You don’t see it when you watch the Rose Parade on TV. The cameras are located on the corner of Orange Grove and Colorado Blvd. We lived just a few blocks away and went regularly. During those years, after the last flowered float came a scruffy-looking bearded man dressed in black carrying a huge pennant proclaiming, Repent. The End of the World is at Hand.
I often wondered what he thought he was accomplishing on that national holiday in front of that crowd. Yes, repentance is in order—for those who hold themselves accountable to the God of the Bible. What you also don’t know is that a major part of the crowd lined up three or four deep along Colorado Blvd are church youth groups who came the day before and spent the night on the sidewalks of the parade route. Are they proud to see this man and his message? Not the kids I knew.
The Christian message of sin and salvation is deadly serious. But we no longer live in medieval Christendom when the place you spend eternity was a pressing issue. We live in an affluent America where less than half take seriously the nation’s Christian heritage and its worldview.
Guilt used to be a good motivator. It’s built into the Roman Catholic heritage that so many ethnic immigrants brought with them. The Protestant revival tradition in this country came with lots of “hell and brimstone” preaching to scare hearers into repentance and conversion. This country began with a distinctly Protestant character that was considered a civic religion well into the 20th century. That was Protestantism mostly in the Calvinist form. For Martin Luther, the Reformation was all about reforming the Christian church. A generation later John Calvin focused on reformed personal behavior. Ethics is a major topic in those circles. Any discussion of ethics highlights good behavior. The opposite is bad and thereby guilt-inducing.
Back in my pastor-father’s day, organized discussions among pastors focused on casuistry—discussing case by case what is acceptable behavior in a congregation. The big issue then was divorce. Jesus’ standards were especially challenging. What was not acceptable meant ex-communication. But what is the path of faithful ministry today when half the marriages end in divorce? Churches that cannot deal with divorced people have a very limited audience. Besides, do churches exist to kick people out? What does that say about the Gospel?
What can we learn from the Apostle Paul and those earliest churches?
First, Paul did not presume to speak for a whole nation. Those early churches were a tiny fraction of the very pagan Roman Empire. When he guided the Corinthians as they dealt with a case of sexual immorality in the midst, Paul commented. “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (1 Corinthians 5: 12). We Christians in America can no longer presume that we are in a Christian nation that accepts Christian standards. A major and growing percentage do not even accept the biblical worldview.
Second, Paul emphasized the Good News that the God who sent his Son into this world is a loving God. The Old Deal that often emphasized the Angry God did not work. God initiated the New Deal that features his grace in Christ and the motivation provided by his Spirit. In contrast to relying on the Law to shape behavior, Paul emphasized the freedom brought by the Spirit. Through God’s forgiving grace and the freedom brought by the Spirit, we can have hope.
Paul was not a moral philosopher. Those Christian thinkers came in subsequent centuries, especially after Christianity became the religion of the Empire. Paul was the apostle of the heart set free with life-defining motivation and empowerment by the Spirit.
How important to you is defining the proper moral life of Christians? How important is God’s grace in the way you live your Christian life?
Robert Chiles says
Glad to see you have finally seen the light. Seems you have come around since your stance on LGBT
I don’t see where I have changed my interpretation of Paul relevant to LGBT today. The perspective on the human relationship that Paul and Jesus had was shaped by what they inherited from OT Jewish perspectives. Where appropriate, they pointed where God’s mercy made a big difference. They accepted the Ten Commandments but changed the motivation for keeping them.
Lee Larsen says
God’s word in meant for everyone so it must come with all the love and patience that Jesus first showed us.
Romans 6:1-23 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. …
1 John 1:7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
As we invite others to come into the light their journey is just beginning. The more we learn of God’s ways the more we realize just how far short of His expectations we are. His word also makes clear why we need to stay on the narrow path He provides because to stray from it will surely bring pain & suffering upon ourselves and others. It is out of this Fatherly love for us that His word, His Son and His Spirit comes to us so that we may receive His blessings and have true joy and purpose to/for our lives and the hope that comes in the promise of Heaven for all eternity.
Hi, Lee. Another good contribution.
Joseph P Micilcavage Jr. says
David, I read this yesterday, and it seemed to me to touch on so much that I left it open on my screen so that I might reply after some thought. I would go further than your title and say that “Christianity is not a Moral Philosophy.” Of course that would take a lot of unpacking because Christianity is a moral philosophy, but its morality is the opposite of a philosophy of moral progress. Christianity’s moral code states that death is the only fulfillment of the moral code that we as humans can accomplish. And even then we fail at death because it lasts forever outside of Christ and in us. I hope that an interaction based on my strange and fragmented thoughts might happen.
I am glad my essay had enough meaning to keep it on your screen and cause you to think some more. I would accept your proposed title of Christianity Is Not a Moral Philosophy. But I focus on Paul and his interpretation of Jesus as a way to humanize the basic principles they taught. I admire Paul as a genius and world-class entrepreneur and I try to put myself into his shoes as he founded and guided so many churches.