Modernity, Evangelicalism and Moral Relativism

The reason that so many conservative evangelicals these days appear to be moral relativists is that they *are* moral relativists. They would deny this, of course. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Here’s why. 

They’ve bought into the premise that all statements are either fact or opinion: facts are objective and verifiable; and everything else is opinion—subjective and unverifiable. In other words, they’ve bought into full-fledged modernism. From there, the secular path to moral relativism places all moral statements in the “opinion” category. On this view, morality is subjective—dependent on cultural context, historical background and the like.

Conservative evangelicals recoil from this approach, as they should. So instead, they place morality in the “fact” category, claiming that moral truth is objective and empirically verifiable. And how is moral truth empirically verified? The Bible, of course. Problem solved. This is tempting, for two reasons. First, Scripture is entirely true; and much of that truth pertains to morality.

Second, apart from special revelation, it’s difficult to imagine where we might go to find empirical verification of moral truth—you can’t *see* moral properties. But perspicuity of the Gospel notwithstanding, Scripture is complex. A surface level reading of this or that proof-text might be used to justify all manner of wickedness—and it has, from slavery and Holy War to the subjugation of women and segregation. So if we look to Scripture for empirical verification of moral truth, whose understanding of Scripture is definitive? Do we trust the guy who says that Scripture condones chattel slavery, or the guy who says that Scripture commands us to seek justice for the oppressed? 

An alarming number of evangelicals have chosen to trust the discernment of ambitious men who offer Biblical proof-texts bathed in who-is-my-neighbor hermeneutics: political realism and moral relativism with a veneer of objective truth. Thus, e.g., conservative Southern Baptists claim to embrace objective morality based in Scripture, within a theological framework that has engendered totally contrary beliefs over time on such issues of moral salience as slavery, Jim Crow and racial segregation. The arc of that moral evolution wasn’t drawn by objective truth or the Word of God, neither of which is subject to change. Whether through armed conflict or threat of taxation, many in the evangelical fold had to be forced into the embrace of moral progress. How is it that people so dedicated to moral truth are so often among the last to acknowledge the moral outrages of an unjust social order? And if moral truth is unchanging, why are evangelicals constantly amending their moral convictions from one decade to the next? Because it’s a mistake to search for moral truth among empirical facts—that’s not the solution to the ‘fact-opinion’ dilemma.

There’s a third category that isn’t fact or opinion: namely, objective truth that isn’t empirically verifiable. That’s where we find objective morality. How do we arrive at knowledge of truth that isn’t empirically verifiable? Reason—rational cognition—without which Scripture is too easily twisted into a patchwork of self-serving proof-texts, tailored to the interests of men whose principal concern is amplifying their own power. 

We’ve got to stop proof-texting. And we’ve got to stop listening to the kinds of theologians and pastors who pretend to have an easy answer for every social or political problem that arises in the course of human affairs. Manifestly, such men do not have the answers: if they did, they wouldn’t have occasion to contradict themselves with every shift of the wind; and they wouldn’t have turned two generations of evangelicals into self-seeking moral relativists. 

Justice As Integrity

Every word that public evangelicals uttered in the 90s about the importance of integrity in leadership now serves as an indictment of their own unfitness to lead. But more important than the rank hypocrisy of public evangelicals is the matter of how we arrived at a place where, outside of one or two causes that cost us nothing to promote, many Christians don’t even pretend to integrate their faith with their politics. In fact, such is the disarray of the evangelical political conscience, it may be helpful to comment on what integrity means and why it matters.

As individuals, we all occupy a variety of social roles—e.g., spouse, parent, colleague, citizen, etc. I have integrity when I approach each of these social roles in a way that’s consistent with how I approach the others. When I have integrity, all the different parts of my life fit together—they are integrated—around a single coherent identity. By contrast, I lack integrity when I inhabit one social role in a way that is inconsistent with who I am (or pretend to be) in some other social role.

The opposite of integrity is disintegration—an identity that’s fragmented. My identity is fragmented when I move through the various social roles that I occupy without any real sense of the self that inhabits each role, or how those roles inform the narrative of my life. 

