Roger Wolsey

August 10, 2018

When Morality Is the Enemy

An astute observation of late is that a morality and a culture are defined by what they are against, by what they prohibit. The old morality which forms the basis of Christianity and American civilization before the 1960s defined itself in large measure on the Ten Commandments, which is a statement of things that the God of the Bible is against and that we may not do. The new morality is really based on self-will, but must still define itself by what it is against. Its basic principle is captured in the oft-quoted maxim “it is forbidden only to forbid,” and for legal purposes, it is summed up in the catchy word “discrimination.”

Liberal/left moral appeals, whether religious or political, are deceptive because they seem to appeal to a common morality which is not there. There can be no common ground, other than coincidental in a specific situation, between a morality striving for self-denial in the interests of obeying God, and a morality governed by self-will, even if the morality of self-will uses language of compassion and mercy and claims divine blessing.

A recent example of liberal/left argument appealing to a sensibility of “good news” and redemption, yet really denying the Biblical message of obedience to God’s specific commands in Scripture, is a Patheos article earlier this summer by Roger Wolsey, a vocal advocate of “progressive Christianity.” Essential to the “progressive” viewpoint is that God is not a monarch that we obey on pain of eternal punishment, but simply wills happiness for all creatures. Self-will is no longer the enemy, as it is in orthodox Christianity, but the point of reference in striving for a better world. Jesus’ ethical teachings and ministry are the focus of the progressive gospel – understood as admonitions to a better and happier future – not salvation from the wrath of God. Jesus’ commands are not absolutes, any more than the commands of the prophets and apostles are absolute commands, but pointers to a better world. And the “better world” is the world a dissatisfied party defines as a better world.

Jesus’ anti-Pharisee polemic against religious rules and regulations is thus crucial to progressive admonitions, such as those offered by Wolsey. That Jesus did not mean that moral autonomy should be the basis of ethics was discussed by this writer in an article a few years ago. Jesus was not a moral relativist; he sat aside the ceremonial laws of Judaism, not the Bible’s moral commands (Mk. 7:20-23), and certainly not his own commands. Biblical moral commands are confirmed at the last judgment (Rev. 21:7-8). It is true that Jesus said that the Law and the Prophets “depend” on love of God and neighbor. But if this means that Biblical commands are reducible to love of God and neighbor (and as a “consequentialist,” Wolsey presumably believes that divine commands are reducible to love of neighbor in view of his expressed concern for sexual well-being), then everything depends on the world one wants to see. Taking self-will as the ultimate basis of morality, “love” could mean anything. Reasonably Jesus’ statement means that love of God and neighbor summarizes the Law and Prophets, not that Biblical commands which elaborate what love of God and neighbor means can be set aside.

But such relativizing, while yet claiming Jesus’ words and authority, is exactly what Progressive Christianity involves. Support for the LGBT movement is not given ultimately as a matter of compassion, which could only mandate very limited accommodations in the context of Biblical morality, but in terms of an absolute right to what people want. Thus homosexual marriage and LGBT liberation generally are not an amendment to traditional morality, adding a new kind of marriage to an existing doctrine of marriage, but the replacement of one sexual morality by another, one in which sexual gratification, not God’s commands, is the focus.

It is not true that Jesus bases his prohibition against divorce on prevailing social conditions. Rather he cites prevailing conditions in support of his prohibition. Jesus explains the Old Testament permission (not approval) of divorce as a concession to hardness of heart in leaving divorced wives without support (and heart wrenchingly, perhaps without their children). The prohibition against divorce Jesus bases on the creation ordinance of marriage: “the two shall become one flesh” (Matt. 19:4-6) – not on bad consequences. Changed conditions cannot change the creation ordinance, which also precludes polyamory (as it violates the “two to one” rule of marriage). And contrary to Wolsey, the Bible only mentions polygyny, it does not condone it.

Wolsey is strikingly inconsistent in limiting polyamory (not just polygamy!) to two spouses when polyamory mandates consensual sex (sex with anyone who consents). If that becomes the formal standard of the state, recognized as the proper order of things, he will be required to accommodate it and many people will be faced with its consequences regardless of what he would “personally want.” Nor is it likely that a spouse’s jealousy engendered by extramarital sex will cease in a polyamorous society, although it could become “hate speech.”

To claim that Jesus was a relativist is, as noted above, simply wrong. This claim seems to be at the heart of the liberal gospel. Jesus set aside ceremonial, not moral, requirements and said that the Law and the Prophets are summarized by, although reasonably not reducible to, love of God and neighbor. Also, to claim as Wolsey did that relativism is not antinomianism is simply wrong. It is in the nature of law, whether ecclesiastical or civil, that it be absolute – any infraction of the law is a violation. The denial of absolute standards of action, justifying them only in terms of consequences, is the denial of law, which is antinomianism. And it does result in chaos, as it makes individual will supreme in all action, as we now see with transgenderism and some its consequences (e.g., men in women’s rest rooms). It is hardly “grown up.”

