Do Evangelicals Have a Moral Podium?

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From Gadfly's Muse:

If we preach the sanctity of marriage then let every man live with the wife of his youth (Mal. 2) and let our witness to the world be one of honoring that institution as holy. If we are indistinguishable from the world in our divorce rates, our adultery, our fornications, then how can we proclaim that political recognition of homosexual marriage threatens "family values"?

The overall post is an excellent argument for Christians to watch the way they describe their views and to serve as a model for reasoned discourse. The reason most people think evangelical Christians are stupid and have idiotic views is because enough of the people who claim to speak for evangelicals on political issues make themselves look stupid and make their views look idiotic, even if they're not. But what's just as important as learning how to speak into the mindset of a culture that shares very little of your underlying convictions, that finds very little of your assumptions plausible, is whether you live what you say.

Some of the reports about this are skewed for not paying attention to the right information. The reason the reports are skewed is because they fail to take into account many people who aren't evangelicals who split up after acting married were never legally married to begin with, and so their statistics don't show up, making the evangelical divorce rate look higher with respect to the general divorce rate than it eeally should be. Even so, evangelicals do have a much higher divorce rate than you would expect from people who supposedly believe that no-fault divorce is almost always immoral. I'm unaware of a similar explanation for why the premarital sex numbers might be higher than would be accurate.

Evangelicals don't tend to live different enough lives when it comes to this sort of thing, at least when you compare it to their convictions. Does this invalidate the Christian gospel? Not at all. It confirms it. Those who are saved are being transformed, but transformation starts somewhere and isn't instantaneous. What it does do, however, is undermine the Christian's call to the world to live morally.

Consider the example of Isaiah. In the sixth chapter of his prophecy, we have an account of his call to the office of prophet. He was in the temple worshiping God, and he had a vision of God's glory, one that immobilized him. When he was asked to go speak to God's people with a message for them, he responded that he was a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips. He identifies with his people. He's not morally responsible for their actions, but their uncleanness from their sin affects him, and he's identified with them in such a way that he isn't fit to speak God's message. God (in the vision) has to purify his lips with a hot coal so that the message can go forth from a vessel such as Isaiah, due to his being part of a people of unclean lips.

Daniel, Ezra, and others have similarly associated with the sins of their people, even when they did not themselves commit the sins. The people would publicly repent of sins not all of them committed. The leaders would repent of the sins of the people when on their watch. Those who simply were members of the people would repent because their people had sinned. I've heard Christians tell me that it's stupid to repent on behalf of others on racial issues. If my ancestors or others who aren't me have done terrible things racially, I'm just not responsible for that. This is a thoroughly unbiblical view. I'm in some sense a part of any group I'm part of, and I bear some of the burden of what they do. I'm a citizen of New York, and my state has elected senators who in most respects don't represent my views. They're still my senators, and as a New Yorker I bear the burden of what those senators do. They do it on behalf of me, and if it's shameful then it shames me. If they do things that honor their job as senators, then it reflects well on those they represent, including those who didn't vote for them.

Now I do think the coal searing the lips has a sort of fulfillment in the work of the Holy Spirit among Christians. I don't think evangelical Christians are, by virtue of any uncleanness within themselves due to being associated with evangelicals, made unfit to speak God's message of good news. The Holy Spirit has purified us. That's spoken of more in the past tense than in the present or future in the New Testament. Yet at the same time I wonder if evangelical Christians as a group have the right to speak into a culture about moral issues when evangelicals as a group display very little difference from that culture when it comes to key moral issues.

I want to note two ways that radical American individualism has not completely abandoned the sense of group respondibility and solidarity. One is in sports. You're supposed to root for the home team. That's almost viewed as a moral responsibility. When the home team loses, it's an embarassment to you. When they win, you're supposed to be proud that your team won. The other revealed itself after 9-11. All of a sudden, pride in being an American was once again a good thing.

I'm not just talking about those who accused people of being unpatriotic for happening to disagree with a policy of an imperfect government, though that involves group solidarity. I'm not just talking about those who support our troops even though they oppose the war, wanting to avoid the disgraceful attitude toward the troops during Vietnam, though that's a kind of solidarity as well. I'm talking about the sense of coming together that almost everyone thought was morally required. They thought Falwell and Robertson's criticisms of American values during that time were inappropriate.

I'm not saying this because I agree with all these ways we should have solidarity. Falwell and Robertson, for instance, were right to say that Americans' rebellion against God was one likely explanation for why 9-11 happened. They were wrong to pick out their favorite pet sins that they don't commit as the reasons God had for judging this country. They thus didn't act in the way Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezra did. The criticism of Falwell and Robertson was wrong, though they should have been critcized on other grounds. Anyway, the reason I'm saying this is to point out that many people do believe this sort of thing in certain contexts. They just seem unwilling to apply it to other contexts, where I think it should be applied. One of those is the unrecognition among people who seek to speak for evangelicalism that evangelicals may not really have the podium from which to speak morally into the general culture.

