Dare to Be Immoral

If you only knew Christians from television, why would you want to become one? You have only a few kinds of media role models, none of them appealing. You could be a goody-two-shoes rube, most likely from the Midwest or South, like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons or Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock. You could be a judgmental hypocrite like Angela Martin from The Office and take only the Bible and The Purpose-Driven Life with you on a desert island but sleep around with your coworkers. Or you could be a deranged serial killer. As Gene Veith observes, you can usually identify the culprit in a suspenseful TV drama when you find the most religious character.

Our journalistic sensibilities don’t exactly help matters. It’s not news when Christians serve soup to the homeless. But it’s always news when a church leader misappropriates benevolent funds for selfish gain. The world resents our moral standards and gloats over our failings. Somehow we’ve perpetuated the myth that what sets evangelicals apart is our moral superiority rather than an acute sense of our moral inability.

“Evangelicals’ distinctive moral outlook, inherited from their fundamentalist forebearers, is dark and somewhat puritanical (or Victorian),” write public policy experts Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of the influential study American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. “[Evangelicals] share a view of the world as sinful and of God as a harsh judge. For them, heaven, hell, and judgment day are realities, not metaphors, and moral issues are framed in absolute, black-and-white terms.”

The only problem with this summary is that I doubt Putnam and Campbell could find any evangelicals who would describe their faith this way. Whose testimony says, “I was looking for an unflinching moral standard, and I found it in the harsh Christian God”? Even so, evidence suggests that Putnam and Campbell accurately describe how outsiders at least have viewed evangelicals at least since the tumultuous social revolutions of the 1960s and probably before. Statistics analyzed by Putnam and Campbell lead us to believe that the 1960s unleashed a counter-revolution of concern about declining moral standards. And many of these concerned citizens found their way to evangelical churches in the 1970s and 1980s. Somehow we failed to convince the watching world, maybe even ourselves at times, that the church only accepts immoral sinners who confess their need for a Savior.

No Going Back

In the days ahead, however, you won’t need to convince anyone of your immorality. You will be judged and found woefully wanting. No longer suspected of faux moral superiority, you will be accused of real moral inferiority. The revolution recounted by Putnam and Campbell has come full circle. Rather than Victorian prudes, evangelicals will be likened to Jim Crow segregationists. The presenting issue might be homosexuality, given rapidly changing public opinion. Already you can see how the mechanics of power and influence have turned the allegedly judgmental into the actually judged. Never discount the human ability to justify ourselves. We judge one another as immoral for not recycling. For not buying organic. For voting against the anointed candidate. For sending our children to the wrong schools. For eating the wrong fast food. For buying the wrong shoes.

The backlash against immoral evangelicals will sting all the more because we bear much blame for the pattern of retribution. We wielded “majority rules” politics to try and roll back the excesses of the 1960s when the “Silent Majority” backed Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. And when that effort failed, the “Moral Majority” resurrected to bolster Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Even while winning our share of political battles, we lost the culture, so now we can’t even win the political battles. There is no going back. There is nothing left to recover. There is no majority to recover it anyway. There must be a better way.

Indeed, there is. Our situation does not differ altogether from the challenge endured by early Christians in the Roman Empire. By the standards of state religion, deemed essential to secure divine favor and battlefield victories, Christians were regarded as sacrilegious. ”[T]o many Romans, including some of society’s most influential citizens, Christians practiced an impious religion whose way of life was seditious and subversive of the commonweal,” Robert Louis Wilken writes in The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. So emperors, including the infamous Decius in AD 250, imposed mandatory pagan sacrifices designed to divide and conquer the small but growing Christian community. Though many Christians succumbed to the persecution—whether by death or by capitulation—the church grew in stature and number. 

