Disciples of Jesus are not allowed to choose between living the Christian life and believing Christian teaching. This is, and always has been, a both/and, and not an either/or. To divorce Christian morality from Christian doctrine is to separate stem from root, or creek from ocean. Decades ago, Dorothy Sayer made this observation:
“It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma does not now matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.” (28)
To name just a few examples of how Christian morality and Christian dogma are intertwined:
- Opposition to slavery is based on theological anthropology which views each person as a precious creature made in God’s image.
- A belief in human freedom and autonomy is grounded in a God who is free, and a God who grants human beings free will.
- Opposition to abortion and the death penalty are based in a vision of life as a sacred gift from God, who alone determines life and death.
- A disdain for adultery and appreciation for marriage is finds its origin in a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God of Israel and the Church, who alone is always faithful.
As Wheaton’s Beth Felker Jones recently put it, both “deeds and creeds” matter. To choose between them is to miss the mark completely. One way of viewing the 21st century West, in fact, is to see it as the attempt to prop up human rights and other ethical precepts derived from historic Christian commitments without any undergirding dogmatic claims. The other temptation, to emphasize creeds and not care about deeds, is also not without its concerns. This, per Professor Jones, is deeply flawed:
To dismiss deeds in favor of creeds in an enticing lure. It promises to attend to real life, to stuff that really matters, to bodies. But that dismissal turns out to be one more way of dehumanizing our neighbors, reducing them from image-bearers to projects. That dismissal is one more bifurcation, one more failure to remember that God created and loves the whole world and the whole of people and that God calls us to share the goodness of the Gospel with all that we are—heart, hands, mind, and soul.
This false divide wreaks of what Kenda Creasy Dean and others have called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a belief system unconciously followed by many Western young people in which a basic belief in decency and is combined with a vague sense of a distant God who simply wants us to be happy (in a happiness grounded in our own sense of flourishing, at that). As Sayers later puts it, “you cannot have Christian principles without Christ.” (31)
Earlier generations of Christians knew this to be the case. Note the above picture from a 1914 journal of the North Carolina Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church. An elder is approved and ordained “so long as his life and doctrines” remain sound and in accord with the Bible.
Hear that? Life AND doctrine. We are not permitted to choose. Deeds and creeds matter – because they are ultimately inseparable.