Musings on Morality, Sin and the American Church
There is a fear I have for our culture. We have lost our moral compass. A compass does not tell you where you are or where you are going, in fact makes no value judgments at all and offers no advice, it just points north. Once you know where north is, it is assumed that you have the skills to navigate from that fixed position. To lose ones’ moral compass is to lose a consistent point of reference and without such a marker, we find ourselves wandering, circling and getting more lost with each step we take.
Our culture has lost its north. Our churches have lost their north. America was founded on a Christian ideal that gained its “self-evident” assumptions from the authority of Scripture. When the seminaries began to question that authority from the inside, the culture followed by questioning Scriptural authority from the outside and now for many, the Bible is just a great book among great books, a history book among history books and a best-selling book among best-selling books. The bottom line is that the church has abdicated its essential role as the Biblical conscience of American capitalism and critic of popular culture. Without an accepted standard for truth, the Ten Commandments become ten suggestions, the Beatitudes become abstract ideals and the whole of the Biblical narrative becomes something anachronistic; reaching beyond its time for sure, but somehow failing to reach 2017.
Francis Schaffer stated in his “Christian Manifesto” that if man is the measure of all things; if we are simply historical accidents forged by random forces, then there is no higher law, no moral certainty and everything is relative. In the absence of moral absolutes, Americans have allowed Gallup rather than God to be our conscience and if 49% of Americans are against a thing, it is still wrong but when 51% are for a thing, it suddenly becomes right. There is no yesterday and there is no tomorrow; there is only the now…and the poll and the pundits who fuel the poll.
And where is the American church in this moral quagmire? Frankly all over the place; ranging from absolute silence to championing conflicting positions and causes. In many ways, the church has turned its energy into fighting within its own tribes while the enemy prowls like a roaring lion unchecked and unopposed. And where are our prophets? Perhaps these days, those who have figured out how to profit from being a prophet. And like Balaam, they have become political or capitalistic lobbyists drawing checks and pensions rather than holy oracles.
Mainline churches don’t talk much about morality and ethics any more. Perhaps we are unsure of who we are and whose we are. Ergo, we lack confidence in our traditional sources, unsure of our positions and suspect of our prophets. And we all know that many of those who have taken on the mantle of self-appointed spokespeople for morality and ethics have been unable to live up to the bar they have so rigidly imposed for others. Fallen moral leaders have become what Romantic writer Frederich Schiller might call caricatures of themselves. The list is long. So we socially laugh off fallen leaders as Elmer Gantry’s and defacto, excuse our remaining leaders from sounding a certain moral trumpet on one hand and excuse ourselves from moral restraint on the other.
Moral hypocrisy in the public arena barely causes a scandal anymore, for how can you have a moral scandal when there is no public grasp of a fixed point for morality other than breaking the law? Pastors don’t preach much about morality and ethics anymore. Here are some reasons why:
Why are Morality and Ethics not Preached?
• People feel crummy enough about themselves already and don’t need reminded of how bad they are.
• People are tired of hearing self-righteous dogma.
• Teaching on morality has traditionally been narrow, judgmental and mean-spirited.
• To focus on integrity leads to legalism, not grace.
• Pastors are afraid of running off the remaining members they do have.
• To focus on morality leads to condemnation, not forgiveness.
• Those who preach it the hardest are often the worst offenders.
• Pastors fear being the one who “protest-eth too much.”
• No one wants to come off mean spirited in 2016
I would be the first to admit that all of these reasons hold nuggets of truth. Yet, if we are so bold as to declare the Bible to contain the Word of God, we cannot simply say, “Nobody’s perfect” and casually move on. The God of the Bible is most concerned about human behavior. If you don’t believe me, just read Leviticus or the letters of Paul!
Yet to spend our primary energy on personal integrity is to get the cart before the horse. Christianity must not be reduced to a baptized version of a Freudian Superego with the mantra, “Jesus helps me be good.” The purpose of our church is to connect people with Jesus Christ. An old timer in Southern Illinois said it well, “If we can get them saved, God can clean them up!” Immoral and unethical actions spring from hearts and minds that are not right with God. They are a symptom, not the disease. The disease is sin.
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997.