I once heard a sermon which described the role of the church as a sort of cultural referee, meant to call society out whenever it steps over the line. I’ve never agreed with that sermon.
For one thing, I don’t think such a role for the church has Biblical support. As far as I know, secular authority (represented in the New Testament by the Roman empire, and in the Old Testament by a number of kingdoms outside of Israel and later by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires) is always treated as inherently evil: oppressive, destructive, and opposed to the God of Israel. However, no Biblical figure ever tries to reform these entities. Moses leads Israel away from Egypt, he doesn’t try to reform it, even though given his privileged position with Pharaoh perhaps he could have. Jesus speaks against the misdeeds of the Pharisees, not those of Pilate, Caesar, or even Herod the Great, as big a slimeball as he was.
Paul was rather more involved with the Roman world than Jesus was, given that he was a Roman citizen. He owns this status in Acts 22. Given that the Roman empire was far more corrupt and distant from Christian values than our own country, if it is the role of Christians to reform the culture, you would think he would have something to say about this–or perhaps renounce his secular citizenship in disgust, claiming citizenship in only God’s kingdom. In fact, he emphasizes that the “heavenly kingdom” is not an alternative to the secular political authority, or any kind of secular authority at all. (The Romans had poor self-confidence, and were awfully sensitive to that kind of thing.)
But what he does is pretty much the opposite. In addition to claiming his citizenship, he points out what is due to him as a citizen (Acts 22:25), although it is pretty obvious that he doesn’t expect his rights to be honored. In his letters, Paul advocates a rather passive approach for Christians in engagement with the culture. Roman officials, centurions and so forth, are not called upon to leave their posts, even though they are in service of a godless culture which existed unashamedly for the benefit of the powerful at the expense of everyone else. In his letters, Paul advises Christians to be peaceful, even passive; nonconfrontational, making a parade of their conformance to Roman expectations in everything that did not impinge upon their worship. He urged them to give the Romans no legitimate reason to persecute them. Further, he does not himself nor does he ask anyone else to speak out against the culture. He does this in full knowledge that the Christians (including himself) were being and would continue to be persecuted anyway.
Paul wasn’t concerned with reforming the culture, he was concerned with building the church. Is that also our concern–and if not, should it be?
The evangelical view of engagement with culture has, for the last few decades, has appeared to adhere to the “referee” point of view. Abortion is wrong, so outlaw it. Gay marriage is wrong, so keep it illegal. Seems simple enough, right?
The problem with the church as a moral authority, in my opinion, is that the church is only as good an authority as the church is moral. Here is an example. I knew a man who was a conservative Christian, and appeared to me (though perhaps I was perceiving incorrectly) to be representing that position in his work life. He behaved somewhat unfairly to at least one person I know, with regards to leave from work to which they were entitled, but which he denied. A few decades later, I learned that he was guilty of sexual harassment of women in his workplace.
From a Christian point of view, was his failure evidence of the failure of Christianity’s moral code? No, it isn’t. We all acknowledge that humans are fallible, but this is not evidence of God’s fallibility; that is why we need God’s salvation. However, when it comes to presenting Christianity as a moral referee for the culture, does this theological point matter?
No, it doesn’t. Christians would like to think that they are pointing to God when they present themselves as moral authorities, but they’re not. They are representing themselves. As a result, what we have are people and institutions who are themselves riddled with sin and moral failings, who are presenting themselves as moral authorities over other people.
The culture at large is, to a greater and greater extent, ignoring them. And they are right to do so. Further, the culture is becoming more and more hostile to Christians, or at least to what they perceive as Christianity because that is how it has been represented to them by the Christians noted above. Perhaps they are not right to do so, but it is certainly predictable that they would; given the aspects of Paul’s letters discussed above.
When Christians are, predictably, ignored or treated badly, are we supposed to yell about persecution and wrap ourselves in first amendment religious freedom? Sure, we can call upon that stuff, those are our rights as citizens. But don’t be surprised, and be prepared to deal with it like a Christian, when those rights aren’t honored.
The church is not a moral authority in the sense that we are set above other people in (not until Jesus gets back, anyway). We are morally authoritative in terms of how we tend to ourselves. And how are we doing with that?
The prophets of the Old Testament speak over and over about two things: care for the orphans and widows, and worship of the one true God (nothing about seeking legal redress). Jesus drove the moneylenders out of the temple, and called the children to come to Him. Are we focusing our energies on making sure the helpless have what they need? Are we speaking out against greed and gluttony? Have we committed to being more holy than the scribes and Pharisees, giving back not only a tenth of everything we get, but all of it? Are we devoted to studying Scripture and regular prayer, individually and in groups, to enjoy the presence of God and determine His will? Are we supporting marriages and families within our churches? Are we doing what God has explicitly told us in His Word to do? If we, who have dedicated ourselves to God through Christ, aren’t (and I’m not) doing what we’re supposed to, how can we demand that those who have no relationship with Jesus do what we think they are supposed to do?
Church discipline has almost died out in most denominations. Where it still exists, at least in my experience it focuses on sexual sin, which only really gets ink in the Bible when it is in conjunction with the worship of pagan gods. Church discipline doesn’t touch on greed or the worship of other gods (celebrities, sports, wealth), which is all the prophets ever seem to want to talk about. This is, no doubt, partly out of a desire to not be judgey, but it is also because no one cares. If you get kicked out of church, that only means you don’t have to get up early on Sunday any more. It’s a get out of jail free card. You don’t even have to be a church member to get into Heaven, in most denominations’ points of view, so why bother?
Apparently not even church members can take the church’s authority seriously any more, and the church tacitly doesn’t expect them to. So how can we be a moral authority for anybody else?
The real reason we can’t be a moral authority for the culture is because God has not called us to be. God has called us to tend to and grow the church: supporting each other in a Godly lifestyle, making sure everyone has food, clothing, and shelter, showing love to everyone, keeping a sharp eye out for apostasy, and calling others to join us.
Right now, the ultimate death of the church’s moral authority is taking the form of Donald Trump’s candidacy for President. It is impossible to consider him an exemplar of a Christian or any other recognizable code of morality. Trump’s defenders’ only response to this obvious truth is that, well, the other candidates can’t be either. But guess what: they’ve never pretended to be! Clinton, Obama, and their ilk do claim to be Christians and to behave morally, and you can call them out on that where they’ve failed, but unlike the exponents of the Christian right they have not justified the legitimacy of their leadership on the basis of their superior moral authority. Which is good, because like the man I discussed above, they would have failed.
Trump is like an undead version of the Christian right, a zombie or golem, himself unholy but brought to unnatural life in order to protect those who have abandoned attempts at living like Christians in favor of forcing others to behave according to their (not God’s) decrees, and protecting themselves from persecution by force (political and perhaps other means as well).
The “unchurched” might not have God’s guidance, but they aren’t always wrong (n.b. Balaam and Cyrus). Right now, they are absolutely correct to ignore the church as a moral authority, because that’s not what we’re for. Contrarily, as things with God so often go, if we did not seek moral authority by virtue of our status as Christians, but rather did what God told Christians to do, we might actually acquire a bit of moral legitimacy as we went along. Some people might actually want to join us. After all, Jesus told us to make disciples, not laws.