Like an individual, a political community that lacks integrity is fragmented. As a society, we have integrity when we share a sense of concern for what each of us deserves and what we owe to each other—which is to say, a shared concern for justice. (The alternative to justice as a shared point of integration would be an ideology based in some feature identity—such as race, ethnicity or religion. But we tend to reject, e.g., white nationalism as racist, Christian nationalism as idolatrous, and so on.) A shared concern for justice furnishes us with a common goal for civic life, by reference to which it makes sense to debate and seek consensus around moral questions like what our laws ought to be and how our resources should be allocated.

By contrast, when we lack a shared horizon for deciding questions about what people deserve, our society is merely a collection of interest groups that assert their political will without regard for what we owe to each other. And herein lies the source of much white evangelical hypocrisy in the political sphere.

Decades ago, a few self-appointed spokesmen decided that God’s blessed rage for justice is best articulated by a Church that seeks to make America the sort of place where upper-middleclass Christians can await the eschaton in relative comfort. Yet we proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who insisted over and over again that our devotion to him is measured by our regard for the interests of those most vulnerable to injustice: the orphan, the immigrant and the dispossessed. So our conduct in the political arena serves as a public refutation of our witness. Unbelievers read the Bible, too; and they can see that we’re not living out the values we claim to espouse. It’s evident that we’re not truly pro-life or pro-family. The tax policies that we favor reveal what we value: where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Instead of advocating for economic policies that are conducive to raising a family, we prefer policies that allow us to keep as much of our paycheck as possible.

It’s important for Christian institutions to retract racist sentiments and establish scholarship funds. But mostly in the way a painkiller is important—it silences the pain momentarily even though it does nothing to heal the underlying infirmity. Evangelicalism’s fractured identity cannot be patched up by attending to symptoms. Evangelicalism won’t have integrity while there are yet unrebuked seminary faculty who’ve made a cottage industry of opposing godly calls for justice, with speeches that are contrary to the sweep of Christian theology and transparently ignorant of Western intellectual history.

Our identity will remain fractured until we set aside our own interests in the interest of justice. And until then, who we vote for matters a lot less than the fact that we’re voting for entirely the wrong reasons.

When False Teachers Talk About False Teachers

It’s been suggested that those who promote “wokeness” or “woke theology” should be regarded as false teachers. This claim reflects a kind of theological illiteracy that needs to be exposed. I’ll start with a brief note about terminology, since it’s a source of much mischief.

Critics of “wokeness” often identify concerns about systemic injustice with Critical Race Theory (CRT). But you needn’t endorse CRT—or care anything about CRT, really—in order to be concerned about systemic justice. CRT is just one among many academic disciplines that deal with questions about systemic justice; and it is hardly the first or the most important. Roughly 2500 years before the inception of CRT, Plato discusses systemic justice in his ‘Republic’ and ‘Laws’.

A millennium before Plato, God inspired Moses to establish a legal system animated by God’s hatred of institutional oppression. And God commanded his people to cherish and keep these laws in remembrance of their liberation from Egyptian oppression.

Systemic injustice is second only to idolatry among the occasions for God’s wrath in the Old Testament. And more often than not, when idolatry is at issue, the idols in question are implicated in efforts to secure wealth or power within an oppressive system.

So it’s important to understand that a commitment to systemic justice isn’t the same as fondness for CRT. And the former is a foundational moral imperative for all who fear God, whatever one thinks of the latter. Yet the wokeness truthers in conservative evangelicalism insist on conflating the two. I’m willing to assume, charitably, that this confusion derives from ignorance—of which they display much, and with remarkable boldness. But the notion that we should regard those who demand systemic justice as false teachers is more than mere error: it presents a false image of who God is and what God requires of us. And this is not to be suffered gladly.

According to Scripture, false teachers dwell in the political or religious establishment, and they misrepresent God to the people of God in order to fortify their own position of power or influence. False teachers lie about God for their own personal gain. So, in the logic of Christian theology, it doesn’t even make sense to say that those who demand systemic justice *on behalf of others* are false teachers. It’s a category mistake. Simply put, demanding justice for others isn’t what false teachers do. In fact, every single time Scripture presents God’s prophets in direct conflict with false prophets, God’s prophets are the ones demanding justice for the oppressed. Every. Single. Time.

