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Ethics must adorn our doctrine

Separating doctrine from ethics is the pathway to theological liberalism

Andy Stanley Wikimedia Commons

Ethics must adorn our doctrine

Christianity in the West is facing a theological crisis.

This crisis represents nothing less than the integrity of the gospel in western Christendom. The crisis is this—the severing of Christian doctrine from Christian ethics.

In recent months, we have seen this error surface within both Protestant evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism.

This fall, popular Atlanta megachurch pastor Andy Stanley hosted a conference, and sermons in defense of the conference, that amounted to the plausibility of “gay Christianity.”

To put it in its simplest form, Stanley postured that while the official teaching of his church had not changed, and that the Bible indeed condemns homosexual behavior, it is simply unrealistic to foist upon homosexuals the insurmountable burden of sexual chastity. So, Stanley suggests, the church should refrain from making demands of individuals that our libidinous culture understands is simply impossible to obey.

Then just this week, Pope Francis shocked no one by taking his drift toward moderation and compromise even further by giving official Vatican approval for giving priestly blessings of persons in a same-sex relationship. Being too clever by half, Pope Francis is technically affirming the Roman Catholic Magisterium’s teaching on marriage but differentiating the blessing of persons from the blessing of the relationship itself. It’s a distinction without a difference for anyone with the intellectual honesty to say this out loud.

In both instances with Stanley and Francis, “pastoral accommodation” for “irregular unions” plows through clear biblical teaching. Biblical authority gives way to individual autonomy. Sexual purity gives way to the lust of the flesh. To put this in the terms of an ethics professor, it is the severing of biblical doctrine (what we believe) from biblical ethics (how we act). Such a division is a false dichotomy that biblical and historical Christianity knows nothing of.

Protestants and Roman Catholics everywhere should understand the significant departure from biblical and historical Christianity that Andy Stanley’s and Pope Francis’s moves represent. Pastoral accommodation at the expense of both biblical clarity and biblical ethics in order to appease sinful desires—all in the name of a faux-compassion—is unloving and schismatic.

The message sent from the pope and from Stanley treats Christian discipleship as unrealistic and unattainable or as burdensome and constrictive of human flourishing.

But we should understand this severing at even a deeper level. Both episodes involving Stanley and Francis are not only a severing of doctrine from ethics, but a denial of the very power of the gospel at its root. We should be clear-eyed about this. No Christian perfectly obeys. I am a sinner. You are a sinner. But the gospel presents the sinner’s condition in the past tense: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). The message sent from the pope and from Stanley treats Christian discipleship as unrealistic and unattainable or as burdensome and constrictive of human flourishing. This is biblical and pastoral malpractice of the highest order.

In one of the first lectures of my ethics class, I give a small lecture on the relationship between the gospel and ethics. I do this because I do not want my students leaving my ethics class left with mere “answers” to all the pressing cultural crises facing their future ministries. I want them to understand that the gospel’s intelligibility is on the line when it comes to ethics—not only our obedience but the very source of where that obedience comes from—the Spirit of God. I go to Titus to make my case: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14).

For the Apostle Paul and for each of us today, our obedience—or our “ethics,” if you want to use that term—adorns the doctrine that we believe is true (Titus 2:10). The Bible views ethical obedience as the logical outworking of the gospel’s taking root in our life. Our discipleship, our obedience, and our daily devotion to Christ is meant to bear witness to what Christ has done for us and in us, today. We are called to obedience, and given the power of that obedience, because of the gospel.

The problem with the recent moves by Pope Francis and Andy Stanley is not that such an approach is “inclusive” or “compassionate,” it is that it actually ends up forsaking the very thing both purportedly are supposed to represent: the gospel of Jesus Christ. When religious leaders give sanction to sin, they supplant the need for a redeemer, only to leave us dead in our transgressions.

These are the battlegrounds of the new liberalism, which calls for revising Christian doctrine to placate the spirit of the age. What is new is merely the form that this liberalism is taking—the disastrous separation of doctrine and ethics.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew is the managing editor of WORLD Opinions and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.

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