This is the fifth of a series of posts expanding on my Pastoral Letter post based on my sermon from June 28th.
5. We have lost our moral authority. How did we lose it, and how can we regain it?
We could talk cultural apologetics and offer up the most rhetorically excellent, logically flawless arguments imaginable in favor of the gospel message, but few would care to listen long enough to understand what we’re saying, let alone be persuaded by it. They don’t care because, in their minds, our understanding of the fundamental nature of human society is completely defunct in moral authority. They’re not listening.
I’m not saying not to learn how to do evangelism. I’ve spent years of my life learning how to do it. But the reason they’re not listening is that a Christian understanding of human culture is associated with a history of American life and it is understood by many modern people to be totally morally bankrupt.
A moral history
At the end of the Revolutionary War, church attendance grew, because the church was on the side of revolution. People saw them as being on the “right side of history” (see part 3 of this series for more on that).
They don’t care because, in their minds, our understanding of the fundamental nature of human society is completely defunct in moral authority. They’re not listening.
That was not true at the end of the Civil War. Civil War America looked to the church to solve the problem of slavery, and the church couldn’t. It’s true that a vast majority of abolitionists were evangelical Christians, but they could not persuade the Southern slave holders (who also claimed to be evangelical Christians) that they were wrong to hold slaves. Because they couldn’t do that, the nation went to war, and people said, “I don’ know if the church can lead American society.”
After the second World War, there was a huge uptake in the number of American church-goers, because they had seen Hell, and they didn’t want culture to fall apart so much that we would have a second darkness. They went to church, they had families, and they gave birth to the Boomers (the ones who destroyed everything…I’m kidding…mostly).
When the Boomers came of age in the late 1950s and 1960s, they did what every young generation does: they entered their rebellious stage. There was something new about the Boomers’ rebellion, though.
The nature of adolescent rebellion
Every rebellious child carries a certain insecurity with them even as they’re rejecting the way of their elders. Shelby Steele describes this in his book White Guilt, and suggests why our culture shifted so drastically during the Boomer generation:
“The adolescent rebel is always a bit insecure, worrying on some level that his indictment of his parents might be wrong. This was not so with the Baby Boomers.”
Adolescent rebellion usually happens the way Mark Twain described it:
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
Kids normally reject something of their parents, often more for the sake of creating psychological distance than anything else. They go off to do their own thing, all the while with the nagging thought, “Dad’s probably right.” Their turning point comes in realizing that their parents are probably good people, and there’s probably some wisdom in what they say. As they develop, they typically find a way of life that is distinctly theirs, but usually mirrors their parents in many ways.
That’s where the Boomers differed, and that’s where we begin to see questions about moral authority take center stage.
An airtight indictment
As the Civil Rights movement was moving out of segregation and people began to recognize what a great moral evil segregation was, the rebellious Boomers actually had an airtight defense of their rejection of their parents’ moral standards. It was one of the first moments in American history in which the mass indictment of a parental generation was totally justified. And so they not only rebelled, they had no reason to look back.
As the movement gained speed, it moved from rejection of Jim Crow laws and segregation into anti-war protests. It moved from a very clear moral judgment to a more opaque one, but one about which many were still very confident. It then moved to equality for women, which fed the sexual revolution, which some call “the greatest trick men ever played on women.” While there were a ton of great things in feminism, there was also a good portion of it which went terribly wrong, leading to the birth control and abortion revolution, and eventually fueled the divorce revolution, laying a foundation for our current conversations on the nature of marriage, and ultimately the nature of a human being.
This wave of cultural disestablishment started with Boomers who absolutely felt that they had the moral authority to create an entirely new reality because we, the church, didn’t get segregation right.
With this history, we need to understand that we’re not going to gain the most people to Christ through propositional arguments in our evangelism. To warrant the attention of our neighbors, you and I must be virtue giants … and we aren’t.
The cost of moral failure
We have invested far more energy in waging war about marriage than in actually preserving our own marriages.
The pre-boomer generation of Christians lost their moral authority because of their position on segregation. The next generation looked at their parents’ response to segregation with outrage and, in their minds, their parents lost all moral credibility. When moral questions about war, feminism, and sexuality came to the public stage, the voice of pre-Boomers was already disqualified from the public discourse in the mind of younger Americans.
In the area of sexual morality, we have forfeited our moral authority because we don’t own up to the reality of what little difference our stated faith has actually made in our sexual practices. Our rates of promiscuity, pornography, misuse of sexuality within marriage, and divorce are largely indistinguishable from general culture. We have invested far more energy in waging war about marriage than in actually preserving our own marriages.
The right to be heard
To change people’s minds about the church’s moral integrity and therefore to regain a credible voice in our culture, we must produce cognitive dissonance. People need to be able to look at us and say, “I thought they were that, but what I’m seeing is this.”
This is not a new idea. Peter, writing from Rome in a time when Christians were horribly slandered and despised, gave this instruction to persecuted Christians in modern day Turkey:
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
Do you see that? That is cognitive dissonance leading to the acknowledgement that God is great. It might be true that everything they hear about us is slander and malicious fiction. When they actually encounter us in the course of everyday life, though – when they see us up close and personal in their workplaces, neighborhoods and families, they ought to be very confused. They should think, “I thought these people were morally bankrupt, but this one isn’t. This doesn’t add up. What now?” Paul continues:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. (1 Peter 2:12-16)
Romans in the first and second century were widely taught ridiculous untruths about Christians, not least of which that Christians were incestuous cannibals. But Peter’s response was not, “Argue with them!” His response was, “Prove them wrong with your righteousness. Be what you claim to be, what you are called to be as men and women who are called by the name of Christ.”
Apparently, the church in the Roman empire followed Peter’s instruction so well that, by the second century, Justin Martyr could publish a defense of Christianity and say, “We are nothing like those malicious rumors, and you know it, because every time you meet one of us, you see for yourselves that it’s not true.”
They were such moral giants that, no matter how much slander was leveled against them, people knew it was a lie the moment they encountered the Church.
A few paragraphs later, Peter continues:
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1 Peter 3:15-18)
No one is going to accept Jesus because we’re the most “seeker-sensitive” church around. Good coffee, stylish marketing, and professional-grade music aren’t going to bring people to Christ. They will come to Jesus if you and I are moral giants in the name of Christ. That’s it.
We are not, but we can be.
The plain truth is that we, both broadly as American Christians and specifically as Madisonian, High Point Church Christians, are not towers of virtue.
But we can be.
Jesus promised us that his Spirit would be with us eternally, teaching and empowering us for life as his children. He has given us his truth through Scripture to guide us. He has placed us in a community of Spirit-filled people to annoy, inspire, and push us as we seek to live as disciples together. The Bible says that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). We are promised that the one who started a good work in us will carry it to completion (Philippians 1:6). We just have to walk with him in it.
Written with contributions by Hannah
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