Misconception Monday – Christians Shouldn’t Try To Make People Good

“Christians shouldn’t try and make people good; they should preach the Gospel.”

This is a declaration I’ve read many times in many forms, and since it’s the subject of today’s Misconception Monday, you might have already deduced my thoughts about it. Before I criticize the motivations people have for using it and some of the thinking behind it, I want to say that on the surface, I actually agree with it. Christians are commanded to make disciples, not merely people who don’t sin as much. The purpose of life, after all, is not to start doing more good things than bad things, but to know God. If this is the intended meaning of the expression, then it is a misleading way of saying a good and true thing. It’s the misleading elements and the motivations behind it that are worthy of some criticism.

There seem to be at least three reasons why Christians might try and encourage, incentivize, or impose morality on others. It’s important to realize that all legislation, executive action, and judicial decision-making is moral in nature. That means if it isn’t Christians imposing their morality on others, it’s someone else. I believe Christianity is true, so I have no problem with Christianity guiding this work. In fact, the founders of the United States and the progenitors of English Common Law all saw their work as reflective of Christianity.

The first reason has to do with society as a whole. If Christianity and God’s moral laws are true, it follows that the best way to order a society is to encourage obedience to those objective moral rules found in God’s moral law. While human beings break laws and do evil no matter what laws exist, the law is still a teacher and not just a reflection of culture. We should want to have the most perfect law in place to guide our society. It ought to result in better lives for everyone, just as acknowledging the laws of nature – like gravity – we are all forced to obey will result in less pain and suffering.

Secondly, it seems obvious that while none of us can please God except through Christ and that all of our own righteousness is worthless, it is still better not to sin and instead to do good. Doing evil makes our consciences less effective, insults the Image of God in each of us, and angers God. While the only way to truly know God is to come to Him by faith through Christ, it still seems right that it is better for those who have not accepted Him to do good instead of evil. Not just for the practical reasons identified above, but because sin really is bad, and it really is better not to do it, whether a person is a Christian or not.

Third, and maybe most importantly, has to do with Salvation itself. In order to become Christians, a man needs to repent of his sin. If he is convinced he hasn’t done anything wrong, then there is nothing to repent from. Living in a society governed by Christian virtue, however, means that he is confronted with his sin frequently (instead of ours, when many – even Christians – seem to actively discourage this confrontation). Additionally, if his own subjective understanding of right and wrong matches the objective standards found in God Himself, this is the best possible comparison he can have to demonstrate his need for Christ through repentance.

One of the roles of the Holy Spirit in the world is to convict the world of its sin. As Christians, why would we want to deliberately sabotage this effort? Why not seek to help? We can’t convict people in the same way as the Holy Spirit (and attempts to do it explicitly will probably have the opposite effect). But if we can help order our society in a way where the existence of sin is apparent to everyone, we certainly aren’t going to hurt anything. I’d argue we should actively try and do this. As I said previously, someone is going to impose their morality on everyone else. Why shouldn’t the laws we have come from the source of all objective morality in the first place?

Why would Christians oppose this? I think part of it is simple misunderstanding. There are Christians who think that pursuing a just and god-fearing society is a mutually exclusive goal to winning people to Christ because both require effort and the effort must be spent on either one or the other. This isn’t the case, however, and I’d argue that the two are complementary.

Another issue is one of character. Some Christians are lazy and hide behind the expression as a way to avoid doing work. Others are afraid of what might happen if they followed through.

Many Christians (and people in general) are sloppy thinkers. They don’t think about any of this stuff and just accept what is handed down to them from others whom they trust. This is inexcusable, but unfortunately common.

I think the most insidious reason is that many people who profess to be Christians actually despise Christianity. They hate God’s moral law and they completely embrace our culture’s anti-Christian standards. This happens often, and usually involves people in leadership positions. When I hear these sorts of people use the expression “Christians shouldn’t try to make good people; they should preach the Gospel”, I think it’s best to understand their meaning as “Stop making people feel bad and start telling them what they want to hear.”

If you are a Christian, you should know that if Christianity were all about telling people things that made them happy and comfortable, Christ wouldn’t have been crucified.

Consent is Weak

How do you tell if an act is moral? If you ask a typical college student or any of their professors, they’ll have the answer for you right away: If everyone involved in the act consents, it is moral. If anyone does not consent, it is immoral. We’ll call people like this Consent Theorists. It sounds more elaborate than it really deserves.

Consent is a pretty basic concept. As part of one’s moral framework, it has a number of uses, from dealing with contracts and promises to preventing people from forcing people to do things against their will or conscience. However, as basis for moral acts – as it is often presented in the academic and pop culture worlds – it is a miserable failure.

