Can Morality Exist Without Authority?
When we speak of what is right or wrong in a general, societal sense, we’re speaking of moral authority. Without such authority, all talk of what is right or wrong is mere personal opinion, and such opinions can change from one day to the next. But moral authority is, at least in principle, constant and not subject to opinion. Neither does it depend upon whether people put it into personal practice. That is, moral authority exists independently from society, even if it is never written, practiced, or enforced.
Moral authority is also not connected with or dependent upon practicality. Many who claim no religious faith or belief in the supernatural also claim to have a sense of right and wrong that is more than personal conviction. Some may appeal to survival, others to peace, and still others to popular consensus. But if the definition of morality as given in the first paragraph is valid, then none of these appeals qualify as morality but only as personal conviction or practicality.
Historically, there have been societies where morality depends upon the status or rank of the individual. Those of high standing could/can steal from the lower ranks, put them to death, punish them, enslave them, and violate practically any and all social norms, yet still be seen as moral in the eyes of not only their peers but the oppressed classes as well. We see this double standard most clearly throughout history between male and female, where males have long held the right to have multiple sexual partners, while any woman even attempting the same has been (and still is) considered the lowest and most vile (sometimes even dangerous) of creatures. In any case, moral authority is seen to be governed by privilege.
In spite of social norms, there have always been dissidents, who have largely been treated as outcasts. For example, a person who believes in the universal equality of all human beings will be seen as immoral in a society that believes in intrinsic hierarchy (that is, rank by genetics or wealth). Someone who believes in freedom of conscience will be deemed dangerous and subversive in a society where ideology, rather than mere conformity, is equated with morality.
So when someone states what they believe to be universally right or wrong, they are only stating their personal opinion unless they can appeal to some kind of moral authority. Of course, people who don’t believe there is (or should be) any moral authority will disagree, but these same people often attempt to force compliance, while complaining loudly against any attempt to have compliance forced upon them.
An example would be on the topic of homosexuality, where homosexual activists demand to have their personal opinions forced upon a largely unwilling society, whom the activists accuse of doing the very same thing to them. Without a moral authority, this dispute is simply between two opinions. But if one side can appeal to a higher authority, then only that side can speak of morality.
This, for Christians, is a very crucial point. Do we object to homosexuality only because we find it personally revolting, or because only God decides what is sin and what is not? Only the latter carries moral authority. So our approach to this issue should be the authority of God to determine whether homosexuality is sin, and if it is sin, to oppose it.
But we must remember the sphere of our opposition: within the community of believers. As Paul demonstrated in 1 Cor. 5, our concern about morality is only among fellow believers, not the world at large. For the latter, our only concern is the Gospel; it matters not how unbelievers behave unless we first deal with the issue of salvation. Our failure as a group to make this distinction is responsible for our poor reputation among the lost, which of course thwarts our efforts at evangelism.
Of course, there are many Christians who do not believe God considers homosexuality a sin, and they are becoming the most vocal opponents (and judges) of any Christians who disagree. They tend to equate opposition to homosexuality with the oppression of women, with the fear of all sexuality, or with blindly following “Bible thumper” preachers… all of which is covered under the smear “fundamentalist”. Above all, to call anything “sin” is to be guilty of failure to love, which has become the only thing they are willing to call “sin”. This of course is self-contradiction and a double standard, a forcing of one’s personal opinion upon those who try to force their opinion upon others.
To call ourselves Christians is to say not only that we believe Jesus rose physically from the dead, but also that only God defines what is sin and what is not; this is moral authority. How different would the perception of Christianity and Christians be, were we to be “salt and light” as Jesus commanded, influencing society by our examples rather than our outrage at unbelievers acting like unbelievers? And what if, instead of denouncing Christians who disagree with us, we simply broke fellowship and prayed for them? And remember, this should be applied equally to both sides. If you believe God does not call homosexuality a sin, do you mock and judge other Christians who believe He does? Conversely, if you believe God calls it sin, do you hate and condemn those who disagree?
The Christian community needs to decide what exactly it believes, and to act accordingly. Only then can we be a positive influence on society, and bring about the moral behavior that is defined by God. Certainly we can be active in the political realm, but we must remember that hearts cannot be changed from the outside or by force. What the scriptures actually tell us to pray for regarding the state is not to blindly support it regardless of what it does, but that it would let us live in peace (1 Tim. 2:1-2). We are to be model citizens, not mindless drones (Acts 5:29).
So what is our moral authority as Christians? To the outside world, simply to preach the Gospel. To professing believers, to know what God has defined as right and wrong, without favoritism (Acts 10:34, Rom. 2:11, Gal. 2:6, Eph. 6:9, etc.). And if someone among us is sinning and refuses to repent, we must break fellowship with them, in the hope that the separation will prompt them to repent (1 Cor. 5:5,13). Breaking fellowship is not lacking love; in fact, it may be the most loving thing we can do for such a person. Neither is it condemnation, which is the sole reserve of God. But to condone or approve of sin among believers is to show no love or respect for God.