Religion Today

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Morality: The Face of Public Christianity
Paul V.M. Flesher

A non-Christian who read recent newspapers to learn about Christianity might arrive at the following picture: Christianity believes that marriage is between a man and woman, so no marriage between members of the same sex. Christianity believes life begins at conception, so no abortion and no stem cell research. Christianity believes that God created the universe, so evolution should not be taught. Sexual activity belongs in marriage, so no premarital sex.

In this picture, Christianity is about actions that people should or should not do; it is about morality. What is missing from this public Christianity are the religion's core features. Salvation, Scripture, faith and belief have disappeared from public view. How did this happen?

The story begins in the early 1500s, with the Protestant Reformation. Prior to that, the Christianity of Western Europe was Catholic and centered on community. Based on their doctrinal interpretation of Scripture, Catholicism raised a group of men out of the community to become priests. These priests then mediated between God and the people to bring salvation, forgiveness, and blessings from God to the people. The church stood with individuals before God, buffering them in his majestic presence.

Starting in 1517, Martin Luther changed all that. Instead of the church standing with the individual, Luther held that individuals stood alone before God, with only their faith, based on their understanding of Scripture, alongside them.

Despite this theological change, the social reality altered surprisingly little. Individuals still lived in communities and these communities shared a single doctrinal interpretation of Scripture. Individuals did not interpret Scripture but, rather, followed their community's understanding.

Often these communities were formed around the teachings of influential theologians and leaders. Luther founded the Lutherans; John Calvin founded the Reformed Church and influenced the Puritans; and John Knox organized the Presbyterians. And these are just a couple of the communities, the churches if you will, created from the Reformation.

So, early forms of Protestantism took a similar structure to Catholicism: Each was a community that brought a common interpretation to Scripture which, in turn, led to common social norms (i.e., morality).

The Puritans brought this communally-organized Christianity to America, where they established a new community that would help individuals lead moral lives in keeping with the Puritan interpretation of Scripture.

But Luther's dictum of the individual alone still rang out. When Roger Williams interpreted Scripture for himself in the 1630s, the Massachusetts Puritans expelled him. Williams believed in a radical understanding of Luther's dictum: The church should be separate from the government so that the church could not use government powers to enforce doctrine and interpretation on individuals.
Williams' idea became the foundation of America's religious freedom.

By the 1680s, variety was the religious flavor of the era. Formulations of Christian beliefs called catechisms proliferated. Puritan preacher Increase Mather thought that "over 500" different catechisms were circulating at the time. Over the next century or more, European immigrants brought in new Protestant denominations and Americans created their own.

By the 1800s, Christians realized all this religious freedom fragmented Christianity and interfered with its ability to accomplish the great deeds needed. So, they banded together into nondenominational organizations to take on moral projects. To accomplish this unity, they overlooked doctrinal features which divided them.

Thus, the great ethical movements of the century were founded: anti-slavery, temperance, women's suffrage, and missionary projects to evangelize both foreign peoples and the USA's "unchurched" masses. By the mid-20th century, new nondenominational groups joined with those of a more secular bent in the Civil Rights and Women's Rights movements. Lessons of these movements were, that if the divided Christian populace overlooked matters of doctrine and Scripture interpretation, they could unify on moral issues.

Toward the end of the 20th century, a new alliance of Christians was formed. Since the great moral concerns of slavery and personal civil rights had been resolved (more or less), these groups took up new ones. Thus, the Right to Life movement, for example, took up the cause of the unborn. This brought together an alliance of conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons, who were able to overlook their differences on doctrine and Scripture, and to unite on what they saw as a great moral concern.

Morality is, thus, a great religious unifier, where different religious groups can agree. They may arrive at those moral positions through different doctrinal interpretations of Scripture, even from different versions of Scripture. But to strengthen their unity, they ignore those differences. The public unity of Christianity, as apparent in American news coverage, comes from morality rather than doctrine.

Flesher is director of the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found at . To comment on this column, visit .  


  • (1) Murder, rape, and pillage at Jabesh-gilead (Judges 21:10-24 NLT)

    So they sent twelve thousand warriors to Jabesh-gilead with orders to kill everyone there, including women and children. "This is what you are to do," they said. "Completely destroy all the males and every woman who is not a virgin." Among the residents of Jabesh-gilead they found four hundred young virgins who had never slept with a man, and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh in the land of Canaan.

