It’s chaos out there: Christian moral pluralism in America today

Print More
“The Sinners' Bible," which contains a misprint amending the Seventh Commandment (Exodus 20:14) to “Thou shalt commit adultery” instead of “Thou shalt not commit adultery."

“The Sinners' Bible," which contains a misprint amending the Seventh Commandment (Exodus 20:14) to “Thou shalt commit adultery” instead of “Thou shalt not commit adultery."

thumbRNS-SINNERS-BIBLE102115-807x371

“The Sinners’ Bible,” which contains a misprint amending the Seventh Commandment (Exodus 20:14) to “Thou shalt commit adultery” instead of “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Recently I have had two conversations that reveal the incredible breadth of moral pluralism that exists not just in America but in the Christian population of America.

In one conversation, a young lady told me that her family adheres to a very conservative Protestant tradition. One aspect of this tradition is what can only be described as an extreme form of the idea that God set up a world where men are to rule and women are to serve.

In this family, the father works outside the home, but inside the home he is served by his women, a wife and daughter. After work, he comes in and sits down and puts up his feet. The nearest available woman literally takes off his boots and puts them away. He wants coffee. The nearest available woman makes him coffee. His women cook and serve and clean up after each of his meals. Every day. Every single day.

I gathered that the wife was much more amenable to this scheme than is the daughter. But contemplate that couple for just a minute. It is 2015. The feminist movement has helped shape modern America. Two women are serious candidates for president of the United States. But here in this country is a woman who has chosen to practice a religion in which it is explicitly understood that the man is superior and is to rule, the woman is inferior and is to serve. No one has required her to live such a lifestyle and to practice such a religion. But right now she (and many others) are voluntarily doing just that.

Second conversation. I had been lecturing on Christian sexual ethics to an audience of committed Christians. In the lecture, I ruled out the option of polyamory for Christians. I suggested that it was outside the boundaries of a recognizably Christian sexual ethic, that it had never been contemplated as an option in Christian history, and that there were very good reasons today to rule it out. I learned in a follow-up conversation that the practice of polyamory was not viewed in this way by certain of my listeners; that, indeed, there were practitioners of polyamory in the audience.

I had heard that polyamory was on the rise. I had not anticipated that it would be a live option among committed Christians.

It’s chaos out there. The spectrum of moral views among Christians on just about every subject spans from one extreme to another. And that’s within a faith community that supposedly shares a common Lord, common sacred text, and much common tradition. Now just add in adherents to every other religion and no religion at all and try to have a conversation. What a country!

For those who have managed to carve out a nicely homogeneous little enclave to live in, you might not notice it all that much. Everyone you know has a roughly similar set of beliefs.

But for various reasons I encounter the whole (Christian) spectrum, from the most liberal to the most conservative, the most traditional to the most avant-garde. I address audiences where, often enough, adherents of every particular spot on the spectrum are sitting in the room listening to me. It makes my work incredibly interesting. It also makes it at times almost impossible.

As a progressive evangelical Christian, often I find myself calling audiences back from drifting too far “right,” as with the woman-as-house-slave example. But increasingly I am in contexts where I have to call people back from drifting too far “left,” as with polyamory. I think I can make a strong case rooted in Jesus, Bible, and Christian best practices for the version of Protestant ethics that I teach. But I realize I am competing with a whole lot of other voices.

Sometimes I definitely see the appeal of centralized versions of Christianity where everyone is not just making it up as they go along. Like Catholicism. Because Catholics never argue about issues like the role of women or sexual ethics. Right?

  • Doc Anthony

    Seriously bad times for Christianity right now, and seriously bad times for America too. No joke.

    Nobody likes to talk about topics like “Divine Judgment”, but we Christians better have that conversation soon. While there’s still time.

  • Michael Glass

    There is moral chaos amongst Christians because the old certainties have broken down. Taking the Church or the Bible as infallible guides doesn’t work. Even good Catholics use contraceptives without feeling wrong about it. Similarly, even good Protestants reject slavery and the slaughter of witches.

    Everyone just picks and chooses from the smorgasbord of rules. It’s just that some are less conventional than others.

  • MarkE

    Divine judgment will be upon individuals – no longer will the Lord take his vengeance (if He ever did) upon a whole nation. The judgment will come when we are confronted with the clear reality of what our lives have been and, I believe, the Lord will offer us a final chance to see that he is the Savior of all.