And how do the false prophets react? First, they accuse God’s prophet of being a false teacher. Then they try to protect their own power and influence by lying about God. “Everything’s good here. God says that the status quo is just fine, and judgment is not forthcoming.” For example, the biblical picture of false prophets bears a striking resemblance to the handful of theologians in the SBC whose dalliances with heresy have redounded to their own professional benefit.

Some proponents of ESS misrepresented the very nature of the Trinity in an effort to legitimate a niche research agenda that they were well-positioned to lead (largely because the most fertile theological minds of our era simply have no interest in advancing male headship). These men spend their days stirring up controversy, insisting that God’s people break fellowship over the secondary effects of tertiary issues that are a matter of grave importance only to men whose professional advancement depends on it. It’s clever in a strictly Machiavellian sense: find a subject that none of the really talented people in your field care about, create a journal for it, publish in your own journal, and then leverage politics and personal connections to demand that it be taken seriously. Now these men are attempting to persuade God’s people that demands for systemic justice are false teaching. “Everything’s good,” they say. “God has instructed me to assure you that the status quo is just fine, and judgment is not forthcoming.”

I don’t know whether judgment is upon us. But if it is, it’s not for the reasons that the culture warriors warned us about: it’s because of the political conditions that the culture warriors helped create.

Don’t let false teachers tell you who the false teachers are. Look for the folks demanding justice, and join them. That’s the side you want to be on, even if you don’t agree with everything they have to say.

This is theologically illiterate: it’s not merely wrong—it’s wrong in ways that I’d expect only someone who doesn’t understand the basic logic of Christianity to be wrong.

Our Current Dilemma: Many Christians Aren’t Pro-Life Enough

For decades, a pronounced majority of white evangelicals have reliably supported politicians who essentially regard all vulnerable classes except the unborn with contempt (and whose policies, at that, have actually done very little to protect the unborn). Now we are forced to choose between the rights of the most vulnerable and the rights of all but the most vulnerable.

I don’t presume to know who anyone should vote for. But some Christians seem to be approaching their vote with faulty reasoning or incomplete information. In particular, Christians that we might call “single-issue” voters reason as follows. “I must do everything I can, politically, do defend the unborn. So I must vote for the party or politician that favors outlawing abortion, regardless of their other policy stances.” Let’s stipulate that we must do everything we can, politically, to defend the unborn. Does it follow that we must vote for the politician whose party has been promising to outlaw abortion for the last four decades?

Law and Economics

Because the courts offer the most eligible path to outlawing abortion, and because it takes years for cases to make their way to the Supreme Court, it’s plausible to suppose that abortion isn’t going to be outlawed in the next few years—not before 2030, let’s say. So, between now and 2030 (at least), regardless of which political leaders we elect and which judges they appoint, abortion will be legal in the United States. (Incidentally, even if Roe v. Wade were overturned—which is objectively unlikely to happen for jurisprudential reasons, but certainly won’t happen in the next few years—we’d revert to a pre-Roe situation where states decide the legality of abortion within their respective jurisdictions. So as far as the judiciary is concerned, the best case scenario is most likely a conservative SCOTUS that permits states to reduce access to abortion providers via regulations, e.g. admitting privileges, making abortion marginally more difficult to access but not illegal.)

Some women who contemplate an abortion in the next decade might do so for reasons of economic hardship, in situations where the decisive factor in their thinking is affordable access to basic needs like housing, healthcare, food, etc. In other words, in at least some cases, there’s a relationship between economics and abortion. So we can prevent some abortions in the next decade by implementing economic policies that promote secure access to housing, food and healthcare.

And to the extent that Christians vote against such policies, we are failing to do everything we can, politically, to protect the lives of unborn children who wouldn’t have been aborted in a more pro-life and pro-family economic climate.

Some Christians will be skeptical of this reasoning. For instance, you might think that fewer abortions will happen in the long run if judges allow states to regulate abortion clinics out of business or, eventually, overturn Roe v. Wade.

