The End of Moral Absolutes?

I recently stumbled upon a poll by the Barna Group, an Evangelical Christian polling group that conducts surveys about the thoughts, attitudes, and spiritual beliefs of America. Over 1000 individuals of different faiths were surveyed and asked various questions regarding the state of morality in America and the nature of moral truth.

Frankly, the results are fairly disheartening to read, but they aren’t all that surprising. Let’s take a look at some of the most important findings here.

Question: Are you concerned about the nation’s moral condition?

Demographic Percent “Yes”
 Overall  80%
 Elders  89%
 Baby Boomers  87%
 Gen-Xers  75%
 Millennials  74%
 Practicing Christians  90%
 No Faith  67%
 Faith other than Christianity  72%

An overwhelming majority (80%) of the American population as a whole is concerned about America’s moral condition. As one might expect, the amount of moral concern decreases as the age of the group decreases. While 89% of elderly people show concern, only 74% of Millennials show the same. Practicing Christians are the most concerned about the nation’s morality at 90%, as they should be. The widespread acceptance of things like abortion and sexual deviancy have further polarized our nation’s moral views.

While a majority of adults with no faith (67%) said they were concerned about the moral state of America, I can only assume that some of these respondents said so because they believe America is too conservative in its moral convictions. There are many atheists who believe the moral constraints of our culture that result from being a majority Christian nation are problematic and need to be thrown off. Many of them view traditional Christian moral values as hindering to America’s “social progress” (whatever that means.)

Statement: Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know.

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 9.03.17 AM
From barna.org

An overwhelming majority of Millennials (74%) agree with this statement to some degree. 31% of them strongly agree with this statement. Younger generations are increasingly given the impression by our culture that the only truth in this world is what you feel works for you. Obviously, this is a dangerous message to convey to a culture that increasingly needs to hear the absolute truths of God’s Word.

67% of adults with no faith agree with this statement to some degree. I’m puzzled by the other 33% who do not agree with the statement. While it’s possible for an atheist or agnostic to behave in a moral fashion, the belief that there is any kind of absolute moral standard is completely inconsistent with their atheistic worldview.

While it’s good that only a minority of Christians agree to some degree with this statement (41%), that minority is nonetheless alarmingly large. Take a look once again at the statement they were asked to react to: “Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know.” I would agree that every individual has unique experiences and has a life that functions differently from other individuals. However, that’s not what this question is asking. To sincerely believe that “what works best for an individual is the only truth one can know” is to completely deny the foundations of the Christian faith. While some of the Christian respondents may not have recognized the implication of their response, or even misinterpreted the question, I still feel spiritual concern for the 41% who answered in the affirmative. God’s Word is ultimately the only truth we can know and trust, and anyone who believes differently is not familiar with the most basic tenets of the Christian faith.

Statement: The Bible provides us with absolute moral truths which are the same for all people in all situations, without exception.

Question 2.png
From barna.org

According to the survey description at barna.org, a majority of all American adults (59%) agreed with this statement. 83% of Christians agree with the statement to some degree. There are some interesting things about this. First, I would love to have a conversation with someone from the 17% who disagree with this statement. It would do them some good to open up their Bible sometime. While not every statement or commandment in the Bible applies to all people at all times (take, for instance, the Old Testament ceremonial laws), the Bible nonetheless communicates many absolute moral truths that are meant to apply to all people indiscriminately.

The other anomaly here is the disparity between the responses to this question and the previous one. 83% of Christians believe that the Bible has absolute moral truths for all people at all times, but 41% of Christians think that the only truth we can know is relative to the individual. Those numbers simply don’t add up. Either some of the respondents did not understand the questions, or they are simply inconsistent in their beliefs.

The other percentages in the graphic above aren’t too much of a surprise. What is fairly interesting, however, is the fact that 27% of adults with no religious faith still believe that the Bible has moral truths that apply to all people at all times.