    The Israelite assembly sent a peace delegation to the little remnant of Benjamin who were living at the rock of Rimmon. Then the men of Benjamin returned to their homes, and the four hundred women of Jabesh-gilead who were spared were given to them as wives. But there were not enough women for all of them. The people felt sorry for Benjamin because the LORD had left this gap in the tribes of Israel. So the Israelite leaders asked, "How can we find wives for the few who remain, since all the women of the tribe of Benjamin are dead? There must be heirs for the survivors so that an entire tribe of Israel will not be lost forever. But we cannot give them our own daughters in marriage because we have sworn with a solemn oath that anyone who does this will fall under Yahweh's curse."

    Then they thought of the annual festival of the LORD held in Shiloh, between Lebonah and Bethel, along the east side of the road that goes from Bethel to Shechem. They told the men of Benjamin who still needed wives, "Go and hide in the vineyards. When the women of Shiloh come out for their dances, rush out from the vineyards, and each of you can take one of them home to be your wife! And when their fathers and brothers come to us in protest, we will tell them, 'Please be understanding. Let them have your daughters, for we didn't find enough wives for them when we destroyed Jabesh-gilead. And you are not guilty of breaking the vow since you did not give your daughters in marriage to them.'" So the men of Benjamin did as they were told. They kidnapped the women who took part in the celebration and carried them off to the land of their own inheritance. Then they rebuilt their towns and lived in them. So the assembly of Israel departed by tribes and families, and they returned to their own homes.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/22/2012  

  • If the Foundation is built on Sand, the whole structure will collapse.

    The whole of Christian theology is based on a conversation between a Man, a Woman and a Snake. Straight off one would be saying, "This is a MYTH, right"?

    The Canons of Dordt
    Article 1: God's Right to Condemn All People
    Since all people have sinned in Adam and have come under the sentence of the curse and eternal death, God would have done no one an injustice if it had been his will to leave the entire human race in sin and under the curse, and to condemn them on account of their sin. As the apostle says: The whole world is liable to the condemnation of God (Rom. 3:19), All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), and The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23)


    Original Sin

    Original Sin-- In the fifth chapter of Romans Paul created a concept--Original Sin--that is crucial to Christianity. He alleged humanity is under a curse because of Adam's failings in the Garden of Eden.

    “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” (Romans. 5:12).

    “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians. 15:22)."(Also note Rom. 5:17-19).

    Yet, despite Paul's assertions it's difficult to see how the condemnations pronounced upon Adam, Eve, and the Serpent in the third chapter of Genesis (Genesis 3:14-19) condemned all mankind to eternal punishment. Paul's interpretation is just not warranted by the narrative. Genesis 3:14, for example, says:

    “And the Lord God said unto the serpent, 'Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life”.

    Clearly this bestows no curse upon Adam and doesn't materially affect the serpent. How did the serpent move before, if not upon its belly? It's difficult to imagine a serpent walking upright or finding one that eats dust. Even if he had walked on legs, the alteration is not relevant to the issue. It is the curse on Adam that matters.

    Genesis 3:15 says:
    "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers (her seed- KJV, RSV); he will crush your head and you will strike his heel."

    These curses sound ominous but are of little consequence for several reasons. In the first place, the serpent, i.e., the Devil, didn't have offspring. According to Christianity the battle between good and evil is between the Devil and all others. Nothing is said about the Devil's children. Secondly, if "the woman" refers to Eve, then her offspring could refer to any person who lived. By what rationale can Paul say this verse is referring to one specific individual, Jesus, who lived thousands of years later in another part of the world? Her seed (RSV) must be referring to one person. If not, if it is referring to all of Eve's descendants, then to whom does "he" refer? Thirdly, the waters are muddied even further by the fact that the KJV and the RSV say "her seed" and seed is always plural in the Old Testament. It's never used to refer to a single individual, such as Jesus. And lastly, the "he" couldn't be Jesus, as Paul contends, because Jesus never crushed the head of Satan. If he had, then how could there still be "sinners" and how could the Serpent still be doing injury? Romans 16:20, which says:
    "And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly" and 1 Thessalonians. 2:18, which says:
    "Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us" show that even after the death of Jesus, Satan still lived and exercised control over people. The best Christians can do with this problem is allege Jesus will destroy Satan when Christ returns.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6/12/2012  

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