It may be true that fewer abortions will happen overall with ideologically conservative judges. But it’s important to notice that the goalpost has now shifted. We’re no longer talking about doing everything we can, politically, to defend the unborn. Now we’re ignoring the abortions that we could prevent over the next ten years via a holistic approach to policy aimed at protecting vulnerable people in general, including the unborn, and talking instead about the overall number of abortions. In other words, we’re thinking along purely consequentialist lines, based on the principle that we should do whatever saves the most lives. I discuss the general problem with consequentialist moral reasoning here.

Basic Moral Principles

As for the specific principle that we should always do whatever saves the most lives (unborn or otherwise), consider the following. Imagine you’re a surgeon responsible for five patients who need a vital organ transplant—heart, kidney, liver, lung and lung, respectively. As it happens, all five patients have the same blood type and they’re all roughly the same height and weight. If you knew for certain that you could save all five of your patients by harvesting the vital organs of a single healthy person, should you do it? Of course not. You wouldn’t butcher one person to save five others; so it must be false that you should always do whatever you can to save the most lives.

Thus you’d need a different principle to justify voting for policies that occasion more economic hardship—leading to preventable abortions in the short term—purely for the sake of (possibly) reducing the overall number of abortions in the long term.

So even if your objective is to do the most you possibly can, politically, to protect the unborn, the choice isn’t as straightforward as a lot of Christians make it out to be.

Our Dilemma

As I said at the outset, I don’t presume to know how other Christians ought to vote. It’s complicated and messy. As believers, protecting the vulnerable should be our highest political objective, and there are none more vulnerable than the unborn.

This dilemma is both of our own making and totally unsurprising. It is of our own making because it is a product of the religious right’s fragmented conception of justice. And it is unsurprising because God doesn’t generally allow his people to select which sacred obligations to honor and which to casually ignore—particularly when we attempt to honor those that cost nothing and ignore those that threaten our material security and social standing.

So, my fellow pro-lifer, I respect and share your pro-life position; but if you’re not the least bit conflicted about which political party best represents your values, it’s possible that you’re not pro-life enough. Whichever way you decide to vote, I hope you won’t be swayed by the celebrity culture warriors who led white American evangelicals to the gilded political prison in which we now find ourselves—in which we are forced to choose between the party that promises to protect all but the most vulnerable and the party that promises to protect only the most vulnerable.

I don’t know what to say about this November. But I know that we should be wary of anyone with the audacity to tell us that it’s obvious how Christians should vote. The path out of our current political wasteland is paved with integrity—which is to say, a pro-life position that is integrated around justice for all, born and unborn alike.

What if America is just another empire?

What if America is just like all the other empires? What if America’s power and wealth aren’t a mark of divine favor, but merely a byproduct of empire-building?

And what if, by mistaking the fruits of empire for God’s blessing, Christian nationalists have gotten confused about what sorts of things God favors—confused about the features of our civilization that believers should make an effort to cultivate and amplify into the future?

For example, what if it’s just a very, very bad thing that our government systematically slaughtered and dispossessed indigenous peoples and desecrated their sacred places? What if that’s just all there is to it: no manifest destiny, nothing redeeming about it—just really bad?

And what if it’s just very, very bad that a lot of America’s early wealth issued from labor that was straightforwardly stolen from people who were kidnapped and sold into slavery. What if that’s just evil, full stop?

Read the Exodus account and ask yourself where you fit into the narrative. If you’re a white American evangelical, you’re not among the Israelites—plainly, you’re with the Egyptians. And why think the American empire is any different from that of Egypt, or Babylon, or Rome?

I don’t understand what Christian nationalists are up to, theologically speaking. I just can’t imagine the early Church concerning itself with Rome’s GDP or reputation on the world stage. The greatness of the Roman Empire was perfectly irrelevant to Christ and his followers.

Of course, as an American, I might concern myself with the American economy, national security, etc. But my concern for such things will be tempered by my Christian faith; it certainly won’t be a consequence of my faith. 

The notion that Christianity stands in a special relationship to America makes about as much sense as the idea that Jesus took on flesh to make Rome great again—which is to say, it makes no sense at all: it misunderstands what Christianity is about.

