Holistic Morality

I don’t know anything about C. J. Mahaney or his ministry, but someone alerted me to the announcement of his leave of absence.  There’s much about this that is really refreshing.

He is stepping aside from his ministry because of “various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment and hypocrisy.”  This is so striking because it envisions the character of sin and the nature of morality in holistic terms, just as the New Testament does.

Many Christians have become comfortable with graded conceptions of sins that are constructed by our cultures.  We grade some sins as very serious, some as not so serious, and others are turned into virtues.

The biggies are things like adultery and fornication–the “red-light” sins.  Other things like gossip, slander, and jealousy are given a pass, and in some circles angry speech is regarded as virtuous.  You earn your stripes as a defender of the faith among some Christians through angry outbursts of denunciation aimed at those who publish books that revisit cherished dogmatic formulations.

Consider, however, some of the NT vice lists.  They’re shocking.  They don’t grade sins, but lump together all sorts of behaviors that destroy community and degrade people.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

It shocks our sensibilities to see Paul list all these behaviors together.  They are all sins and there is no grading.  If we imagine taking serious steps in our communities to deal with sexual immorality, we ought to be equally mobilized to deal with divisive behaviors such as gossip, slander, and envy.

Take a look at the character requirements for elders in 1 Timothy 3:

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil (1 Timothy 3:2-7).

This is a completely counter-cultural construction of leadership.  Paul nowhere lists being a powerful visionary, compelling speaker, or winsome personality.  Character may be demonstrated in some of the publicly visible behaviors, but it’s chiefly manifest by hospitality, gentleness, and integrity in the home.  Again, the dimensions of morality are surprisingly counter-cultural, holistic, and involve seemingly mundane aspects of life.

One final passage came to mind when I read Mahaney’s statement.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3:13-18).

The moral person is the one who does the hard work of peace-making, the one who bears good fruit, the one who shows mercy.  These are thoroughly moral patterns of behavior, the heart and soul of the life of a Jesus-follower.

And James does not say that bitter envy and selfish ambition are personality quirks or that they’re merely unfortunate behaviors when found in a person who is otherwise a great leader.  He does not mince words.  The “wisdom” of such a person is actually demonic.

All this is to say that the New Testament envisions morality in holistic terms.  Evangelical people tend to be mesmerized by powerful personalities and compelling speakers.  We often excuse sin in our leaders just because they’ve avoided the “biggies” or the “serious” sins.  This only demonstrates that our conceptions of morality and leadership need serious revision.

12 thoughts on “Holistic Morality

  1. athanasius96

    Agreed. I think core to the issue is that leaders are not meant to be demi-gods. There should be a close circle of supporters whose job is not to enshrine him or her, but to maintain accountability. When our leaders cease to be human in the way they are regarded, someone should provide a clear “no” before something goes awry.

  2. joey

    And then, of course, the even bigger definition of Sin (capital S) is that it is not just the individual acts of evil that we commit – Sin is a CONDITION. Places like Matthew 15 and Isaiah 1 teach us this. We’ve all got the same, equally-terminal, head-to-toe condition and to speak in terms of “sinning less” (as if we can do that) misses the point. We also need to take note of the fact that Paul (and the other NT writers) never speak of MERE morality. Even though the Christian’s morality is, on the surface, indistinguishable from the morality of non-believers, our morality is Story-based. The believer’s morality can never be separated from The Story.

  3. thebareden

    I guess I’m just too jaded to be impressed by these types of steps away from the limelight. It’s just as easy to see these sabbaticals to address pride as a type of pride in and of themselves. “Look at me! In yet another way I’m more holy than you, I see my pride and can admit it!” At least, that’s what I thought when I saw Piper’s leave of absence. I guess it all depends on how one lives after their a-ha moment. If the current Driscolls and Pipers are a result of taking time to reflect on sinfulness, I’m not too impressed.

    Of course, this has nothing to do with the actual point you made, which was totally valid. 🙂


    1. timgombis

      Yeah, M, I must say that I’m seriously cynical about just about every “ministry” that runs like a big business and is oriented around a singular person who acts like a rock star, but I do think that taking more and more sins seriously is a good thing. That’s a good thing in general, even if in some of these particular cases motives and behaviors are quite mixed.

      1. thebareden

        I agree for sure. And I certainly don’t want it to seem like my comment was anything against what you were saying. More just a comment on how these rocks stars seems to handle themselves in general (so I guess, more a comment on your example via some related examples in my own head than your actual point).

        It would seem the fact that anyone would need to take an extended vacation to do battle with this kind of thing shows how right you are. When you take all sin seriously, you make a habit of attacking it every day. You don’t sweep it under the rug and pretend it’s not a part of who you are until your public image is affected. If you need to take a break from reality to address it, you’ve already let it get out of control. It’s like being dehydrated; if you’re thirsty you’ve already waited too long to take a drink.


  4. Kevin Vile

    I find it interesting that in stepping down he said it wasn’t related to financial matters or immorality (assume he meant immorality of the sexual sort). Doesn’t that seem to imply that he has a hierarchy of sin in mind? Just thinking out loud.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for that, Kevin. I didn’t read the entire thing carefully, so I may have missed the slippage of language. Yes, indeed, that sort of thing is precisely the problem!

  5. Jeff Lash

    Is it possible that he meant to address the misconceptions of his confession by saying that his sins were not related to finances and immorality (which is what most people hear about concerning “fallen” leaders)? He may very well agree with you all concerning a hierarchy of sins…which seems to be evident in his confession and desire for repentance and reconciliation. It is difficult to judge intentions.

    This brings to mind another issue. How should confessions be handled by public figures? I agree, evangelicalism suffers from too much celebrity culture. At the same time, we live in a global society. The internet and other technologies have made it possible to be known, heard, and watched across the globe. By posting material online, churches and ministries may intend to make material available to people in order to encourage them in faithful belief and living. Yet it is inevitable that some people will take it too far (whether churches or the people who download the material) and treat individuals/ministries as celebrities. And when sin is confessed by leaders (such as the case with Mahaney), is it necessary to make a public statement in order to confess it to all those who may be affected by it (which has to be determined). I guess I’m just wrestling with how things like this work in a world that is more connected than ever before.

    On a side note…I’m looking forward to NT 1 this fall.

    1. timgombis

      Jeff, these are huge and very important questions, ones that are far too seldom addressed. Ministries simply assume that it’s a good thing that they get more attention and more demand for resources. It creates an artificial relationship between a figure and . . . what? “Fan base?” “Constituency?” It’s a very difficult dynamic to get right or to know how to handle well.

  6. Marlena

    Hi Tim,

    It’s refreshing of you to point out that the Lord does consider these other things (i.e. slander, pride, greed) as very serious. Some of our “famous” leaders and their followers conveniently ignore these warnings. Charisma doesn’t = leadership.

    As you say, ” This is a completely counter-cultural construction of leadership. Paul nowhere lists being a powerful visionary, compelling speaker, or winsome personality. Character may be demonstrated in some of the publicly visible behaviors, but it’s chiefly manifest by hospitality, gentleness, and integrity in the home. Again, the dimensions of morality are surprisingly counter-cultural, holistic, and involve seemingly mundane aspects of life.”

    I think of Isaiah 66:2 where the Lord says he esteems those with a humble and contrite heart, those who tremble at his word.

    Blessings to you brother.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s