Christianity Versus Morality

 

CHRISTIANITY VERSUS MORALITY

Campbell Campbell-Jack

INTRODUCTION

Thirty years ago Solzhenitsyn was denounced by the fashionable liberal community when in his prophetic Harvard commencement address he described western society as being in a state where: “Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges.” We find ourselves even further into that morass today where we live in a society in which sexual ‘rights’ triumph over freedom of expression and academia imposes strict speech codes. A society in which to oppose homosexual ‘marriage’ is to invite rejection to such an extent that one’s views are dismissed out of hand without serious consideration. We have even reached a situation where in the Christian church it is seriously suggested by many that we should accord with the fashionable acceptance of homosexuality to such an extent that an active homosexual lifestyle is considered compatible with ordained Christian ministry.

In the current controversy within the worldwide church regarding the ordination and induction of practicing homosexuals to the Christian ministry there is much said with regard to the methodology and motives of those opposing this measure. Those upholding an orthodox position are variously characterised as being fundamentalist or literalist in their interpretation of the Scriptures and motivated by prejudice, bigotry and homophobia. I have no wish to speculate on the motives of those who hold to a revisionist theological position. To attempt to analyse the psychological processes at work in the revisionists is to indulge in coffee table psychology, that perennial pastime of the undereducated and overexcited middle classes. As well as being pointless it leads too easily to the divisive abuse with which we are unfortunately all too familiar in this debate.

The intention of this paper is not to analyse particular passages of Scripture in order to reject the revisionist position and support the orthodox position. Rather it is the argument of this paper that the present controversy within churches in the West is not a debate about the nature of homosexuality, rather homosexuality is only the presenting symptom. Underlying the controversy is a theological clash affecting much more than one single sexual proclivity. The contention of this paper is that the revisionist’s arguments are based upon a category error which inevitably leads to support of a pro-homosexual stance. Much more importantly this category error reveals that the underlying position of the revisionists is destructive of our relationship with God, and undermines the nature of the gospel and thus the very existence of the church. There is much more at stake in this present controversy than whether or not we accept any particular individual as an ordained minister of the church with all that this implies.

A Category Error

Today’s theological revisionists confuse the Christian faith with a moral system and thereby substitute that moral system for the Christian faith. It must be stressed, in the face of common assumptions, that Christianity is not primarily a moral system. This does not mean that Christianity is immoral or amoral, rather it means that Christianity is of a different genus altogether. This category error also leads to a confusion between what is legally permitted within society and what is normative for Christians, with important consequences for society and church.

Conceiving of Christianity as primarily a moral system alters the expression of the Christian faith, an alteration we can observe around us. In congregations throughout the West there has been a rise in the emphasis on accepting oneself leading to self-fulfilment as the goal of life and a corresponding decline in an emphasis on confession and conversion as a foundation for an entirely new life in Christ. Feel-good has replaced discipleship.

Interestingly a Christianity which emphasises personal fulfilment is also a Christianity which places a premium on Pharisaic conformity to its moral system. To deny the deity of Christ hardly merits the raising of an eyebrow, failure to welcome the ordination of practicing homosexuals is to invite at least the condescension if not the outright wrath of the unco guid and righteous.

A moral system is a self-referential set of rules and expected standards of behaviour which act to preserve the coherence of the group and enhance the achievement of its aims. Sports can be seen as moral systems. All sports in themselves are artificial constructs and within a generally agreed purpose of the game the rules are constantly variable. The basic purpose of association football is a competition between two numerically balanced teams to score goals by propelling the ball through the posts with the feet, head or any other part of the body other than the hands or arms. Then at Ruby school William Webb Ellis supposedly picked up the ball in his hands and ran with it and rugby football was born. The basic purpose of the game had changed so something entirely new was created. Until recently in rugby union it was against the rules of the game to lift a player at a line-out in order for him to catch the ball, it was considered unsporting, even cheating, and would be penalised. After a rule change it is now an integral part of the game and at line-outs we see brawny rugby players pretending to be lithe Chinese acrobats and lauded for their sporting ability. As long as the primary objects of the game are preserved the rules of the game are substantially variable but if the primary object is altered it becomes an entirely different game.

