The church faces challenges in every age and in every place. They arise from outside and inside, from rulers and from the people. Some strike a sudden blow and others develop slowly. In the moment, it is hard to tell which threats are superficial and ephemeral and which are profound and enduring. What we think is our greatest challenge may turn out to have been a passing fad and an issue we hardly noticed may prove to have been an existential threat. Only with historical hindsight can we discern with any clarity the difference between the two. But we live now, and have no choice but to use the wisdom we have to deal with the challenges we face.
What are the challenges confronting us today and which one is the greatest? Perhaps there is more than one answer to this question. The church exists throughout the world, and circumstances differ greatly from place to place. The greatest challenge for the church in Nigeria may not be the most pressing problem for the church in Russia or Iran or Canada. I cannot answer for my brothers and sisters living in Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and South America. I live in the United States of America, and since I live in the State of California it is even somewhat venturesome to speak as an American Christian. For the church in the United States is quite diverse. Even the city of Los Angeles is dizzyingly multicultural. Nevertheless, I would like to share my perspective.
Separating Religion and Personal Morality
Contemporary American culture separates religion (or spirituality) from personal morality, and contemporary Christians seem to be assimilating to that separation at a rapid pace. In my view, this move is one of the most serious doctrinal errors, even heresies, of our time. It is not unusual to hear people express warm personal piety, talk about the love of God and the grace of the Holy Spirit, celebrate Advent and Easter, and speak about the resurrection and eternal life but find it impossible to utter words condemning personal sins having to do with sexual promiscuity, jealously, greed, cursing, selfish ambition, filthy language, litigiousness, adultery, abortion, divorce, factionalism, envy, malice, lying, drunkenness, and many more (See 1 Cor 6:7-20; Rom 1:18-32; Gal 5:19-21; Col 3:5-11). The list of texts of Scripture that churches are embarrassed to read in the public assembly grows yearly. Why am I so concerned about this? Why is this my number one heresy? To answer these questions I need to remind you of something the church used to know but has forgotten.
Ethical Monotheism and Idolatry
The religion of the Old Testament is often called “ethical monotheism.” In stark contrast to the Canaanite and other religions contemporary with ancient Israel, the prophets of Israel taught that there is only one God and that God is perfectly righteous, having no evil impulses. Israel’s God demanded that his people practice personal holiness, justice, and mercy as a religious duty. But Israel always lived on the edge of reversion to idolatry and pagan indulgence. The classic example of this defection is found in Exodus 32:2-6 (See also 1 Cor 10:1-6):
“He [Aaron] took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.”
The union of personal morality and religious practice became central to the faith of Israel and the Judaism contemporary with Jesus and so passed into Christianity. The New Testament’s critique of idolatry is nearly always at the same time a critique of the idolatrous separation between personal morality and religion. The first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans is an excellent example of the connection between pagan idolatry and immorality: The pagans, says Paul, “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (Rom 1:23-24).
The pagan impulse to separate religion from personal morality is strong and ever present for the simple reason that, like water poured out, human beings always look for the easiest path and the broadest way. Self-indulgence is the natural ethics and idolatry is the natural religion of every human being. The advantage of idolatry is that we get to “have our cake and eat it too.” We can entice the supernatural powers to work for us at the bargain price of a few sacrifices and prayers while we pursue our bodily lusts and worldly ambitions. Idols do not care how we live our personal lives. They are lenient and indulgent and want us to be happy in our own way. After all, idols are imaginary gods we create in our own image.
Contemporary culture worships the idol of the autonomous Self, which must be given maximum freedom to pursue happiness in its own unique way and create its own authentic identity. Any attempt to impose on this self a moral code such as the one found in the New Testament is an outrageous sacrilege. Modern culture does not object to the idea of god as long as it is not the God of the Old or New Testament, the God for whom personal morality is a religious duty, the God who cares with whom you have sex, how you spend your money, what you think, and how you talk.
The Idol in the Cathedral
In my view, then, the church faces a stark choice with profound consequences. Will it remain faithful to the biblical view of God in which religion and personal morality are inextricably bound together or will it replace God with a pagan idol whose sole function is to sanctify our self-indulgent pursuit of pleasure?
To be continued…
I am excited to see where this series goes, Dr. Highfield! Something that I find important in my experience is to robustly ground morality in Kingdom living without becoming moralism. Recognition of the Kingdom enables Christ-like living in its proper order, equipped with the wisdom to navigate one’s life and unique circumstances according to the principles Jesus taught. Christian living is an outgrowth of setting one’s heart on the Kingdom of God – not the goal in itself. Otherwise, one may end up with moralism.
I don’t know exactly where I am going with this. But I sense that there is a hidden theological dimension to the contemporary changes in personal morality. i don’t believe that it’s simply a discovery of grace and a rejection of judgmental attitudes. I want to think more about the connection between affirmation of the deity of the God and Father of Jesus Christ and personal conscientiousness with respect to morality.
It’s good to hear you and to be with you again.
Two things spring forth here:
One hit me the other day when i was at a meeting in church with a clergy friend. And it concerned me greatly that there are some fundamental issues (deep-set misconceptions) about the nature of sin and evil. Can’t go into precise detail, but we centred around the concept of Divine Free Will leading to the human concept of free will, supposedley understood from a perspective of lucifer’s fall from grace. As you may recall, i’m not a preacher of reformed theology, but Total Depravity uses the precept of free will in it’s rhetoric, and i agree. Allbeit from the side of bondage to sin, and our redemption from it, in Jesus Christ alone.
Secondly, you remind me particularly of Bishop Ryle’s chapter on ” Almost a Christian” where he completely lays into what you are talking about Ron. So called sunday christians… (that is to say, those who can compartmentalize, their faith, aparently?). For me however, we need also to clarify the potential dichotemy between what James and Paul ‘seem’ to say in opposition. That is ” faith without works is dead” and ” by grace through faith ye are saved, and not by works” etc. “Showing” our real love through faith has to be an ” all in” thing. Letting our ” Yeh be ye, and our ney be no”.
There is something very special when at first, through grace, our faith (and spirit) makes us aware of that divine peace and joy present only in Christ; a loving truth if you will, that dispels all evil, and exposes all lies, and the father of lies…
Happy Christmas, and may the Lord bring us all His peace and His joy.