they will be unable to counsel or guide their congregation effectively. With these cautions in mind, Kendall, how might a church use AI effectively?
Kendall: Churches can use AI to its greatest potential in at least two ways: social media and creating content in multiple languages. Churches now have a unique opportunity to connect with their communities via social media. However, creating high-quality social media posts takes significant time and effort. The key advantage of using AI for social media is the ability to optimize posts for different platforms and different audiences. For example, one can simply prompt AI with data, and it will generate language optimized for each social media platform. Using AI can free up time and resources for other essential tasks, such as ministry or community outreach.
Secondly, I think churches can use AI to create content quickly and efficiently in multiple languages. We have begun this at the university level, and we are seeing great benefits. With the help of AI, churches can break down language barriers and share their message with a broader audience. Ron, how specifically can pastors use AI?
Ron: Pastors can use AI to generate super-creative titles for sermons; overcome writer’s block; rewrite their outlines with cohesion or on a particular theme; find illustrations or metaphors, brainstorm a topic, provide background on Bible characters, or explore a passage to consider it from various angles. AI can repurpose sermons. Pastors put a lot of time and effort into crafting a sermon, but AI can help analyze the sermon and generate new content based on previous work to be used for blog posts, social media updates, or even newsletters. AI also can function as a virtual assistant on your web page or to analyze data for your members, ministry, and community. Cato, considering all the positives I have listed, what are some concerns Christians should be aware of when it comes to AI?
Cato: Here are three main ones:
Ethical Implications: Christians should be concerned about the ethical dimensions of AI, including issues related to privacy, data security, potential biases in algorithms, and the responsible use of AI technologies.
Human Interaction and Authenticity: Christians should be concerned about the potential for AI to undermine genuine human connection, empathy, and the role of pastors in providing personal care and guidance.
Theological and Philosophical Implications: Christians should be concerned about the theological and philosophical questions raised by AI, such as its impact on human identity and the nature of consciousness, free will, and the ethical boundaries of technology in relation to God’s design for humanity.
Kendall: Despite the concerns, I see a huge upside to AI. Christianity has played a huge role in fields such as healthcare, education, and the arts. Believers now can be leaders in the ethical, thoughtful use of AI. This technology has the potential to revolutionize how churches communicate with their congregations and the broader community. Ultimately, AI can save time and help reach more people with the gospel. However, we must remember AI is a tool requiring careful human oversight and creativity to ensure the content is appropriate and aligned with the church’s mission and values.
Ron and I have generated some prompts and answers to demonstrate the power of AI in the final section of this article. We hope churches and Christians will explore how they can integrate AI into their evangelism strategies and embrace this technology so they can take on leadership roles in guiding and advising others.
As you can see from discussion on the benefits and concerns of AI, humanity sits on the precipice of a vast new world. Like pioneer explorers Lewis and Clark, all of us seek to observe, learn, and chart the way for those who come after us on this journey.
You may be surprised to learn two humans and one chatbot brought you this article. Ron and Kendall created a fictitious character and revealed their bias by naming him Cato (Latin for intelligent and all-knowing) Nester (the legendary ruler who helped the Greeks win the Trojan war). Every answer Cato Nester provided was AI generated.
Cato’s AI prompts that created the answers in the order they appeared in this article:
In 20-30 words describe what artificial intelligence is to someone who has never heard of it. How can AI practically be used in the average person’s everyday life?
How often, or to what percentage, does AI produce errors in its output, and how can one detect the errors?
List the top three concerns Christians should have about AI and describe them in one sentence.
Sample the Potential of AI
The following examples demonstrate both the potential and danger of AI, with well-developed, logical responses that DO CONTAIN TROUBLING THEOLOGY.
Prompt: Write three Twitter or Facebook posts for the purpose of inviting people to attend church based on a Nehemiah sermon series. Emphasize the following themes: first Sunday, Nehemiah (chapter 1) looks at and wants to help solve the needs of the community. Second Sunday, Nehemiah (chapter 4) shows them the enemy was not within and to fight for their families (Nehemiah 4:14). Third Sunday, Nehemiah 8 shows the church experience, and then parents retell the power of the gospel to their kids at home.