Put to Shame

We face nothing approaching these threats. Yet we marvel at these resilient believers, memorialized in the remarkable testimony of martyrs such as Cyprian of Carthage. Do we not worship the same God? Do we not read the same Scriptures? Do we not follow the same Jesus? Remember, Jesus was not faulted for his holiness. The Pharisees, accusing him of immorality, asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered his would-be judges, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. . . . For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:11-13).

We are not the moral majority. We are sick sinners. But neither can we remain silent. We shout good news about a Savior who wants more than morality from us. We do not shy away from the political process when we can enact and enforce laws that will serve the common good. Indeed, we seek common ground even with political opponents. But we do not argue on the basis of our numerical or moral superiority. We tread carefully knowing how sin inclines all of us to judgment and self-righteousness, whatever our politics. We all have blind spots. So neither lament nor activism ever outpaces our gratefulness for grace. Along with the apostle Paul, we say,

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:12-16)

These are your marching orders: lean on the “perfect patience” of Jesus so that through your example many might “believe in him for eternal life.” Dare to be immoral in society’s eyes for the sake of the kingdom. And return kindness for insults, “so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:16).

  • http://theoldadam.com/ theoldadam


    Reminds me of Luther’s letter to Melancthon about “sinning boldly”.

    “But believe in Christ more boldly still.”

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  • Jesse

    Definitely not… but then again, I know Christians in real life that make me not want to be a Christian either.

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornell

    While I agree with the primary point here, the tension of what we face is this:

    “We do not shy away from the political process when we can enact and enforce laws that will serve the common good. Indeed, we seek common ground even with political opponents. But we do not argue on the basis of our numerical or moral superiority.”

    To arrive at laws serving the common good requires dialogue tempered by true tolerance. But if some of those at the table insist on twisting tolerance into a belligerent form of intolerance, we won’t be able to discuss moral issues — unless it is on their terms. The true virtue of tolerance is about treating others with respect when you disagree with them. The liberal attitude has increasingly become intolerant of anyone who dares to disagree. We should be suspect of those who demand affirmation of their values. Telling people that they’re not permitted to disagree is coercion, not tolerance.

    It’s almost ironic, for example, how the intolerance and bigotry that were once wrongly shown toward people who chose a gay lifestyle are now aimed at anyone who dares to question homosexual behavior.

    The hateful name-calling and condescending slurs aimed at anyone who opposes gay marriage is a violation of the kind of civil and rational debate we need. This kind of divisive social manipulation should be rejected no matter the issue.

    Have you noticed that even if you respectfully oppose gay marriage, you’re accused of having irrational phobias? You’re labeled a hate-monger and a bigot. You’re actually accused of discrimination as if you were opposing race or gender. Why would people support this kind of schoolyard bullying? Why have liberals acquiesced to a militant agenda that has given them a bad name?

    I don’t view homosexuality as the only or primary social issue of our times. But I firmly oppose the judicial coercion and social manipulation used to promote gay marriage. I think we should all be able to agree that these methods will hurt us. Personally, I have absolutely no hate for or fear of homosexuals. But projecting hate or fear on someone for opposing the morality of homosexual behavior is the problem.

    Let’s at least agree on this.

  • http://www.chriscastaldo.com Chris Castaldo

    “Rather than Victorian prudes, evangelicals will be likened to Jim Crow segregationists.” That is a keen insight. Unfortunately, it rings true.

    • http://iamunbound.org Aaron Youngren

      Already a reality for most folks here in Chicago.

  • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

    The difficulty today is not only is the world justifying sin (which it has always done) but now it is defining compassion, morality and goodness in ways that make Christians sound unloving, immoral and wrong. They’ve combined the sin of the immoral with the self-righteousness of the Pharisees.

  • http://marlinharris.wordpress.com/ Marlin J Harris

    Thank you for sharing this. I love this … lean on the “perfect patience” of Jesus so that through your example many might “believe in him for eternal life.” Dare to be immoral in society’s eyes for the sake of the kingdom. And return kindness for insults, “so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:16). AMEN!!