Question: Is moral truth absolute or relative?

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 9.35.30 AM

This question is the one that gets to the crux of the issue. Only 35% of American adults believe that moral truth is absolute. 44% believe that moral truth is relative, and 21% haven’t given it much thought. The fact that only 59% of Christians believe that moral truth is absolute is extremely disappointing and disheartening. These results all but confirm what many of us have sensed for a while now: America is rejecting moral absolutes that previous generations recognized.

Oh, but it doesn’t end there. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s day, but there’s even more frustration to be felt with these next results:Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 9.43.01 AM

 

These results are pretty self-explanatory. Sadly, more Christians seem interested in living a life of pleasure and personal fulfillment than anything else. To the 76% of Christians who think we need to just “look within” to find ourselves: you need to read Colossians 2:9-10 –

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.
We don’t “find ourselves” by looking inward. We find our true identity and fulfillment by looking to Christ who redeemed us and brought us to fullness. The same goes to the 72% who think fulfillment comes from pursuing the things you desire most.
The most disturbing thing here is the percent of Christians (67%) who believe the highest goal of life is to enjoy it as much as possible. I hope and pray that most of these people simply misunderstood the question. Where can you even start in responding to that kind of sentiment? Are these Christians so completely unfamiliar with what the Bible says about these questions? There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting and striving for a happy and peaceful life, but I don’t recall any passages that address the importance of just doing whatever “feels best” and makes us happy. In fact, Scripture overwhelmingly says just the opposite –
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
– Romans 12:2
Scripture makes it clear that we are not to be conformed to the hedonistic and self-seeking philosophies of this world. We are to be transformed by renewing our minds in Christ, which means that our ultimate purpose is found in him.
While the results of this survey are certainly disappointing and even frustrating, they give us all the more reason to reach out to those around us and share with them what God has to say on these issues. Apparently, even many Christians need to be reminded of many of the basic things the Bible has to say about morality. As Paul says in Colossians 3:16 –
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Encourage, instruct, and admonish one another in love. And whatever you do, don’t be the 67%.
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Theological Reflections – Romans 13:1-2

The following is an excerpt from my second essay written for my summer theology class on Romans. I hope that by reading this, your knowledge of God would increase, and your faith would grow in His grace.

Links to the sources I used are at the end of the post.


Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

Context and Content

These two verses are Paul’s introduction to his fairly brief exhortation for Christians to remain subject to their government (13:1-14). This portion is part of what is commonly known as the “practical” portion of Romans (12-16), wherein Paul starts by urging Christians to live their lives in service to God. He states specifically in 12:1 – “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” [NIV 2011] Panning, in his commentary on Romans, gives 13:1-14 the title “Obedience to authorities,” which is a subset of the larger portion spanning 12:1-15:13, entitled “Righteousness practiced.”[1] Paul wishes for the Christians in Rome to reflect on the grace of God written about in chapters 1-11, and to serve both God and men in light of God’s mercies.

Including an exhortation to submit to the government is not an uncommon theme throughout the Pauline Epistles[2], and must have been a point that he commonly wanted to emphasize. It is somewhat striking that Paul writes these words while underneath the rule of a government that was growing increasingly hostile to Christianity. Regarding the nature of Roman government during the writing of Romans, Panning notes:

In the context in which Paul is writing, his directives to the Romans especially include respect for secular government. That is perhaps the more remarkable when we realize that in Paul’s day the civil government of Rome was undoubtedly totally pagan. In fact, if we were right in assuming, as we did in the introduction to this commentary, that this letter to the Romans was written from Corinth in the winter of A.D. 58, then Nero would have been the Roman emperor—hardly a model of kind and benevolent leadership![3]