The questions we have to ask is whether the Christian Church is a self-referential activity in which we can change the rules whenever we wish in the interests of making it a more exciting, interesting or popular activity or to enable it to accord with the current mores of society; and whether the rule change regarding homosexual ordination alters the very nature of the activity and makes it something totally different from the original and thereby an entirely new ‘game.’

A moral system within society is a collection of values and principles leading to a set of rules for life derived from a shared view of what the summum bonum encompasses. Thus society constantly alters its rules in accordance with changes in the prevailing culture. Typically in modern western societies these values include toleration, equality, respect for life, freedom of speech and thought, and those values generally brought under the heading of human rights which include the principle that no person should be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation.

Many of the changes in public morality have been for the good of society generally, even the stultifying banality of political correctness has done much to improve the quality of life for all of us in the western world. No matter how much we may gripe about some of the absurdities and dangers of contemporary political correctness we have to acknowledge that the our society is, in some areas, more respectful than it was and is thus a gentler and more pleasant society in which to live. Moral systems, whether the rules of a game or the laws, traditions and culture of society can be beneficial for all concerned. They are not, however, to be confused with Christianity.

 

THEOLOGICAL REVISIONISM

Acceptance of Christianity as a moral system begins with revisionist theological moralists accepting a form of the naturalist fallacy that what exists is normative. They assume that our present existence is normal, that what society requires is a set of standards and rules by which we can regulate our relationships with each other and that this set of rules is found through comparing Scripture with the world of our observation and experience and through the interaction of both types of revelation the church can discern what is right and good. This has fatal theological consequences.

Those who discount the biblical prohibitions regarding homosexuality do not do so on the grounds of larger biblical themes but ultimately on the basis of individual human experience. The revisionist argument is to move from biology or psychology to morality, what is, is right, and we end up living under the tyranny of the present. This has two important consequences: firstly it introduces an ever changing system of morality, and secondly it introduces a theological principle which fundamentally alters the nature of the church. These have significant impact on society and the church.

By accepting this standpoint we introduce worldliness to the church. David F Wells delves to the heart of this when he writes:

“Worldliness has very little to do with the trivial taboos with which it is often associated. In the Bible, it is that system of values which takes root in any society that has fallen human beings as its source and centre, that relegates God to the margins, and that makes sin look normal and righteousness look strange.”[1]

Our ultimate concern is not with the place of homosexuals in the church it is with the place of God in the church.

Variable Morality

The prohibition of homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22 does not stand alone, it is part of a list of sexual transgressions including incest, adultery, bestiality and bigamy. If we depart from heterosexual monogamy as taught in Scripture because we have elevated individual experience to the level of being our interpreter of Scripture then we ultimately have no theological argument to raise against incest, adultery, bestiality, or paedophilia or any of the other sexual preferences experienced by humans, and yet prohibited in Scripture. If we accept the foundational revisionist theological position then if people want to indulge in them with consenting partners any of these practices are as just valid as homosexuality.

Thus the result of the revisionist approach, inevitable from their starting point, is to create a moral system which is infinitely malleable. As Van Til tells us:

“In general we can see it in the fact that in non-Christian ethics men will take the results that sin has brought into the universe as being permanent. Accordingly, every type of non-Christian ethical theory holds that all that we can do is to make the most of the situation. Ethics is thought of as a patchwork

The result is instability. Just as all non-theistic thought builds upon the ultimately irrational and in this way affords no foundation for the experience of the finite rationality that we have, so non-Christian ethics has no more than a quicksand foundation for the structure it seeks to build. The cracks will soon appear in the wall because the foundation of human experience sinks into the vague possibilities of an ultimate temporality.”[2]

We see the malleability of morality in the argument that to condemn what mutually consenting adults do in private is to be intolerant and judgemental. However, mutual assent does not justify an action. To argue this is to assert that there are no limitations on human behaviour other than personal preference and once again to elevate the individual human experience to the level of normative behaviour. When the ultimate standard of right and wrong becomes the individual’s self-imposed criteria of what ‘works for me’ we enter a situation where society disintegrates and atomises. This is the effect of the argument that what consenting adults do in private is their affair and should be the concern of no-one but themselves. Whilst altering the location of an action basically considered a moral act can change it to being an immoral act it does not work the other way; to alter the location of an basically immoral act cannot transform it from being immoral to being moral. A married couple making love in the privacy of their own home is a moral act, the same couple doing the same thing in the centre of George Square, Glasgow would not be a moral act. An immoral act such as incest, however, is immoral wherever it takes place.