  • Kenton

    I think there are a number of problems when it comes to perceptions of Christianity, both our own and those of the world.

    1) When we encourage Christians in holiness, and exercise church discipline when there is evidence of habitual sin without repentance, the world sees self-righteousness. Because it doesn’t understand sanctification.

    2) I know it’s done out of humility, but it isn’t helpful to a sin-loving world to describe ourselves as sinners. Before you throw stones, Paul never describes Christians as sinners. That’s what we once were, without God and without hope. But God saved us and washed us and sanctified us. Our biblical means of humility is never a continual description of the Christian as a “sick sinner”. No. By his wounds we have been healed of our sins. You don’t convince a sick patient to submit to the doctor by describing yourself as sick. No. You say that he healed you! And so it is with us. Yes, we still sin and are imperfect, but we are not sinners any longer. We have been healed and set free from sin. Otherwise what is regeneration? And the obligation of holiness is on those who have been cleansed and purchased for God. Without God, all we are are sinners. But by the grace of God, we are no longer sinners but saints and sons of God in Christ, who live for God through the Spirit.

    3) I believe that there is a misplaced sense of obligation in shaping and dictating the culture. Why is it that we expend so much effort in trying to dictate laws when not one Christian for at least a century after Jesus’ resurrection did this? Was it simply because Christians weren’t in power? Is that what our calling is, to take the reigns of power and institute the kingdom of God on earth? Or is it to convince the world to adopt our moral system “for the common good”? It’s no wonder that the world views Christians as trying to preserve a “Moral Majority”: that’s exactly what evangelicals are trying to do.

    There is no New Testament verse that encourages or commands Christians to enforce laws “for the common good”. Not one. We are commanded to give an answer for what we believe, to do good to all, to preach the gospel, to win others over by our conduct, to be faithful witnesses in front of leaders and governments and neighbors and citizens. But never to enforce Christian morality, even if it leads to the common good. Because then what are we saying? That being a good moral person is the solution to our problems. And that’s not even getting into the fact that most people don’t think in philosophically republican terms of the common good.

    When Greco-Roman society was rife with idolatry and sexual immorality, Christians didn’t take control of the Senate to enact and enforce their moral laws “for the common good”, not even when there were some in Caesar’s own household who believed! And it wasn’t because they didn’t have access to power. They preached the gospel, behaved honorably and peaceably toward all, and separated themselves from the sinful practices and activities of the world. Yes, we live in a democratic world, and yes, we have political rights, but that does not mean that our task is to use politics to enforce God’s law or to change the culture. How can we do that anyway? What, we make sinners do what the righteous do? Are we then no different than legalists? Or what if we make the country submit to a Christian/small “r” republican understanding of the common good and society? Will that make it easier or harder to actually preach the gospel of Christ’s kingdom?

    • Patrick

      great comment! I’ve never thought of it this way, but you put how I feel into words I couldn’t! I feel the same way. I’d like to see more conversations in this realm.

    • http://iamunbound.org Aaron Youngren

      Kenton, regarding #2, I’m not sure how Paul could be more plainspoken:

      The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. – 1 Timothy 1:15.

    • Jontavius

      Agree completely. Great job on articulating the thoughts directly from my head. lol

  • Kenton

    On another topic, since it’s been mentioned in almost every TGC related blog post about Christians and Society (whether it’s abortion or gay marriage or religious freedom), the appeal to the common good in trying to win a culture war seems to be one of the blind spots of the more prominent evangelical voices. The reason why I say this is because the notion of the common good presented by evangelical leaders is one that is quite philosophical/rational. While neither philosophy nor rationalism are wrong per se, the evangelical argument about the common good makes some very philosophical assumptions about individuals in society:

    1) Individuals are abstract rational beings
    2) Individuals are subordinate to society abstractly defined
    3) Society exists as an [almost] autonomous entity
    4) Society exists for its own health and preservation
    5) American society is premised on the preservation of traditional social norms and behaviors (which seems to be the evangelical “common good”)