So when, as Christians, we see our nation pursue policies that threaten the well-being of orphans and immigrants in our midst, we really don’t have any business asking whether these policies are good for America. That’s not our concern.

Our concern should be for the ones oppressed, regardless of whether that concern is consistent with ephemeral notions of what makes America great.

Christ has no use for the cultural nostalgia of white American churchgoers: he doesn’t much care for the films of John Wayne. Christ simply doesn’t care whether America is great, or ever was or will be again.

“Black Lives Matter” v. “All Lives Matter”

Imagine you’re in a movie theater somewhere in Nebraska.

In the middle of the movie, your phone rings. You answer your phone and proceed to have a conversation at full volume. After about a minute, the guy behind you taps you on the shoulder and says, “Dude, we’re in a movie theater.”

You could respond in any number of ways. You might say, “No, we’re in Nebraska.” But this response isn’t appropriate. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone would offer this as a serious retort. For one thing, it’s possible to be both in a movie theater and in Nebraska (as you in fact are). So it’s not much of a rebuttal. For another, your fellow movie-goer has stated something obvious to you-namely that you are in a movie theater-because your conduct is that of a person who doesn’t recognize this fact or simply doesn’t care.

We state the obvious when someone’s actions are inconsistent with their having recognized the truth in question. “Dude, we’re in a movie theater” means “Dude, we’re in a movie theater: you should act like it.” Philosophers of language call this ‘conversational implicature’, which is just a fancy term for basic subtexts that competent language users naturally infer under normal circumstances. Under normal circumstances, when someone points out the obvious to us, we infer that we are doing something that suggests we are unaware of the obvious fact that has just been brought to our attention.

When we say, “Black lives matter,” there’s some conversational implicature at work. We live in a society that routinely functions in ways inconsistent with our having recognized that, among all lives, the lives of Black people matter. When we say, “Black lives matter,” we mean, “Black lives matter,” and you should act like it. When we say, “Black lives matter,” we are saying that institutions in our society do not function in a way that is consistent with the recognition that Black lives, specifically, matter:

When Eric Garner is suffocated to death in police custody and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it. When Freddie Gray dies of injuries sustained in police custody and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Trayvon Martin is gunned down while walking through a neighborhood and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Elijah McClain dies after being choked by police officers and injected with ketamine, and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Ahmaud Arbery is gunned down in broad daylight, on video, and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Breonna Taylor is shot 5 times in her own apartment by the police and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When George Floyd suffocates to death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

So when, as a competent language user, you respond by saying “all lives matter,” one of two things must be the case. Either you’re not fully aware of how our public institutions treat Black citizens; or you are aware, and you’re okay with it–in which case, you are a racist.

CRT: conservative evangelicalism’s latest Marxist chimaera

Recent discussion of critical race theory (CRT) in conservative evangelical circles has become a distraction from substantive issues of real concern—a chimaera, invoked by culture warriors in a transparent effort to preempt serious conversations about systemic racism.

In point of fact, the concept of systemic racism is used across a number of disciplines to describe a variety of different phenomena. Two general fields of application stand out. One has to do with psychology—racist attitudes and so forth. The other has to do with institutions.

Yet some politically conservative evangelicals talk as though the concept of systemic racism owes its existence to CRT; and they define CRT strictly in terms of theorizing about racist attitudes. Consequently, the notion of systemic racism is merely a contrivance of critical race theorists who wish to assert the ubiquity of racial prejudice among white Americans—an assertion that rings false to white evangelicals who reflect on their own attitudes and think to themselves, “Well I’m not a racist, so systemic racism can’t be real.”

Finally, the culture warriors point out that CRT is vaguely related, in ways that they can’t quite explain, to Marxism. The Gestalt that emerges from all this noise is that systemic racism is a myth—perhaps even a conspiracy—originating in the minds of godless Marxists who say defamatory things about white people and America.

And the culture warriors manage to elicit this reaction without saying a single word about systemic racism qua institutional injustice—which has nothing at all to do with CRT, except insofar as some critical race theorists happen to comment on the racial inflection of institutional injustice in the U.S.