  • Larry

    There is moral chaos among Christians because they are finally realizing that morality is much more than following arbitrary rules without thought or consideration. They are being exposed to the ideas that their religion is not the only belief which must be acknowledged. That even among their own, “your mileage may vary”.

    What passed for morality in the past was merely blind obedience to rules without understanding reasons behind them. Worse still among Christians is the blatant self-interest aspect of their afterlife. One follows rules under expectation of divine reward/punishment, not because it is moral.

    Doc Anthony’s post is a perfect example. By invoking divine punishment he is looking to appeal to self-interest rather than the merits of the religious rules he claims to abide by.

    Moral thinking is about considering one’s actions in light of how it affects others. Not just yourself. Religious morality seeks to excuse any act against others if God “wills it so”…

  • George Nixon Shuler

    Eh, a god that persons should fear in the manner you describe would not be a god worth worshipping by any person of good character.

  • George Nixon Shuler

    Rev. Gushee, I believe your rather cavalier exclusion of polyamory is based on ignorance. It kind of reminds me of how the higher-up liberals refrained from endorsing gay marriage until recently to maintain their political viability.

    I know some polyamorists who are among the most gentle people in the world. as a matter of fact, one tribe of them, as related to me by a member of it, held their gatherings at a beach house which unfortunately for them was next door to some glossolalia-speaking Christian Pentecostal Lesbians who pretty quickly figured out what they were and made no secret of their disapproval of their neighbors. At one point one of the poly women smiled and waved at one of the CPLs who was on the neighboring deck who then turned and scowled and quickly stormed inside.

  • Well friend, that what happens when you abandon the infallibility, authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures.
    Then you have the issue of those who are regenerate vs. cultural Christians. The difference is currently being revealed,

  • A God you do not fear is a god not worth worshiping!
    There is none good but God alone.

  • Shawnie5

    If you feel that way, why would you continue as a member of a church whose emblem is the cross of One who quite frankly said: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”?

  • Shawnie5

    “It kind of reminds me of how the higher-up liberals refrained from endorsing gay marriage until recently to maintain their political viability.”

    I was thinking exactly the same thing.

  • Larry

    Shawnie: You are not making a good case for the moral merits of your belief if you are resorting to appeals of self interest. Believing to avoiding personal punishment.

    Pastor Stephen Andeson: Are you saying that any act if one believes God commands is automatically moral?

  • Shawnie5

    Nobody is trying to make a case to you, Larry. This is an intrachurch thing.

  • Shawnie5

    Also, Dr. Gushee, you might be judging the at-home wife a bit harshly as well. I was at home full time for a while when my kids were small and I did much of what you described above. Certainly not because I felt inferior but because the home simply became my “turf,” so to speak, since I was there all the time. And I did what I could to make my husband comfortable when he was not at work because I loved him, and I appreciated him for working and making it possible for me to be at home during that time. Now we are both employed and things are completely different, but giving help and comfort to one you love, in whatever capacity you can, should be a joy.

    It’s popular to paint at-home motherhood as oppression but I have never yet met another woman who wanted to trade, working full-time while her husband attended to her needs at home. Every single one I have heard opine about it has said she would feel unfairly used in such a case.

  • Jack

    The few people in America today who have any knowledge of history will tell you that none of this is new.

    This article just as easily could have been written 40 or 45 years ago….in the late 1960s to mid-1970s…when the country lurched leftward culturally.

    Tell the average clueless Millennial to ask Grandpa and Grandpa about the Woodstock days of the late 1960s and 1970s. Everyone seems to forget those days, as well as an entire generation of time — 1980 to 2000 — when young people became more conservative and began mocking liberals and radicals caught in a “late 1960s time warp.”

  • Larry

    If there was one Christian Church that would be true. Although you may believe so, the existence of various sects say otherwise. 🙂

    So you are willing to concede Christian belief (at least according to you) has no morality to it. Its just following directions hoping for heaven and fearing hell.

    Good to know.

  • Jack

    Mr. Gushee, there is nothing new about any of this. Decades ago, people were writing articles spotlighting the alleged prevalence of role reversals between men and women, interviewing at one point a woman coming home from work and a bevy of “husbands” rushing to serve her.

    On the ground, America is no more “diverse” morally than it was when Gerald Ford was president. In many ways, it is less so.