    The problem is two-fold. First, what is the “common good”? Is it the objective good that is common to all? Or is it the good that is collectively desired by all? In fact if I recall, the common good is very much defined by the society, that is, it isn’t entirely objective (besides basic things like health, life, peace, etc.) To put it simply, arguing for the “common good” as an objectively defined thing is counter-intuitive, because for a good to be common, it has to be perceived as such by the common person. Hence, what you define as the common good with regard to marriage and the family is not actually common if an increasingly large percentage of the American population considers an “expanded” definition of the family to be equally good. The term I think better fits is “virtue” which is connected to “happiness”, which is connected to “telos”. This seems to be the more accurate concept evangelical voices are getting at.

    The second problem is that Americans don’t think in such philosophical terms. So who are evangelical leaders trying to win over by relying on philosophy? We aren’t a philosophical society, we are a democratic society, premised on individual choice and equity. So you’re making the wrong arguments. And how would you make an argument against something like gay marriage from a democratic rather than philosophical standpoint? It’s kinda hard to unless you can actually demonstrate that not only gay marriage but homosexual behavior and lifestyle are in fact harmful to society. And lets not go down that rabbit hole, because the cultural acceptance of homosexuality is not the cause, but the product of society and culture. So you can’t argue that this lifestyle is harmful to its own culture. Now it’s as harmful as any lifestyle that shuns God, but I highly doubt that it can be proven that it’s harmful in the same way that drugs or crime is harmful (after all, its acceptance is the product of moral relativism and hedonism). And because of that, not to be fatalistic, but there’s no real argument that can be made against it outside of a purely biblical argument that is premised not on “natural law”, but on the sovereign authority of God who judges all. And that’s just preaching the gospel, not politics.

    What confronts us is not a culture war but a clash of moralities and worldviews. And our obligation as Christians is not to overcome the clash, or to impose our worldview (whether through philosophy or theology), but to endure the clash and be faithful in the midst of it. Again, our example is that of the apostles. They didn’t concern themselves with overcoming Greco-Roman society by convincing the Greco-Roman world’s leaders that their actions were against the common good. They preached the gospel to individuals, and lived distinctly. That’s it. That’s what we do. Because we aren’t called to win wars. We’re called to snatch souls out of the fire.

    • JohnM

      It took me a time or two reading your “second problem” to figure out your point there, but I think I do. I think an argument can be made outside a purely biblical argument, albiet to no more effect, than a purely biblical argument. The thing to remember is that a thing – in this case homosexual behavior – is not wrong because the bible says so, rather the bible says so because it is wrong. In the case of homosexuality the wrongness of it really is self evident, so much so I really believe homosexuals themselves know it inside, whatever they may have convinced themselves of on a surface level. It is an exercise in silliness to even argue the issue. However, I suppose that still involves a sort of philosophical point, and is tilting at wind mills in a culture hell bent (pun intended) on the moral relativism and hedonism you mentioned. Let the cultural trends play out and live without fear of them, knowing God has the last word.

      “They preached the gospel to individuals, and lived distinctly. That’s it. That’s what we do.” That is a true statement. It is not the mission of the church to make non-Christians behave as if they were Christians. At the same time we must remember that preaching the gospel includes preaching the reality of sin to those who have ears to hear. We also need to give more thought within our own ranks to what living distinctly entails and place as much emphasis on that as did the apostles.

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornell

    Kenton and JohnM,

    The problem with a good bit of this discussion is that the role of Christians in a representative form of democracy has no explicit parallels in Scripture. What does responsible citizenship look like for Christians when they are responsible before God and man to be part of “We the people….”?

    Of course, Biblical truths and principles about government reach God’s people in all places with both binding authority and overlapping application (Daniel 4; Acts 17:26-27;Romans 13:1ff; I Peter 2:13-14). We can look to the prophets and learn much about God’s concern for justice and protection of the vulnerable. In Jesus, we find teaching on non-resistance as a personal ethic for His followers (although, we should not make the mistake of the pacifist and force applications of this on how the followers of Jesus function in government — particularly in law enforcement).