It’s really a remarkable sleight of hand. It allows white evangelicals to dismiss all claims to do with systemic racism qua institutional injustice, without saying the first thing about, e.g., the federal government’s discriminatory housing policies that remained officially in force until 1968: policies that wrought all manner of chronic social infirmity—from school segregation to racial disparities in wealth and income, incarceration, etc.—tangible effects of injustice that impact the day-to-day lives of millions of Americans, many of whom happen to be our brothers and sisters in Christ.


A lot of the same white evangelicals who reject the notion of systemic racism qua institutional injustice also claim they’re praying for some sort of national revival. I’m not sure whether a modern nation-state is the sort of thing that’s eligible for a spiritual revival. But let’s set that to one side.

The God that I read about in the Bible will have nothing whatsoever to do with people who store up harvests sown with the seeds of injustice.

In fact, God detests the supplications of such people:

Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Amos 5:18-24

So as long as you persist in denying that systemic racism is a problem, don’t worry about whether the government permits you to go to church, with or without a mask. Don’t worry about what kind of music you sing or whether you sing at all. Because none of it matters.

As long as you refuse to address systemic injustice, and willingly continue to benefit from it, God simply doesn’t want to hear from you. Your church is just a building where you meet up with your friends.

When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

Isaiah 1:15-17

The Evangelical Allergy to Expertise

What do you think is going to happen when you tell three generations of Evangelicals that the scientists are lying to them?

This is the painfully foreseeable outcome of internalizing a false choice between faith and science. This is the fruit of decades spent browbeating congregants with the message that rejecting scientific consensus is an essential feature of their faith. This is the inevitable result of embracing the decadence of American consumerism and our society’s addiction to convenience—ironically, brought to us by the technological innovations of modern science.

We’ll take the magic cures—the meds for cholesterol, blood pressure and heartburn. We’ll gladly accept the gadgetry. We’ll be entertained instantly. We’ll ask Siri. But when Siri delivers unpleasant news and prescribes a remedy that involves mild inconvenience, the Evangelicals who believe that rejecting expertise is a legitimate option—and that immediate gratification is their God-given right—will simply refuse to be inconvenienced. Or, when finally forced to adopt practices designed to protect the vulnerable among us, the ones complaining the loudest will be Evangelicals.

Whether it’s COVID or climate, this is the legacy of the Culture War. Let’s hope that it won’t be the legacy of American Evangelicalism.

on Christian masculinity

In six years as a husband, I’ve learned two things about marriage. (In case you’re counting, that’s one thing every three years.) The first is that it forces you to become a better person in ways you wouldn’t have chosen.

Don’t get me wrong. I was no slouch before I met my wife. In fact, I was a diligent self-improver. Once in 2009, and again in 2012, I came very close to having six-pack abs.

Following a breakup in my early twenties, I realized I had to come to grips with my sense of entitlement. Around the same time, I finally caught on that everyone in my grad program was at least as smart as I was—no one was going to hand me a Ph.D. just for showing up. So I learned to work hard instead of skating on natural ability and the advantages of growing up in a home with two teachers who have doctorates in education. By the time I got married, for all I knew, I’d conquered most of the character flaws that had been with me, in some way or other, since my days as a husky jean-wearing twelve year-old.

marriage isn’t convenient

By the time I met my wife at age 28, I honestly believed I was a patient person—nevermind that I literally did whatever I wanted when I wasn’t teaching class. I thought I was emotionally enlightened—nevermind that I simply excused myself from situations that required me to emote anything other than happiness or anger. And I took great pride in the fact that my apartment was always spotless—nevermind that my meals consisted entirely of cheerios or take-out, typically consumed while hovering over the kitchen sink.

So I wasn’t hopeless before I met my wife. But before marriage, the quest for my best self moved at my pace, according to priorities that I set. Everything was clean and convenient.

Marriage, on the other hand, is not convenient. But God didn’t create my wife or the institution of marriage with my convenience in mind. Marriage is about sanctification. It’s about acknowledging personal flaws that I’d be more comfortable ignoring, and reorienting my understanding of self-fulfillment toward a shared horizon.

there’s no such thing as an excellent husband

The second thing I’ve learned about marriage is that there’s no such thing as an excellent husband. There are things that every good husband does and there are things that no good husband does: a good husband remembers his wedding anniversary and his wife’s birthday, and he doesn’t commit adultery. But remembering my anniversary doesn’t make me a good husband, and neither does not committing adultery.

