Moody, Values, Abdication

Picture by Waylan Owens

Picture by Waylan Owens

As the Religion News Service (RNS) reported in its headline late last week, Moody Bible Institute Drops Alcohol and Tobacco Ban for Employees.  Students must continue to abstain totally, and employees may not drink on the job or with students; however, off campus, according to the article, “Moody leaves it to the employees’ conscience.” (sic)

This is troubling to me at several levels.  For instance, while I have not contributed money to Moody, I have contributed to schools that ban alcohol and tobacco use for employees.  Had those bans not been in place, I would not have contributed, and now I wonder whether I can make a long-term gift to any institution with any faith that the money I give will not soon be supporting something I do not.

Yet, the most troubling aspect of all of this is not the decision itself.  The thing that should strike fear in the hearts of conservative Christians is the stated reasoning behind it.  According to RNS, Christine Gorz, Moody spokeswoman, offered that the purpose of the change was “to create a ‘high trust environment that emphasizes values, not rules.’”  “Biblical absolutes” are not negotiable and must be followed, “but on issues where the Bible is not clear,” the conscience rules.

This rationale is problematic at almost every point.  Were I a Moody trustee or donor, I would find these statements to be exceedingly upsetting, whether I agreed with the policy change or not.

I would be upset that Moody leadership feels that it did not already have a “high trust environment” and that one must be created.  If you do not have a high trust level in your organization, letting people smoke and drink might make them feel better in the evenings about the stress they suffer during the day, but it will not change the trust level in the working environment.  Poor leadership cannot be remedied by chemicals, and an environment that lacks of trust is a sign of poor leadership.

Without doubt though, the brightest red flag is that the institution is now going to emphasize “values, not rules.”  To a student of modern American culture, this statement is loaded with cultural meaning, and that meaning is not consistent with biblical Christianity.

James Davison Hunter, a cultural observer and critic at the University of Virginia, is the author of a book entitled The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil.  In this book he addresses this very reasoning that the Moody leadership is using to justify its new direction.  Without reviewing the entire work, let me quote a passage from it.

Values are truths that have been deprived of their commanding character.  They are substitutes for revelation, imperatives that have dissolved into a range of possibilities.  The very word “value” signifies the reduction of truth to utility, taboo to fashion, conviction to mere preference; all provisional, all exchangeable.  Both values and “lifestyle”—a way of living that reflects the accumulation of one’s values—bespeak a world in which nothing is sacred.  Neither word carries the weight of conviction; the commitment to truths made sacred.  Indeed, sacredness is conspicuous in its absence.  There is nothing there that one need believe, commanding and demanding its due, for “truth” is but a matter of taste and temperament.  Formed against a symbolic order made up of “values” and differing “lifestyles” is the Self—malleable, endlessly developing, consuming, realizing, actualizing, perfecting—but again, something less than character.

The implications are simultaneously liberating and disturbing.  There is unprecedented individual freedom that few would be willing to relinquish.  But there is also a license that disparages self-restraint and responsibility toward others.  This ambivalence is an inescapable feature of our time.  They are fused inextricably.

The move to values is not something of which to boast, especially for Christians.  As Hunter states, “Values are personal preferences, inclinations, and choice. . . .  True to the connotation, the concept cannot and does not distinguish between ‘moral’ and ‘nonmoral’ issues.  Indeed, advocates consistently used the phrase ‘values education’ rather than ‘moral education’ when speaking of the process.  The difference is both vast and intended.”

“Values” is the world’s replacement for “morals” and “standards,” privatizing decisions that have critical impact upon the community.  Even in our decaying moral culture, drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco are considered moral choices with serious consequences as evidenced by the legal prohibitions of the purchase of these things according to age.  This initial step toward values, toward the relegation of the testimony to the moral character of the entire institution to the “personal preferences” of individual employees should concern all who are connected to the institution.

Moody employees now may behave according to what they value, to what is right in their own eyes.  You might agree that drinking and smoking should not be prohibited to employees, but the move to values will not stop there.  It cannot stop there lest Moody twist in the wind of hypocrisy.  People claim the Bible is not clear on far too many things.  But I will tackle that in a follow-up post.

Had Gorz said, “Moody no longer believes smoking and drinking alcohol are moral issues that impact the institution’s testimony or mission,” we might not agree, but at least we would know that Moody has not abdicated its basic commitment to morals and to its testimony.  By turning to “values” as its new standard, we now know that it has.

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