Why don’t Evangelical churches teach ethics?

John R. W. Stott

Privately engaging but socially irrelevant!


This is how one evangelical leader described (in 1983) the spiritual life of the evangelical and conservative wing of Christianity.  The faith of these Christians has had no significant impact on the broader American culture.  It is a privatized faith.  It may be held passionately in private, but in public it is checked like luggage at the airport before boarding a plane—it doesn’t come along into the public arena.


Ten years later, in the early 1990s, the British pastor and evangelist John Stott made a similar observation.  In his commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians (in The Bible Speaks Today series), Stott addressed some of the reasons and the consequences for failing to teach ethics.


One of the great weaknesses of contemporary evangelical Christianity is our comparative neglect of Christian ethics, in both our teaching and our practice.  In consequence, we have become known rather as people who preach the gospel than as those who live and adorn it.  We are not always conspicuous in the community, as we should be, for our respect for the sanctity and equality of human life, our commitment to social justice, our personal honesty and integrity in business, our simplicity of lifestyle and happy contentment in contrast to the greed of the consumer society, or for the stability of our homes in which unfaithfulness and divorce are practically unknown and children grow up in the secure love of their parents. …


One of the main reasons for this is that our churches do not (on the whole) teach ethics.  We are so busy preaching the gospel that we seldom teach the law. We are also afraid of being branded as ‘legalists’.  ‘We are not under the law’, we say piously, as if we were free to ignore and even disobey it. Whereas what Paul meant is that our acceptance before God is not due to our observance of the law. But Christians are still under obligation to keep God’s moral law and commandments.  Indeed, the purpose of Christ’s death was that ‘the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us’ (Rom. 8:3-4), and the purpose of the Holy Spirit’s dwelling in our heart is that he might write God’s law there (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:37; 2 Cor. 3:3-8).


Privatized faith continues to be one of the major problems in the Church, in spite of warnings by evangelical leaders such as Os Guinness, Carl Henry, and John Stott.  Almost thirty years after Os Guinness penned the phrase “privately engaging but socially irrelevant,” LifeWay editor Trevin Wax revisited this problem.  In a 2011 book entitled Counterfeit Gospels, he discussed what he calls “the quietist gospel.”


The biblical gospel is about events that have happened in history.  Jesus Christ has died for our sins, been raised from the dead, and He is Lord.  The good news is public news—with implications relevant for every human, every state, every nation, and every continent.  In contrast, the quietist-gospel strikes at the heart of the gospel as a public announcement and turns the good news into a message that is only personal.  The counterfeit says that the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ no longer address the world, but only the individual.


Even in these two short quotes there are several helpful suggestions for countering this counterfeit gospel—this privatized quietist faith.


·         The good news is grounded in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the creator and Lord of all history.

·         A proper understanding of the gospel allows us to pursue ethical standards without becoming “legalists.”  The pursuit of righteousness and goodness springs from our acceptance in Christ, rather than being the basis for our acceptance.

·         Realizing that the “good news is public news” opens the possibility for exploring how the gospel is good news to be brought to the various arenas of contemporary culture:  the arts, the media, medicine, technology, law, education, popular culture, government, business, science, industry, and agriculture.


Pastor Caleb Cangelosi gives us this warning about the neglect of ethics, which seems to be aimed mostly at pastors:  “Salvation is from the penalty, power, and presence of sin, and we omit one aspect of God’s fullness of grace to our shame and our people’s detriment.”


HT:  For the John Stott quote, thanks to Caleb Cangelosi who blogs at Ezra and the Farmer.  It was the John Stott quote that reminded me of Trevin Wax’s helpful chapter, “The Quietist Gospel,” in Counterfeit Gospels:  Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope.

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One Response to “Why don’t Evangelical churches teach ethics?”

  1. We lost our right and ability to influence the culture when we compromised the Truth and made it known that we would hold harder to some truths than others. When Truth is for sale, exchange or barter, it is merely a commodity as common as fishing bait or hair spray. Compromises on evolution, homosexuality, qualifications on the leadership of the church and the quest for sophisticated social standing within the community based on tolerance put the world above God in everyday importance.