On Christian Moralism

“Moralism is killing us!” The pastor bemoaned during his recent sermon (the subject of which was homosexuality – the sermon in and of itself was extremely Southern Baptist in style and content and while Biblical, it was filled with more judgement and condemnation than I thought necessary and had very little love, empathy, or compassion.)

I wasn’t certain how moralism could be bad. After all, grew up fairy tales that always ended with: “… and the moral of the story is …” Morals have always helped me to understand write from wrong, good from bad, and about consequences for my actions. So I wrote down ‘moralism’ as a reminder to look into what he might have meant.

Moralism: the practice of moralizing, especially showing a tendency to make judgements about others’ morality.

This is the main definition that appeared when I searched for the word. I could see how this kind of moralism could prove dangerous – believers constantly pointing fingers at each other like referees at a game throwing flags: “That’s sinful!” “That’s wrong!” “That’s down-right immoral!”

Moralism: the practice of achieving perfection through behavior modification. The moralist risk self-righteously looking down on unbelievers by putting their supposed morality in a comparison of theirs.

I think this is a more accurate way of looking at it when used in the context of Christianity. The moralist would see themselves as doing the right thing by pointing out other’s wrong-doing so that they could repent of their sins and the moralist would have the pride of being a key component in bringing back a wayward sister or brother. But it comes with a big list of rules – the moralist is no hypocrite. Therefore not only is he or she against the sins of others, their life is spent avoding every sort of wrong-doing. They hang their hats on John 14:15-21, saying to themselves: “I love Jesus, therefore I must keep his commands.” and “If I keep his commands, then I prove my love for Jesus.” Of course, this puts the moralist in a constant fear: “Have I kept all the commands?” “Have I sinned today?” “Have I approved of the sins of others today?” “Did I tolerate sin in my presence, where I could see it, where I could hear it, where I could perceive it?” A good comparison is that the Moralist is to the commands of the New Testament is as the Legalist is to the Law of the Old Testament.

Grace, mercy, humility, forgiveness, peace, and love are among the fruit of the Spirit for all believers. Yet a great many moralists are judgmental, condemning, arrogant, prideful, and can come across as hateful even depending on how much sin they can point out in others. I don’t think that most moralists even see it – to them, they love their brothers and sisters enough to point out each and every perceived sin while maintaining their own freedom from sin because of their obedience to Scripture in some way.

One good way to reverse the problem of Christian Moralism is to teach Scripture in context. It’s difficult to moralize a verse from a passage on false teachers with a verse from a passage on dealing with unbelievers if you realize that they cannot be combined to form one coherent idea about judgement and sinfulness. Another good way is to teach the meaning of grace – that no matter how moral we are, how righteous we are, how sinless we are, and how little sin we accept in those around us, it’ll never be enough to keep the commandments or earn us a better spot in heaven. When it comes to sins, the ones we do are no better and no worse than those of others. It’s in our nature to sin. It’s in Jesus’ nature to forgive us for our sins.

Requesting Forgiveness

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. – 1 Corinthians 5:9-10

In my last post, I pointed out the hypocrisy in store for any business owner who applies this verse to everybody who commits a visible sin that enters their business doors. Biblically speaking, a believer is justified in not serving food to a glutton who is a believer, but a believer is not justified in not serving food to a glutton who is not a believer. Since no business turns away hungry customers or questions customers as to their religious stance, it’s quite normal for Christians to break these verses day in and day out.

It is, after all, such an inconvenient verse – one teacher advises: “I’m not talking about immoral people in the world, I’m talking about immoral people where? In the church. You’ve got to deal with those people. They’ll pollute the fellowship. They’re like leaven. You’ve got to put them out, you’ve got to turn them over to Satan, you’ve got to deal with them, don’t eat with them. If they’re heretics, admonish them a few times and then dismiss them.”

Can you imagine the heartbreak if churches took these verses literally? How do you decide who is right and who is wrong? Who administers the discipline if everybody seems to be immoral in some way, shape, or form? Note that Paul here is quoting from Deuteronomy. I find it intriguing that he calls for an Old Testament punishment. But is this the end of it? No!

By the time 2 Corinthians is written, Paul calls for forgiveness, comfort, and reaffirmation of love. He’s writing this mostly to the church, not to the expelled aforementioned brother asking him to do anything beyond what he has already endured – whatever the punishment inflicted by the majority was. This is where far too many modern churches fail; inflicting punishment is fun, going the distance to forgive – not so much.

I never understood how casting out a wayward brother or sister was meant to restore them to the faith when they were cut off from any source of truth, any source love, or any source of help from the church. It’s like kicking your worst player off of the team so that they can get better at the game so they can join you later on when they get better. Isn’t it a far better idea to keep them on the team and assign to them helpers during practice to correct their form and encourage them to continue? If your people are as good as you think they are, then it is quite unlikely the bad player’s bad form will be contagious.

But our modern church doesn’t like to do anything that’s inconvenient, like investing in others. It’s far easier to decide that: (1) I am always right about my theology. (2) Anybody that agrees with me is also right. (3) Anybody that disagrees with me is wrong, they must be heretics. (4) I’d better educate heretics so that they turn to my way of thinking and will be saved. (5) This heretic is stubbornly refusing to come around, therefore they ought to be encouraged to go to some other church.

The obvious problem is that If the person who is the judge of theology is incorrect, they’re punishing people who are more likely more right, or at least, less mistaken than they are. Churches tend to excel at discipline so far as it means kicking out people that don’t match up with the rest, but they fail miserably at the restoration and forgiveness part of the process. if you’ve stalled out on the restoration phase, might I suggest two simple phrases: “I’m sorry” and “I love you” to get you started again?