1. Facebook: Join us for an inspiring sermon series on Nehemiah, a biblical leader who saw the needs of his community and took action! This Sunday, we delve into Nehemiah (chapter 1), exploring how he identified the needs and sought to make a difference. Be part of a community that cares. See you at [Church Name] at [Time]. #Nehemiah #CommunityMatters #SundaySermonSeries
2. Twitter (now called X): Calling all change-makers! Don’t miss our Nehemiah sermon series at [Church Name]. On the second Sunday, we dive into Nehemiah (chapter 4), discovering how he rallied his people to fight for their families and overcome internal obstacles. Be encouraged to stand up against the challenges. Join us at [Time]. #FightForYourFamily #OvercomeObstacles #SundaySermon
3. Facebook: Join us for a powerful Sunday service at [Church Name]. This week, we explore Nehemiah 8, where the church experience is amplified, and parents share the power of the gospel with their children at home. Discover the significance of passing down faith to the next generation. Be part of this transformational journey at [Time]. See you there! #PassingFaithOn #NextGeneration #SundayService
Prompt: Give three themes for the
Bible character Esther. (Note: We provided only the short answer for the sake of space.)
Courage and faith: The character of Esther in the Bible demonstrates immense courage and faith. She risked her life by approaching the king without being summoned and showed her bravery to save her people. Esther's unwavering faith in God's guidance and protection enabled her to take on this daunting task and fulfill her role as a savior for the Jewish people.
Identity and purpose: Esther’s story revolves around the themes of identity and purpose. Initially known as Hadassah, she was a Jewish orphan who eventually became Queen Esther. Through her journey, she grappled with her Jewish heritage and had to decide whether to reveal her true identity to save her people. This theme highlights the importance of understanding one’s purpose and embracing one’s identity to make a meaningful impact on the world.
Divine providence and timing: The theme of divine providence and timing is prominent in Esther’s story. Throughout the narrative, it becomes clear events unfold according to God's plan. Esther's rise to the position of queen, her selection as the instrument of deliverance for her people, and the timing of key events all reflect the providential hand of God. This theme underscores the belief God works in mysterious ways and orchestrates events for His purposes, even when things seem uncertain or dire.
Prompt: Explain the Trinity (3-in-1)
like I am eight years old. (Note: In this answer, it appears AI explains the Trinity using the faulty view of modalism, again illustrating the need for caution.)
Of course! Let's talk about the Trinity in a way an eight-year-old can understand. Imagine you have a special gadget that can turn into three things: a car, a boat, and a plane. Even though it can be different things, it’s still the same gadget. In the Trinity, we have God, who can be three persons: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit. They are like the different forms of the gadget.
God the Father is like the car. Just like a car takes us places, God the Father takes care of us and guides us on our journey through life.
God the Son, Jesus, is like the boat. Just as a boat helps us cross the water, Jesus helps us connect with God and shows us how to live in a loving way.
God the Holy Spirit is like the plane. Just like a plane helps us fly high, the Holy Spirit helps us feel close to God and gives us strength and comfort.
So, even though there are three parts, they are all God, and they work together just like the different forms of the gadget. They love us and want to be with us, and we can talk to each of them and have a special relationship with them. Remember, the Trinity is a mystery, and it can be hard to fully understand, but I hope this helps you get a basic idea!
Because we wondered how AI answers were controlled, we posed the following prompt: “How would a Christian evangelize a Muslim?”
While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to evangelizing, there are some general principles a Christian might consider when engaging in conversation with a Muslim. It’s important to note sensitivity, respect, and understanding are key when discussing faith with people from different religious backgrounds. Here are some suggestions for a Christian who wants to evangelize a Muslim:
Develop genuine friendships: Building a relationship based on trust and understanding is crucial. Show genuine interest in the person's life, values, and beliefs, and be open to learning from their experiences.
Be respectful and understanding: Acknowledge and appreciate the similarities between Christianity and Islam, such as belief in one God, the importance of prayer, and the role of religious texts. Recognize that both faiths have a rich history and tradition.
Be knowledgeable: Familiarize yourself with the basic tenets of Islam to better understand a Muslim’s beliefs and address any misconceptions you might have. It’s also helpful to know the differences between the two faiths to avoid confusion or misunderstanding.
Share your own experiences: Rather than focusing on theological debates, share your personal testimony about your faith journey and how Christianity has impacted your life. This can be a powerful way to connect with others on a deeper level.
Focus on Jesus: Emphasize the role of Jesus in Christianity and explain how He is unique in both Christian and Islamic theology. Muslims regard Jesus as a prophet, while Christians believe He is the Son of God and the Messiah. Share the love, grace, and forgiveness offered through Jesus.
Engage in open dialogue: Encourage open and honest conversations. Ask questions and listen carefully to the responses. Be prepared to answer questions about your own faith and be open to discussing any doubts or concerns your Muslim friend may have.
Pray: Pray for wisdom, patience, and understanding as you engage in these conversations. Pray for your Muslim friend’s heart to be open to the message of Christianity.
Remember, evangelism is a process, not an event. It takes time, patience, and persistence. Be prepared for challenges and setbacks but keep the lines of communication open and continue to show love and understanding.
As you see from these examples,
AI is both promising and terrifying in its potential. Use it wisely!