The arguments for the acceptance of homosexuality are usually based on the tyranny of nature, what exists is to be accepted. For this reason we are constantly told of homosexual albatrosses, dolphins and fruit flies. Despite claims to the contrary there is no undisputed scientific evidence that homosexual tendencies are wholly genetic. Homosexuality shows every evidence of being in considerable part learned behaviour. Even if it were totally inherited that in itself would not constitute a defence of the act. What exists is not thereby what is right. As well as being learned behaviour it is clear that some people appear to have an inherited tendency toward alcohol abuse. Whilst this might be an explanatory factor in their behaviour patterns it does not thereby mean that for them drunkenness is morally acceptable behaviour or that the learned behaviour of drunkenness is thereby morally acceptable for everyone else.

Natural Theology

Those who propose the acceptance of homosexual ordination, a vehicle for the wholesale acceptance of homosexuality within the church, are being consistent with their starting point, nature itself. What is being proposed by revisionists within the church is yet another intrusion of natural theology. This is exemplified by Richard Holloway who writes:

“There is scarcely any doubt that the Bible as it stands seems sternly to disapprove of same sex activities… Alongside this undeniable fact we must place the emergence in this century, of an understanding of homosexuality, not as a chosen perversion to add spice to a jaded sexual norm, but as a permanent orientation, a fixed normative variation, to which scriptural references are irrelevant.”[3]

When we introduce another mode of revelation as being comparable to Scripture we inevitably introduce a mode of revelation in competition with Scripture, and a theological methodology in which Scripture becomes ‘irrelevant.’ Calvin teaches that Scripture is the spectacles which make all other revelation clear.[4] The revisionist theology reverses this standpoint making God’s revelation in nature, or a supposed aspect of it, normative and the spectacles through which we view and understand Scripture. In the case of Richard Holloway, and many of the supporters of a homosexual lifestyle, this ultimately leads to discarding Scripture.

The most serious weakness of natural revelation is that it does not speak of grace. Saving grace is not made manifest in nature, the God of saving grace is revealed although not understood.[5] Thus Paul teaches us that there are those who ‘suppress’ the truth about God Romans 1:18f. If we introduce a naturalistic tendency to theology we will eventually find ourselves undermining grace.

Acceptance of homosexuality as a viable lifestyle amounts to a denial of the impact of the Fall. Far from being a theology of liberation as is sometimes argued this leads to a theology of oppression within which we are not even permitted to contemplate release from the effects of the Fall and are actually encouraged to elevate that which distorts the created order and describe it as a valid expression of our God-given nature.

Throughout its history the Christian church has had to struggle against this type of intrusive naturism and the totalitarian Pharisaic emphasis it engenders. Thus we have Tertullian posing the question faced by the church throughout the ages “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” This is the question continually faced by the church and is highlighted by the struggle of the Reformed churches in Germany against the natural theology of the German Christians in the 1930’s and 40’s. The German Christians took as their starting point a naturalistic understanding of humanity and by doing so ceased to be a church and became merely an ecclesiastical expression of the German people, a civic religion harnessed to a social system appalling beyond words.

Impact

When we accept natural theology not only is the life of the church distorted but the liberty of the people generally loses its strongest defence against intolerance and the determination of fallen mankind to get its own way in the face of God’s revealed will.

Through the doorway of revisionist theology today we are witnessing the replacement of Christianity by a supposedly liberal civic religion which finds being acceptable to the world as its raison d’être. Social dogmatism based upon a rationalistic naturalism can never be the guiding light for any organisation which claims the name of church. When it gives in to such pressures from an unbelieving world it becomes merely an ecclesiastical organisation devoid of clear biblical direction.

Moral systems are makeshift attempts to restrict whatever is seen as evil in society by adjusting legislation, but these adjustments never actually solve anything. They set up the primacy of law over grace and thereby diminish faith and hope. In the name of freedom of expression we enter into a society of Pharisaic censoriousness, where to fail to accord with the mores of naturalistic secular humanism is to endanger one’s freedom of expression. The intolerance of secular liberalism creates a society encased in destructive conformity.

