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Any mildly aware evangelical recognizes that the spiritual and moral life of many churches is at a seriously low ebb. A growing body of evidence suggests that there is little difference between the moral conduct of evangelicals and the world.
In one survey, George Barna discovered that, in some regions of the Bible Belt, divorce is actually more rampant within evangelical churches than in society at large. This corresponds to the conclusions that Josh McDowell reached in his study of young people who are actively involved in evangelical churches. He discovered that within the previous three months:
• 66 percent had lied to their parents;
• 36 percent had cheated on exams;
• 55 percent had engaged in sexual activity;
• 20 percent had tried to hurt other people physically.
When the church and world are reading from the same script, it should not surprise us that they wind up looking very much alike.
What we are witnessing in both arenas is the triumph of antinomianism. “If you love me, you’ll let me” is the modern mantra of American morality. “Love” now means never making anyone feel sorry. It has become a license for every kind of lawless and perverse activity imaginable. Abortionists, adulterers, thieves, and liars of all stripes regularly justify their transgressions in the name of love.
Antinomianism regards love as a law to itself. As Joseph Fletcher put it in his influential book, Situation Ethics, “The ruling norm of Christian decision is love: nothing else.” In other words, love stands by itself, completely separate from any fixed standard of righteousness.
But God has linked love to law. Jesus summarized our moral responsibilities in terms of love. “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength’ ” and “ ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Mark 12:30, 31). He told us to love God comprehensively and to love people sincerely.
But just as the Scriptures summarize our duty in terms of love, they define love in terms of law. Jesus said, “ ‘If you love Me, you will keep My commandments’ ” (John 14:15, NASB). Love for Christ results in a life that is oriented toward obeying His commands.
The apostle Paul employs the very same reasoning when he teaches us how to love our neighbors. “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:8–10). Twice Paul says that love fulfills the law.
Thus, anyone who is serious about loving must be serious about God’s law. And those who do not have a proper regard for God’s law cannot effectively love.
Sadly, confusion abounds in our churches at just this point. Less than one in a hundred church members can even name the Ten Commandments, much less thoughtfully discuss them. This is not considered a problem because many evangelicals have unwittingly fallen prey to Fletcher’s new morality. Consequently, in many churches, lawlessness is often applauded as love and real love is often decried as legalism.
This confusion cuts the nerve of the loving care that ought to characterize the communion of saints in the local church. Because no act of discipline seems pleasant at the beginning, arguments based on antinomian views of love are often employed to withhold correction from sinning brothers and sisters. The consequences of failure to discipline include shipwrecked lives and scandalized congregations.
Antinomian love may allow that we should pity the man who leaves his wife for another woman, but there must not be any call for him to repent. Furthermore, the thought of carrying through on our Lord’s admonition to regard a continually unrepentant member as a heathen or tax collector is horrifying (Matt. 18:17). Worse still is the idea of “purging” anyone from the church or “delivering such a one to Satan” regardless of what he has done (1 Cor. 5:1–7).
Why do such actions make the typical evangelical recoil? It is because they violate popular antinomian definitions of love. The steps of church discipline appear to be cruel and legalistic, though in fact they are a compassionate expression of love for God and people. Tragically, those churches in which this perverted understanding of love prevails actually withhold one of the very means of grace God has lovingly provided for the welfare of His people. In the name of love, churches that tolerate flagrant sin among their members are actually practicing hate.
God exposes this perversion of love in His instructions to parents in Proverbs 13:24: “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly.” It may seem unnatural to put it in those terms, but that is precisely how the Bible teaches us to see it. Real love desires what is best for the beloved. It is not willing to withhold God’s gracious provision of loving correction where it is needed, even when administering it is painful.
Our great need is churches that reject antinomianism and refuse to separate what God has joined, law and love. Where this happens, the result will be congregations that would rather be considered cruel while being loving than be considered loving while in fact being cruel.