“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” – John 4:23
My wife grew up in a rather strict sect of Christianity, what one might call “fundamentalism”. There were all manner of rules and regulations about dress and behavior to which one must adhere. For instance, women were not allowed to wear pants, or make-up, or jewelry, or short hair. In various times and places even wrist watches and the color red were banned.
As the years have gone on this particular sect (which I won’t name) has continually failed to garner new converts. Something about it just doesn’t appeal to the younger set. That’s fine, it is not the place of the church to always appeal to what the world wants – though we certainly have space to “become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22). With no younger members coming in and only the aged in the ranks, as one might imagine, the sect is not far off from disappearing.
Faced with such a decline in numbers the response of churches is generally to lash out while hiding behind “safe haven” scriptures like 2 Tim 4:3 – “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” Now, there is obviously some aspect of 2 Tim 4:3 at work in the world today, but when our first response to any difficulty in spreading the gospel is to declare “this must be the falling away” rather than ask “are we doing everything we can to share the good news” we have a problem. Self-reflection is always important.
The 2012 election saw the rise of state-level ballot initiatives on what have traditionally been seen as morality or “culture war” issues. In Maryland (my home state), Maine, and Washington, same-sex marriage initiatives were passed by popular vote; and in Colorado and Washington ballot measures were used to legalize marijuana. Such measures have led to speculation that Christians have lost the culture war, a topic that the Christian Post takes up here: “Post Election: Are Christians on the Losing Side of the Culture War?”
As you might expect, I have a few thoughts.
First, the history Christendom tells us that the general morality of society is not stationary, nor is it always trending “up” or “down”. We see times of revival and societal trends toward a more decent and moral set of norms. We also see times of decay, trending toward more depravity. There is no need to be convinced in times of improvement that we’ve finally turned a corner, and the world is headed toward fullness of peace and holiness. Likewise there is no need in times of decay to be convinced that this is the end, the final falling away and apostasy. (It may well be – but if it is there is little to be done to fight it.)
Second, I think it is time for self-reflection amongst the Christians. The Father is seeking those who worship Him in spirit and in truth; those who have honest, earnest, true, humble sincerity in seeking after Him.
What I propose is not self-reflection about morality itself, just about the nature and purpose of the law and government. (Caveat: given the on-again-off-again nature of alcohol consumption in church thinking, it is at least reasonable to argue that some discussion should be had on the topic of marijuana … but I think I still come down at the same place.)
The Lord has told us “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching” (John 14:23). He has also told us “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) Got that? If a man loves Jesus he will follow the Lord’s teachings. If a man abides in Christ then he will bear fruit, but apart from Christ we can do nothing. Can we legislate that a man love Jesus? Can we legislate that a man abide in Christ? (“For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law” – Gal 3:21.) Can we, by force and threat of punishment, bring one to the love of the Father? I’ll ask it a different way – if God didn’t use the law to bring us into good standing with Him, if God wanted people to choose Him freely rather than of compulsion, then why should we think we can achieve goodness through legislation?
This does not mean that the definition of “good” should change. Amongst some Christian circles there has been a changing of interpretation of very clear biblical denunciations to allow such things as homosexual acts. Amongst other Christian circles certain sins are “sloughed off” under the “everybody’s doing it” rule. I don’t accept or promote any of these things. Sin is still sin. Right is still right and wrong is wrong. And we do everybody (Christians and non-Christians) a disservice when we “wink at sin” (see Acts 17:30 … KJV).
So then, if we cannot by force of law make people good, and we cannot allow evil in our theology, we are at an impasse – unless we view law and theology as different entities, which is exactly what I argue is the correct path. The law should not be a mechanism to prevent immorality (it can’t, and even if it could it would not produce a true, God-loving morality) but rather a mechanism to prevent violence.
If a man wishes to oppress his neighbor, to violate his neighbor’s free will, to steal, kill, or destroy his neighbor – then the law should serve as collective defense for the rights of the individual. But if a man and his neighbor agree by consent to rebel against God, it is a bridge too far for us to prevent it by force of law. We leave room for the judgment of God.
If a man chooses to have sexual relations with a woman to whom he is not married it should be allowed by law as long as the woman is of the age of consent and can make decisions for herself. Is it moral – absolutely not! But he has not violated her will. If a man chooses to have sex with a man (to whom he is not married by definition) then the law should not prevent it as long as the other man is of the age of consent and can make decisions for himself. Is it moral – absolute not! But it should not be illegal. If a man chooses to smoke marijuana, or if a woman chooses to sell her body, they have not violated the rights and freedoms of their neighbors, and their flagrant immorality should not be illegal.
In fact, I will argue that making these immoral actions illegal takes a bad situation and makes it worse by taking these sinners out from under the protection of the law. Drug abusers and prostitutes often face violence from criminal elements and have no capacity to turn to the police for protection – because they themselves will be incarcerated. (The same is true for those in the country illegally, by the way – another place where I submit our thinking must change; though it’s a slightly different topic.)
Now, the church must never back down from proclaiming the truth and calling men to repentance. And just as I propose we must do away with our “immoral means illegal” ideas, we must also fight against “legal means moral” – it does not!
As for the “culture war” I submit we will always be fighting it. Until the Lord returns men will always be in rebellion against Him, and we will always be called to preach the truth. So talking of “winning” or “losing” a battle that is guaranteed to continue no matter what is a bit off-base. But we would be well served to fight the battle in the right sphere, with our preaching and teaching. By casting it in legal terms we have taken up force to accomplish something that cannot be done by force, and what’s worse we have given credence to the “legal implies moral” mentality – allowing the majority to wrongly believe it can define morality by popular vote.
Time for some self-reflection …