In the name of love the revisionists proclaim licence. In the name of compassion the modern Pharisees erect a legalistic structure. This is spin which would make Alistair Campbell envious. In Scripture we are taught that the Christian is as free as the Spirit. This does not mean licence as our modern Pharisees might suppose. It means the freedom to love, love which cannot be regulated, encouraged or prohibited by legislation, love which cannot be categorised, love which refuses to accept the distortions of the Fall. Augustine told us to love God and do as we will, it is love of God which guides us, not ever malleable social legislation based on accommodating fallen human experience.

Unlike morality love does not ‘alter as it alteration finds.’ Basic biblical principles for life are not fluid, what may change is our understanding of them and our performance of them. To try to change underlying biblical principals in order to accommodate current moral practices is to confuse righteousness with morality. Claiming that such principles can change is to confuse values and facts.

CHRISTIANITY

The Bible is not and does not present a system of morality. We cannot read the New Testament and legitimately derive from it a moral system. Nowhere does Jesus advocate or teach a moral code, instead He challenges us all to something entirely different from arid adherence to a system of humanistic behavioural rules.

The core task of the Bible is to present God’s revelation of Himself. As such it is not a book about humanity and our actions, whether right or wrong, rather it is a proclamation by God, His self-revelation, which challenges us to a response. In this sense the Bible has an existential character created by the sovereignty of God.

The summum bonum for humanity is not an idealised picture of perfection acceptable to the generality of mankind, rather it is the kingdom of God which is not only an absolute ideal but the gift of grace to humanity. Jesus did not place Himself before us as an example of the ideal life which we should follow, this paltry theory based on sentimentality and wishful thinking is the creation of a moral system and contains the implication that if we so wished we could decide to follow Him of our own accord and do so in our own strength. Such a reduction of Christ to the level of a mere moral example does violence to the gospel as it discards the twin concepts of our sinfulness and His atoning work on the cross. Ultimately, other than a dues ex machina type of supererogatory grace, there is no need of grace in any theology shaped by naturism.

The heart of the gospel, the proclamation of grace in Christ, the offer of the possibility of forgiveness and a subsequent life in the Spirit and freedom from law, cannot be subsumed under any system of morality. The core emphases of the gospel are directly opposed to any system of morality. Each of these aspects of the gospel presupposes the actual fact of our sinfulness, with its result that all our conduct whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is tainted and distorted by our fallen nature. The revisionists operate on the Pharisaic assumption that by trying hard and conforming to certain rules we can be good. The Bible on the other hand assures us that we cannot achieve the status of being ‘good’ in the eyes of God, rather we can be forgiven and declared righteous and enter into a new life as the gift of God. When approached by the rich young ruler Jesus Himself rejects the description of being ‘good’ and tells us that “No-one is good – except God alone” Mark 10:17f. This does not mean that we should not try to be ‘good,’ it does mean that we are operating in a different context altogether.

Living the Christian life has nothing to do with temporal morality, it has everything to do with discipleship. Morality consists in discerning what is good and what is bad and from those decisions constructing a set of rules and trying to live by them. When we construct moral precepts from our observation of existing creation and experience independently of God’s self-revelation no matter how ‘good’ they may be they are constructs of an act of rebellion. However, as disciples we cannot on our own decide what is good and what is bad. In the Bible what is good is the will of God. If for God’s declaration we substitute what we think is the good then we substitute our will for the will of God. “We construct a morality when we say (and do) what is good, and it is then that we are radically sinners.”[6] This is where the great danger of the present controversy lies, in deciding what is right and what is wrong it requires us to enshrine autonomous human opinion at the heart of the church, and that is rebellion. When that happens the church ceases to be the church and becomes an ecclesiastical organisation peddling the nostrums of society.

As we read the gospel stories we are struck by how often it is the individual who has not lived a moral life but who turns to God who is the one who is accepted and the person who has lived a moral life who is rejected or who, like the prodigal’s brother, just doesn’t ‘get it.’ The exceedingly moral Pharisees with their highly evolved system of right and wrong and their legalistic view of what it meant to live a godly life are condemned by Jesus. Their system may have had its roots in the Scriptures, but it was their system, their elaboration, their construct. Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, is told that he cannot even see the kingdom of God, that he has to enter into a completely new life with Christ. The rich young ruler was a man of highly developed moral sensitivity and practice, yet Jesus challenges him with the call of discipleship and he can see that there is a radical difference between morality and discipleship and sadly walks away. God will always ultimately be rejected by people who are only moral.