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From the historical reading I have done, part of the problem could be exactly how "evangelical" is defined. If it is defined historically, then many so-called evangelicals would not be evangelicals at all. I have also know that Barna chooses a rather broad definition for what constitutes an evangelical as well. For example, his polling allows a non-Trinitarian who believes that the Bible has errors, is a univeralist and believes that Jesus wasn't really man to be counted as an evangelical! I do not identify myself as belonging to such a group when I use the word evangelical. When I use it, I use it in the historical sense.

Yet at the same time I wonder if evangelical Christians as a group have the right to speak into a culture about moral issues when evangelicals as a group display very little difference from that culture when it comes to key moral issues.

Thanks for the comment Jeremy

Re your statement: exactly. I am about as pro-active in my vocational theology as any in the Reformed faith. But, contrary to the days of the Puritans, we have so little self-disciplining in our congregations that we have lost much of the moral ground from which to prophetically speak to the general population or to exhort the government.

One thing we might consider. Perhaps the reason why we are losing our influence is because God is not blessing our work for exactly this reason. Perhaps He is not only judging our nation, but the Church within it. A general call for repentance seems to be in order and a wide-spread (metaphorical) donning of sack-cloth and ashes is required.

Sort of along the lines of Matthew, I think part of the problem may be who is considered an evangelical (which ties in with Gadfly's point about church discipline). Anyone who agrees to certain things "is an evangelical" by whatever definition you use. To me, this seems to contrast very strongly with what we see Biblically about true Christians -- Christians do not continue in sin, but rather repent (see James 2 and 1 John, for example). 1 John points out, "We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him", for example. A true Christian (or an evangelical) isn't just someone who agrees to certain theological things, but someone who has been born again, and this results in a changed life.

I think that's the fundamental thing surveys like this are pointing out: Many people who make an external profession of faith probably are not actually Christians, because their so-called "Christianity" is making no difference in how they life.

Granted, there are people who are really Christians who sin severely (David and his adultery, for example). But surveys conflate the two numbers. That is, you have two groups of professing Christians in the church: (1) True Christians who still sin, but increasingly less as they grow in holiness, and (2) those who are Christian in name only, and consequently their Christianity makes no difference in their lives.

I suspect that the reason such surveys find no difference in divorce rates is that group #2 is rather large. And this is connected to Gadfly's point about discipline.

As an aside, it's interesting to note that after David's sin with Bathsheba, he seems to have had a lot harder time dealing appropriately with the sins of others (i.e. those of his own children), probably in part because he lacked the moral authority to do so, having been guilty of such serious sin himself.

Yet at the same time I wonder if evangelical Christians as a group have the right to speak into a culture about moral issues when evangelicals as a group display very little difference from that culture when it comes to key moral issues.

I don't think we do, at least not as it's laid out here, and not without coming off as completely hypocritical. I do think we have a right to speak on the basis of proclaiming the truth on these issues, yet in doing so we should be candid that we are not keepers of such truth corporately or as representative of our faith. Nice post.


Yes, we do have a right. If only perfect people speak out for right, the list of speakers will be quite short (1, I think.)

Still, you make some very good points. "Preach the Gospel wherever you go, even if you have words."

I wasn't wondering if we shouldn't speak out. I obviously think we should, or my blog's purpose would be seriously undermined. What I was asking is if we have a place in society as those who have something to say about moral living. I'm wondering if we've lost ourselves that place as evangelicals, at least in terms of the culture that surrounds evangelism in the United States.

Abednego, the issues you raise have more to do with whether someone is a genuine believer. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about those associated with the general culture of evangelicalism in the U.S., which is clearly seen to be a people of unclean lips in many ways. I don't want to question the salvation of most people who give evangelicalism a bad name, and that's troubling enough as it is in terms of what I'm asking, but the fact that many people in indisputably evangelical churches don't live a lifestyle much different from those in the surrounding culture raises questions about whether we have much of a place at all to speak into the culture as the group called evangelicalism.


That's a good point. I don't think the group of "evangelicals" as a whole seems to have a whole lot of moral ground to stand on to speak out. I actually think this may be one reason why I don't hear much from the evangelical church anymore about sexual morality/immorality aside from gay marriage: The church mostly lets people do as they please about such things (i.e. adultery, divorce) and so it also doesn't speak into society about this.