    Yes, the elite guardians of society — from the Supreme Court to the Hollywood and music barons — are pushing the envelope more than ever, but in terms of actual behavior of Americans in cities and towns across America, there is little evidence to show a change in mores from that time.

    The biggest change was from about 1965 to 1980. Since then, real-world America has not changed, except in becoming a bit more, not less, traditional.

  • Jack

    Mark, that’s very interesting.

  • Jack

    MIchael, the “old certainties” have far from broken down. They’re more in play today than at any time since the early 1960s.

  • Shawnie5

    The Church is the Body of Christ and it is a unity. There are tares that grow among the wheat, and have been since the apostles’ day, but outsiders like you are not expected to be able to spot them. Sometimes even insiders find it difficult to spot them until their “fruit” becomes obvious, as Jesus warned.

    My question was for George, not you, because he very strangely professes the name of Christ while repudiating the direct teachings of Christ as immoral.

  • Larry

    Wishful thinking. Naturally your version/sect is “Real Christianity” and those which differ from your opinion are not really of the “Church”. Because that is how these things work. 🙂

  • George Nixon Shuler

    Sounds like Calvinism

  • Junebug

    Mr. Gushee, I am confident you are cognizant that division among believers has existed since before and after Jesus walked the earth. THANK YOU for pointing out it still exists – lest no one sect claim the market on truth.

  • Shawnie5

    To an outsider we all look alike. So what else is new?

  • @MarkE,

    “The judgment will come when we are confronted with the clear reality of what our lives have been and, I believe….”

    When we invent an agenda for a God we invent a God in our own image.
    There is no evidence your agenda is any more likely than this one:

    “I shall kill her children with death” – JESUS (Rev. 2:23)
    Jesus, if you can’t change a cracker into flesh, or stop a speeding bullet aimed at an innocent 4-year old girl in a car – I doubt you’ll kill anyone either.

  • Michael Glass

    Hello Jack,

    What certainties are you talking about? What I see is evidence of a decline in religious belief.

  • Wade

    Shawnie many of us “outsiders” were insiders until we examined beliefs and claims of the “Church” more carefully and realized that they are pretty much just fabrications and myths.

    Now, you churchies don’t so much look alike compared with each other. You just look like gullible fools, and you are gullible fools.

  • Richard Rush

    Worshiping a god you fear is nothing more than incessant groveling.

  • AMEN !

  • Bernardo

    Once again putting Christianity in proper 21st century perspective:

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen

  • Larry

    Thank you for reminding people the wisdom of the old adage:

    “Trust people who are seeking the truth, run away from people who know the truth”

  • Shawnie5

    According to John the Apostle, if you are now an outsider, you were never an insider to begin with.

    But of course this scenario does not apply to Larry. He has never even read the scriptures and is therefore helpless when it comes to discernment.

  • Jack

    You’re not necessarily seeing a decline in religious belief, but a big drop in people who affiliate with religion for reasons other than spiritual — ie social status, etc. Since being “religious” no longer confers status, the people who were in it for that reason are jumping ship.

    Good…

  • Jack

    Bernardo, as anybody familiar with how myths develop knows, the fundamental doctrines of Christianity emerged far too soon after Christ’s death to be called after-the-fact myths. Paul, who is accused by the crazies of being the number-one mythmaker, wrote his earliest epistles within twenty years of Jesus’ death. Moreover, in some of his letters, he seemed to be quoting earlier doxologies that contain orthodox Christian doctrine.

    There is no way in the world that a myth surrounding a person, in this case Christ, could develop that swiftly after that person’s death. The reason is obvious: There would be too many contemporaries still alive to debunk it. All the more so in highly literate cultures like that of first-century Israel.

  • Jack

    Wade, if you said you ceased being a Christian due to disappointment with life or unanswered prayer or even the injustice in the world, that would be one thing. I would disagree with your decision, but I would understand where you’re coming from.

    But to say you gave up the faith because you “carefully examined” its teachings and found them to be “myths and fabrications” suggests two things if you’re being honest:

    First, your “faith” was never based on facts or careful examination to begin with, but on emotion and wanting to feel good, and second, you have spent no real time examining the voluminous evidence for the faith being true.

    I would challenge you, if you’re intellectually honest, to look at the evidence a second time, this time by reading both sides, not just one.

    But if you’re not intellectually honest, that’s another matter entirely.

  • Jack

    Michael, I was quoting you….you used the term, “old certainties.” Go back to your prior post and see.

