A common reaction among evangelicals to the June Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage has been deflection from controversy. This laissez-faire approach has been most commonly expressed by closely connected beliefs about Christianity and morality:
- We should not expect non-Christians to think and live like Christians. So why all the fuss among Christians over the legalization of same-sex marriage?
- Since when do we depend on the government to enforce Christian morals?
Many who express these sentiments do so with well-meaning attempts to (rightly) keep evangelicals from panicking over misplaced trust in temporal earthly powers. Additionally, they want to remind themselves and fellow believers that to be a Christ follower will always be, as Jesus promised, countercultural.
Yet the two statements above reflect a poor understanding of how God ordered creation, morality, and the purpose he has given civil law. Assumptions like those above can lead to disastrous consequences for how we understand moral obligation.
In one sense, the Bible does describe the condition of humans, without Christ, as lost and depraved, incapable of pleasing God (Rom. 3:9–20). Apart from Christ, we are in a state of rebellion, and until regenerated by the Holy Spirit, cannot understand the ways of God (1 Cor. 2:14). It should not surprise us, then, when sinners act sinfully. Sin has been the human default ever since Eden.
However, by keeping the spotlight only on sinful humanity’s inability to live lives of obedience unto God, we overlook how failure to obey God shows that God’s commands for human obedience are grounded in his good and holy nature, and therefore obligatory on all persons at all times. Morality reflects God’s holiness. Thus, one function of the moral order is to expose our rebellion against God’s moral law and God himself.
We know the moral order is good because our guilty consciences indict us for failing to uphold it. This is the most basic of ethical principles. To say non-Christians can’t be expected to live like Christians and obey God ignores the fact that God and the moral order he implanted in creation are to be obeyed. Making that claim leads to a consequence similar to what happens when we quit a book halfway in: We’ll fail to see the full story and resolution.
At creation, God made humans as his image bearers. Christian theology has long debated the definition and scope of what it means to image God. But on a functional level, to image God means at least that we possess the capacity to make sense of moral cues or moral demands. God endowed the mind to know right from wrong.
Paul picks up on this theme of creation and moral order in Romans 1 and 2, where he describes particular sinful practices as unnatural. Not only that, he says that these practices are known to be immoral because they violate “the law … written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:15, ESV). The “conscience also bears witness” to God’s moral law. The fact that humanity is mired in sin does not excuse anyone from knowing or doing what their God-given conscience knows to be good or bad.
Every human, even in a fallen world, has some capacity to do good. This is often referred to as common grace—that is, God’s restraining us from being completely evil, and his enabling us to do good, though not unto salvation. Christians do well, then, when they advocate Christian ethics in the public square, both as a word to the conscience of non-Christians, hoping they will repent before their Creator, and as a way to promote what is best for human flourishing.