It is vital to remember that Jesus’ mission was not to make people moral, but to make people alive.
Throughout church history one of the ways the Church has been distracted from her mission of making disciples has been to focus on morality. Especially in countries where the Church has had significant influence, Christians have viewed themselves as the gatekeepers of morality. I think this has been to the determent of the Church’s mission.
Alexander Campbell (September 12, 1788 – March 4, 1866), one of the founders of the Restoration Movement wrote:
“To compel men destitute of faith to observe any Christian institution…is commanding duty to be performed without faith in God’ and therefore ‘anti-evangelical’ or contrary to the Gospel” (The Political Ethics of Alexander Campbell; p. 46)
It is important to remember that morality doesn’t equal being a disciple. People can live moral lives and remain separated from God. That means the main task of the Church is not to push for a certain standard of morality on the culture, but to make disciples of Jesus in the world.
That does not mean morality does not matter. It matters a great deal, but it is secondary to being a disciple of Jesus. The fact that there has been a dramatic shift in the moral climate in the United States is of great importance.
Popular blogger John Pavlovitz ( I wrote a response to another one of his posts here) wants us believe that there hasn’t been a moral shift in the United States. In his post The Christian Myth of America’s Moral Decay, he wrote:
But the truth is America is not in decline any more than at any time in its history. This is just lazy religious-speak that seeks to paint the picture of everything being terrible so it can name drop the “Last Days” and leverage the ensuing fear such language invariably creates in suggestible God-fearing folk.
While it is true that the United States has experienced a roller coaster ride when it comes to morality, I think it is wrong to say that there has not been a moral decline in the United States.
In our 21st century sensibilities we can look back on history in moral judgment and condemn all sorts of actions and attitudes. To be fair, if people from two hundred years ago could stand in judgment of our culture, they would probably pass many moral judgments on us as well. One such judgment I can see them making is the way we accept debt as a way of life. It is important to note that we are not the peak of moral perfection, so any judgments we make on the past will be tinged with our own preferences and perspectives.
When Christians speak about the moral decline in the United States we are primarily talking about the lower standards people have for their lives, especially in the areas of marriage, family, and relationships . Some of this is easy to track like the decline in marriage rates, the approval rating of out-of-wedlock births, and the increase in drug use. Some of it is anecdotal such as the lack of manners evident in our culture and the feeling we have that crime is getting worse.
Living in a fallen world where sin affects each person means there have always been areas of low moral standards. That is not the issue. The issue is that there was a time in the United States when people married early, had kids, and stayed together for their entire lives. It was an environment where “please” and “thank you” were common courtesies, personal responsibility was taken seriously, and premarital sex was frowned upon. A person could expect that his entire community held to the same moral standards that he did. That is no longer the case.
It is crucial that we understand and acknowledge that there is a decline in the moral framework of the United States. Not because Christians are to be the moral gatekeepers of a 1940s and 1950s morality, but because the the effect this decline has on us . There are two reasons why I think it is crucial to understand the moral decay that has happened in the United States.
- Our nation depends on a common moral standard. In speech he delivered in 1789, John Adams said; “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The Republican form of government the Constitution established depends on people who will live according to the same moral standard. Liberty cannot survive a government that tries to police every area of human life. In other words, as morality continues to decline, we will continue to see a loss in our individual liberty. This is why virtue is an essential part of liberty.
- Christians are to strive for moral excellence. James wrote; “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” (James 1:27; NLT) Part of Christian morality is to take care of the powerless and vulnerable of society. While conservative Christians have been the most generous people, there is much room to improve in this area. The part of what I want to emphasis in this point is the fact that we are to avoid the corruption of the world. Within the last 50 years it was possible to have more or less the same moral values as your neighbor as still follow Jesus. That has now changed. Now it is imperative that we live counter-cultural lives. That is not to say that there are no noble people in the world who are doing good things and who have a great moral standard. The issue are not the outliers, but the accepted moral standard of the majority. This is the standard of morality given to us through television, music, and movies. That is what we need to keep from corrupting us as we follow Jesus.
John is basically right in his conclusion:
American Christians need to stop pretending that the “good ol’ days” were so darn wonderful and that everything’s gone to Hell now. That sunny-in-the-rear-view narrative simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, to History, or to reality, and it cheapens how far we’ve actually come together. It also discounts what God is doing in this place and time that is so very worthy of celebrating.
Remember, the Church was birthed into a time that was much darker than this. It grew in spite of the paganism, sexual immorality, violence, and cheap human life that saturated the culture. As long as there are people of faith, God is going to work and bring light, healing, and love into this world.
This is what he gets wrong:
These are not perfect days, but they are good days.
America is not yet the thing it could be—but that has always been true.
Yes, the world has its darkness but Light is still our default setting.
Light is not our default setting. Sin switched the default mode to darkness. What John fails to appreciate is the impact Christianity has had on Western Culture. The reason he believes that the light is our default setting is because he is the product of a culture that was influenced and infused with the Light. It is the loss of this light that is the cause of the moral decay in the United States.
Even though we have experienced a decay in the moral standard of the United States all is not lost. Remember, our hope has never been about being moral people. Our hope has always been Jesus. My call to the Church caught in the midst of a great moral decline is to follow Jesus. That is the only way to truly bring the Light back to our culture.