Moral norms of millennia are being upended in ways that are contrary to Christian tradition, the natural order, and even physical reality. This is a tectonic shift in culture that the Church has not been effective in slowing, much less halting. If the Church is to restore the moral landscape and fulfill the Great Commission, the work of restoration must begin within the Church itself.
More than 1700 years ago St. Anthony the Great envisioned a day “when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’”
That day is here.
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Christian moral teaching, once believed essential for human flourishing and the common good, is increasingly viewed as naïve at best, and harmful at worst, with anything less than unqualified approval for everything pelvic grounds for questioning a person’s intelligence, rationality, and decency. In less time than it took for the transition from flip phones to smart phones, what had been unthinkable has become unquestionable:
- Marriage, the exclusively heterosexual union since time immemorial, has been redefined to include persons of any and all sexual persuasions;
- Children who are not allowed to choose their bedtime are permitted to choose their gender;
- Teens who can’t receive an aspirin from the school nurse are able to procure abortions without parental notification;
- Gender-confused adults are leading “Drag Queen Story Hour” for children in public schools and libraries;
- Biological males who are middling athletes among men are competing (and winning!) against women – a biological category that some people, it seems, don’t know (or have forgotten) how to define.
It is madness, and anyone willing to call it out (think J. K. Rowling) faces the risks of shunning, shaming, loss of livelihood, or worse. Having infected the major artifacts of culture (the arts, academia, media, government and even the marketplace), the condition has led theologian Carl R. Trueman to the bracing conclusion that “within five years we will witness a significant disruption across all major representatives of the Christian faith,” leading to a split “between those who find a way to accommodate to the world’s term of good citizenship and those whose fidelity to Christ will lead to varying degrees of internal exile within this earthly city.”
Whether or not Trueman is right about the future, the lesson from history is that the remedy for this condition will not come by way of political influence or cultural accommodation.
Deep-rooted in the body politic is the notion that the solution to any social problem is a matter of getting the “right” people in office and the “right” laws on the books. But as Christians should know, favorable political outcomes are no guarantee that Christian values will be upheld.
Recall that it was Ronald Reagan, the Republican governor of California, who pioneered “no fault” divorce in 1969. Four years later, Roe v. Wade was decided during a Republican administration by a Supreme Court in which six of the nine justices had been selected by Republican presidents. Then there was the late Anthony Kennedy, appointed by President Reagan, who voted against socially conservative positions for more than three decades.
Most recently, 12 Republicans in the Senate and nearly four dozen in the House (including some who self-identify as Christian) helped pass the misleading, “Respect for Marriage Act.” Rather than codifying respect for marriage as it has been understood and upheld throughout human history (most recently, in the bipartisan 1996 Defense of Marriage Act) the new bill is a threat to religious liberty by further establishing the re-definition of marriage as a genderless institution through force of law.
Even the greatest political victory for Christian values over the last half century—the overturning of Roe v. Wade—will not end abortion in places where people have rationalized it and legislatures have legalized it. Considering that, according to a recent Pew survey, 61% of Americans, including a majority of those in most Christian denominations, believe that abortion should be legal “in all or most circumstances,” the end of abortion (as well as other things “unthinkable”) will not happen without a change in the moral imagination.
It’s the kind of change that Ronald Reagan once suggested “begins at the dinner table,” the safe, conversational space for sharing observations, voicing opinions, and developing arguments that can be pitched at the dinner party, church potluck, company picnic and town hall meeting to effect change, not from the top down by political pressure but from the bottom up by personal persuasion in conversations that are “full of grace and seasoned with salt.”
But only an imagination shaped by the law of Nature and Nature’s God can engender change that is conducive to the flourishing of creation and the betterment of mankind. Cultivating that imagination in the formation of change-makers is the calling and duty of the Church. More on that in a moment.
In the mid-to-late 1960’s, with church membership in the U.S. around 73 percent, churches began experimenting with ecclesiastical forms in the effort to attract non-believers and grow the Church.
Initially, “seeker-sensitive” changes were more about style than substance with the introduction of contemporary music and instrumentation, revised liturgies, modern architecture, informal vestments, and cappuccino. But it wasn’t long before substance was affected, as well.
To avoid transgressing popular notions about personal autonomy and well-being, off-putting concepts like personal sin, guilt, and repentance were downplayed or avoided altogether, along with clearing church teaching on emerging cultural norms regarding sexual expression and identity.
During the transition, three things happened: As reported by Gallup, church membership, which had held steady since 1940, began falling—gradually, at first, then precipitously around 2000 to an all time low of 47% in 2022; Lifeway Research found that the popular view of the Church as a positive influence in society fell to a low of 52%; but perhaps, most notably, some disturbing trends had developed within the Christian community.
In his 2001 book, Growing True Disciples, George Barna reported, “To the naked eye, the thoughts and deeds (and even many of the religious beliefs) of Christians are virtually indistinguishable from nonbelievers.” Six years later he similarly reported, “In evaluating 15 moral behaviors, born again Christians are statistically indistinguishable from non-born again adults on most of the behaviors studied.” (The studied behaviors included lying, substance abuse, and extra-marital sex.)
Since then, little has changed.