  • Bernardo

    Highly literate cultures? Not really. Even Jesus was illiterate.

    Also, there is only one place in the NT that suggests Jesus could read i.e. Luke 4:16. This passage is not attested to in any other NT passage or in any other related document making it a later addition or poor translation as per many NT scholars’ analyses.

    See also Professor Crossan and Professor Reed’s book, Excavating Jesus, p. 30.

    See also Professor Bruce Chilton’s commentary in his book, Rabbi Jesus, An Intimate Biography, pp 99-101- An excerpt:

    “What Luke misses is that Jesus stood in the synagogue as an illiterate mamzer in his claim to be the Lord’s anointed”.

    It is very unfortunate that Jesus was illiterate for it resulted in many gospels and epistles being written years after his death by non-witnesses. This resulted in significant differences in said gospels and epistles and with many embellishments to raise Jesus to the level of a deity to compete with the Roman gods and emperors.

  • Bernardo

    “Stories circulated to the effect that Alexander of Macedonia was not only the son of Philip II, but also of the god Zeus-Ammon (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, “Alexander” 2.1-3.2); Plato was the son of Ariston and the god Apollo (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 3.1-2), and Augustus was the son of Octavius as well as the god Apollo (Suetonius, Lives o f the Caesars 2.4.1-7). The extraordinary character of these elites reputedly stemmed from both their divine origins and their kingroups. Their kin-groups provided one form of legitimation-political right to the throne and/or social status (thus the importance of Joseph in Matthew’s genealogy). Their divine procreation provided another: their honor was divinely ascribed, and their greatness as leaders derived from divine paternity.”

    From: K.C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1998. p.55

  • Dear David, thank you for this poignant article. I wonder about your definition of polyamory. For example, do you disprove of technical chastity that could include Christians participating in lap dances or erotic massages? For decades, I categorically condemned all Christians involved in technically chaste activity apart from marriage, but I no longer believe those former judgments of mine. I hope to hear others about this. Peace, Jim

  • Jack

    Atheist Max, if you want to believe that the universe and everything in it was always there, good luck in reconciling that with science, and especially the Big Bang.

    But if you will admit the reality that it wasn’t always there but at some point came into existence, then either you believe someone created it, along with its unending complexity, or you engage in magical thinking that says it sprung up out of nothing and developed all by its lonesome.

    If the latter, you are wedded to a narrative that is crazier than the most lunatic religions in history.

  • Jack

    Given Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His parables, we readily see the literary quality of his utterances, making it highly unlikely that He was illiterate. But more to the point, even if we knew nothing more about Jesus than the fact that He was a first-century Jewish male, that alone would make it likely that He was literate.

    One more point on this — As in any society, those most likely to be illiterate are the poorest of the poor, but given what we know about first-century Galilee, and given what we read about Jesus and his family and the kinds of people He had routine access to, it was highly unlikely that He grew up poor.

    And Bernardo, if most people in a society can read, a narrative about a given member of that society is not likely to mention that he can read. There is no reason to — literacy is assumed.

  • Jack

    What is your point, Bernardo?

  • Larry

    “First, your “faith” was never based on facts or careful examination to begin with, but on emotion and wanting to feel good, and second, you have spent no real time examining the voluminous evidence for the faith being true. ”

    1) Faith is belief in the absence of facts or careful examination.

    2) Evidence of faith being true is a fiction because of #1 By definition faith is belief in absence of facts and examination

    3) If you were being intellectually honest you would not make the claim of evidence existing to support faith. So your challenge must be ignored as the rantings of someone who doesn’t understand religious belief and feels the need to attack others who do.

  • Larry

    Thank you for Jack, for demonstrating a willful ignorance of science in favor of half thought out mythology. There is nothing to reconcile. Creationism has no scientific basis. Your inability to comprehend it is duly noted.

    People who profess belief in it are all 1iars by nature. They have to deny faith as the basis of their religious belief in public, yet privately it is the case. Your inability to acknowledge the basis and limits of faith is immature to say the least.

  • John Johnson

    “I suggested that it was outside the boundaries of a recognizably Christian sexual ethic, that it had never been contemplated as an option in Christian history, and that there were very good reasons today to rule it out.”

    Um, just like homosexual practice. Your “reading” of Scripture’s teaching on same-sex practice offers you no good reason to oppose polyamory. The hypocrisy in your acceptance and promotion of same-sex relationships and your opposition to polyamarous relationships is stunning.