The Church Planter and Moralism

If life in the-age-to-come is powered by the fossil fuel of moralism, then the Western church is well placed to take up its place within it.  If, however, life in the-age-to-come is quickened by the pure, sweet oxygen of grace, then we may just find ourselves struggling to breathe when that age breaks into this age.

The new wave of church planting has been popular long enough for us all to have read books/followed blogs/heard podcasts by certain hip North American pastors living in rather rainy – but funky nonetheless – North West Coast cities, warning planters with too much discretionary time to watch out for the bracket-creep of immorality in their private lives. The candour of such writers/speakers has shocked many of their more genteel Southern Baptist brethren who, despite never having used, or even heard, the terminologies being employed to describe the worrying state of immorality among church planting types, are nevertheless drawn to google such words for themselves, (strictly for research purposes of course – Net-Nanny-Ed).

Driscoll (the big reveal – Ed) is right.  Addictions, greed, adulteries are all vices that  church planters seem particularly prone to, especially with all that time and aloneness to deal with in the early years, not to mention the pressure of a young family living in a strange new environment.   Accountability, godly self-control, disciplined holiness; these are the preventatives (and often for many, sadly, the cures), to the immorality just beneath the surface of our lives.

But this blog post is not titled “The Church Planter and Morality”, it is titled “The Church Planter and Moralism”. And for good reason.  The older I get, the more concern I have that this insidious virus of moralism – an evil parody of the gospel –  has affected the western evangelical church without many even realising it.  In the best of all possible worlds, church planters go out into the world equipped with all they require for their plant to take root.  Church planting tool kits are available, mentors, coaches, consultants.  Many planters spend time with a successful planter in order to capture the DNA of that plant, so that they can, in time, reproduce it in their setting.  My concern is that many are going out, thinking they are equipped to bring the good news of Jesus into new frontiers, (in other words, “the gospel”) when all they in fact have is a fine-sounding semi-Pelagianism, based on behaviour, values, and “try-harder/do more” sermons.  Many of these planters have been drinking this poisonous milk since birth, so they assume that is the gospel.  The problem of course is that it sounds like the gospel, but is far from the gospel.

You see immorality never looks like the gospel.  Moralism, however, can be morphed and twisted and shaped to mimic the gospel in word (almost) and deed.  For a church planter to start a church plant without being aware of this growing cancer of moralism that I believe is endemic in the western evangelical church, is the spiritual equivalent of being, unbeknownst to you, a carrier of HIV going out to sow your wild oats.

This begs the question: How can you tell the difference between the gospel and this moralistic gospel parody?  The answer, surprisingly, lies not in how each promotes good deeds, or even how each understands how to be saved, but rather, how each responds to sin when it is confronted with it.  In short, when moralism is confronted with sin the only thing it does is engender more (and more sophisticated) sin – often in the form of outrage and indignation, while the gospel, when confronted with sin, engenders the sweet, healing fruit of the gospel that both mourns the sin, but is not surprised by it. While both moralism and the gospel react in the same manner initially to sin, it is what is sucked into the vacuum left behind by sin, that is the true reveal.

Let me explain what I mean.  When a terrible sin that has long been hidden becomes exposed in a church that has moralism as its DNA several things occur.  First there is the initial shock.  This is the point of convergence with a church that has gospel DNA. Sin should shock us.  It is an evil affront to the living God who, having created us in his image, is too pure to even look on our rebellious sin without burning it up in the righteous fire of his judgement.  So the first thing that sin does, which is common to both DNAs, is deflate and dismay us with the shock of it all.

But as the earthquake subsides an interesting, and telling divergence occurs. With moralism, shock soon gives way to a variety of emotions and reactions: outrage, anger, indignation, self-righteousness, finger-pointing, self-loathing and, often, a relief that it wasn’t worse/me/involving the leadership team.  But often, the opposite is the case too.  Moralism can talk about sin, but when confronted with it, tries to hide it or explain it away.  That is why so many churches that pride themselves on being “big on the Word”, have a pulpit ministry that constantly, denounces generic sin, or are defined by “strong leadership”, or are even “Reformed”, cannot look sin in the face and call it for what it is – an affront first to God and then to humans.

