On Moralism

The following is a reaction to a post by Dr. Ray Van Neste on his blog, Oversight of Souls. Read that post first.

I came to Africa to share the gospel with moralists. In reality, I believe that term embodies the worldview of the people here.

These people are a very religious people. They believe in one, almighty God who is in control of everything. They believe in a holy book that tells them how to live. However, this holy book is merely a big list of morals. From cover to cover, it lays out long lists of sins and long lists of noble deeds.

These people live their life trying to do the good things in the book and avoid the bad things. That is the extent of their spiritual existence, following rules. To be moral, as defined by their holy book, is the ultimate aim of their religion.

However, it must be said that you do not have to cross an ocean to find someone with this worldview. As a matter of fact, they may be sitting on your pew next Sunday.

In a recent post on his blog, Dr. Ray Van Neste engaged the idea of moralism as it relates to the Bible. He used an excerpt from the writings of Bruno Bettelheim to illustrate what he called a “sadly common misconception about the Bible,” namely the viewpoint that the Bible is nothing more than a collection of behavioral demands. In that same breath, Van Neste points out that this is not simply a misconception by the unbelieving world outside the walls of the church. He stakes the claim that this poor understanding of the Bible is alive and well inside the church.

I am inclined to agree with him. Let me tell you why.

I wish I could say it only happened once, but unfortunately it would not be true. During my time leading the college ministry at my church, there were certain conversations I caught myself having over and over again. One of those was the concerned parent conversation.

It went like this. A parent of a child in their first year or so of college would approach me. Frequently, they did not even attend our church; they just knew I worked with college students. Inevitably, they would be concerned about the moral state of their child. He or she had went off to school, and, through various channels, the parents were seeing or hearing about behavior out of their child that was troubling them. Perhaps it was a recent album of pictures on Facebook or news from the parents of a friend. Whatever the case, the student seemed to be living a life that was contrary to the way they were raised.

In most instances, the parents were scared their children were becoming “bad people” and wondered how that could happen. After all, these children had grown up attending church. They knew right from wrong. They had been given the list of acceptable morals.

Unfortunately, in so many cases today, that list of morals is all our youth (and adults for that matter) are receiving. They sit week after week in youth services hearing the dos and don’ts of Christianity. More importantly, in the home, children are often taught how to act like a Christian but not really what it means to be a Christian.

In these instances, the Bible has become nothing more than a moral code. Sure, salvation by grace is still mentioned, gospel catchphrases are still used, and there is still talk about the importance of the cross. But in practice, the majority of real teaching is centered on making people into “good Christians.” We train people to go through the motions of walking an aisle and saying a magic prayer (which are now the beginning steps of this moral code and in reality are not salvific in themselves) and then Christianity is boiled down to living a good life.

This is a dangerous road. Ironically enough, when we focus only on the moral-giving aspects of God’s word, to the exclusion of the Bible’s central message of the gospel, then we run the greatest risk of losing our morals. We start focusing on making good people instead of making godly people.

This subtle shift towards moralism completely strips the Bible of its real power. God’s word is far, far more than a moral code. Indeed good portions of scripture are dedicated to God’s demands for a righteous lifestyle, but the power to live this kind of life comes from the central message, the person and work of Christ. However, only highlighting the dos and don’ts treats the Bible like a donut and punches the center right out of it. You are left with fluffy moralism that has no center.

Many churches weaned a generation on this “because the Bible says so” moralism, and that does not hold up in the world. Kids leave for college with their list of things they know not to do, but they leave with little understanding of why they should not do them. With that kind of grounding, it takes very little to persuade them.

If you remove the gospel message from the central place in the Christian story, then you do not produce Christians, and you do not grow the church. People are not equipped to weather the storms of life circumstances or even public opinion. Instead, at best, they are left with a hollow sense of duty to follow a list of rules.

A list of rules will never satisfy man’s greatest need.

If you would like to read more, the following posts discuss similar dilemmas within the church:

 

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