Perils of Moralism:
Cultural Lies the Church Believes: We Can Reform the World
by John Fischer, Moody Magazine, May/June, 1998.

Why has a multitude of men from almost every city in the United States... come to our nation1s capital?" asked Promise Keepers President Randy Phillips at the Oct. 4, 1997 "Stand in the Gap" Promise Keepers gathering in Washington D.C. "Is it to demonstrate political might? No. Is it to display masculine strength? No. Is it to take back the nation by imposing our religious values on others? No. ... When it comes to politics and faith," Phillips said, "we confess that we have had too high a view of the ability of man and too low a trust in the sovereignty of God."

These rhetorical questions are as important as their categorical denial. They reflect a perception that--true or not--is widely held.

The past two decades have witnessed a widespread politicization of the church. With the rise of the Moral Majority, founded in 1979, followed by the formation of the Christian Coalition 10 years later, America has become familiar with a long list of Christian concerns including, but not limited to, Abortion, prayer in schools, civil rights for homosexuals, pornography, private schooling, and the traditional American family.

Christians are now front-page news and editorial page fodder. For this reason, it's hard, if not impossible, for unbelieving Americans to imagine that hundreds of thousands of men bowing their heads in front of the nations's capital are not after more from Washington D.C. than just a place to pray.

The last 20 years has heard "take back America" rhetoric booming from pulpits and Christian radio stations across the country. Fears of conspiracies, and anger over the "rights" of homosexuals and feminists gaining more attention than the "rights" of the traditional American family, have indeed awakened a sleeping giant. Jerry Falwell's silent majority was fingered by Ralph Reed two years ago at a figure of close to 30 million religious conservatives who are not about to take lying down what they perceive to be the secularization of America.

But behind all this political activism loom complex questions. Can Christians reform society? Can we effect moral changes in our culture without negative religious consequences? What if we make enemies of the gospel through trying to "get America back?" Making lost souls hostile toward the very gospel that can save them is a high price to pay for an America we want.

Randy Phillips seemed to be pondering some of these questions when he confessed from Washington about having "too high a view of the ability of man and too low a trust in the sovereignty of God." I take this to mean: too high a view of man's ability to change society, and too low a trust in God's ability to change us. It was a sort of corporate apology to the world for a misguided trust.


Christians who put their hopes in a moral avenue of influence on society put themselves in the sway of powerful temptations to misinterpret our role in the world. Not that social morality is not a worthy cause at some level, but the weapons of the world always seem more potent when fighting these battles than do the weapons of righteousness. Boycotts, marches, and representatives in the White House often eclipse the long-term change of a heart that only God can produce. Political victories are immediate and tangible.

Another temptation is in a reliance upon worldly influence to get us heavenly results. This error can have Christians fighting flesh and blood, thinking people are our enemies instead of principalities and powers in heavenly places (Eph. 6:12), and making unholy alliances for the sake of perceivable ends. As Christians, we pray repeatedly that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven, But how often do we check into a heavenly perspective to determine what that will might be? We are too often and too quickly enamored by the human course of action.

Still another temptation of Christians in regard to social morality--and the most dangerous--is the allure of power. After years of cultural insignificance, Christians are flexing some social muscle. We have drawn from the tap of political clout and are intoxicated with the perceived influence it has gotten us. Our leaders hobnob with the political elite--even make overtures at running for office--as if Christians in places of power could single-handedly turn back society's moral clock.


Often quoted as a mandate for the role of Christians as moral agents in society is Christ's labeling of us as salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:13-16). I believe an accurate interpretation of these metaphors can lend some clarity to this discussion and give us a clue to an appropriate influence on society.

It is often pointed out that salt was used as a preservative for meats and other foods and it is therefore our mandate to be a moral preservative in society. Yet in context, the use of the word has to do with flavor. Jesus points out that the salt that has lost its taste is worthless. Similarly, in Colossians 4:6, Paul admonishes us to make our conversation full of grace, "seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone." Hardly a moral assault on society, this is a call to be distinctive. Salt brings out the flavor in foods, so Christians are called to bring out the true meaning of life.

The best weapon against the sexual perversion in society, for example, is a happy marriage. This is salt adding flavor to life. One need not look far to see the inconsistency of Christian boycotts against perceived immoral influences in society, while the divorce rate among professing Christians keeps right up with the world's. Yes, we are called to make a difference in society, but that difference will primarily come by example, not by force.

This concept of a positive example in society is also an important aspect in our being the light of the world. "A city on a hill cannot be hidden," Jesus proclaimed. "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven" (Matt. 5:14,16).

We often confuse doing good in the world with making the world good. We will never make the world good, but we can be an example of what good is. That example will be a light in the darkness, and it will give opportunity for the gospel that alone can save people's souls.

Yes, there is a preserving aspect to our presence in society, but it is not by means of an aggressive moral campaign. The moral climate of our neighborhoods will be effected by the fact that Christians live there and are doing good there--good deeds that result in praise from unbelievers who benefit from them.

This is salt and light which builds bridges to the world and provides opportunity for the gospel rather than an obstacle to it.

It was reported that some of the men who made the trek to Washington for the Promise Keepers event last fall got there early and volunteered to do repair work on a number of District of Columbia schools that were so run down, they were incapable of opening. This is the kind of activity that will bring more social restitution than any march could.

The close of that conference included a call for men to assemble again in the year 2000, this time in state capitals. What if all these men would descend on those cities to sweat as much as to pray? Imagine how much good that kind of manpower could bring to the broken-down communities in our impoverished inner cities. By leaving these cities better than we found them, we would be accompanying our faith with good deeds that might bring praise to God from the lips of unbelievers--a good example of the moral influence Jesus taught us to have.

Fisch Tank

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