Several years ago, I taught a class on Christian Ethics at the local Moody Extension School. Through my studies, I became more convinced of my suspicion that the Church is mistaken when they make evangelism or even some “tend the culture” mandate they think they have into a matter of clashing moralities. I frequently say that Christianity is not a morality.
I am reading To Will And To Do by Jacques Ellul and he is making similar points, only far more succinctly. He says that morality is a product of the fall (eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) and that by clashing moralities the Church is playing the fallen world’s game and ignoring the Gospel. This has been illustrated by missionaries who go into tribal areas and proceed to concern themselves with prior transformation of behavior – with polygamy, with nudity, with homosexuality, and fighting against customs not in conformity with Christian morality. (p78) This, he says, is making the rejection of their morality a prerequisite for the testimony of the Gospel with the result that the message is dissipated and the testimony of grace becomes impossible. (ibid). In other words, clashing moralities makes conformity to morality the Church’s message with the result that the Good News of God’s Grace is lost.
I believe this accurately describes many in the Church in America. At a Bible Study I attended, there is a man who seems to believe that is a Christian witness to browbeat anybody who is a fan of LeBron James (a not uncommon phenomenon in my area as he was born and raised in Akron). “There is nothing admirable about him!” he lets them know, “He has a child out of wedlock!” My friend considers the animosity he gets in return for this message proof that we are in the end times. While it is true that he has a child out of wedlock, the Gospel is not “have contempt for LeBron James”, nor is preaching against LeBron James “tending the culture”.
Ellul makes some other contrasts between morality and the message of Christianity. He brings out the idea that the aim of morality is an ideal, man does not measure up to an ideal and he must strive for it. The Christian life is something else.
In human eyes … morality … tends in the direction of a greater mastery of self, while the Christian life is an ever deepening belonging to God.
Another contrast … derives from the fact that God’s commands will never aim at bringing a man to realize an ideal, which all the moralities of the world tend to do. God’s commands always relate to an action connected with the establishment and proclamation of his covenant, with his promised kingdom which is close upon us. Therefore, in Christian Ethics it will never be a matter of doing some good or another, but of carrying out a certain task relating to the kingdom of God and to the witness which God calls on us to bear. – Jacques Ellul (Translated by C. Edward Hopkin), To Will and To Do, Philadelphia, Pilgrim Press 1969 p84
In other words, the Christian life is not a moral quest, it is not a striving to match some ideal, it is serving in relationship to God to establish the Kingdom of God. We are free from serving dead works to serve the Living God. (Hebrews 9:14) By turning the message of Christianity into a clash of moralities with “the culture” is not the Gospel at all. It’s flesh to correct flesh. It’s best possible end is fallen humanity acting “Christian”.
The larger picture of Christianity today is their essentially post-millennial drive to “win the culture wars” (though many in this movement are not post-millennial, they are mainly unaware of this aspect of their movement, the C Street Family, for example, is quite post-millennial and the difference in goals and methods is far more than the tomayto/tomahto difference in Eschatological label seems to imply). The outworking of this is shown in their fairly constant focus on morality, as if the “Kingdom of God” is a matter of improving the behavior of lost men in their rebellion. The Kingdom of God becomes just another word for Mayberry, an idealized cultural manifestation.
A not uncommon event within Christianity is to talk about others who have perhaps backslidden. During one such conversation, a friend made the comment “I know non-Christians who act more like Christ than she does.” I thought the comment was wholly inappropriate. We Christians do not judge “after the flesh” (2 Corinthians 5:16; 10:2). Here is Ellul again (p87), We need to remember, as a matter of fact, that what distinguishes Christians is neither better behavior nor a greater intelligence. To compare asceticism with asceticism, and to find there an area of agreement, or to compare faith with faith or religion with religion, is to enter into an analogy, into a correlation of things human.
The asceticism that goes by the name Christian is the same thing as Muslim asceticism; and Christian social love is the same thing as Communist love. What does this show? That Muslims and Communists are Christians? Absolutely not! These things resemble one another from the point of view of the “natural” man, of the son of Adam; that is to say, of him who lives in his self-decision, or indeed in his self-determination and independence. Whenever a Christian finds Muslin asceticism similar to Christian asceticism, he is right to the extent that the latter is not Christian.
When one compares in Christ with outside of Christ the only possible outcome is to find a standard or a commonality that is in Adam and outside of Christ.