    Yet, once again, none of this Biblical instruction was delivered to people who lived in democratic forms of government.

    So what does responsible citizenship look like for Christians when they are called to be a voice at the table as a matter of responsible citizenship? Does non-participation (from believers) equal disobedience? More importantly, what does Christian participation look like in attitude, posture, voice, and overall influence?

    This is part of what makes Kenton’s last paragraph problematic. If we say, “our obligation as Christians is not to overcome the clash, or to impose our worldview (whether through philosophy or theology), but to endure the clash and be faithful in the midst of it” we are speaking as if we are living in the same political situation as the apostles. We’re not. And that’s an important point to keep in mind. It’s also what makes our function more complicated as we navigate the course of participation in law and policy formation.

    Kenton, with due respect, we cannot draw a direct parallel from the NT to our circumstances as you did in saying, “They didn’t concern themselves with overcoming Greco-Roman society by convincing the Greco-Roman world’s leaders that their actions were against the common good.”

    We don’t need to fall for the terminology “winning wars” as a fitting depiction of responsible Christian engagement in a representative form of democracy.

    • JohnM

      I think we would take what the apostles did as apostles, extend that to what the church as the church is to do, and make some distinction between that role and what the individual believer is to do as a citizen. I will stand by my statement that it is not the mission of the church to make non-Christians behave as if they were Christians.

      On the other hand governments do have a God given responsibility with regards to the behavior of citizens (See Romans 13:4 – but you knew that) and the form of governement makes no difference to that responsibility. To the extent the citizen has a role in government the citizen shares in that responsibility. The Christian citizen has no more or no less responsibility, and authority, than any other citizen. You would expect the Christian citizen to be rather better informed as to what actually constitutes good and what is evil, and you would expect that to make a difference to such input into government as the Christian is able to make.

      Just a couple things to remember though: 1. Christians can live as Christians with or without democracy. I very much prefer it, but scripture doesn’t demand it, or give me reason to think a voice in government is an absolute right 2. In a representative democracy, especially a large, complex one like ours, it is not precisley accurate to say the the citizens are the government. The ordinary citizen has a responsibility, but a limited one.

      • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornell


        I am not sure about the value of the statement, “it is not the mission of the church to make non-Christians behave as if they were Christians.” This seems like it could be a bit of a straw man in that I am not sure who would ever frame political engagement as trying “to make non-Christians behave as if they were Christians.” On the other hand, if the concern is that we will think it our goal to turn American into a Christian nation, I agree that this is not our mission. In my public and political engagement I try to avoid using the Bible even if I am commending a Christian standard.

        I appreciated how Mark Coppenger (professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) summarized Christian engagement: “As we make our case for liberty, we need to show our logic, expose the illogicality of our foes, link arms with co-belligerents, exhibit dignity in the face of indignities, and make it very clear that there are limits to our flexibility.”

        But it’s helpful to remember that, ”Politics is a field in which the consequences of culture play out; it is not the field in which the culture itself is formed.” (David Bahnsen)

        You might find this interesting: Christians and Government: 12 points for reflection, http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/christians-and-government-12-points-for-reflection/

        • JohnM

          First, ket me say yes, the link is interesting and worthwhile reading.

          Now, not to belabor the point, but in the history of the church political engagement, within a democracy or otherwise, has at times very much amounted to just what I describe in my statement. That those making the effort wouldn’t express their intentions in quite the same words I used doesn’t make the statement a straw man.

          Of course it helps if we agree on what we mean by “political engagement”.

        • Kenton

          Thanks for the link. I’d like to analyze some of these statements against Scripture, if that’s alright.

