Last week I attended the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in San Francisco. I attended many interesting sessions and my own session for the Evangelical Philosophical Society (entitled “Belief, Behavior, and the Necessary Conditions for Salvation”) went well, prompting much helpful feedback from the audience.
In my paper I note that the willingness on the part of some people to label themselves or others as “Christian” despite their chronic and extreme flouting of biblical moral standards is symptomatic of the view that the sole criterion for being a Christian is cognitive in nature—specifically, an intellectual affirmation of key doctrines. I note that this view ignores the fact that certain behavioral standards are essential to being a Christian. Consider these words of Jesus: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him… If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching…. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:21-24). Here Jesus defines love of himself not in terms of orthodox belief nor even, as our culture would prefer, passionate feelings, but in terms of obedience.
Some biblical passages even appear to make a strong connection between chronic disobedience and one’s eternal destiny, such as these assertions by the Apostle Paul:
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19-21).
Given the eternal ramifications of chronic, extreme wayward behavior, it would seem that false views about essential biblical moral teachings are likewise significant. Therefore, I introduce the concept of “moral heresy” as a potentially useful conceptual tool in approaching this issue. The ancient creeds tend to focus on historical issues (e.g., the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ) and metaphysical issues (e.g. the Trinity and the divine incarnation of Christ). The moral issues mentioned by Paul above are not addressed in any of the major church creeds or confessions, because they have never the source of significant debate in church history—that is, until the last few decades with regard to homosexual practice.
Next I note that since all expression of moral beliefs is a tacit endorsement of certain behaviors, publicizing one’s morally heretical views, whether or not one engages in the immoral practice oneself, might crucially undermine the faith commitment of others. This fact appears to blur the line between beliefs and conduct in such a way as to significantly raise the stakes regarding contemporary ethical debates in the church, particularly regarding homosexuality.
Due to the current moral crisis in the American church, there is a high premium on moral discernment as well as personal virtue and integrity. As the Apostle Paul warned the early church, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).