In 2021, the American Worldview Inventory reported, “The vast majority of American adults self-identify as ‘Christian’ and embrace many of the basic tenets of the faith [but] hold views clearly in conflict with traditional teachings and only 9% actually possess a biblical worldview.” For example, only 32% believe that non-marital sex is wrong, and 46% believe that “the marriage of one man to one woman is God’s plan for humanity.”
In other words, the average pew-sitter is a “belonging-non-believer”—that is, a person belonging to a Christian church, but whose beliefs, by profession and practice, conflict with historical Christian teaching. What’s more, he sits in a church where only 37% of executive pastors have “consistent biblical beliefs and behaviors,” according to the 2022 American Worldview Inventory.
It brings to mind what the 18th century churchman, Joseph Milner, had to say about the moral condition of Great Britain in his day: “It is an affecting consideration to reflect what a number of clergymen there are…[without] any concern for their own salvation or that of the flocks committed to their charge.”
In The First Apology, Justin Martyr went as far as to say, “Let those who are not found living as He taught, be understood to be no Christians, even though they profess with the lip the precepts of Christ.”
Sadly, but not surprisingly: cohabitation has become the new norm among young, professing evangelicals; over one-half of abortions are performed on Christian women; those who attend church more than monthly account for over 40% of unwed pregnancies; and lifestyles contrary to Scripture are growing in church acceptance; all the while church scandals have become ever more frequent.
All of this suggests that the Church has been influenced more by the culture than has the culture by the Church. Yet this is nothing new.
In the first century, the apostle Paul reproved churches that were bending to the pressures of culture by allowing false teaching, weak teaching, and the lack of church discipline to endanger the spiritual health of their congregations. Decades later, the book of Revelation had sharp words for churches that, in similar fashion, were failing to address cultural compromises and influences that were putting their spiritual welfare at risk.
Likewise, if the modern Church is to effectively deal with the social and moral issues of the day, it must first look inward and address how those issues are affecting its members and missions, and why. For unless the Church, by its lived witness, takes seriously the teachings of Jesus, the world won’t either. In short, the change the world needs must begin within the Church itself.
When Simon Peter received the “keys of the kingdom,” they came with the divine authority to “bind” together a community that would advance the kingdom after Jesus’ departure. It would be a mission-driven movement made up of disciples who were being taught to obey “everything I have commanded you” (emphasis added).
As practiced by the early Church, the process of “binding” was much more than organizing a weekly gathering for worship, communion, and an uplifting sermon. It included practical instruction in how the Lord’s commands applied to the specifics of Christian living, as well as the cultural influences of Judaizing, popular philosophies, pagan practices, and other controversies of the day.
Also practiced was the work of “loosing”—that is, the administration of church discipline, up to and including disfellowship, for members who, by their beliefs and behaviors, had put themselves out of communion with God and his Church. As taught by Paul, the purpose of “loosing” is the health of the community and offender, as well as the hope that discipline will arouse conviction, leading to repentance and restoration.
Negligence in both binding and loosing might explain the loss of the Church’s moral witness and authority today. For whenever a church fails to address how Church teaching applies to a moral issue in the culture or ignores the conduct of a member unbecoming a follower of Christ, it is a signal that the church: is uncertain about its teachings, doesn’t take its teachings seriously, or is satisfied with the “good enough” Christians occupying its pews—that is, members in “good standing” to the extent that they are “known” by the church treasurer, attend service at least periodically, and whose moral failings remain, for the most part, private.
In the manufacturing world it is said that if you’re not satisfied with the products you’re producing, you need to change the process that’s producing them. Applied to the Church, if the spiritual measure of Christians is wanting, the Church needs to change its process of spiritual formation. The changes might include:
- Expanding the “process” of spiritual formation from a member orientation class, elective programs, and Sunday services to a structured, ongoing process involving spiritual health metrics, assessments, and monitoring, as well as continuing education on historical Church teaching and how it applies to the concerns and challenges of the present moment.
- Elevating the low expectations of “good enough” Christianity to standards of discipleship that are committed to, coached, and monitored. For instance: beliefs and behaviors are scripturally grounded; spiritual gifts are known and being used; personal rules of life are grounded in the spiritual disciplines; participation in mentoring and accountability; preparedness to confront falsehood with truth and grace; and engagement with the unchurched.
- Prioritizing kingdom growth (measured by standards of discipleship and fruits of the Spirit) over church growth (measured by the size of attendance, budgets, membership roles, and campuses).
- Addressing current and emerging moral issues in the culture as an integral part of catechesis for the purpose of preparing members to become agents of change in their homes and communities.
- Upholding and exercising church discipline for the spiritual welfare of the Body and its members.
The Church can continue along its present path, doing what it’s doing and getting what it’s getting: “belonging non-believers” who are more the products of the body politic than the Body of Christ. Or they can step back for a season of self-examination to determine how to better nurture members into Christians whose convictions and conduct are informed by Scripture and Tradition, who understand how the Deposit of Faith pertains to all of life and, who, out of love for God and neighbor, labor to fulfill the Great Commission from the dinner table to the public square one person at a time.
Only that kind of church, producing that kind of Christian, can bring God’s glory to bear in a world turned upside-down as it awaits world without end.