Tom Gilson

Heat to Light: Our Lost Moral High Ground, and How to Begin Reclaiming It

Remember when Christianity held the moral high ground? Maybe not. Depends on how long you’ve been around. It sure isn’t the case now, at least not in the minds of many of our contemporaries.

(This post accompanies the Thinking Christian Podcast of the same title.)

I’m talking perception here, not reality, but perception is powerful. I’ll come back to reality in a bit, because Christianity’s reality really is good. Too few see it that way now, though.

Some of us believers haven’t caught on yet to the change in the culture challenges us. The question used to be whether Christianity is true; now it’s whether Christianity is good. Christian apologists emphasize how the faith passes the test of evidence and reason; the world, especially young people, respond by saying, “I don’t know if it’s true and I don’t care if it’s true. I don’t want to be a Christian if it means hanging around with people like that.”

We’ve lost the high ground. What do we do? Read on …

The Low Ground We’re Stuck In Now

So what are they thinking of when they say, “people like that”? They’re thinking we’re a bunch of bigots. We’re backwards, we’re politicized, we’re anti-everything, especially anything that has to do with what they call “loving relationships.” We’re not just racist, we’re “Christian nationalists,” which is close cousin to “white supremacist,” even though not all of us are white even in America, and the most Christian country in the world, per capita, is Kenya.

If you think the “typical Christian” is one you’ll find at a megachurch in Texas, you were never right, but in the past few decades that’s become more wrong than ever. Christianity’s center of gravity is no longer in America’s Bible Belt, it’s in the global south and east: Africa, Asia, and South America.

But we’re still “white supremacists.” We’re “anti-intellectual,” too, they say, which is such a big topic I’m going to devote next week’s blog post and podcast to it. I’ll come back to all of these in time, or you can use the search function here or at The Stream to find where my colleagues and I have already covered it. (The search is under the About menu on the Thinking Christian home page.)

And to top it all off, we’re “arrogant,” “conceited,” and “judgmental” for thinking “our truth should be everybody’s truth, and there’s something wrong with you if you doubt it.” So if Christianity is a club, it’s not one you join, because no one would want to. No, if it’s a club, it’s the kind Christians use to bash people’s heads with.

How Negatively They See Us

I’m being realistic here — realistic about perceptions, that is. My friend George Yancey, a Christian professor of sociology at the University of North Texas, did a sociological research study into what he calls Christianophobia. (I prefer the term anti-Christian hostility, but we both mean the same thing by it.) Some of it is extreme. In open-ended questionnaire items, seven respondents made reference to lions and stakes, as in, “Feed them to the lions.”

They were echoed by many saying things like,

  • “Christianity is a disease that must be kept in check.”
  • “They should be eradicated without remorse. Their only purpose is to damage and inflict their fundamentalist virus onto everyone they come in contact with.”
  • They are well organized and highly motivated, kind of like a serial killer.”
  • “They are so arrogant and obnoxious and refuse to take NO for an answer. I’d probably end up shooting one of them out of frustration.”
  • “The only good Christian is a dead Christian.”

Opinions this extreme are still a small minority, but as Yancey details (I strongly recommend you get the book) it’s a minority that’s significantly more wealthy, more educated, more white, and more male than the rest of America. More influential, in other words. Much larger numbers of people just see Christianity as something weird, wrong, arrogant, and judgmental.

And that’s the kind of heat you’re likely to run into.

How do we answer them? It depends on the specific challenge they raise. The one answer that’s always relevant, though, is the life and character of Jesus Christ.

Are they right? Let’s split our answer in two, for there is Christianity and there is Christianity. There is Christianity the belief system as founded by Jesus Christ and presented in the Scriptures. Then there’s Christianity the social movement. In this case the focus is on the evangelical movement.

Social movements involve flawed humans, so of course you’re going to find problems among evangelical Christians. I know it all too well. I probably have a lot more church friends in prison right now than the average Christian. (How’s that for a dubious claim to fame?)

The Real Good in What God Does

But I’ll also tell you that for about 15 years it was my job to deal with major personnel problems in one of the world’s largest non-denominational mission agencies, Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru).

I’ll tell you a story from those days. I was in grad school studying organizational psychology. I told a prof one day that I was going to miss a class. At that time I was part of a leadership team that was preparing to close down a major ministry in Cru, displacing maybe 200 people. They didn’t know it was coming, but this was the week we were all going to gather in Atlanta, make the announcement, and help them deal with it afterward.

I told my prof what we were about to do, and being an organizational psychology expert, he knew the right question to ask: “So, you’re going to take their keys and their passwords and escort them out before they do any damage, right?” I said, “You know, we’ve been planning this meeting for six weeks now, and the possibility of sabotage never crossed our minds.”

That’s what happens when people really follow Christ. Not perfect, but the effect of following a good God is that people tend to become more good than they would otherwise have been.

It didn’t need to. These highly committed Christ-followers were better people than that. We were, too, as a leadership team: We worked hard to help them, especially to find them alternate job placements. They knew we were good people making decisions; we knew they were good people who would unfortunately suffer, but that they would stand strong in Christ. And they did.

I have story after story of Cru staff doing the right thing, and even though it was my specialty, very few stories of them doing wrong. The divorce rate, for example, was almost shockingly low; it was almost unheard of there.

That’s what happens when people really follow Christ. Not perfect, but the effect of following a good God is that people tend to become more good than they would otherwise have been.

