Imposing our moral standards on outsiders

Peter Kirk has an interesting post today and although it’s specifically addressing gay marriage, it’s not that particular issue I have in mind.

Peter comments:

If we seek to impose our moral standards on outsiders, we give them the impression that the Christian faith is a matter of obeying rules. That is a complete denial of the gospel proclamation to unbelievers, which should be that God loves them and gives them his grace even while they are still living sinful lives.

I think Peter is absolutely right in saying that the core of the Gospel message is not in fact one of imposing our standards or rules upon non-Christians. I also agree that this Gospel is one to be freely proclaimed to those living sinfully.

That Gospel is of course the Love of God in Jesus for mankind, and I do not believe for one moment that the Grace given for salvation is in any way dependent on our efforts or lifestyle.

That’s my experience anyway.

Jesus came for sinners and I for one thank God that He did, as when that light of salvation penetrated my heart, I was living in a manner most contrary to the standards of God.

Now Peter links to a piece in the Huffington Post that argues for a “toxic religion”; here’s an excerpt:

Any time you stumble into toxic religion, you’ll likely see two poisonous problems. First, religion leads you to focus on the external rather than the internal. Religion requires a behavior-oriented path toward pleasing God. Religious people, often well-intentioned, focus on an outward expression rather than an inward transformation. Religion is our effort to close the gap between sinful humans and a holy God. Sadly, it reduces the beauty of the Gospel to a checklist of do’s and don’ts. Rules try to regulate religion.

Not only does religion focus on the externals rather than the internals, but this external emphasis produces an internal pride. Rule-following religious people believe their behavior and beliefs are right and everyone else is wrong. It’s like a piece of food that spoils–not only is it nasty and ruined, but it omits a noxious smell as well.

I’d like to highlight the term used here: “inward transformation” as I feel this is the heart of the matter.

Before salvation I had no real concept of sin, except of course from the operation of what I would term as “restraining grace”, otherwise known as the conscience. Over a very long period, post salvation, I became sensitive to God’s definition of sin, especially in my own life.

Without the operation of the Holy Spirit within me, I would have gone on being blind to most sin and even if I were aware of such, I would have been powerless to fight against it in my own strength.

I no any longer view the Church or our “religion” as merely a rule setting body of do’s and don’ts, but a collective of accumulated knowledge through which God has imparted His standards of morality, ethics and so on; to those, and through those, that are saved. These standards are as much to do with inward transformation, as outward behaviour, as the two cannot be seperated.

It takes an inward regenerative action on the part of God within the individual to begin the move towards His standards, that ultimately have their outworking in our actions and behaviour. As for ‘rule-following’ merely producing pride and a sense of I’m right and you’re wrong, I take issue with this over-simplification, even though I fully understand the temptation to become pharisaical.

There are rules governing every area of our lives, some written, some unwritten, that we consciously and subconsciously slavishly follow, and so why should there not be rules of conduct and behaviour within the body of our religion?

The reality of the matter is that most of us despair at our lack of ability to be able to emulate the perfections of Christ exemplified in His life and transmitted through our religion. This of course humbles rather than puffs up, and throws us back on the mercy and reliance of God.

But I reiterate that none of this would even happen without the operation of the Holy Spirit within us. The reason I emphasise this is because the real error is not in focusing on our behaviour, but on focusing on the behaviour of those outside our religion.

Why should we expect non-Christians to operate in a manner that is in accordance with our God given morality, if they do not have the operation of the Holy Spirit within them?

Put simply, this is to impose a ‘regenerated’ morality onto the ‘unregenerated’ and then we wonder why they fight back.

It is not for us to demand that the unregenerate and unsaved should act according to our standards of behaviour and morality and so on, but rather it is for us to proclaim the wonder and Love of our merciful and gracious God to those outside our religion.

If we simply continue pointing the finger and proclaiming that those outside the Church should behave thusly, without ever really communicating the wonder of the Gospel to begin with, then surely we do more harm than good.

To summarise:

The Gospel of love is where it all begins. And then repentance.

None of this will begin until we start to see the Divine image in all people.

Christ dies for us whilst we were still sinners.

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10 Responses to “Imposing our moral standards on outsiders”

  1. Anna Says:

    Thank you for this. Have you checked out the ‘spiritual works of mercy’ ? Jesus taught by word and deed.

  2. Peter Kirk Says:

    Thanks for the link. I agree with you that we need “rules of conduct and behaviour within the body of our religion”. Maybe the Huffington Post article was too strong against these. But my main point is the one you emphasise, that “the real error is not in focusing on our behaviour, but on focusing on the behaviour of those outside our religion”.

  3. Phil Groom Says:

    Excellent summary of the difficulties: thank you.

  4. Phil Groom Says:

    … and I love that at the end you’ve used the present tense: Christ dies for us… indeed he does, again and again… and we are yet sinners…

  5. Caral Says:

    With regard to the Spiritual Works of Mercy, we are all called to practice the last four, and they fit beautifully with your blogpost. Cannot see any finger wagging in them, can you?

    “Bear wrongs patiently;
    Forgive offenses willingly;
    Comfort the afflicted;
    Pray for the living, the sick (and the dead)*”

    *I popped ‘and the dead’ in parenthesis as I know that not everyone necessarily prays for the dead.

  6. Phil Groom Says:

    … for your amusement: Phil Groom likes Imposing our moral standards on outsiders | eChurch Blog … highlights the wee problem of taking things “literally” :)

  7. Lazarus Says:

    The problem with Peter Kirk’s analysis is that it equates morality with rules. The Catholic natural law tradition starts from the basis of human flourishing: we are morally good because it is good for us to be good. One of the main reasons that Catholicism (eg in same sex marriage) is concerned to apply its ethical standards to all human beings is because these are standards which are good for people: ethical concern is part of that love for others that as Christian we are called to. (Beneath this, I suspect, is a difference between Catholicism’s linking of sanctification and justification as a transformation of the whole human being into the image of God, and Protestantism’s idea that justification is as a purely forensic concept which leaves us simul justus et peccator.)

    That said, your points about the need for grace and a focus on our own sins is well made.

  8. Lucy Mills Says:

    Good thoughts. Love the phrase ‘restraining grace’!

  9. Peter Kirk Says:

    Lazarus, that’s a good point. But in my Protestantism, and especially among conservative evangelicals, morality does tend to be equated with rules. I would agree with part of what I think you are saying, in that I would see true Christian ethical living as a lifestyle based on showing Christian love for others. But I still don’t accept that Christians should expect unbelievers to live this kind of lifestyle without having the relationship with God on which it is based.

  10. Lazarus Says:

    Peter, this is the heart of the difference between traditional Protestantism and Catholicism. For Catholics, grace builds on nature without abolishing it. Just as we would expect non Christians to look after their bodily and mental health, we should expect them to look after their characters and act in accordance with their nature. Indeed, as Christians, we would be failing in our duty towards them if we didn’t encourage them to do this. The ‘lifestyle’ -ie true human flourishing- is based on our human nature not a voluntary commitment to God.

    The above position on natural law is set out more fully here http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09076a.htm.

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