At the same time, the Bible does speak to moral issues, and I think it's important for this to be made plain. I don't know what the solution is; perhaps it's simply for people to avoid speaking unless they are committed to living according to God's word.

I don't know if I'm right, but sometimes I think that the church is going to fail on the whole gay marriage issue because it has failed to take a stand about divorce. The Bible defines marriage as a permanent union between a man and a woman; now we've lost the "permanent" part and don't seem to be doing too much about it, yet we're making a lot of noise about potentially losing the "a man and a woman" part. I think it looks rather bad to point to gay marriage as threatening family values unless we are willing to say the same, as frequently, and fight as vehemently, about divorce.

I agree with the main substance of that, but I don't agree with the stuff about gay marriage, at least as you put it. The Bible doesn't define the English word 'marriage', which clearly can include gay couples now, linguistically speaking. Otherwise what people have been saying makes no sense. We do understand it. Therefore, the English word can describe a gay couple.

What the Bible says is that marriage as God intended it is between a man and a woman. That thesis has no bearing on the linguistic facts about the English word's meaning, which are settled by empirical study. Empirical study reveals that the word is used in legal documents and in philosophical arguments to refer to certain same-sex couple relationships. Therefore, its meaning can include that.

The issue of whether people who are gay get married is a moral issue, just as the issue of whether gay people sleep together is a moral issue. Pretending it's an issue about what words mean is a distraction from those moral issues, as if all we care about is what that one English word means. I care not a whit about what the word happens to mean in this one language at this one time in the entire history of the world and languages. I care about the moral issues.


I'm not talking about the definition of the word "marriage". I'm saying the same thing you say in your second paragraph: Marriage as God intended is a permanent union between a man and a woman. It's immoral to make it impermanent (hence Jesus' teaching on divorce) and it's immoral to make it a union between two people of the same gender.

Again, I'm not talking about the definition of the word now or whenever. I'm talking about the Biblical view of marriage. God instituted marriage as this certain thing, and because he instituted it, we're not free to change it (and society's definition can't change the underlying morality). So I agree: I don't care at all about the social definition of marriage. I care what God intended it to be (because that's a moral issue).

Also, I guess I would add that I don't think that gay marriage is wrong simply because homosexuality is morally wrong. I think it's wrong also in the same way that divorce is: It violates God's intended order for marriage (a permament union between a man and a woman).

The "moral values" within marriage is more than "sexual" faithfulness. Why then do many preachers and teachers deny that divorce is a human-right based on the morality of God and limit within their teachings a "just-cause" for divorce to sexual sins (some deny any "just-cause" basis for divorce)?
Is this idea justified? This site says NO...
Email is author's....

There's a lot on that site that's suspect. My main hesitation has to do with the very notion that some notion of rights can give this broad-sweeping justification for divorce merely because of one marriage partner's sin. The presumption is always remaining, even in the case of sexual immorality, never mind something less serious. A close look at Paul shows this.

I'm also not very confident of the argument that the word for immorality must include non-sexual immorality. Just because there's another word for sexual immorality doesn't mean Jesus' statements (and Paul's quotations of them) include any sort of immorality at all, whether sexual or not. The strong presumption against divorce that you find throughout these passages and the discussion in Malachi makes it very hard for me to believe that anything but the most serious of unfaithfulnesses in marriage would justify divorce, and this would include some non-sexual matters (e.g. abandonment), but it would need to be unrepentant and hostile to be a clear justification.

The way the site talks about the right to divorce suggests someone can simply decide that a spouse is sinning in some way they don't like and therefore have a just cause divorce. That seems far from the spirit of Paul's discussion.

I went to the site being spoken above to see for myself if what Pierce states about it, is correct.

He couldn't be more wrong. I suggest interested viewers check it out for themselves.

What I read was a very careful study of divorce rights.

Well, I'll have to take a look again when I've got a chance. That was a whole year ago, after all, and I don't remember much about it. I remember going to the site and looking around at some of what was actually being argued there. I suspect what I said at the time was based exactly on what arguments were given there in favor of divorce, but I'm willing to take another look.

I took a look again. I'm not sure anything I said was inaccurate. It indeed speaks of rights to divorce, something I see nowhere in the Bible (since the idea of rights is clearly not in the Bible). It does speak of a fairly broad justification for divorce, including pretty much any kind of sin by the other spouse. I don't see any contextual indication for that in the places that it says there is such a contextual indication. It states over and over that there is such a contextual indication, but I don't see any convincing argument that there is. I still think the general thrust of the site goes against the general thrust of the biblical statements on divorce.

Now if someone wanted to challenge me on this with specific arguments, that would be one thing. But simply calling my comments inaccurate without saying how in any detail and acting as if my representation of the site was wrong without saying how just doesn't cut it.

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