Consent Theory breaks down immediately when you consider criminal law. Criminals don’t consent to being imprisoned or fined for their actions. A Consent Theorist may squirm enough to find a crack and suggest that by committing a crime, a person forfeits their right to demand for consent. This isn’t so much an escape from the problem as an admission that things are even weaker than we thought. Now, consent must obey a higher law. It fails outright at being the basis for morality.

There are other problems with consent as a basis for one’s ethical views. Consent is easily manipulated. You can get someone to consent to anything with the right threats or lies. A Consent Theorist may suggest that such things are wrong; that consent proper requires that someone makes it free of threats and with all of the relevant facts presented to them. This, like criminal law, leads to the problem of a higher law being in place. If consent determines whether acts are moral or immoral, what standard do we have to determine whether one form of consent is better than another?

Aside from these and many other cases where consent quickly gets superseded by some higher moral imperative, it turns out that even if we ignored all of them, consent can only address questions of whether we can do something morally. It fails utterly at compelling us to do things we ought to do. If you see someone drowning, should you throw them a life preserver? Consent says nothing. Sure, both you and the drowning victim could consent to the arrangement, but if you don’t consent yourself, the guy in the water is out of luck. Now, we’re left with the fact that consent is too weak to deal with the real world and too amoral to deal with acts we know are morally required of us in the same axiomatic sense that we know the real world exists.

Why should we even obey the rule of consent in the first place, though? Consent Theory has nothing to say about this. If we ought to seek consent before an act is made moral, why? A Consent Theorist could say that if we consent to Consent Theory, we are compelled to follow it, but this does nothing to those who refuse to do so. It’s a moral outlook that can’t compel anyone to follow it in the first place.

Moral duties and values, however, are strong enough to ground a moral framework, and the fact that Consent Theory must appeal to them proves they precede it. We are compelled to act morally and to abstain from acting immorally. Consent is merely a part of this process; when we engage in acts with others which are morally neutral on their face, consent makes sure we don’t force people to do things they don’t want to do. On the other hand, consent doesn’t make immoral acts moral; it can say nothing of whether engaging in same-sex relations, engaging in pre-marital sexual relations, or assisted suicide are moral or immoral. If those acts are immoral, consent can’t justify them.

Consent isn’t in the business of making immoral acts into moral acts. In its rightful place, it is a servant of moral values and duties. When university professors and media personalities skip over moral values and duties – and their origin – and focus instead of consent, all they do is hide the really interesting and important things. I suppose you’d want to do this if you had a sense what you were doing was wrong. Best not to shine a light on darkness if you love the dark.

Misconception Monday – What is Hypocrisy?

I’m restarting a project I had begun years ago: to have themed posts on certain days of the week. Monday, beginning as it does with the same letter as “misconception”, will be dedicated frequently to dealing with instances the same. This week’s target is the modern erroneous perception of hypocrisy.

For a modern post-Christian who believes in moral relativity, there are still two moral absolutes (however contradictory this is): consent and hypocrisy. Anything consented to is moral, and anyone who is a hypocrite is immoral. While I’ll save an analysis of the utter weakness of basing a moral framework on consent, this post is concerned with the definition of hypocrisy that is used in this context.

Hypocrisy is often described as the act of failing to live up to your own standard, or failing at a standard you think applies to others. Neither of these is correct.

In fact, hypocrisy might be the most misused word in the English language. It doesn’t mean having a moral standard which you fail to meet. It doesn’t mean believing something differently now than you believed in the past. It doesn’t mean believing people should be held accountable for something even if you have been guilty of it, too.

Hypocrisy means pretending to be one thing when you are really something else (from Greek hupokrisis, which has to do with acting a theatrical part)*. That’s it. This is the meaning used in the Christian Bible as well.

People are quick to call anyone with a moral standard a “hypocrite” and then express all sorts of moral outrage, not realizing that in doing so, they are actually the ones guilty of hypocrisy (by pretending to be moral superiors while denying morality). The people they are outraged by are guilty only of failing to live up to a standard. But any standard worth having is beyond our grasp. If it was better to live up to any standard than to fail at living up to a good one, we all ought to adopt standards that are impossible to fail. Doing so would do no good, but would tempt all kinds of evil.

* I’ve heard it argued that the origin of a word has no influence over the meaning of a word. This is nonsense and is like saying the origin of an automobile has no influence over its current use. The original meaning of a word and its context does not tell us everything about the word as it is used today, but it tells us a great deal. It also tells us what the word meant to the people who established our cultural traditions regarding its meaning. “Person”, for instance, was originally used to refer to the masks worn by actors (“persona”), and was adopted as an aid in explaining the Trinity. “Personhood”, then, gets its moral power from the relation to God that humans have, being made in His image. This causes bizarre contradictions for modern people who don’t believe in God.

Something similar happens for “rights”, which only have moral weight when the term is used in a way foreign to the demands of activists today.

But both of these are topics for two more misconception Mondays.