Morality insulates us against discipleship. Morality gives birth to a set of standards about what is right and wrong, discipleship is a mode of being. Morality is about law, discipleship is about life. Morality is about rules, discipleship is about a relationship. Today’s highly moral Pharisees, by making adjustments to their system in order to accommodate a pro-homosexuality stance, have struck at the heart of our understanding of our relationship with God. This touches not just how we live our lives day by day but it profoundly alters our view of God. When we substitute our rules of behaviour, our morality, for God’s revelation of Himself we are saying that what we think is paramount, that God has to bow before the bar of our judgement, and thus we effectively overthrow the worship of God in favour of the worship of man.

A church which gives in to the continuous pressure to conform and adapt to the standards of the world in this matter is doing much more than accepting the ordination of any particular individual, it is introducing a type of theology which is alien to the Reformed faith and is denying the place of Scripture as our supreme rule of faith and life. When this occurs the church becomes something other than the church.


[1] David F Wells ‘This Unique Moment’ in God and Man: Perspectives on Christianity in the 20th Centuryed Michael Bauman, Hillsadale College Press, 1995, p33

[2] C Van Til Christian Theistic Ethics Den Dulk Foundation, 1971, p.61

[3] Richard Holloway Anger Sex Doubt & Death SPCK, London, 1992, p.46

[4] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion I.6.1

[5] C Van Til ‘Scripture in the Westminster Confession’ in Jerusalem and Athens ed. E Geehan, Presbyterian & Reformed, 1971, p.166

[6] Jaques Ellul The Subversion of Christianity Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1986, p.70

4 Responses to Christianity Versus Morality

  1. John says:

    Applied anti-semitism has always been part and parcel of right-wing or “conservative” Christian-ism. The numerous pogroms throughout European history were certainly not instigated by progressive Christians.
    Look at the recent incident with the Catholic church and Bishop Williamson – his point of view is quite common in right-wing Catholic circles.
    Conservative Christians have always been more than willing to crack down on “dissenters”, “apostates” and free-thinkers too.

    Re Nazi Germany. Hitler was popular amongst right-wing religionists because he was prepared to do something about the “problem” of the Jews, the “problem” of the socialists/communists/bolsheviks, the “problem” of the gypsies, the bohemians, the “deviants”, the homo-sexuals, the people with disabilities, and even the Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc, etc and so on.
    The bloody applied politics of mass scape-goatism. Of “purifying” the German body-politic of all of its toxic elements and weaknesses.
    Look at the recent horrors associated with Kosovo. Much of the applied horrors were inflamed by the toxic rhetoric of right-wing religious nationalists. On all sides, but in the case of Christians, by the Catholic Croats, and the Orthodox Serbs.

    • Campbell says:

      Perhaps you are confusing ‘right wing’ when used in a political sense and when misapplied in a theological sense. Certainly many Christians of a political view normally termed ‘right wing’ supported Hitler, nevertheless many politically conservative Christians such as Martin Niemoller opposed the Nazis and suffered for it. Crude applications of terms from one area of life to another do little more than muddy the debate. When we consider the situation in Germany in the 20’s and 30’s it was those who were ‘progressive’ in their theology who were wide open to abandoning the Scriptures and the adoption of the German Christian position. It was those who like Barth, had rejected their earlier liberal theological stance, who were able to oppose the German Christians and their anti-Semitism.

      As for the present day opposition to Israel, which in many instances is anti-Semitism thinly disguised as anti-Zionism, this comes mainly from those who would describe themselves as ‘progressive’ Christians, whilst support for the Jews comes mainly from those normally described as conservative or right wing Christians.

  2. Shooter says:

    Interesting ideas, many thanks for sharing these in Christianity Versus Morality | A Grain of Sand.

  3. emmett says:

    Exciting material, many thanks for sharing them in Christianity Versus Morality | A Grain of Sand.

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