Paul wanted to make it clear that although all forms of human government are flawed, the ultimate purpose of rulers and authorities is to carry out God’s judgment.[4] Obedience to the authorities put in place by God is also necessary to maintain peace and order in society, something that Christians always strive for. From what scripture teaches about the Church and civil government, it is plainly seen that Christians are subject to two different “kingdoms” during their life on earth. The Church rules over spiritual matters concerning the gospel, and the government rules over civil matters by protecting its citizens and punishing those who do evil.[5] Much can be said about the nature of Church and government and the dangers when one institution assumes authority given only to the other. To put it simply, The Apology of the Augsburg Confession states:

[The distinction between the two kingdoms] can be easily explained if we keep this in mind: The Gospel does not introduce laws about the public state, but it is the forgiveness of sins and the beginning of a new life in the hearts of believers. Besides, the Gospel not only approves outward governments, but also subjects us to them (Romans 13:1).

There exists a fairly clear and obvious caveat in a Christian’s obedience to the government. When a Christian is asked by the authorities to act contrary to God’s Word, he must “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This calls to mind the noble and faithful actions of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego found in Daniel 3, who resisted the king’s command to bow down to a false idol, even though they knew their lives were in danger.

Reflection and Application
Obedience to governmental authorities has always been an issue of contention in the United States, going back to the very birth of our country. Regardless of whether or not the rebellion was justified, the United States of America was born from disobedience to England and rebellion against the instituted government. There is a residual spirit of resentment towards authority apparent in society today, where disobedience can often been seen as a noble cause. However, Christians are given a very clear command in Scripture to submit to the government, even to the laws and statutes we don’t necessarily agree with. Whether dealing with local authorities or the Federal Government, we must always remember that they were placed into that position of authority by God himself, and he will always see fit that they carry out his plans for the sake of the gospel. God speaks of his ultimate authority over all creation in Isaiah 55:8-11, emphasizing the point that the gospel will always prevail and accomplish its purpose:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. [ESV]

Christians must also keep in mind that God did not ordain the government to advance to gospel message, as Christians in some Evangelical circles may believe. It is true that the government’s purpose is to punish those who do evil, and we pray that the government’s definition of “evil” would be synonymous with God’s. Some Christians take this too far and advocate the establishment of a “Christian” government that subjects its citizens to certain Christian moral laws. Koehler states in A Summary of Christian Doctrine:

For as the power of the Word was not given to the state, so it the power of the sword not given to the church, papal claims notwithstanding. The church as such has not right to rule land and people, to enact and enforce laws, and to do any of the things that properly belong to the domain of civil government. Christ refused to act as judge and arbiter in a civil suit (Luke 12:13-14); His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). There is no scriptural reason for a church state, even as there is no scriptural reason for a state church. Wherever a church state or a state church exists, they exist not by the will of God but by the will of people. It is the mark of the antichrist to claim supremacy over all civil authorities (2 Thessalonians 2:4).[6]

To briefly summarize this notion, we recognize that the government has been put in place to carry out justice in society, whose laws are often aligned with God’s moral law which has been instilled in the hearts of men. (Rom 2:15) It is good and right for the authorities to punish those who do evil and reward those who do good. It is not correct, however, for the government to have control over spiritual matters or the advancement of the gospel. While God certainly does use these human institutions for his purposes, he has solely commissioned his Church to make the gospel known to all nations. (Mt 28:19-20)

[1] Panning, Armin J. Romans. St. Louis: Concordia, 2000. 8-9.
[2] See Ti 3:1, 1 Tm 2:1-2
[3] Panning, Armin J. Romans. St. Louis: Concordia, 2000. 212.
[4] Hoerber, Robert G., ed. Concordia Self-Study Bible. New International Version. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 1986. 1737. (See notes for 13:1)
[5] McCain, Paul Timothy. Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord. 2nd ed. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2006. 194-195. (Apology, Article XVI)
[6] Koehler, Edward W. A. A Summary of Christian Doctrine; a Popular Presentation of the Teachings of the Bible. 3rd Rev. ed. St. Louis: Concordia, 1971. 380-381.