Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Morality as distraction?

"But as for you, teach what is consistent with sound doctrine. Tell the older men to be temperate, serious, prudent, and sound in faith, in love, and in endurance.

Likewise, tell the older women to be reverent in behaviour, not to be slanderers or slaves to drink; they are to teach what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good managers of the household, kind, being submissive to their husbands, so that the word of God may not be discredited.

Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured; then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us.

Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to answer back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

Declare these things; exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one look down on you.

- Titus 2.

Is morality a distraction from the good news?
Some Christians believe that discussions of morality are a distraction from the gospel, a secondary concern that can dilute the focus of the church's attention away from witnessing to God's grace revealed in Christ. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of both morality and the gospel. To understand why, let's look at the Titus passage quoted above.

I don't intend to discuss all of this chapter, and certain instructions probably require further reflection; the words addressed to young women and slaves in particular may have jumped out at some readers. Instead, I would like to consider the reasons given for these moral instructions, what are the motivations put forward to drive readers to adopt or maintain these practices?

First, these exhortations are to be followed in order to be "consistent with sound doctrine". Doctrine is simply another word for teaching. We are to live in accordance with what is true, with the teachings that are sound and reliable; we are not to be in denial of reality.

Second, the teaching passed on between generations includes an account of "what is good". We are to remember and transmit ways of life that are good, that are life-giving, that affirm what is truly valuable and make life worthwhile. Indeed, Jesus Christ "gave himself to redeem us from all iniquity". Sin is not a matter of going against some arbitrary will of God, but is living poorly. Jesus came to set us free not simply from the consequences of our wrongdoing, but from the doing of wrong.

Of course, we may have philosophical questions about the nature of goodness or how we come to know what is true, but these two affirmations, that our actions are guided by what is true and what is good are probably not in themselves particularly controversial.

But there are two more strands here also worth noting. On the one hand is God's coming future: "while we wait for the blessed hope". I have written quite a bit on this blog about Christian hope and its relation to ethics and will not add to that here.

The fourth reason for action is repeated in a few different forms: "so that the word of God may not be discredited", "a model of good works", so that opponents have nothing to criticise, "so that in everything they might be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour". The basic idea of all these reasons is that our behaviours have an influence on others for good or for ill. Our actions are performed in front of a human audience who note them and make evaluations on their basis. We are to do what is true and what is good in light of what is coming, but also what will be a good model for others to copy, what will not distract from the proclamation of good news, what will in fact serve to make it more attractive and intriguing. Seeing a life filled with grace and truth is compelling; living well can be infectious. Morality is linked to credibility.

Christian moral behaviour is therefore intimately tied to the good news. We are to take account of it as news, as a message that is credible and which contains truths relevant to how we live. We are to take account of the goodness of this news, that it is a summons to a way of living that is itself good, liberating and humanising. We are to take account that this news informs us of God's promised future. And we are to take account of the ways in which our behaviour serves to attract or distract people from paying attention to these glad tidings. Morality is not a distraction from the gospel, but is both included within it and can make it more credible. Indeed, it is immorality that is a distraction, or at least a detraction, from the gospel.

Let us consider the matter of credibility a little further. I've heard that during the Third Reich, a number of German Christian leaders argued that political questions and the treatment of the Jews and other minorities were distractions from the gospel.* Such matters were best left to the discretion of the state authorities whom God had appointed for tasks of that nature.
*I have never seen a reference for this, but have heard it a couple of times. If anyone knows of relevant sources, I'd be interested to hear whether this is an accurate account. Wikipedia has a readable introduction to the Confessing Church, which gives some of the context.

Leaving aside the questions of whether this stance was in accord with sound doctrine (though I think there are some very problematic theological assumptions about the nature and role of the state involved) or whether it was a denial of the goodness of the gospel and of God's promised future, the widespread failure of the church to stand strongly against the persecution of the Jews and other minorities did not put the message of Christ in a positive light and indeed continues to be an active detraction from it to this day. We rely on a relative small number of exemplary figures to show that the apparent moral blindness was not total. Even the Confessing Church (which may have compromised about twenty percent of German Protestantism) placed far more emphasis by and large on state interference with ecclesial matters than on the escalating persecution of minorities. While there were some noteworthy exceptions, with hindsight the general Christian silence appears to have tacitly condoned the oppression, doing no favours to Christian credibility in the process.

Or to select a contemporary example much in the headlines, ongoing revelations of the abuse of children by Christian leaders does all kinds of damage to the credibility of the gospel. Whatever the denominational stripes of the abusers (and I don't think any group has either a monopoly or an entirely clean slate, though there may be significant differences in extent), the abuse itself is horrific and the widespread failure of Christian leaders to discipline abusive pastors has become a further blight on the church's reputation.

These two examples are highly emotional and heavily discussed. I selected them not because they were clichés within easy reach, but because amongst the somewhat relativised ethical assumptions of contemporary western society, these two topics serve as a couple of the most widely-shared ethical agreements left. People reach for child abuse and the horrors of Nazi Germany in order to ground a discussion with the reassurance that "these at least we can agree were truly wrong". In each case, the strength of this shared moral conviction turns the failures of Christians into barriers to hearing the good news.

Are ecological ethics a distraction from the gospel?
I could well be wrong, but it seems to me that the emerging ecological catastrophes of industrial society may well lead in decades to come to another issue where censure is widespread and relatively uncontested. Will the church again be found on the wrong side? Will we have constructed another roadblock to sharing the word of life?

I am not arguing that the church is to be merely responsive to changing social mores, following the prevailing outrages of the day. Nor am I saying that ecological responsibility is only for the sake of appearances. I am simply suggesting a supplement to the concern for what is true, what is right and what is coming (which all ground a robust Christian ecological ethics), namely, the consideration of whether contemporary apathy or disparagement of ecological concerns by some Christian leaders and teachers will increasingly become a stumbling block to a society awakening to the destructiveness of unthinking consumption.


byron smith said...

What will future generations condemn us for? And how can we know in advance?

H/T Joe.

Gina said...

Hi, I'm a comment-shy reader trawling your archives. I found this post encouraging today, after fielding some accusations about 'distracting from the gospel' by daring to question my own ethical choices (and by implication, those of our culture) in light of being a disciple of Jesus. Apparently this is being self-righteous and works-based in my theology :). Clearly we need to let sin increase, so grace may abound...!

byron smith said...

Hi Gina - thanks for sticking your head up and I'm glad you liked this post. I was a little surprised that it didn't generate a few more comments at the time, since I thought I was saying something a little provocative! I probably shouldn't have stuck it in the conclusion to a long post about a Bible passage...

Don't be discouraged by the antinomians, ethics is good news!

And now that you've commented, I've had a chance to sneak a peak at your blog, which seems to have one or two fans! Great stuff and keep it up. Have you discovered any kind of network of like-minded people down in Vic? I'm currently trying to scope out what is happening in Australian Christian scenes regarding anti-consumerism and ecological responsibility.