In other words, there’s no universal ‘excellent husband’ checklist. My marriage will not go well if I make a habit of saying, “Well, I earned a paycheck, washed the dishes and took out the trash. I talked to you about your day and how it made you feel. And I’m still undefeated in the adultery department. Check, check and check. I’ll be in my study, nailing down the details of the tribulation-rapture timeline.” That’s just too easy.

I am a good husband only insofar as I am a good husband to my wife, in the context of the life that we share. It’s impossible to be a good husband in the abstract. Beyond minimal guidelines like “say sorry” and “buy flowers,” success as a husband is totally meaningless apart from the unique demands of my particular marriage.

there’s no such thing as an excellent Christian

Following Christ is no different—which is why Scripture likens the relationship between God and his people to the sacrament of marriage.

It’s impossible to be a Christ follower in the abstract. There are things that every excellent Christ follower does and there are things that no excellent Christ follower does. No excellent Christ follower takes a widow’s only coat as collateral for a loan, or refuses to provide refuge to orphans and immigrants. All Christ followers demonstrate our love for God in the way that we care for those who bear his image. And caring for those who bear God’s image is meaningless apart from the unique needs of particular human beings. 

I am not a good Christ follower if I’ve made a habit of saying, “Well, I put my tithe in the offering plate. I invited that cashier at the grocery store to church last week. And I’ve taken every opportunity to reiterate exactly where I stand on homosexuality and abortion. Check, check and check. I’ll be down at Starbucks, working on a blog post about the mature manliness of Christ.”

All of that is just too easy. Anyone can donate to a building fund. Anyone can invite strangers to church. It’s a lot harder to put your ambitions on the altar every day and practice a faith that attracts people who know you—a faith that interests those who aren’t Christians and challenges those who are. And railing against homosexuality and abortion to a room full of people who say “Amen” and pat you on the back on their way out the door doesn’t make you a mature man. It certainly doesn’t make you a prophet. Prophets say hard things to the church about people in church.

According to the Gospels, those who didn’t claim to know God received from Christ nothing but kindness, gentleness and truth spoken in unmistakable love. According to the Gospels, Christ rebuked those who claimed to know God and didn’t act like it. According to the Gospels, Christ encountered the moneychangers in the Temple and threw them out, citing Jeremiah’s warning to the religious establishment:

Do not trust deceitful words, chanting, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” Instead, if you really correct your ways and your actions, if you act justly toward one another, if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the fatherless and the widow and no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods, bringing harm on yourselves, I will allow you to live in this place, the land I gave to your ancestors long ago and forever. But look, you keep trusting in deceitful words that cannot help. Do you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods that you have not known? Then do you come and stand before me in this house that bears my name and say, “We are rescued, so we can continue doing all these detestable acts”? Has this house, which bears my name, become a den of robbers in your view? Yes, I too have seen it.

Jeremiah 7:4-11 (CSB); emphasis added.

Church isn’t a hideout for thieves—not because thieves are irredeemable, but because the house that bears God’s name isn’t a safety deposit box for the spoils of injustice. This is echoed in Paul’s admonition to temper our association with immoral people inside the church:

I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. But actually, I wrote you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister and is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? God judges outsiders. Remove the evil person from among you.

I Corinthians 5:9-13 (CSB); emphasis added.

Jesus isn’t a cowboy

An alarming number of evangelical males think that since Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple, they have license to turn Christianity into some sort of gnostic virility cult. This astonishes me. They’re calling for a return to 1950s-era norms of masculinity—conveniently omitting the fact that we didn’t live through the great depression or kill any Nazis. A lot of them actually drink lattes. Lattes. I cannot imagine a more comfortable mode of human existence than that of a 21st century, latte-drinking John Wayne with a smartphone and nothing better to do than tweet at Beth Moore while his wife folds his laundry.

