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It has often been said that our culture has lost its moorings. Like many times and places in history, ours is an era when everyone does what is right in his own eyes (cf. Judges 17:6). So this is just the sort of time God loves best, when he can demonstrate once more that he came in Christ to call not the righteous, but those who have lost their moorings.

But that is not our instinct at such times. When morals go awry, when people behave badly, our first thought is to hammer them with law: "Stop doing that. Start doing this." In the home and in church, that is certainly my instinct. And I'm often tempted to bring God in as an ally: "The Bible teaches … so you should …"

Thus I perfectly understand the drive of those Christians who call this morally unmoored culture to return to "biblical values." But too often, the call to return to biblical values is tethered to an attempt to manipulate people into correct behavior. Note the recent kerfuffle raised by the Florida Family Association—whose goal is to "defend, protect, and promote traditional biblical values"—when they pressured Lowe's to pull ads from the TV show All American Muslim.

This use of "biblical values" corresponds mostly to the agenda of political conservatives. But conservatives do not have a corner on biblical values. So periodically, we hear calls from moderates and liberals to make political decisions based on "biblical values," which in this context means concern for the poor and peacemaking, among other concerns.

Every once in a while, political leaders join the chorus, though they have to be careful. In December, British prime minister David Cameron got into hot water when he suggested, at a ceremony honoring the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible at Westminster Abbey, that "the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today." He suggested that adhering to biblical values would counter "the absence of any real accountability or moral code" which recently allowed "some bankers and politicians to behave with scant regard for the rest of society." He also noted the British riots of last summer and "the ongoing terrorist threat from Islamist extremists." He said "moral neutrality and passive tolerance just isn't going to cut it anymore."

One can certainly understand British frustration, given all they've endured this past year. Again, when things go awry morally, we instinctively want to bring the weight of moral law, in this case "biblical values," to bear.

But this strategy never seems to work. First, it is no longer persuasive in religiously pluralistic cultures or officially secular states. People in such societies are deeply suspicious of values that might arise from one religious tradition. Second, there is human nature. The more you tell someone to submit to biblical values, the more likely they are to rebel against them. Biblical values outside of the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are heard as nothing more than oppressive law.

In the church, things can be a different. Grounded first in the forgiveness of Christ, talk of biblical values can be salutary. The Bible's ethical teachings then are seen for what they are: guidelines for living a life of love. They are not law, but concrete ways to live as people redeemed by grace.

But again, our natural instinct is to turn even these salutary teachings into mere law even in the church. I have seen signs of this in my own tradition, Anglicanism. We conservatives in the Episcopal Church kept insisting on the need for the bishops to "submit to the authority of the Bible" on the issue of sexual ethics, and when the Episcopal Church refused, a few years ago we took our Bibles and started our own church.

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is Editor of Christianity Today in Carol Stream, Illinois.
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