How To Answer

Now I know there are still some who say our God isn’t good, and that Christianity the belief system is badly messed up. How do we answer them? It depends on the specific challenge they raise. The one answer that’s always relevant, though, is the life and character of Jesus Christ. In my book Too Good to be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality, I look at exactly what the title says: Jesus’ incomparable character. His love, for one thing, is absolutely unparalleled.

You may have noticed in the sidebar (here, too!) I’m offering you a free chapter from this book, which I think will help you see better than ever before how great Jesus is, how far beyond all comparison. It’s my gift to you, for subscribing to my blog and podcast. More than one Christian author and speaker has said they were amazed to find out how much more there was to learn about Jesus’ greatness than they’d realized. And Lee Strobel said this might be the most surprising and refreshing book you’ll read this year.

Above all, though, Jesus demonstrated his love on the cross: “For God demonstrates his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8)

There’s so much more to be said about these things. In weeks to come I’ll begin offering a course explaining in depth how to answer some of these questions: Is Christianity really intolerant and bigoted? And, We know the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, but why is it wrong? What’s so harmful in it? And the same goes for transgender, too! And what about all the evil and suffering God allows in the world?

Our Two-Fold Task

And the point I’m going to make in each of these sessions is two-fold: First, that God’s way is still true, and second, that it’s good that God’s way is true. In other words I want to help us all be equipped not only be to explain what Christianity says on these matters, but to explain it in such a way that people can start to recover a sense of Christianity’s goodness.

When we talk about sexuality, for example, I’ll share stories and statistics on how a strong male-female marriage culture helps couples, it helps children, it helps education, it even helps the economy. And I’ll show how our questions about sexuality affect that marriage culture. The point there will be, Not only does God have things to say about sex, but the things he says are actually good for us. Christianity is still good!

Our job is two-fold: To show that it’s true, and then to show it’s good that it’s true. Sometimes we’ll even reverse the order: First show that it’s good, then show that it’s true.

It’ll take some time going through all these topics, obviously. For now the one main thing I want to get across is this: That the heat we’re facing today is one of disgust toward the faith for all the things we have supposedly gotten wrong in morality, society, and politics. Some people still challenge us on evidence for the faith, but more often the question isn’t, “Is Christianity true?” The question these days is, “Is Christianity good?”

So our job is two-fold: To show that it’s true, and then to show it’s good that it’s true. Sometimes we’ll even reverse the order: First show that it’s good, then show that it’s true.

And the Third Task That’s Actually the First Task

I can’t leave this topic without a final word on the most obvious point of all. One way we show Christianity is good is by doing good. We show it’s truly loving by being people who are truly loving. We show it’s right by living in integrity. You know the standard. I don’t need to use this space to equip you in it, because your pastor and your friends and family are teaching it already, or at least I hope they are. This is for picking up some things that may not be covered so much elsewhere.

But remember, ultimately it’s the goodness of Jesus Christ we’re pointing to. I’m going to encourage you one more time to go download my free preview chapter on Jesus’ astonishing, unparalleled, incomparable love. It’ll help you see Jesus’ greatness for yourself, and to share his goodness with others, too.

Image Credit(s): Unsplash/Jamie Street.

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3 thoughts on “Heat to Light: Our Lost Moral High Ground, and How to Begin Reclaiming It

  1. You have to let sinners sin. It’s fine to tell them they are sinners, but only once or twice – not endlessly. The sinners know they are sinners (or that you think they are sinners), so you mustn’t belabor the point, or else it’s just obnoxious.

    The worst thing of all is political activism. Don’t use the government to try to force sinners to behave as if they are righteous. This is where people really start to hate Christianity. And then, of course, don’t try to violently overthrow the U.S. government like on Jan. 6. Yes, Christians are guilty of that. The Capitol riot is what Christianity stands for today (talking about perceptions here, of course).

    Christians must totally repudiate Trump and the whole Republican party for their criminal treason and mafia-like corruption. Betraying our country to the Russians like that! Subverting the electoral process! Endless lies that are just blatantly self-serving. Christians need to completely repudiate this kind of thing and fight hard on the other side, in favor of freedom and democracy.

    Again, you need to let sinners sin. Let sinners vote. Christians must fight hard right now to ensure that all sinners can vote without difficulty. Even if they’re going to vote for bad things like abortion and gay marriage, that’s fine because right now Christians need to show that they will let God be the judge, and Christians need to show loving kindness to all the sinners out there who just want their voice to be heard.

  2. Funny how much of that preaching I already agreed with. Not all of it, especially the lies you swallowed whole about Donald Trump. Or the implication that someone is trying to make it hard for “sinners” to vote. Or the way you’ve distorted the realities of Christian political activism, or your evidence-lacking attribution of the Capitol riot, and your completely distorted picture that it was “what Christianity stands for today.” Yes, you were talking perceptions, but I suggest you take a couple minutes to check whether perceptions match reality.

    So maybe I didn’t agree so much of your sermon after all. Of course I do agree we have to let sinners sin, unless the sin is a crime punishable by law.

  3. I agree with you that many Americans perceive U.S. Christianity to have lost the moral high ground. I think there’s only one reason for the change, which is the close association many churches have built with the Republican party. Regardless of whether Trump and the Republicans did this or that, a large percentage of Americans think the Republicans are immoral. And therefore Christianity is immoral. We’re talking about what people think, of course.

    No, I don’t think the perceptions match reality. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here talking with you 🙂

    But unfortunately, the U.S. church has gotten so politicized that it’s no good now just to stop open support for Republicans. You can’t just stop being political, but you need to do some active counter-balancing, if you want to regain the moral high ground.

    That was what I was trying to say in my first comment.

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