Consensual sex is anarchy, it is “anything goes.” However strongly Wolsey insists that he is not calling for an “anything goes” standard, the fact is that consensual sex is that standard. It is effectively the legal standard today (as evidenced by enforcement), and many leftists want to reinforce it with “hate speech” laws and regulations against criticism. He may think he is only advocating “loving, growth oriented sex,” but under the consensual sex standard any two or more people can do what they will as long as it is a free act of will.

Framework makes a difference. What people can see in one framework they may not be able to see in another. Within a framework of the sexual commands given in Scripture, it is easy to see that belief in “sexual freedom,” which Wolsey so strongly expresses in his emphatic belief in sexual relations outside of marriage, and his use of pornography, may be (at least a good part of) the reason that his marriage was not successful. The age-old institution of marriage is focused on something beyond self-gratification, namely social stability and the perpetuation of society. This involves the birth and enculturation of children, but also the emotional security given to one’s self and others by exclusive sexual relationships, entered into by persons who have been chaste apart from marriage. But if self-will and gratification are the principles around which life is organized, then transitory, childless marriages, and a society of individuals rather than families are losses incidental to the main point of realizing self-will, not catastrophes, as they are in a Biblical framework.

Yet even though self-will is the ultimate motive, Wolsey’s gospel can be made to seem appealing by cloaking it in terms of love and compassion and justice. What is crucial to remember is that when he and like-minded supporters of the sexual revolution speak in terms of compassion and justice, they are advancing a gospel of self-actualization, which most importantly ignores God’s specific commands in Scripture, but is also accepting of whatever suffering may result. Suffering resulting from the sexual revolution is acceptable since it is necessary to achieve individual “rights” (really what somebody wants). We see this most clearly in the area of abortion, in which the death, and sometimes the painful death, of unborn children is accepted in the interest of the kind of life desired by the mother.

Any purportedly Christian position must begin with Scripture as its basis. The morality which Christians maintain must be that taught in Scripture, which consists in the moral commands of both Testaments (those pertaining to our relation to God and neighbor, in contrast to the Old Testament commands that prescribe religious ceremony). This obviously includes the Ten Commandments, other general moral commands of the Old Testament (notably those against blasphemy, (Lev. 24:15), idolatry (Lev. 19:4), tyranny (Ex. 23:2, 6-8), witchcraft (Deut. 18:9-12), and sexual immorality (Lev. 18:6-23)), the admonitions of the Sermon on the Mount, and all the commands of Christ and the apostles.

Christ’s lordship is the “narrow gate,” and entails accepting him as Lord and obedience to his commands. It is nevertheless well to point out the degree to which human observation and reason agrees with divine revelation. An example alluded to in Wolsey’s article was the doctrine of total abstinence from alcohol. It was really the major abuse of alcohol in the Anglo-American world in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that occasioned the religious drive for total abstinence. Its Biblical basis seems to have been extrapolated from divine commands against drunkenness and the sins of the flesh. In both England and America, tea became a substitute for gin, and lives and families were saved.

The doctrine of total abstinence cannot reasonably be gotten out of the Bible, but assuming that the Bible does teach it, it cannot be criticized by pointing out alcohol abusers who came from a background of religious commitment to total abstinence. Such people must have violated their rule to arrive at being alcohol abusers, and really violated their rule repeatedly. With adherence to total abstinence from alcohol, there would be no drunkenness, alcohol poisoning, or alcoholics. With total abstinence from non-marital intercourse, there would be no sexually transmitted diseases. However difficult anyone finds God’s commands, it does not change the fact that our commitment to God demands compliance, and with compliance the physical problems that result from disobedience would not exist.

Wolsey’s arguments also fail because as Victorian morality has given way, people confuse legality with morality, and actual violation of the old morality increases over time. The incidence of abortion increased dramatically in this country following its court mandated legalization in 1973, in conjunction with the widespread acceptance of non-marital intercourse and promiscuity. If abortion were illegal, then very logically it would sharply discourage both the actual practice of it and the sexual promiscuity which leads to much of the demand for abortion. Perhaps indeed when people turn from the strict morality of total abstinence from alcoholic beverages and from total abstinence from non-marital intercourse (which is the reasonable meaning of the Biblical condemnation of fornication), the result is alcohol abuse and promiscuity involving risky behaviors. But that does not change the deliverance of common sense that simply eliminating those behaviors would eliminate their consequences.

Any argument that setting aside prohibitions (e.g., of alcohol or fornication or abortion) will result a diminution of their ill effects is wrong-headed. Nothing works like abstinence. Teaching people how to take precautions against the consequences of their risky behavior may temporarily reduce those bad consequences, but the allowance of vices only reinforces the idea that they are a positive good, and naturally leads to a demand for more of those behaviors and a continuing need to rectify problems they cause, overcoming any temporary gain. There cannot be a reasonable doubt, after fifty years of the sexual revolution, which has included the explosive growth of abortion, promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases (including AIDS and other severe ailments associated with male homosexual behavior, even as the LGBT revolution was advancing) that permission to engage in risky behaviors previously thought immoral exacerbates their deadly consequences.