So how does a Gospel DNA church respond after the initial shock wears off?  It mourns the sin.  It reflects on the awfulness of sin –  my sin/our sin – that led Jesus, the truly sinless one, to the cross for us.  It finds time and voice for sober reflection on the reality of our brokenness.  And most of all it decides that if sin is an affront to the gospel, then the only solution to sin is the gospel! In other words, whatever drives your church DNA – moralism or the gospel – will be the response that your church takes when it decides to map a path forward.

The problem with moralism, of course, is that is has no power to change peoples’ lives – not really change them that is.  Oh, there might be some dusting down, some expulsions, and some harrumphing by the leadership – and the odd topical sermon by the pastor (unless of course he’s the one who ran off with the organist) – but real change will not occur.  That is because only the gospel can change us. Really, really change us. Only the good news that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (not just to get us to join a movement) can root out my sin, your sin, everybody’s sin, including the sins of self-righteousness, pride and self-loathing that moralism so often engenders.  The sweet oxygen of the gospel is the only balm that lungs, seared by the mustard gas of sin, ever need if they are to recover.  The fresh water from the river of life is the only drink that will quench the parched throat of the one whose sin has dried them out and left them a hollowed husk of a man or a woman.  The joyous, incredulous news that we are justified, not by our works, but as a free gift, is the only message that will overdub the loop messages of despair, remorse, anger, bitterness and regret that plague our sleepless nights.  Only the gospel will raise you up from the pit, and only the gospel will enable you, with compassion, to raise others up from the pit, soiled and stained though they may be.

So church planters, are you sure you have Gospel DNA and not Moralism DNA in your tool kit?  Has the gospel so infected your life that destructive sin cannot take firm root, cannot entice you, cannot allure you? And has the gospel so infected your ministry that exposed, deep immorality in your midst, after its initial shock, does not infect your ministry, and your church community, with self-righteousness, cover-ups and pride?  The age-to-come has indeed broken into this age.  Already the sweet oxygen of the gospel is flowing, in the power of the Spirit, into the lives of the believing community.  Let’s ensure we never taint that oxygen with the poisonous fumes of the gospel parody: moralism.

2 Comments

  1. Stevo, appreciate your thinking on this, wondering if this fits the scenario of moralism or something else- if there is an additional reaction mode of if it is just sourced in moralism also: I’ve seen two churches in the Bay Area where pastors have committed really bad betrayals, maintained abusive relationships with their wives and cheated multiple times. One brought his sin to the elders and tried to fix things with his wife, but after some time failed, told his church and resigned. The other lied about it despite evidence and the newish church leaders/board were too weak to confront him on it initially, played soft and refused to act for some time. In the end when it was revealed that he had done this previously in another church (so much for due diligence on hiring a pastor) he was bumped, but in a nice way that left most of the congregation (and our friends) thinking he had just had a sad split with his wife and who still followed hi and respected him.
    I can’t figure if that weak response is rooted in moralism or in just an aversion to acknowledging sin and failure in pastors/planters.

    1. Hi Steve
      Sounds like two sad and destructive turns of events. The first seems more clear cut in that repentance was there, but the consequences of sin resulted in a situation where a positive result was out of his control. I still believe he should have stepped down from ministry because he has demonstrated he does not/ has not met the criteria for eldership in Timothy/Titus.
      The second is more dangerous is that both parties – perpetrator and the church – cannot face the issue and deal with the sin. The new board were, it would seem, ill chosen, because their view of sin/grace and how sin is so destructive and how The Lord will expose it one day anyway, was totally inadequate for those with oversight of God’s sheep. The pastor sounds the typical “wolf” about which we are warned in Scripture, but moralism does not know how to deal with this. the bumping in a nice way, as you put it, opens up the door for the same sin to return to them, and demonstrates that they are willing to perpetrate the problem by giving him a nice cv for his next church interview. We hate conflict – that is half the problem. Part of that is human weakness, but the other half is the refusal to see that we are in conflict already! The manner in which sin, the world and the devil are talked about in scripture clearly shows that sin is playing a zero sum game with us. We win and it loses, or it wins and we lose – there is no honourable draw. refusing to see that is refusing to take sin- or it’s solution – seriously enough, and that is part of what moralism is about.
      good thoughts Steve

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