Is there ever a place for Christians to speak out on moral and social issues of the day? In one sense this would seem to be a no-brainer: of course there is. Yet a number of objections can and do arise, and as a result, there can develop the tendency to think, ‘Well perhaps I shouldn’t say anything after all’.
One common objection which is raised, and a valid one, is to argue that we are all sinners, so we need to be careful as believers in speaking out about evil in the world or in others, since we are all evil. None of us are perfect, so is it not hypocritical for us to offer public moral denunciations of any kind, given that we are also sinners as well?
There is of course some truth in this. But it can be used as a club over our heads to get us to remain silent. Indeed, it becomes a sort of moral equivalence argument: ‘yes that person may be a real sleazeball, or may be doing some terrible things, but aren’t we all really sleazeballs as well, and aren’t we all guilty of doing bad things at times?’
The answer to this is yes and no. Yes we are all sinners. The main distinction here is that some are saved sinners, while others are still unsaved sinners. But there is a rather large difference between a sinner who agrees with God about his condition, repents, and seeks to let God do a new work in his life, and a sinner who still shakes his fist at God, still is in rebellion and in defiance, and delights in his sin and ungodliness. There is so much difference here that Scripture teaches us that two different eternal destinies will be the result.
But no, we do not have to wait till we are perfect and sinless before we can speak out. The Bible and church history are of course full of countless examples of believers who have spoken out about all sorts of sin and evil, and we know for a fact that not a single one of them was perfect.
Jesus was the only perfect person to walk the earth, so he of course could and did speak out against evil with full integrity and boldness. But the Bible everywhere assumes that his people can and should speak out against sin and evil as well. Sure, we have to do so circumspectly, and with humility and the fear of God – but we must speak out nonetheless.
Indeed, if we take this common objection to its logical conclusion, then someone like Elijah was quite wrong to challenge the Baalists. After all, Elijah had sin and evil in his own heart, so who was he to criticise some pagan idolaters? Indeed, if we embrace that sort of spiritual moral equivalence, then we would have to say that all the prophets were wrong to make strong statements about either Israel or the pagan nations. ‘We are all sinners after all, so who am I to say another person is wrong?’
Indeed, someone like Wilberforce was quite amiss to rail against the evils of slavery and the slave traders. His critics could simply have said, “Hey Wilberforce, are you sinless and perfect? Who do you think you are to condemn us?” To which he would have had to reply, “Yes, I guess you are right. I am not perfect, so I will henceforth stop all my anti-slavery activity. After all, I don’t want to be accused of being a hypocrite.”
Another objection made by some is that “we must first earn the right to speak out” or words to that effect. This objection can take various forms, and I have had it thrown at me in the past. The idea is that we do not have the right to speak out on various sins or social evil, unless perhaps we are directly involved in the situation.
For example, I have been told in the past that I have no right to speak out on the sin of homosexuality, unless I am directly working with them, and so on. Or one can be told that unless one has a lot of friends or acquaintances involved in a particular sinful situation, one has no right to speak against such things.
Well, yes and no is again the biblical response it seems to me. If these critics mean by this that we should not be just sitting in detached, aloof ivory towers, shooting out arrows everywhere, they might be sort of right. But obviously there is a clear limit to this.
Again, if we take this to its logical conclusion, then effectively no believer would be saying anything about any issue. For example, I actually do not have any close friends who are paedophiles, nor do I even know any personally, nor am I involved in any kind of recovery work with them.
So what does that mean? Does it mean I have lost the right to speak out against the sin of paedophilia? Does that lack of personal involvement therefore disqualify me from saying anything about this sin and social evil? Hopefully most people would not go along with that sort of twisted reasoning.
Yet some Christian critics in effect are saying this very thing: we have to somehow earn the right to speak before we can ever open our mouths. If we take this to its logical conclusion, few of us, if any, would be speaking out about anything.
Indeed, some will throw out the line, ‘Unless you walk in another person’s shoes, you have no right to speak against them’. Well, with all due respect, this is just so much unbiblical hogwash. I have never walked in the footsteps of a rapist. Does that mean I cannot speak out against rape? I have never walked in the shoes of a terrorist. Does that mean I cannot condemn terrorism?
This sort of moral reasoning by the critics is neither moral nor reasonable. Those working on cures for HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases have presumably never been told, ‘Well unless you have an STD yourself, you should not be involved in all this’.
So what is the proper response to all this? Are the critics right, and must we forever hold our peace? Or should we just spray everyone in self-righteous moralising? No, as in most aspects of the Christian life, we need to find the middle ground which does justice to both the love of God and the truth of God.
Some biblical balance is urgently needed here, in other words – as hard as that may be to achieve. How can we offer a prophetic voice to the sin of the world, while also remaining humble and aware of our own shortcomings? It is not easy to do, but we must try nonetheless.
Certainly to engage in either extreme is not at all helpful. It is no good to hypocritically rail against everyone and everything. But it is also unhelpful to just never say anything, because we are not yet perfect. Both extremes are unbiblical and must be avoided.
So just what is the solution here? If we turn to the life and teachings of Paul we may find some answers. Paul spoke often about integrity, and having a clear conscience. He said this was what qualified him to do and say what he did. That must be a big part of the solution here.
He of course would be the first to admit that he was not perfect. Yet because he sought to live a life of integrity, he could with an unsullied conscience make all sorts of strong claims and judgments. He was certainly a very humble man, but he was also quite fearless and bold as he spoke out and proclaimed truth.
He had the right biblical balance in other words, and we must strive, with God’s help, to get the same mix. There is far too much evil in the world for us to passively sit by and say nothing and do nothing. Yet there is far too much hypocrisy and moral duplicity in the world for us to continue in that as well.
The biblical balance is out there, and we all must seek to find it. We will make mistakes along the way, and none of us will be perfect in these matters. But like everything important in the Christian life, we must strive for it, no matter how difficult that may be.