By Elie Haddad
In ABTS’s latest blog post, Walid Zailaa expressed his concern for the church to remain faithful to its theological convictions amid a society that does not subscribe to a unified metanarrative. Walid argued that being tolerant should not mean that the Church remains silent on issues it believes are detrimental to the family and the church. His conclusion was that we need to find a way “to engage with love and understanding without compromising our theological integrity.”
What is theological integrity? Where do we get our concept of right and wrong? Who decides what teachings of the Bible are relevant for us today? In our day and age, it is popular to talk about God’s love and compassion, grace, mercy, acceptance, and tolerance. But it is not as popular to talk about God’s justice and holiness. It has even become inappropriate for the church to deal with the themes of God’s wrath and judgment, or sin and repentance. When the church addresses these themes, it is frequently considered exclusive, judgmental, and intolerant, even bigoted.
In an age of relative truth, it is no longer acceptable to identify certain attitudes and behaviors as sinful. This is considered offensive. People get to decide for themselves what is appropriate behavior and what is not. Who are we to judge?
This is not a new dilemma. The battle of worldviews is very old. We should never be surprised when the world acts as the world. This is normal and expected. But when the church does not act as the church, that is the problem. People are free to live in sin. This is their prerogative. God invites people into a relationship with Himself rather than coercing them. But what concerns me is that many churches these days are willing to redefine what sin is to appease the world. It is no longer trendy to talk about certain sins. If we do, we are labeled as old-fashioned and behind the times.
The apostle Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 4, asserts that “this is the will of God, your holiness.” I find it interesting that God is more concerned with our holiness than our happiness. He is more interested in us being set apart than in blending with and becoming indistinguishable from the world. Then Paul unpacks what he means by that statement: “that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.” Why? “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” The Thessalonians must have understood clearly what Paul meant by sexual immorality. It is not that difficult for us today to understand what Paul meant by it, either. The problem is that we deem it difficult to accept and are, therefore, tempted to redefine it. The world’s disposition towards sexuality today is different from in the days of Paul. All kinds of sexual sins are tolerated and rationalized. The world has even lost the concept of sinfulness and perversion. Against such a background, what should the church preach and teach about sexual immorality?
There are many lists of vices in the Bible. In Galatians 5, Paul writes about the tension between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit. Then he identifies the works of the flesh as “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.”
Obviously, Paul thinks that sexual immorality is detrimental to the life and witness of the church. But not just sexual immorality. The cultural sins that infiltrate our churches and can become acceptable behaviors are broader than that. The list in Galatians includes vices that may not be externally obvious, such as enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, and envy. This is a list of self-centered and self-serving characteristics. Is it possible that many vices in this list are manifested in our churches today by attitudes and behaviors such as careerism, materialism, consumerism, competitiveness, political division, disunity, and others like what we find in the world? Again, I find it interesting that the will of God is our holiness, not our prosperity. Are we being set apart or are we indistinguishable from the world?
There is a growing sentiment in our churches that many sins identified in the New Testament are no longer deemed pertinent to us today. The reasoning is that the world has changed, and we now know better. I am not at ease with this kind of thinking.
First, I believe that our source of morality is not based on changing cultural values but on the unchanging will and character of God. The fact that God’s character and will are not aligned with the world today does not mean that the moral teachings of the Bible are now outmoded and outdated. We need to recover our theological integrity by being consistent in adhering to God’s moral and ethical code, regardless of how unpopular or difficult that becomes. There is no doubt that theological thinking, just like any other field, has evolved and matured over the years due to advancements in biblical studies and in response to our changing world. However, if our advancements lead us to view God’s character in a way that appeals to our sinful and broken world today, then we are essentially fashioning God after our own image.
Second, there is a problem in the thinking that our society has arrived today at a place where we can confidently judge what ought to be right and wrong and what biblical teachings are pertinent to our lives today. This thinking is not new. Every generation tends to think this way. C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity about the attitude of “uncritically accepting the intellectual climate of our age” (p. 10) and called it chronological snobbery. It’s the thinking that what we thought and valued in the past must be inferior to what we think and value today. Hence, Lewis suggests that we read an old book for every new book we read. We need the help of past ages to see our own times more clearly, to help identify our own blind spots.
Third, if we allow ourselves to stand in judgement of what the Bible teaches, then how can it be possible for the Bible to change and transform us? Robert Mulholland, in his book Shaped by the Word, argues that we should never read the Bible the way we read other material. We do not read the Bible based on our assumptions. Rather, as we come to the Bible, we identify and acknowledge our presuppositions, set them aside, and allow the biblical text to read us and expose our assumptions, our values, our culture, and our world. We do not manipulate the text to align with our cultural values. Rather, we read the text to locate ourselves within God’s story.
I am convinced that when the worldviews of the church and the world are aligned, then the church has lost its voice and has become irrelevant. It has lost its saltiness and its ability to reflect God’s light. I believe that this is where the irony lies: when the message of the church is largely accepted and endorsed by the world then the church’s message is foreign to the gospel. The content of the gospel has not changed. The gospel is good news today not because sin no longer matters. It is good news because we have a Savior who has a remedy for sin.
I believe that the role of the church is not to avoid offending the world. Rather, it is to faithfully address sin and the brokenness of the world, passionately love the sinner and the broken, vigorously endeavor to grow in the likeness of Jesus, and lovingly proclaim Him as the cure of all the world’s ailments. This will, no doubt, make the church unpopular. This will even draw hostilities and opposition from society at large and from governing bodies. So, what might we be afraid of? Losing a place of privilege? Appearing to be closed-minded and old-fashioned? So what? Winning the world for Christ is never a popularity contest. It is a journey of sharing in the fellowship of His suffering.
Elie Haddad is the president of ABTS and is passionate about the church being the church in our world today.