A common reaction among evangelicals to the June Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage has been deflection from controversy. This laissez-faire approach has been most commonly expressed by closely connected beliefs about Christianity and morality:

  1. We should not expect non-Christians to think and live like Christians. So why all the fuss among Christians over the legalization of same-sex marriage?
  2. Since when do we depend on the government to enforce Christian morals?

Many who express these sentiments do so with well-meaning attempts to (rightly) keep evangelicals from panicking over misplaced trust in temporal earthly powers. Additionally, they want to remind themselves and fellow believers that to be a Christ follower will always be, as Jesus promised, countercultural.

Yet the two statements above reflect a poor understanding of how God ordered creation, morality, and the purpose he has given civil law. Assumptions like those above can lead to disastrous consequences for how we understand moral obligation.

Universal Expectations

In one sense, the Bible does describe the condition of humans, without Christ, as lost and depraved, incapable of pleasing God (Rom. 3:9–20). Apart from Christ, we are in a state of rebellion, and until regenerated by the Holy Spirit, cannot understand the ways of God (1 Cor. 2:14). It should not surprise us, then, when sinners act sinfully. Sin has been the human default ever since Eden.

However, by keeping the spotlight only on sinful humanity’s inability to live lives of obedience unto God, we overlook how failure to obey God shows that God’s commands for human obedience are grounded in his good and holy nature, and therefore obligatory on all persons at all times. Morality reflects God’s holiness. Thus, one function of the moral order is to expose our rebellion against God’s moral law and God himself. We know the moral order is good because our guilty consciences indict us for failing to uphold it. This is the most basic of ethical principles. To say non-Christians can’t be expected to live like Christians and obey God ignores the fact that God and the moral order he implanted in creation are to be obeyed. Making that claim leads to a consequence similar to what happens when we quit a book halfway in: We’ll fail to see the full story and resolution.

At creation, God made humans as his image bearers. Christian theology has long debated the definition and scope of what it means to image God. But on a functional level, to image God means at least that we possess the capacity to make sense of moral cues or moral demands. God endowed the mind to know right from wrong.

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Paul picks up on this theme of creation and moral order in Romans 1 and 2, where he describes particular sinful practices as unnatural. Not only that, he says that these practices are known to be immoral because they violate “the law … written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:15, ESV). The “conscience also bears witness” to God’s moral law. The fact that humanity is mired in sin does not excuse anyone from knowing or doing what their God-given conscience knows to be good or bad.

Every human, even in a fallen world, has some capacity to do good. This is often referred to as common grace—that is, God’s restraining us from being completely evil, and his enabling us to do good, though not unto salvation. Christians do well, then, when they advocate Christian ethics in the public square, both as a word to the conscience of non-Christians, hoping they will repent before their Creator, and as a way to promote what is best for human flourishing.

Imagine we took the same approach with a different issue—say, crime—that some do with marriage and family policy. What if our approach toward murder or theft was as laissez-faire? Why should we expect our neighbors not to murder? Why should we think non-Christians will act like believers and obey the sixth commandment? But if the home of one of these advocates were broken into by an unbelieving neighbor, they would call upon the local, God-ordained authorities, and accusing the thief of violating a fundamental principle of justice that all of our consciences know to be true: It is unjust to steal. Stealing is a violation not only of God’s revealed law, but also of the basic concept of justice that is written on the heart of every person. If our unbelieving neighbor steals from us, we don’t excuse their behavior because they don’t follow a Christian code of ethics. We simply expect them not to steal.

All Christians, if they are honest, hope non-Christians think and act like Christians—whether in maintaining a just and well-ordered society or when approaching issues like human trafficking, abortion, racial justice, child poverty, and other pressing issues. We fight for laws that reflect what we believe to be true about human dignity and human flourishing. Why? Because principles of morality are not limited to or binding on only Christians.

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Therefore, we must not shrink back from fighting for what we believe is God’s design for marriage simply because it is controversial. That morality is contested and controversial simply displays how fractured societies are and how obstinate sinful humans are to God’s design. We advocate for biblical marriage in the wider culture, not because we want to create a theocracy or because we need government sanction for our beliefs, but because we believe that the way God ordered human life offers the best opportunity for human flourishing. Ending human trafficking or supporting the best marriage policy has real-world implications for the common good.