          5. It is both politically and theologically imperative to assert that totalitarianism promulgates a doctrine that is incompatible with a Christian understanding of humanity and historical destiny.

          Totalitarianism and its various cousins (notably emperor worship) have been around forever. How did God’s people respond in the past, and how are we to respond today? What is the imperative? Did the early church do more than just preach the gospel of Christ’s lordship?

          6. Democratic government is limited government. It is limited in the claims it makes and in the power it seeks to exercise. Democratic government understands itself to be accountable to values and to truths which transcend any regime or party.

          If I recall, democratic government understands itself to be accountable to the values and will of the people, not to transcendent truth. It is this fundamental aspect of democracy that makes the discussion about the “common good” and defending conservative truths rather silly. Liberal democracy is premised on human choice (with exception to clear physical and emotional harm). Anything else that could be perceived as a negative influence on society is excluded. Otherwise, why don’t we also advocate laws that ban all drugs, premarital sex, clubs, etc.? Because that would be ridiculous, and despite what you may think, it would be undemocratic and imposing Christian morality (no matter how truthful and beneficial). And it would prevent any reception of the gospel.

          7. Limited government means that a clear distinction is made between the state and the society. The state is not the whole of the society, but is one important actor in the society. Other institutions—notably the family, the church, educational, economic, and cultural enterprises—are at least equally important actors in the society.

          Limited government has no bearing on other institutions. It means that the government is not the absolute sovereign over the people. They retain a broad range of rights and liberties. It does not mean that other institutions are responsible for the governance and administration of all aspects of society not governed by the state.

          9. Everything short of the consummation of the rule of Christ is unsatisfactory.

          In what way? Certainly we shouldn’t place our hope in existing governments, nor should we expend all of our effort into creating utopia on earth. Neither should we view the consummation of Christ’s rule as our work to complete.

          10. Democratic governance is based upon a morality of respect and fairness for all. It is responsive to the diverse moral judgments and meanings affirmed by individuals and institutions within society. It not only tolerates but rigorously protects those spheres within which people find meaning for their lives and share that meaning with others. Most importantly, democratic government does not seek to control or restrict the sphere of religion in which people affirm, exercise, and share their ultimate beliefs about the world and their place in it.

          If this is the case, then the arguments against gay marriage are entirely invalid. Abortion is another case, but if this holds, then lifestyle choices are off the table. Politics has no place in dictating such, unless there is clear physical or emotional harm.

          11. Human rights are not established by the state. The state is bound to acknowledge and respect those rights which have their source in the transcendent dignity of the human person created by God.

          Human rights are a tricky issue. Though everyone will affirm that human rights are intrinsic, what exactly do those rights entail? Ultimately, human rights are defined by humans. Read over the UNDHR (United Nations Declaration of Human Rights). Most of those rights are really civil, derived not from a sense of divine image, but from Western perspectives of what constitutes dignity and happiness. As the Deists were eager to affirm, the right to life, liberty, and property were the chief of those rights (with the right to work being added by the UN). These are man-made rights, not divine. There are only divine obligations, not rights (look throughout Scripture, there is no right to live, only a prohibition against killing and an obligation to give aid to those who are sick, weak, poor, etc.).

          12. Those of us who are blessed to live under relatively democratic governments are stewards of a possibility that is to be preserved for the whole world. Democracy is not an achievement secured but an experiment to be advanced. It is both gift and task. In helping to sustain the democratic experiment, the churches act not only in their own interest but in the interest of humankind.

          The church never received a commission to support or oppose governments. Democracy is neither divinely sanctioned nor eternally promised. Remember that God reigns over a kingdom. We are fortunate to live in democratic societies, but it is no privilege. Our task is not to promote liberal democracy, but to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom of God.

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  • http://patheos.com/thoughtlife Owen

    “Whose testimony says, “I was looking for an unflinching moral standard, and I found it in the harsh Christian God”?”

    Line of the week. I’ll take my unfair stereotypes skewered, thank you very much.

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