Evangelicalism today faces three major issues. One, engaging smaller numbers of people and not yet as easily recognizable in North America, is the question of socialism and its appeal to the younger generation of evangelicals. The second, fully in the open, is the question of the authority of Scripture. Evangelicalism here seems to be placed between the millstones of liberalism and a mechanical concept practically alienating the believer from Scripture. It must reaffirm the truth of the Reformation—that Scripture contains everything needed for faith and living.
The third issue is vast, but more hidden. It is moral license, spreading secretly, a kind of evangelical lawlessness that produces a Christianity without a change of life. Let us not now look for amorality outside the camp: We need to face the fact that the landslide of immorality has reached the Church.
For one, it is surprising to see the extent of enthusiasm with which young evangelicals greeted and embraced the “New Morality” with all its ethical ambiguities. For them, who grew up in a milieu of legalism without purpose and perspective, but with the endless quarrels of “mini-morality” about whether it was permissible to smoke, drink, dance, use makeup, or go to the theater, the New Morality meant freedom, Christian freedom from the law. The relativism of values in our educational system may have added to that effect.
As befits our times, the trend of evangelical lawlessness can be specified particularly in terms of sexual ethics. A phenomenon of this is the deluge of evangelical marriage counseling books with their suggestive titles and sometimes quite explicit sexual passages. Authors and publishers have discovered the market possibilities of an anointed version of the literary sex craze of our time. Yet preoccupation with sex and personal happiness, however, will never create the passion to take up the historic tasks of our time: to satisfy the spiritual and material hunger of mankind and to reconcile and heal its divisions.
The inevitable grim consequences of permissiveness are appearing. Leading young evangelicals coolly consider sterilization as a means of birth control. Divorce is accepted more and more and is obstinately defended as a Christian option. Common-law marriage is coming up. The breakdown of the family in the West does not stop short of the evangelical camp.
Strangely enough, the trend described seems to be further in the field of evangelism. Successful evangelists in their institutes teach their lesser colleagues how to be successful by avoiding to speak about sin. Worse, many people never seem to be taught just what conversion means. They register a decision for Christ, but there is no content to it. Conversion is a change of mood, of friends, of opinions, but not of daily life. It does not reach the level of behavior. It does not include moral change. When the recently converted publisher of a well known sex magazine announced that in the future his magazine would carry sex and Christ, he underlined the problem in question. And he is no exceptional case. CHRISTIANITY TODAY carried a story of some born-again Christians in a major American gambling center who felt they could continue as card dealers in the casino because they knew no other trade, or because the Lord wanted them to witness. But then, on the same two pretexts, should prostitutes also continue in that occupation? Did Christ become a customer or a promoter of a brothel to witness to its employees? Make no mistake, this relates to us all, not just those from more exotic milieus. The question is: Do we believe that conversion includes a change in life with all its activities, or not?
We need to reaffirm that Christianity has a moral backbone. The Christian faith is inseparably joined with God’s absolute moral standards and with a change of our relationship to society. In the New Testament truth is allied with justice and opposed to lawlessness. According to Christ the very truth of his message can only be discovered in its obedient application (John 7:17). Paul taught, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity” (2 Tim. 2:19). There can be no Christian faith without distinct moral consequences.
Christians in the ancient world were known because of their different way of life (their positive attitude to children and to life in general being a noticeable difference). This remains a strong message to today’s children of secularism, who are fed up with a life of license and aimlessness and feel strongly drawn to a different way. They can see the abyss materialism and sensualism must necessarily lead the world into.
Martin Luther had to fight the same battle in his own time. He wrote of some allegedly evangelical preachers: “They are truly beautiful proclaimers of Easter, but shameful preachers of Pentecost. For they preach nothing about the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, only about salvation in Christ.… However, Christ has earned for us not only God’s mercy, but also the gift of the Holy Spirit, that we should have not only forgiveness, but also an end of sins. Whoever remains in his earlier evil ways must have another kind of Christ. Consequence demands that a Christian should have the Holy Spirit and lead a new life, or know that he has not received Christ at all.”
There is the biblical example of Zaccheus. Through his encounter with Christ his life was changed. The ruthless financier found a new goal. Thus his former gods could be pushed from their throne. His was an inward change that turned outward in actual deeds of restitution of justice.
Much of today’s evangelical lawlessness seems to be the fruit of an evangelical aimlessness, the lack of a larger goal. We need to understand and accept the discipline that goes with discipleship and that is needed for Christian creativity. Our God-given task is to fight for a reversal of secularism and a new recognition of God’s honor, authority, and commandment. That will also be the best service we can render to mankind. For God’s absolute moral standards sustain the very structure of life.
Klaus Bockmühl is professor of theology and ethics, Regent College, Vancouver, Canada.
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