The Role of the Government

The second axiom of this laissez-faire approach to ethics is an appeal to the inability of civil law to shape human hearts. To this principle we add our whole-hearted agreement. Only a work of God’s Spirit can regenerate the heart. There is no legal utopia that can convert and immediately sanctify.

However, this does not mean Christians should not work for just laws and a well-ordered society. In fact, knowledge of human depravity should motivate Christians in a representative republic to fight for a government that promotes God’s law. And we should do this for several reasons.

First, the Bible tells us that government is God’s delegated authority to do good (Rom. 13:4). Christian ethics assumes the presence of sin and evil in society and therefore affirms the need for just leaders and just laws to punish evil and promote good. Human leaders, whether they realize it or not, are leading in the place of God (Rom. 13:4).

Second, it is fictitious to assume that laws are amoral. Every law reflects some moral principle. Laws that govern theft, for instance, reflect the belief that private property is a moral right. Laws that govern food safety reflect the belief that corporations that sell food to the public should care about the health of the consumer. Laws that prohibit human slavery reflect the belief that humans possess inherent dignity. Each of these principles terminates at a particular goal: affirming that which is good, and shunning that which is evil.

All of our activism—our work to change laws and legislation in this country when necessary—flows from our moral beliefs. Sometimes activists acknowledge this more vocally—read the statements of those who work on behalf of the poor and impoverished—while others are more subtle. Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. had not appealed to the gospel in his march for civil rights. If Christians refuse to apply a Christian ethic while stewarding their influence on public policy, others will fill that void with their own moral ethic. A secular ethic is not a value-free ethic simply because it says so. Secular ethics are packed with their own conceptions of what is true, good, beautiful, and worthwhile to pursue. The task of the Christian, therefore, is to contend for justice and truth in the public realm.

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Third, it is impossible to work for justice without believing that laws are moral statements, because every belief in morality stems from the understanding that morality makes demands that we ought to follow. If as a Christian you work for justice at any level, you are bringing Christian ethics to bear on public policy, whether you realize it or not. Gary Haugen, president of International Justice Mission, an organization fighting to end human trafficking, has written an entire book pleading with Christians to fight for just laws around the world. Why? Because without a system where laws reflect some aspect of Christian ethics—principles of justice, dignity, and the common good more broadly—societies descend into anarchy, and the weak are preyed upon by the strong. Justice for the trafficked, eradication of poverty, compassion for the fatherless—these depend on a system where right and wrong are distinguished.

Finding the Right Moral Standard

Some construe biblical texts to mean that Christians cannot morally evaluate what happens outside the church. “Judge not, that you not be judged,” Jesus said in Matthew 7:1. Some read this as a prohibition on making moral judgments about culture, for fear that Christians will appear morally scrupulous, petty, and judgmental. But what Jesus really says is this: The standard by which you judge shall you be judged. The question, ultimately, is whose standard of judgment is true? As Christians, we believe unreservedly that God’s moral judgments are holy, true, and for our good. Moral judgment is rooted in God’s kindness and mercy to show a path toward righteousness and flourishing.

To be sure, Christians are to hold fellow Christians accountable within the life of the church. But neither Jesus nor the New Testament writers excuse misbehavior or unbelief carte blanche. Much of the New Testament’s moral witness is about Christian morality inside the life of the church. But that focus about Christian moral integrity doesn’t welcome moral chaos outside the church.

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If we insist that Christian ethics should have no bearing on public policy, we do a disservice to our theology and cripple the mission of the church. It is a retreat inward and a tacit approval of injustice in society. A public Christianity is not about imposing Christian ethics on an unwilling citizenry. Instead, public Christianity is about marshaling God’s truth in service of our fellow image bearers, using the conscience and persuasion as our means.

Daniel Darling serves as Vice President of Communications at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Andrew T. Walker serves as Director of Policy Studies at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.