Recently I’ve become more aware how much moralizing takes place in the Christian community. Moralizing has become so common in our public discourse that we think of it as normal Christianity. It’s not, but most of us need help to recognize the difference.
What is moralizing? When the window dressing is stripped away to the bare minimum, moralizing sounds something like this: “____________ is wrong.”
Fill in the blank with your behavior of choice–or more precisely, a behavior of your non-choice: abortion, same sex marriage, pornography, racism, trafficking, wage inequity, war, gun control…. The list is nearly endless. But if you can find your issue on the list, Christians are against it. We can moralize a behavior in just three words.
Andy Stanley is one of several writers who have helped me wake up to the crippling effects of moralizing in the church. Stanley wrote: “Few things discredit the church more in the minds of unbelievers than when it holds them accountable to a standard they never acknowledged to begin with. Nothing says hypocrite faster than Christians expecting non-Christians to behave like Christians when half the Christians don’t act like it half the time.” (Deep & Wide, pp. 242-43).
Moralizing is not enough. Outsiders hear it as judgmental condemnation. We need something better, even when we’re dealing with Christians. Recently I was speaking with a woman who has lived with the same man (not her husband) for decades. I asked her to describe the church of her youth.
“It was really strict,” she said. “The girls had to wear skirts below the knees and the boys’ hair was supposed to stay off their collars.”
I got an immediate impression, although I said nothing. Then I inquired, “Since you were part of that church as a child, what does that make you think today about your living so long with a man who is not your husband?”
She didn’t hesitate or flinch. “Oh, it’s sin. It’s wrong.” She said it matter of factly. Without a hint of regret, remorse, defiance, or guilt, she added, “But some people say, ‘You have to live somewhere.'”
She meant that if she were to move out, she would have no place to live and no means to support herself. A real problem. A big challenge. Too big for her to face alone. I thought to myself, “No, moralizing is certainly not enough. She needs a reason to address this issue in her life, which we haven’t yet given her, and a strong, long-term hand of support.”
Are we willing to pay the price necessary to help people get out of moral dilemmas permanently? Moralizing won’t do it. Redemption is too costly for moralizers who rarely get their hands dirty.
Moralizing has a mantra, “Love the sinner. Hate the sin.” I hear it often. In fact, I heard it in church last month. Usually I don’t have a response. I haven’t known what to say. But yesterday I read a better motto on someone’s blog, “Love the sinner. Hate your own sin.” We need that motto because moralizing isn’t enough. Moralizing imposes law without providing empowerment for change.
Only the gospel offers power for change. Those who moralize need redemption the most. The Apostle Paul made this point when he acknowledged that among sinners, he was chief (1 Tim. 1:16). He needed the most grace because he was a spokesman for grace. In other words, “Physician, heal thyself!” Paul needed grace because he really was the worst of sinners. Just like me, I might add.
Ravi Zacharias highlighted this need in his ministry magazine this summer. He wrote of a better way than moralizing:
“Preaching and teaching and moralizing can come very easily for all of the wrong motives, especially in a volatile climate that has experienced seismic shifts overnight. Yet the one who comes to know Christ recognizes how impoverished the heart is and the need of constant submission to the will of the Lord. Oftentimes we forget how we thought before the Lord changed our hearts. Patience and grace enable us to earn the right to be heard. The beauty of a life in a close walk with Jesus attracts them; the power of the Holy Spirit changes them.” (Just Thnking, Vol. 23.4, p. 27).
Moralizing is not enough.
Because the gospel is so much more.