The arguments of the new morality are thus an assertion of the sovereign self couched in terms of enlightenment and compassion. The culture of promiscuity that it sanctions cannot help but depersonalize sex and degrade the person. These arguments turn sin into virtue, and virtue (obeying God’s commands) into sin. Since self-will is now defined as righteousness, it is now the individual who decides what true health is (the world he wants) – anything that stands in its way is a stumbling block. The Biblical passage referring to stumbling blocks (Matthew 18) has become a crucial passage for this writer in defending liberty of conscience. Its straightforward meaning is that assisting in the sin of another is sin itself. It is now used against Biblical morality by claiming that self-denial, not self-will, is sin. But the “sin” involved is denial of the wants of the flesh, which is the opposite of Biblical righteousness and accepting of the destructive behaviors of sex, alcohol, and drugs.

Wolsey’s admonitions are not to a world of love, but to a world of chaos and a legal tyranny enforcing that chaos because he substitutes individual self-will (including his own expressed desire for fornication) for the express commands of God in Scripture.

7 Responses to When Morality Is the Enemy

  1. Dan says:

    One word – monergism and one book – On The Bondage of the Will. Learn the term and read the book. So Wolsey is the typical UMC seminary educated, fuzzy thinking, compassionate progressive. Patheos says he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in philosophy, so he should know better, except UMC doctrine from seminaries now values feelings over the plain meaning of scripture so we should not be surprised.

    I think that the UMC progressive theology of self-will is actually an attempt at sanctification through works of social justice. If they just feel enough compassion and virtual signal through blogs then they will be justified before their peers and God.

    It’s a sad commentary on what the UMC has become. Right up there with “3 bucket” Adam Hamilton. It must be maddening for the ever diminishing number of orthodox UMC clergy to have to deal with this stuff on a regular basis.

    • William says:

      Where the UMC is growing in membership globally, orthodox clergy members are growing with it. In the not too distant future, orthodox United Methodist membership will become the global majority, unless the special General Conference votes a suicide plan in next February. That’s a fact that seems to completely escapes these North American arrogant, self-willed liberals. If they manage to manipulate this “one church plan” through, it will backfire on them. North American orthodox Methodists will join forces with their global orthodox Methodists through the Wesleyan Covenant Association to forge a new denomination thus leaving what is now the United Methodist Church gutted and accelerating much faster to extinction. It looks as if our self-willed Methodist are willing to destroy what is now the UMC in order to make their point.

  2. Joe says:

    Thank you for a well reasoned argument. I am not hopeful that this tide of self-will ethic is going to turn. There are places and people where perhaps it can be stemmed but I think this is the proverbial “genie out of the bottle” situation and there is no going back. It is amazing how easily seemingly well-meaning, intelligent Christians can neglect the most basic examples of God calling us away from our sinfulness into a life of holiness. When Jesus encountered the woman caught in adultery He did not tell her that she had lucked out and no one was willing to throw a stone and that she needed to be more discreet in the future. No, He told her to “go and sin no more.” He offered her grace (neither do I condemn you) but then called her to a place of growth in that grace (go and sin no more). Progressives are all in on the lack of condemnation but resist the notion of living as a new person. The progressives openly advocate for the “freedom” that comes with “if it feels good” but want the rest of us to refrain from judgment when the do as you will ethic results in serious social and spiritual consequences. However, they do expect us to chip in and do whatever we can to address those consequences because that is what “loving our neighbor” means.

  3. Harry Lewis says:

    One of the problems with the liberal thinking is that they believe man is basically good, not evil. As the Bible says, “the heart is evil”. They believe that all it takes is more education. These people live in a country where most of us are generally decent. Anyone who has lived in a country other than a Western nation that has a Christian history knows better.

  4. David says:

    Well, abortion rates in the US are at a 35 year low. Given that we know that 75% of conceptions fail to reach term for purely natural reasons, those lost to abortion are negligible in the great order of things.

    HIV/AIDS became a human disease around 1910, well before the sexual revolution. It was introduced into the US several times, but the current outbreak dates from 1970-71. Genetic studies make these determinations possible. Anyone who accepts evolution knows that new diseases will appear in the future. Obviously, one should try to avoid these. Why diseases spread by body fluids have a moral onus while those that are airborne do not seems strange. Influenza has killed far more than AIDS.

    • David,

      The AIDS epidemic, which was horrific, was the result of sexual contact. Without sexual activity the Bible identifies as immoral, there would be no sexually transmitted diseases.

      Rick Plasterer

  5. bob pinto says:

    25 translations of the Bible into English say the exact same thing almost verbatim in 1 Cor 6:9 on sexual immorality and other things. Now liberals are either language experts, denying what the text says or what ever is said doesn’t matter.

    Anytime you see a new idea introduced in the UMC, just ask yourself who thought of it first : the church or the world.

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