Surely Christ has called modern man to something more difficult than that. Anyone can pick a persona that he finds interesting and emulate it. Anyone can shoehorn John Wayne into a series of proof-texts. Following Christ is about giving up my power so that the power of God can be perfected in my weakness. Following Christ is about forsaking comfortable notions of manliness for a life of fear and trembling.  

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .

open letter to the authors of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel

To the authors of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel:

I am a Christian, an academic and a millennial. I hold a Ph.D. in philosophy and a master’s degree in theology; and I teach ethics, political philosophy and history of philosophy at a liberal arts college on the East Coast. I mention my training and my occupation simply to say, in the spirit of I Timothy 4:12, that I have done my homework.

The purpose of my letter is this. Your Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel purports to clarify the relationship between “social justice” and the Gospel; and I feel compelled to tell you, publicly, that it does nothing of the sort.

I should begin by expressing my sincere hope that your Statement was not crafted for the benefit of my generation. In the main, we have rejected your easy gospel. That’s why we are leaving your church—not the Church, just your church. I hasten to add that no attempts at clarification or explanation will stop the hemorrhaging. We know what you’re selling and we’re just not interested.

Despite its aspirations, your Statement is nothing new. The collective evangelical imagination has long suffered under the yoke of self-appointed spokesmen whose enthusiasm for politics goes unchecked by the limits of their own expertise. Nowhere is the vacuum of discernment more acute than in the field of institutional moral analysis: systemic injustice is invisible to those—like you—whose moral horizons are tethered to individual piety.

Believers of my generation are eager to embrace a vision of political life that comprehends the social infirmities we stand to inherit. We are not nostalgic for the culture wars of the 1970s and ‘80s. And we are weary of effortless civil religion that serves politicians rather than the poor. Defending orphans and widows is a sacred expression of corporate worship. We want to go to church.

With this in view, your Statement is problematic for several reasons. First, your Statement presents “social justice” as a grab-bag of diverse agendas—some of which are inconsistent with a straightforward reading of Scripture, and others that are not only consistent with but indeed mandated by Scripture. For example, in the addendum to Article 3, social justice is described as an aggregation of concerns over things like economic justice, climate change, abortion and LGBTQ rights. By forcing those who care about economic justice into the same political tent as those who support same-sex marriage, you force earnest believers to pit their understanding of God’s design for marriage against God’s command to make laws that give the poor their due. While this false dilemma is useful to politicians, it is unhelpful to the Church.

Second, Article 3 of your Statement affirms that God requires us to give to every person “…what he or she is due,” and that we “…must establish laws to correct injustices that have been imposed through cultural prejudice.” This insight is to be commended. But it is incommensurate with your opposition to public policies that would soften the echoes of past injustice. So either you misrepresent your beliefs about the importance of correcting historical injustice, or you are ignorant of the economic disadvantages that reverberate in the lives of those whose grandparents were unjustly denied access to the instruments of financial capital. And we don’t need Marx or critical theory to discern the wickedness of laws that permit predatory lending to those whose parents and grandparents were effectively barred from amassing and transferring what would have been their inheritance. The fear of God is sufficient.

Third, the addendum to Article 3 claims that justice as described in the Bible has nothing to do with economic justice. This is patently false. (See the Old Testament. Also see the New Testament, especially where Christ quotes the Old Testament. Marty Duren offers a detailed treatment here.)

Fourth, throughout your Statement, the pursuit of economic justice is carelessly equated with Marxism, communism and the view that all wealth should be evenly distributed. This carelessness is indefensible. And insofar as it engenders baseless anxieties about communism that encourage God’s people to abandon the cause of the poor, it is wicked.

Finally, the overall tone of your Statement is a source of concern. The Gospel is not furthered when ambitious ministers, by virtue of nothing other than their status as ministers, speak with unearned confidence about technical matters that they have not studied in any disciplined way.

My generation stands to inherit problems of unprecedented complexity and scale. In practical matters of grave importance, the believers of my generation need guidance that is thoughtful and well-informed. If you are unprepared to offer such guidance, you would do well to take your own advice and restrict your remarks to the Gospel as you understand it.

Best regards,

Scott M. Coley, Ph.D.

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .